Saturday 31 October 2020

Happy Halloween, Scooby Doo!

Booby Doo

Happy Halloween, Scooby Doo!
USA 2020 Directed by Maxwell Atoms
Warner Bros DVD Region 1

Warning: Zoinks! There are a few very small spoilers here.

Happy Halloween, Scooby Doo! is the latest Scooby Doo Halloween Special, taking the form of a straight-to-home video format release for this year’s spook season. I’m not sure how much of a bite Halloween has in a world which is living through the first year of the horrors of Covid-19 but I guess people can get more comfort out of made up terrors as a counter to the current, real life ones.

I have to be honest, this film would not have been on my hit list at all if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s also the latest movie featuring Cassandra Peterson as the voice of her famous creation Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark. This was a big selling point for me and was pretty much my only reason for purchasing this. Other guests include Bill Nye playing himself (who is not well known over here in the UK at all, I had to look him up) and Dwight Schultz, who I’m guessing most people will best remember as Murdock in The A Team and Barclay in Star Trek - The Next Generation.

Here, Schultz plays Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow. That’s right, the super villain from Gotham City has escaped from Arkham Asylum and I was fully expecting, after the not bad Scooby Doo & Batman: The Brave And The Bold (reviewed here), a little cameo from the caped crusader himself. Alas, that doesn’t happen but the way the writers use The Scarecrow’s appearance here, as a diversionary tactic to make the audience think that he is the villain of the piece, is kind of an interesting slant. Here, instead of being the main villainous lead, he’s used almost as a Hannibal Lecter character (as he was originally presented). That is to say, he’s the one Velma goes to consult with after she figures out he’s not the one behind a reign of terror caused by monstrous, animated pumpkins which are eating and terrorising people in a small town. And then we get to see a side of Johnathan Crane that I don’t remember seeing before but, I’ll leave it up to the Batman fans out there to figure out if this is a huge deviation from the canon of the DC super villain or not. I thought it was an interesting take on the way this kind of ‘established character’ is used, however.

Elvira is, of course, wonderful... although, it’s fair to say she doesn’t have the best lines in this. I know this is for a child friendly audience but, the character doesn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders in a way although, to be fair, it’s still a pleasure to hear her and she certainly doesn’t do anything to betray the spirit of her famous Elvira personae (I met her at the London Film and Comic Con a couple of decades ago, before it got more successful and crowded... she’s a really nice person).

The story is fine with the usual twists and turns of the regular Scooby Doo’s from yesteryear. The opening credits are nicely done although, I have to say, I was somewhat shocked as to why Shaggy and Scooby were cramming their mouths full of sweets before they’d bothered to take the wrappings off but, after all, it’s a Halloween special I guess. There’s a nice homage to, I don’t know, either Wacky Races or Mad Max 2 and 4 in terms of an overlong ‘pumpkin pursuit’ vehicle chase, which I’ve heard cited as a weakness of this feature but, personally, I didn’t mind it at all. Another referential scene was supposed, it turns out, to be a reference to the first Predator movie but, heck, I assumed it was a Rambo reference so, yeah, I guess my general unfamiliarity with the first Predator film (last time I saw it was the once, on its original cinema release back in 1987) made me miss it.

Another bizarre thing which I felt should have been a reference but, I don’t think it was, was a sound effect I heard used twice which basically matched the same sound effect that you would hear when Steve Austin (as played by Lee Majors) would do anything remotely ‘bionic’ in any episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. However, the use of this sound effect seemed to just be servicing the on screen narrative and, although it would certainly make someone of my generation leap up and take note, it seems to have been used in a genuinely un-ironic manner here. Very strange.

The animation is kind of ropey but it’s not out of place with the early Scooby Doo shows, with the standard Hanna-Barbera ‘xeroxed look’ where the main objects are just moved around almost statically in an uncomplicated manner... although the lighting and colouring is less flat and more interesting in places. Although, the fact that none of the characters had white eyes and, instead, had eyes which blended with their faces, gave me a creepy vibe, for sure. I certainly didn’t love the simplified look to Elivira with the de-emphasising of her boobs but, on the other hand, her final scene with the wig reveal and... all that comes after that... was genuinely bizarre enough that I didn’t feel too cheated by the way the character was handled here. So, yeah, as far as this main, feature cartoon goes, if you’re a Scooby Doo admirer then I’d have to say Happy Halloween, Scooby Doo! is not a bad attempt at a Halloween celebration.

The extras, on the other hand, are strictly for completists only, I guess. When I heard they were three more, 20 minute Scooby Doo Halloween specials from recent years (the 1980s to five years ago), I was quite excited. I kind of stopped watching the TV show a little while ago, in the late 1970s because, frankly, Scrappy Doo and the recorded laughter tracks finally got the better of me. So what these three extras ultimately mean to me is a look into where the show headed after I was done with it. The answer to that seems to be, headed to unwatchable cartoon hell... 

 The first of the three featured, Be Cool, Scooby Doo - Halloween (from 2015), has a nice enough story but the look of the characters is hideous, with everyone looking like they stepped out of a Rugrats cartoon. The second one, the 2002 What’s New Scooby Doo? - A Scooby Doo Halloween, has closer character design to the ones I used to watch in the 1970s (and you can see the whites of their eyes, hoorah) but had a simplistic, childishly simple story and a horrible laughter track. And as for the third one, the 1988 episode of A Pup Named Scooby Doo - Ghost Who’s Coming To Dinner, well... I couldn’t even get through the full opening credits. The whole thing, with all the characters rendered into young, kiddie versions of themselves (even more so than the 2015 episode) was just too much to take and I really felt offended enough by the lows of animated history that these three shows represented, that this third banality was the straw that broke the Great Dane’s back, as far as I’m concerned. So, as far as the DVD goes (why no Blu Ray?), Happy Halloween, Scooby Doo! is certainly worth spending some time with but, don’t look at the bonus cartoons unless you want your childhood memories compromised by the depths to which the show gradually stooped.

Friday 30 October 2020

Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors

Sin Tax Terror

Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors
UK 1965 Directed by Freddie Francis
Amicus Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Yeah, this one will have some spoilers.

Okay... so I finally got around to watching the very first of the Amicus studio horror films, Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors. The studio would go on to make many more films in this vein and were particularly noted for their famous portmanteau horror movies such as Tales From The Crypt and Vault Of Horror (which were adaptations of some of the tales in the old, pre-code EC Horror Comics, of course). There had been other movies around before which pitched mostly horror stories as a collection of tales, obviously but... not that many of them. Perhaps the most famous of these was the 1945 Ealing production Dead Of Night, which the producer of this movie was said to have been inspired by. Even one of Roger Corman’s ‘Poe inspired’ films from a few years earlier would fit the bill but, for the most part, this idea of having three to five different horror stories with a linking narrative device was not so commonplace... but the success of this one opened up a flood of similar product, including many by Amicus studios themselves.

Now I wasn’t exactly expecting a bad movie when I sat down to watch this but I was certainly surprised by the quality and entertainment value of this film. I can kinda see why both audiences and, perhaps puzzlingly, critics of the time reacted so positively towards this and, not having seen any of the others (yet, there’s a pile of unwatched Blus sitting directly opposite where I am typing this) I’d have to wonder if this is the best of the batch.

The film starts with five passengers, strangers to each other, boarding the compartment of a train... they are played by (in order of the segments which star them as the lead) Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman (that’s right ‘pop pickers’, the famous radio DJ), Roy Castle (in what I think is his debut role, a last minute replacement for Acker Bilk who had a heart attack), Christopher Lee and, another unknown but up and coming young star to be, Donald Sutherland. Then the great Peter Cushing as the titular character, Dr. Terror, comes on board. Actually, the title of the film is a complete cheat but Cushing does go on to elaborate when we find his name is Dr. Schreck, a doctor of metaphysics it would seem (obviously a nod to the actor who played Orlock in the original Nosferatu). In German, he says, the name means ‘terror’, although I don’t think it actually quite means that in the German translation, according to somebody very close to me. We also find out that the Tarot cards in which he reads the fortunes of each of the five passengers in turn, are often referred to by ‘clients’ as his House Of Horrors.

Yeah, the cast list sounds great and it doesn’t stop there. It’s filled with loads of great character actors or British celebrities such as Bernard Lee, Michael Gough and singer Kenny Lynch. Cushing was doing a lot of films released in ‘65 actually, including Dr. Who And The Daleks (again with Roy Castle), The Skull (reviewed here) and She (these last two with Christopher Lee in them too). With a cast like this, the acting is practically taken care of but the brilliant ridiculousness of the mini stories, as Peter Cushing tells each character his possible, ultimate fate which we see play before us as a little mini movie, coupled with some fine cinematography of note, really helps seal the deal on what is a very entertaining package.

The stories are just enchanting and it’s no wonder that Amicus hit upon the idea of aping those EC comics a few years later... this could almost be an issue of any of those old EC titles. Here’s a quick run down of the basic ideas showcased here in terms of plot...

Neil McCallum’s story is of an architect who goes to look at the possibility of knocking out a wall for the current owner of his childhood’s home but, instead, he accidentally knocks out a coffin hiding the dead ancestor of a former owner from centuries before, complete with a threat of werewolvery. Is there a werewolf lurking in the area? Well you’ll soon find out. Actually, as I was watching this section and came to the bit where he’s knocking the plaster out of the wall and uncovering the formerly locked cellar’s dark secret, I found myself wondering if Dario Argento had maybe seen and been influenced by this movie at some point. That could easily have been David Hemmings chipping way at the wall in Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso, reviewed here). When I watched the documentary extra on this Blu Ray (something which I don’t usually do... who has time to watch all these?), I found myself somewhat justified/validated as one of the people on the extras said more or less the same thing about the possible Argento connection.

The second segment, top lining Alan Freeman, tells of him and his family coming home from holiday to find a vine that’s been growing outside their house, getting increasingly hostile as the days/weeks go by. It slaps the garden shears out of Freeman’s hand when he tries to give it a prune and even kills the family dog when it gets too close. Eventually it reaches in through one of the windows and strangles a ‘Man from the Ministry’, played by Jeremy Kemp and, when his boss played by Bernard Lee comes to investigate, they are all held siege in the house by the killer plant. Will they get out or will the plant have its wicked way with them?

The third segment, featuring Roy Castle as jazz band leader Biff Bailey (what a brilliant name!), is pretty run of the mill but the tension and shot compositions more than make up for this riff on the old voodoo tropes. When playing in the West Indies, where he discovers Kenny Lynch singing too, he comes across a religious voodoo ceremony and starts copying down the notes of the melodies and rhythms used in it so he can rearrange it for his jazz band at some point. There’s a wonderful scene as he is lurking in the jungle where we cut from the voodoo dance ritual back to him and we have a native who has discovered him, glaring at him from behind. The edit repeats the trick three more times, each one adding another glaring native behind him until there are four of them. Later, when he takes the notes home and plays the new ‘jazz arrangement’ at a nightclub, voodoo winds wreck the joint and follow him home... for more consequences.

The fourth segment is a nice little riff on the old movie The Beast With Five Fingers (which is obviously one of the influences here). Christopher Lee is a stuffy art dealer who picks on an artist played by Michael Gough, with particularly scathing reviews. When Gough’s character has his revenge on the critic by showing him up as somebody who really doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Lee gets so fired up that he runs over Gough in the hopes of killing him. Alas, Gough survives but with his right hand severed. Unable to pursue his art, he kills himself in a wonderfully realised shot where the gun is aimed at the camera POV and then cuts sharply after the shot to the arm dropping the gun. The effect it creates here is even better than the version of a similar gun shot suicide in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which is where I suspect the inspiration for this moment resides. Of course, with the artist out of the way, his severed hand begins to pursue Lee’s art critic to get its five fingered revenge on him.

The final ‘inner story’ segment is the tale of Donald Sutherland marrying and bringing his new French bride back to his home town in New England. Alas, despite signs which are pretty obvious to the audience, complete with a parody of the scene in Dracula/Nosferatu where Jonathan Harker (or his stand in here) cut their finger, the lady in question is a vampire who starts to prey off the blood of children in the district. The final little twist in this is genuinely one... possibly the only one... where you don’t ‘see it coming’ but it’s treated somewhat as the punchline to a joke, which possibly makes it a little less effective but, as far as I’m concerned, gives it a sense of fun which is not unwelcome.

Finally, after all five stories have been told, the train reaches its final destination and the ‘real identity’ of Dr. Terror is revealed... which is something I won’t spoil here. However, getting there is a wonderful journey and even the cluttered train carriage, which you would assume has limited space, although I suspect they possibly rebuilt it and just moved walls out of the way where needed, has some nicely composed and inventive shots. The way a number of heads are crammed together into one frame in the carriage in an early part of the film is superb and the director also does some nice stuff with the large head of Bernard Lee in the foreground and to the side of a shot where, in the mid-ground, two other characters form a triangle down to his head by their height in the shot. Great stuff.

One last cherry on the cake is the wonderful scoring by Elisabeth Lutyens, daughter of famous architect Edwin Lutyens and it evokes the kind of sound which has always been absolutely synonymous with this kind of movie in my head for decades. This is yet another I can number in the unreleased scores of this concert hall composer, which would include The Skull (only a re-recording has been made available) and The Earth Dies Screaming (which I reviewed here). Superb stuff and I wish somebody would find and restore these scores for a CD release at some point soon.

And that’s that. It’s no wonder, with films of this quality, that Amicus soon found themselves as the number one competitor, at least in the UK, for Hammer and their domination of the horror market at this period. Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors is a wonderful little comfort horror movie I could easily come back to a number of times in my life so, you know, that was six quid well spent, as far as I’m concerned, for this cracking Blu Ray release which also includes the trailer, a documentary of the film directed by Jake (Razor Blade Smile) West and a profile of Christopher Lee, which I haven’t got around to watching yet, alas. Certainly a recommended purchase from me and worth every penny, as far as I’m concerned.

Thursday 29 October 2020

Nature Morte

The Art Of Murder

Nature Morte
UK 2006
Directed by Paul Burrows
Redemption Films Region 2

Warning: Here be some heavy spoilers.

Nature Morte is, to date, the only film written and directed by Paul Burrows. I’d not actually heard of it before but I sought this out because I was impressed with Carole Derrien from Mindflesh (reviewed here) and wanted to see something else she was in. As it happens, this is probably a better film than Mindflesh in some ways although, I have to say, the interesting and intriguing premise with its shifting antagonists would have been much better served, I think, if Burrows had managed to acquire a bigger budget. Something about the way the film has been lit makes it feel like it’s an art house classic trying to express itself with limited tools.

That being said, they’ve certainly tried their best to get the production values up to the standard of the director’s vision and, if it sometimes looks a little rough around the edges, I’m certainly cutting this one some slack because the simplicity of the plot and the single mindedness in which it pursues that without getting over complicated is to be applauded these days, I think.

This one starts off well, with a woman who goes back to an artists rooms in Marseilles... unaware that this artist takes inspiration from the women he slaughters as he paints them. Something, which is revealed at the end of the film, causes this artist to shoot himself after his latest victim has been rendered in canvas but this doesn’t stop him becoming extremely famous in the world of fine art.

Enter art critic and private collector Oliver Davenport (played by Troy McFadden), who has written several books on this serial killer artist, who always painted his bloody victims tied to a chair in each painting. Enter, also, the police... who have found an artist with more or less identical paintings working in Thailand. They want Davenport to go there and investigate to see if this guy was an accomplice in the murders, which he does since he now wants to buy the paintings of this artist too. Once he arrives in Thailand he meets this decidedly shady and intimidating artist, Lec (played by Laurent Guyon), and his girlfriend Blanche (played by Carole Derrien). He starts going to their pleasingly weird drug and sex fuelled parties while negotiating to buy the artists work, becoming embroiled in their world somewhat... if only he could remember what happened when he was ‘helping’ the artist on his latest picture session.

And, yeah, this is a film where the fate/transformation of Davenport is probably something you will suspect right from the start of the movie but, ultimately, is not just about that as it turns out that Lec is one of a number of ‘killer artists’ over the years churning out exactly the same kind of work... or at least that’s the implication. What it’s really about is the ‘object’ that fuels the fires of these artists and transforms them into fine artists who slice up their models in a somewhat Faustian deal that is left both shady but obvious, by the time of the film’s final act.

And it’s a nice little movie, transcending its appearance of being a thriller set in the art world and, due to the almost Dorian Gray element of supernatural influence, firmly placing itself in the realm of horror movie... albeit a sexy, unscary one.

Indeed, as if Derrien wasn’t enough (why is this lady not in more movies), she’s also joined in the last third of the movie by fetish model Morrigan Hel from the Satanic Sluts, who has a pretty true to stereotype role in the movie but also, in the end, is another in a presumably long chain of inheritors of the... shall we say... transformative powers or art?

Despite the obvious budgetary limitations, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the film and loved the very loaded names of some of the characters in it, such as Viva Sartorius and Elisabeth Dahlia (always up for a good Betty Short reference, me). I’m not sure why the film seems to be floundering in such obscurity but I reckon it would have been a safe bet to be much more celebrated if it had been around in the days of the Scala Cinema for sure. Also, I think this one could have scored big at Frightfest and I’m wondering if it got any kind of premiere there at the time it was around. I notice it took two years since it’s Cinénygma International Film Festival and Belfast Horrorthon premieres in 2006 before it got any kind of commercial release.

The various actors and actresses are mostly pretty good in this and I find it a bit of a shame that the ambitions of the director are occasionally limited by the bargain bucket mentality of the funding for the project but, hey, that seems par for the course these days. It does surprise me, though, that this guy hasn’t directed anything else since this and I think we might have seen some amazing films from Burrows on the modern horror circuit if this had been a better known movie, perhaps.

So, yeah, the intrigue of the premise is, perhaps, not quite matched by the follow through in some ways but it does go on way longer than where you would expect it to end, as it reveals the final puzzle pieces in the last third of the movie and... I think horror and exploitation fans especially will probably enjoy Nature Morte for what it is. Worth checking out, especially with the ‘value for money’ price of the DVD on Amazon at time of writing. An interesting watch. 

Wednesday 28 October 2020


Zoom With A View

UK 2020 Directed by Rob Savage

Warning: This review hosts spoilers.

You know I may be getting a little jaded because this film is far from original in it’s ideas and intentions but then again, there’s not much new left in the world and I have to admire the writers Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage and Jed Shepherd... and the director (again, Savage) for conceiving, shooting and releasing a film in a totally socially distanced manner during the first six months of the Coronavirus lockdown. Also for taking an old fashioned dash of horror film movie making which, obviously, we’ve all seen before... and telling it through new technology which has become one of the communication tools of the lockdown, the Zoom meeting. And, yeah, it’s a movie about some people ‘holding a seance’ over Zoom. An obvious idea but, if done right, it can still be quite effective. Spoiler... it’s done quite well.

And, yes, we’ve seen a few movies set on computer laptops now, for sure. I think the best one I’ve seen before this was actually not a horror film but a murder mystery movie called Searching (reviewed here) and the strength of that particular film was, the twist ending would have been so obvious if it were not for the fact that telling it through the technology like they did meant they could distract you to the point where the 'reveal' genuinely takes you by surprise. Now, Host (one of a gazillion movies already called Host, The Host, Hosts or The Hosts... why they do this I’ll never know), doesn’t have that kind of surprise element involved in it but, that’s okay, it’s a horror movie and they’re not especially going for surprises here anyway, I think.

What we do have... and I think this will annoy some viewers (especially those as old as me), is a bunch of old clichés reshot through the lens of a new format... and that’s perfectly fine for a horror film. That kind of story really depends, not on the originality of the piece but whether the timing of the jump scares, in this case, are well enough done. Now, I know it’s a well put together movie because, for once, even though I was pretty sure I knew what was going to happen in the final moments... and I was right... the final shot still made me jump out of my skin. Which is a very welcome result as far as I’m concerned.

Okay, so lets look at some of the moments that detractors might think of as weaknesses...

 Well, the whole film is set and shot in a zoom meeting utilising special effects, presumably added with craftily downgraded CGI afterwards. Now I’m not familiar with Zoom myself but I’ve heard that when you talk in it, your screen blows up for everyone to fill the whole frame? Well that, of course, gives the film makers an ideal opportunity of one of the mainstays of a certain type of modern horror movie, preventing you seeing what’s going on in the other places the call is taking place while one person is dominating the screen. It even means that, while I’m sure the film must be edited to death and different takes mixed together on the main zoom screen, you can easily cover your tracks by cutting away from things when you don’t like the end of a person’s performance.

Those performances here, by the way, of the seven main actresses and the lone male... Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova. Caroline Ward, Alan Emrys, Jinny Lofthouse and the amazing Seylan Baxter... are all absolutely brilliant. They’re the kind of performances you tend to get when the director is relying on no musical scoring and a POV style of shooting but, clearly, you need good actors for that kind of thing and that’s exactly what he gets here. I loved the fact, also, that the actors were all using their own first names for their characters.

Anyway, back to the clichés... well there are some obvious things the writers just want you to notice right from the start, which they deliberately call attention to. You have the character who obviously lives very near to one of the others, who talks to the other through a window, establishing that, at some point in the film, one of those two characters is obviously going to go to the other person’s apartment to see just what is going on. There’s also another character who has a Zoom background movie of herself walking to the fridge to get a drink and... you just know that’s going to be used later as a blocking device to stop you seeing what’s really going on and then jump scaring you. Yep... check. You have the one character who leaves the call way early so you immediately assume that, when they come back later, they’re there as both an unbelieving witness to the devastation wrought by the evil spirit... who quite clearly and literally acts just the way the spiritualist who has opened up the channel to the spirit world said it might act if disrespected... and also to be quickly convinced otherwise when the demonic entity in question pays a quick visit on that channel too.

And it’s things like this and the fact that almost every character has a door open in the background so you can see into another part of their apartment, adding a lot of depth to the rooms they are Zooming from... so things can happen at the periphery of the call if you happen to be watching the right part of the screen, that might all seem a bit obvious to the average horror afficionado. And, alright, they are but... still, I have to admire what the director, working under the restrictions of shooting remotely on an actual zoom call, was going for. Especially when, you know, some of those tired old clichés of jump scares really work.

And that’s the case here. If you think the writers and director are just raiding old ghost story and possession ideas then, okay fine, they are. But that’s what pretty much all horror writers and directors do. Some do it really well, though and get away with it. I’ve also seen a number of them over the last ten years which, for one reason or another, nowhere nearly nailed it as well as this lot did so... yeah... I don’t really care. When it works it works. So... original, no. Scary... not really but those jump moments really do get you and I’m assuming that this means I was feeling a certain amount of tension already in some of the sequences. Entertaining... heck, yes. This is another nice little horror movie from somebody who obviously knows their business. I liked this one quite a lot. If you can find the right movie called Host (there’s even more than one movie called this released this year, for goodness sake) and you are a fan of horror movies... and perhaps more so if you are not and are not especially familiar with the tropes of the genre... then this one is really worth checking out sometime. Also, it’s very short at 57 minutes so, you know, easily time to fit it into your day. Give it a go.

Tuesday 27 October 2020


Best Bloodies

UK 2019 Directed by Emily Harris
Bird Flight Films

Warning: Slight spoilers if you don’t know the original
story or any of its subsequent screen adaptations.

Carmilla is yet another screen version of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 serialised novella of the same name and, by this point, one wonders how many times this tale of sapphic vampirism by way of passive and undetected home invasion can be committed to celluloid. That being said, Jean Rollin forged a career out of making surreal and truly astonishing, beautiful lesbian vampire movies (none of which were particularly inspired by Carmilla, I believe) so, maybe the answer is... plenty.

Well, when you have a film as good as Emily Harris’ new iteration of the source, you know there’s at least room for one more... although it would be fair to say I had a few small problems with it. Instead of going straight for the jugular, so to speak, here she instead opts to step right back from the vampiric qualities of the original, toning it down to such an extent that at one point I wondered if this really was a version of Le Fanu’s classic after all. As it happens, the vampirism is indeed included in this story but mostly through the deeds and implication of the characters at the periphery of the main focus of the main protaginist Lara (changed from Laura in the book) and the girl she, in this version of the story, names Carmilla (in the original text, as I’m sure many a Hammer Horror fan can tell you, it was itself an anagram of the first name of Mircalla Karnstein but, in this version, the famous ‘K’ word never comes up).

So yeah, I was a bit taken aback that both the vampirism and, honestly, the lesbianism of the subject was handled almost from a distance, at least in terms of overtly showing the harder edges (or should that be softer curves) of the latter element. In spite of all this though, the film has an amazing amount of positives and I’ll focus on those for a moment.

One is the acting. The main female trio of Lara, Carmilla and Lara’s governess Miss Fontaine are played by three very capable actresses who really make the film work on the performance level. Miss Fontaine is played by Jessica Raine (who readers may best remember for her turn as Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert in An Adventure In Space And Time, which I reviewed here... as well as in one of the better episodes of the modern version of the show, reviewed here) and she does her usual, wonderful job. Lara, played by Hannah Rae, does an absolutely brilliant turn here and, since the film is almost solely viewed through her character’s eyes, she almost carries the movie on her own. Carmilla herself is played by Devrim Lingnau, who does a remarkable job of breaking through the veneer of suppression which characterises Lara’s home and is exactly the brash and earthy creature (curious, perhaps, for an unearthly character) that you’d expect in a good version of Carmilla Karnstein. Although, she almost seems a little too young for the role at times.

So, yeah, fair enough, we have some great performances here. However, the real star of the show is the beautiful cinematography and shot designs that the director infuses the story with. Contrasting many shots of the beauty of nature with various insects and bugs in close up, to remind the viewer of the nature of the vampiric creature now residing in Lara’s home. Indeed, from early on in the film we hear Lara being reminded of why flowers look and smell so pretty, in order to attract the bees to pollinate them... so already the director is pushing a vampiric metaphor of an organism which uses something else for propagation, so to speak. So, great and beautifully shot wide open spaces might well be tempered with the close up sights and sound of ants crawling on a tree or worms turning in the earth. And it looks quite wonderful and certainly acts as a salve, in my case, to distract from the extraction of the details of the original story.

The director loves making nice, clean shots and there are some strong symmetrical designs throughout. A shot of Miss Fontaine and Lara’s father addressing Lara from either side of the foreground of the frame as she is standing in front of a fireplace in the centre background of a shot comes to mind. Also, there’s a beautiful moment when a triangle on one third of the screen is joined by a diagonal separator with all the plains being out of focus. 

 This director is not afraid to use the extreme edges of the wide screen shot either... where two characters are talking for instance... and just leave space in the centre of the screen. There’s a real feel of meticulous and well thought out design to the film and, while some viewers might find the artifice of the photography distracting, I personally love this kind of cinema and admire it above all others (it’s why I love the cinema of the Italian giallo so much).

One thing which did bother me, though, was the use of lens flares. Despite using it myself just recently in my role as a graphic designer, I find the use of lens flares to call attention to the camera a real irritant and am not a fan. They’re all over this film... even in darkened interior shots and, frankly, after a while I just wanted to duck every time a flare of light sprang up on the screen. So, yeah, could have done with less of that.

My other little problem was that the writer/director has distanced the specifics of the action so much that, I suspect the film may be a little hard to follow for people who are unfamiliar with either the source or one of the more faithful, previous adaptations of it (actually, Hammer’s first Karnstein movie, The Vampire Lovers, which I reviewed here, is a surprisingly faithful primer if you’ve never read the original). Luckily, I knew the original but because the vampirism of the story is masked and fairly thinly alluded to, I think some viewers might not have any idea as to that element of the story, especially when various tropes of the genre are more or less done away with here. 

When Carmilla is, finally, staked there is no pre-warning and you don’t actually see it, just hear some thumping and moaning and, at this point, I was wondering what a certain section of the audience who had no idea this was in some way a vampire movie were supposed to think. I suppose the idea here is not to show that Carmilla is a vampire but, it’s more about the perceptions other people have of a person and the extremes they go to in order to make good on their assumptions. Thankfully, there is one brief shot of the aftermath to clue the more unsuspecting audiences in on what’s just been done to Carmilla... and it’s a shame it’s so brief because it’s a nicely brutal shot which really drives the message home, if you don’t blink and miss it. Again, though, I get the feeling that this is not the director saying... yes, she was a vampire. More saying, yes, this girl was suspected of being a vampire and this was the consequence of that suspicion (though, to be fair, Carmilla is all up for sucking Lara’s blood at one point).

One other thing I’ll briefly mention is the unusual score by Phil Selway. It uses a very small number of players (it seemed to me) and does some interesting things like, in some scenes, using high pitched and persistently reoccurring strings in a way which alerts the audience that something is going on, even when visually it’s maybe not too obvious that anything is amiss. That being said, it’s not overtly ‘stinger’ led or anything like that and it really hovers in the background, giving the film a coating of musical texture in the best way. It’s a shame that there’s no soundtrack CD available at time of writing this review because I’d really like to experience this as a stand alone listen. It’s certainly not a ‘horror’ score by any stretch and perfectly fits the restraint practiced and demonstrated by Emily Harris’ writing and direction.

And that’s me done with this latest version of Carmilla. It’s certainly not the least faithful ‘inspired by’ film but it’s also not something viewers might even realise was an ‘adaptation’ unless clued in by the name of the central vampire. Indeed, the coach crash which brings Carmilla to Lara’s door, so to speak, doesn’t even occur until almost half an hour into the movie. I don’t remember seeing Le Fanu mentioned in the credits at all (and I was watching out for it... maybe I missed it at the start, somehow), so I’m wondering how many of the potential audience for this quite strikingly shot and beautiful movie have missed this one. Certainly something I’d be happy to recommend with the caveat that it’s not anywhere near to being either a horror or straight vampire movie as you might expect from a film with this title. One to watch out for.

Friday 23 October 2020

The Pale Door

Coven Hoofed

The Pale Door
USA 2020 Directed by Aaron B. Koontz
 Paper Street Pictures

Warning: Some spoilerage ensues.

Okay, so the first thing I want to say here is, I can’t believe the unbelievably bad, bordering on overtly hostile, one and two star reviews The Pale Door has over at the IMDB. I mean, it’s like the people writing in have never seen a low budget movie before. Let me be clear, I’ve seen a lot of low budget movies prior to this and this one doesn’t even come close to the low production values and lack of basic competence that many of them have. Frankly, this one looks like a gazillion bucks when you compare it to a lot of the stuff out there.

Secondly... yes, it’s a fairly simplistic movie but I don’t understand why people are having a hard time with that. There are a lot of simplistic films out there which are pretty damned good and, frankly, I had a great time with this movie. I don’t understand why some people thought it might be trying to be a comedy because, honestly, I think there’s rarely a lick of humour in it so, yeah, this is one of those head scratching puzzles of a film where I can’t figure out why my response is just so out of kilter with the majority of the audience response so far.

Thirdly... and much to my surprise... this film has the great Bill Sage on it as one of the main, supporting roles and, frankly, he’s always worth watching. One of the great actors of our time and he also has an associate producer credit on this. Not quite sure what an associate producer does, to be honest but I guess that means he believed in the film enough to really get involved.

The movie has a nice set up, after a picturesque credits sequence of black magic/witchcraft books burning up... where two young brothers escape their home while witnessing the slaughter of their parents. Skip to years later and one of the brothers is a famous outlaw (this is a Western movie) and he’s about to hold up a train guarded by Pinkertons’ finest with his gang when, one of their number gets killed in a petty gunfight. So the younger brother volunteers to fulfill the missing gang role and... as you would expect... the heist goes wrong.

The valuable trunk on the train contains a bound and gagged young woman and the older brother is gut shot while the gang of outlaws are trying to get away. The puzzling ‘girl in the box’ takes them back to her home ‘town’ to help but, it soon becomes apparent when she takes them to the local brothel of her friends, that this is a coven of witches who plan on eating the outlaws.

So yeah, it a low budget Horror Western and, frankly, it’s a romp. The performances of all the main outlaws and some of the witches is great and although the thrifty attitude to the reuse of sets and stuff is... well, like I said, it’s thrifty... the production values are pretty good and it really doesn’t look as economical as you might expect. I’ll obviously single out Bill Sage here who I mostly know from his turns in the marvellous films of Hal Hartley and who plays a character who is somewhat against type, I think. He starts off as a quite ruthless and villainous personality (he does things with spurs you might not want to be on the receiving end of) but, of course, by the end of the movie he has a somewhat bonding arc and redeems himself in the eyes of the younger brother, whom the witches want for his innocent blood.

The other actor I liked in this was a guy called Pat Healy, who plays a quiet, somewhat authoritative member of the outlaw gang and brings a certain sense of confidence and weight to the rag tag group. Well, until something happens to him after the witches steal a lock of his hair, that is. Things get a little unfortunate for him after that.

However, if you are a fan of gory horror films where monstrous creatures are used as violent gun fodder and where life, mortal or supernatural, is cheap... then I reckon you should have a good time with this. Also, the cinematography is wonderful and, dare I say it, quite spectacular in certain shots where the outlaws are riding away from the scene of their crime.

There are lots of nice little set pieces and visual commas throughout the thing too... such as a rainstorm of blood, a nice 180 degree camera movement which I won’t spoil for you here and a nice sequence where a crow bursts forth, in a not too pleasant way, from an outlaw’s stomach... working it’s way up the throat and out the mouth, obviously killing him in the process.

My one complaint on this might be that the language of the characters, living in the Old West as they do, seems a mite modern and more naturalistic to contemporary times than, perhaps, it might have been back in the late 1800s. I’m guessing this was a deliberate ploy to help make it accessible to a younger audience but, yeah, I think the writers might have made more of an effort to make the dialogue a little more antiquated, to be sure.

Still, other than that one, minor flaw (as I see it), I thought The Pale Door was a nice little cross genre piece which deserves to find an audience. I think it’s more likely to appeal to horror fans than most other sections of its potential audience but, I suppose that’s why it’s been chosen for this year’s October FrightFest. Certainly not a great work of horror art, for sure but, nevertheless, a thoroughly competent and, it has to be said, somewhat charming entertainment. And that’s as good a thing to say about a movie as most, I believe. Definitely worth a watch if you like body count horror such as zombie movies and such like.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Tales Of The Gold Monkey

Monkey Shines

Tales Of The Gold Monkey
UK Airdate: From November 1982
Universal DVD Region 2

Tales Of The Gold Monkey was one of my all time favourite TV shows when I was a teenager. A pity, then, that it ran for only one series, broadcast over here in the UK on Monday evenings to pick up a family audience. I believe the reason it only ran for one season, despite winning a load of Emmys for things like set and costume design, is because it was just too darned expensive to produce for the ratings it was earning, being as the whole show was set in 1938. There were also a lot of people saying that it was just trying to ride the Raiders Of The Lost Ark bandwagon, of Spielberg’s big hit from the year before, although the truth was that it was more inspired by certain films from the Golden Age of Hollywood  than it was by the 1981 blockbuster (and also a series of ads about a bar called the Brass Monkey in the East... the original working title for the show was Tales Of The Brass Monkey). Although, having said that, I bet it took the popularity of Indiana Jones to get the show green lit by the studio.

So anyway, I was always on the look out for a second series but none ever came. I had a poster magazine and an annual (still have these, I think) but, alas, the brilliance of the show was in vain and it was lost to time. Until about ten years or so ago when a DVD was finally released in this country of all the episodes, including the original pilot film, which had something of a small but important cast change from the full series.

The show followed the exploits of pilot Jake Cutter, played by Stephen Collins (who we all knew over here from his role in Star Trek - The Motion Picture, reviewed here), who piloted cargo for cash in his Grumman Goose G-21 seaplane, named Cutter’s Goose and lived in one of the rooms at the Gold Monkey bar on the island of Boragora. There he had weekly adventures with his trusty, forgetful, comedy sidekick Corky (played by the wonderful Jeff MacKay), his romantic interest Sarah Stickney White (played by Caitlin O' Heaney, who posed as a singer in the bar but was really an undercover government spy) and Jack the dog (played by Leo the dog). I’ll get to Jack in a minute because, as far as I’m concerned, he was the most important character in it.

Other regulars included the bar’s owner, Bon Chance Louie (played by Roddy McDowell... a role played by Ron Moody in the pilot episode), Princess Koji (a formidable Japanese princess played Marta DuBois on a neighbouring island who fancied Jake and was always trying to get him into her hot tub), Todo (the Princess’ loyal bodyguard played by John Fujioka), Gushie (Louie’s wheelchair bound waiter played by Les Jankey... being an interesting concession to actors with disability which you rarely saw on TV in those days) and, last but not least, the Reverend Willie Tenboom (played by John Calvin). This last character was very interesting because I’m not sure you’d get away with him on family TV these days. Reverend Willie Tenboom was actually another undercover spy, a German spy as it happens, who would take the native island ladies into his church to regularly ‘bless’ them. Which was the Gold Monkey euphemism for having sex with them. Many a joke in the show came from situations where young ladies of his congregation would come in for their regular daily 'blessings' and with him almost, but never quite, getting caught in the act. I imagine it might be a little problematic these days but, back then, people were a little less uptight than they seem to be these days about stuff like the mix of sex and religion.

And, yeah, it’s a great show. The first pilot episode really set the scene and showed you the close relationship between Jake, Corky and Jack the dog. It opens with Jake accidentally mistaking his codes with Jack and losing Jack’s fake eyeball in a gambling game. The dog is extremely intelligent, in fact. More so than any of the human cast, it turns out. Intelligent enough that he always barks one woof for no and two woofs for yes. Jack always knows what’s going on and, if you listen to his barks throughout the show, you’ll know when the heroes are chasing a dead end or not.

Jack the dog isn’t just a minor character though. He’s a real co-star and, considering he was a stray found in an alley before the show commenced filming, I’m amazed at the level of training the dog seems to have had. The thing is, though, you have to have been watching the show from day one because the key to Jack’s barks is only mentioned a couple of times, early in the series. And it’s interesting in that a lot of the comedy moments throughout the show come from Jack’s bark. So, for example, Jake Cutter will say something like... “Don’t worry, it will be fine. It’s only etc.” and Jack will bark once, completely contradicting him and undermining his companion’s, not to mention the audience’s, faith in Jake. And like I said, Jack’s never wrong and often solves any mysteries coming their way long before his human co-stars have figured things out. If it wasn’t for Jack, this show would have been a lot duller and it’s a shame the series was so short lived because he deserves to take his place alongside such famous screen dogs as Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and Asta (from The Thin Man films). Some of the sequences with Jack would sometimes get quite surreal too, with occasional Japanese subtitles springing up so a native speaker could understand whether he was barking yes or no. Ah, yes, I loved this show.

And yeah, it was a mostly light hearted series with lots of fist fights (that Monkey Bar saw a lot of action) and gun play. A proper 1930s style action adventure series that, while clunky at times (count the engines on a plane or funnels on a ship and then match them up to the found footage long shots... it’s as bad as the changing horse counts on the stage coaches from long shot to close up in the old Maverick series), it was a real antidote to a lot of the other shows airing at the time. There were, of course, other period set adventures around in the wake of Spielberg’s Raiders but... this was easily the best and most entertaining of them, for sure. There was even, on occasion, a more serious, heavily dramatic episode... such as Last Chance Louie, where Jake races to clear Louie’s name in a self confessed murder and rescue him from the fate of the guillotine (with Collins also meeting one of his future wives on the set... Faye Grant, who people might remember from the original incarnation of V). He just manages to do this but the wonderful surprise reveal in that episode and the motivation behind Louie owning up to the murder, is really tragic and was pretty intense for what was, for the most part, a frothy and fun TV show.

So, well, I don’t want to say too much about this series because, it is around on DVD and, seriously, if you like adventure TV shows then Tales Of The Gold Monkey is definitely the one to watch. I suspect it’s not had a modern revival nowadays because of certain allegations made about the lead actor in 2014 which he more or less admitted but, wow, I’d like to see this show get the recognition it deserves now with a young audience. This was high quality escapism of the finest kind.

Sunday 18 October 2020

The Three Musketeers (1933)

Whacks And Wayne

The Three Musketeers (1933)
USA Directed by Colbert Clark and Armand Schaefer
Mascot Pictures/Alpha Video DVD Region 1
12 Chapter Theatrical Serial

Before I get into this, I really want to say up front that I absolutely love 1930s to 1950s theatrical serials and, despite a love for Fred Astaire movies when I was a toddler, it’s these that kick started me off into a lifetime of occasional film watching. Indeed, it was a BBC compilation screening of the first Flash Gordon serial in the early 1970s which fanned the flames of my love of the cinematic arts and their scheduling of other serials in the late 1970s and early 1980s were absolutely essential watches for me. So, yeah, the ones they showed such as Flash Gordon, Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, King Of The Rocket Men and Daredevils Of The Red Circle kept me enthusiastic about the medium even after movies like Doc Savage and Star Wars became the dominating cinematic influences in my young life. I’ve also seen many others in the intervening years through various DVDs (some official and others bootlegs) of varying quality so, with that in mind...

It pains me to say that The Three Musketeers is probably the worst serial I’ve ever seen in my life, to date. For starters, it has the cheek to say it’s based on Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel of the same name when, in fact, it’s not only been updated to take place nearer to the serial’s release date and is an adventure set around the The Foreign Legion... it has, after having sat through all twelve chapters, nothing much in common with the Dumas classic which I could see (and yes, I have read it) that could justify this as, at the very least, a modernisation of the so called source material. Not even the character names are the same and, instead, it follows the main protagonist Tom Wayne... played by John Wayne... who is befriended by three members of the Foreign Legion (played by Jack Mulhall, Raymond Hatton and Francis X. Bushman Jr.) who ‘compare’ themselves to the original Three Musketeers. They think of John... I mean Tom... as their D’Artagnan and, yeah, that’s as close to the original that this gets. This is not a swashbuckler by any stretch of the imagination and it has none of the intrigues of the Dumas novel. Instead we get fists and rifles and, as enthusiastic as this sometimes gets, it’s somehow still the most dreariest of the serials I’ve seen. Now, I’m more used to seeing chapter plays which were churned out by Universal, Republic and Columbia. You could quite often tell the company from the style of the serial. So I think I shall probably be steering clear of Mascot Pictures in the future... at least in terms of their serial output.

The plot, such as it is, deals with the brother of Tom Wayne’s fiancé Elaine Corday, played by the charming but underused Ruth Hall (indeed, several times in the serial, the other actors forget to use her character name and just call her Ruth). Her brother Armand is played in the first episode by Crieghton Chaney... who horror film fans will know is the real name of Lon Chaney Jr. He doesn’t get much of a look in as he has been running guns to a powerful Arab leader called El Shaitan, who has meetings of the ‘Devil’s Circle’. He’s just about to confess everything to his pal Tom when he is killed and Tom is framed for the murder. That’s it... the whole rest of the 12 chapters is about Tom Wayne being captured, escaping, captured again, escaping again etc... all aided by ‘the Musketeers’ as he attempts to find the true identity of El Shaitan and keep Elaine out of trouble. Yeah, it sounds like any typical serial by a studio like Republic doesn’t it? Except it’s lazy, cheats more often than usual on the cliffhanger resolutions, shows endless repeats and overly long, unnecessary and often augmented recap footage at the start of each subsequent episode... and has more ‘bottleneck’ flashbacks than you can shake a stick at.

There are a few nice things about it though...

For example, Yakima Canutt is one the stunt team, as well as playing various characters and the many  high speed ‘horse mount’ jumps in this, which were presumably mostly doubled by Canutt, are spectacular and he makes this stuff look easy. There’s also a degree at characterisation with one of ‘the three’, constantly seen eating a giant sausage. In the midst of any danger, there he will be, pulling out his giant sausage and taking a munch as his other flying fist fights off hordes of Arabs. In fact, almost everything this character does is punctuated by his habit of pulling out his co-starring cylinder of meat, often used as a kind of visual punchline to nearly every scene he’s in. Well, at least they were trying but it does get a bit repetitive after a while, a lot like the rest of the content of the serial... although I did miss it when, in the second from last episode, he goes for a big leg of meat during a fight instead of a sausage.

So... yeah, I know that the way this serial is structured is no different from a lot of others but with pretty much most of the locations looking the same and some pretty flat dialogue, this just comes off as incredibly dull, it has to be said. Lee Zahler’s typical serial scoring tries to keep it lively but... nah, it doesn’t save the production I’m afraid.  The serial was subsequently recut down to an hour and ten minutes in length and released as the feature film Desert Command in 1946, presumably in an attempt by Mascot to cash in on John Wayne’s new super stardom at the time. I haven’t seen this version but could quite believe that it actually plays better at only one third of its length and may, actually, be more coherent in that form. All I can say is, this is certainly a ‘version’ of The Three Musketeers that I will be recommending to nobody. And I think now is probably as good a time as any to revisit those old Flash Gordon serials that I loved so much growing up. It’s a shame that they... and a lot of other great serials... haven’t been transferred to Blu Ray to preserve them. It’s a worrying thought that a lot of these may now be just vinegar unless someone gets to them in time and spends the money trying to restore and preserve them for future generations. Somebody needs to get on the case in a hurry, methinks.

Thursday 15 October 2020

Doctor Who - Genesis Of The Daleks

The Time Meddler

Doctor Who -
Genesis Of The Daleks

Airdate: 8th March 1974 - 12 April 1975
BBC 1 - Region A/B Blu Ray Six Episodes

Warning: Some spoilers.

Okay, so the next story in my re-watch of Series 12 of Doctor Who is the much acclaimed fan favourite Genesis Of The Daleks. Even Tom Baker cited this as one of his favourite stories but, I have to say, this one always left me a bit cold. Alas, any hopes I had that I might, with age, revise my reaction to this serial as anything other than having to sit through a dull story, faded very quickly as I watched.

This follows on from The Doctor and his companions Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter) using the teleport at the end of The Sontaran Experiment (reviewed here) to return to Space Station Nerva after making the repairs to the system they promised in The Ark In Space (reviewed here). However, this is not to be, as their transmat beam is intercepted by none other than the Time Lords themselves, who have a mission for The Doctor. This is not unprecedented throughout the run of the show but it was with Tom Baker that the Time Lord culture and The Doctor’s place in it were explored a little more thoroughly than their brief mentions and appearances in the previous 11 years.

The mission is simple... The Doctor, Sarah and Harry have been transported to the planet Skaro, back to when the Daleks were first coming into being. Their mission, destroy the Daleks before they become the lethal menace that they become for hundreds of thousands of years (or more). As far as the Daleks are concerned it all starts here with their creator, Davros (played here by Michael Wisher), who we meet for the first time. Despite his ironic death at the end of the sixth episode, he would of course, return to face off against The Doctor many times over the years including Tom Baker’s second and final story against the Daleks four years later, in Destiny Of The Daleks. Out of the two, I’ve always loved Destiny Of The Daleks and not had much time for Genesis Of The Daleks so I hope, if the BBC get around to releasing the latter on Blu Ray at some point in the next few years, the experience of the second Davros story lives up to my memory of it.

Another thing I absolutely hate about this is it kinda changes the history of the Dalek race somewhat. Oh yes... I forgot... some people call it revisionism... I call it meddling with things the original Dalek creator (Terry Nation) should know better than to tinker with. The fact is, before this story the warring race against the Thals were called the Dals. However, from this moment on in Genesis Of The Daleks until the present day stories, their name has been changed into a stupid anagram of their future selves, the Kaleds. This is pretty weak and, frankly, unforgivable... you don’t mess with continuity.

Now, Genesis has some interesting elements and, for a family show airing before the watershed, it’s quite bleak and dark. We see the Thals and Kaleds at war with each other but, this earlier incarnation of the Thals are far from the race of blonde haired, blue eyed pacificistic hippies we meet in both the William Hartnell stories and the first Peter Cushing, big screen adaptation. Instead, they are virtually interchangeable with the Kaleds and, yeah, I did get confused a lot re-watching this as to which set of species I was looking at from one scene to the next.

The bleakness continues as the war combat scenes are very reminiscent of the trenches in World War Two and the Kaleds (and possibly the Thals as well, if I got this right) are all pretty much parodies, in uniform and attitude, of the Nazis. This whole World War Two atmosphere was touched upon again in the 2015 series of the show starring Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, with the early days of the planet Skaro maintaining that pessimistic vision. Here in Genesis, though, it’s a full on blatant set of references right down to a form of Nazi salute and even, in the first episode, Davros’ main henchman Nyder wearing something similar to an Iron Cross (it was ditched after the first episode for maybe spelling things out a little too clearly).

Something which really bothers me about the writing on this one is that, for an extremely intelligent Time Lord, The Doctor really doesn’t seem very clever in this at all. For example, in a typical case of the writers painting themselves into a corner for a dramatic situation, we have The Doctor using a detached Dalek gun to destroy some tapes made by Davros, containing information about future Dalek defeats which he was forced to give him in an interrogation. However, straight after this moment, The Doctor and Harry find themselves locked in the room and can’t do anything to shift the lock until they are freed later on in the story. Gee... it’s not like they even thought to use the same Dalek gun which was just laying on the table by the door to blast themselves free?

And... I honestly find the whole reason for Davros creating the Daleks for the good of the Kaled race, because they know what they will mutate into and so need sturdy exo-skeletons to look after them, somewhat ridiculous. Honestly, how can you predict what you are going to evolve into... especially since it’s made clear that The Doctor is the first Time Lord that the Daleks have come across. It just doesn’t make much sense and, good as all the actors are, I just find the action dull, the humour almost completely absent and, iconic monologues and exchanges aside, somewhat hard to sit through.  Maybe at six episodes it’s just too long and could have, perhaps, been better served as a four parter. The music doesn’t seem to help matters either and doesn’t, I believe, give the story the lift it needs to make its points. Maybe a full on military march may have been a better route to go down on this one.

Either way, Genesis Of The Daleks is a story that is much loved and so nothing I say will matter, thankfully. It so impressed people at the time that I remember an abridged LP record album of the show was released by the BBC with linking narrative sections by Tom Baker between scenes, not long after it aired on television. I remember borrowing it from the library at the time and, guess what? That didn’t do much for me either. However, despite the ‘revisionism’, it did give the series a new, villainous character in the form of Davros and people still thrill when he turns up in the show occasionally to this day. So it’s not all bad... just not my cup of tea in terms of classic Doctor Who. Still, I am, very much looking forward to perusing the last of the stories which make up this season soon, featuring what are probably, to this day, the show’s second best remembered regular villains.

Tuesday 13 October 2020



Australia/USA 2020
Directed by Natalie Erika James
Film Victoria

Warning: Some spoilers in order to allow me to talk about the film.

Relic is one of a gazillion similarly named movies and books (just because the film companies and publishers like to confuse everybody) and is the debut 'feature length' movie by Natalie Erika James. The film is ostensibly a horror film but I suspect a certain section of the audience won’t see it as that.

The film starts off with a mother and daughter responding to a call from the police that the mother’s mother has not been seen in a while. Okay, this is going to get confusing isn’t it? I’m going to refer to these people from now on as Grandmother, Mother and Daughter, since there are very few scenes with other characters in them, the film essentially being a three hander about the relationship between these characters and the haunting of the grandmother’s home.

So we have the Grandmother, Edna (played by Robyn Nevin), the Mother, Kay (played by Emily Mortimer) and the Daughter, Sam (played by Bella Heathcote). After searching the area where Gran lives, she mysteriously turns up in the house again after three days but refuses to say where she’s been. Right from the start of the movie, which is a pre-credits sequence where Gran goes downstairs, her bathtub overflowing and, when she turns her back, someone in silhouette at the corner of the frame stands up (this film is all about looking at the edges of the screen as you strain to see the sinister presence), you know something is not right. Once the family is reunited and Mother and Daughter have to stay on a few days to make sure Gran is okay, it starts to slowly become apparent to the two newcomers to the home that there is something else lurking on the property with them.

The shifting sounds, ever increasing brown stains, Mother’s dark dreams and the big black bruise on Granny’s sternum all seem to be indicators that something is not just right. Also, Granny seems to be losing it and... that’s really what the film is about. As the film progresses to the point where the house begins to change dramatically for one of the three characters, who gets lost in a maze of slowly shrinking possibilities, it becomes apparent that, if anything, this film is about a family who are being haunted by the physical manifestation of Granny’s onset of dementia. And this is the point where I think some people will proclaim this is not a horror film... they will just see the visual metaphor and forget that, metaphor or not, the physical manifestation of the idea and its psychological effect on all three generations of the family, firmly pushes this into the realm of some kind of supernatural horror. At least, that’s how I understood it.

Certainly the film is edited and scored with the visual/sound language of a horror movie, lovingly embracing some of the genre clichés like the eerie sounds and dark rooms, setting up a quite effectively creepy atmosphere for the audience. But there’s another thing going on with the audio which I picked up quite quickly in the early stages of the film, where the sound of a conversation with the police is played on the soundtrack sometime after the actual conversation took place, as the Mother and Daughter are on the long drive to Granny’s house. At first I thought this was just a piece of cinematic shorthand to help with the pacing of the film but the director does something else in a similar way soon after...

We have a shot of the Mother sitting at the Grandmother’s old piano and, as she sits there, we hear the sound of her playing the piano for five or more seconds. Then, after we cut to another shot, the visual image catches up to her and synchs up with her actually playing that piano. Now, this is nothing new of course and overlapping sounds from one scene to another can often be a useful tool for film-makers to solve certain problems or maintain a certain atmosphere. This is what I assumed here and I wondered if this was one of those little, tell-tale directorial signatures which we may be seeing more of in Ms. James’ films in the future (I’m assuming someone who can weave a creepy atmosphere like this together so expertly will be given lots of money to continue making films). However, now I’ve sat and thought about it for a bit, it seems that this way of representing sound as sometimes dislocated from the precise imagery may well be another indicator of the influence of Grandmother’s slow descent into dementia. Not certain but, that seems like it could be the case here.

The film maintains a sense of lurking dread and ends, with a somewhat enigmatic but certainly interesting sequence which reminded me, somewhat, of a certain sequence in the movie version of Under The Skin (reviewed here). I won’t go into this but I felt that the ending of the film is, in some ways, a little more open to interpretation and is almost a stimulus for the audience to bring their own baggage along with them when they watch the movie. I might be totally wrong about that, of course but... if I am then I’d love to know just what this last sequence meant. Perhaps a physical manifestation of a state of acceptance but, yeah, you make your own mind up on that one.

And that’s Relic. An unusual sort of horror film with a denouement which pricks the corners of the mind rather than trying to make good on a devastating climax. I mean, there certainly is a climax and you do get the sense that the film is leading inevitably to something but... well... when you get there it’s a soft and deftly executed slow burn of a reveal rather than something which is more in keeping with a traditional horror picture. Relic is a nice, fun little film and it deserves to be a success. I certainly hope this finds its audience. One I’d recommend to all... horror and non-horror folk alike.

Sunday 11 October 2020



USA 2020
Directed by Josephine Decker
Killer Films

Shirley is not the film I thought it would be. That is to say, I went into this movie with the assumption that it would be a biographical picture about author Shirley Jackson, who wrote a fair amount of short stories and novels, among them such famous works as The Lottery, We Have Always Lived In The Castle and, the only book I’ve personally read by her but, it’s one of my favourite horror novels, The Haunting Of Hill House. That one was also the basis for the 1963 movie The Haunting, which is the best horror movie ever made as far as I’m concerned (and reviewed by me here)... as well as being remade under the same name (couldn’t bear to even look at it but may visit it someday for the Jerry Goldsmith score) and was also turned into a weird kind of ‘inspired by’ TV show, The Haunting Of Hill House, which was fun but... well, the less said about that one the better (but if you do want to hear me say it, you can read my review here).

True, Elisabeth Moss most certainly does play Shirley Jackson here but, it turns out, this is not a ‘full on’ biopic but a slice out of her life over the course of around a year (possibly just a little longer) and, furthermore, a fictional slice at that. It’s actually based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and it looks at a period in Jackson’s life when a young, fictional couple are ‘put up’ at her house in exchange for services while the husband works with Shirley’s unfaithful college lecturer husband at the local college and as she struggles to write her second novel. 

So this is an exploration of an... well, I’d like to say ‘incident’ but, truly, nothing much happens and the drama of the thing comes from the cynical, paranoid and acerbic Shirley’s relationship with the young, pregnant wife Rose Nemser... and also the writer’s growing obsession with a young woman who went missing from campus at the time (an unsolved mystery). It’s been said, though, that even this incident giving inspiration into the construction of the novel, especially as depicted here, is somewhat less easy to prove or verify so, as I said, a completely fictional account.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing of Shirley Jackson in this, of course. I’ve not seen Elisabeth Moss in much and, almost all of the films I’ve seen her in other than the recent iteration of The Invisible Man (reviewed by me here) were from the early to mid nineties, it turns out... completely belying my assumption, going by her on-screen looks, that she was only in her early twenties. However, I do know she’s a very good actress and I can only assume that she’s thoroughly researched the personae of Jackson to prepare for the role (as much as one is able to), especially since she’s one of the producers on this. So I trust her that there’s a lot of the writer in this. And, as you would expect from Moss, she puts in a towering performance which is, in some ways, more like a silent actress because, although she does have vast stretches of dialogue here, a lot of the time her character and the power of her personality comes through looks and gestures... which is always welcome in the modern cinematic landscape (if I’m still allowed to use that term during these times of Covid), where often the words rule the visuals too much.

That being said, Odessa Young, who plays both Rose Nemser and, in odd dream-like flashbacks, the missing woman, is absolutely the person you can’t help but look at here. The film is told through her eyes and, as good as Moss is in this (and she is amazingly good), Young gives an outstanding performance which I won’t easily forget. In fact, the film is more about her fragile spirit transforming itself into someone who will no longer play the little ‘wifey’ to her husband played by Logan Lerman... just as Shirley doesn’t to her own husband, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. She does this well and, of the two lead female roles, this is easily the better part.

Josephine Decker’s direction is pretty damn great too, with patches of dreamlike imagery and possible prophecy inserting themselves into the narrative via Jackson’s ‘mental set backs’ in subtle ways, a little like a slower, more elegant use of the way director Nicholas Roeg would suddenly dislocate the viewer from the time frame of the movie and use the contrasting imagery to attempt to give a little insight and possible judgement into the character’s future destinations. There’s some nice stuff here and, for a film which disappointed me in terms of expectations but thoroughly entertained me while doing so, I was impressed with the whole package and was surprised, given the insubstantial content of the piece, that she does genuinely lead the audience into an illusion of a somewhat abstract climax to the movie... which in a way is more a Hollywood expectation rather than a necessary film-maker’s agenda.

Less subtle, perhaps, is the suggested ‘undertone’ of bisexual romance between the two women, perhaps as a nod to the character of Theo in The Haunting Of Hill House or, possibly not but, alas, that’s my only point of reference here. This is an interesting dimension to the film because, just as it threatens to go over the top into a full on, uncompromising sexual relationship, the director chooses to just step back and leave the topic, letting it fizzle away, possibly to marinate in the background while the film plays out.

I was very impressed, though, by Tamar-kali’s somewhat skittish score, which weaves in and out in playful and simplistic ways which sometimes approach atonalism but never quite get there. Instead it kind of plays in the edges and gives us a somewhat nervous, questioning stimuli while the visuals are playing. Not something which one could easily categorise but it does a good job for the film. Alas, it’s only available commercially as a compromised, electronic download of the music rather than an actual score on a proper CD, at time of writing, so it doesn’t look like I’ll get to hear this as a stand alone listen anytime soon. However, I’d like to hear more of this composer’s work in films in the future.

And that’s my look at Shirley. I’d probably recommend it to most cineastes because the way in which the film is put together far outweighs anything lacking in the area of story or content. I would say that, if you don’t go in expecting anything in the horror genre and, similarly, not assuming this is going to be some biopic as opposed to a piece of fiction utilising a real life person as one of the main characters, then you will probably get something out of this movie. I’m not sure it’s a film I could watch a second time but it certainly kept me entertained enough that it didn’t drag at all. Give this one a go.

Thursday 8 October 2020

The Invisible Woman

Kitty Woman

The Invisible Woman
USA 1940 Directed by A. Edward Sutherland
Universal  Blu Ray Zone B

Okay, so next in my list of classic Universal Horror/Monster movies is the third entry in The Invisible Man series... a set of films which I have a hard time of thinking of as either horror or monster movies, to be honest. Most of these are thrillers but there are exceptions and this one is, as it happens, one of those films in the franchise where, around this kind of time, Universal were making some brave and often lucrative choices in the direction they would take the various parts of their franchises. See upcoming reviews of The Mummy’s Tomb and Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman for further elaboration on that comment. Oh... and if you want to read my review of the next Universal Monsters movie after this, it’s been on the blog for a number of years now so, check the link at the bottom of this review.

But for now, lets get back to The Invisible Woman, which is a complete sea change for the franchise (not the last either) in that it’s a light and frothy romantic comedy, reminiscent of those screwball comedies of the 1930s, except with the highly successful invisibility element thrown into the mix. The film stars Virginia Bruce as the title character, Kitty Carroll and, here, she is joined by a number of popular actors such as John Barrymore (as the Professor who makes Kitty invisible), John Howard as the wealthy playboy love interest for the ‘common shop store fashion model’ Kitty and a young Oskar Homolka as Blackie, head of a Mexican crime syndicate who will, as humourously as possible, stop at nothing to get the secret behind the professor's invisibility machine. Also in the film is the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton (as the professor’s house keeper), Mary Gordon (who eagle eyed viewers may remember as Mrs Hudson in the Basil Rathbone series of Sherlock Holmes films) and Shemp Howard, famous for being one of the many iterations of The Three Stooges, as one of Homolka’s comedy hoodlums.

And, yeah, it’s quite entertaining. The film sees Kitty answering the professor’s advert for a volunteer to become invisible and comedy hijinks ensue as she falls for John Howard's character and we see the butler getting some terrible, cringe worthy but thoroughly entertaining lines and taking a heck of a lot of falls and trips which seem really dangerous, it has to be said. The dialogue writing is fast and furious and this is just bread and butter to a cast who deliver it in that breezy and larger than life way that was common for the period. Even with the raft of ‘Here kitty, kitty...’ jokes that pop up on occasion.

The invisibility effects are okay but not as well done, it seems to me, as in some of the previous movies in the series. When Kitty is walking around headless in a dress, for example, you can often see feint lines where the head actually was. Some of the other effects such as ‘invisible woman lays on a rug’ or ‘invisible woman sits in a chair’ are okay though and I guess I never really tire of seeing these old visual chestnuts run out time and again. Which probably says something about my age.

We also have a nice moral lesson thrown in for good measure. When the newly invisible Kitty sneaks into work to confront her vile and ruthless boss and gives him a good kicking for his troubles... telling him that she is the manifestation of his conscience... we see the character completely reform and introduce things like tea breaks and ‘not being fired for being ill’ into the job. Always nice to see object lessons taught on screen in this manner.

And, despite this one being one of the shortest reviews in the history of this blog... I really don’t have much else to say other than to note that... The Invisible Woman is the first of the ‘invisible’ films not to use the name Griffin in the story as a nod to H. G. Wells original character and... that this is a unique and thoroughly watchable entry in the series, if a little different in tone to the others (as is the next in the ‘invisible’ series). If you want to read my review of the next film in the Universal Horror franchise, the 1941 character starter The Wolfman, you can read my earlier review of it here, where I’ve coupled it with my review of the 2010 remake. And stay tuned for the review of the next Universal Monster movie coming soon. I love these movies and am going to probably burn through these fairly quickly over the coming months.

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep

Crusty Asians Up For Crabs!

Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep
(aka Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura:
Nankai no daiketto)

Japan 1966 Directed by Jun Fukuda
Toho/Criterion Collection -
Godzilla - The Showa Era Box Set  Blu Ray Zone B

Okay, so the seventh of the Showa Era Godzilla films, Ebirah, Horror Of the Deep, feels like a complete sea change in terms of the direction the series was heading in previously. It’s also the culmination of the little stabs of humour and humanisation that have been showing up as part of The Big G’s personality in the previous few films. Although he’s technically not a good guy here, he does save everyone in this and at the end of the film the human cast talk about how he really is the hero here.

This one was originally going to feature King Kong taking on Toho’s new crab monster (shrimp monster in Japanese if you go by the name but... yeah... it’s pretty clearly a giant crab) instead of Godzilla but rights issues etc means it soon developed as part of the Gojira franchise. Maybe that’s why Godzilla spends the first two thirds of the movie asleep. Which seems to be a common factor because the other big monster co-star here, Mothra, manages to stay asleep on her island until maybe the last ten minutes of the film, no matter how much the natives of Infant Island try to wake her from her slumber. Maybe she realised that the tiny, miniaturised twins who are her caretakers were, for the first time in the series, not played by The Peanuts but, instead, a different singing duet (they’re really not all that good as stand ins, I reckon). Regardless, as far as I’m aware this was the last time that Mothra would appear in her moth form (as opposed to her larvae form) in the Showa era movies. Not much of a swan song, to be honest.

Anyway, it’s a slow and convoluted plot. After a fishing boat goes down in the sea, the brother of one of the victims, after his mother consults a psychic, is convinced he’s still alive... but can’t interest the authorities in looking any further. So he does what anybody in his state of worry does... goes to watch a dance ‘’til you drop' contest in the hopes of winning a yacht to go look for himself. Alas, when he arrives, the contest has already been going for three days already. Fortunately for him, two of the people who drop out right at that moment say they’ll show him a yacht as they know where there are loads. After trespassing on one, they are startled by a guy already in the yacht. They assume it’s the owner who tells them they can stay the night but, overnight and unbeknown to all, the guy who’s brother is missing casts off with them and the newcomer... who turns out to be only hiding on the boat after a jewel heist... along for the ride.

With me so far? So, anyway, they look for the brother but Ebirah, the giant crab gets in their way and they wash up on shore of an island, finding that many more, mostly some of the inhabitants of Mothra's Infant Island but also the crew of the fishing boat that went down, are being used as slave labour by a shady organisation called The Red Bamboo. They control passage to the island past Ebirah with a yellow liquid and are making deadly, atomic bombs. However, the newcomers find themselves separated and, between them all, manage to accidentally wake the slumbering Godzilla they find in a cave by a clever, lightning strike method (which makes sense if you remember this was originally written to feature the ‘electrifying’ Japanese version of King Kong) while the island is scheduled for detonation and the islanders try to raise Mothra to rescue them.

And, despite the tangled machinations of the story, which I’ve abbreviated here or we’d be here all day, it’s actually not all that interesting, for the most part. The giant monster battles are few and far between and it’s just Godzilla and Ebirah having a go at each other, albeit in a comical fashion, that’s the real draw here. They basically have a game of ping pong with a rock one time followed up by a second volley of ‘rock tennis’ before Godzilla heads the rock like a football towards the crab. When he defeats Ebirah the first time, he even does a little dance in the sea to show his pleasure.

The film is scored by the famous composer Masaru Satô, one of a few in the series composed by him... so it doesn’t have any musical continuity with the Ifukube scores on the majority of the previous films in the series. It also doesn’t have the huge dramatic punch needed for the action scenes and this is very much spoof scoring to a certain extent. Now I know Satô can be very dramatic when he wants to be so my guess is the director really wanted him to play to the comedy of the monster brawls rather than try to make them more substantial in terms of the scoring. So, while I love this composer and the score by itself is a great listen as a series of musical cues in its own right... I’m not sure I’d say the scoring choices on this would have been the same ones I would have made but... yeah... it certainly gives the movie a different atmosphere from the others.

I’ve nothing against a fluffier, fun iteration of the Godzilla character though, who even looks a little like the ‘cookie monster’ from Sesame Street in this movie but... this is not my favourite of those ones and Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep wouldn’t be my first choice if I was looking for a quick monster mayhem’ style distraction either. It’s not a terrible movie by a long shot but... it’s one of the lesser pieces in the Showa era for my money. And as for King Kong? Well, the big ape would indeed make his way into one more Japanese kaiju eiga and that film will be the subject of one of my upcoming kaiju eiga reviews.