UK 1968 Directed by Jack Bond
BFI Blu Ray Zone B
Separation is a 1968, mostly monochromatic film (with occasional shots of colour peppered throughout) directed by Jack Bond and written by the lead actress (and his frequent collaborator at the time), Jane Arden. And it’s one of those ‘so edgy but not quite so naively quaint’ movies which the British excelled at during the 1960s and which seems to be a completely lost art nowadays. You just couldn’t get away with making a film like this today and, if you could somehow raise a budget for it from someone, I can’t imagine it playing on general release anywhere in today’s less than visually diverse marketplace... which is a great shame.
Now, admittedly, when it first started rolling and revealed its lack of hard narrative and it fragmentary nature... which literally throws out the idea of a binding story unless you really let it take you over and allow your brain to decode it in a more relaxed manner, I thought to myself... okay, somebody here is a Richard Lester wannabe then. And yes, it’s a little like watching something like A Hard Day’s Night or The Knack And How To Get It (reviewed here) in a way but, with a lot less linear story elements than even those movies. It has almost trademark scenes such as people just running around or riding a bike for no real reason etc but... I just found out that Jane Arden used to work with Lester in their early days too so, yeah, it’s probably more to do with the mood of the times than any deliberate stylistic imitation, for sure.
Starting with a truncated shot of a hammer banging a clock (which we see properly later in the picture), we go right into an image which is held for a little while, which isn’t that easy for the mind to decode at first, as the credits play over it. It’s basically two or more city landscapes rushing away at angles which then reveal themselves to be views through windows plus the reflections of other views in a car, as a character played by Jane Arden (in one of a couple of guises) is being driven by her chauffer who, in a younger incarnation (and bearing in mind he’s not aged at all), is her lover. She is the only character who seems to have a name, Jane, while everybody else seems to be referred to, at least in the IMDB listing, by their function rather than a given name... so Husband, Lover, Girl etc.
David de Keyser plays her husband, who she is separated from... and Iain Quarrier plays her lover. And the narrative, such as it is (and it isn’t) revolves around dialogue exchanges between two or more of these characters, often in a fragmented or unclear way. I finally realised the split rushing landscapes in the opening shot were a deliberate visual metaphor for the opening split in Jane’s mind, as the film seems to describe an ark which may or may not be, depending on what baggage you yourself bring to the movie (I suspect), involving former and future incarnations of herself (although all taking place within the same time setting, as far as I can work out) and presented as an almost surrealist pudding of muddled encounters.
And the film accelerates in this manner, taking on a certain tone which threatens being ‘almost coherent’ while continuing to celebrate, sometimes quite indulgently, it’s own attempts to sabotage and derail its scrutability. So we have pulled in dialogue fragments presented as background noises and whispers. We have various characters, both fleeting or with larger parts, suddenly addressing the camera to tell a monologue or story which may or, often, may not prove to be a helpful way into the central figure. Or the director will stage two different conversations in the same narrative space so the juxtaposition of two, argumentative but unrelated scenarios, rub together and almost start invading the space of the other and making a tenuous relationship.
Another thing is to use sound as both background furniture (I love hearing those old ‘neenaw neenaw’ police sirens from my childhood in these kinds of movies) and as an audio cue as to the mental state of the central protagonist. For example, when she is desperately trying to find her lover in a street market (it may well be the Portobello Road), we hear an old World War II siren on the soundtrack and it’s obviously there to signal to the audience her alarm as it cuts out once she catches sight of the object of her desire.
And what we are left with is a disorienting and jumbled placement of narrative fragments which, in a way, conditions (or batters) the audience into acceptance without questioning the nature of the piece. Which is probably the best headspace to be in to view it.
There’s also a certain charming surrealism built into the film in certain sections too. Such as a naked lady by a pool in a roomful of naked women, being massaged by a guy and revealing intimate details of her disappointment with sex while simultaneously being slapped in the face and made to cry by a guy kneeling in front of her. Or we might see someone running around but the whole shot is a reflection of it in a puddle.
There are also textual puns in the movie too. Such as when someone asks Jane how she felt and then we hear her contemplating whether the person was asking her about her feelings or whether they were talking about a piece of felt cloth (which makes no sense in the context of the scene, for sure). Add to this an uncredited appearance by a young Michael York (for a few seconds), a Procol Harum song and a double edged ending which is as ambiguous in its decoding as the final shot of Antonioni’s Blow Up... and we have a movie which is almost impenetrable in its prognosis, other than to say the central character is a basket case. Indeed, despite the staged scenes involving deliberately surreal content (like two people on a bed watching a back projection of a giant eye which then burns up in the projector), it’s the more humdrum elements in terms of content which, when edited together as almost non-sequiturs, provide the truly surreal elements of the film.
All we can know, I think, is that the separation from her husband is cracking her up and that we may or may not be seeing other fragments from her life play out but, ultimately, it’s hard to call. Surprisingly, though, it holds the interest and it’s eminently watchable. It’s also presumably shot through with a certain ring of truth because it’s said to be an autobiographical piece in some ways, as Jane Arden had also recently been through a break up. Indeed, I can’t vouch for the artist's mental state but, fourteen years after this film was released, she took her own life. Which is a shame as I suspect we lost a truly great artist.
So, yeah, Separation is exactly the kind of film we are missing from today’s cinematic landscape and it’s a shame that something like this would not get made today with a mind for a commercial release (there is stuff out there but it’s hovering in the shadows of micro budget, independent film maker collectives and I’d be surprised if that stuff ever got a proper physical release). I’d recommend this film to most cineastes though, if you can stifle your initial reaction and accept the journey of the film makers as it begins to weave its spell on you. I know I will be seeking out more of Mr. Bond and Mrs. Arden’s movies going forward. And on that note, it turns out that I have already reviewed one of the director’s much later works, the Pet Shop Boys movie It Couldn’t Happen Here, right here.
Wednesday, 30 June 2021
Tuesday, 29 June 2021
The Dream Detective
by Sax Rohmer
Sax Rohmer was the pen name of one Arthur Sarsfield Ward (among other variations of his name) and he was certainly best known for his many pulp adventures documenting the fiendish plots of his most famous character, Dr. Fu Manchu. I read all of those a decade or more ago and, I have to say, they weren’t anything like I'd imagined and were, indeed, fun adventures in the boy’s own adventure mode, to a great extent. This is the first time I’ve read anything of his not featuring that character and I have to say that, while I am somewhat disappointed that this selection of nine short stories comprising The Dream Detective, first published in 1920, doesn’t go quite as far into the realm of what I would doggedly call ‘fantastical fiction’ as I would have liked, the concept is certainly sound enough to reach such a classification and ultimately, I did enjoy reading about the central character in this compendium. That central character being Moris Klaw, the titular detective of dreams who is often accompanied in his investigations (apart from the ninth and final one in this tome), by his beautiful daughter Isis Klaw.
Each short, chaptered tale is called “Case of...” and then the specific case name. So in the case of this 1977 Dover Publications edition, they are the nine stories which were in the first British edition published in 1920 and are as follows... 1. The Tragedies In The Greek Room, 2. Potsherd Of Anubis, 3. The Crusader’s Axe, 4. The Ivory Statue, 5. The Blue Rajah, 6. The Whispering Poplars, 7. The Headless Mummies, 8. The Haunting Of Grange and 9. The Veil Of Isis. Now, it pains me to say that I wasn’t aware, when I managed to source a second hand copy of this book, that the US 1925 edition (and only that particular edition from what I can find out), included a tenth short story but, alas, I don’t think I am able to pick up one of these, almost antiquarian, copies for a reasonable (aka cheap) price. Why the tenth story has not seen the light of day since the 1925 edition is something I am unsure of although, I could hazard a guess at one or two possibilities.
Just like Holmes had his chronicler, Dr. Watson, Moris Klaw has his own biographer and, just like the Conan Doyle stories, it is his acquaintance who takes on the narrative voice of the stories. We hear everything from him first hand as a witness to Klaw’s exploits, after he meets this almost unique character in the first tale, The Tragedies In The Greek Room. I say unique because, okay, like Holmes the character is a master criminologist but that is not what gives this character the little something extra which makes this volume worth a look. By trade, Moris Klaw is an owner of a positively grubby antique shop stuffed to the gills with bizarre and archaic items, which he runs with his daughter and a drunken shop assistant. However, his interests in the realm of the supernatural and his study of an inexhaustible catalogue of the properties of rare and ancient archeological artefacts are the perfect companion to his prime talent... that of his belief and practical application of the mind’s ability, if properly trained, to read the psychic impressions left in the aether of a particular place.
That is to say, with the aid of his sterilised pillows, he will lay down at the scene of a crime for an hour or a night and lay open to the very clear psychic impressions left in a location by a thief or murderer (or, indeed, dead victim) and this will go some way in showing him what has happened and where best to uncover the evidence which will solve the mystery for the local police, one of whom sometimes impresses the narrator to persuade Klaw to involve himself in the stranger of the cases which come their way.
The stories will usually start off with either a baffling puzzle such as a traditional ‘locked room mystery’ or a beguiling mystery, such as the proposition of whispering voices in the night or the bizarre motivation of someone who will break into museums and private collections to decapitate the heads of specific mummified Egyptians... and then Klaw will spend some time, for the most part, napping at the crime scene... and then pursue his theories with the aid of his daughter and the narrator. My main disappointment is that, like the ending of a good Scooby Doo cartoon, he will more often than not reveal to the people investigating the mysterious crimes that, despite his somewhat supernatural powers in acquiring ‘dream photographs’ of the various shenanigans, the crimes in question have been committed by a flesh and blood perpetrator and definitely do not fall under the realm of the other wordly. That being said, in all but one of the tales, he arrives at his easily provable conclusions by a talent that is gifted to him by a realm, not of this earth and, of course, this makes him a literary antecedent to popular fictional investigators (or sometimes just unlucky souls) who can ‘see’ the specifics of a crime that has been committed. Perhaps the most popular kindred character to him in recent years is Frank Black, from the wonderful 1990s TV show Millennium.
As usual with Rohmer, at least in my experience, you come for the character but you stay for the prose and, once again, the author manages to render even the most commonplace things like the heralding of a caller at a door, into a poetically charged experience thusly, “... a ringing on the doorbell, followed by a discreet fandango on the knocker”. I also enjoyed his escalation of almost throwaway afterthoughts to render his prose with a kind of laid back attitude to a fuller picture, such as, “They had an appearance of dried twigs and an odour so wholly original as to defy simile.”, which I thought was pretty cool and made me smile.
It would be folly to say that these particular stories are either sparkling tales of great realms of the fantastic or, indeed, anything like essential reading but they do make for an interesting diversion of a collection and The Dream Detective is a character I could see taken up by other authors as one worthy of further explorations in future years. Perhaps, for example, his character would not be out of place for revival in the annual Tales Of The Shadowmen publications put out by Black Coat Press (indeed, he may have already turned up in one or two but I just can’t remember them). So, if you have not encountered Rohmer before then I would certainly point you in the direction of his many and varied Fu Manchu novels as a first resort but, this collection of Moris Klaw tales will probably hold a fascination for a certain section of his audience, there’s no doubt of that.
Monday, 28 June 2021
Son Of Dracula
USA 1940 Directed by Robert Siodmak
Universal Blu Ray Zone B
So the next up in my rewatch of the classic Universal Monsters movies is Son Of Dracula. Now this is an interesting one for many reasons including the arguments about just who Lon Chaney Jr is playing here. Despite the title, the family line is really not mentioned here in the film, nor any real mention of the Dracula he plays being in any way a chip off the old block. Rather, it’s intimated over half way through the movie, that he’s actually the original, believed to have died in the 19th Century. Which, of course, kinda knocks out the continuity from the previous Dracula films in this series straight away.
The film starts off with a static titles card, introduced by some hands brushing away the cobwebs to reveal the title and the card on which the titles play over. We then find two men, including Dr. Brewster (played by Frank Craven), awaiting the arrival of Count Alucard on a train at the station in the deep southern swampland town in which they make their home. Yep, this is the movie, I think, that started that whole running joke of Dracula hiding his true identity by spelling his name backwards. It’s been used a lot in many films and novels since then, of course.
So, anyway, Alucard is nowhere to be seen but his baggage is, including some rather, ahem, long looking ‘trunks’ which have his name printed on the side. The good Dr. Brewster starts to spell his name out backwards, just for the slowest members in the audience who didn’t pick up on this not too mysterious cypher the first time around. Actually, the elderly Dr. Brewster (the actor died just a few years after this film was made), kind of becomes the main protagonist of the film as he’s the one who pieces it all together and has far more screen time, it seems to me, than anyone else.
Back to the plot. The 'morbidly interested in the occult' Katherine (played by the gorgeous Louise Allbritton, who apparently played a trick on her co-stars by being naked in her coffin in one take which, alas, has probably not been kept) and her sister Claire (played by Chaney costar and Universal monster maven Evelyn Ankers) are awaiting the arrival of Count Alucard in a party Katherine is throwing in his honour. Alucard turns up behind the scenes however, to put in motion what he thinks is Claire’s plan, transforming into a bat and back again... in some quite well done animated overlays, shame about the fake bat... and kills their father. Later on, he and Claire are secretly married, much to the consternation of her actual fiance Frank, who gets into a fight with the super strong Count and shoots him repeatedly with his revolver. Alas, Claire was standing behind Alucard when he does this and, in a wonderful early demonstration of one of the powers of the vampire, is shot dead as the bullets pass through Alucard and into her.
Frank gives himself up and is locked up for her murder but, since she’s doing a lot of talking to people post-death, some find it hard to believe she is properly deceased. Shenanigans abound as Dr. Brewster and his vampire specialist friend Professor Laslo, played by J. Edward Bromberg, try to destroy the two vampires... before Frank destroys them himself. Bromberg, of course, played the ‘fat funny nazi’ in Invisible Agent (reviewed by me here) but he’s been aged by make up in this and, despite the script completely cutting its ties with Dracula (reviewed here) and Dracula’s Daughter (reviewed here), he really does seem to be made up to have a superficial resemblance to Edward Van Sloan’s portrayal of Van Helsing in those two movies. A deliberate echo, I suspect, to get the audience to sympathise with a vampire hunter in as shorthand a way as possible, to keep the story moving along.
Anyhow, it turns out Claire, all along, was waiting to be made immortal by Dracula so she can do the same for Frank and then get Dracula out of the way in order to live with her former fiance forever. Yeah, she’s a kooky kid alright. I won’t go into the details of the way the Count and Claire meet their demise, which could be considered anti-climactic anyway but I will say that there’s some really nice stuff in this movie.
There’s a nice scene, for instance, when Claire goes to meet Alucard/Dracula, when his coffin floats to the surface of the swamp. Mist then flies out from the coffin and forms into Lon Chaney on screen (some of the effects in this are great... if it wasn’t for that damn fake bat) who then floats (due to the not so subtle point of view of the camera placement) over to the land to be with her. Another nice thing is when Claire, in the form of a bat, goes to bite the neck of Frank while he’s asleep in jail. Instead of seeing the bat performing the actual deed, we see Frank on the bunk and Frank’s shadow behind him, with the shadow of the bat biting the neck of the shadow, even though the bat is actually not in shot and nowhere near Frank. It’s a brilliant piece of suggestive expressionism highlighting the surreal world of the vampire but, I can’t help thinking that they probably already tried the effect with that terrible rubber bat and it looked so bad they were forced to come up with something which, serendipitously, really adds to the atmosphere of the film.
Lon Chaney Jr is always worth watching but he’s generally considered, it seems to me, miscast for the role. Certainly, his usual look of extreme anxiety does the part no favours but he does, at times, play the Count in an overtly hostile manner and, all in all, I think he does as good a job as he can here. I would have liked to see more of him in it as his ‘death’ seems somewhat rushed over and premature when that scene comes near the end of the film. It doesn’t help his performance any, however, when Hans Salter, who recycles a score he wrote with Frank Skinner for a film called Seven Sinners (according to the IMDB), kind of overscores Chaney’s first two appearances in the role with a kind of extended, mysterioso tone which is less than subtle and, honestly, really damages what could have been dramatic moments. I love Salter and Skinner and this usage wasn’t necessarily their idea but, still, it’s one of the few times in the Universal monster movies that I think the scoring is just a little too ‘on the nose’ to be truly appropriate for the scenes.
That being said, Son Of Dracula, whether Chaney is playing the heir to the Count of Transylvania or actually the real deal, is nothing less than entertaining and watchable. In my opinion, it’s actually Frank Craven’s sound and reasoning Dr. Brewster who actually carries the weight of the film and it’s true that, this one doesn’t seem to really fit in with the other monster movies made by Universal at the time (in a way, it’s almost too sophisticated) but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a corker and always worth a watch. The continuity on the Dracula character, however, would be even further compromised in the next three films he turns up in, played twice by John Carradine and then, one last time, by Bela Lugosi. Which I will get too on this blog at some point soon.
Sunday, 27 June 2021
Pas Une Pipes
Directed by Lesley Manning
BBC/101 FIlms DVD Region 2
In 1938, Orson Welles scared gazillions of listeners with his fake documentary style radio broadcast adaptation of War Of The Worlds, presented as newsflash interruptions to scheduled transmissions and panicking half of America. By 1992 you would have thought that nobody could fall for such a stunt again and, to be fair to the BBC, when they broadcast Ghostwatch for the only time it’s ever been allowed on terrestrial TV, on Halloween of that year, it was billed as being a drama and the intro to the programme presented it as the same. However, for people like me and many others in the UK, some of whom were tuning into it a little way in after a movie on another channel had finished, Ghostwatch was what the narrative presented itself to be... a live broadcast transmission of a novelty Halloween programme, a vigil where the BBC were watching over a haunted house where two young girls and a mother were being terrorised by an angry spirit.
And why shouldn’t we trust what we were seeing with our own eyes... the whole show is done exactly as a live BBC event would be and it was fronted by some very reliable TV presenters. Indeed, it was headed up by one of the most assured and authoritative, no nonsense TV show presenters ever, Michael Parkinson (who’s interview talk show Parkinson was a staple of British TV for a very long time) and he was accompanied by famous TV show presenters Mike Smith (in the studio taking phone calls), Smith’s wife and fellow presenter Sarah Greene (actually going into the house to spend time there for the night via one of a fair few live links) and even a young Craig Charles (then better known as a presenter of sorts, before he found fame as the star of Red Dwarf) as the ‘man on the street’, wrangling the crowds of onlookers, well wishers and amateur specialists in all things most haunted... as one of the many diversions which the writers used to make this absolutely feel like a typical, BBC live show. Complete with phone ins, interviews with guests (played by actors and also non-professionals) and the usual arguments about “Is it real?”, “Is it just the girls faking things?” and, importantly to hold the tension and build up to the point where things, inevitably, start to go wrong... “Is anything going to happen tonight while we’ve got the cameras in there or is it all just a load of nonsense?”
For the most part, they did really well at maintaining the illusion that, not only spooky things were beginning to happen in the house but also quite openly hostile, threatening and downright unpleasant things which, as the show builds to its inevitable climax, leaves no viewer safe. Parkinson is aided in the studio, in the chair next to him, by parapsychologist Dr Lin Pascoe (played by Gillian Bevan), to argue against the cynics and, in the house with Sarah Greene and her film crew, we have the mother, played by Brid Brennan, along with her two fictional daughters played by Michelle and Cherise Wesson.
It’s nicely done. Looking back on it now you can see that the presenters were much better at this than a couple of the actors and they really carry the feeling that you are watching a live event. The various viewers flooding the phone boards to tell their stories for the show (and there was a real live line running too while the show aired, although not an interactive one as was being depicted on screen) gives it a very naturalistic feel as viewers see figures in recorded footage and then the hosts cue up the videos again to see what it is the viewers are telling them they can see. It all leads up to a climax where things get very bad, leading on to stories from viewers who are starting to experience poltergeist style breakages and trance like states in their children as they are watching the show.
Then, after a clever piece of chicanery where the cameras catch one of the girls faking it and starting more arguments about the ‘reality’ of ghosts on the show, it turns out she was just faking it for the viewers in case nothing happened that night... and then the real fireworks begin as one of the girls gets trapped in the cupboard under the stairs where the poltergeist, child molester Mr. Pipes (named by the girls after the sounds of the heating system making noises, which the early apparitions were originally confused with) originally killed himself and was eaten by a load of his own cats. Then, shortly after that, the sound man is knocked unconscious (or possibly killed, we never find out) and the lights die in the house. We are soon presented with a recovered live feed (do not adjust your sets folks... a slight technical hitch) and it’s Sarah Greene and the girls playing a board game in the downstairs and all appears well again... until Dr. Pascoe realises that the live feed is just repeat playing footage from earlier in the night and that the ‘ghost’ has got ‘in the machine’ as it were... the TV cameras acting as a huge, 'national seance' and letting the ghost into the houses of all the viewers. The lights in the studio die, ghost winds whip through the set and by the end of the show, it’s just glimpses of the still stalwart Michael Parkinson trying to figure out, with no crew there, if any of the cameras are still broadcasting, before he himself is visited by the spirit of Mr. Pipes. It all gets a bit like Nigel Kneale’s chaotic conclusion to Quatermass And The Pit, truth be told and the events themselves are obviously based on the real life events of the Enfield Poltergeist (which was even the basis for one of the sequels to The Conjuring).
And, yeah, by this point you’d think people would have realised that this was a bit over the top and a dramatisation... and many did. I mean, there are laughable things in this show. The cats on the soundtrack seem a little too clear and well done and, well, I don’t know whose idea it was to have the characters continually referring to the under the stairs cupboard as ‘the gloryhole’ but it certainly brought a smile to my face. It’s an old term which has been in use for centuries but, possibly, the more frequent sexual usage of the term wasn’t foremost in the minds of some viewers (and whoever passed the scripts at the BBC) so, I think someone was getting away with something there. Back in 1992 I would have been none the wiser, I suspect.
However, clearly people did believe what they were seeing. The show prompted huge amounts of complaints, the possible cause of a suicide of a teenager a few days later and it is apparently the first TV programme cited in the British Medical Journal as causing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children. Consequently, the BBC have never themselves aired the show again but, if you lurk in the company of various horror fans and creators on the internet, people are still talking about this 'one off' broadcast and how influential it was to this day. I suspect many of those modern day ‘ghost hunting’ reality TV shows would not be around today had this not inadvertently paved the way for them to exist and thrive in a TV format.
All said and done, you can laugh (comfortably, from this century) at the last ten minutes of the show being a little too over the top and ‘going for it’ way too enthusiastically to be really effective but, television and its reception by viewers was a different thing back then, even as late as the early 1990s and... if you sat through the thing from fairly early on in the broadcast, the brilliant slow burn makes it almost impossible to not take it seriously. And if you’re not looking out for writer’s tricks to try to fool the audience because you a) believe it’s real and b) don’t think much will happen except for maybe a few noises on the microphones... then it’s only natural that viewers would let this thing get to them. And get to them it did.
So there you have it. Ghostwatch is a show that is still thought of with a certain amount of affection by fans of ghostly tales and if you are in that camp then you probably should take a look at this one to try and get some idea of what all the fuss was about. And, despite our cynical, jaded view of such things now, I think there’s a good reason why the BBC have never aired it again on their own stations, effectively banning it for quite a while on the airwaves... I think there are still quite a few people who, if they tuned into this by accident nowadays, would still be forgiven for thinking something sinister and unholy was reaching out from their television set to come and get them. The DVD is completely free of any extras (aside from that old chestnut, a menu) and my only criticism is that it really needs to get a Blu Ray release, fully loaded with some decent bonus features... it’s fitting that a dark TV phenomenon such as this one should get such a thing.
Thursday, 24 June 2021
The Slice Is Right
Gamera Vs Giant Evil Beast Guiron
aka Gamera tai daiakuju Giron
aka Attack Of The Monsters
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
Wow. Just wow. Is this the greatest movie ever made? Probably not. Is this the Citizen Kane of giant flying turtle movies? Also, probably not but, honestly, this movie was so much fun that I spent my time texting about it and then replaying the bits I missed while texting because it brought so much violent silliness to the table. I mean, by now the Gamera series was completely retooled for the kiddie market and, following on from the surprise success of the previous entry, Gamera Vs Viras (reviewed here), it’s pretty much highlighting the child protagonists almost exclusively but, even so, the surrealistic violence on this one is both astounding and drawn out in a pretty sadistic manner, so I was confused in terms of the juxtaposition of intended audiences. Indeed, some of the more gruesome monster carnage was cut from the film when it was re-titled as Attack Of The Monsters, for the AIP release in the US.
After some complete tosh about a star in trouble on the other side of the galaxy (the writers apparently trying to ride the back of the enthusiasm for the upcoming moon landing), followed by a credit sequence shown over boiling lava which, in all honesty, has nothing to do with the content of the movie.... a Japanese kid, his sister and his American friend witness a spaceship landing through his telescope. The next morning they bike over to where it landed and the two boys enter the thing... and get whisked away to another planet. A planet which has a population of sinister aliens with their own monster called Guiron, who sees off a space monster who is a tarted up version of Gyaos from a previous movie, in spectacularly violent fashion (yeah, I’ll get to that soon). Meanwhile, the younger sister can’t convince the boy’s mothers they have gone off to have adventures in space. Incidentally, there’s a strange take in the film where one of the boys looks straight into the camera and at first I thought he was breaking the fourth wall to connect with the audience. Then I realised he must have thought one of the other actors had flubbed a line and was looking towards the director to call cut and make them do it again. Why this shot was kept in the film I’ll never know, I guess.
Anyway, the aliens are bizarre and comical and transform themselves into sexy ladies. There are two of them and, although they often talk about the population of the entire planet and they have clearly have a vast ‘space complex’ on their world, you only ever see two of them and absolutely nobody comes to help them when they get into trouble at the end. And, since one of the aliens, by now transformed into ‘space babe’ form, kills the other because she’s been damaged, you have to wonder if she’s actually halving the population of the planet. Similarly, when one of the non-aimed missiles the kids manage to shoot at the surviving alien manages to kill her too, you have to wonder if these young tykes are not somehow guilty of genocide? Where the heck are the other aliens? This film makes no sense.
As it happens, the grand scheme of these two aliens, Barbella (played by Hiroko Kai) and Florbella (played by Reiko Kasahara) is to return on the ship to Earth and to eat the brains of the kids en route, before going on to eat all of the humans on our planet. However, Gamera comes to the rescue, sees off Guiron and takes the kids back home in a hastily prepared spaceship (you really don’t want to know... just watch it, it’s funny and highly implausible).
And... in terms of plot and effects, it’s not that great a movie. Some of the slide shots are terrible. It looks cheap and when the kids tell the aliens about Gamera, the defender of children, footage is replayed from the previous films... including some stuff from the very first film (with absolutely no explanation as to why some off the flashback footage is in black and white when the rest of it is in colour). However, the film more than makes up for all this with the epic battles between, first Guiron and Gyaos and then, two battles between Guiron and Gamera.
Guiron is, basically, a big walking Bowie knife with shark-like features and is about as surreal as you can get. When Gyaos tries to shoot him with a laser beam that shoots out from his mouth, it bounces off the surface of Guiron’s unwieldy knife head and is reflected back to Gyaos, cutting his own leg off. The one legged behemoth takes to the sky to fly at Guiron, who plays possum as he arrives before jumping up and slicing his arm/wing off. Then, with Gyaos on the ground, writhing around in agony, Guiron slides up to him and takes his other arm off before then using the ground as a big chopping block to slice his head off with his own big, cutty head. Said head goes flying through the air (for some bizarre reason, physics does not play its proper part here) and then, Guiron starts slicing up the body and giving an evil chuckle.
This is amazing and definitely sets the Guiron character to truly be the “Giant Evil Beast” he’s credited as in the title of the film. Gamera also loses to him on his first fight, largely due to the fact that, in another bizarrely surreal twist, Guiron has boomerang ninja stars which fly out of his knife head, hit the target and stick in (releasing gouts of blue Gamera blood) before returning back to their housing in Guiron’s head. But that’s okay, because Gamera soon learns how to break off the long, spindly top of a nearby mountain and use it as a baseball bat to deflect the shuriken in mid flight.
Other oddities involve the fact that one of the kids seems to be dressed up like Captain Scarlet and that Gamera uses a horizontal bar connecting two buildings on the alien planet to do twirly gymnastics on. One of the kids gives him a ‘Perfect’ score. Roll over Olga Korbut, is what I say. Added to this, when you have two space babe aliens delivering lines like... “While they’re sleeping, we’ll eat their brains raw.” and, not to mention, the cutesy and energetic Gamera song which is heard at least twice, then you have a film which, frankly, I could watch many times over the course of my life, if I had the time. This is perfect material for ‘spirits and beer’ nights with your friends and, once again, these Gamera films, housed in the beautiful Gamera - The Complete Collection limited edition box from Arrow (which I believe they have now reissued as two smaller, separate boxes), are really impressing me. I can’t wait to see the next one. Daiei created a very credible box office rival to Toho’s Godzilla series and it’s such a shame that the two titans never met (on screen). Definitely check out this Arrow box set if kaiju eiga are your kind of thing. Just fantastic.
Wednesday, 23 June 2021
Directed by Al Adamson
Severin Blu Ray Zone A/B/C
Not, surprisingly, riding the dust of Easy Rider, which came out around five months after this movie was released, Satan’s Sadists was nevertheless still trying (and apparently succeeding) to capture the biker gang youth market of the time. Now, frankly, I hate these kinds of movies about leather and jeans clad biker hoodlums riding, raping, murdering and generally terrorising their way across the streets and, in this case, deserts of America but, well, all I can say is that at least this film was a little more engaging than the previous Al Adamson film I’d seen in Severin’s beautiful Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection Blu Ray set... namely Brain Of Blood (reviewed here).
The film starts with some road shots of bicycles, some of which, I’m pretty sure, turned up again later that year in the Hell’s Bloody Devils recut of The Fakers (which I reviewed in various versions here). We meet the Swastika decalled Satan’s Sadists, led by their chief named Anchor, played by everyone’s favourite Jet from West Side Story, Russ Tamblyn. Tamblyn’s 'look' in this film, in which he nearly always appears with red sunglasses and a big hat pulled down almost completely over those glasses, was apparently his own choice because he wanted to disassociate himself from this kind of movie with audiences. However, his name’s plastered all over the marketing, along with the fact that the film was shot, like The Female Bunch (reviewed here), on the infamous Spahn Ranch just before Charlie Manson’s ‘hippie killers’ went nuts and killed Sharon Tate. The marketing campaign for the film made much of this, apparently.
Okay, so we start off in a pre-credit sequence where Tamblyn and his gang... including Adamson regulars John 'Bud' Cardos, Robert Dix and, in an ‘introducing’ credit, Adamson’s future wife Regina Carrol playing the underappreciated, ‘besotted with Anchor’, sleazy biker chick... rape a lady and then kill her and her lover by pushing alcohol into their system and pushing their car off a nearby cliff. Again, I’m pretty sure it’s the same car roll and explosion used in other Adamson films such as Blood Of Dracula’s Castle (reviewed here).
We then have Bob Le Bar’s opening title sequence which is, pretty much the only saving grace of the movie, I would say (and still it’s more interesting than Brain Of Blood). Adamson then takes a divergence to set up various characters. So we have Jacqulin Cole playing Tracy, who goes to work in a desert cafe while her three lady friends head off into the mountains to camp and pick up stuff for their college Geology lessons. We also have hitchhiker and ex-marine Johnny Martin, played by Gary Kent. He hitches a ride with a big city cop on vacation with his wife and they all find their way to stop at the same cafe where Tracy works with her boss, played by another Adamson regular, Kent Taylor. And by this point you kinda know they’re all just there to be fodder for the biker gang who, naturally, turn up and terrorise them all. The cop’s wife is raped and they, along with the boss of the cafe, are shot by Anchor. However, Johnny and Tracy escape after Johnny has killed two of Anchor’s clique who were guarding them. This is apparently the first film to have somebody drown by having their head flushed in a toilet.
And this is where the film almost got very interesting but, well... at least it doesn’t quite continue as these films often do, with more of the same. Well, actually some of the same but, after Johnny and Tracy have to abandon Tracy’s beach buggy, they head into the mountains to try and evade... Satan’s Sadists. So here the film becomes a cat and mouse game between the bikers and the two fleeing protagonists... which has a lot of potential as a kind of pre-Rambo 'outdoors trap' movie... and I wish maybe somebody would actually make that film one of these days. However, the bikers come across the three camping Geology babes and terrorise them instead, while two of the bikers continue looking for our main protagonists. This includes a character called Acid spiking everybody’s coffee with LSD and they all have what I can only describe as a soft focus, very tame, desert pseudo-orgy with an overly used camera zoom. So, yeah, it’s a terrible way of bringing a grimy, shabby sexuality into the movie which is in no way thrilling and, frankly, quite dull. Of course, Anchor decides to shoot the girls too but, at least he does it off screen at some point.
While said orgy is occurring, rejected Regina Carrol rides her bike through the desert until her inevitable crash and burn moment, which you totally knew must be coming, as she rides her bike off a cliff. I’m beginning to notice a bit of a trend here as Adamson’s muse Regina seems to be having the same kind of brutal death luck that Dario Argento’s former muse, Daria Nicolodi, used to have in his films.
And by this point, most of the gang have either accidentally killed each other or themselves (LSD fuelled death by a solo version of Russian roulette anyone?) before they even get near the escaping witnesses. Johnny does take care of a few of them, though, leaving Tamblyn to die the last as Johnny and Tracy ride off into the sunset.
While I’m extremely grateful to Severin for making Satan’s Sadists and many other Adamson movies available in their box set, this is a movie I’m guessing I’ll never watch again. It held my interest for what it was but I have no desire to watch slacker hoodlums terrorising innocent folk as a regular part of my cinematic diet. I think there may be a couple more biker movies in this set and I shall definitely check them out for this blog but, yeah, films like this one are not why I made the purchase, in all honesty. Nothing really against these kinds of pictures it’s just that they’re... not really my cup of tea. Steer well clear unless you love these kinds of films, would be my advice.
Tuesday, 22 June 2021
Raiders Of The Lost Spark
Kenneth Strickfaden -
Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician
by Harry Goldman
Okay then, just a very short review to make you aware that this book on Kenneth Strickfaden is, just about, still on the market. Mr. Strickfaden is a name which is probably not that well known to the majority of my readers here but, I bet many of you are more familiar with at least some of the marvellous machines he invented throughout his lifetime, from their appearances in over 100 movies from the early 1930s through to, and beyond, his death and into the 1980s. I’ll get to those in a minute.
As the author tells us, there’s not a great deal known about Strickfaden because, although he was much admired by ‘people in the know’ as to who he was, he didn’t really talk about himself so much and while Mr. Goldman has attempted, quite well, to put together a biography after a fashion, there are obviously a great many stories of this remarkable man’s life which just aren’t known for the retelling.
Along with one of his two brothers, Ken Strickfaden had a fascination for constructing marvellous electrical machines (such as the Tesla Coil) and radio gadgets and, while one brother went off to be a saxophonist with a famous jazz band, before going into a classical orchestra, Strickfaden had a fair few jobs both before and after serving in World War I, including working as an electrician for hire in some of the early film studios throughout the 1920s... jobs usually associated with his fascination for electrical gadgetry. For instance, he worked for a time with a carnival show known as Willard’s Temple Of Music where he would design and build sparky inventions for acts where scantily clad performers would interact with electrical contraptions to produce music and so forth... helping the owners perfect and build on some of their existing ideas and taking them off into new ones (in terms of his musical machines, he has at least a little in common with another electrical pioneer, Leon Theremin, I would guess).
And he drifted around, at one point making an absolutely epic road trip across parts of America which, due to his logging this part of his life in notebooks, makes for interesting reading... before finding fame in the special effects departments; building, operating and renting the machines for which he became known for at various studios such as Monogram, MGM, Republic and, most famously (for me, because it's when I first noticed him), at Universal.
I remember first taking note of Strickfaden’s machines when they were used for the laboratory of Emperor Ming The Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials. I don’t know if any of the kids realise today, because they’re used to seeing things CGI faked so well in the motion picture industry but, those big old sparky, scientific machines were throwing real arcs of electricity around in a somewhat dangerous manner (on occasion... the author doesn’t tell the story in here of Bela Lugosi not wanting to go near one of those machines again after getting burned) and although the functions of the machines in the various films, serials and TV shows in which they served was almost always fake... no death rays or anti-gravity devices for real here... they were absolutely performing in-shot as you saw them. I might mention machines with wonderful names like the Megavolt Senior, the Baritron Generator, the Lightning Bridge, the Neutron Analyser, the Resonarium and the Cosmic Ray Diffuser in the various Universal horror movies such as Frankenstein, The Bride Of Frankenstein and so on. I might mention The Mask Of Fu Manchu (there’s a story in here about him doubling for Boris Karloff for a scene because... no, you need to read this book to find out), The Shadow and Batman serials or even the first in The Terminator franchise. Like I said, well over a hundred productions, for certain, that the author of this book has managed to document with probably many more which are lost to the mists of time... it doesn’t help that Strickfaden rarely received any screen credit. Be that as it may though, his sparky personality, good humour and sheer electrical inventiveness soon got him known all around the film industry as Mr. Electric.
He also made a name for himself during the depression years, and for many decades after, doing presentations and lectures involving his beautiful specimens of electrickery at various schools, colleges, universities, museums and even for studios such as Disney. This is how many of the people who crop up in this book, including Mr. Goldman the author, first met Strickfaden and were pulled into his world, many of them giving testimonials that it was his influence which got them started in their own electrical careers.
There were other strings to his bow... he also used to do a lot of movie sound effects (and even after his death, films were still using even the sounds of his machines on their foley, such as one used in Disney’s Tron) and he was also a keen photographer, taking many shots of various places in America which changed drastically many years later. You will still find examples of his photographs used in various books on different subjects.
Although the illustrations and photographs which litter the book are not in colour, there are many items of interest including some of the flyers he would use to advertise his demonstrations, not to mention some really great pages of his design doodles in one of the appendices here which are almost worth the price of the book on their own. It’s true the book is not the most thorough, how can it be given the lack of records and other minutia that a good biographer can usually piece things together from? Even so, the writer does a pretty good and entertaining job of trying to honour the man properly and Kenneth Strickfaden - Frankenstein’s Electrician, is a valuable addition for the shelves of movie goers of a certain age, for sure. It’s also the only game in town as far as a specific and more accurate record of Mr. Strickfaden’s work goes so, yeah, I’d more than recommend this one to pretty much anyone. If you’re feeling a little sparky to know more, plug yourself into this book... it’s got a lot of positive juice.
Monday, 21 June 2021
Gates Of Meow
2020 Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Some spoilerage but, it’s not really that kind of movie.
So, once again, director Paul W. S. Anderson teams up with his wife, Milla Jovovich to make another movie adapted from a video game series. Now, I have slight issues with their Resident Evil series of films because... well, they were nearly all absolutely brilliant with the exception of two of them. The second one was kinda let down by some of the prosthetic ‘man in suit’ effects but the real disappointment was the sixth film in the series, Resident Evil - The Final Chapter... which totally failed to make any kind of sense and contradicted the running story of the films up until that point with absolutely no attempt to explain the complete lack of continuity, effectively negating everything we’d learned in the second movie.
So, yeah, I was always going to go see Monster Hunter, although, I hereby make the usual caveat that I haven’t played the game so really don’t know if it’s any good as an adaptation or not. Although the film has been freely available for a while in HD from ‘the usual web sites’ (and I believe that’s where at least one of my friends saw it), I decided to wait for half a year and see if it got any kind of cinema release in the UK. Since I’d seen the Resident Evil films at the cinema, I wanted to do it right with this one because, whether you like them or not, Anderson always tends to make huge spectacles of his movies and so I booked a local screening, even paying a little extra on top of my Cineworld card to see the film on a big IMAX screen.
The film itself... well, I firmly believe that with a few tweaks this could have been a really great movie but, I did have an issue with it and I think, all in all, it’s an okay and relatively entertaining movie and, at the very least, has the potential to be a long running franchise, if it gets the box office take to make that happen.
Okay, so the film is almost but not quite plotless. There are two worlds, one of fantasy style sand ships and big monsters and... also our world. After a brief prologue on the other world where the leader of a band of ‘yo hos’, played by Ron Perlman, gets in a skuffle with a big monster on his sand galleon and has to leave behind one of the monster hunters of the title to fend for himself, played by the ‘legend in his own lifetime’ Tony Jaa (who I though t had retired to become a buddhist monk or some such but, apparently not)... we join the main US protagonist of the movie, a ranger played by Milla Jovovich. She and her band of hard core military types are taking their heavily armoured transport to look for a scout team that have gone missing (in our world). Then, some archaic markers in the sand they pass by suddenly go all pyrotechnic and they are transported into the world of the prologue... and come face to face with various giant beasties.
It would be true to say there’s not much plot development after that. The film becomes one big action set piece after another and, within half an hour, Jovovich is the only one of both her team and the original team she was looking for, left alive... and only because Tony Jaa has tried to help out on occasion. When the two leads finally meet, after she manages to escape from a load of quite vicious giant spiders, everything gets a bit Hell In The Pacific meets Shelob for a while as the two, who don’t speak each other’s language, work through their issues with the tried and true movie clichés of violence and mistrust followed by, eventual, mutual respect.
And there’s also a double climax to the movie... one set in the other world and then one set in ours... both of which involve some large, ‘almost but not quite unkillable’ giant dragons and Ron Perlman, whose character can speak English due to a twist in what little of the plot there is, as he brings his team in to help out in our world after another dragon crosses over.
Okay...so the film is nice to look at, has some great actors, some not bad special effects and is quite pacey but, alas, that last thing is also the big problem with the film, for me at least. There’s no let up. The first half an hour is quite relentless, driven and harrowing, as Jovovich’s team all die big, monstery deaths but, it just carries on and on. There’s no real calm before the next storm... even the scenes where Jaa and Jovovich meet up for the first time are full of sequences where they are continuously brawling for way too long. This film, in my opinion, makes the one big mistake that a lot of modern action picture directors tend to make and that is... falling into the trap of giving the characters no real downtime before they face the next peril... thus giving no contrast within the tone of the scenes and, by the end of the film, it all seems just a little bit dull. Indeed, even the double climax seems like something of a let down because there’s no real build up to it... just conflict after conflict with the only really nice moments involving a cat... which I won’t spoil for you here but, make sure you stick around for an extra scene mid way through the end credits. I actually think that, in the case of this movie, it might have been more effective if the director had made it a little longer and put more pauses in the film to help liven up the action scenes. As it is... yeah, it feels like a ‘pretty good’ kind of movie rather than a truly great one, to be honest.
Even so, I think people who are into big monster movies will still find a lot to like in Monster Hunter and, like I said... the cat, man. We need to see more of the cat! I’d be quite happy if some more of these were made because, like I said, the director is a bit hit and miss and I’m sure he could make some decent follow ups which surpassed the original, if given half the chance. I might grab this one on blu ray once it goes into the sales and, I guess I’m still relatively happy that I waited to see it on the big screen. Hopefully there will be more to follow.
Sunday, 20 June 2021
Foot In It
In The Earth
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Warning: Some spoilers buried within.
"It’s a psychological problem with humans. They want to make stories out of everything." - Olivia
You know, I have a lot of time for Ben Wheatley and he always comes across well in interviews. But I do find him a little hit and miss in terms of my reception to his films. Sometimes I find his films absolutely unforgettable, astonishing and worthy of multiple viewings, such as Kill List (reviewed here) and Sightseers (reviewed here). Other times, well, I find certain films of his to be the opposite of that and I don’t ever plan on revisiting them again, such as High Rise (reviewed here) and Free Fire (reviewed here).
His new film, In The Earth is more leaning towards the former camp as far as I’m concerned... I absolutely loved the build up but I found the end to... not be as satisfying as I’d hoped although, when things were similarly left deliberately ambiguous in Kill List, I couldn’t get enough of it.
The story is set in the present day in the UK during a third lockdown of a pandemic... I mean, Wheatley doesn’t actually mention the coronavirus by name because it will obviously date it too much and the virus can be seen as just another part of the fiction in years to come... but it’s pretty obvious. And we have main protagonist Martin (played by the always brilliant Joel Fry) arriving at a Holiday Inn which is set up as a kind of base camp near where a doctor, Olivia (played by Hayley Squires) is supposed to be doing experimental research in the nearby forest, a couple of days out on foot. However, she’s gone missing and Martin is going to be guided to where she is supposed to be by a ranger, Alma (played by Ellora Torchia), a couple of days out on foot. During the process he learns about the ancient, local Earth spirit Parnagg Fegg, gashes his foot open on a piece of deliberately buried flint and also encounters a somewhat mad and dangerous character called Zach (played by Reece Shearsmith). And that’s all I want to say about the plot set up, because I think I want to avoid spoilers but, I can tell you, the film gets quite intense and intriguing as the story wears on.
Why? Well, the sound design for one thing. There’s the constant clatter of snapping twigs and weird bird call in the forest and, at one point early on in the proceedings it gets so in your face... well, in your ears... that I thought the director was doing this so he could use stealth to bring on the scares later on, when our ears get used to the audio mix. Well, as it happens, sound does play an important part in the film, not just in the way it does normally but also in terms of a plot point later in the story.
Secondly, there are the actors. They’re all absolutely amazing in this. If there’s one thing I’ve seen, even in the films he’s directed which I didn’t much care for, it’s that Ben Wheatley can bleed some beautiful performances out of his cast and this movie is certainly no exception to the rule. And there’s an actress in this, the aforementioned Ellora Torchia, who I’ve not seen before but, I can tell you, when she’s on the screen you can’t take your eyes off her. She has real presence in this movie, for sure.
For a film which is set bang up to date, being shot during the corona plague as well as using it as the ‘norm’ of the outside world from which the central characters are shielded somewhat, it also feels like it’s ‘of its time’... but while also simultaneously feeling like it’s somehow teleported itself from the 1970s. I mean, the opening shot of the title card positively screams 1970s folk horror and there are some other moments in the film which really harken back to my childhood years. Also, the way the story themes are tackled... and I absolutely mean this as a compliment and I’m sure someone like Wheatley would take it as one... it made me think of Nigel Kneale and the way he would sometimes blend modern science with folklore and supernatural elements. There are certainly small hits of Professor Quatermass in here, I think... not to mention a more than healthy homage to The Stone Tape (which wasn’t one of my favourites of the great Kneale’s work and I think Wheatley possibly does him one better here).
And talking of 70s... there’s a wonderful moment when Martin and Alma are in Zach’s tent and the walls of the tent are a deep red while the lighting of the characters and other objects is mostly a kind of strong, almost lime green. If this colour scheme here make you think of Mario Bava or even Dario Argento... well, yeah, it’s Ben Wheatley at the helm so I’m sure it’s supposed to.
The film features some nice surrealistic imagery and also a lot of ‘altered consciousness’ moments throughout too. One sequence, where one of the characters is trying to get past an ‘obstacle’ in a hazmat suit with a rope attached to her so she can be pulled back if need be (yeah, think The Midwich Cuckoos via Village Of The Damned, the director obviously likes his references) almost felt this was this film makers version of the famous ‘into the monolith’ sequence near the end of Kubrick’s 2001 - A Space Odyssey. I sat there watching it and thinking, yeah, if anybody is in the audience and they’re doing drugs, they’re going to have such an interesting time with this movie.
Finally, the film has a score by Clint Mansell and a) it's very good and b) Invada Records are currently saying there will be a CD release of it soon... which frankly, was the main thing which got me hooked into watching this one in the first place, the potential of a score CD in the works. If there’s a film coming out where the score isn’t available on a shiny disc and another one where a shiny disc is imminent, I’ll watch the movie that’s going to have the physical score release any day of the week.
Wheatley does a phenomenal job here and, frankly, I’ll probably grab the Blu Ray release of this one too at some point (and see if I like the ending better). That ending is, I can tell you now, growing on me a little as I revisit the film in my head while writing this review and, while it can be interpreted any number of ways, I believe, it’s also not leaving things as up in the air as they might have been. If the director had rolled his wonderful end credits sequence just a minute or two early, I feel I would have had a much more negative experience with the film. As it is, In The Earth is another of Ben Wheatley’s ‘great British movies’, as far as I’m concerned and, well, this one will get a recommendation from me to pretty much most people I know, if they’re into horror movies... and possibly a warning to those people I know who get freaked out by the genre, for sure.
Thursday, 17 June 2021
Brain Of Blood
Directed by Al Adamson
Hemisphere/Severin Blu Ray Zone A/B/C
Warning: Story spoilers, as if you’re really concerned
about those things on an Al Adamson movie.
Out of all the Al Adamson movies I’ve explored, as I slowly make my way through Severin’s outstanding Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection Blu Ray boxed edition, Brain Of Blood is probably the dullest and least interesting of the titles I’ve watched so far. It’s also a duplicate, because the film was also included in Severin’s very welcome Hemisphere Horrors boxed set, which I hadn’t got around to watching yet. Actually, this is something Severin have done a couple of times now because their upcoming boxed behemoth, The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee, also has a film which they premiered in their Hemisphere Horrors set, albeit the later release has gone from a 2K scan to a 4K scan (not sure what that means really but I assume that just means it’s better quality).
So, yeah, while I’ve seen some halfway decent/good Adamson films so far and, of course, some truly awful ones... Brain Of Blood just seems a bit of a non-entity in terms of... I just wasn’t bothered one way or another about it. It’s just a bit ‘meh’... which in this case I’ll use as an acronym for ‘Merely Egregiously Humdrum’. And it really shouldn’t be because the plot of the film is really quite staggeringly silly and executed in a ridiculously bad manner. Both these elements coming together should mean for a mockingly enjoyable time but, apart from the whole rat thing (I’ll get to it), I couldn’t really muster up any enthusiasm for this one.
This one starts off in the far away, fictional land of Kalid, as the ruler of the country lays dying. He promises Adamson regular Regina Carrol that she will rule his land at his side, once he has undergone a serious operation which she and Dr. Bob Nigserian (played by Grant Williams) have arranged in America to save his life. So Dr. Bob and friend Mohammed (played by Zandor Vorkov, who played Count Dracula in Adamson’s Dracula VS Frankenstein, which is in this set but which I already reviewed in an earlier DVD incarnation here) go to the US to seek out brain specialist Dr. Lloyd Trenton (played by Kent Taylor) and his assistant Dorro (played by Angelo Rossitto), to perform the operation to transplant the leader’s brain into another body and then use plastic surgery on said body so that the people of his country are none the wiser about their ruler’s death.
Okay, so something that you need to know here is that the operation can’t be completed until the leader of Kalid has died. However, leading up to his death he has been treated with a special serum to help keep his brain alive after death, otherwise the operation can’t be performed. So let me just run that one past you again for the sake of clarity... the guy has to have died but his brain must be alive. What the heck? What are they saying here? This already makes no sense. Just anaesthetise him and cut it out while he's alive already!
Okay, so when they get to the US, after helping Trenton remove the leader’s brain and placing it in handy storage (with wires poking out of it, to preserve it for a bit), Bob and the others are sent on their way... to be taken out by an assassin hired by Trenton, who is secretly working with Regina Carrol’s character, to put the leader’s brain into someone’s head and rule the country with him. Wait... wasn’t that the plan all along anyway... why all this killing? Anyway, the only survivor of the assassination attempt is Bob, who chases the assassin later but can’t get to him before the assassin is blown up in his car by Dorro. Meanwhile, the body donor is a bit beaten up, so Dr. Trenton puts the brain into the former body of his ‘disfigured by acid’, simpleton, strong, giant pal Gore.
When Bob finds out, the chase is on as Gore’s personality somehow also resurfaces every now and again, even though his brain has been disposed off. Bob is knocked unconscious in the same dungeon that Dr. Trenton keeps his blood donors in. His blood donors being chained up girls including the lovely and tragically wasted actress who was an Adamson regular at the time, Vicki Volante. Finding herself, of course, in an identical situation and for the same diabolical reason, as her earlier character in Al Adamson’s Blood Of Dracula’s Castle (reviewed here). Actually, the drawn out scenes where Vicki Volante has escaped her shackles and is wandering around the underground, dungeon chambers is almost atmospheric and, although still pretty dull, I find Volante’s face fascinating (she should have been snapped up by Hollywood to become a major star rather than retire early, methinks) and this is probably the most watchable part of the movie for me. Then there’s the rats...
So although all the human occupants of the dungeon are raggedy and dirty, there are two pretty clean looking rats. When Dr. Bob finds himself in the dungeon with Vicki’s character Katherine, she tells him she’s been bitten on the leg by a rat. Being a good doctor, Dr. Bob then decides to slit open her leg with his handy penknife, where she’s apparently been bitten... and suck out the venom, before bandaging her up. Wait, what? Hold the phone. Isn’t that what you do with a snake bite? Since when are rats venomous. Okay, so she might get rabies but, poisoned? I reckon the good doctor just wanted to suck her leg and I can’t blame him but, still, this is getting ridiculously surreal now (well, more surreal than transplanting people’s brains, anyway).
Almost instantaneously, Vicki becomes the doctor’s love interest but escapes with a stray, random young boy who lives in the general area and stumbles onto the brain monster guy. I don’t know why she keeps the boy because, surely this kid has his own mother to go home to. Anyway, she goes off and there’s a chase where both good guy Dr. Bob and also Regina Carrol get killed. Then Bob’s body is used to rehouse Kalid’s leader and he has plastic surgery to ensure he looks like exactly the same actor who played him in his original body (aged skin as well, which is quite ludicrous considering the reason for the surgery in the first place, now I come to think of it)... ruling Kalid with the evil Doctor as his new head of Scientific Research for the country.
It’s a bleak ending but I couldn’t care less by the time I’d reached this point. Brain Of Blood is, so far, my least favourite inclusion in this quite thorough set and I can’t, in all good consceience, recommend it to anyone. I can, however, recommend Severin’s Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection in general because it really is a stupendous presentation and I am learning so much about how you recut and re-market films for different audiences from it. So... onward I go.
Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Murder By Degrees
Death Of Nine -
The Dyatlov Pass Mystery
by Launton Anderson
Stacy Galloway ISBN: 9780578445229
Death Of Nine - The Dyatlov Pass Mystery, by Launton Anderson, is my follow up reading to a fictional movie I watched last year. I saw Renny Harlin’s found footage horror movie The Dyatlov Pass Incident, a fictional solution to the real life mystery set in the present day, which took elements from this mystery and cleverly combined them with the famous American Manhattan Project conspiracies (and you can read my review of this gem of a horror movie here). I’d never heard of the real life incident on which it was based before then.
The Dyatlov Pass is the modern term for an area of the Ural mountains named after one of the University students and members of a hiking club who died there on a Category 3 hike, under mysterious circumstances. Because of the various and sometimes odd facts gathered from those available, before the Russian government seemed to clamp down on it, it’s a mystery that’s kept going and going to the present day. New theories about different types of avalanches which could have explained some of the conditions and various positions of each of the nine bodies (all within about a mile of each other) have emerged even as late as this January, posing this kind of ‘solution’ to the mystery and, because of renewed interest, even the Russian government reopened and reclosed the case, saying nothing untoward happened. Well... I guess certain types of murder could come under that category if you’re Russian military, maybe.
Launton Anderson’s book doesn’t try to come up with a solution to the various puzzle pieces here. However, she does include all of the facts that have been released over the years, in one form or another, along with a possible piece of deliberately false information passed on to people too, to highlight the case and give interested people an overview of just why it’s still too much of a cover up for people to let go of. She takes us through an introduction summarising the events of the tragic hike which began... and ended... in January of 1959, in the first chapter and then goes on in various chapters, to scientifically sift and examine the known facts, such as they are, of the case.
You know, it’s funny, whenever I look at a newspaper article now proclaiming the mystery as solved and ‘nothing but a’... I can only conclude that the writers of these articles must have never looked at the cold, hard facts of the case. As I delved deeper, as the author invites her audience into a closer look at the puzzle pieces, I realised that even Renny Harlin’s film... which of course was going to go into pure horror fantasy and that’s fine... missed out certain facts about the case which wouldn’t even begin to add up to something anywhere near his fanciful solution, just as they wouldn’t point to any old avalanche theory either and, once you’ve read the facts about the case yourself, you’ll see how preposterous the recent articles claiming the mystery has been solved are, when stood up against the real data.
In her book, Anderson uses translations of the remaining diaries of the group on the hike (read... ‘remaining diaries we are allowed to see’ and the bizarre type-written transcript of one overly detailed page which the public have been allowed to have, whether originally by accident or by design), the last photos which were developed and found in the rolls of film in the various cameras the hikers had of themselves on the fateful hike, photographs of the various members of the group before and, sadly, after they met with their terrifying fate and details of the autopsy reports of each member of the team, along with any other noted curiosities found on the various places where nine bodies, showing signs of foul play, were discovered.
I found out some very interesting trivia such as student Igor Dyatlov being the inventor of a special tent warmer (referred to as a ‘stove’ of a special design) and various other quirks about the team. However, I was also on a fully illustrated journey into a realm of horror myself as I read. Some of the notable things which don’t add up like a sliced up tent side with no crushed tent or signs of damage to the contents of the tent (and sliced from the inside over a period of considerable time it's been determined), a snow den which had been built, a storage area which had been built and no valuable or other items missing, as far as we know. A sliced up ski pole which the writer makes clear is not something which would have been allowed to happen lightly (or easily, in this case due to the material it was made from) and various other oddities combine make the incident seem anything but a freak, natural disaster.
Or how about the bodies, found in two groups plus some others in between two locations. There are signs of torture on all the bodies and ligature marks suggesting they had been tied and blindfolded. Military winding cloth was found at the site. The eyeballs of two of the victims (yeah, let’s call them that) were quite clearly, from the pathological evidence, removed from them while they were still alive. The positions the bodies were found in also show no signs of natural resistance to a disaster. I’m not talking about the fact that most of them were barefoot... which leaves a very interesting ‘elevated’ footprint signature in the snow, you can see some of their footprints from their ordeal in photos in the book... but the lack of defence posturing and the suggestion that the victims had been deliberately staged (quite possibly by the military). Then there are the oblique references in the diary to things which bring the possibility that at least two of the hikers may have been soviet spies, the torn and redistributed clothes with high levels of radiation on certain garments and the presence of a hunter possibly on their trail at some point. Not to mention a few other things which the author, probably wisely, dismisses as unimportant or to be taken at face value, not all of which I am sure of myself.
And if this isn’t enough to make you think there was a half botched cover up job initiated, then how about the fact that the government, one month after the autopsies were performed, closed down the whole area for 100 miles in all direction for three years so nobody could investigate anything. It almost makes you wonder if they needed that time to dismantle a military project or some such. Who knows?
Well, not me for sure and not many people I suspect. But I do get the feeling that some people must know what happened either first hand or possibly as inherited knowledge from top secret files somewhere. And since it’s the Russian government we’re talking about, I don’t hold out much hope that we will ever know what really happened to these poor people at the time. One thing I am sure of now, though, after reading this lady’s wonderful account and breakdown/translation of as many of the facts as she can highlight, with her guidance in presenting certain discrepancies and oddments of the various clues to the story... is that there’s no way this was a natural incident. These people were murdered and not only murdered but underwent a prolonged ordeal for a good number of hours before their difficult deaths. And that’s as close as the likes of me are ever going to get to finding out, I suspect. And now I have to extend my own research into phenomena like Infrasound and something called the Carmen Vortex Street, not because they are any help in solving the mystery (Anderson dismisses these and other fantastic theories due to obvious hard truths about the condition of the bodies) but because I’d not come across them before.
Death Of Nine - The Dyatlov Pass Mystery is an absolutely brilliant compendium of all the know information about the case up until this was published in 2018 and can be found at the usual online retailers. If you are interested in real life mysteries (I am) or true crime stories (which I’m not particularly, I found this book horrific but compulsive), then you would do well to check out this little tome. It’s quite chilling but absolutely brilliant and I think this is a mystery which will eventually die unless more people are aware of the facts... such as we have them, to date.
Tuesday, 15 June 2021
A Witch In Time
Directed by Norman J. Warren
Indicator Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Slight spoilers.
Terror is the third of the Norman J. Warren directed films in the recent five film Indicator boxed set and, so far, I’d have to say it’s my least favourite of the batch although, it has a lot of people who seem to turn up in lots of stuff, whose faces you just seem to know, in it. Like a who’s who of obscure British character actors. Among the more famous of these, though, are two ex-Doctor Who companions - William Russell, who only lasts for the opening sequence... and Michael Craze (also from Satan’s Slave, reviewed here), who doesn’t last that much longer and just seems to leave the film for no apparent reason, due to having an epileptic attack on set and being ordered not to continue by his doctor at the time, from what I can gather.
Another couple of the more famous names in the cast are Glynis Barber (who you might remember from starring roles in the hit TV shows Blake’s Seven, Jane and Dempsey & Makepeace) and the late, great Peter Mayhew, Chewbacca himself, in one stand out scene where you assume he’s playing a menacing killer but, instead, turns out to be the local mechanic... if he turned out to be the plumber then I guess it would have been a porn movie. One last person who deserves a mention in a brief, blink and you’ll miss it section of a party scene is the absolutely brilliant Argento biographer, critic and FrightFest programmer Alan Jones, back when he was a lot younger and had some hair on his top side.
Now, the film was made, I suspect, to cash in on the burgeoning, gory American slasher films which were so popular at the time although, to his credit, I think the director’s influences lay elsewhere on this one. Now, the US slasher movie is a genre I mostly hate. There are a few good films which could be pigeonholed into that genre but not that many and, frankly, I don’t understand why people think those kinds of films are actually horror movies. I mean, how does that even make sense. I much prefer the more beautifully crafted Italian giallo films and also, to a certain degree, the Italian horror films and, though this film is probably an attempt to cash in on that US trend, I think it’s with the Italians that Norman J. Warren’s influences must lay... as the debt to them in this is quite overt in this one.
The opening sequence shows a pursued witch who is ‘man-trapped’ and burned at the stake while issuing a curse to the various generations of the family who put her to death. So straight away we have something strongly reminiscent of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (reviewed here) and the Italian connection continues into the credits, which is vaguely like some of those old giallo/spaghetti horrors that used slow motion frames of people in posterised colour washes (like some of the old Bava A Bay Of Blood aka Twitch Of The Death Nerve trailers).
Incidentally, the opening set up sequence is a nice bit of double rug pulling when it’s revealed the previous 5 - 10 minutes are part of a modern horror film’s rough cut being shown to the cast and crew at a private screening, in the same house as the setting of that film within a film. Then, in another slight add on to that, it’s revealed that the film’s producer, played by John Nolan and his actress sister played by Carolyn Courage, are actually the last in the family line and the film is based on the true story of their ancestors. So, a nice double whammy and a pure example of the writers getting to have their cake and eat it at the same time. The witch, when she returns towards the end of Terror, is even played by the same actress in the same make-up as the fictional production so, yeah, I like it when the cast and crew of a movie have some fun.
Another Italian connection is a sequence where a small studio starts pulling itself apart and attacking a crew member in the process... which seems ripped straight from the end sequences of Argento’s Suspiria and you can tell that Warren’s pretty much cribbed the lighting scheme from this. The intense greens and reds are almost identical but, I have to say, it manages to look a lot less classier than the template... although there’s a nice moment here when the film crew member gets attacked by the unwinding, spaghetti like tendrils of old film stock swarming over him from the cans (which, apparently, was seven reels of Saturday Night Fever in real life... or is that reel life?).
My only other real take home, apart from a nice stripper with a whippy S&M themed dance, played by Tanya Ferowa, is that the murders in this all seem a bit lacking. They’re gory enough but none of the impalements or weapon penetrations are shown on the body in context with the moments of violence and the fast cuts to make it all fit together along with the gory aftermath seem a little badly done... in direct contrast to the truly amazing stuff on show in Warren’s earlier film, Satan’s Slave. Incidentally, in the fictional film studios there’s a nice double bill poster for Satan’s Slave along with Thriller (aka They Call Her One Eye) which is really quite nice. I didn’t realise they were paired together for some releases... in fact, I hadn’t realised the latter got a cinematic release in the UK at all, to be honest.
One thing of note is the score by Ivor Slaney. It’s both interesting but terrible at the same time. Terrible in that it sounds like it’s being performed on a cheap, domestic Casio mini synthesiser bought from the local Woolworths but, at the same time, it’s quite a striking composition and it sounds like the instrument, if that is what it is, is being worked for all it’s worth. So that’s interesting. I wonder if a recording of this still exists?
Anyway, that’s me done on Terror. It’s not the best film but would be really good programmed as part of a semi-drunken all nighter with friends, I feel. Indicator, as usual, include a load of great extras and a really great transfer/restoration of the film. Another good reason to pick up their Bloody Terror - The Films Of Norman J. Warren box set.
Monday, 14 June 2021
My Name Is...
Directed by Ilya Naishuller
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Some minor spoilers.
Contrary to what you may be thinking, Nobody is not a sequel or remake for the character in the famous Terence Hill movie. Nor is it, like a lot of reviewers have been suggesting, similar in style to the John Wick franchise... although, to be fair, it does have a few minor plot similarities and, sure, it’s loaded full of hard action sequences. This is nothing, if not an action flick with an upper case A! I’ve also read it’s a very humorous take on the action genre and, although it does have its moments, nope, I wouldn’t pigeon hole this movie as some kind of comedy thriller either. It does its own thing and it does it with a certain amount of style.
So we have a central character, Hutch, who was also known in the old days, for reasons revealed later in the film, as Nobody. He’s played by an actor who I’ve not seen before called Bob Odenkirk, who gives a very thoughtful and considered performance, I thought. Making what is, actually, the fairly fantastical, over the top, killing machine which productions like this have as their central role, a fairly believable person. Also, the writing helps out considerably here because, although he is the very definition of one of those super soldier action types found in a lot of cinema these days... he does take considerable hits and damage while he’s 'actioning away' and there are a few points when you think he’s not going to make it.
He lives with his wife played by Connie Neilsen (Wonder Woman’s mum... and I can guess why they’ve cast her as his significant other, if they get around to a sequel), his son and his daughter. His dad, played by Christopher Lloyd, lives in a care home and Hutch works a humdrum job for a boss played by the legendary Michael Ironside (who I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t even recognise... he looks so different in this).
The director takes a lot of time setting up Hutch’s bland, almost humiliating daily grind in a running day-by-day montage detailing his days Monday to Friday in short, quick cuts which get shortened with each repeat as the film goes through the days a few times more to hammer the message home (along with percussive, musical stings) that Hutch is not leading his best life. They then pile things on with a home invasion scene were Hutch doesn’t perform up to the expectations of his young son, a further blow to his ego (there’s a good reason he doesn’t defend himself as well as he might, revealed a little later in the movie) and, when he goes to track and reclaim a valuable item from one of the criminals, we see just where his heart is. On the way back, a young lady is threatened by a mob of thugs on a bus and then we get a quite spectacular scene where Hutch takes out the aggression pent up by everything we’ve seen thus far and he demolishes his opposition (while getting pretty beaten up himself). The problem is, one of the hoodlums he hospitalises is the younger brother of a very high up and extremely nasty ‘Russian mob bad guy’ and, when said villain finds out what’s been done, he comes for Hutch and his family. Which turns out to be, for the Russian and as you would expect in these kinds of movies... a bad idea. And that’s as much as I’ll say about the actual plot here.
The movie starts off strong with a heavily damaged Hutch in a police interview room, as we watch him, still in handcuffs, pull out a tin from a pocket and open it with a can opener, then pull out a little kitten from inside his jacket and put it on the table to eat from the tin. The two police detectives ask him who he is and then we (but not they), get the whole story as a flashback.
And it’s a nicely done movie with some solid performances and a crowd pleasing turn from Christopher Lloyd as the ex-FBI father who is pretty much a lethal weapon himself. There’s also an appearance from RZA of the Wu Tang Clan (who I remember seeing in a cameo in the Jim Jarmusch movie Ghost Dog - The Way Of The Samurai many years ago) and another cameo from Colin Salmon. It’s a solid cast and Aleksey Serebryakov, as the villain Yulian, also turns in a suitably unhinged performance.
The film rolls along very well and there’s a lovely bit of... hmm... what do I call this... inverted foreshadowing, where Hutch catches one of his co-workers trying to get something down from behind one of the ceiling tiles at some point and, towards the end of the film, it’s revealed just what it was she was trying to find and there comes a realisation that, yeah, we kinda knew that was coming all along. A nice little surprise which was hiding in plain sight, so to speak.
Also, the action sequences are handled very well. There’s never any confusion in the way it’s been edited so you know exactly where you are in a fight scene and you have the added bonus of never really knowing just how badly off any of the good guys in this are going to end up as nothing too ‘superhuman’ happens. Don’t get me wrong, the stunts and choreography are suitably over the top, as you would expect from a modern day action yarn but, there are no times in the scenes where you think that maybe any of the characters were performing in a way contrary to what a person would be able to sustain in a real life fire fight of this nature and... it feels very grounded a lot of the time.
Also, the ending of the film sets up the possibility of any number of sequels and I hope, if that happens, the writers won’t forget that Connie Nielsen can be a bit of an ‘action gal’ too and bring her in as her and Hutch certainly seem to have a ‘shared history’ in terms of their old professions... oh yeah, forgot to mention, there’s a very good reason why the central character can do what he does but I don’t want to spoil the character back story reveal here, other than to say that there’s a nice running joke in the movie as, every time he tries to explain his past to one of his opponents, they end up dying before hearing the end of the story.
So there you have it, Nobody is a nice action movie with, actually, a lot of heart in it. This could easily be made into a franchise and I’m hoping the very small audience numbers I saw it with don’t stop a sequel from happening in terms of box office takings. Oh... and stick around after the first minute of credits because there’s another nice little epilogue scene featuring Christopher Lloyd and RZA which isn’t essential but certainly lays more groundwork for any other sequels which may be coming. I’d definitely recommend Nobody to fans of the action genre, especially to those audience members who are getting a bit long in the tooth. A fine movie and I hope we see some more of these characters before long.