Wednesday 29 June 2022

Warped & Faded

La Vista,

Warped & Faded
by Lars Nilsen and Friends
Edited by Kier-La Janisse
Mondo Press
ISBN: 9781733333627

Subtitled on the cover as Weird Wednesday And The Birth Of The American Genre Film Archive, this beautifully designed paperback called Warped & Faded, put out by the Mondo label (who have very close ties with all the people and organisations covered in this book), is as much about the history of the Alamo Drafthouse cinema as anything else.

Well, I say cinema because, living in the UK with the only real reports about the Alamo coming from sources like Ain’t It Cool News back in the day, I’d just assumed it was one magical cinema in Austin Texas but the first section of this book, a tome which is split into four main sections, is more or less an oral history (I hate pretentious terms like that on books but, that’s pretty much what the first and fourth sections here are) of recollections by the people who were either running, working or being customers at the Alamo and it soon became clear that, after moving locations a few times, it became a chain of cinemas.

Following an introduction, the book is, as I said, split into four main sections (with many subsections) comprising Weird Wednesday - An Oral History In Six Parts, The Weird Wednesday Compendium,The Weird Wednesday Hall Of Fame and Epilogue: The Birth Of AGFA.

So the first section presents the recollections, by many varied people such as Tim and Carrie League (who originally set up and still, I believe, run part of the chain), Lars Nilsen and the famous Kier-La Janisse... which are thrown into paragraphs and put into some kind of order to tell the story of the Alamo and, also, the main focus of the book, the Weird Wednesday screenings (which still run, in a progressed form, to this day). It starts off telling the problems of buying and moving a huge old, legacy collection of films from a warehouse and how these ‘warped and faded’ prints, showing the wear and tear of their battle against vinegar syndrome, became the backbone of the original Weird Wednesday screenings, shown for free late on Wednesday nights (I think it eventually went to charging a dollar entry at some point in the history of the series) to try and keep what are, in some cases, quite obscure films in the public consciousness to an extent.

The second section, The Weird Wednesday Compendium, is the heavily illustrated main section of the book, presenting the various listing summaries of each of the many screenings up until a certain date, by the likes of Lars Nilsen (who did the lion's share) and Tim League. So, for UK readers, if you think of the old SCALA cinema fold out programmes... well the Alamo Drafthouse had their own equivalent of those and that’s where these highly amusing descriptions were culled from. Presented alongside colour stills and poster artwork for quite a lot of the titles you will find in this section. For film enthusiasts who want to know more about what’s out there, this is a gold mine of stuff, some of which has made its way onto Blu Ray in the intervening years and much of which is still missing in action as regards to any kind of home video release of the titles. Indeed, there were even a fair few films in here that I hadn’t heard of myself and a few made my list although, many of the ones I want to see now don’t seem to be available. But this is where you’ll find out about films like ‘thanksgiving favourite’ screening Blood Freak, where a guys takes a drug and his head turns into the head of a chicken, before he goes on a bloodthirsty killing spree yelling ‘gobble gobble’... yeah, I really need to see this one. Or Super ManChu, Master Of King Fu who, in the words of the poster art, is “Cooler than Bond!” Yeah, I noted a few titles down to be on the lookout for and, I’m pretty sure I can guess which US based boutique Blu Ray labels might have a chance of putting some of these out at some point (I’m looking at you Severin and Vinegar Syndrome... not to mention AGFA, of course). One caveat on this section is, I believe all the films are listed under the titles on these particular release prints so, in the case of a few titles, these aren’t necessarily the title the film is best known by these days.

The third section, The Weird Wednesday Hall Of Fame, is comprised of essays by various writers, some very famous in critical circles, writing about key directors, producers or actors who would have been represented in a big way in the Weird Wednesday slot. So you have the following ‘personalities’ - Al Adamson, Andy Milligan, Arthur Marks, Claudia Jennings, Eddie Romero, Gary Kent, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Henry Silva, Jamaa Fanaka, Jess Franco, Joe Sarno, John Carradine, John Saxon, Laura Gemser, Lee Frost & Wes Bishop, Matt Cimber, Mimsy Farmer, Stephanie Rothman, Susan Tyrrell and Vic Diaz - written by such notables as Tim Lucas, Lars Nilsen, Kier-La Janisse, Stephen Thrower, Maitland McDonagh, Kat Ellinger and, in a bizarre occurrence of one of the subjects of a subsection writing about somebody else, Gary Kent.

Finally, the epilogue, The Birth Of AGFA, details how the archivists working at the Alamo started off AGFA to try and preserve these films for future generations. Okay, so if you’re living outside of America like me (and every other person I’ve mentioned AGFA to)... we’re not talking about the very famous printing and IT solutions company, which has been around for decades. We’re talking about the American Genre Film Archive, which specialises in keeping these prints in their best condition and loaning them out for screenings. Not to mention of course, their Blu Ray label which has been releasing some of these movies into the ‘home video wild’, partnering up with the likes of Vinegar Syndrome and, just recently in the UK, 101 Films.

And, yeah, all in all this is a brilliant and informative reference book which would delight, I’m sure, any cineaste who is open minded enough to recognise the obvious merit of rescuing these trashy titles from oblivion and preserving and showing them for the hidden treasures they often are. I did have two very minor problems with the book (because, I have to find something, right?) which are probably not worth mentioning but I will anyway.

One is that two of the films in the Compendium section have had their titles missed out. One of them I could figure out by the accompanying artwork and, luckily for me, I’d seen the other film so I knew exactly the title relating to the description. The book is really well designed, actually, with some superb layouts so, I bet the designer who put this one together is kicking themselves for the oversight. It’s a bit of a shame.

The other slight problem I had was the scorn that some of the programmers and writers in the early sections of the book were pouring on the idea of a film being ‘so bad it’s good’. Now, I have no problem with that particular phraseology and mindset because, unlike the supposed perception of it here, I don’t automatically use this term myself as a particular form of disrespect to the people who worked on these movies. I can imagine how hard it must be to get any of these things made and, even if I do find them funny in their incompetence at some level, it’s never intended as a mean spirited engagement with the film, for sure. However, I can completely respect this attitude and I would have been fine with it... if not for the fact that many of the descriptions in the Compendium section, written by some of these same people, certainly do seem to be trading on that very ‘so bad and ridiculous its laughable’ kind of attitude... so, yeah, I’m not going to lose any sleep over this one, for sure.

And that’s me done with one of the more valuable, illuminating and entertaining film books for anyone’s personal library. Warped & Faded is a real gem of a tome and worth the debilitating shipping fees required to ship this from Mondo in the US, who put this one out and are pretty much the only place you can get it to the UK from. I can’t say I regret my decision to purchase because I’ve had a really great time with this one and I think there’s a very strong audience for this book. You don’t want to miss out on this one, for sure.

Tuesday 28 June 2022

The Falcon In Mexico

Mexican Graffiti

The Falcon In Mexico
USA 1944
Directed by William Berke
RKO/Warner Archive
DVD Region 1

Well The Falcon In Mexico is certainly a strange entry in this film series, make no mistake. Despite the last movie, The Falcon Out West (reviewed here), having an ending on the usual pseudo-cliffhanger where Tom Lawrence, alias The Falcon (as played by Tom Conway) is hooked into another adventure and it looking like it could well actually continue, for once, into the next movie... it’s completely ignored, once again and, this one starts off in New York. Not only that but, for literally the opening scene, it seems The Falcon is once more with a girlfriend, or possibly a fiance, to whom he has promised not getting mixed up in anymore detective shenanigans. And... bizarrely... within less than five minutes of the girlfriend’s exit from that brief moment, he suddenly becomes embroiled in a strange affair about a stolen painting and suspected by the police of murder. And so he heads to Mexico, to the hometown of the dead artist who somehow seems to be still painting ‘aged’ pictures and... well... we never hear one thing from Lawrence’s gal again. It’s like they were trying to set her up as a familiar meddlesome presence in the movies, just like the earlier Falcon films but, then decided against it after all. With no other mention of her, it seems more than a little odd that they’d bother setting the character up, no matter how briefly, in the first place.

Sandwiched in the few seconds between the exit of his ‘girlfriend’ and the entrance of a new Mexican lady who is after a specific painting, which starts off The Falcon’s newest adventure, he has a black cat cross his path. One has to wonder if this is a reference to the character Conway played in the Val Lewton produced Cat People of 1942... a character he’d just played again in a sort of sideways sequel called The Seventh Victim in 1943 (actually, I really don’t want to go near this one again yet, because the character dies in Cat People and the fact that his character is up on his feet again unscathed but still able to reference what happened in the original film with no explanation just gives me a headache... supposedly everyone was just supposed to forget his character died?).

Anyway, embroiled in adventure he is and it’s a nice little mystery involving stolen paintings, the possible ghost of a woman’s father and a plot to keep the supposedly dead artist’s work valuable for those who wish to trade and own them. It’s been a while before The Falcon has had an assistant in the movies but he kinda gets one in this when a ‘personal chauffeur’ latches onto him and becomes his companion during the film. I was pleased to see that the part of the chauffeur, Manuel, is played by none other than Nestor Paiva, in probably the closest thing to a major role I’ve seen him in. Horror fans will of course know Nestor as he went on to play the captain of the boat in both Creature From The Black Lagoon (reviewed here) and Revenge Of The Creature (reviewed here).

And it’s business as usual. An enjoyable romp with some nice moments of puzzle solving for Tom Lawrence and even Manuel has a twist to his character... and not the one I was expecting, which is a pleasant surprise. But perhaps the biggest mystery in the picture is how... at the start of the movie, when he has to suddenly break into an art gallery there and then with no knowledge that anything was going to happen to him... is The Falcon able to suddenly produce a big torch as required? Does he just carry these big, bulky objects around in his jacket pocket somehow in case it could come in handy? And wouldn’t we have noticed if he was carrying something that large under his jacket? It seems kinda strange.

However, the film is quite fun and also has some silly moments in it too. For instance, whenever people are walking down the road in Mexico (or even paddling down a lake in one memorable scene), most of the time the actors are just studio bound and walking in front of a projected, moving backdrop as they walk on a treadmill. The background looks fine but there’s something about the way they are ‘walking on the spot but moving’ that is a give away. And when a young flower seller girl catches up, sells a flower to The Falcon and then just kinda floats away on the treadmill by standing still... well, it’s fun but even more of a giveaway. However, it’s always fun to spot this kind of set up and The Falcon In Mexico is another hugely entertaining installment in the adventures of The Falcon (or The Falcon’s brother if you want to get technical about it). Another odd thing about this movie, however, is that it’s the first one in the series, I think, which eschews the lead in to another adventure for the title character. This one just ends on a shot of a plane with The Falcon inside, flying home from whence he came. Which is fine with me, the next movie in this series of films which I can barely remember (since I last saw them in the 1980s) is set in Hollywood. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to that one.

Monday 27 June 2022

The Blood Drinkers

Marco The Vampire

The Blood Drinkers
aka Kulay dugo ang gabi
Directed by Gerardo de Leon
Philippines/USA 1964
Hemisphere Pictures/IIP/Severin
Blu Ray Zone A

Warning: Spoilers rising up from the darkness.

Dr. Marco the vampire (played by Ronald Remy) is upset because his vampire lover is dying. He keeps her alive each day with transfusions from his blood machine (in addition to letting his gal bite him) until he can get her twin sister Charito (played by Amalia Fuentes), living on a nearby house in the community, away from her parents so he can kill her and put her heart in his lover. So Charito’s 'real mother' makes herself known to her, after her surrogate parents are killed by vampires (and later have big stakes driven through them by the good guys). The plot is in motion... can Charito’s new friend, who happens to also be a special police investigator, stop the eventual.. when they get around to it... butchering of his new girlfriend for her heart. Well the local priest, who also narrates the movie and sets himself up around about a third of the way into the picture as this story’s equivalent of Van Helsing, certainly hopes so.

There. That’s my quick story synopsis out of the way so you get some idea of what this film is about.

The Blood Drinkers
is the second film housed in Severin’s nifty Hemisphere Horrors Blu Ray box set although, it’s actually a film made a year earlier by the same director as the first film in this set, Curse Of The Vampires (reviewed here). It’s also an even more entertaining movie and, after a brightly coloured opening credits section where blood is literally poured over the title card, we get a typical Hammer Horror style opening shot of a coach (a funeral coach in this case) being driven to through the woods to a destination... then followed by a modern automobile of the period. So it certainly invokes perhaps the spirit of the English studios but also immediately breaks away as something different.

Now, when Al Adamson’s producing partner Samuel M. Sherman, who distributed this picture through IIP, talked about this movie on one of the extras on the Curse Of The Vampires disc, he mentioned that Hemisphere had recently acquired colour film processing equipment but couldn’t afford to shoot a lot of things on expensive colour film stock... which gives rise to the curious but really most addictive quality of this movie. There are a few colour scenes scattered throughout, mostly the ones set in bright daylight. I’d say they total around 10% of the picture. The rest of the scenes such as the coach arriving from the forest trip at the start, are black and white film stock with colour tints, just like in the old silent movie days. I was trying to make sense of the colour changes as the film went through because, very occasionally you get a few seconds of purple tint in there but mostly it goes like this: The night time scenes are shot on black and white stock with a blue tint. The daylight scenes in colour. However, whenever a vampire (and there are many in the film) is shown on screen, the stock changes to a red tint on monochrome, regardless of whether it’s day or night. Later on, there are also a few colour shots of the vampires and shots of them in blue too so... I had to revise my understanding of the way colour works in this film about halfway through to... every time something ‘hostile and vampiric’ happens, it all goes red. I think. Either way, it’s a hugely entertaining use of colour and, I have to say, on the monochrome tint sections, the director manages to maintain a gothic atmosphere very well.

This is helped by a number of things but the shot compositions are similarly beautiful in this film and Severin have managed to preserve the 1:85 aspect ratio on this, really quite wonderful transfer. Throughout the director uses placement of people against cut out openings such as centre orientated open gateways with all the action taking place in the half open centre... or he’ll find other ways to create a lot of depth on screen. Such as using overlapping faces but at different sizes within a shot or use fixed sections of a shot to delineate different depths to it and have actors walking between the areas. It’s got some really great stuff in this film.

There’s no score credit but Tito Arevalo (who did Curse Of The Vampires) had a hand in this and the music is wildly enthusiastic again, like a Hollywood horror from a decade or two before. He gets really heavy handed with something that sounds a little like a high pitched theremin to denote whenever head vampire Dr. Marco is using his hypnotic mind control on people.

And Dr. Marco is great. I’d seen Ronald Remy before in one of the Blood Island pictures (reviewed here) and not really paid much attention to him but here his screen presence is quite astonishing. He really commands the screen, even when saying the corniest lines and he really looks the part too, with his bald head and dark glasses in certain shots. Some time he’s wearing a full on Dracula cape and at other times he looks more sporty in a jumper. The bald head is probably a contributing factor but, to me, he looked the dead spit of a young Telly Savalas in this.

Let me also point out Eva Montes in her role as Tanya the vampire. She is basically one of Dr. Marco’s assistants (along with a hunchback vampire and a dwarf vampire) and she doesn’t have a lot to say but she’s in a lot of scenes and she’s the epitome of a ‘tall, dark and gothic’ beauty. She really lights up the screen when she’s on, looking like a bride of either Fu Manchu or Dracula throughout the running time. She also has an interesting demise after Dr. Marco escapes to vamp again at the end but is forced to leave her behind... as she takes a lighted candle stick and stakes herself through the heart in an act of suicide. Well, technically she’s already dead so... vampicide?

Lovers of the ‘so bad it’s good’ school of film appreciation will also have a lot to love about the picture, including a cobbled together attempt at a Ken Strickfaden style machine to help the vampire blood transfusions which... well... it doesn’t come close. All in all, though, I have to say I found The Blood Drinkers to be a nicely made film which, yes, has its ridiculous moments but you can really see a lot of effort was being put into this one to make a tip top product for the Filipino audience. I’d definitely recommend it to people who like the old 1930s/1940s vampire movies and I could absolutely watch this one periodically, if I had the time. Splendid stuff.

Sunday 26 June 2022

The Book Of Boba Fett

Duel Of The Fetts

The Book Of Boba Fett
Airdate: 29th Dec 2021 - 9th Feb 2022

Warning: Spoilers in this one.

After two seasons of The Mandalorian (reviewed here and here), some of which was enjoyable and some of which dragged considerably, I was pretty sure Disney has managed to dilute the Star Wars brand which they’d bought from George Lucas so much that, they really couldn't even get a halfway decent TV show out of it. I still believe that and I think the franchise stopped being special somewhere around the release of the first season of The Mandalorian and the cinematic release of Star Wars Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (my review of that 'not so special' movie can be found here). However, I have to say that their latest series, The Book Of Boba Fett almost changed my mind on that... almost.

This one opened really strongly for the first four episodes and then... well it felt like it suddenly changed its brief somewhat and only regained some of what made those four episodes so good around about the seventh and final installment. One of the strengths of those first four is that they take place in two separate time zones... the first takes place not long after the sail barge battle in Star Wars Episode VI - Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here) and once again stars Temuera Morrison as Boba Fett. Which is a nice bit of symmetry as, in addition to making the role his own in his guest appearances in series two of The Mandalorian, he also of course, played Boba’s father, Djanga Fett, way back in Star Wars Episode II - Attack Of The Clones (reviewed by me here).

This finally shows us how Boba stopped himself from being digested by the Sarlac in Return Of The Jedi, how he gets taken prisoner by a tribe of Tusken Raiders and then earns their trust, respect and over time, becomes the honourary human member of the tribe, negotiating for their rights on Tatooine before seeing them slaughtered. He then goes searching for his armour (which we don't see him finding as, I think it was already a told part of the tale in The Mandalorian?). The other time sequence, crosscut with these flashbacks via Boba’s dreams as he floats in a Bacta tank in numerous sessions, recovering from his wounds, follows on directly from the post credits sequence from the last series of The Mandalorian, where he kills Bib Fortuna and takes over Jabba The Hutt’s palace. However, with the city of Mos Espa under his protection for their tributes, this inadvertently brings war from those who would use the city for running spice. So it’s down to Boba to try and hire some muscle to get some ‘back up’ for the final showdown.

And it’s all great... except, in episode five, The Return Of The Mandalorian, it all stops dead and we just get a continuation of that show and, yeah, that episode really drags. And it’s pretty much the same for episode six, where The Mandalorian (played again by Pedro Pascale) goes off to visit Grogu and Luke Skywalker before going back to Tatooine to help Fett in his private war. So, yeah, we get to see Grogu again, the far from convincing ‘younged up’ version of Mark Hamil’s Luke Skywalker and also Rosario Dawson returning as ‘that other Jedi’ but, yeah, it’s all a bit saccharine and full of myth building, which really doesn’t seem all that important and, honestly, pretty dull. We all agreed in this household that we could really have done without those two episodes.

When we finally get to the finale, the characters we grew to know, including Ming-Na Wen (from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, reviewed by me here) continuing on from her time in The Mandalorian as Boba’s personal bodyguard, are all back in it again properly and it’s an hour of shoot outs and giant beast punch ups (Boba has trained a new Rancor to replace the one Luke Skywalker killed in Jabba’s palace in Return Of The Jedi... it even gets its own King Kong moment) which are mostly satisfying and gives a nice dramatic ending to the series, although it does get a bit Mandalorian-centric in specific deus ex machina moments you just know are going to happen.

Overall, apart from those two clunkier episodes I talked about, it was pretty great. I especially thought the various Tusken Raider scenes were something special and, frankly, if it had been seven episodes of just Boba among the sand people, I would have been much happier. There are lots of famous guest directors and a fair few guest actors too such as Robert Rodriguez, Danny Trejo and Bryce Dallas Howard but, there are also a few guest spots for legacy characters too, including one from The Clone Wars cartoon show which I haven’t seen (and don’t know if I’ll ever bother to getting around to).

The music is not so great in terms of fitting in with the Star Wars movies... although I did like the primitive opening theme tune. The shout backs to The Force Theme (well, Ben’s Theme in actual fact... let's get it right) and Yoda’s Theme felt a little out of place within the rest of the musical sound scape, to tell the truth... like they were plugged in rather than feeling like themes that could have grown from the whole... which I think says something about the style of the music being used. Star Wars has always been about trying to sound like John Williams and, while I understand the absolute necessity of getting away from that to keep the future of the franchise ticking over, I think abandoning that sound in the way they have here and in The Mandalorian... just further dilutes the brand, as far as I’m concerned anyway.

All in all, though, I quite liked The Book Of Boba Fett, much to my surprise and, yeah, I’d much rather see a second series of this one rather than going on another trip with The Mandalorian but, I don’t know what the plans are at the moment... everything seems to be in a state of flux over at Disney, at least on the public facing side, where the Star Wars franchise is concerned. But count me in for another series of this one, for sure.

Wednesday 22 June 2022

The Psychedelic Priest

Road Trip

The Psychedelic Priest
aka Electric Shades Of Grey
USA 1971/2001
Directed by Terry Merrill and William Grefé  
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some spoilers here.

Okay, so although The Psychedelic Priest (aka Electric Shades Of Grey) is solely credited to Terry Merrill, who was actually the producer, I’m piecing together from William Grefé’s introduction to the movie that it was solely Grefé who directed this. I’ll get into that in a minute but let me give you a brief synopsis of this one first.

A teaching Catholic priest moans at four of his students for having a good time and taking drugs instead of attending their lessons. One of the kids give the priest a coca cola but it’s laced with LSD. The priest, John (played by John Darrell) goes on a weird trip and God talks to him in a drug fuelled vision. So he takes off and goes on the road to experience America and giving the old ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’ ethos a go. He picks up a lady hitch-hiker, Sunny (played by Carolyn Hall), who’s wary of men and life in general and they get friendly on a long trip to Los Angeles. They do drugs together with a load of hippies who tell stories. On the way to LA they find a pregnant lady about to have a baby on the side of the road. They get her to a local ‘hippie hospital’ (a van) where a dropped out, turned on doctor delivers the baby and everybody is happy. The doctor decides to come with them but the cops don’t like that he’s got black skin so they beat him to death. John and Sunny are sad.

Sunny declares her love for John but John, being a crazy, mixed up priest, is harsh with his confused rejection of her. She leaves in the night and goes back to hitch-hiking. John is distraught... he goes to a private detective to find her, selling his car so he can afford his services. He finds that Sunny was so upset that she went back on acid and drove her car off a cliff. When he goes to hospital to be reunited with her, she dies of her injuries before he can see her. He then turns to drink, gets beaten up a few times and then finally does some heroin. Then some people find him and take him to church and then he finishes up hanging out at a live gig in a park. The end.

Well now that I write it, I find that there’s actually a lot happening in this movie, although you wouldn’t know it from just watching it. There’s actually no real story and I was surprised at Grefé because, well, the style is so loose and free. I actually quite liked it although, this is definitely a rescued print, being in a 4:3 aspect ratio (quite probably it was shot like this) and being in quite poor condition (despite being a great transfer). It’s kind of a footnote in his work but I enjoyed it anyway. The trip scenes where shapes are cut out of black and the camera zooms in and out or pans around are... acceptable. The songs are okayish too (although I couldn’t find any of them available to buy commercially, I’m sorry to say).

Surprisingly, compared to some of his earlier films, the two lead actors are pretty good and so are pretty much everybody else, although there weren’t many actual actors in the film, just people found in the street is the vibe I’m getting from this. Grefé explains in his intro that there was no script for the film so he told the producer, who wanted him, he would only do it if he sent his round trip fayre and half his fee. Well, that all turned up and he went down to see him and there was still no script, although the producer had to deliver a finished film very soon. So Grefé went on the road with a crew of just three people (shooting it himself) and they all just made it up as they went along... which actually, despite his obvious lack of comfort about doing that, is possibly not a bad way to shoot a movie about the counter culture of the time, with its relaxed and laid back attitude to life which, I have to say, really comes across in the movie.

It’s not a significant film in any way and I suspect the rag tag lack of a solid narrative structure might well put most people off but I certainly enjoyed The Psychedelic Priest. It’s not necessarily a good document of the hippie and drug movement of the time but it does live within the general malaise of that kind of diminished lifestyle and it may just give a taste of the truth of the people on the street (quite literally, on the street). It does have this kind of downward spiral of bleakness to it too, which is interesting given the subject matter and the fact that the central character is a priest so... yeah, there are things of interest here. I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody but it you’re interested in this particular period and expression of a specific way of thinking, it might be of value to you and you might get something out of it. My take is that it’s worth a watch.

Tuesday 21 June 2022

The Ruby's Curse

The Song Ones

The Ruby’s Curse
by Alex Kingston
with Jacqueline Rayner
BBC Books
ISBN: 9781785947131

Warning: Very, very light spoilers, sweetie!

I don’t really read Doctor Who novels these days. I loved the old Target novelisations when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s but, yeah, I tend not to read the spin offs and I think I only ever read one of the ‘original’ stories in my lifetime (so far), by one of my old favourite writers Michael Moorcock (and you can read my review of that one here). However, on my very recent discovery of this particular tome which was written, by the looks of things, in 2020 and then published early in 2021, I found The Ruby’s Curse by Alex Kingston with Jacqueline Rayner a much harder proposition to resist so, you know, I didn’t even try. I ordered this pretty much straight away after I knew of its existence. After all, what better person than Alex Kingston, the actress who played the great semi-regular character River Song herself (opposite David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi in their incarnations of The Doctor), could you get to write further adventures for her. Well, okay, maybe her creator Steven Moffat but, heck, I’d take Alex over him any day of the week for sure.

And not just a further adventure of The Doctor’s wife but, also, the further adventures of her fictional (within a fiction) alter ego too, as the book cover has the tag line, A River Song/Melody Malone Mystery. So, yeah, the story here starts with River Song breaking back into the high security Stormcage facility, where she is being held for a certain crime (that followers of the show may or may not remember) at great peril because she wants to settle down for some peace and quiet in her prison cell for a while, to write the next book in her ongoing series of Melody Malone adventures.

And, for much of the story, the structure of the book... with different chapters labelled up in the various places and also the fictional settings she is writing about... is constantly cross cut as both the story within the story and also River’s new adventure, trying to locate a powerful artefact hidden in Cleopatra’s tomb, shuttles between two main narrative locations: Stormcage AD 5147 and, in the hard boiled Melody Malone mystery, New York AD 1939. Things get a little complicated though and, through the course of the story, River (and sometimes Melody) also end up in Egypt 30 BC, Cisalpine, Gaul 49 BC and Rome of 44 BC. Actually, the BC days are written as BCE in the book but I don’t hold with that kind of labelling myself and, since the other dates are given as AD rather than CE, then it’s BC for me please.

And then things get further complicated but, without giving anything away, the two similarly themed parallel stories start to overlap and so, if you think things are getting confusing when River accidentally acquires a wonderful talking cat of an assistant, wait until the two stories start to merge. There are points in the story where River and Melody interact and help each other out quite a lot, as River gets plunged into the book world and, later, Melody finds herself made flesh in River’s world. Luckily you can tell which is which because River’s main story is set in a different font from the sans serif world of the book she is writing. Alas, the front of the actual book, which usually only lists the one font the book is set in, also only lists one of the fonts in the book... something of an oversight by the publishing house, I suspect.

And it’s actually a really great read. River comes across exactly as she does in the TV show (but since we are privy to her thoughts now, perhaps even a little saucier) and the thing is written with a large dollop of humour and, well, it’s all very cleverly put together. I was quite floored by just how well written this thing was, to be honest. There are also a lot of references, of course, to the show over the years... there’s a lovely and quite subtle, blink and you’ll miss it put down of the Sixth Doctor’s sartorial tastes, for instance and another one I especially liked was a reference to a time travelling villain last seen in the Fourth Doctor story The Talons Of Weng Chian (reviewed coming this year, if my blog backlog keeps to schedule... this book kinda jumped the queue). There are also a lot of nice pop culture references in general which Kingston and co-writer Rayner make good use of, from Edgar Allan Poe through to Oscar Wilde and even a fairly obscure reference, I thought, to Kit Williams real life puzzle book from 1978, Masquerade (Was that Golden Hare ever found by a reader? I’ll have to google it.). I even found it quite educational, as it happens... I now know where the phrase “armed to the teeth” originated.

Added to this, there’s some typical River Song moments which I much appreciated, such as her asterisking a ‘spoiler warning’ for the readers and even a Dramatis Personae section titled... Here Be Spoilers. Added to this, there was one particular turn of events (where I was way ahead of an extra character just turning up out of the blue... maybe it was telegraphed just a little too much) in which a solid clue was, perhaps, inspired just a little from Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels.

And, yeah, that’s as much as I want to say about The Ruby’s Curse since I certainly don’t want to properly spoil it for you (sweeties!) but, I will say, it’s an absolutely wonderful, elegant and entertaining read and I would certainly recommend it to any fans of the River Song era of Doctor Who (which I keep hoping against hope that we still haven’t seen an end to... you never know, stranger things have happened and, with regards to that thought, it looks like stranger things soon will be happening within the show, judging from the last episode trailer I saw). But, yes, a fantastic book and it also walks a good tightrope between something that is for readers of all ages but also with an adult sensibility which may go straight over the heads of those too young to get all the jokes. Nice stuff, for sure and, you know, in the words of The Doctor in response to reading Melody Malone fiction in the show once... wowza!

Monday 20 June 2022

You Are Not My Mother

A Burn For The Worse

You Are Not My Mother
Ireland 2022
Directed by Kate Dolan
Universal Pictures

Warning: Minor spoilers.

You Are Not My Mother is the feature length debut from Kate Dolan. It’s also a nicely put together slice of folk horror set on a housing estate in Dublin but, not so urban in that there’s a forest nearby, lending itself to the rural elements exploited by certain story beats of the film.

I’ll get to my one and only problem with this movie first because, I might as well get any negativity out of the way as quickly as possible. That being that the pre-credits prologue, which opens extremely strongly with a long shot of an abandoned baby in a pushchair in the middle of a road at night, the camera slowly zooming into the centre of the composition... kind of telegraphs almost everything the film is about and allows the audience (or this audience member, at least) a pretty good idea of just which strand of folk horror threat the movie will be dealing with and, kind of taking the sting out of any surprise reveals in the movie. I kinda wish that the opening would have been just alluded to in partial flashbacks at a few points in the movie rather than shown outright at the start of the film, to be honest.

That aside though, it’s a pretty good movie, centring on main protagonist, school girl Char, played by Hazel Doupe and her sometimes protagonist/sometimes antagonist mother Angela, played by Carolyn Bracken. These two are absolutely fabulous in this, as are the supporting cast. Everyone does their bit to ensure the story comes off in a pretty convincing fashion.

And it is a character piece, if anything. I particularly liked that one of the bullying classmates from Char’s school, set up as almost main villainess at first (before being superseded by someone even more ruthless), actually progresses to the point in the story where she is Char’s friend and confidant, helping her to set things right (or as far as they could be set right) by the end of the movie.

The film portrays Char’s family, as in her mother and gran, as knowing various superstitious, witchy like practices which have obviously evolved in the family for years. Char’s gran passes on this information, in one form or another, over the course o the film and, I’m surprised that more wasn’t made of a final word on Char’s lingering ‘birthmark’ because, it actually says a lot about the success, or perhaps failure, of something her grandmother was involved with in the opening sequence.

The director keeps things calm for the main part in terms of a slow sure pacing. There are some scenes which demonstrate a lot of camera movement but I think these are outnumbered by the amount of moments which are static shots or slow zooms, edited with a deftness which allows for complete clarity with an uncomplicated range of shots, keeping the creepiness of the film at a slow, simmering boil for a lot of the time, before those scenes where the camera breaks free and things ramp up for set pieces.

The tension inherent in a scene where (after Angela’s own brother has been hospitalised due to something which the audience sees but which Char doesn’t know about), Angela starts dancing inappropriately to some music in an extremely threatening and damaging manner, works so well, I believe, because of the more demure shooting style in various scenes around it. The director certainly seems to know when to lay low with the style of the mise en scene and then let fly.

There’s also a nice sense of visual poetry to the movie at certain points. One bit in particular, where the somewhat transforming presence of Angela is seen in the street during a Halloween celebration and she lets rip with a scream to chase her daughter is quite amazing. As she screams the sound is dialled down to nothing (we’ve already heard her dramatic vocalisations by this point anyway) and instead all we can hear are fireworks going off, which the camera has tilted up to contemplate for five seconds or so, teasing the audience with the absence of the main event before cutting back to the chase, so to speak. It’s nice stuff and I appreciated this approach.

What I also appreciated was the music by a composer or possibly duet or group of artists known on the end credits as Die Hexen. This would appear to be their first feature length movie too and, I have to say, I really liked this score. It’s one of those modern horror scores which almost but not quite doubles as sound design and, I thought it was great. It’s like a kind of series of low key sirens going off in the background which get racheted up or dialled down at the appropriate moments to keep things on edge, like an old whistling kettle slowly coming to the boil and then holding at various moments. It’s almost a close cousin to some of Edgard Varèse’s early works but.. yeah not quite. It’s very effective though and I would love it if this thing was released on CD at some point.

And that’s me just about done on You Are Not My Mother. I don’t think you need to be a big fan of horror films to enjoy this one (indeed, you will probably be a lot more rewarded if you didn’t go into this assuming certain things about the genre which, I have to say, it does deliver on) but I also think horror people will like this too, especially those interested in folk horror tales, which seems to be going through a bit of an engineered marketing revival at the moment. Definitely a nice little film which hits all the right notes in everything it sets out to do, I think. Take a look if you get the opportunity, would be my advice on this one.

Sunday 19 June 2022

The Shaolin Kids

Wuxia New Pussycat

The Shaolin Kids
aka Shao Lin xiao zi
Taiwan 1975 Directed by Joseph Kuo
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B

So here I am up to the sixth of the eight films in Eureka’s Cinematic Vengeance - Joseph Kuo Blu Ray boxed edition. It’s one of the earlier ones represented here (made only a year after Shaolin Kung Fu - reviewed here) but, it’s easily my favourite movie so far in this set because it manages to balance both the spectacular physical action (including those amazing high jumps, often performed backwards and reversed) and a half decent story.

Now, I’ve no idea what Shao Lin xiao zi means (google translate really is no help at all with this stuff) but I have to question the validity of the truly terrible English title big time. I mean, for some reason this is called The Shaolin Kids but, well, there’s not much shaolin kung fu action, more the weapon held action of the standard wuxia film. I mean, there’s a kung fu school of adult students in the opening credit montage who disappear and then form a good guy army to help out in the last 20 minutes or so of the movie, as an instructor demonstrates his appreciation of their prowess by thoughtfully stroking his beard in an approving manner... but I don’t think this really qualifies as a major component of the film, to be honest. I’d let that slide but, yeah, there are also no kids in the movie. So, to title the film up with words that are completely absent from the contents of this movie seems a bit absurd.

But apart from that, it’s all good. Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan from the Shaw Brothers classic Dragon Inn (reviewed here) plays Liu. She sees her father poisoned by a vengeful prime minister and then discovers the evil doer is plotting to gather armies to overthrow the Emperor and take the kingdom for his own nefarious purposes. However, she and her allies have the secret golden letter, which acts pretty much as a confession to the chief villain’s intentions. The rest of the movie is a cat and mouse between the various factions as the Prime Ministers two villanous henchmen use their ‘Heaven and Earth’ killing moves to pursue the good guys who intend to intercept the Emperor and warn him of the plan. Lightning fast jumpy, energetic wuxia fighting ensues and it’s a really fun watch, it has to be said.

In addition, the director and cinematographer, despite the low budget associated with Kuo’s films, go all out. The shots are colourful and full of period costumes and the photography is crisp and with an interesting return to symmetry for the look of a lot of the scenes. The interiors especially are filled with shots (augmented by cut aways to various people, of course) where the main architectural focus is front and centre with the characters bleeding off to either side of the main focus... such as when two characters are seen playing a game of Go near the start of the picture.

And, of course, the action is spectacular, especially from Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan herself, who does some neat stuff by throwing ropes around her, which helps defeat the deadly ‘Heaven and Earth’ move when the time comes. I imagine the various actors and actresses who used to take part in these spectacular fights must have come away with a lot of bruises and fractured bones during their shoots. 

The sound effects on this one are crazy. The clothes of wildly flailing, lethal limbs make loud ruffly sounds and the wonderful moments where a good or bad guy lands about ten punches on an opponent in the space of two seconds are orchestrated almost like a piece of music, with different tones of hits creating different kind of breaks in the rhythm. They reminded me of souped up versions of the sound design that Woody Allen used in his hilarious ‘hitting Diane Keaton with a bottle’ scene in Love And Death. Or maybe something that MGM might have used to add interest, to add a touch of audio diversity to the tap dancing scenes in their wonderful musicals.

All in all, The Shaolin Kids, Shaolin-less and kid-less as it is, was a huge hit with this audience member. A beautiful example of kinetic action and story beats, not always as formulaic as you might at first expect, coming together to deliver a slice of action spectacle which isn’t as one note as some of Kuo’s other movies, for sure. I’m really looking forward to seeing the last two films in this set now, involving the 18 Bronze men. I’ll get onto those soonest. 

Wednesday 15 June 2022

Paranormal Activity - Next Of Kin

Unfound Footage

Paranormal Activity -
Next Of Kin

USA 2021
Directed by William Eubank

Paranormal Activity - Next Of Kin is, allegedly, the seventh in the much loved Paranormal Activity franchise (well, eight if you count the original sequel, Paranormal Activity 2 - Tokyo Night, which I still haven’t been able to find with English subtitles anywhere so I can watch the thing). Now I know it’s bad to write a review of a film right after you’ve been hugely let down by it so I went away and digested what I’d seen, along with a meal, before sitting down to write this one up.

For the record, I love this franchise and I had a blast with absolutely all of them apart from the fifth in the series, The Marked Ones (reviewed here). That one was absolutely terrible because the main protagonists were all unlikeable thugs who you were just hoping would die and drop out of the movie... although even that one had its uses in that it established the concept, which they really ran with the in the brilliant sixth movie, Paranormal Activity - The Ghost Dimension (reviewed here), of the fact that Toby, the demon who is being raised by the coven of witches, could also travel in time.

Well, despite my obvious issues with that terrible fifth entry in the series I’m here to tell you that, Paranormal Activity - Next Of Kin is... way worse than that one was. I mean, it’s not really a terrible movie in and of itself and, frankly, it has some intense and effective jump scares at some points but, honestly, why did they even try and pretend this is a Paranormal Activity film?

It took maybe no more than two minutes to get me really angry and, I have to say, even though I saw it a few hours ago now, my blood is still boiling on this one. Around about two minutes in, the formerly first person POV camera, which is the way these things fake the feel of found footage, is suddenly enhanced with maybe as much as two seconds of a shot of the guy on the camera so we can see what he looks like. Really? There’s no other camera trained on him... it just throws in this kind of ‘character establishing shot’ to, I dunno, enhance the feel? Then, maybe five minutes in after the main protagonists of the movie, played by Emily Bader, Roland Buck III and Dan Lippert get into a van, the camera shows a series of top down shots, looking at the vehicle as it wends its way through the countryside from various viewpoints... even going so far as to add some music. I mean... what the f***!

I recently saw a pseudo found footage movie called The Deep House (reviewed here) which took a similarly blasé approach in the way it was drip feeding in obvious third person viewpoints into the picture but I cut it some slack because it wasn’t actually claiming to be a found footage movie and, also, it didn’t have the weight of the legacy of six successful ‘found footage phenomenon’ films behind it. And I’m sorry but, the same can’t be said of Paranormal Activity - Next Of Kin by a long chalk.
Various other ways it destroys any credibility it was trying for and abandoning any pretension that it’s continuing the ‘found footage theme’, while obviously still trying to fool the slower witted in the audience that it actually is, are numerous and equally offensive. And, yes, I just went on Twitter (probably months before this post got published) and it obviously did somehow fool the less discerning element of its core audience because one guy was tweeting that the film has nothing to do with the other movies with the only similarity being that it’s found footage. Nope... wrong! It's not POV at all. How can you miss this stuff?

So, yeah, the film does have some intense scare moments  to shred your nerves but it’s almost like its fighting against itself to try and guarantee the audience is popped out of the experience. For example, some scary moments towards the end of the movie are actually scored with some kind of musical stingers. I mean, I was almost got caught up in the moment until they did that. And they also have some slow motion shots in the movie which they try and explain away by showing how the camera can also capture slow motion so that, when an intense scene like someone getting his throat torn out comes up, they can linger on it in slow motion... totally pulling you out of the movie again. Why they try and justify it as an ‘in camera’ trick is anybody’s guess because, from many times earlier in the film... the cat is out of the bag, so to speak.

Another thing is the use of masks in the film. It’s set during the coronavirus pandemic but the characters in the restaurant at the start aren’t wearing masks. Fair enough, maybe they’re a ‘bubble’ but when they go out into the parking lot to meet a stranger, including hugging etc, there are still no masks or social distancing. And then, almost as an afterthought, the characters slip their Covid masks on and they all get into the car... where they all take their masks off for some reason and that’s the last we see of masks in the movie, I think. This seems particularly stupid and, I guess in a way, explains how the movie is populated with protagonists who decide to pursue the most stupid, life threatening options available to them... instead of retreating. I guess if they’re stupid enough to ignore the Covid then they’re stupid enough to somehow position themselves into the perilous situations they end up in.

Lastly, I was watching hard but I couldn’t find any way in which this one relates to any of the previous Paranormal Activity movies. There’s no mention of Toby, nor any of the human companions or victims he’s been around. I was hoping, since the previous movie in the series had given him a human form to inhabit the terrestrial world in, that this one would be a continuation of the concept. But no, this one is nothing to do with the previous story arc and it’s just another in a list of things of which I can’t forgive the movie for.

And I don’t want to dwell on it by writing anymore about it either. Paranormal Activity - Next Of Kin is well acted, has some intense scenes and scares and is, frankly, absolutely nothing to do with the other parts of the franchise. It’s a blatant money grab and this series should have been treated better... especially with the original director on board as producer. If you’re into horror movies, have not seen any of the previous Paranormal Activity films and are not invested with the film actually following the, really not so hard to follow conventions of the ‘found footage’ genre, then you will possibly have a good time with this. For everyone else I would say, stay away from this one. It’s a heartbreaking and disrespectful piece of fluff.

Tuesday 14 June 2022

The Giallo Canvas

Laughing Windows,
Broken Blinds

The Giallo Canvas -
Art, Excess and Horror Cinema

by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
McFarland Press
ISBN: 9781476675398

Just a quick shout out to what I believe is one of the more entertaining, refreshing and illuminating books about various gialli in contemporary writing on the genre, The Giallo Canvas - Art, Excess and Horror Cinema by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. Now I’ve found myself, at first accidentally, following the career of the writer over the last few years via expert inclusion on Blu Ray releases and essays in various venues such as accompanying leaflets and books. There’s even a brilliant episode of the podcast All The Colours Of The Dark which features her as the guest of honour, which is really worth a listen to (as are all the other episodes and anything hosted by Dr. Rebekah McKendry and Elric Kane). I’d not actually read an entire book by her before so I’m happy to start with one that is not only about one of my all time favourite genres of cinematic spectacle but also, in this case, approaching from a different and somewhat unique route... that of the overlap and relationship between various forms of art (mostly painting but not only limited to that) and themes and ideas that permeate a multitude of gialli.

Now, regular readers may be expecting a tirade of negativity from me in that the title itself (and some of the comments in the book) makes evident a perception that giallo is, perhaps, a sub-genre of horror cinema and, those same regular readers (I know you’re out there) will know that I don’t believe gialli are in any way an overlap of horror cinema (and neither are slasher movies for that matter)... if anything, they may be considered a sub-genre of crime films, if the point really needed to be pushed. However, I’m not going to labour that point here, specifically because Heller-Nicholas doesn’t ram that connection (or lack of) down your throat as some writers in the genre have and, mostly, because she’s easily written one of the most intelligent books on the subject going so... yeah, opinions on genre should be thrown to the side as this book is certainly one which is worthy of celebration.

Okay, so she had me right from the start with this one, literally from the first words of her introduction to the concepts she will go on to explore (in a much less formal and stuffy way than many academics go about leading a path to their imminent conclusion), by quoting an article by Virginia Woolf, writing about the first run release of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. The way that distinguished writer’s view of recognising high art and the questioning which comes as a reaction to it, seems pretty similar to Heller-Nicholas’ own discoveries of giallo and alternative cinema via Australia’s Special Broadcasting System (SBS) and numerous visits to video rental shops in her youth.

The book is set up in various sections including ‘Clues, Presence and Painting’, ‘Painters’ and ‘Other Art Forms’ and each one of these is split into chapters which explore either a specific painter (such as Vermeer), other mediums such as sculpture, music, writing, theatre/film performance and, also, movies in which characters in the stories are themselves an artist in one medium or another... and the way each of these subjects informs and illuminates the story and ideas presented in various gialli, usually taking one or two examples in each chapter as the main focus. So one chapter might mostly focus on Vermeer as seen in The Forbidden Room and The Psychic (aka Seven Notes In Noir) while another may highlight the use of Francis Bacon’s paintings in Lizard In A Woman’s Skin.

And it’s a really great book illuminating, for example, the highlighting of the visual reference created to mimic art as a metatextual element pulling the spectator out of the event... just as Godard used to try and do to his audience all the time (I guess I should also, myself, reference Brechtian theatre here as an example of this) or the way clues are missed in various films due to the main character’s failure to correctly interpret the clues in a specific piece of art (think of the painting in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and, of course, the tell tale mirror reflection of a painting of faces at the start of Argento’s Deep Red). There’s also some nice work done here with some really thorough interpretations of the various paintings seen (and sometimes fallen into) in The Stendhal Syndrome and similar interesting deductions and inclusions found in such gialli as The House With Laughing Windows and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. And she also looks at the links between giallo and fashion, highlighting Bava’s Blood And Black Lace as kickstarting this juxtaposition, along with the humourous observation that crimes against the victims in films such as these are also violent attacks on the ‘high price tag’ clothing they wear. I’m also glad that she takes the time to briefly name check some other good writers in the field, including the brilliant Rachael Nisbet.

I’m not going to give away too many of the fascinating pleasures which make up the minor masterpiece that is The Giallo Canvas - Art, Excess And Horror Cinema but I would certainly say that, if you are into giallo and exploitation cinema and are looking to read something different to the usual meanderings in this field, then this one is really worth a purchase. And, it also educated me in one very important point that may have escaped my attention completely if I hadn’t picked up this tome... that the mannequin on the old posters for Spasmo bears a striking resemblance to Tori Amos. Not to mention Heller-Nicholas’ conclusion section, which takes time to mull over the much overused critical phrase ‘style over substance’ and its use as a negative in relation to the genre when, in some ways, it could also be seen as a much more positive engagement with the subject. Yep, there’s some real next level observations in this book. Give it a go.

Monday 13 June 2022

The Possessed


The Possessed
aka La donna del lago
aka The Lady Of The Lake
Italy 1965
Directed by
Luigi Bazzoni & Franco Rossellini
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

This is a first time watch for me for this early giallo, made just two years after Mario Bava’s first two cracks at the genre, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (reviewed by me here) and Blood And Black Lace (reviewed here). The film is co-directed by Luigi Bazzoni who also went on to co-direct the brilliant Footprints On The Moon (reviewed by me quite a while ago here) and this one has exactly the same kind of bizarre and surreal qualities to it. Both those films deal with an outsider who travels to a town for something and ends up trying to solve a puzzle which may or may not be inexorably linked to themselves in the process.

In this case, that main protagonist is Bernard, a novelist played by Peter Baldwin who we hear, via his telephone call from a phone booth at the start, is in the act of leaving his girlfriend to go be with his new woman. After the credits have run their course we discover, when he checks into his favourite hotel in the unnamed town that he stayed in the year before, that his hopes for a more solid relationship were  a little premature. The girl, Tilde, played by Virna Lisi, is dead and it’s been officially pronounced a suicide. She was a maid working in the hotel and Bernard obviously had a past experience with her. Also in the film... and of note... are the hotel owner Enrico (Salvo Randone), his daughter Irma, who is another maid (Valentina Cortese), his son Mario (Philippe Leroy) and Mario’s new wife Adriana (Pia Lindström).

However, a local photographer played by Pier Giovanni Anchisi suggests there is more to the story than just that and that she was a) pregnant with someone’s child and b) had her throat cut. So the, frankly unstable and unreliable Bernard, who is telling the audience what is going on (kind of) in a voice over narrative style, decides to try and investigate the death himself. He also catches flu at some point but his fever dreams seem no different in quality from all the other dreams he is having.

Okay, so I’m not saying any more about the narrative but I will say that the film has a totally dreamy and unusual atmosphere which, throughout the movie, kept reminding me of both Footprints On The Moon and another film I have a strange relationship with, Last Year In Marienbad. This is because, in the way the film is shot, we have a lot of sequences which could be memories or could be dreams and, due to the way it’s all edited, there’s no indication as to if these are real things, made up things or indeed, the actual ‘real’ narrative which is taking place. Sometimes a sequence will tell you something which didn’t actually happen and sometimes you will not even realise you’re in a dream, nor indeed a flashback. Sometimes it becomes obvious and the director will show Bernard waking from a dream state and, sometimes it’s much less obvious and almost imperceptible from various parallel sequences running throughout the film’s running time.

If this sounds fragmented or disjointed well... yeah, okay it kind of is... but it’s also a fascinating exploration of narrative strands colliding that really seems to work for some directors (almost a little more like a less clearly demarked stylistic cousin to Fellini’s Eight And A Half in some ways). It’s also shot with absolutely crisp, high contrast black and white cinematography with the director using the verticals and angles of interior locations like the hotel to their utmost. The film truly is beautiful to look at, like a less coherent but quite addictive version of something Mario Bava might do in monochrome.

Also, wow. It’s too bad the score by Renzo Rossellini has never seen the light of day on a soundtrack release of any kind. It’s absolutely fantastic and, since there are a lot of longish sequences (which may or may not be a dream or flashback) where there’s no dialogue, it has a chance to really breathe some life into the film. Indeed, some of the sequences which would not be all that sinister without the score, are given a kind of escalating tension that becomes almost unbearable and adds a heck of a lot of power to some of those sequences. It’s a real shame there’s no CD issue of this thing.

Oh, one last thing which I should probably point out, since I’ve been comparing it to more abstract works like Last Year In Marienbad, is that the film is based on a literary novel by Giovanni Comisso which in itself is a version of a real murder case, which happened sometime in the 1930s. And yes, despite the dream-like atmosphere which permeates the whole movie, you will at least get both a solution to the puzzle and the series of murders which escalates a little towards the end of the movie. Unlike Marienbad and others of that ilk, there’s a much more solid ending even if, by the end of the movie, there’s one person almost but no quite accounted for, before the credits role. That’s okay though... The Possessed (and English language title which I totally fail to understand in the context of the movie I just watched) is a really cool film and I will definitely be revisiting this a number of times in the future, for sure. Definitely give this one a go.

Sunday 12 June 2022

Station Eleven


Station Eleven
USA December 2021 - January 2022
Ten episodes Paramount

Warning: To the spoilers, we're the spoilers.

It’s rare that a piece of art comes along which is so overwhelming in both its emotional weight and technical brilliance that I am at a loss as to how to convey a sense of it to others. But that’s how I feel about the ten episode mini series Station Eleven, based on the novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel (which is now hopefully en route to me from ebay, so I can read it). I don’t know what the differences are between this show and the source novel but, I soon will and I’ll post a separate review of that book in a month or two, I suspect.

Station Eleven is set before, during and after a devastating global pandemic (all at the same time). In the present, the flu virus has got out of hand and mutated into a lethal and unforgiving killer, which wipes out the majority of the world in a couple of weeks. If you catch it you’re dead (or, as somebody in a broadcast at one point says... we weren’t ready for something with a 1 in 1000 survival rate).

The story is not presented in a linear fashion (although, it does get more linear towards the end) and it tells the story of separate pockets of characters who all have links to each other over their past or future lives, which you discover over the course of the ten episodes in some quite astonishing ways, as the narrative hops from one character in one time zone to another and slow connections gradually dawn on the spectator.

Primarily we start with the death, on stage, via a heart attack (or possibly from the flu as it happens the first evening of the outbreak) of an actor called Arthur Leander, played by Gael García Bernal (don’t worry, because of the nature of the structure of the thing, Bernal is in quite a few episodes in flashback... depending on your point of view in the story). Jeevan, played by Himesh Patel, is the first to realise that Arthur is dying on stage and rushes up to try and help. Instead, he helps one of Arthur’s co-stars, eleven year old Kirsten (played brilliantly in her younger iteration by  Matilda Lawler) escape the area but problems arise and he can’t get her home, so he holes up with her at his brother’s apartment to try and wait out the unfolding disaster... while everyone they know dies from the virus. Arthur gave Kirsten one of five graphic novels, written and artworked by his ex-wife Miranda, played by Danielle Deadwyler. The book is called Station Eleven and tells of a spaceman, Doctor Eleven, who presents a conundrum to the people who read it and helps them find purpose in their struggle to survive ‘the before’... both the pre-pans (aka pre-pandemic) and the newborns who use half remembered fragments of it as their ideological basis, without getting too much into the complexities of the show, to fuel their possible terrorist campaign against those who came before.

Other figures and actors of note are the brilliant Mackenzie Davis as the post-apocalyptic survivalist, grown up version of Kirsten, David Wilmot as Arthur’s best friend Clark, Daniel Zovatto as The Prophet (his connection to these people is made clear at one point about half way through the show), Caitlin FitzGerald as Arthur’s other ex-wife and, as the composer and founder member of a post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespeare company, The Travelling Symphony, who wander the world putting on shows for various small, surviving communities, we have actress Lori Petty (it’s nice to see Tank Girl in something again).

And it’s actually a simple story in some ways, about the people who are left behind and the connections made through various lives which come together at certain points but, if it wasn’t told in such a rich tapestry of imaginative and mutually supporting edits, which spark big emotions on the realisation of their connections, then it probably wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. My understanding is that this structural concept is taken directly from the novel and so I’m guessing the series creator, Patrick Somerville, did a really good job here at keeping it somewhat close to the spirit of the source.

You’d think, from the through line, that the show would be something of a one trick pony but it’s not. I’m leaving a lot out of my synopsis because there are lots of ideas and situations which you need to discover for yourself. Characters fade to the background and then return in episodes which highlight just what happened to them, when they fell out of one of the other character’s lives. So, for instance, it seems pretty clear from episode two that a main character is dead... even though you know you’ll see him again in flashback. However, much later in the series, you find that he’s not and that he has a kind of rebirth in some ways (no, I’m not talking about Arthur... he stays dead) and you’re on tenterhooks throughout the whole last episode as the two characters who lost each other 19 years before are miraculously in the same place against all odds... and still manage to miss each other in the same room (and I’m not going to tell you what happens right at the end but... you’ll want to stick around... I wonder if this is one of the deviations from the novel?).

There’s lots of Hamlet too, if you’re into that kind of thing (I’m really not into Shakespeare myself). And possibly way too many Star Trek references throughout the show although, I was pleased that one of the earliest exhibits in Clark’s Museum Of Civilisation is one of the recent, new wave Mego Mr. Spock action figures.

There’s also some great next level stuff happening where, for instance, Doctor Eleven turns up in a few cases as, presumably, someone is seen in a mild hallucinatory state, although the interpretation is perhaps best left to the audience... or, for example, an episode where both the younger and older versions of a character are interacting in the same space. It’s all rather brilliant and it’s all held together with some nice (if mostly unknown to me) needle drop songs and a really beautiful score by Dan Romer (sadly only released as an electronic download and not on a proper CD. What a stupid thing to do!).

That being said, my one and only criticism of the show also comes from the score, although it’s possibly not Romer’s fault. There’s definitely a case of temp trackitus in the show as a couple of scenes in a few episodes were clearly, it seems to me, cut together initially with passages from Mica Levi’s astonishing score to Under The Skin and the producers maybe didn’t want to leave it out. So Romer creates (and I suspect was forced to create) something very similar to the specific cue I’m thinking of for certain sequences in this show. And what he’s done is good but, for a little while there I almost thought they’d needle dropped the original cues in, it’s that close. Consequently, in certain scenes where I was supposed to be feeling a certain sense of tension, it just popped me straight out of the narrative to figure out where the cue initially originated came from. Which is not the best way to manage the music (or the composer) of your show, I reckon.

But yes, asides from that one thing and the possible sense of a rushed reunion for two of the characters near the end, I’d have to say that Station Eleven is easily one of the greatest pieces of art in television history. I’d recommend this to pretty much anyone interested or enamoured with film and televisual history and, frankly, it’s a huge crime that this show isn’t available on DVD or Blu Ray at time of writing. Instead, it’s been hoarded away by some TV and streaming channel to be the carrot for subscriptions rather than being allowed to flourish in the wild. An absolutely brilliant and, certainly, epic experience. More than worth your time.

Wednesday 8 June 2022

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

Román Holiday

The Girl Who Knew Too Much
aka La ragazza che sapeva troppo
Italy 1963
Directed by Mario Bava
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Arrow’s
Macabre Visions Blu Ray Set

First of all, I’d like to point out that for this re-watch of the classic giallo, I watched the Italian version of The Girl Who Knew Too Much and not the version re-dubbed and re-cut for the American market as The Evil Eye. The main reason being that there aren’t enough hours in the day to cover everything I want to cover on this blog but I mention this because the American cut is very different from the Italian version. Both have scenes exclusive of the others and additional differences, like the identity of the voice over narrative, give each film a slightly different feel, as does the extra emphasis on humour in the US version but, possibly, also a more organic version in The Evil Eye with regards to how the characters relate and bond. Both have slightly different endings too but I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched these... it was well over a decade ago so forgive me for not remembering more thoroughly.

And, I will get around to revisiting the US cut one day and, when I do, I’ll probably tack it onto the end of this review and republish it. I’m not sure I’d advise that the US version is better (as some people do) but, anyway, I’ve plumped for the version which would have been shown in Italian cinemas. This transfer of the film is from the barely released Arrow Blu Ray box set from a couple of years ago called Macabre Visions - The Films Of Mario Bava. I say barely released because this was so limited it sold out before it hit physical shops, just before Arrow’s licence for the films in it expired (from what I can tell, please enlighten me further if you know differently) and the shop I’d pre-ordered it from and paid a significant deposit with, informed me on the day that they couldn’t get it in after all and could only offer me a refund. I quickly jumped on the internet and grabbed what I believed was one of the very last copies on Amazon, which sold out later in the same release day, if memory serves. For people who missed out on this set, all I can say is that it’s probably not the last time we’ll see these on Blu and my gut tells me there will be a much more comprehensive (and costly) Blu Ray edition of Bava films from somewhere else at some point, possibly from one of the ‘usual suspects’ labels in the US like Severin or Vinegar Syndrome.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered by many to be the first Italian giallo and, well, there’s certainly an argument to be made for it being the first famously remembered one at any rate. It’s shot in black and white by the late, very great Mario Bava who continues to prove, along with his earlier black and white movies (I think this was his last monochrome film where he was actually credited as the director rather than cinematographer), that he was just as much of a visual genius with a chiaroscuro tonal palette as he was with his amazing colour films. The claim that he more or less invented (not quite I think) the Italian giallo would be further enhanced when he released the brilliant movie Blood And Black Lace a year later (reviewed by me here) which really strengthens the claim although, of course, it was Dario Argento’s borrowing of the format in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (reviewed here) in 1969 which really opened the floodgates of the genre from that point on.

The plot of the film is very simple but proceeds with a very convoluted unravelling to get to the resolution of what is, to all intents and purposes, a standard whodunnit. The film started out as trying to be a simple, romantic comedy in the Roman Holiday vein but Bava wanted to take the slight thriller aspects of the earlier script and push them full on. I don’t know when famous director Sergio Corbucci jumped on to write one of the screenplays but I’m guessing he was at least partially responsible for the way the material changed.

Either way, the plot deals with an American girl, Nora Davis, played by the extraordinary beautiful and interesting... and subsequently somewhat wasted in her short movie career... Letícia Román. She flies in to stay with an older lady friend in Rome for a vacation but, when the old lady dies and she tries to get to the hospital, in a sequence I’ll detail a little later, she witnesses a murder which is covered up the next day. The old lady’s doctor, Marcello Bassi, played by the dependable John Saxon, then tries to help her solve the puzzle as the killer appears to be honing in on Nora to be the next victim in the ‘Alphabet Murders’, the last of which happened ten years prior. She goes to stay in a new but absent friend’s apartment  (played by Valentina Cortese) that looks out onto where she saw the murder and she uses that as her base for the rest of the movie. And that’s pretty much all the plot details I want to give as I don’t want to spoil this for you. Although I will say that this is so early in the giallo cycle that the portrayal of the police as either ridiculous or incompetent is not yet a thing here. Instead, while they’re just as ineffective in terms of coming up with a credible investigation, they’re not portrayed as being bad at their job, as they would often be shown in various gialli as the years went by.

Bava’s shot compositions are, as usual, extremely beautiful and a constant all the way through this good looking movie. He will often do things like pitch a figure in one half of the screen in close up and then have the depth of the shot a lot greater on the opposite side of the screen (say where the corner of a wall gives way into a bigger space) to show a background which ensures your eye is focused on the figure in the frame. Another nice piece of directing the audience eye occurs when Nora is lured to a room in an apartment and the view from an open door as we look out at her from within, has the doorway showing the only details of the shot placed in an upright vertical slat of the screen representing the door, with all the rest of the frame either side as just black space... with Bava effectively shrinking the frame for that one shot.

There are also some great and quite long camera movements in the piece. Sometimes he’ll start off on a detail of a shot which doesn’t mean much and then move the camera to focus on a person or group moving through a space and then start following them before suddenly stopping as the character(s) move on, as he takes note of another detail in the background of the shot, for instance. Asides from the gothic tinged atmosphere he manages to achieve in the well lit streets of Rome at night, he also makes good use of the interiors, especially in a sequence where Nora sets a trap for the killer by sprinkling the floor with talcum powder and running a cats cradle of interconnecting string all around the house... it’s almost like Bava came up with the string just so he could photograph it, as it doesn’t really add anything to the plot in this scene.

The film is quite fast paced and Bava uses a lot of short, visual stings (almost) in the sequence which starts off with the death of the old lady. While Nora is putting some drops into a glass for her, not realising she’s passed away as she’s doing this, we get the reveal of the death as a sequence of four beautiful shots when she goes to give the old girl her medicine as... a close up shot of Nora’s face, a close up shot of the old lady’s face, a close up shot of a cat against a mirror signalling fright and then a beautiful shot of Nora’s hand dropping the glass in profile.

As the sequence carries on after Nora can’t raise the nearby hospital on a telephone, Bava really piles on the assault on Nora’s senses with another little sequence of short shots (something I don’t usually think of in association with Bava). So we see her get mugged for her handbag and knocked unconscious, then she wakes up and sees a woman who has been stabbed with her possible murderer pulling the knife from the lady before dragging the body away... causing Nora to faint again, then someone trying to revive her the next morning by pouring alcohol down her throat before he runs off when a policeman finds her and she wakes up again. The next sequence begins with an amazing shot of white nuns’ hats pressed together and looking like the petals of a flower before the nun’s heads depart from their close huddle, like petals peeling away and revealing the shot of Nora in a hospital bed (and only then do you realise what the ‘giant petals’ were when we see the nuns in a reverse shot). It’s all good stuff and the pace is certainly dazzling.

The acting and chemistry between Román and Saxon is great too (much more so than in real life, from what I understand) and there are certainly some hangovers, even in the Italian version, where the comedy of what must have been the original script is seeping through and invading the thriller element (such as the slapstick conclusion to the ‘talcum powder and string’ sequence). Bava manages to pull it off and make the elements work together even when, in some cases, Roberto Nicolosi's wonderful score is perhaps playing to the comedy a little too much (I can’t remember what Les Baxter’s score for the US version is like). In short, the ‘first screen giallo’, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, is an absolutely brilliant and entertaining movie and is up there with the director’s best. Any fan of giallo or, indeed, Italian cinema in general, should definitely take a look at this one. An essential film among many essentials in the director’s body of work, for sure.