Tuesday 30 May 2023

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes


Ida Good Clue

The Adventures
Of Sherlock Holmes

USA 1939 Directed by Sidney Lanfield
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the second and final of the 20th Century Fox produced Sherlock Holmes pictures starring Basil Rathbone in the titular role and Nigel Bruce as his faithful Dr. Watson (but certainly not their last film playing these two), following on from The Hound Of The Baskervilles (reviewed here). This would be the same year that Rathbone and Bruce would commence a long running radio show playing the characters also.

This movie’s plot is credited to being based on a 19th Century stage play of Sherlock Holmes and not one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyles original stories, although it would appear that there was very little of the stage play that made it into the final screenplay either.

Joining Rathbone and Bruce for this one were series regular Mary Gordon as housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, Professor Moriarty (Holmes famous Nemesis) as played by George Zucco and Ida Lupino as the woman whose life and, those of her family, are threatened by Moriarty in a murderous scheme used to distract Holmes while the master criminal, in a quite clever two part heist, attempts to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower Of London. Ida Lupino was a really interesting actress but also, bucking convention a little for the time, a very well respected director too (her uncle was the famous English music hall actor Lupino Lane). Moriarty, of course, only ever appears in one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures (although he is certainly mentioned a few times), in a story where he and Holmes fall to their death (Holmes was resurrected by the writer a number of years later as he was just too popular a character to remain dead). In terms of the fourteen Rathbone and Bruce pictures, Moriarty would appear three times, each time played by different actors... and in each one, apparently, he would fall to his death.

The story in this one is pretty much as I summed it up above and there’s not much to elaborate on. However, this is a really interesting movie and the main characters are certainly developing... or should I say evolving. Holmes has already gotten a little more eccentric, plucking his violin to a bunch of houseflies trapped in a glass to try and find the exact note that would affect their behaviour. And, sadly, although Nigel Bruce’s performance as Watson is absolutely brilliant and the reason I always loved these movies, his character has already become somewhat more buffoonish in this one. He doesn’t really make any contribution to solving either of the two parallel Moriarty problems at hand and, indeed, even helps Moriarty gain access to the Crown Jewels as part of the villain’s plan falls into place.

The film also establishes the kind of mutual admiration that the two arch rivals Holmes and Moriarty have for each other. They both find the other one smart and stimulating company and this is certainly how the relationship has been best portrayed on screen over the years. I’m not saying it started here but it would certainly have been popularised by the way it was portrayed in these films.

Other things of interest in the movie are a genuine scene where Holmes, clad in his deerstalker hat and cape for what would be the last time in this series of films, actually conducts a thorough crime scene investigation for five to ten minutes. This one also shows off the versatility of Rathbone in the part when, once again, he wears a disguise and adopts a different personae for one scene, where he plays an entertainer singing ‘Beside the seaside, beside the sea’ at a party. His looks, gait and manner make him absolutely undetectable as Holmes until he reveals himself to Ida Lupino shortly after. It never fails to amaze me just how good the Rathbone disguises are in these movies. If you don’t know the reveals are coming, I’m pretty sure you will be easily fooled on the first watch.

One other interesting thing is the use of music in this film. There’s an evil melody associated with a character Moriarty uses to perform his murders. First we hear it in the underscore as non-diegetic music before we hear it played on the flute by the murderer as diegetic music, where the source of the sound is apparent on screen. The film then continues to use this music in both modes throughout the picture.... which is pretty interesting already for a 1939 film, I think. The score on this one was credited to a number of composers so perhaps a lot of recycling was done for it but... somebody must have written something specifically to go with the source music at some point, I would think.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is abolutely brilliant but, was surprisingly unsuccessful at the time of its initial release and it’s generally believed this was due to the way 20th Century Fox marketed it. So their planned film series of Sherlock Holmes films came to an end with this one. But, the films were obviously well liked by somebody and presumably the radio show was popular enough. So, after a three year period, Basil Rathbone along with Nigel Bruce and Mary Gordon jumped ship, so to speak, finding themselves picked up by Universal for a continuation of the films in thier original roles, for a further 12 movies. There was something a little different about these next ones though which was... oh, wait, I’ll get to that in my next Holmes review.

Monday 29 May 2023


Ash On Demand

Stream date: June 2021
Season 1 - Eight Episodes.

Warning: Plenty of spoilers rising up from out of the volcanic ash on this one.

Okay so... onto Katla then. After the absolute brilliance of Station Eleven (reviewed here) I wanted to watch another gripping TV show and, also, I wanted to see something else from Iceland, after seeing the brilliant Lamb movie (reviewed here)... so I settled for this one. Here’s a fairly spoilerish taste of the plot.

In the half deserted vicinity in the small town of Vik, near the Katla volcano, only a few people have stayed on... mostly scientists, since it started erupting ash. It’s been erupting ash for about a year at the start of the first episode. One of the inhabitants is Grima, played by Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð. She is mourning and trying to recover from the ‘missing presumed dead’ disappearance of her sister Asa, from the year before. Then we have her father, Þór, played by Ingvar Sigurdsson. 20 years before, shortly before his wife took her life, he had an affair with a young woman called Gunhilde. The first episode starts off with a naked woman rising from the ash in the vicinity of Katla and possibly affected by hypothermia. When the hospital cleans her up she tells them she is Gunhilde, played by Aliette Opheim. She has all the memories of Gunhilde from 20 years prior and doesn’t realise things have changed and time has passed. She is also pregnant with Þór’s child. The problem is... Gunhilde is also alive and well, living with her 20 year old son in the next town over.

Meanwhile, another ash girl turns up. It’s the missing Asa from a year ago. When she and Grima try to find out what happened to her in the intervening year, they find Asa’s dead body. Oops. Also meanwhile, a volcano scientist who has come into town suddenly finds his young son has followed him here (his young ‘psychotic’ 8 year old son, I should point out). Problem is, the son has been dead for three years. While all this is going on, the local police chief, who has been caring for his very sick wife who is near to death (but still very much alive) is confronted with a younger version of herself in their home. He’s heavily religious so... it all gets a bit much for him. And then Grima turns up... another Grima. They don’t exactly hit it off.

And on it goes. It’s all very slow burn and intriguing. So intriguing and well made, in fact, that it took me until I was four episodes in before I realised it was riffing/ripping off Stanislaw Lem’s much lauded science fiction novel Solaris (and subsequent TV and cinema versions) to use as a starting point. It’s just that the planet Solaris has been substituted with the volcano Katla and the space station has been substituted with the community in the town. And that’s really okay because... well the classic Tarkovsky adaptation of that was quite lengthy (and all the better for it) but this series has eight hours (so far) to play around with the initial concept and build on it, exploring ideas within that set up and, like all good science fiction, using the central concept to talk about the drama of the people themselves.

By about three quarters of the way in, you kinda get the feeling that the reasons these ‘changelings’ as they are being called (when certain realisations set in... tying them into another legend) are turning up is to help people come to terms with parts of their life they haven’t been navigating very well... they just don’t do it in the most passive manner. Also, it seems like these carbon copies of people at various stages of their lives are, just like the ones in Solaris, not aware that they are copies. They think they’re the real deal and, when find they’re not... things don’t always go well for them. There is a lot of death in the last episode, for instance. A lot of it self inflicted and it’s possible character’s issues they have with themselves are solved by this.

The thing is, though, not quite all of the threads are tied up in the last episode and there is a certain amount of ambiguity regarding just what’s gone on and how the show will continue. We know, for instance, that some more copies are in the process of hatching from the volcano, stacked up underground like the clay people from Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (reviewed here), waiting to pop out of the cave walls. Also, if I’m not very much mistaken, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those characters who have gone to their final rest... original or copies... suddenly popped up from the ground again in the second season. So, yeah, an intriguing concept explored in a  much more leisurely and detailed fashion than in Solaris, perhaps... but it’s not over yet.

What else... well the town is all covered in ash and so it looks very grey and colourless for a lot of the time, which allows the directors to pitch that mood against bright colours at any given moment and give the cinematography a jolt when required.

But it’s the writing and acting which are the real things to look out for on this one. The dialogue between the characters and the way they say as much without words as they do when they use them is wonderful and, of course, wouldn’t work unless they had absolutely brilliant actors filling all the roles here. Everyone is great here... even the psychotic child who is, frankly, an unpleasant and dangerous character people have to deal with... but I was especially impressed at the two actresses who were playing both the younger and much older versions of their characters. It actually took me a long time to realise they didn’t just get different actors to play them and that the make-up department were really earning their keep... as much as these fantastic performers.

And it’s a great show. Everything is slow, moody and mysterious... even down to the musical score which is, as far as I can tell, sadly not available on CD. Although the show is a one trick piny in terms of its initial concept, it’s been a well travelled pony and this show certainly never runs out of steam and does leave you wanting more (which is as good a goal as any). And that’s me done with Katla, which I would recommend to pretty much anyone. I just hope the promised second season* is forthcoming sometime soon, for sure.  

*Apparently this second season should be streaming on a ‘usual suspect’ streaming service sometime in June 2023.

Sunday 28 May 2023

The Pope's Exorcist

Amorth By
Amorth West

The Pope's Exorcist
USA/UK/Spain 2023
Directed by Julius Avery

Warning: Some spoilers here...

The Pope’s Exorcist is the second exorcist movie I’ve watched in a week and, like Prey For The Devil (reviewed by me here)... it’s not exactly scary. However, while it’s not as surreal or as entertainingly quirky as the former movie, it still has points of interest and is amusing enough to sustain its running time.

Based on the books of the real life Pope’s exorcist, who died in 2016, this movie is set in 1987 (I’m glad the film states that because it looked contemporary to me) and has Russell Crowe playing the title character, Father Gabriel Amorth. The film starts off with a sample of his ‘bedside manner’, so to speak, as he convinces a mentally disturbed patient who he suspects does not need exorcising (although how that notion plays when certain things are uncovered later in the film is something you might want to think about) that he has been exorcised in a ritual which is... something I’ve not quite seen done before in a movie. That I can remember, at least. Then, after a brief sojourn in Italy where Amorth ignores some political problems, The Pope sends him to Spain to perform an exorcism.

In Spain, a mother (played by Alex Essoe) and her two children have come from the USA and moved into an Abbey inherited from her late husband’s family, to oversee restoration work so they can sell it. However, something is quickly uncovered during that work and it’s not very long before the young boy is demonically possessed. Enter all the usual tropes and trappings of the genre as Father Amorth, helped by a young priest played by Daniel Zovatto (who was The Prophet in Station Eleven, reviewed by me here), takes on the powerful demon inside the boy. As they do this, Amorth uncovers a buried conspiracy executed by the Roman Catholic religion dating back to the days of the Spanish inquisition (which also, kind of, absolves the modern arm of any responsibility of the atrocities of that time but, yeah, that’s just a good advert for the church, as far as I can see).

Okay, so it’s not a terrible movie but it does cover a lot of the same ground as other exorcist movies, to be sure. I was thinking about this subgenre of film as I slept on this overnight and, it seems to me that of all the niches in the horror genre... for instance vampires, werewolves and to a certain extent mummy movies... exorcism films tend to stick more to the rites and rituals the genre has always been known for without exploring new angles. So you can’t blame these movies, in a way, for being so predictable.

That being said, there are some new things here... such as a scene with a pig early on in the movie. And a whole sequence where Russell Crowe does an Indiana Jones act in walled up and hidden parts of the Abbey, where he both discovers the reason why he’s been lured onto this particular job but, also finds the information he needs to be able to defeat the demon. Kind of... there are definitive shades of the ending of Prey For The Devil (not to mention The Exorcist) in the ending to this movie too... so yeah, it does cover very familiar territory for fans of this subgenre.

But there are things which will keep you watching. One is the beautiful cinematography, where the camera movement responds fluidly to the physical arc of the characters in the frame, often aligning things to the centre of the shot. And flashbacks to Amorth’s sins as a resistance fighter in the second World War is another element to the story which has interest, giving the character an emotional depth which the demon is intent of using against him. And... well... another good thing about the movie is Russell Crowe himself. Surprisingly.

I say surprisingly because I’m not the biggest fan of Crowe, to be honest. I acknowledge he’s got a big physical. almost brutish presence in front of the camera but, I have to say, his somewhat eccentric performance of Father Amorth here is pretty likeable and the actor does it very well. He pretty much carries the movie with his personality, I would say so, yeah, you have to admire him for that.

And if you’ve got a big, brutish actor who chews up the scenery... who the heck do you get to play The Pope to balance that physical presence? Ha! None other than Django himself! That’s right, the great Franco Nero plays The Pope here and somehow makes it seem natural. They should put these two tough guys in a bloody cop thriller together, I reckon.

And that’s me done with The Pope’s Exorcist. Not the best exorcism film I’ve seen this month but very watchable and certainly it would count as another future ‘comfort horror’ movie, when it comes out on Blu Ray. If you are into these kinds of movies and can forgive it the amount of clichés which seem to me to be a constant weakness of the subgenre, then you should definitely give this one a watch. It’s certainly an entertaining picture.

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Five Shaolin Masters

The Return
Of The Quing

Five Shaolin Masters
aka Five Masters Of Death
aka Shao Lin wu zu
Hong Kong/Taiwan 1974
Directed by Cheh Chang
Shaw Brothers/Celestial Pictures
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Okay, so it’s fortunate that I recently watched the Taiwanese movie Return Of The 18 Bronzemen (reviewed here), from the Eureka Masters Of Cinema Cinematic Vengeance box set, because it gives me a little historical context for what is yet another loose fabrication of one of many various tales inspired by real life events. At the end of that curious movie, with its equally bizarre attempt at a resolution, the main antagonist/protagonist of the Quing Empire sent his troops to burn down the Shaolin Temple. This film, the third in Arrow’s Shawscope Volume 1 Blu Ray box set and called Five Shaolin Masters, deals with the aftermath as seen by five surviving students of the temple, as each of the five get into fights with villains as the credits introduce us to each actor and character in turn. As a result of this, the credits take about a quarter of an hour to get through but this is not unusual and I’m pretty sure one of my old Region 3 Celestial Pictures DVDs, I think it might have been one of the Water Margin movies made prior to the Japanese turning it into a TV show, has the credits constantly going throughout most of the movie as each character and actor is introduced when they enter the narrative.

Okay, so the main one of the five is played by David Chiang and, also, we have Sheng Fu as the youngster upstart of the five who is almost, but not quite, serving the same kind of role as Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai (and certainly Horst Buchholz from the remake of that film called The Magnificent Seven). Anyway, the five of them survive the burning and evade their enemies for now but, they are on the run from the Quing government. So they split up and each find allies and rebels, using their secret Shaolin hand gestures which will identify people sympathetic to their cause. They also have to sniff out the ‘traitor’ who was a spy in their midst for the Quing mob.

And, yeah, it’s a strong movie with a heck of a lot of action and some of the more energetic fight scenes I’ve seen in a Shaw Brothers picture... certainly holding their own against the Taiwanese pictures I’d seen recently, it has to be said. Of course, being as it’s a Shaw Brothers production, it looks pretty good (even if I did recognise some of the sets and locations from others of their movies) and, even though the story is beyond simplistic, there’s just more of it and there’s time spent rounding out the characters and concentrating on their dialogue.

There’s also the normal distraction of the soundtrack being obviously borrowed from a whole host of other films. Now, as it happens, I couldn’t recognise any of the scores here but I certainly know enough to recognise I was listening to needle drops from Italian soundtracks. Arrow’s wonderful accompanying booklet put me straight to the films being used and they certainly are Italian scores, by the likes of Piccioni and Rustichelli but, I’m glad to say I’d not seen the particular films in question (which makes me feel a little better about not being able to identify the scores, for sure).

By the end of the movie, the five heroes decide to return to the ruins of their former Shaolin Temple and train hard in fighting techniques they believe will help them to defeat the specialist fighting styles of the various main heavies who are pursuing them. So one practices with a thing he calls a chain whip for example... while another starts practicing pole fighting techniques to deal with a bad guy who’s speciality is an axe on a chain (which he less than subtly, when he is de-chained, converts into an axe on a stick so he can carry on with the lethal duel). One guy, in order to defy the striking blows of one of the opponents, practices a kind of tumbler, ground fighting technique which, although partially effective, looks quite silly on the extended training montage we see cross cut  together of the five as they spend a year training at their new, advanced fighting styles. In fact, when this guy starts rolling around on the ground, well... all I will say is that, in my head, Ollie & Jerry were singing There’s No Stopping Us to accompany the visuals.

And the final fight, where the five stand against an army of around eight to ten of their combined enemies, which keeps cross cutting from one protagonist to another, takes up pretty much the last 20 minutes of the movie. And, contrary to how things might have ended in a Western made movie of that particular time period, not all of the five heroes make it out of the encounter alive... I’ll say that much.

And now that I have said that much, I’ll acknowledge that I haven’t really got that much else to say about Five Shaolin Masters. Other than that it’s hugely entertaining and one of the more engaging of the Shaw Brothers produced movies I’ve seen over the years. Definitely something to recommend if you are into these kinds of kung fu movies and I’m definitely looking forward to the next film in the set, for sure.

Monday 22 May 2023

Archive 81

Portal Combat

Archive 81 -
The TV Show

Stream date: January 2022
Eight Episodes.

Warning: Meticulously restored spoilers jumping out of the screen at you here.

Archive 81 is an eight episode streaming TV show which is based on a 2016 podcast. Now I’ve not listened to the original podcast (although I may well do at some point) but, considering this show was raved about when it hit the airwaves in January and had very high ratings and positive critical feedback... you kinda have to wonder why Netflix has cancelled it after one season. Especially since, although a part of the story has a conclusion, there’s definitely a cliff hanger to lead into a second season.

The show follows Dan, played by Mamoudou Athie, who is a top tape and film restorer for a firm. Then a powerful, wealthy, faceless corporation owner named Davenport, played by Hal Hartley regular Martin Donovan, hires him to work in solitude in a compound by himself in the Catskill Mountains, for which he will pay a princely sum. His job, to restore a bunch of old, burned video cassettes which were rescued from a fire in the Visser Hotel in the 1990s. A woman called Melody, played by Dina Shihabi, was convinced the hotel had a clue to her mother, who abandoned her in a convent when she was a baby. So we have, at first, two levels of narrative running, as Dan works to restore the tapes and piece together just what happened in the Visser in its final weeks. Meanwhile, the found footage videos Melody made are augmented by the audience eye going into those scenarios and also following her story as she shoots the footage, also filling us in on the bits in between the various tapes that Dan is restoring.

Fairly quickly in the show, though, Melody’s reality starts bleeding into Dan’s reality and it’s not long before the two, aided and abetted in about equal measure in their own times by Dan’s friend Mark (played by Matt McGorry) and Melody’s sometime girlfriend Annabelle (played by Julia Chan), start almost working together to solve the mystery. And when I say together, I mean just that, as Dan and Melody keep overlapping and meeting in dream state versions of each others world. At first Dan thinks he’s just gone crazy due to his history of mental illness but, pretty soon, he starts finding evidence of his encounters with her decades before, on the tapes he’s restoring, not to mention finding that his dad was somehow involved in the mystery too... his family all burned in their home one day when he was out walking the dog as a kid.

And... it’s okay. I actually started watching this and getting quite into the first two episodes but, yeah, it does get a bit formulaic and the mystery takes its time to unfold and is pretty much spelled out in every episode before it’s all finally revealed in the last two. It’s pretty obvious that there is witchcraft actively taking place using human sacrifice to open a portal between dimensions at certain points in time... well, it was not much of a surprise to me, at least. I think it might be because I’d recently just watched some great TV shows like Invasion (reviewed here), Yellowjackets (reviewed here), From (reviewed here) and the absolute masterpiece that is Station Eleven (reviewed here) so, coming off the back of those, the pacing and ‘page turner’ quality that so many were giving it good reviews for may have been lost to me.

That being said, the acting by all concerned in the show was great, with a special shout out to Mamoudou Athie on this one for fleshing out the slightly distanced Dan as an unflappable and confident character that the audience is willing to keep tuning in for (although ‘tuning in’ my not be the correct turn of phrase that the kids are using these days, i suspect). Also, since his character has a love of old fantasy and science fiction serials and movies, such as Flash Gordon (although, dude, Flash Gordon didn’t release in 1940... you’re confusing it with the third serial, Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. Not to mention his home studio is kitted out with framed prints of Criterion Collection covers such as Hausu and Solaris (although, when he puts Tarkovsky’s Solaris on his television in one scene, the aspect ratio seems to be a lot less wider than it should be so, I don’t know what print he’s watching a transfer of at that point).

Add, yeah, it’s a short review and, although obviously a lot of people loved Archive 81 (which makes Netflix cancelling it seem even stranger), I don’t think I’d recommend it myself. It grabbed me from the beginning but, somewhere around the third or fourth episode it stopped feeling essential to me and more of a... well, not a chore but, I dunno, it just didn’t stray into any original territory... I felt like I’d seen it all before. That being said, I will attempt to track down the podcast at some point because, while the TV show gives the appearance that Dan has rescued Melody from another realm, it then goes to show that he, himself, has been trapped in 1994 (although, I don’t believe he is, I believe he’s still in the other dimension). So maybe the podcast will tell me what happens next... although my understanding is its already quite different from the TV adaptation, with the tapes Dan’s restoring on the podcast being audio files, not audio/visual media, for example. I’ll let you know what I find out if I do.

Sunday 21 May 2023

Prey For The Devil

Let The
Nun Shine In

Prey For The Devil
Directed by Daniel Stamm
2022 USA Lionsgate

Warning: Light spoilers.

I’m not an expert on exorcist movies, it has to be said but, I do enjoy the odd exorcism story when they come up. Nevertheless when Colin Salmon himself presented a clip from this movie to the audience at FrightFest last year, I couldn’t help but feel a little lukewarm to the idea of seeing yet another one (although Salmon himself is always good to watch on screen). I didn’t think much of the title either (although puns are usually a phenomenon I have a lot of sympathy for). So I didn’t rush out and see this a couple of weeks later on its UK theatrical release but, now I’ve finally caught up to the movie, I think maybe I should have done.

Prey For The Devil is a well oiled machine of an exorcism film and, although it’s chock full of the usual clichés and tropes of almost every other exorcism movie going, I actually found the formulaic episodes of the tale quite comforting. Yes, this is a horror film but it’s not really a very scary one... that being said, though, it’s actually got some interesting things happening in it, which made it worth the price of admission for me (and worth the price of the Blu Ray at some point too, I think).

The story tells of young nun Ann, played by Jacqueline Byers, who has an interest in the rituals and realities of exorcism due to her mother being demonically possessed when she was a kid... or schizophrenic, as her psychiatric assessor played by Virginia Madsen suggests. It’s apparently required training for nuns assigned to her location to undergo a course of psychiatric evaluation.

And where she is, is working as a nurse in an exorcism school in the US. The vatican has decided to open them around the globe in response to the rise in demonic possessions (according to the opening blurb on the film) though nuns are not allowed to study there but, instead, nurse the ‘patients’. Exorcism school is only for the male priests, apparently. However, the lead tutor, played by the always brilliant Colin Salmon, can see her potential and agrees to let her sit in on his lessons, due to special circumstances which manifest early in the film... which become more obvious as her back story is gradually revealed.

From then on it’s the usual exorcism tropes but with a few added twists to the story structure, which means it never gets boring. Part of that is the slow reveal of Ann’s history. I think the structure of that is dictated by the presence of the little girl who Ann is trying to help in varying degrees throughout the movie. Frankly, if the back story was told in full earlier on, the reveal would be superfluous as it’s really easy to guess, as soon as the audience is armed with the obvious puzzle piece. So the director and writers cannily hold back on the most clarifying piece of information until just a little while before the ‘twist’ reveal.

The exorcism scenes are really nice and go ‘full monty’ fairly quickly, once the plot and characters have been set up. There are some nicely surreal moments in the movie too. Such as a scene where a little girl’s hair is plunging down her own throat and when two of the priests finally pull it all out to stop her choking, it’s being held onto by a demonic hand coming out of her mouth. There’s another great moment where the girl holds her palms over her eyes and two bloody holes form on the back of her hands where the eyes would be, as maggots start to drop out from the holes. It’s good stuff I don’t think I’ve seen done in film before (although if you think these filmmakers have swiped these particular moments from other movies, please let me know in the comments section below).

Some of the more surreal scenes don’t always make sense in terms of the story though, it has to be said. Such as when Sister Ann starts tugging on a hair coming out of the centre of her own eyeball (the censors in the UK would not have let that one through back in the 1980s, that’s for sure). It doesn’t really add any clarification to the rest of the story, it has to be said but, hey, it’s still a nice sequence so, I’ll certainly forgive the film for its quirkiness. Art can transcend functionality as far as I’m concerned.

There are also some nice discussions, particularly between Byers and Salmon, about the nature of God and the approach to tackling exorcism, with Byers character challenging the established church line all the way through the film. Is she right to do so? Well, it aint over ‘til the fat lady sings or, in this case, ‘til a certain lady takes a bath in holy water but, I will say I found the ending peculiarly satisfying and, there is certainly room for a sequel or even a franchise here, as far as I’m concerned (not that I think there will be one, mores the pity).

And there’s not much more for me to say about this one so, apologies for the short review. I would love a copy of Nathan Barr’s score on CD but, yeah, that doesn’t look like its going to get released anytime soon. Some in the audience might like to know that this is the last film to feature Ben Cross, who died not long after he’d shot it in 2020... I guess this was another movie delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Other than that... it’s well acted by all and sundry, has some good effects and holds a certain amount of tension. I liked a lot of the characters too, which didn’t hurt. All in all, I’d say that if exorcism things are your jam... don’t expect wonders but, certainly, Prey For The Devil is one of the more character driven and entertaining of this subgenre of movies so, yeah, I’d certainly recommend it.

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Beyond Terror

Crypt In The Bud

Beyond Terror
aka Más allá del terror
Spain 1980
Directed by Tomás Aznar
Cauldron Ray Zone A

Well this is a film which has left me torn. Torn between a superb, better than it deserves, transfer and release and the fact that, ultimately, it’s a really grubby little movie. Pretty much the only horror film in a very short career for director Aznar, Beyond Terror is a Spanish horror film which... could have been a great experience but which kinda throws it away by having, pretty much no redeeming characters to root for when things start to get nasty. In fact, things start to get nasty even before the credits have started and that’s often by the hand of the people we are supposed to be following on screen.

The film starts off with a series of long, slow, shots with a static camera as one of the film’s main protagonists/antagonists, Lola (played by Raquel Ramírez), is having a smoke outside a cafe. This is something the director decides to do a lot and, though there are a number of moving camera shots dotted about the film, the director does tend to favour static camera with longish takes, it seemed to me.

The girl gets picked up by a guy who makes the assumption she is a sex worker. She directs him to drive her to some parkland, her ‘romantic place’, so they can do the deed somewhere other than a cheap hotel room. Right from the set up, you can tell this is a ploy and once she’s lured him to a place far from public eyes she attempts to pick his pocket. He catches her at it and gets naturally upset. So she stabs him to death, wipes her blade on the man’s tie and steals his money. She then runs to a phone box to phone her brother Nico to let him know she has stolen the money they need for drugs and then hitchhikes a car ride to meet him. As the driving title music plays over the credits (I’ll get to that) I was wondering why she didn’t just take the dead guy’s car keys and drive herself... something which became an obvious concern to me after the gang formed by her, her brother, ringleader Chema (played by Francisco Sánchez Grajera) and one other quickly expendable character... seem quite happy to steal any moving vehicles they can get their hands on.

Anyway, it’s not long before they hold up a pub for more cash but, when Jorge (played by Antonio Jabalera) and his girlfriend Linda (who is married to his boss and is played here by Alexia Loreto) turn up at the place and someone else calls the police, the bar turns into a blood bath. One of the thugs is shot (and then finished off by Chema with a shot to the brain) while two policemen and pretty much the whole pub are shot by the gang. On a slim plot pretext I couldn’t figure out, they take Jorge and Linda as hostages and get them to drive them somewhere.

When they come across a house in the country and kill the guard dog, the movie briefly turns into a home invasion movie (one of my least favourite kinds of films to watch... I usually steer well clear of that genre) but the grandmother and little boy who live there are killed by the gang when they escape in a new set of wheels and burn the house down. However, when they get in the car, every radio station plays the same music and, also, the voices of the dead people they just killed... even when the radio is smashed. They then crash... or come to a stop even though the brakes have stopped working... at an old, abandoned and semi-ruined church. Jorge tries to escape the place when he fixes the car but the spirit of the dead boy turns him back and the car bursts into flames killing him.

From hereon in it’s all about surviving the church, the shack opposite with the boy in it, the various dead characters... not to mention the dog... and the undead mummy things in the cobwebby crypt which also houses a fortune in lost treasure. Um... it’s a bit of a mix up and strange things happen... including masturbation and incest in the church plus a full on sex scene which kinda goes on just a little too long between Linda and gang leader Chema. Talking of sex, when Linda is alone in the crypt and various cobwebbed up zombie/mummy monk figures pounce (very slowly) on her, they decide to sex her up and when she is found later, she’s cobwebbed up with the rest of them in an undead state, presumably as their new constant companion.

Other notable things would be a big painting of people which changes whenever one of the characters die, to replace one of the figures with a skeleton and, in terms of the final victim of the film, Lola, a moment when the elderly lady returns in the form of some kind of witch woman and uses her magic thought powers to explode Lola’s head in a way that isn’t all that convincing but, there’s lots of blood to spatter said painting.

And, not much else to say about Beyond Terror, other than the soundtrack. It’s sparsely spotted and, according to a cassette release in the image gallery which plays the soundtrack album in question as it goes, it’s by a load of people I’ve not heard of credited to different tracks. However, there’s not even a composer credit on the film itself and I can’t help think that it was needle dropped from another film... the opening titles sound very much like Cipriani... or possibly from a music library (there’s a track towards the end of the picture which kinda sounds like a bargain basement version of something Goblin might have written and performed for it). I did enjoy the score though so it’s a shame it’s not been released on something more accessible, like a CD, because I would definitely grab this one.

Beyond Terror is an oddity of a film and has no redeeming characters so, I found it hard to enjoy to be honest. Cauldron’s Blu Ray release of it, however, is exquisite. The print and the transfer are absolutely ‘fresh out of the can’ gorgeous. Also, you get a reversible sleeve, an accompanying booklet and some cardboard, miniature, double sided reproductions of eight lobby cards. Plus, a nice slipcase with some beautiful embossing of the US poster on the front and a version of the Spanish poster on the back. The Spanish poster includes a big topless lady demon added to the artwork, which seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the movie but perhaps may have more to do with the May 1971 Issue 11 of Warren Comics original Vampirella series, from which it was filched.

I wouldn’t recommend Beyond Terror to anyone except Spanish horror completists, to be honest (although, even as I write this review, I can feel the film beginning to grow on me) but, as a beautifully produced piece of packaging from Cauldron, then I absolutely would recommend it if graphic design is your thing. I bought another Cauldron release at the same time, a giallo I’ve not seen called The Crimes Of The Black Cat, so I’ll get back to that one on here when I start revisiting that genre for this blog at some point in the near future (hopefully this year but possibly next). In the meantime... yeah... I can;t really recommend this movie, to be fair.

Monday 15 May 2023

The Midwich Cuckoos

Damned If You Don’t

The Midwich Cuckoos
UK June 2022
Seven episodes

The Midwich Cuckoos is the third adaptation of English science fiction John Wyndham’s famous novel (perhaps his most famous after The Day Of The Triffids), following the excellent 1960s production of Village Of The Damned and the, partially successful, 1990s John Carpenter remake (which relocated the fictional town of Midwich to the US) not to mention the 1960s sequel to the original movie, Children Of The Damned). And, I like the quite faithful to source first movie and the novel so much that, on hearing that the evil, alien induced kids in this version did not have the pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes synonymous with these characters, I vowed not to watch it. I’ve had enough in recent years of the bizarre, unnecessary cultural appropriation where white characters are replaced by different races (and vice versa, for that matter). And, of course, if the metaphor of blue eyed, blonde kids in a novel written nearer to World War 2 and a movie produced when people had certainly not forgotten the blight of Nazi Germany rings no bells for you, then perhaps you were kinda missing some of the subtext of that original?

But then I thought about it for a bit and realised, whereas you could get away with a movie set in 1960s England and a novel set in the 1950s where the vast majority of the village, if not the entirety of the population, are all white... it’s a little harder to do that now because everywhere is a lot richer and diverse than it was then. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s still an evil thing to do and the makers of this new version could easily have figured it out... however, I suspect they realised that it would also jeopardise the slow burn nature/realisation that all the kids born after the unexplained event at the start of the novel/show were a lot more different than they at first appear. And that would hurt the drama. After all, you can’t have multi-cultural parents of varying origins all credibly producing blond haired, blue eyed kids. So I’m willing to accept this one, of many changes, to the original story in the interest of a certain verisimilitude throughout.

It’s not that realisation that finally got me into the programme though... it was ten minutes of downtime on YouTube one lunch hour where I watched Mark Kermode’s review of this new series and, yeah, his words convinced me that this version was worth seeing. And, it turns out... he’s right (I’m not one of the many surprising naysayers in terms of the overall reception of this TV show).

Okay, so the main character of Zellaby has had a sex change now and, instead of being a teacher played by either George Sanders or Christopher Reeve, he’s been transformed into Keely Hawes... but that’s okay, Hawes is a fantastic actress and plays the part well, aided by many fantastic actors in this show such as Synnove Karlsen, Max Beesley, Ukweli Roach, Aisling Loftus and Cherrelle Skeete. They all do a fantastic job in a story which has been significantly altered in terms of how the events are viewed (it’s much more about the characters of the parents and how they slowly react to what’s happening in the village) but which, pretty much keeps to the story, with minor twists to the structure and, of course, the inevitable update to accommodate modern technology. So, yeah, what I’m saying is there are not too many surprises for those who’ve read the novel or seen the films... the start and end of all the troubles in the village is, more or less, the same as the previous iterations in a moving image setting.

The basic plot set up is of all the inhabitants of Midwich falling asleep one day for a twelve hour or more period. Nobody can get in or out of the village without also falling asleep. Then, when everyone wakes up the next day, all the child bearing age women of the village are pregnant. They all give birth to kids who grow at a faster rate, are much more intelligent and have glowy eyes and psychokinetic powers in order to survive as an ‘obviously alien in origin’ hive mind on Earth... killing and controlling those who get in their way. And that’s about as much as I’m saying about the plot set up. If you’ve seen previous iterations you’ll know how things go and, if you don’t then great, you can watch it and let the story surprise you.

My one slight criticism of the series is that it’s very slow burn compared to the original book. Taking a couple of hours of episodes to do what the film does in ten minutes and what the book does in a few pages (if memory serves). But that’s okay... I love slow burn horror and it does give the writers a chance to expand the scenario and, as I said, make it more character driven. It also plays around with the idea that the initial kids can raise an army with their minds and, also looks at what happened in one of the other villages in the past where this alien intelligence has tried to do the same thing, throwing up one decent reveal at the end of one episode in terms of one of the authority figures in this version.

And, yeah... I don’t have too much else to say about this one. This new version of The Midwich Cuckoos managed to hold my interest all the way through and, given I already knew the story quite well, it kept me gripped from start to end (although I could have done without the opening flash forward on the first episode, which it finally catches up to again halfway through the final episode). The kids are quite good too and, despite their lack of similar looks, they still manage to act and feel quite creepy, which I guess is half the battle here. So, yeah, contrary to my initial misgivings and outrage, I’d have to say it’s a big thumbs up from me on this one. Nice to see an old science fiction/horror classic given its due.

Sunday 14 May 2023

The Hound Of The Baskervilles

Dogging The Law

The Hound Of
The Baskervilles

USA 1939 Directed by Sidney Lanfield
20th Century Fox Blu Ray Zone B

Well the time is upon me. I finally get caught up on a rewatch of the classic (and best) series of Sherlock Holmes films on a lovely set of Blu Ray transfers from, judging from this first one in the series, some pretty good prints. Rather than get the expensive, five disc US version I plumped for the Italian/German 7 disc release (since nobody has seen fit to make these available on Blu Ray in the country where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the original stories, lived... as yet, for some unfathomable reason). Both sets have all 14 films with the only real difference, from what I can make out since this Italian edition can be easily set for English language, with or without English subtitles in its menus, seems to be that the Italian set is £30 cheaper than the US set and that’s not including any import fees.

And what a film this is. The Hound Of The Baskervilles is the first of the original run featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who were so popular as Holmes and Dr. Watson that they also played them for a number of years on the radio too. This was the first of two Sherlock Holmes films made and released by 20th Century Fox in 1939, the same year that Basil Rathbone and some of the cast of this one shot Son Of Frankenstein for Universal, which I believe was filmed just before this one (and which you can find reviewed by me here). I won’t go over the plot here again because so many people know it (or if they don’t, they don’t want it spoiled) but it takes a few liberties with Conan Doyles original novel (I think I’m right in remembering this was the longest Holmes story he wrote, novel length, as a kind of flashback story in between killing him off in the stories and then, later, snatching him back from death for more money spinning tales).  

Joining the winning team of Rathbone and Bruce (easily my personal favourite Holmes and Watson) was Richard Greene (future TV Robin Hood, star of Sword Of Sherwood Forest, reviewed here and who got top billing above Rathbone), Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Wendy Barrie (who was in a fair few films in The Saint and The Falcon series) and, of course, Mary Gordon as Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, who would stay with the series along with the two male stars when it made the transition, after the first two films. The transition being that, after the two Fox films, which were both set in Victorian times like Conan Doyle’s original stories were, there was a gap of three years before Universal hired the three actors for a continuation of the series, this time contemporising them so that Holmes' adventures were updated for a 1940s wartime setting.

This one is pretty great and it’s wonderful looking back on these fantastic performers and character actors playing in a well oiled mechanism of a film. The direction and camerawork both look great for the roughly 4:3 aspect ratio of the time and, as evidenced by these quite good Blu Ray transfers (so far), all filmed in a very crisp black and white. There’s also a nice sequence near the start, where Atwill’s character is reading from a manuscript to fill in Holmes on the legend of the film’s titular Hound. The flashback is presented as a live action sequences of events but, it’s depicted as a little vignette superimposed into the centre of the manuscript, with the edges of the pages and the text, some overlapping, at the edge of the action. So, yeah, a nice touch.

Rathbone is absolutely amazing as Holmes, not quite emotionless and certainly he injects the required air of authority into the character for sure. And then there’s Watson, as played by Nigel Bruce. This guy is fantastic but I notice he’s not quite as bumbly and stupid as I remembered him to be in these. Maybe that comes later with the transition to the Universal scripts but here, he certainly does take the initiative and seems much smarter than he perhaps ended up as, later in the run. Although he certainly doesn’t penetrate Holmes disguise as the old peddler, hawking his wares around the vicinity of the Grimpen Mire. But you know what? That’s okay because, one of the things I remember very clearly and, it’s certainly the case here, is that unless you are seriously looking for it, the audience isn’t going to easily penetrate Rathbone’s disguises in these films. I remember being fooled quite a lot as a kid when I first watched these (at 5.40pm in the evening, week days on BBC2 in the early to mid 1970s, if memory serves) and looking at them now, if I didn’t half remember them, I would certainly be fooled again. Rathbone is hard to spot as he makes his voice gravelly and stoops behind a fake beard and moustache. It’s great make up and works much better than a lot of the stuff you see actors trying in modern movies, it has to be said.

The sets are fantastic too... especially the outdoor sets which try very hard... and succeed... at looking very much like the Moors on which half the action takes place. You can still tell it’s a big studio set but, certainly, it’s much more lavish and believable than, say, the sets used to stand in as exterior locations that Universal were using for their horror movies at the time. These really work and there are certainly no tell tale creases in the sky as people go about their business.

And, yeah, just a treat of a movie. I won’t say much else about it because you should discover these for yourself, if you don’t already know them but, certainly, The Hound Of The Baskervilles is the first in a classic run of much loved and popular films which should be on every film enthusiast’s radar. Definitely one to check out if you’ve not seen it.

Tuesday 9 May 2023

The Stendhal Syndrome

The Prisoner
Of Stendhal

The Stendhal Syndrome
aka La sindrome di Stendhal
Directed by Dario Argento
Italy 1996 Medusa
BFI Screening NFT 3
Sunday 8th May 2023

Warning: Yeah, it’s an oldish film and to talk about certain interesting aspects of it requires a big spoiler... so don’t read this if you’ve not seen it before.

So, after three years of lapsed subscription brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic, I finally renewed my BFI membership (the first and only time I’ve let it lapse since the mid-1980s). If I’d known that the BFI were doing a season of films by my favourite director, Akira Kurosawa, earlier in the year then I maybe would have done it sooner (although the tickets are still expensive, even with a member’s discount). However, one of my other favourite directors, Dario Argento, is the subject of a season in May and so I picked two films which, although I’ve seen them before, I don’t think I’ve seen on a big screen before (but my memory is a bit hazy on which I’ve seen in a cinema and which ones I haven’t, truth be told).

For some reason the season seems to be marketed as some kind of ‘horror’ season, so maybe the BFI dropped the ball a little there because, from memory, Argento only ever made a few horror films with almost all the rest of his output belonging exclusively to the giallo genre. And if you are confusing horror for the cinematic variant of giallo then, yeah, I think you definitely haven’t seen enough gialli to realise there’s a huge difference. The other bad thing I noted was that the season is subtitled Doors Into Darkness. Why, then, would the BFI choose to not show any of the TV episodes (at least the one he directed) of the Dario Argento presented 1970s TV series of that very same name? Seems a bit odd, to say the least.

Okay, onto the film. I’ve not watched The Stendhal Syndrome in at least two decades, possibly more. I remember at the time there was a lot of buzz around the violence of the movie and how Dario could have put his lead actress, his daughter Asia Argento, into the situations in the story. Because of all this hype, I remember thinking at the time that the film really wasn’t all that violent and indeed not in any way shocking. That overly sensitive people were overreacting... which is interesting, especially given the audience reaction on this screening (I’ll get to it).

Firstly, yeah, the film doesn’t seem overtly violent or misogynistic or any of the other accusations levelled at it (I’d have gone with a 12A rating maybe... or possibly a 15 for those more sensitive souls watching). However, I do have to say that I was getting increasingly surprised by the audience reaction on this as the film played through at the NFT (where it was relegated to screen three, a mini cinema with pretty much no leg room... I still feel the pain in my knees as I write this the next morning... and just atrocious seating). People were gasping at certain scenes and it kind of popped me out of the experience a little... because a) I was thinking, “What are you gasping at? Please grow up, you can’t be that overly sensitive.” and b) seriously, were there people in this audience who hadn’t seen this ‘old master’ before?

And it is an ‘old master’. I appreciated the film a lot more now and see how it fits in as one of a few stepping stones between the director’s early films and what came, for better or worse, later in his career (and I pretty much like 99% of this guys movie output anyway... excepting Phantom Of The Opera). Of course, I use the analogy of an ‘old master’ because the film uses the very real condition known as Stendhal Syndrome (named after the famous writer, who first wrote about it but wasn’t the first to suffer from it). In the unlikely event you’ve not heard of the condition, a very quick summation is that it manifests as an overwhelming response to the aesthetics of art in close proximity. 

 The opening scene takes place in the Uffizi Gallery (to date, Argento’s the only director been allowed to shoot there because of his status in Italy, I think) and we see Asia’s young detective Anna Manni get similarly overwhelmed by the condition and actually falling into a painting, swimming around and encountering a big fish (a scene actually shot in an ocean, surprisingly, rather than a water tank although, it still looks like it’s a tank to me). She accidentally enters paintings a few times, even using a doorway opened via a painting in her hotel room to act as a flashback narrative (think Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, revisiting earlier moments of the characters’ lives) to fill the audience in on who she is (since, by this point, she’s got temporary amnesia).

And it’s a great movie which, like Argento’s earlier Tenebrae (reviewed here) utilises the trick where the identity of the main antagonist changes halfway through the movie and becomes someone else. One of those killers, who we know from very early on in the movie, is a young Thomas Kretschmann who turns in a really nice... or should that be nasty... performance. Alas, for all the red herrings in terms of suspects Argento places throughout the movie to throw the audience off the trail, I figured out the other killer from very early on when I first saw this decades ago and, yeah, I certainly hadn’t forgotten who it was. It’s a gutsy move but, totally obvious, it has to be said... although it doesn’t stop this from being a really good movie experience, that’s for sure. I think, of all Argento’s films, it was only this one and his debut, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (reviewed here) where I figured out who the antagonist was right from the outset. More often than not the director will fool me, though.

And that’s all I’m saying about this other than, despite not seeming quite as beautifully contrived in the camera movements and edits as his early classics (although the inserts of pills being swallowed from inside the throat and the bullet hole piercing a womans cheeks and being used as a spyhole are certainly in keeping with the aesthetic of the unusual shot versus versimilitude), the film is still visually arresting and I think it’s criminal that this and certain others of his later movies have had no proper Blu Ray release in this country to date (I mean, why keep reissuing the same films over and over and leave the rest neglected... the same thing applies to Jean Rollin’s output too, why aren’t his later films available?).

One piece of trivia that has stayed with me over the decades is the fact that this was, from what I can tell, the first Italian film to use CGI effects. Although they obviously look a little dated now and, I think, were only used during the scenes where The Stendhal Syndrome kicks in for Asia’s character, ushered in each time by Ennio Morricone’s hypnotic and repetitive score. Another piece of trivia is that the director’s later, much maligned movie The Card Player, was originally developed as a sequel to this film and was to have Asia Argento  reprising her role here, before real life circumstances took that movie in another direction.

After all these years I think I’d place this in the upper half of Argento’s movies if I ranked them and I certainly enjoyed the film (if not quite the experience of siting in those seats at the NFT) as much, if not more, than the first time I watched it. Definitely recommended to Argento fans and, especially, to people unfamiliar with his work, I think.

Monday 8 May 2023

The Cannon Film Guide

The Golan
Globus Trotters

The Cannon Film Guide
Volume 1: 1980 - 1984

by Austin Trunick
ISBN 9781629335803

The Cannon Film Guide
Volume II - 1985 - 1987

ISBN 9781729338880

Okay, so some of you may have been asking yourselves why I haven’t been posting any book reviews for over a month. Well, here’s the answer. A very good friend bought me the first two volumes of Austin Trunicks’s outstanding books collectively titled, The Canon Film Guide and between the two volumes, it weighs in at around 1500 pages. I say first two because, as is heavily trailered within the writing, there is a third volume on the way covering the period when both Canon and the relationship of the two owners covered in this period, Golan and Globus from Israel, fell apart completely.

Now, back in the 1980s, Golan and Globus and their version of Canon Films was a watchword between me and one of my best friends for... a complete lack of quality and misdirected enthusiasm. My friend, in particular, loved the Chares Bronson films churned out by Canon but would also extoll the ridiculousness of the studio heads at every opportunity. Truth is, a lot of their product was totally terrible and ill conceived but, everyone always had a few Canon films they loved (for whatever reason) although, as I found out when reading the first of these volumes, one man’s great movie is another man’s poisoned popcorn.

Okay, so the book gives a little background into both Canon before Golan and Globus bought it out and invaded Hollywood... and also their history of making successful films in their own country, pre-Canon. Then, after some background stuff, we get onto the main meat of the two volumes which consists of a chapter devoted to every production in the years stated on the cover, in mostly chronological order (although in some sections, where a bunch of sequels were also made, they are all covered in the same chapter), followed by, in many cases, interviews with some of the key players from the movie in question, be it actor, actress, producer, stuntman, director... whatever.

And this was all well and good because I knew virtually nothing about the majority of Canon movies and have, it turns out, seen very few. While this book didn’t give me the usual long list of films to seek out... it did give me a desire to seek out both Ninja movies and possibly some Chuck Norris movies at some point so... the writer certainly did his job.

Within the pages you will find amazing stories behind the scenes of films which, perhaps, should never have gotten into production in the first place and, because of my relative unfamiliarity with the subject, I didn’t know a lot of these. For example, you’ll find out which Canon actor left acting to find religion and act out parts of the New Testament for church congregations. You’ll find out which Hong Kong filmmaker managed to direct 49 movies with the word Ninja in their titles between 1982 and 1993. There’s the story of how a drunken Robert Mitchum hijacked his own premier by assaulting a photographer with a basketball. And all of this stuff was new to me.

Some of the stories are tragic and ultimately hurt the product... such as when Lou Ferringo was hoodwinked into thinking he was doing pick up scenes and reshoots for Seven Magnificent Gladiators but was actually shooting the second of his Hercules films, with nobody on set allowed to tell him lest he demand entitled renumeration.

Other stories are fascinating... such as learning that the Boogaloo Shrimp from the brilliant Breakdance movies (Breakin’ as they were known in the US) based his dancing style in homage to the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen (and, yes, I love the first Breakdance movie and many by Harryhausen so, this was good to know).

Then there’s the downright strange... such as the chronological ordering and shooting of Missing In Action... and why the sequel was shot first but wasn’t yet the prequel. Or the bizarre story of respected auteur director Barbet Schroeder walking into the Canon offices with a small electric saw and some Novocaine, with the intention of cutting off each of his own fingers until Golan and Globus came through with the money they’d promised to make his movie.

And there’s stuff absolutely right up my street, such as how popular character actor Michael Berryman got his first part... a role in one of the greatest movies ever made... Doc Savage - The Man Of Bronze (which isn’t a Canon movie, obviously but, it comes up in the Michael Berryman interview).

Added to all this and a wealth of movies covered is the fact that, although the author seems a little too PC in some places, it’s actually both amazingly well written and, not only that, extremely entertaining. They style of the writing is light hearted and the voice of the author talks to the reader in a way that makes it a pleasingly breezy read, while still being completely informative.

I had only three problems with the book... little niggly things which aren’t really worth mentioning perhaps but... heck, yeah, I’m going to mention them anyway (and I’m not even going to pick him up for not putting a full stop after the brackets which, you know, you really should). Well, two problems because the third one gets fixed in the second volume (I’ll get to it).

Okay, thing one is the section where he mentions one of the Black Emanuelle films. Most people know that, in order to evade the copyright, the Black Emanuelle films spelled the famous name with only one M. Here the author spells it with two, as per the original Emmanuelle Arsan novel and films. Since the spelling is a specific thing to the franchise, it’s perhaps unfortunate that it’s mis-spelled here.

Secondly, one of my all time favourite Canon movie, Bolero, starring the insanely sexy Bo Derek, is ridiculed by the writer when, actually this film should have gone down in history as one of the all time greats! Which reminds me, I need to try and source a good Blu ray of this at some point soon.

Thirdly, the section on the Breakin’ movies has no interview with Lucinda Dickey... who I absolutely adored in those movies. Hurrah, though, that Trunick managed to secure one for the very last chapter in the second volume. Which also comes with the good news that she’s writing her memoirs. I’ll be first in line.

My only other real disappointment was that another favourite Canon movie, aka Sylvester Stallone’s greatest movie Cobra, is not considered a proper Canon film, it was just distributed by them, so it doesn’t get much time in this book. I’d also liked to have known more about the pre-Golan/Globus movies too but, yeah, how thick would these already giant tomes have to be?

All in all, The Canon Film Guide Volumes 1 and 2 are an absolutely astounding read and so well written that it was never a chore to read about stuff I’d never heard of (which was a surprising amount). And the dedication of Trunick actually being able to label most of the video boxes used as illustrations with which shop that rental copy came from, shows real devotion to the subject, it has to be said. So, yeah, this one was a blistering read and I absolutely will be recommending it to people as an overview of the studios output in these years. Just brilliant and I can’t wait for part three to get a release. Fantastic work!

Sunday 7 May 2023

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3

Quill Life

Guardians Of
The Galaxy Vol. 3

Directed by James Gunn
United States/Canada/New Zealand  
2023 Marvel
UK cinema release print

Warning: There’s a spoiler in here in terms of regular character's mortality rate... you might want to steer clear if you don’t want to know.

Okay... the gang’s all here, again, for the third ‘stand alone’ installment of Marvel’s cosmic adventurers, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3. Well, I say ‘stand alone’ but, honestly, unless you’ve seen both Avengers Infinity War and Avengers End Game, you’re going to be totally lost on stuff like the relationship between Chris Pratt’s Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill character and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora. Quick recap for those who missed it... after half the Guardians were temporarily lost to the Thanos blip, before which Gamora was killed by her adopted father, a version of her character from an earlier timeline was split off into the current ‘real’ timeline but before a time when she gelled with the group and became Quill’s girlfriend.

Joining Pratt and Saldana are the regulars like Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Bradley Cooper as Rocket Racoon, the brilliant Dave Bautista as Drax The Destroyer, Vin Diesel as Groot, Sean Gunn as Kraglin and, of course, the illustrious Karen Gillan as Gamora’s sister Nebula. Sylvester Stallone also returns in this one... and Will Pouter shows up as the long teased Adam Warlock character. They’ve also expanded the role of Cosmo... who everybody must realise (and it’s made even more implicit here) is the Marvel version of Laika, the first dog in space. She has a lot of good scenes in this one and I really enjoyed her character here.

And the whole film is... pretty good, actually.

My track record with the Guardians Of The Galaxy films is not so great. I kinda liked the first movie but, honestly, the second one was truly awful. I only properly warmed to them when they were absolutely great in Avengers Infinity War but, well, yeah, the less said about their Christmas special last year the better. I do have a review of that one but didn’t manage to get it up before the end of the 2022 Christmas season so, I’m holding that one for December this year. This one though is... pretty good. Not as good as thier Infinity War appearances but, of the three cinema released movies with their collective name in the title, I’d have to say this is easily the best one.

This one has a dark heart too, with an opening which leaves the Guardians in a tragic state of imbalance and going on a quest to try and save the life of Rocket, who is left in a coma. While he’s in that coma we get regular flashbacks to how he got from being a simple racoon from Earth to what he is now (think space vivisectionists). The film is full of the usual action, good dialogue and... yeah okay, the usual unfortunate needle dropped songs which show a certain taste on behalf of the production team that certainly doesn’t gel with my own, alas.

The stakes are high but, they’re not the usual ‘universe is in peril’ kind of stakes we usually see thrown at these characters. Instead, each of their missions as they occur are arrived at due to their personal jeopardy. They are all there for their friends in a way, due to Rocket’s back story, he couldn’t be. That being said, although the trailers teased Star Lord’s seemingly lifeless body being carried by Mantis (something which actually occurs pretty early on in the film’s running time), this film has none of the regular characters dying, despite the marketing saying this is the Guardian’s last outing... which I didn’t expect. I mean, they trailer teased it so it looks like we’d lose Peter Quill at some point... so I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be one the cards at all. But I was also expecting at least three of the other characters to die but, no, they’re all alive and well at the end and the actors are easily able to drop in en masse or individually in any future Marvel movies, should the wage packet be sufficiently convincing. Indeed the last of the post-credits scenes already stated that a certain character will definitely be returning at some point. so, yeah, there’s that.

All in all then, a short review for a movie with the only real problem* that, at two and a half hours, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 seems like it might have benefited from having a much leaner edit. But it’s just fine as it is and my favourite character here, by a country mile, was Cosmo (aka Laika) the Russian space dog. And, yes, for those who want to know, Howard The Duck gets another cameo in this one. 

* Actually, having slept on this review, I realise there is another BIG continuity problem with the film. Peter Quill left Earth with a boy and clearly hasn't kept up with Eath culture, as evidenced by him askeing Spider-Man if Footloose is still the greatest movie ever, in Avengers Infinity War. How come, then, he can throw an insult which includes a reference to Robocop, a film made long after he'd departed from Earth culture? Makes no sense! Bad writing.

Tuesday 2 May 2023

The Boxer From Shantung

Everybody Was
Shantung Fight Win

The Boxer
From Shantung

aka Ma Yong Zhen
Hong Kong 1972
Directed by Cheh Chang & Hsueh-Li Pao
Shaw Brothers/Celestial Pictures
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Spoilers aplenty.

Another Shaw Production then... as the end credits often said.

The Boxer From Shantung is another blistering classic which I’ve not seen before but, it’s a pretty good slice of action mayhem, it has to be said. Kuan Tai Chen, in his acting debut, plays real life character Ma Yongzhen... a person who has been portrayed a lot of times in various movies (some of which I’ll someday get to see, I’m sure)... although I understand the story is only very loosely based on him, which probably differs from production to production.

In this one, Ma is a drifter who has left Shantung with his brother (or possibly best friend, depends what they mean by ‘brother’ in these kinds of movies) to try and find gainful employment in Shanghai, only to be living the life of a tramp, struggling to find what work he can. He does, however, have practically unbeatable Kung Fu skills which he’s somehow managed to acquire over the years (notice I didn’t mention anything about boxing skills again... I don’t want to harp on about it but this is yet another Shaw Brothers movie that mentions a boxer without actually having one... I’m guessing the concept of a boxer is completely different in Hong Kong).

During the course of the first 20 minutes or so, Ma manages to demonstrate his kung fu skills when he has an altercation with one of the local gang bosses and, when he comes to blows with said boss, the two come out of it having won a mutual respect for each other. However, Ma takes no rewards for any of the favours he does for people (including becoming embroiled in a fight at a local tea house where he meets a woman who takes his romantic interest, sadly unfulfilled due to the strange arc the story takes) and just wants to make his own way... for a little while at least. Once again my Western thinking brain may be the problem here but the story now goes in a completely different direction to that which I thought it would take. That being said, it certainly reminds me of the kind of bleak, ‘crime sometimes pays up until a point’ US gangster movies of the 1930s starring the likes of Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, to be sure.

After a while, following a big ‘knock him down and win twenty dollars’ fight with a massive Italian fighter (which took 5 days to shoot), he doesn’t turn down the reward of owning a small part of the local territory... nor the protection racket money it brings in. It isn’t long before he’s well on his way up as a local gangster but, as is evidenced by his method, he doesn’t let his men beat anyone up for money as he remembers what it’s like to be poor so... yeah... he’s kind of the good guy gangster. However, a much worse mobster is trying to take over all of Shanghai and when he kills the other gangster that Ma looked up to at the start of the movie, things get real. And when I say real, I mean far from real but very athletic with bloody kung fu fighting featuring bashing fists, harbinger hatchets of bloody carnage and slicing, wooshy daggers that make the foley a joy to listen to.

It’s nicely shot too, including some nice colour palettes which shift to different tonal variations and some interesting camerawork, some of which uses a movement, followed by a zoom in on a detail... followed by a movement off from that zoomed location to go pick up another highlight of a scene. It’s edited in a way that it all makes sense and there’s some nice close ups of twitchy, angried up faces held for long periods as anti-heroes and villains trade scowls and work their facial muscles due to, I suspect, somebody watching far too many Leone movies.

Then there’s the final showdown in a tea house which took another ten days to shoot (out of a gruelling 30 day schedule where one director shot day scenes and the other the night scenes). The fight starts off with Ma, who hasn’t got a scratch on him in any fight preceeding this one, immediately taking an axe to his guts, which he leaves in there for half the fight (which takes up most of the last half an hour of the film... which Arrow and Celestial Pictures between them have thankfully made available in its original two and a quarter hour length cut). And yes, he still manages to take on 50 or more combatants and kill them all before perishing himself, after doing his best Samson and Delilah impression and literally smashing through a column to bring the floor above him down, levelling up the playing field to give him access to the last in a long, hierarchical chain of increasingly important villains.

And it’s quite obvious Tarantino must have watched this film quite a bit because, yeah, it’s very similar in both style and impact to his infamous House Of Blue Leaves sequence from the end of Kill Bill Volume One. That being said, compared to the fighting scenes in the eight Taiwanese Kung Fu movies in the Eureka Masters Of Cinema Cinematic Vengeance boxed set I watched earlier last year, the fights I’m seeing in the Shaw Brothers movies, while immaculately edited and sporting high production values... do seem a bit low energy and slower paced to the ones I’ve seen in the Joseph Kuo movies.

However, the fights in this one are still quite brutal bloody ballets of kinetic energy and are more than entertaining for what they are. The Boxer From Shantung is an absolutely brilliant chop socky movie which was extremely successful (there were a fair few bootleg sequels knocked out by other companies very quickly, by the sounds of it) and certainly influential. I really enjoyed this one and am looking forward to exploring some more films from the excellent ShawScope Volume One box set from Arrow soon. This is good stuff.

Monday 1 May 2023

Dead Ringers

Mantle Piece

Dead Ringers
April 2023
6 episodes

I’ve quite liked the majority of David Cronenberg’s movies over the years so I’m always hesitant to watch when I hear a remake or reboot is being attempted, especially his thriller Dead Ringers which I remember making a big impression on me when I saw it on its release in cinemas in the 1980s. That being said, I really enjoyed the remake of Rabid by the Soska Sisters (reviewed here) and I’ve really like Rachel Weisz in the few things I’ve seen her in so, I thought I’d dip my toes into this one.

I was not disappointed at all although, now that I’ve finally finished watching the show, I kind of have my reservations about the last two episodes, it would be true to say. The idea of having Rachel Weisz play the Mantle twins as Jeremy Irons had done in the original movie seemed like a good idea although, I was a bit puzzled that they have both kept the same first names from that one... Beverly and Elliot. The show is said to be based on the 1988 Cronenberg movie and the novel which was ransacked for that... Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland (itself the fictionalised account of two twin gynaecologist brothers who died in real life under mysterious circumstances). I can’t speak for the novel because I haven’t read it but this new ‘adaptation’, I would say, is more ‘inspired’ by the twin sources more than anything else. If you’re expecting an updated body trauma in the spirit of David Cronenberg then, yeah, you won’t find that here...

Instead, what we have is a TV show which is equally enthusiastic about the idea of obsession while following the fortune of the brilliant Mantle twins as they set up a new birthing facility, to try to humanise the process. And it’s impressive right from the opening minutes, I have to say. I was hooked by one of many intense dialogue sequences which opened the first episode (and which has kind of a sequel sequence in the final episode). The show proceeds in a relatively linear fashion with various tricks and sub-plots thrown in which, it has to be said, obscure the narrative somewhat but are obviously included to build a sense of mystery... which works until the final, somewhat obvious, I would say, denouement.

Okay... the good stuff. Rachel Weisz is absolutely brilliant. I’ve always liked her but her performances here are beyond next level. I was frankly astonished that she manages to pull off something which is even more accomplished, perhaps, than Jeremy Irons’ performance in the Cronenberg version (to which there are some references but, like I said, they’re not really ‘doing Cronenberg’ here). And in fact, all the cast in this thing are pretty good, including  Beverly’s love interest played by Britne Oldford as Genevieve Cotard, who really knocks it out the park. She’s presumably named after Geneviève Bujold, the actress who played the equivalent role in the Cronenberg original. Her character also provides one of the show’s best referential jokes in that she’s the star of a fictional TV show based on Cronenberg’s Rabid, as seen on a poster in one shot.

And, it’s all very good and trundles along nicely for the first four episodes although, there do seem to be some narrative gaps which obscure a definitive decoding of the plot but, as I said, I do think that’s deliberate to make things more interesting. For instance, jumps in time between episodes with new characters constantly cropping up in the lives of the Mantles and the ‘group analysis’ sessions for one of the twins being deliberately obstructive to chronological interpretation until the mid-credits sequence... so the last episode does seem somehow clumsy, in some ways. These things do, though, help create a desire to unravel the plot and stay tuned for the audience, I would guess. Add to this a mysterious and over-the-top zany housekeeper with an equally disappointing pay off and I did, I have to say, find myself somewhat disappointed during the fifth and sixth episodes.

That being said, the quality of the writing and the ‘knocking it out the park’ brilliant performances from everyone is absolutely addictive and I found it essential watching once I’d seen the opening hook. I’m not sure where the heck the part of the story, with no real pay off in terms of what Elliot is doing in her lab, really helped the show much either but, I guess it gave that character more to do.

At the end of the day, I think the writers could have just changed the names of the main characters and nobody would know it’s a reboot of the Cronenberg at all. It’s a completely original thing and that thing doesn’t really have to associate itself with its source material at all, to be honest. But, despite my reservations that the show really doesn’t land a good or surprising ending, I am certainly going to be recommending Dead Ringers to all my friends who watch modern TV shows (or whatever we are supposed to call these streaming things now). A good piece of fiction which, I think, could have easily sustained a second season if it didn’t have the ending which it’s been given. Definitely worth checking out though... the dialogue writing is absolutely brilliant and, when you have someone like Weisz delivering it, you’re probably always going to have a winner. Oh... and modern era Doctor Who fans might like to give it a go too as the score is by none other than Murray Gold. Hope this one gets a CD release at some point.