Sunday 31 March 2024

The Good Virus

All The World’s
A Phage

The Good Virus - The Untold Story of Phages: The Most Abundant Life Forms on Earth and What They Can Do For Us
by Tom Ireland
Hodder And Stoughton
ISBN 9781529365245

Just a quick shout out to a book I received on my birthday, back in January. For me, this is this year’s ‘beginning of the year’ candidate for a science based book, something out of my comfort zone, to mix in with all the film and fiction. The Good Virus, subtitled The Untold Story of Phages: The Most Abundant Life Forms on Earth and What They Can Do For Us highlights the history of what will soon be a commonly known (one hopes) crucial element in helping our species survive the next step in our seemingly evolutionary suicide.

Now, I only briefly came across phages in Star Trek... my memory is pointing me to the movie Star Trek Insurrection but it could maybe also be one of the few Voyager episodes I’ve seen. The reality is, there are literally gazillions of these viral life forms (we’re at the stage where we can now all agree a virus is a life form, yes?) to every piece of bacteria on our bodies... of which there are also gazillions. Indeed, I believe there are millions, if not billions of these phages within a 1mm area of a human's tissue (and anything else in the world for that matter) so, if you do the maths you come up with the kind of numbers that someone like me can’t even picture... so the claim in the subtitle about the abundance of this life form on the planet is pretty definitive (at least until we can see things even smaller than the beyond microscopic phages).

Phage is short for bacteriophage and it’s basically ‘a good virus’ because it can treat and cure many seemingly incurable diseases and conditions where antibiotics are failing. Except... the technology didn’t develop or survive most places because of the political unrest in the majority of the world and one of the only countries for a good long while where any research was being done around phages at all was Georgia, in Russia (where, if you are desperate enough... many are... and can afford it, you can make the trek and get yourself cured of ailments outside the range of western medicines).

The writer, Tom Ireland, is pretty good with his words and writes the book in a friendly, indeed, intriguing way to both put over the importance of these little critters (the classic versions out of the billions on billions of species already catalogued look just like the lunar landers used on the moon, enough so that the author believes the design of which was inspired by the image of a phage) and tell the story of phages in a way that is understandable even to an ignorant layman like myself. This is what good writing is about folks... something which is also in abundance in this specific tome.

Written during the coronavirus lockdown, Ireland hooks the reader by starting a little late in the story with the siege of Stalingrad in 1942, where a scientist and her colleagues were swiping nazi corpses away into the night to enable her to engineer cholera resistant drugs for the Russian troops. He then takes us back to where it all started (in terms of mankind’s awareness of phages) to the two people in two different countries who more or less simultaneously first discovered that something too small to see with the naked eye was eating away at the bacteria on certain plates in their respective laboratories.

He talks about various uses as an almost miracle cure medicine, the involvement of Stalin and the Russian people who refused the Western ideas which included the later discovery of penicillin and antibiotics... patriotically continuing to advance phage science instead... and all manner of political and scientific non acceptance and upheavals, not least from the various drug agencies who fail to recognise and authorise bacteriophages as a legitimate pursuit, for a variety of reasons made clear in this book. Although, while it certainly mentions the ‘cost and profits’ factor in the development of a fluid technology which has to be customised to each individual patient... it doesn’t go as far as to highlight the fact that our various governments don’t want us to live any longer and be free from many life threatening diseases (pension pots, overpopulation, keeping their little empires into manageable sizes etc).

However, there is more research being done on this now more than ever before in the history of the planet and there are certainly many lights at the end of the tunnel in terms of the medical implications of these creatures (which are more known about than I thought... of the many phage related things you can buy on ebay, you can even get a soft toy plushie of a cute and fairly accurate looking phage) and that’s good because, there damn well needs to be.

For years now we have been listening to scientists telling us that antibiotics will fail due to bacterial resistance any year now (and as this book points out, some bacteria are now even resistant to various disinfectants) but the author emphasises that we’re in the eleventh hour now folks. And our only way out, it would seem, is to embrace the humble phage and find a way forward for our species before we are waking up to news headlines (fairly soon by the sound of it) where hundreds of thousands of people are dying evey month or so.

The book doesn’t just focus on the medicinal properties of phages, though. It also looks at other ways the various species can and have already helped us in many breakthroughs in life (such as CRISPR, look it up). And this is all very good and vital but, of course, if we don’t continue to properly research these things (which takes loads of cash, of course) then we are certainly in dire straits and will be plunged back into the dark ages, medicinally speaking.

As I said, the book is really well written and also very humorous it has to be said. And any writer who compares certain kinds of bacteriophages to the miniaturised submarine in the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage has got to be a good guy. Now, I can’t possibly sum up the breadth of what this writer has managed to research and put together here but I can say I would definitely advise picking this tome up and finding out about what phages are now, before you’re left playing catch up as they infiltrate the popular media in years to come. So, yeah, The Good Virus - The Untold Story of Phages: The Most Abundant Life Forms on Earth and What They Can Do For Us is a big recommendation from me and it may even change the way you think about life on this planet.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Godzilla X Kong - The New Empire

Peanuts Gal For
Monkey Magic

Godzilla X Kong -
The New Empire

Directed by Adam Wingard
USA 2024
Warner Brothers
UK Theatrical Cut

Warning: Mild spoilers.

Last week I went to the cinema to see Ghostbusters - Frozen Empire (reviewed here) in which a centuries long imprisoned creature is released and aims to turn the Earth into a new ice age. This week I saw Godzilla X Kong - The New Empire which, apart from having a superfluous X that makes it the most ridiculous and childish title for a Godzilla movie ever, deals with a centuries long imprisoned creature who is released back into the mix with his followers and big ice creature, with the intent of conquering the Earth by turning it into a new ice age. I bet the makers of this one were pretty miffed that the new Ghostbusters had a better title that they could have used themselves.

This one is, by my counts, the fifth in the sequence of the US Monsterverse franchise, comprising Godzilla (reviewed here), Kong - Skull Island (reviewed here), Godzilla King Of The Monsters (reviewed here), Godzilla VS Kong (reviewed here) and now this one. Not to mention the relatively recent Monarch TV series, which I haven’t got around to watching as yet. It carries over three characters from the previous movie, as played by the great Rebecca Hall reprising the role of the main scientist, the extremely cool Kaylee Hottle as her deaf/mute adopted Skull Island daughter and Brian Tyree Henry, providing comic relief as the vlogger who was helping out Millie Bobby Brown in the last movie.

And, not only is this installment in the franchise way better in most respects than Godzilla VS Kong, it’s also a very fun watch and I really rather enjoyed it. Now, given the critical and commercial success of the Academy Award winning Japanese movie Godzilla Minus One (reviewed here ) a few months ago, I was fully expecting to be able to say that the aforementioned movie was way better than this one. And... yeah okay, I am saying that... no comparison. I’d take a film like that one over this any day of the week. However, you have to remember that you really can’t cant compare the two. Godzilla Minus One is very much a serious film similar in tone to the original 1954 Gojira movie (reviewed here) and uses Godzilla as a surrogate for the post survivor trauma of the ‘failed’ kamikaze pilot who is the film’s main protagonist. It’s carrying a lot of weight and it does it beautifully.

In contrast to that, Godzilla X Kong - The New Empire is very much in the style of the fun, mid 1960s to mid 1970s Toho Godzilla ‘monster romp’ movies... and as a lover of both kinds, I am quite happy with what the US filmmakers are able to achieve here, to be honest. It’s a different flavour of Godzilla but they are doing a much better job of that kind of brief here.

Now, the movie almost totally takes place in the Hollow Earth world discovered in the last film, asides from a few sequences where Godzilla and Kong manage to wreck part of Egypt and Brazil between them. And also one memorable moment where the movie’s other main protagonist, a monster veterinarian played by Dan Stevens, extracts Kong’s infected tooth with his helicopter and gives him a new, super duper tooth. Also, after a sequence where Kong suffers from frostbite in his right arm, due to reasons I won’t disclose, he cures it and gives him a new armoured glove so he can punch things better. So yay!

Also, Kaylee Hottle’s character ends up fulfilling the same role as The Peanuts did in the original Mothra films from the 1960s. She is the new human envoy to Mothra and she wakes her up to help out when Kong is trying to lure Godzilla into lending a hand in tackling their bigger problem. It’s nice stuff but, alas, she doesn’t sing the famous Mothra song... which would have been a nice touch.

And was that a shop sign depicting Gamera I saw for a second before Godzilla smashed through it? I’m pretty sure that’s what I saw... can anyone else confirm in the comments?

And it’s a film filled with good action, much better acting than you would expect and a fun storyline. My only real criticism is that the score by Antonio Di Lorio and Tom Holkenborg is bereft of any of the iconic Godzilla themes from the Toho series and, just fails miserably on that level. Every time you are expecting there to be a big Ifukube moment, the score does something which seems, I dunno, like a melody falling just short of the original to evade copyright payments. Which is a shame because, even the great Godzilla Minus One, which had a far superior score to this one, recognised the value in popping in Ifukube’s melodies into certain scenes. And to add insult to injury, the score to this one seems to be unavailable on a proper CD (which is a first for the films, it would be the only live action Godzilla theatrical release without CD representation to date). Shame on Watertower Records for not releasing it in the only physical format that real music lovers want. I hate this backwards decade, ignoring the essential physical media releases which should accompany these films.

Apart from the ‘knock off’ sounding scoring though, Godzilla X Kong - The New Empire was way more entertaining than I was expecting it to be and, if you liked Kong VS Godzilla (I kinda didn’t think it was all that), then you should definitely love this one. Don’t expect to be seeing the same kind of story substance present in Godzilla Minus One though... two very different kinds of films.

Friday 29 March 2024

Crippled Avengers

People With Physical
Disabilities Assemble

Crippled Avengers
Return Of The
Five Deadly Venoms

aka Can que
Hong Kong 1978
Directed by Cheh Chang
Shaw Brothers/Celestial Pictures
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Okay, so this one’s quite fun. Crippled Avengers is the 10th of the 12 films featured in Arrow’s generous but costly ShawScope Volume One Blu Ray box set and, for a while in the US, it was released under the title Return Of The Five Deadly Venoms and marketed as a sequel to The Five Venoms (reviewed by me here). All I can say to that is... there’s absolutely no story connection with the former film at all. The only minor bit of glue attempting to hold that marketing campaign gimmick together is that five of the lead actors here also starred in the former movie.

This film deals with Kuan Tai Chen as Black Tiger Dao Tian-Du and it’s hard to tell if you should be rooting for his character or not. At the start of the film, three avenging heroes seeking justice for some misdeed come to slay him at Black Tiger Manor but, initially settle for cutting the legs off his wife (killing her in the process) and chopping the arms off his young son. If Dao Tian-Du wasn’t completely evil then, he certainly is after dispatching the three with his martial arts skills. Over a period of years he creates and finally perfects special iron arms for his now grown son, which are bizarrely flexible in their science defying way and can also shoot darts out the fingers. Hey, he can even shoot the fists out on extenders and so his son is, somewhat, turned into Inspector Gadget. Except, he’s a ‘deadly martial arts, angry at the world Gadget’ who, with his father, hold the local district under a reign of fear, as they render any challengers and upstarts who try to deal with them, pretty useless, crippling them so they have to live with their horrible disability the way that... well let’s call him Iron Arms... had to live with no arms.

So, long story short, various upstarts who make up the four title heroes of this film, all come a cropper at the hands of this iron handed son. One is rendered blind when he has his eyes poked out by those steely digits in a sequence where, unless Arrow are being dishonest with the uncut status of these works, the director inserts a half a second or so of red to try and enhance the impact of the moment, much like Hitchcock had a bunch of red frame cut into the villain’s suicide scene in Spellbound. Another one is rendered deaf and mute while a third has his legs chopped off. A fourth one, a stranger who tries to avenge these three, has his head partially crushed and is left, with his martial arts skills in tact but, yeah, pretty much a complete idiot as he mentally regresses to childish ways. The three others manage to get him back to his master in another region and then all four are trained up in the ways of Kung Fu for three years, so they can go back and exact revenge on Dao Tian-Du, his son and his gang of skilled kung fu experts.

So, for example, the blinded man learns how to extend his other senses such as hearing and, in essence, becomes a lethal, blind martial artist, just like the hero of all those Zatoichi movies. And flexible iron legs are made for the legless man, as he becomes an expert in various acrobatic moves such as jumping through small steel rings and weaponising them like a lethal hula hoop.

And, yeah, it all leads to the inevitable showdown with various factions of the main villains’ men in some spectacular displays of kung fu fighting which, despite the US marketing, make this a much more watchable and entertaining movie than The Five Venoms, for sure. One of the villains even has a weapon called a ‘meteor hammer’ which, in actual fact, is just a big metal ball on a chain and it’s obviously the influence on the weapon of choice for Gogo Yubari’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume One.

With one of the avenging heroes acting like a complete childish idiot and the mute/deaf guy being very enthusiastic and acting like a kung fu version of Harpo Marx... or at least Nick Cravat... the film is full of characters just fooling around and performing zany but, admirably energetic and skilled, acrobatics. This is mixed with some fairly ballet-like but brutal kung fu scenes which arent afraid to ramp up the goriness at certain points. And all matched with the director’s penchant for fast zooms to hone in on details and what looks like some fairly overly used, recycled but still pretty effective sets.

There seems to be a bit of needle drop in terms of the score and there are certainly some De Wolf library cues at any rate, three of which are included on the second of Arrow’s bonus soundtrack CD compilation discs bundled in with this lovely presentation box. And, really, there’s not much more to say about Crippled Avengers other than, I had a pretty good time with this one and it’s certainly one of the better and more physically spectacular of the films included in this set.

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Ghostbusters - Frozen Empire

Icing With Death

Frozen Empire

Directed by Gil Kenan
USA/Canada 2024
Columbia Pictures
UK Theatrical Cut

It’s funny... my personal experience with the Ghostbusters franchise has always been a bit of a hit and miss affair. I got caught up in it back in 1984 starting with the song... I bought the 12 inch version of the single (the first record I bought with sung lyrics on it, I think... I was always a soundtrack kid) and quite liked the movie when I saw it the same year on its first cinema release. I didn’t think it was great but... it was okay and I have a lot of affection for it. Not so the sequel, which I remember being appalling. Then, after a gap of more than a couple of decades, the female led reboot was... pretty well made and well acted but, somehow almost completely unfunny (I thought... save for a few great one liners spoken by Chris Hemsworth).

So when Ghostbusters Afterlife came out, during the pandemic I think, I was not invested in it and even waited a fair few months before seeing it. And it was absolutely great. Pitch perfect. In fact, I think it’s easily my favourite Ghostbusters movie to date. However, I couldn’t see how they’d make a credible sequel to that one and so, when Ghostbusters - Frozen Empire rolled around, although I saw it at the cinema on opening weekend, I really wasnt expecting much from it. Especially after hearing Mark Kermode’s damning review of the film.

So I’m pleased to say that this one wasn’t nearly as much of a mess as I thought it would be and, again, I actually quite enjoyed it, to be honest.

For this one, the clan of Spengler descendants return, now relocated to New York in the old Ghostbusters firehouse. So we have the Spenglers next generation of Ghostbusters played by Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard (the Stranger Things kid) and the always incredible Mckenna Grace as Phoebe Spengler, the one most like her grandad (played by the late Harold Ramis in the first two movies). We also have Paul Rudd back and the original team as presented by Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts... plus a few other faces from the old days. Plus some of the other new characters from the previous film who have united with the old gang to work in a kind of Ghostbusters technical centre (they’re like Q section in the James Bond movies)... and a couple of welcome guest stars in the form of Patton Oswalt and the always reliable Kumail Nanijani.

There’s certainly a lot going on but I never got lost and I think, rather than the mess that some critics are presenting it to be, all the story beats from different strands of the movie are nicely interlocking and make sense by the end of the picture. Even to the point where it telegraphs itself in one early scene... as soon as you see a particularly cool ghost character played by Emily Alyn Lind and she gets out a book of matches which holds a single match, you just know how it’s all going to fit in with the denouement of the movie, especially when Nanijani’s character is more fleshed out from around the mid point of the story.

It’s got some nice action beats and a pretty good score by Dario Marianelli, which also uses one of Elmer Bernstein’s main themes from the first film and, sticks to his orchestration style for a lot of the rest of it, I’m pleased to say. I’m also pleased to say that there looks like there will be a proper CD release of the score in a few weeks and so that will be an instant purchase.

Although the film isn’t quite as emotionally engaging as Afterlife, it comes pretty close and I have to say that I am pleased to see that, even without the CGI resurrected spirit of Harold Ramis (although there’s a nice set up to that happening before the rug is pulled out from both the audience and one of the characters), the sequel does pretty well with what it’s got and, honestly, I would be happy if they just kept on making them now.

A couple of odd things I’ll just mention... not really bad things at all, just odd. One is that one of the new characters both looks like and also seems to be playing his character, as a young, mid-1960s Michael Caine, for some reason. I mean... what? It’s like Harry Palmer joined the Ghostbusters! Not knocking it... it’s fun but, why?

Secondly, there is an obvious lesbian attraction between Phoebe Spengler and one of the main ghost characters in the movie, so much so that she temporarily separates her spirit from her body in order to spend some time with her. But it’s really well played between the two characters and... obviously there but, never once specifically mentioned as even existing... it’s like the film wants to ‘almost but not quite’ highlight it and pull back from it at the same time. I suspect there was a slightly different cut of the movie which maybe got buried for commercial reasons... that would be my guess, anyway.

Thirdly, there’s a big set up about all the old ghosts escaping from their holding chamber and returning and we see a shot of them going past the Statue Of Liberty but, not once does the statue get animated in a ghostly manner as I’m sure it did in one of the past movies. It’s almost like the studio deliberately set it up as a visual echo and then... just dropped it for whatever reason (budgetary restrictions or bad CGI would be my best guesses on that).

Also, the climactic showdown at the end of the movie... seems a little smaller than you would expect after everything that’s come before it, I thought. Although, it still works pretty well and it doesn’t really detract from the movie either, I reckon. So there you go, I quite liked Ghostbusters Frozen Empire and I think its very lucky that the movie didn’t shift tonally too much from the last outing. If you liked the previous movie then you’ll probably like this one too.

Monday 25 March 2024

Doctor Who - The Time Meddler

Fair To Meddling

Doctor Who
The Time Meddler

Airdate: 3 July - 24th July 1965
BBC  Region B Blu Ray
Four Episodes

Just a very brief review of the last story in the second season of Doctor Who, The Time Meddler... one which I’ve always wanted to see. Okay, so following on from the events of the previous story, The Chase (reviewed by me here), The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) are discussing the departure of Ian and Barbara from the crew of the TARDIS, only to find that Peter Purves’ character, Steven, made it out of harms way by, somehow (let’s not get into it), stowing himself away. Actually the chemistry between him, Maureen O’Brien and Bill Hartnell, thanks to a script that really works well, is excellent and I’m surprised this team is not better remembered. But then, I believe a large proportion of the stories in the next few seasons are lost to time so, perhaps that’s why.

Anyway, the TARDIS lands in Anglo Saxon England in 1066 but, their movements are being watched by a mysterious monk, played by famous British comedian (and Carry On film regular) Peter Butterworth. Vicki and Steven soon find themselves separated from The Doctor (of course, that’s how these dramas work) and it’s all shenanigans befriending the locals and trying to dodge a Viking invasion scouting party. But, something’s not right because, why was the monk checking his wrist as though looking for a watch? A watch that Steven finds later in the episode. Not to mention the church is lit with a simple flick of a switch. And are there really a lot of monks in that Abbey... no, it’s a recording playing on Peter Butterworth’s gramophone. Wait, what?

As the story suggests, the monk, or The Meddling Monk as he came to be known, is someone who is deliberately interfering in time. It’s mentioned that his anti-gravitational lifts helped build Stonehenge, for instance. ‘The why’ is of no concern to The Doctor, who shuns the idea but ‘the how’ is very simple. At the end of the third episode, Vicki and Steven follow an incongruous cable leading into a door in the side of a big tomb... they go through and it reveals they are standing in another TARDIS! The Monk’s TARDIS, a much later type and improved model with, obviously, a chameleon circuit that is not stuck as a 1960s Police Box. Although the show hadn’t yet come up with the idea of Gallifrey and the Timelords yet, The Doctor acknowledges that The Monk is from the same race of people as he. My thinking is that he’s a much more benignly mischievous prototype for The Master character who was created for the show against the third incarnation of The Doctor. In fact, The Meddling Monk was the show’s first recurring ‘villain’, in that he was in a couple of episodes of the next year’s 12 part story The Dalek Master Plan... although all but two episodes exist (I think I might have seen one of The Meddling Monk episodes of that on a compilation DVD of incomplete Doctor Who serials, a couple of decades ago).

And there’s not too much more to be said about this other than, perhaps, that the backdrop skies on some of the ‘studio as exterior location’ shots are much better than previous attempts. And there are a bizarre couple of shots of close up, bloodless but nonetheless intense stabbings which were not in the copy of the episode found in Nigeria (and presumably redubbed with the original audio recordings) because they were cut. I’ve not yet watched the documentary on this one to see how the BBC managed to restore them for this release but, for a children’s programme, even in less ‘nanny state’ times, it’s pretty intense. You feel those ‘trick theatrical blades’ go in.

The end titles are also pretty remarkable on the last episode, where the BBC have superimposed white, posterised faces of the three main characters over a starry background. The show had not yet got to the stage where The Doctor’s face appeared in the opening titles so, I guess this closing title was Hartnell’s one time where he was represented in a graphic form during a credits sequence.

And, yeah, The Time Meddler is not a bad story... I kinda enjoyed it and, it packs a lot into the four episodes, for sure. Apparently, a good time was had by all during the shoot, with Butterworth milking the cast and crew for laughs between takes. It’s a nice way to end the second series, for sure.

Sunday 24 March 2024

Late Night With The Devil

The AI Is
In The Detail

Late Night With The Devil
Directed by Cameron and Colin Cairnes
Australia/United Arab Emirates
2023 Shudder
UK Cinema Print

Warning: Some slight spoilers waiting to possess you.

Well this is pretty good but, before I get into the review proper, I want to address an issue with Late Night With The Devil which has caused a bit of a furore on Twitter the past week or so. The film has TV chanel card style intertitles throughout to signal ‘commercial breaks’ and other things which were designed by AI. Now, they don’t last very long and they’re kind of incidental so... I doubt they’ll spoil the enjoyment of the film for anyone who doesn’t know how that artwork originated. However, I can completely understand why people want to boycott this movie. It’s still taken away a job from at least one human and, frankly, the creative realm (and the political realm, for that matter) is not where AI should be used, no matter how responsibly. Stick to using it as a tool to help with medical breakthroughs etc... don’t let it anywhere near art, would be my take on this. I don’t care whether it fools you or not. I don’t care whether it’s soulless or not (it is). It’s basically wrong... stop it already.

Right, having said that, this is a really great film. Set in 1977, it focuses on an unctuous late night TV show host, Jack Delroy, brilliantly played with gusto by David Dastmalchian (who was also brilliant as Polka Dot Man in The Suicide Squad... reviewed here). In a last ditch ‘save the show’ ratings bid, he asks various guest onto a special Halloween edition of the show dealing with the occult.

The film, we are told, during an extended introduction sequence narrated by the voice of the great Michael Ironside, is the original master tape of the show (along with the behind the scenes sections during the various commercial interruptions). The way this format is presented on the picture is the actual TV broadcast sections are in colour in a 4:3 aspect ratio and the ‘cameras rolling behind the scenes while the commercials play’ are in widescreen black and white. Which is nice visual shorthand and works really well.

Now, if you’re thinking this sounds like a modern day equivalent of the brilliant 1992 British TV broadcast Ghostwatch (reviewed here) then, yeah, you’d be dead right (even though the writers haven’t mentioned it in anything I’ve read about it but, honestly, I can’t believe that wasn’t the majority of the inspiration here). And, without having the trick of appearing as an actual live broadcast on TV to spark the nationwide panic which I remember from when people just happened to tune into it at the time, then it seems, on the surface, like this is kind of a bad idea of a movie attempt. But... you’d be wrong. This movie is actually quite special and I am definitely going to pick up the Blu Ray (if it’s around by Halloween) to show my folks later in the year (that’s the plan, anyway).

Okay, so among the guests on this edition are psychic Christou (played wonderfully by Fayssal Bazzi), the conjurer turned professional debunker (played by Ian Bliss), plus young satanic cult survivor Lily D’Abo (played absolutely brilliantly by Ingrid Torelli, giving a really unsettling performance of a character who knows exactly which camera is on her at any given moment) and her psychiatrist/therapist/guardian Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (played by Laura Gordon). Things go disturbingly wrong for Christou the psychic early on in the show and then the debunker sets himself up as, pretty much the ‘human’ villain of the piece. Then we have the doctor, who is pressured into allowing Lily to ‘let out’ the demonic spirit, Mr. Wriggles, to the audience briefly. And then things go very wrong indeed.

And that’s both the blessing and the curse of this particular film. It’s great when  all hell breaks loose in the TV studio (and presumably into the TV audiences homes... just as it did in Ghostwatch) with the film makers really going for it with the various gore effects and disturbing images. It’s great but... there’s a point where it should have stopped (at the first ‘technical problems’ card) because the impact of the sequence when ‘Mr. Wriggles’ returns to the studio, is absolutely brilliant and ‘good horror’. The creature manifested reminded me a lot of one of the original theatrical posters which were put out for Dario Argento’s early 1970’s giallo Four Flies On Grey Velvet (reviewed here) which was also, presumably, the ‘inspiration’ for the theatrical poster for Berberian Sound Studio (reviewed here) but neither of those films, to my memory, had any such manifestation of a certain ‘splitting headache’ person on screen and, frankly, the way they picture what Lily becomes the second time she is channelling her possessor is... pretty incredible.

Now, I think the film goes on too long because, after this scene which was the perfect ending, there is another extended sequence of fragments of horror which, I think, just detracted too much from the power of what preceded it. But, it’s still pretty good and I’m happy to buy into certain moments on it, even though the way Jack Delroy ends up on stage is pretty obviously telegraphed.

And that’s all there is to it other than to say, I suspect one of the musical compositions by one or other of the co-composers, Roscoe James Irwin or Glenn Richards, sounds suspiciously like it was inspired by the Scorpio killer theme from the original Dirty Harry (review coming soon). It’s good stuff though and would love it if a CD release was produced. And there are a lot of other visual and script nods to things like The Exorcist too so, I really have no problem with the legacy of the scoring, either.

And that’s all I have to say about Late Night With The Devil, I think. An almost perfect entry that, just about, makes its way into the subgenre of horror known as ‘found footage’. I really loved it and can’t wait to show other people the movie at some point. Cracking stuff.

Thursday 21 March 2024

14 Years Of NUTS4R2

Lockdown Memories

14th Anniversary Blog Post

When this post goes live, it will be exactly 14 years since I started this blog, initially because I was feeling a lack of connection with certain other elements of my life (who or what will remain nameless here but... some things never change). It’s also, however, two days short of being the 4th anniversary of what was, for many people of my generation, a very unusual, seemingly quite unbelievable and surreal event in our lives... the first UK Government lockdown in response to the deadly Coronavirus outbreak which was whittling down various countries populations.

Now I’m not here to argue that Coronavirus wasn’t a terrible thing. So many people died and the worldwide response to the disaster was fairly tragic and badly thought out... destroying or changing people’s lives forever. I know some people take the view that the UK government were having to deal with something they were unprepared for (and that’s a different can of worms to begin with, lots of warnings by scientists for decades and an underwhelmingly slow and ill conceived response to the situation did not help) but, I personally can’t let the government off the hook so easily. For almost the entirety of the first year of lockdown (and I say this as someone who has never before taken an interest in politics), I just assumed the people in power were a sad combination of naivety and stupidity and couldn’t work out what they were doing there. Then, slowly, it dawned that these were all corrupt idiots who were not interested in helping people at all and were just in it to make money. They are criminals, for sure, there’s no getting around that.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I wanted to say a few words about the actual positive aspects of lockdown... because I think they are important and I think our government has not learned anything from the situation or, most likely, just want to ignore the benefits to the majority of people. What a surprise eh?

Now don’t get me wrong. I know a certain amount of the population, presumably those suffering from severe extroverted personalities, found lockdown hard. I know some friends had some problems with their youngsters which intrigued me because, when I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to not have to go to school and certainly not have to socialise with other people. But some people didn’t reap the same benefits of the lockdown lifestyle that others did and I think it’s worth remembering those unexpected perks because I reckon 80% of the UK population could still be better off from them if the UK government wasn’t so greedy and corrupt (and it’s certainly not just the UK government, for sure).

Okay, so for me, lockdown had so many benefits... and for my blog too, it has to be said.

I have elderly parents and that meant that, working from home, I could keep and eye on them and come running if either of them got into trouble. Something I can’t do again now with a two buses or more (depending on traffic) journey home. It goes without saying that I was saving thousands of pounds by not travelling to work, of course. Not to mention clawing back two to three hours a day for myself when I would normally be travelling. And I was getting through roughly a week’s work in a day by not being at the office... so could respond quicker to any emergencies that came up in a quick and efficient manner. Which was handy for people.

And there were the health benefits too. A colleague of mine said that she’d never been fitter than during the lockdown and I have to agree. The extra time saved meant I had time to go out for a 20 minute walk every night, straight after work. I was borderline diabetic when I went into lockdown... within a year I was completely out of it again. Now I’m back in the office my diabetes and other health issues are worse than they’ve ever been. And I get barely a half an hour a night which I can positively call ‘my own time’ on a week day.

But lastly and perhaps more relevantly in regards to this blog, being in lockdown meant I had time to watch movies after work and then write about them. Because there was more money saved, I ordered expensive box sets from Severin in America and the Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection box set (start here with that one) really captured my imagination and reignited my love of film. As a result, I still have well over 200 written reviews backlogged and waiting to be tweaked and published. I got through a lot of movies in that travel time and I felt inspired and uplifted to be exploring cinema again... more than I’d felt in a while.

So those, I think, for the record... were my main takeaways from lockdown. And my conclusion is... everyone who is capable of working from home should be... never mind the stupid government edicts and the businesses who want us all to suffer in an office again. If these entities were truly about looking after the people and treating them right, then many of us would be allowed to work from home and, to boot, the climate crisis may not be hanging around our necks so much either. Remember going out in lockdown for a walk and being confronted with no cars on the roads... just fresher air. The less cars on the road (because people are capable of working from home) means less pollution and other benefits. It’s a win/win but, unfortunately, the members of parliament just want to make the economy work for them, so they can continue lining their own pockets with the benefits of other people’s misery. Or, at least, that’s the way it seems to me.

Anyway, those are my memories and take aways from lockdown and, as always, that just leaves me to say ‘thank you for reading’ my anniversary post. Especially to those who have been with me all 14 years to date.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Poker Face

Long In
The Truth

Poker Face
Created by Rian Johnson
Season 1 10 episodes
January - March 2023
Blu Ray Zone A

I bought new mystery TV show Poker Face for my mum for Christmas because it was being heavily compared to Columbo on the internet, a show that she had loved watching in the 1970s. I wish I’d have held out a few weeks longer because, when I grabbed it, it wasn’t available in the UK so I just assumed it wouldn’t be getting a release in this country. So it cost me more to import a copy than I needed to have paid, if the company putting it out over here had only got its act together and given it a simultaneous release.

Okay, so it’s created by Rian Johnson, who made a couple of films I really liked called Brick and Looper (plus one of the worst Star Wars movies ever... plus the Knives Out movies which, yeah, were okayish I suppose). He’s written and directed a few of the episodes and the lead actress who plays Charlie Cale (aka Poker Face), Natasha Lyonne,  also directed one of the better episodes of the show.

So, I’m not sure my mum could quite get into the swing of them, to be honest, but my dad and I really enjoyed it and, yeah, there are a couple of superficial resemblances to Columbo. The first being that Lyonne does resemble Peter Falk’s detective in her accent and some of her mannerisms (which a lot of people have pointed out to me). Secondly, the structure of the show is not, mostly, a whodunnit every week. Like Columbo, it starts off with the audience usually in full knowledge of the murder and perpetrator(s) in a five or ten minute sequence without Charlie Cale in it at all (my mum could never get the hang of this and kept asking if the woman from the last show was going to be in it). We then flashback to before the murder and find how Charlie has been inserted into that story from before the events we saw... and then we catch up to those events about half way through, as Charlie solves the case.

So here’s the thing... Charlie has a... let’s call it what it is, a super power. She can tell when anyone is telling her a lie. This gets her into trouble because a casino boss (Ron Perlman) bans her from gambling and has her working at a waitress in his casino instead (which she loves). However, when the boss’ son (Adrien Brody) takes over the casino, he involves Charlie in a scheme to get rich quick in a huge gambling game for him. But, he and his right hand heavy (series regular Benjamin Brat) murder Charlie’s best friend... something she figures out right before their end game and which, eventually, leads to chaos and death for the new casino management. From that point at the end of the first episode, Charlie is off the grid and on the run from Perlman’s character for the rest of season one.

So the format is, she’ll stop in a new town each week, get a temporary job and, pretty much every time, get involved with a murder which she’ll try and solve without the police, often bringing justice in her own, unique way. And most of the episodes have celebrity guest spots too... with actors such as Clea DuVall, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chloë Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Luis Guzmán and Nick Nolte all getting involved in the ‘murder of the week’. So there’s a star studded aspect to the show as well.

And it’s pretty well done, the format even allowing for a few twists and turns along the way, as not all the information is always revealed at the episode’s opening and some things become apparent later on which, sometimes, change the identity of the known villain of the episode half way through.

Added to this we have a conclusion to Charlie’s story arc in the final episode of season one, only for it to kind of get soft-rebooted for season two. So, when the casino boss finally catches up with her through his right arm, Benjamin Bratt, the capper of that initial meeting early on in the episode is a) not what you think it would be and b) not telegraphed either. In fact, there’s even a little successful misdirection involved on the part of the writer before the show comes back full circle, with Charlie now being similarly hunted by an even greater threat. I actually thought it was kind of a shame that they decided to soft boot it in that way but I can certainly see why that temptation was there on the part of the show’s producers. They want to keep Charlie hopping from place to place and this is their way of doing that.

One minor thing I didn’t like was the fact that, from episode eight onwards, they gave the main character a facial twitch every time she hears a lie. I guess it’s a nice visual shorthand but, it feels a little clunky and we were doing fine without that for the preceding seven episodes, I thought.

Even so, I really enjoyed the show and, I think I’ll grab the second series of Poker Face too, once it’s aired and played on TV and gets properly released on Blu Ray (otherwise they’ve lost me as an audience, frankly). Definitely worth a watch if you like a large slice of humour with your murder investigations, for sure.

Monday 18 March 2024

Caveat Emptor

At Midnight I’ll
Ditch Your Pre-Order

Caveat Emptor -
The Long Road
To Coffin Joe

Caveat emptor is right.

Today’s article is not a review, alas. Make no mistake, it’s both a warning to physical media buyers and collectors everywhere but it also, I think, asks an important question about one of the underlying tent pegs of obtaining the latest releases in a Blu Ray marketplace, which seems to be in the midst of a ‘last chance’ inspired golden age of rarely seen releases being thrust into the UK and US marketplace. This is something of an extended rant, primarily about three specific entities involved in an incident which is the basis of this entry of NUTS4R2. Let’s call them The Good, The Bad and The Ugly... but I will also name them, right now!

So we have The Ugly, being Arrow Films, who have made some mistakes over the years but always (for the most part) try to fix them. Then there’s The Bad, aka the usually very helpful, who are usually really good at customer service and a very approachable organisation. I spend a lot of money with them every year... especially at Christmas time and on many birthdays. And then there’s The Good, the hero of the hour if you like, aka who you will also hear more of a little later.

Okay... so I said this would be a long one but, like a Tarkovsky or Bergman movie, the long lead in always makes for a more powerful ending, right? I hope. Anyway, so what I’m going to do is start with two flashbacks, to give a demonstration to the way two of these companies have behaved in the past.

So, by no means the main villains of this piece but this is relevant I think, lets go back to Fopp Records, some years ago now. I can’t remember exactly when this was but it must have been a year or two before the pandemic. The great Arrow Films... and they are great, despite the constant technical problems they are apparently plagued with and the ‘money for old rope’ nature of some of their re-releases... announced for pre-order a Blu Ray box of Mario Bava films. Now, it’s not got as many films in it as the two US DVD Bava boxes that Anchor Bay released back in the day but, if there’s a director whose films you want to upgrade to Blu Ray then, surely, Bava must fit the bill with his beautiful shot compositions and use of bright colours. So I went to Fopp Records near Covent Garden, put a cash deposit down and pre-ordered the box set. Because a pre-order means you buy a copy in advance so as not to miss out if it sells out right? Or so I have always thought (otherwise what’s the point of them?). So I went to Fopp on the day the set was due to be released only to find that, the sets had sold out before the physical stores could get the copies they ordered. I wasn’t best pleased and, while Arrow themselves had no copies left either, I immediately got on my phone and ordered what turned out to be one of the very last copies had in stock. And, success, it arrived. Job done, by the skin of my teeth. Although I wasn’t very impressed that Fopp (and I’m sure many other retail outlets) had been left in the cold with a queue of disappointed customers who had also pre-ordered the set from them.

Okay, so my takeaway was... maybe if I wanted something this badly, I should just pre-order direct from Arrow and so, this is what I was doing for a time. And it was great because they give reward points every time you shop so I managed to get a few free films off of them too. All was good until the incident that leads me into...

Flashback number two. Sometime during the pandemic lock down, UK location undisclosed...

One day the postman brought me a completely flat-packed, sealed cardboard box... well it wasn’t a box because it was still flat, despite having the cardboard strip to unwrap it still intact. I opened it and, unsurprisingly given the appearance of said object, there was absolutely nothing inside.  I had a few things on order so I emailed a few companies who I thought it could be before, eventually, finding the phone number of the company on the address label via the internet and giving them a call (after a couple of days of attempts they finally answered). I found myself talking to the manager of a packaging and fulfilment centre who told me the package would have come from Arrow films. Okay, so that narrowed it down to one thing at the time, the pre-order of their Yokai Monsters boxed edition (you can find my reviews of the four films here, here, here and here) which I desperately wanted to see as, to the best of my knowledge, they’d not been released in this country before.

So I got onto Arrow who... really did not do well at sorting this out. They said it was nothing to do with them (possibly true given the box was sealed) and eventually suggested I fill a form out at the post office if the postman had stolen an item. Again, it was a sealed, flat  piece of card... so if anything was stolen, it would have been by one of the workers at the distribution centre they were using, surely? It took me to ‘offer’ to write about the whole experience on my blog for Arrow to finally replace (I use the term replace fairly loosely) the Yokai Monsters boxed set. So hoorah but, lesson learned. I never, to my knowledge, ordered anything directly from Arrow films again... despite their rewards points being very enticing.

Okay... bang up to date and now onto the main story. Thanks to those of you who have stuck with me and made it through this far...

Sometime in the third quarter of last year, Arrow announced pre-orders for a complete Coffin Joe Blu Ray set entitled, Inside The Mind Of Coffin Joe. Essentially a more complete and somehow even more beautiful package than the Platform Entertainment DVD box set a decade or so before. So, having learned from my mistaken trust with both Fopp and Arrow, I mistakenly pre-ordered it from (the real villains of this piece) on 29th September 2023, with an expected delivery date of 4th December 2023. And that was that... or so I thought.

The first sign that there would be any trouble was when somebody, it might well have been Arrow themselves, posted on Twitter that one of the films on the third disc in the set was faulty in that the English subtitles cut out after half an hour. Now I’ve had Blu Rays from Arrow before with similar kinds of errors where either something didn’t work or it was the wrong cut or an advertised extra was accidentally left off. And, sure, it’s sloppy quality control but, to their credit, they always followed it up with a general repressing and disc replacement scheme for all those affected by this. Which, to be fair, is what they did this time around. I just figured it would eventually filter through to Amazon and they’d delay the, already significantly delayed delivery date while they waited for a replacement disc.

However, and here’s where things take an almost sinister twist... a few days later, maybe a week, Amazon emailed me to inform me the order had been cancelled completely. No reason was given. Which is crazy right? Like I said earlier, a PRE-order is what you do to guarantee a copy because you think the discs might sell out. It’s an agreement between you and a company that the product will make its way to you. So I did what I usually do... I went on to Amazon to find it in my order history so I could contact them. Here’s the thing though... and I’ve never heard of Amazon doing this before... they didn’t just cancel my order... they erased it. It was actually deleted from my order history completely. I’d never heard of this happening, even when I’ve had the occasional order cancelled. They were just making it as hard as they could for me and the gazillions of other people who had ordered the Coffin Joe box set from them to complain about it.

I didn’t let that deter me... too many important films were on the line... I found a way to eventually bypass it (after all, I still had the order number in my original email) and got them on the phone. I explained to the guy why this had happened and he told me to wait while he found out. His answer was... the order’s been cancelled.  

Not what I asked, I explained, I wanted to know why it’s been cancelled when a pre-order is supposed to be a guarantee, as far as I knew, that the order would eventually be here. I didn’t care how long I had to wait for the product, I didn’t want my order cancelled. There was another long wait while he again talked to his line manager and when he eventually returned it was with the news that... um... my order had been cancelled. What the heck? Again I explained to him that I already knew this and so I enlightened him once more as to what the issue was with Arrow and how I’m sure there would be a replacement disc coming at some point. So he put me on hold again for a while more and talked to his line manager once more and, you know what he said? He said my order had been cancelled. Yup, I said. I am aware. It’s not just been cancelled it’s been erased. Did I need to get a Delorean, go back in time and take actions to stop my order being erased from history? I asked to speak to his manager. Oh certainly sir, was the reply. He transferred the call only for his manager at Amazon to deliberately hang up without saying a word to me, ending both the call and any trust I’d built up with Amazon over the past few decades.

Okay...meanwhile, I’d done some asking around. At a film fair I went to, one supplier hadn’t even received his shipment of Coffin Joe boxes. Another had received his own personal copy but he was still awaiting a replacement disc for their last release which was wrongly pressed, let alone getting a replacement disc for this. And, when I was buying some stuff from Fopp (just so I can write about cool stuff for my lovely readers) I casually asked about the Coffin Joe box to be met with a tirade of... well let’s not say swearing, this is a family blog, but met with a tirade of negative energy against Arrow who have ‘pulled this stuff’ one too many times. Apparently there are a lot more instances of this happening with this company than I realised (and again, to their credit, Arrow always did something about this). It’s fair to say though that the general perception of the company from the people who shift their product for them is not particularly glowing, it turns out.

Okay... enter the hero of the hour... @Diabolikdvd. A brief exchange on the Twitternet with this US based speciality store convinced me to get one of the faulty copies as soon as I could because it was selling out fast and wouldn’t be reissued (it has been reissued and gone on for resale on both Arrow and Amazon, it turns out, but that information was emphatically not what was being said at the time so that’s not Diabolik’s fault). So, having at least being refunded the money from Amazon (I’d purchased those with vouchers so redirected those to grabbing the third volume of Shout Factory’s Shaw Bros boxed sets), I ordered one from Diabolik in the US (for a heck of a lot more money than the UK version, what with all the postage... again, not the fault of the supplier) and it arrived in around a week. Good service and I shall consider ordering from them more than I do already when it comes to new releases, I think.

I won’t dwell on the various claims from FedEx* trying to get taxes for the shipment both before and after they delivered it, when Diabolik had made clear that it was all pre-paid up front as part of the price... I looked on the internet and it seems FedEx have been doing this to a lot to people lately, incorrectly, for whatever reason. So I then put in a claim to Arrow who... after literally four emails worth of toing and froing about their disc replacement scheme and a further follow up last week (by the time you read this blog post) when I queried why some people had received them but I still hadn’t... finally sent me a replacement disc yesterday (again, just under a week before this blog post is published). I haven’t checked this yet... I’m almost afraid to. The replacement disc has the UK certification on it over the same disc artwork as the US version I got but I’m assured by all and sundry that this is only a cosmetic difference and that the content is exactly the same.

So there you are, after six months of stress about this title, I finally have the whole thing. But, I’m understandably, I think, not very happy with Amazon at all about all of this trouble. And so, I’ll leave the reader with the same question I pitched earlier, because I think this is the long term take away from all this... apart from not trusting Amazon again. And it’s this...

Is a pre-order of a physical item supposed to be a way of guaranteeing you get a copy before they sell out? And, if not, then what the heck is the point of having a pre-ordering system anyway, if it doesn’t benefit the customer? Food for thought.

Meanwhile... if you have a multizone Blu Ray player then is worth investigating, for sure.

 *A few days after writing this, FedEx sent me another letter threatening legal action, for the sake of £22.24 they thought I owed them. I have now, finally, been able to contact FedEx and settled that matter once and for all.

Sunday 17 March 2024


Hot Cross Nuns

Directed by Michael Mohan
2024 Black Bear
UK Cinema Print

Warning: Some slight spoilers as this is a celebration of the film as much as it is a review.

Wow... just absolutely wow. Immaculate is an amazing film which, I suspect will get enthusiastic reviews from horror fans of a certain age and bad reviews from anyone else. I absolutely loved it and hats off to Sydney Sweeney, not just for her continually impressive acting talent but for her to get this thing produced and finally accepted after it stalled some years ago.

Okay, so this one is a blisteringly wild and deeply satisfying ride of a motion picture. The basic plot is, after dying in a Damien Omen 2 inspired, accidental swim under some ice when she was a kid, Sister Cecilia, played by Sydney Sweeney, is revived after almost ten minutes and tries to find out what the heck God has saved her life for. She joins a monastery in the US but is then rescued... when that goes under due to a lack of attendance... by a convent in Italy. We already know, though, that things are really bad there from the pre-credits scene, when four sinister nuns break the leg of another nun and then bury her alive because she was trying to escape.

Then, as Cecilia is getting used to the spooky place, she undergoes a trauma, which she and the audience perceive as a nightmare/dream sequence, only to awaken pregnant. Since she is still a virgin, carrying a seemingly immaculate conception, the various nuns worship her for the miracle she is hosting but, as you may guess by now... demonic things are afoot.

That’s the basic intro and I have to say, this one impressed me so much. It totally goes where most modern horror films don’t go these days. It doesn’t quite make the nunsploitation genre... I think topless, lesbian nuns and whips would be needed to sell that one... but it has torture, violence, gore (and wet, flimsy, see through habits which leave absolutely nothing to the imagination) and it absolutely feels like a 1970s/early 1980s Italian exploitation/horror film. I mean it when I say that this tongue slicing, foot branding, face pummelling, womb cutting, umbilical cord chewing movie goes the whole hog and, if it had been released on video tape in this country in the 1980s, it would have easily made the Video Nasty list, for sure. In fact, I’m surprised that the censors let this one in the country right now, to be honest.

And not only that, the movie really embraces that vibe right from the start. I mean, Will Bates’ cimbalom infused score with chorus and atonal colourings is absolutely brilliant (please, somebody release a CD of this). This included an astonishing moment where the music actually acts as a surrogate for the character. When somebody is getting a cross branded onto the sole of her foot, the sound has dropped out without detection and Bates’ score is already standing in, giving voice to her scream with high pitched notes! And, boy, was I surprised when a whole montage sequence of Cecilia settling into the convent needle drops Bruno Nicolai’s exquisite main theme from the giallo The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (one of my favourite pieces by this composer). It’s admittedly striking to the point of distraction but, heck, it’s toe tapping as hell and I was surprised to see that none of the other audience members were getting down the beat, as it were.

And Sydney Sweeney totally leans into the atmosphere of the film completely, giving a really brave performance that is an absolute powerhouse (more so even than her brilliant turn in Reality, reviewed here). There’s something primal about the way she pulls this one off and the last five to ten minutes of the film are totally owned by her. Talk about pulling out the stops.

The ending was a satisfying moment, too. This doesn’t do the Hollywood thing where we cut to an epilogue releasing the tension of all that’s come before and giving a nudge towards closure. No, this ending reminded me specifically of a late 1960s/early 1970s Hammer horror movie like Quatermass And The Pit (reviewed here). At the time, those films would usually end with whatever surviving protagonist(s) just wallowing silently in the aftermath of the sheer grimness of what they’ve just survived, their minds adjusting slowly to what they’ve fought through. This one does exactly that and... yeah... the film is intense and grim but, if you are not too distracted by the harsh suspense of certain scenes, there’s also a thread of somewhat blasphemous humour shot through it as well.

And, honestly, I have nothing but good things to say about Immaculate and it looks truly beautiful (just as an Italian horror film from that period would). I hope that a boutique Blu Ray label such as Severin or Vinegar Syndrome or Arrow pick this one up for release because it certainly wouldn’t look out of place with certain parts of their catalogues and I know they could do some amazing extras with the correct kind of context. Talking of which, I absolutely cannot wait to get this one on Blu Ray so I can watch it again. Unfortunately, limited time and a slew of ‘to be seen’ cinema releases for the next month or so means I won’t be able to experience this one at the cinema again but, back in the day, I would have been going back to this one a couple of times, I can tell you. So there you go, if you are into 70s/80s Italian horror movies then... run, don’t walk, to your nearest cinema and check this one out. Such a treat.

Tuesday 12 March 2024

The Brides Of Dracula

Meinster Mash

The Brides Of Dracula
UK 1960 Directed by Terence Fisher
Hammer Films Blu Ray Zone B

I remember that when I first saw The Brides Of Dracula many decades after I’d seen the other films in Hammer’s Dracula sequence, most of which I saw in my pre-teen years. I remember being hugely disappointed with this one and had a similar reaction in subsequent revisits.

My initial disappointment was that neither Dracula nor, it could be argued, the Brides of Dracula actually feature in the movie... unless you want to argue that various female vampires created by the film’s vampire villain Baron Meinster, could be given this title as a kind of extended metaphor for the brief narrative introduction to the movie, where the audience are told that, after Dracula’s death, his cult of vampirism lives on. Christopher Lee did not want to reprise his successful role two years after his initial appearance in Dracula (aka Horror Of Dracula, reviewed here), for fear of being typecast in the role. Which he kind of was, of course... and he made a fair few Dracula movies after this one (at least one of them wasn’t even for Hammer).

Of course we have Peter Cushing returning here in the role of Van Helsing and, in one of a few factors which completely shoots the continuity of the series where he’s concerned, we are told that we are in the last years of the 19th Century. Cushing, of course, is always watchable and I’d maintain he’s one of the few reasons why The Brides Of Dracula is worth a watch. It has to be said, I’m not the biggest fan of this entry into the series but I do like the director and I can appreciate some of the things he, along with his set designer, brings to the production. I do find myself quite at odds with Fisher’s biographer Tony Dalton, it has to be said, in that he says in his recent book about the director, reviewed here, that he thinks The Brides Of Dracula is one of the best films in the series. Then again, he also doesn’t have much of a good word to say about my favourite movie in the sequence, Dracula Ad 1972 (reviewed by me here), so there you go.

After the opening narration we are treated to a bumpy coach ride (Michael Ripper is a rough coach driver, I can tell you) and we are introduced to the main female protagonist  Marianne (played by Yvonne Monlaur), who is on her way to teach at a private school in Transylvania. Unable to get to the school due to an incident (which half involves a man who lurks around in various scenes looking threatening and mysterious before dropping out of the narrative completely, still leaving me with no idea who or why the character was) she stays the night with Baroness Meinster in Meinster Castle, releasing her son from his imprisonment, not knowing that he’s a vampire...

Chaos ensues but she is found and helped the next morning by Cushing’s Van Helsing character, after a lengthy series of set pieces which means he doesn’t enter the film until the 30 minute mark. Which is similar to what was done in the previous Dracula movie, where a fair piece of narrative action leading into the story was dealt with before the entrance of the title character’s arch nemesis. Lots of shenanigans ensue as Van Helsing tries to help with the local vampire problem and save Marianne from being made... well... a Bride Of Meinster... yeah, that stupid title really makes no sense for this film.

The story is not great, it has to be said but it’s the magnetic presence of Cushing and the interesting direction of Fisher which just about keeps it vaguely watchable. He moves the camera a fair amount to good effect and quite often uses the height of the actors to create vivid triangular patterns in the compositions, something which I’ve noticed him doing a lot before. Another trick to make the staging interesting is to use areas of the set which are lit just slightly darker than others and to shoot the actors in these patches before having them move forward into the light, to increase the impact of their lines as their faces are suddenly lit up. Indeed, there’s one scene in this film where he does it in rapid succession with the only two actors in the scene, a real double whammy as one steps ito the light and then the other does the same in the reverse shot.

Indeed, he uses a lot of good little tricks to create interest in the dialogue heavy scenes. For instance, a shot where Peter Cushing is standing about two thirds of the way to the right of screen, talking to a local priest who is seated on the left. We can see the priest talking to him from both the left of the screen and also in reflection in a mirror behind Cushing on the direct right of the screen, as he's nicely sandwiched  between two of the same talking head, so to speak.

Another nice thing Fisher does is bring a lot of value to his sets, partially by using the old Roger Corman trick of ‘leaving the doors open’. One fantastic instance of this is in the first scene shot in a very narrow tavern. The set goes back a long way with various protuberances coming in from the sides and then with another room seen through the back alcove which is lit in a completely different colour to the first... bathed red in stark contrast to the rest of the set, highlighting the sense of depth. Very nice stuff.

There are some real problems with the ideas about vampires though. For instance, after being bitten by one, Cushing cauterises his neck with a red hot iron and this, combined with some Holy Water, stops what is presumably a viral, chemical reaction from taking place and turning him into a vampire... somehow. It’s a nice idea but makes no sense as far as I’m concerned. Furthermore, using the shadows of the blades of a windmill to project a cross and thus stop Meinster escaping is a wonderfully creative idea... except it only works if the body of the windmill would bizarrely project no shadow, which it doesn’t in this, somehow. There is no earthly set of circumstances in the world where the shadow of the crossing blades would be seen in isolation as they are here.

And another big problem is the continuity between this picture and the previous one in the sequence. In Dracula, Van Helsing clearly states that the idea that a vampire can change one’s shape into a bat is a fallacy. In this one, however, he clearly states that a vampire can change into a bat.... which the vampires in this movie do quite frequently... at least into a dodgy looking rubber bat at any rat.

I’m curious as to why Fisher wasn’t able to tap James Bernard for repeat scoring duties on this one. Instead, the score is provided by Malcolm Williamson. Good musical continuity, at least, is kept between the two films in that, although Williamson’ doesn’t use Bernard’s famous Dracula theme, the orchestration on this is very similar to the score from the first one and provides a modicum of auditory glue between the two films. So that’s okay at least but, despite some nicely creative shots, I wouldn’t recommend The Brides Of Dracula to many people, it has to be said. I’m not saying it’s the worst Dracula picture that the studio put out but, it’s very far from the best, it seems to me. Still, I look forward to revisiting the next film in the series fairly soon.

Monday 11 March 2024

The Ice Cream Blonde

Todd’s Laughter,
Todd Slaughter

The Ice Cream Blonde -
The Whirlwind Life And
Mysterious Death of Screwball
Comedienne Thelma Todd

by Michelle Morgan
Chicago Review Press
ISBN: 9781613730386

Just a short review of a wonderful book given to me by a good friend for Christmas. Subtitled The Whirlwind Life And Mysterious Death Of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd, Michelle Morgan’s tome The Ice Cream Blond paints a compelling picture of the actresses life, doing exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak, in as breezy and entertaining way as possible.

I remember seeing Todd as a co-star in various Laurel And Hardy shorts as a kid (back when they were regularly shown on television throughout the 1970s) but I didn’t really discover her until I took notice of her as a pretty wonderful co-star opposite Groucho Marx in two of the five, absolutely brilliant films starring The Four Marx Brothers (as they were known before Zeppo left the fold) which they did while still under contract to Paramount... which as far as I’m concerned were their greatest films... more so, even, than their first couple of films for Irvin Thalberg at MGM. Those two films being their third and fourth features, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Thelma is pretty brilliant in these two, especially in the former film as a gangster’s moll... she certainly fills the void left by the former and, soon back again, foil Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers’ movies.

I’d heard there was possibly some sinister side to her very early death over the years but, I thought the time was right to finally investigate it. This book lays it all out on the line, beginning with what is thought of to be either accidental death, suicide or, perhaps as likely when you ponder certain post mortem findings... murder. So the book starts at the point when the housekeeper finds her 29 year old dead body, filled with carbon monoxide and with blood on her face, in a car (also with blood in it) in a garage beneath her apartment, by the cafe she co-owned and ran. She then proceeds to tell her story from early life, where many things I didn’t know about the actress were revealed to me for the first time.

Indeed, it seemed that Thelma was no stranger to trauma, having been the sole witness, when she was just four, to her unsupervised seven year old brother being accidentally mangled to death in a machine at her local creamery. It then tells of her going into tomboy mode to please her father in the absence of his son and how she won beauty contests she wasn’t really interested in going in for that much and training to become a school teacher, before accidentally being ‘discovered’ by a husband and wife who wanted her to be in their new show. 

We then follow her as she goes from being one of the first pupil’s in Paramount’s acting school to being one of their most successful graduates... and how she got into films and how much of a beloved star she became while under contract to Hal Roach. I hadn’t realised that he’d set her up in a series of shorts partnered firstly with ZaSu Pitts and then, when Pitts didn’t get the money she wanted to continue after a period of time, in similar films partnered with Patsy Kelly. Indeed, these physical slapstick films were said to be as popular as the ones she made with comedy duo Laurel and Hardy at the time*... I had no idea (although, I will now seek them out now, for sure).

Another interesting thing about her when she was just starting out is her part in Howard Hughes’ famous movie Hell’s Angels, which, due to the very long editing and reshoot process going on for years, eventually ended up with her role falling on the cutting room floor, alas, with co-star Jean Harlow reaping the benefits from that one.

So yeah, lots more besides this and lots of stuff I didn’t know, including what an upbeat, super intelligent and kind hearted person she was. It also talks about her possible gangster connections... or rather connections she didn’t want in her life... as well as a year (the one in which she died) of death threats for money and various other things which were a huge worry to her, involving herself ‘locking down’ for a small period of her life. There’s not really any new fresh, compelling evidence to suggest that her death wasn’t accidental or a suicide but, given the comments by the police and various things said over the years by people who lived through this at the time since the case was closed, it seems a fairly likely possibility that she was murdered for refusing to let the mob start up a gambling racket in her well frequented and very successful cafe. Indeed, it’s strongly implied that director Roland West, who she was having a second, long term affair with and who co-owned the cafe with here, might have either been complicit in her demise or, possibly just hastily covered up for it (with some very contradictory testimonial he delivered in court).

It’s a short book and, if it seems a little bit like a quick read, it’s as much to do with the highly entertaining and enlightening way in which Michelle Morgan has put together and presented all the relevant facts, as much as it is to do with the brevity of Thelma’s existence, to be sure. So, as I said, a short review but, if you are interested in this iconic actress (although much less well known these days, it seems to me) then I would thoroughly recommend The Ice Cream Blonde - The Whirlwind Life And Mysterious Death Of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd as a good starting point for both you and your movie related book shelf. A breezy tale about a bright light snuffed out far too young. Give it a go.

*Indeed, they apparently made a cameo appearance in one of her shorts and were at her funeral.

Sunday 10 March 2024


Imaginary Fiend

Directed by Jeff Wadlow
2024 Blumhouse
UK Cinema Print

Okay, so the latest from successful horror movie company Blumhouse is Imaginary and, I have to say, I really quite liked this one. I’d also have to say that I don’t think it’s going to be that successful with some audiences but, hopefully I’ll be proven wrong on that.

The film stars DeWanda Wise as Jessica, step mother to two new children (played by Taegen Burns and Pyper Braun) who, with their father, moves back to her former home where, it turns out, she had a definite ‘childhood trauma’ event... though she certainly didn’t remember just what that was all about until something laying in wait reminds her. And when her boyfriend goes away on a concert tour (he’s presumably in a band) she’s left to look after the two girls, the youngest of whom has taken an ‘imaginary friend’, who takes the form of an old Teddy bear named Chancey.

And then things start going wrong and getting traumatic as Chancey isn’t ‘just’ an imaginary friend and, as it turns out, has his own agenda to abscond with the younger daughter, for reasons (perhaps way too obvious reasons) which come to light nearer the end of the movie.

Okay, so let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. There are no real surprises a lot of the time but, that being said, there are a couple. A lot of the stuff is telegraphed way too soon, such as Jessica’s dad, when he visits her in hospital, talking about CB... I was just kinda waiting for an hour for everyone else in the movie to play catch up on that one.

And another problem is that the film suffers a little bit from is the dreaded curse of most modern day horror films... sound design that lets you know things are about to get tense and scary long before you’re supposed to realise this stuff on anything other than a subconscious level. So as soon as the ambient sound changes, you are on the alert right away. Don’t get me wrong, I think you are supposed to be unsettled by this audio phenomenon... I just don’t think your brain is meant to be aware of it while you are watching. So, yeah, that element, which is the modern cinematic equivalent of an old 1970s horror movie using a heartbeat on the soundtrack, kinda lets it down a bit. However, that being said, the sound cliché also happens to absolutely work... so you may know why you are feeling unsettled in certain scenes but, dammit, knowing it doesn’t make it any less effective, for sure.

Now I said that half the twists in the film don’t work and are telegraphed but, guess what? Yeah, that means the other half of the twists did actually work well. The director actually uses things like the bear appearing in different positions and beginning to move a little as a really nice piece of misdirection for a certain twist that is revealed when a child psychiatrist comes to visit the younger daughter. I really fell for that one hook, line and sinker so... yeah, this film sure has its moments. And I loved that the film goes full on into creating a surrealist world which the main characters get to visit... the element which I think may be too much for certain ‘hip’ young audiences who are, of course, the main target here. But I loved that the movie leaned into this surreal stuff for the end game and I found it refreshing, to be honest.

And now, I suppose, I should address the elephant in the room because, there’s a reason I went to the cinema to see this one. And that reason was... Mario Bava. There’s a moment, right at the end of one of the trailers, which it turns out also made the final cut of the movie, that is a dead steal of a famous moment in Mario Bava’s 1977 movie Schock. In that film, a kid rushes towards Dario Nicolodi and, runs off the bottom of the screen only to pop back up immediately into the frame as a different, grown up person. It’s a beautiful shot using a practical piece of sleight of hand with the photography to pull off the effect (something which Mario Bava was known for when making his movies). And it really is a complete copy of that moment used in this movie... I mean, it’s not as deftly done because, due to the subject matter, the shot has to use a lot of CGI but, it does deliberately echo the camera movement from Bava’s movie and, yeah, I’m sure the director knew exactly what he was doing here. It’s a nice piece of homage which, I think they should have left out of the trailer because... well... now the audience will see it coming.

Other than that... not much else to report. The score of the movie is nice and it’s credited to Sparks & Shadows... which is a company formed by Bear McCreary (one of my favourite modern day composers) so I’m guessing the score is a group effort by him and some of his colleagues/friends/apprentices. I’d love to hear this one away from the movie but, no such luck as it doesn’t seem to have had a proper CD release... so I guess I won’t get to listen to it, which is a shame.

Other than that, though... yeah, Imaginary is nicely acted, well put together, could have had more surprises but still, it’s nicely done and I could imagine picking up a Blu Ray of this one at some point. Like I said though, I suspect it’s not going to be as well received by everyone so... time will tell, I guess.