Tuesday 30 April 2024

The Woman In Green

Mesmerising Rhythm

The Woman In Green
Directed by Roy William Neill
USA 1945
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

Although there are slight inspirational shades of both Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Solution and The Adventure Of The Empty House present in this, The Woman In Green is a mostly original screenplay, being the 11th in the series of Sherlock Holmes films to star Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. Mary Gordon once more returns to the series as housekeeper Mrs. Hall but, alas, Dennis Hoey was shooting another movie so his wonderful turn as Lestrade is absent. He would only appear once more in the series.

Like the previous Holmes adventure, The House Of Fear (reviewed by me here), this one starts off with a voice over narrative coupled with the background of the story, which turns out to be someone calling on Holmes to tell him what’s been going on and, in this case, it’s Matthew Boulton as Inspector Gregson. Also on hand are returning actors from previous roles in the series, once again taking on characters they’ve not played before, primarily Henry Daniell playing the third and final incarnation of Professor Moriarty in this one and Hillary Brooke as his ‘henchwoman’ and expert hypnotist Lydia Marlow.

And it’s an interesting one, starting off with the murder of four women around London, their corpses mutilated by having their right forefinger sliced off surgically. It turns out this is a plot that Moriarty is using to convince hypnotised, wealthy aristocrats that they have murdered said woman in order to relieve them of large sums of hush money. The narrative also includes a hypno assassin who tries to murder Holmes, although he escapes the sniper’s bullet due to a ruse with a plaster bust and its silhouette through the window shade... and a nice, comical scene where Watson is hypnotised as a demonstration of the powers of the art of mesmerism. Then there’s a very nice scene where Holmes deduces a lot of the intent of a visitor to his offices by observing her from the window of his home in 221B Baker Street.

And talking of his Baker Street address, producer/director Neill has again used verticals to split the screen in places and so the prominent use of the column in Holmes’ flat is once more brought into play (it was kind of tucked away out of shot again in the previous film but once more it’s become a feature here). He also does some nice partitioning by a set of checkered windows later in the film.  

There are some items of note here which I will point out now...

For starters, Holmes receives one of his clients in his dressing gown, which of course the character was known for but I think, if memory serves, this was the first time in this film series that he wears this (please mention in the comments here if I’ve got that wrong). Another first and, as it happens, final thing is the mention of Holmes’ brother Mycroft. This is the only time in this particular film series that his name comes up.

One other item of interest is a bizarre shot where Holmes is letting himself be hypnotised by the titular character (I’ll get to her in just a moment). There’s a curious double reflection of her but not Holmes in a bowl of water she is using for this which really doesn’t ring true. Something seems off kilter about it... of course, this uncanny feeling is obliterated when they start superimposing the faces of both Hillary Brooke and Basil Rathbone in the bowl but, yeah, the first reflection shot in this sequence looks totally bizarre.

The film also had a couple of issues in that the script was altered due to the Breen Office at the time, in a couple of places, one of which is quite sinister. You’ll notice in the scene that introduces the man actually carrying out the murders and doing the finger cutting that he is playing with a doll of a child. In the proposed version of the script, the victims being killed and mutilated were actually very young girls but, yeah, the censors were having none of it.

And one last thing... The Woman In Green herself. Well, certainly in the shoddy, colourised version from later years, Brooke is wearing green to just make her match the title but, of course, in the original black and white version as is being reviewed here, there’s absolutely no mention of her character wearing green throughout the whole movie. In fact, at one point Holmes even mentions she’s wearing purple so, yeah. it seems perhaps even more of a mystery than the crimes being committed in the film itself, as to why this movie comes by that title. Either way though, despite Moriarty falling to his death for the third time in the series, The Woman In Green is another solid entry and a joy to watch, as they all are to be honest. Three more now to revisit.

Monday 29 April 2024

The Mexican Masked Wrestler And Monster Filmography


Luchadorian Gray

The Mexican
Masked Wrestler &
Monster Filmography

by Robert Michael “Bobb” Cotter
McFarlane Press
ISBN: 9780786441044

Just a very quick ‘shout out while I’m passing’ review of Robert Michael ‘Bobb’ Cotter’s refreshingly entertaining book The Mexican Masked Wrestler And Monster Filmography. This book is not, as the writer rightly states in his introductory paragraph, an exhaustive tome covering absolutely everything in that, admittedly, very wide category but, it has to be said, it covers all the important ones (at least that’s how it seems to me).

The book is split into themed sections so, rather than just go through each movie one by one, he groups everything into themes. And that’s not as problematic as you may think because, as in the case when two or more wrestlers shared billing and performances in the same movie, at least two alternate looks at the film in question appear in two or more sections, where relevant. So, for instance, when Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Máscaras take on the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle in Misterio en las Bermudas (aka Mystery In The Bermudas 1977), you will find a wealth of information for the film in both the Santo section, the Blue Demon section and, possibly, still more mention in the Mil Máscaras section.

The ten chapters which make up the book are as follows... 1. The Bat Flies South - Early Mexican Fantasy And Horror, 2. Who Was That masked man? - The Spirit Of The Serials, 3. Universal Con Carne - New Lives For The Old Undead, 4. Santo and Son - The Legend of the Silver Masked Man, 5. Devil With A Blue Mask On - The Life And Films Of Blue Demon, 6. Man of a Thousand Masks - The Life and Films of Mil Máscaras, 7. Glorious Luchadoras of Wrestling - The Lives and Films of the Wrestling Women, 8. The Undercard - Second-Banana Masked Men, 9. Vampires Not Named Drácula and Other Assorted Creatures - The Wide, Wide World Of Mexican Monsters and, lastly,  10. Men Can Die But Legends Live Forever - The Legacy Of The Silver-Masked Man.

The book starts off by giving a history of the background to wrestling and monsters in movies. So, coincidentally, Lucha Libre (Free Wrestling) was introduced as a phenomenon in Mexico in the early 1930s and, of course, the Spanish version of Dracula made by Universal simultaneously with their American version in 1931, on the same sets (reviewed by me here) also made a big splash in Mexico. So it wasn’t long before the wrestlers started appearing in films (and movie characters started also appearing in the wrestling ring) and, not too long after that, than they started facing various Universal style monsters and other supernatural villains in their big screen adventures. And also in their comics, it would seem, as there was often a big crossover with characters appearing in wrestling rings, in comics and in the movies.

Each movie covered is a very humorously written explanation of the film and what happens but it also is very illuminating as to various things the casual viewer like myself was unaware of. So I now know about the ‘private detective’ version of Fu Manchu from a series of Mexican movies, for example. I now know male wrestlers are luchadores and female wrestlers are luchadoras. I know which actor from The Aztec Mummy Trilogy was shot by his lover’s estranged husband a year after making the film and, similarly, which actresss’ career was thwarted by her father shooting her boyfriend after discovering they’d had pre-marital sex. It’s all here and written in a breezy but also very respectful manner.

So I was surprised to learn... because I’ve not seen many Mil Máscaras movies... that the origin of that particular character on screen was pretty much cribbed from the Doc Savage novels. And also that the one time the Mexicans made a theatrical serial (as opposed to a feature), it was only shown in serial form when it was distributed in America... in Mexico it was a, presumably cut down, feature length version.

So, yeah, lots new to me here and my one caveat emptor warning on this would be... the book was written around twenty years ago. So every now and again you wil find the author unable to review a film because it’s a ‘lost film’ or a ‘lost cut’. Well, in the two decades since this was written, a lot of headway must have been made because, I certainly have a few of these ‘lost prints’ as bootlegs and I even have a nice, officially released Blu Ray of at least one of them.

But don’t let this detract you because, for sure, if you are a beginner in the genre or, like me, just want to dip your toes in every now and again, you wil certainly find The Mexican Masked Wrestler And Monster Filmography an invaluable and illuminating treasure trove of information, with a big injection of humour added into the mix too. Definitely a big recommendation from me.

Sunday 28 April 2024


ISS Side Up

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
USA 2023 (2024 release)
UK Theatrical Print

ISS is a new sci-fi thriller set aboard the International Space Station of the title. Starting with the tail end of the journey to and, arrival of, a new American researcher to the ISS, the film has only six cast members in its whole running time and is totally set in... and for a couple of sequences, on... the space station of the title (and the shuttle rocket which gets the inhabitants to and from there).

So we have six cast members playing three a piece of both the American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. There’s Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina and John Gallagher Jr. playing the American crew. And we have Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbæk playing their Russian counterparts. And the two crews seem to get along just fine and friendly (in one case, a little more than friendly, in terms of the captain of the American team and the lady of the Russian crew) until something happens.

So the film has a really strong premise and it’s this... one day not long after her arrival on the ISS, Ariana DeBose’s character spots something which she at first thinks is a volcano erupting on the Earth out of the window. She calls the others to float over to the window with her to look but the light show doesn’t just stop at one ’eruption’ and the crew witness a nuclear war from space. Soon after, the crew realise there is no internet and contact with Earth is lost but, the two commanders of each team get secret communications sent to them independently, saying there is now war between America and Russia and that they have to ‘take control’ of the ISS... by any means necessary.

So that’s the set up and it’s a nicely handled, quite intense and dark piece. As people on each side question their superiors’ orders while certain other members of... well... one team especially, tries to eliminate the other team as quick as he can. Like a lot of movies set in isolated locations where the characters are cut off from any kind of real communication with the outside world, there’s a lot of paranoia in the film and, even with such clearly established sides, switching allegiances to some extent... one of the US crew is clearly affected mentally by the objective of his new mission priority and this manifests in an aggressive and dangerous way (aka, he’s a psycho ready to kill American and Russian alike to reach his goal).

Now there’s good and bad with the film. Something I can tell you is it’s a good, more than competently made movie with an almost unbearable amount of suspense in some sequences. It also has good special effects such as the really well done weightlessness of the crew for most of the scenes (though obviously not as good as Jane Fonda’s anti-gravity striptease at the start of Barbarella, for obvious reasons) and nice moments such as, when wounds are inflicted, floating blood droplets in the air.

The cast of six are all great in this. Not one of them puts a foot wrong in this piece and the ‘villains’ are people you will be happy to see die with everyone having good, on screen chemistry. Ditto on the direction and editing. Gabriela Cowperthwaite turns in a nice looking film which has a certain flair and I imagine, giving the weightlessness and other difficulties of shooting stories set in space, this must have been a hard thing to capture... she acquits herself brilliantly.

And the musical score too, by Anne Nikitin, really adds tension to the piece. I would love to listen to this as a stand alone experience but, alas, at time of writing this review there is no proper CD release (just a stupid download). Granted, it’s maybe mixed in too powerfully in a couple of the early scenes but it certainly injects an extra layer of tension throughout the film and I will have to watch out... or listen out, at least... for this lady on future movies.

Okay... it’s a good film, certainly but... not a great film, alas. I’ve been avoiding the floating elephant in the room thus far and it’s this, I think. I'm pretty sure it’s a writing problem. We have such a strong set up and the movie plays out exactly as you might think such a set up would play out but... does nothing more. There’s no last act element to elevate the emotional stakes any higher than they are at the start of the story and, although there is a certain, open ended resolution to the thing (which has, perhaps, shades of other movies where isolated characters are slowly being whittled down), there’s no real feeling of progression to any of the characters or situations by the end of the movie and so it just feels, I dunno, a bit anticlimactic.

But that’s the only problem I had with it and, like I said, ISS is certainly an entertaining movie with harrowing suspense and tension in some scenes and, definitely some clearly defined antagonists on both crews of the station so, if those are the kind of movies you like, you should still have a pretty good time with this one. Just don’t expect too much from the ending, is my main warning on this one.

Tuesday 23 April 2024

Heroes Of The East

Hitty Woman

Heroes Of The East
aka Zhong hua zhang fu
Hong Kong 1978
Directed by Chia-Liang Liu
Shaw Brothers/Celestial Pictures
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Okay, so the eleventh movie presented in Arrow’s Blu Ray ShawScope Vol 1 collection is Heroes Of The East and, it’s another entertaining yarn. That being said, I’m amazed that Shaw Brothers got away with releasing this one after the racist tone of the movie... I was going to say subtext but it’s way less subtle than that.

Okay, so it’s one of those films which introduces characters with credits from the moment they enter the story. I think I’ve only ever seen this practice done on Shaw Brothers movies and there are a lot in this box set which do this... once the titles are finished, they still just keep coming and coming until every new character has turned up throughout the course of the picture.

The film stars a young Gordon Liu as Ho Tao but, it’s a younger version of the actor in a way I’ve never seen him before... with a full head of almost Beatles-style mop top hair. After some shenanigans where he pretends to get ill rather than go through with an arranged marriage to a childhood companion, he drops all pretence of illness when he discovers she’s not the ugly battle axe he was expecting to have to marry. Far from it and, in the first of many credits in the movie which introduce actors and actresses with their specialist martial arts skills status, she is billed here as Japanese Seikendo Expert - Yuka Mizuno (who is here playing said new wife Yumiko).

Yup, it’s a ‘Chinese man marrying a Japanese woman‘ battle of the sexes comedy, for a while, with the extremely proficient new lady of the house pitching her belief in her own, ‘failing in the face of her husbands more elegant Chinese kung fu styles’ Japanese techniques, in which the battle is initially raised. So, yeah, it's a case of marital arts to martial arts, I guess.

However, it doesn’t take long to figure out for even the most IQ light viewer (so that’d be me then), it’s really about pushing the agenda that Chinese martial arts are far superior to Japanese brands and styles. This gets further pronounced in their domestic disputes to the point when, unable to take her techniques’ failures any more, she high tails it back to Japan.

So Ho sends her a letter challenging her to use her seven different kung fu styles against his in a battle to settle the dispute once and for all. However, her martial arts instructor (who also wants her for himself), shows his grandmaster the letter and seven of the masters in their special techniques (including him), plus the grandmaster as an observer, go to China to accept the challenge in her place, in seven duels.

From here on in, the film becomes a series of seven long fight scenes which, yeah, is all very watchable, fast paced and I dread to think how many times these various actors got hurt doing these sequences. So there are seven different skills and styles poor Ho has to go against... Swords, Karate (which Ho manages to defeat by somehow learning Drunken Kung Fu overnight), Nunchucks, Spears  (no match for Ho’s pole fighting technique), Sai (which is, yeah, the plural of Sai, as it turns out), a huge Judo guy who is defeated by Ho smearing his body with oil and, eventually, the Ninjitsu style as Yumilo’s affronted ex-master uses the most sneaky and deviously underhanded techniques to win his confrontation... losing out to the same techniques pitched against him.

So, yeah, there’s a sense of honour among the Japanese characters and they’re not presented as total idiots but, it’s very much, despite Ho’s attempt at a speech to help the Japanese regain face at the end, a movie saying ‘Chinese are better than Japanese’, live with it. So I’m surprised I’ve not been aware of any backlash against the film, which I’m sure it must have had.

It’s nicely put together too and the fight choreography is never boring. Indeed, rather than remain static and follow the action from afar, the director gets the camera right in with the actors, using camera motion to follow the fights around with a certain dynamism and kinetic appeal which, due to some good editing and clarity of where you are in a fight at any time, never gets at all confusing.

There’s some nice little moments in the fighting as well... such as the sense of honour of the characters. For instance, when Ho is using some kind of big choppy blades against his opponents sai, he disarms one sai from the other but then presents it back to him. The Japanese guy promptly sheaths it as it would be dishonourable to carry on using the weapon as it’s already been disarmed. In response, Ho beds one of his own weapons in a wooden support so they can carry on meeting each other on equal terms.

There are also some other things which add to the entertainment value... such as when the Ninja guy uses what he calls his Japanese Crab Fist technique, which really does have him energetically scuttling sideways here and there in stark resemblance to its crustacean origins. If that sounds a little silly... I can assure you it looks way more hilarious and ridiculous than it sounds and, I was almost sorry when Ho used his special Chinese Crane Fist technique to put a stop to his opponents sideways stratagems.

So yeah, Heroes Of The East is a bit of an unusual movie, starting off as a kind of Chinese/Japanese version of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day kind of comedy (with lethal weapons) but then turning into something far more serious, with the honour of Chinese martial arts resting on the energy and enthusiasm of the husband as he tries to somehow win back his wife by, I don’t know, reiterating in a more grander, large scale way what he tried to demonstrate to her in the first place. It’s a freeze frame ending so, yeah, we don’t know if this did the trick or not but, certainly that wouldn’t want to be a conversation I’d like to go back to if I was the male in this particular relationship.

And that’s me done on this one, I think. Despite its racist leanings I found the film to be thoroughly entertaining and didn’t mind the lopsided nature of the story as the comedy turned into something more serious and kinetic. Another good one in this set from Arrow.

Monday 22 April 2024

Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie

French Twist

Les Petits Meurtres
D’Agatha Christie

aka The Little Murders
Of Agatha Christie

aka Agatha Christie’s
Criminal Games

plus Agatha Christie
Family Murder Party

France 2006, 2009-2023
Various company’s DVDs

Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie is one of the best TV shows I’ve seen in quite a while but it’s also absolutely frustrating and maddening to actually acquire all the episodes to watch. This is because one company has put certain episodes out while another has put certain other episodes out and, in terms of the running order, especially from what I will call ‘Season 1’ (it gets complicated, as I’ll elabourate in a minute), it’s like each company just divided the episodes, threw them all in the air and then just put them on their respective discs in a random order completely unlike the actual order you’re supposed to watch them in. So if you do as I did and spend a year and a half trying to put all the episodes together, you’ll need to refer to the IMDB for the correct order to watch these in as, yes, there is character development and referrals back to events in other episodes. Of course, it almost goes without saying that the two companies use different sets of titles for the episodes... sometimes French, sometimes English and, sometimes their own translations based on the Agatha Christie story the episode is based on rather than the actual episode title. Then, of course, running in a totally random order on the discs.

So yeah, it’s not been easy and if these weren’t all a series of gifts for my mum, I might have given up but... between the two companies, there are eight sets of discs which do, I assure you, make up all the episodes. At around £30 to £40 a pop from the US, which is the only country so far these have been released with English subtitles, as far as I can make out. Some of which are no longer in print, so you may have to try and Ebay one or two. All I can say is... they’re worth it but, even to try and explain the way the seasons are split up is hard. As one season can run for many years... each episode is a 90 minute feature length story which, by the looks of it, only had about five episodes air in France each year, sort of like TV specials. They are obviously very popular over there... and rightly so.

So for the sake of convenience I’m going to refer to the shows as follows:

Petits Meurtres En Famille aka Agatha Christies Murder Party is a four episode, single story introduction to two characters, set in the 1930s.

These two characters continue in Les Petits Meeurtres D’Agatha Christie (although they shouldn’t, I’ll get to that in a little while) for 11 feature length episodes, which I’ll call Season 1. This is set in the late 1930s.

Season 2 of Les Petits Meeurtres D’Agatha Christie is also known as Agatha Christie’s Criminal Games in the US (though not on the actual prints) and comprises 27 episodes following different set of three characters... except, if you want to see the first episode of this season which introduces these characters, you’ll have to look in one of the ‘Season 1’ sets entitled The Little Murders of Agatha Christie. Which is nuts. This is set between the mid 1950s and early 1960s and the Criminal Games covers present this ‘season’ as, well, four seasons.

Season 3 is better known in the US as Agatha Christie’s Criminal Games - The 1970s. It features another grouping of three characters and is set in, well, like what it says on the title. I think these all take place between 1971 and 1972.

Now the concept of the series is to take various Agatha Christie novels and short stories as the basis, but to change them up with a new bunch of regular characters, who all work in a French police station, in different decades. The stories are used as a basic starting point (in all but a few) and locations, professions, characters and everything else are given a different spin. And the strength of the show lies in the fact that, each set of main protagionists are a delight and there’s a very large streak of humour running through every episode (often bordering on farce).

Okay, with me so far?

Right, Petits Meurtres En Famille (aka Agatha Christie Family Murder Party) introduces us to Chief inspector Larosière, played by Antoin Duléry and his young assistant Lampion, played by Marius Colucci. It took me a little while to warm to these two because I’d watched all the episodes of the second series first (barring the first one, see above) before realising that these were an earlier iteration of said show. And I can tell you, if I’d seen this multi-part adaptation of ‘Hercule Poirot's Christmas’ first then I wouldn’t have watched anymore after that. It’s way too long at what amounts to around 6 hours to tell the one story. But I was surprised because, I knew there was another series featuring these two characters and they actually stick to the ending of the original here (no spoilers but, if you know the ending of that one, well... Larosière is the character who is standing in for Poirot... although bearing no resemblance to him, of course).

Which puzzled me because, continuity fails right away when we’re into the first season of Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie because, bearing in mind how the previous tale ended, it’s just been completely forgotten about and it’s Larosière and Lampion investigating other crimes together again after these events. So, yeah, they just decided to forget about the intro series and move on as if nothing had happened. And it’s pretty good, after the sheer brilliance of what I am calling Season 2, I found I warmed to these two predecessor characters pretty quickly and looked forward to seeing their various quirks and methodology tackling the basic premise of the stories in new ways.

And then, comes Season 2. Here we have the no nonsense but very clever Inspector Swan Laurence, played by the brilliant Samuel Labarthe. We have his love/hate relationship with the local newspaper reporter who is often on the scene of the crime before he is, the equally outstanding Blandine Bellavoir as Alice Avril. And, finally, with a role that keeps growing and growing, we have Elodie Frenck as Swan’s admiring and completely ditzy blonde secretary Marlene... who also provides a great deal of the comic relief in certain scenes. She even is featured as one of the main characters of the title sequence after a few episodes, as she becomes more popular in the show. These episodes are absolutely top notch and each of the three leads get to play a dual role at least once over the course of the show, to showcase their enormous acting talents even more.

And, like in the third season, there are even supernatural elements to the occasional story or two, with the odd ghost from the characters’ pasts appearing every now and then. Indeed, one lady coroner who Swan is infatuated with, who dies in a plane crash at the start of an episode, even comes back from the dead as a spirit to point him in the right direction in an investigation in a later episode. This is something that is carried over memorably in the third season, where one of the characters gets some extra assistance (and irritation) from her long dead mum when the episode includes the investigation of a psychic. The chemistry between the three leads in this second season (and indeed the third) is so well written and performed that the mystery aspect of the show almost plays second fiddle. It’s these characters you want to return to, time after time. And the last episode of this season, which involves Swan, Marlene and associated regular characters hiding Alice Avril away as they try to find the culprit behind a murder she is accused of, even features Antoin Duléry as a relation of the original Larosière. Not only that, the last episode of this season, which ties things up very nicely in terms of the three regular characters, is an out and out musical, with all of the many characters we’ve come to know and love bursting out into song as the episode continues.

Lastly, we have the short Season 3, comprising just ten feature length episodes and running up to the end of last year. This one features the brilliant Emilie Gavois-Khan as Inspector Annie Greco, Arthur Dupont as the tearaway 70s sexist sidekick with anger issues called Beretta... and Chloé Cahudoye as consulting psychologist Rose Bellecour, recruited by Annie after her involvement with the mystery in the first episode. And these are all pretty great too... it has to be said. With the wah wah music and 1970s attitudes used as part of the comedy, in much the same way they were in the TV show Life On Mars. Now, a few episodes in Season 2 were only ‘inspired by the works of Agatha Christie’ because they were running out of plots and usage rights (I’m guesssing) but, in the third season, only the first couple of episodes are actually based on Christie works. The quality doesn’t drop though and... I wish they’d decided to keep the show going, although they had to shoot these ones through Covid so, yeah, as far as I can find out, there will be no more decades forthcoming (if you fdiscover any different then please let me know).

Another star of the show is the wonderful music and opening titles, which also features animated cardboard cutouts (probably computer generated) of the main characters, pertinent to that series, running around. It’s good stuff and I shall miss these tunes, titles and the wonderful actors and actresses who populate these stories. But at least, in the pursuit to find my mum something to do with Agatha Christie that she hadn’t already seen, I managed to get to see all of them over the last year and a quarter. And she absolutely loved these too... as did my dad. So these were well loved communal evenings watching the odd episode of this completely likeable and entertaining (not to mention extremely funny) French TV mystery series. And I shall definitely be looking out for some of these actors and actresses for years to come. Maybe skip the Petits Meurtres En Famille four parter but, if you watch the others, I’m sure you’ll have a good time with Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie, for sure.

Sunday 21 April 2024


Abi Ending

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin
and Tyler Gillett
Ireland/USA/Canada 2024
UK Theatrical Print

Warning: Spoilers, unless you already saw the trailer.

Well, that’s about the fourth time in the space of as many weeks when I was thoroughly surprised with my cinema experience... in a good way (and that doesn’t happen a lot). So I saw the trailer for Abigail a month or so ago and, honestly, it almost put me off seeing the movie. However, I’ve been slowly getting back to the cinema post-covid and I thought I’d see this one. Even though said trailer was so clichéd and some of the ‘witty vampire dialogue’ was way older than most of the actors in this film. And it just looked like a terrible time at the cinema.

But it wasn’t. My expectations were very much exceeded when I started watching the film and got drawn into a kidnapping caper gone wrong, as various characters played by such great actors as Melissa Barrera, Dan Stevens, Kathryn Newton, William Catlett, Kevin Durand and the late Angus Cloud, are sent to kidnap the titular little girl of the title, Abigail, played by Alisha Weir. Their safe house while they wait things out for their main man to come through with the ransom money is a luxury mansion but, suddenly, one of their team ends up decapitated. Is there someone in the house who wants them all dead? Probably because the security shutters all come down and they are locked in with the main threat of the film... also Abigail.

Okay. so, if you’ve seen the Abigail trailer then you’ll know that she is a young girl with a love of ballet who also happens to be a centuries old vampire gal. And her kidnappers, brought there by her own machinations, are her hobby food supply. So, as soon as everyone wakes up to the fact that she’s the main problem, it becomes a game of cat and mouse with everyone trying to kill the vampire before she eats them all.

Now, there is a cringy line of dialogue in the movie, which I wish they’d cut out of the film. I’m talking specifically about the line where Abigail says she likes to play with her food... honestly, how many times have you heard that one before? However, the whole movie is nicely put together and so I can forgive it a lot. They had me from the start with the use of Swan Lake on the soundtrack and, it was especially nice to hear it on the opening credits of a Universal movie again. It’s an obvious nod to the music used over the opening titles of the 1931 Todd Browning version of Dracula (reviewed by me here) and it kind of won me over from the start.

My only other problem with the film again stems from the trailer. For the first third of the movie, the directors play it like a straight crime drama, with the supernatural threat kept completely out of it (other than the obvious hint with the music... and Brian Tyler’s score for the movie is also fine, by the way). So the end of the first act twist is when Abigail herself is revealed to be their enemy, an inhuman vampire ready to quickly kill them all. So why reveal that in the trailer? I mean, I know they want their horror audience in but, they could have cut it in a way that the audience didn’t know that the little girl was anyone other than someone the kidnappers were trying to protect and stop from coming to harm. And it would have been that much stronger and much longer before any one saw it coming.

Instead, we get the full reveal in the trailers, long before the majority of people might have got there by themselves. I mean, one of the problems I had with Takashi Miike’s Audition in 1999 was that the trailer campaign didn’t try to hoodwink the audience into thinking it was a romantic comedy. The... erm... less than subtle change in tone was completely broadcast in the original trailers. And I understand why they did that but... um... yeah, it would have been stronger for a lot of people if the reveal wasn’t already embedded into the fabric of the trailer. I think a wiser, less blatant trailer here would have kept the audience guessing for a fair bit before Abigail’s true nature was finally revealed.

Having said that though, the terrible marketing doesn’t kill the film and, even though I knew it was a vampire flick from the start, I still had a surprisingly good time with it. Oh... and it’s quite gory compared to a lot of horror films (it’s an 18 certificate in the UK and you can kinda see why). When a vampire is killed in the movie, they basically explode in a shower of blood (just like they did in one of the greatest vampire movies ever made... Bliss... reviewed by me here). So, yeah, Abigail is a surprisingly gruesome flick but, that’s to its benefit, not its detriment and, well, their comes a time in the film when the clichés become homage... a legacy of the vampire films before them.

I could have done without them, mind you but, yeah, I was especially cheered up by the Swan Lake references, possibly designed to specifically appeal to some of the audience members who are maybe a bit long in the fang, for sure. It’s not the best horror film I’ve seen at the cinema in the last month but, well, it certainly beats a lot of what usually passes for horror at the cinema these days. So if you think you’re the target audience for this one, check it out for sure.

Tuesday 16 April 2024



aka Schlaf
Directed by Michael Venus
Germany 2020
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Some slight spoilers here.

Schlaf, or Sleep, was a blind buy for me. It’s a film I think I might have possibly gotten a chance to see at the cinema back in 2020 if it hadn’t been for the coronavirus. I don’t remember this one getting any kind of release in UK cinemas but the people at Arrow have released the movie on Blu Ray and, judging completely by the beautiful slipcase cover art and a nice, intriguing plot summary (such as it is... I’m not sure plot is the applicable word for this movie), I thought I’d take a punt on it. And I’m glad I did as I got two things from it. First up, I really liked it and will probably watch it again sometime in the hope of unearthing more clues as to what really is happening in the movie.

And, the other thing was, well, as is probably now apparent, I have no idea how the various puzzle pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. In fact, having slept on it overnight and realising the age of the hotel owners don’t necessarily match up to what I perceived to be the film’s timeline, it made even less sense on reflection.  But, then again, I’m not sure I’m supposed to be able to glean all of its answers anyway.

The story is about Marlene, played by Sandra Hüller and her daughter Mona, played by Gro Swantje Kohlhof and, Mona’s prime relationship to her mother is one of carer, as Marlene has strange psychological issues which are manifesting themselves to her every night in the form of dreams about a specific hotel and the three men she sees suicide there. In fact, she filled countless journals with sketches of the things she sees in this hotel every night. But then, she finds the hotel in a travel brochure and, without her daughter’s knowledge, goes to the village of Stainbach to stay in the hotel and try and get some answers. She knows she’s onto something because photos of the three men are in the lobby of the hotel. And then, in her dream like state overnight, something happens to her in her room and she’s taken to the local hospital in a stupor.

Mona moves herself into the hotel to be near her sick mother but, it isn’t long before she starts entering a world of dreams and also seeing visions of the three men who killed themselves in the distant past, as she walks around areas of the hotel. And that’s really all I want to say about the story itself... partially because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen the film and partially because anything else I say about it from hereon in would only be my personal interpretation, including the mental baggage I’ve brought to my viewing experience of the movie... and that may or may not turn out to be a helpful interpretation of events.

Right from the start of this beautiful looking movie, the director tries to wrong-foot the audience by taking us into perceived realities which turn out to be false. For instance, the film opens with mother and daughter playing Jenga but, on the second go in after the first topple, something very... well... un-Jenga like happens in the game and you realise you were just witnessing the mother’s dream. Or was it her dream? This is one of those movies where it’s very quickly established that any visual information you are given is not necessarily to be trusted so, any attempt to second guess where the story is going not only becomes impossible but it also becomes totally irrelevant.

There are elements brought in which weave a spell... the introduction of a group of people trying to bring back some form of Nazism (one assumes, there isn’t a swastika in sight) and also a witch who later becomes a succubus who may or may not be Mona’s grandmother (I’m plumping for, yes she is, despite the apparent age of the male hotel owner... I guess it could just about match up with things we are shown) and so there’s a persistent kind of folk horror element to the movie too, which is obviously set in a place which brings memories and dreams of the past washing up into the present... and a quite lethal succubus who lives on and can control people through those memories and visions, from what I could make out.

The film is beautifully shot and, as you might imagine, the cinematography helps set up a dream like atmosphere... as does the writing when it shows waking dream after waking dream with the dreamer unsure if they’ve actually awoken yet or trapped in another dream. Certainly, some characters are going on parallel adventures simultaneously in different perceived experiences, it seemed to me.

It would be a huge and obvious cliché to say that the film, with it’s woodland hotel setting and its vaguely surreal imagery and editing reminded me of Twin Peaks but, I think it has to be said that there’s a certain commonality between the two. And, no, I’m not saying this director is anything like David Lynch but there is a certain overlap, perhaps, in some of the themes and the way the more surrealistic imagery is introduced into the film... sometimes creeping up on the audience unexpectedly and, at other times, suddenly jumping out quite out of the blue with no subtlety whatsoever. I think fans of the former will probably enjoy this movie more, is perhaps the point I am trying to make here.

Coupled with a subtle score and some elegant mise en scene, there’s also a very strong cast of actors but a special shout out to Gro Swantje Kohlhof’s portrayal of Mona, who plays the character in a very downbeat, muffled kind of way for a lot of the film and so, in one scene where she takes on the personality of someone else (I don’t want to say too much here for fear of spoilers), you realise just how brilliant she is in this, due to the contrast of the sudden personality shift which is quite a moment to watch. But, yeah, everyone is good in this and everyone is so great at maintaining the idea that there is something amiss in the village of Stainbach.

And I am pleased I bought this one because Sleep, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is certainly a movie I would recommend. It does have various clues scattered throughout the film which do give a semblance of bits of a jigsaw I often found easy to put together... and sometimes not. I will go back and revisit these clues at some point although I suspect, just like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, the audience is not necessarily intended to join all the dots or, maybe a better analogy is build up a complete, correct picture from the puzzle pieces scattered throughout the film... a carved wooden boar, a ‘five way’ sex scene which may be a metaphor for the protagonist’s mother’s origin being enacted by her (or may not), spiked drinks for Nazis and so on.

I’ve not ploughed through the extras yet but, it’s Arrow and they’ve provided some nice stuff with this including a booklet of essays, a poster and, among the various disc extras, we get to sample the brilliance of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on one of the visual essays. So, yeah, there’s a lot going on with this release and, like I said, I'm glad I picked this one up while the limited edition version is still about. Check this one out for sure.

Monday 15 April 2024

The Complete Adventures Of The Domino Lady

Blonde Heat

The Complete Adventures
Of The Domino Lady

by Lars Anderson
Altus Press
ISBN 9781618273581

“Adventure was her meat and danger her dessert.”
Black Legion - Saucy Romantic Adventures

There seems to be some divergence of opinion as to the identity and, indeed, the existence of a writer named Lars Anderson. Wikipedia reports that it’s a publishers house name (just like Kenneth Robeson was a Street And Smith house name for the Doc Savage and The Avenger stories... although the primary writer behind the Doc Savage stories was really Lester Dent) but, according to Tom Johnson’s afterword in this very tome, he says that Will Murray (who wrote a lot of the modern Doc Savage adventures I’ve been reviewing on this site... again under the house name Kenneth Robeson) has verified that Lars Anderson was an actual person.

I’d like to know more but, whichever is the case, this collection from Altus Press, The Complete Adventures Of The Domino Lady, reprints the six stories he (or perhaps they) wrote for two publications in 1936. The first five of these stories, published that year, comprising The Domino Lady Collects, The Domino Lady Doubles Back, The Domino Lady’s Handicap, Emeralds Abroad and Black Legion all appeared in issues of that year’s Saucy Romantic Adventures while the sixth and final story, The Domino Lady’s Double, appeared in Mystery Adventure Magazine.

Now, after reading pulps by Lester Dent, who I think is a much better writer than Maxwell Grant (house name for Walter B. GIbson, who wrote The Shadow stories), I think I was somewhat spoiled by the former’s brilliant writing style because, I’ll be honest, it took me a few stories in of this collection to get into the character or, more specifically, the way she is written.

Nothing wrong as a character per se... to avenge the murder of her Irish politician father, wealthy socialite Ellen Patrick dons the guise of The Domino Lady, which includes a black domino mask, a completely superfluous cloak and her automatic pistol... basically becoming a Robin Hood style figure, stealing from rich, corrupt politicians and mobsters to give to needy charities, getting people out of blackmail threats and the like, wanted by both the police and the underworld. But she’s written... and this may well have been a publisher’s stipulation, since she was appearing in Saucy Romantic Adventures, after all... like she’s almost in a soft porn parody. I mean, how many times do I have to read about her ‘kissable shoulders’ and her shapely, somewhat peripatetic bosoms as a description of her character in every tale?

Having said that, I did eventually get used to the sex hugging style of the descriptions and did find the stories interesting, especially for the reason that they are almost a microcosm for exactly the sorts of stories you would get in various 1930s or 1940s feature film runs of characters thrown up on the silver screen. So, in six short stories you get the blackmail photographs plot, the ‘withdraw your winner of a racehorse from the race if you know what’s good for you’ plot, the heist on a luxury sea cruise plot, the corrupt politicians and power mongers syndicate plot and even a ‘framed for murder by a Domino Lady double’ plot. And these are exactly the kinds of tales you would see on a long run of films about such characters as The Saint or The Falcon or, well, take your pick.

But, they are peppered throughout with such succulent but cringeworthy bits of purple prose like “Ellen was breathing fast, her glorious bosom tossing beneath the scanty bodice of her gown.” or “The tall sleuth’s masterful arms went around her palpitant figure and his seeking lips found the damp grotto of her warm mouth.” which, okay, had me chuckling quite a lot in places. Having said that, though, I did warm to both the character and the writing style by the end of this short run and it’s a shame there were only six short stories about the character. Or so I thought...

In another classic case of opening a can of worms, it seems that this character I’d never heard of until I read The Complete Adventures Of The Domino Lady is now more popular than ever and lots of new short stories (where she teams up with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and The Phantom) and various comics are now published contemporaneously about the character. So, yeah, I think I’m going to have to take a punt sometime next year and buy up a couple of tomes of her new stories and see what’s been done with the character in recent times, I think. I  can only hope that phrases referencing her kissable curves and throbbing bosom are as prevalent in the new writings as they were in the originals.

Sunday 14 April 2024

Civil War

Road To Washington -
No Crosby, No Hope

Civil War
Directed by Alex Garland
USA/UK 2024
UK Theatrical Cut

Civil War is the latest movie both written and directed by Alex Garland. I actually find him a bit hit and miss in both professions, truth be told. The ones that fall into both those categories which were more hits with me were the TV show Devs (reviewed by me here) and, to an extent, his movie Men (reviewed here). This new movie, set in the very near future, is about an ongoing civil war in the USA, where the states of California and Texas team up against everyone else in an attempt to take over the country.

This story follows a seasoned ace photo-journalist called Lee (played by Kirsten Dunst) and her journalistic partner Joel (played by Wagner Moura) as they go on a 400 plus mile road trip across a war torn USA towards Washington, to try and get one last interview with the President (played fleetingly by Nick Offerman) before the combined forces of the two opposing states steamroller through and kill him (with no intent of taking any prisoners). Aiding and abetting them... or rather just tagging along for the ride but becoming seriously involved in the action... are seasoned journalist Sammy (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson) and ‘shutterbug trying to get experience in war photojournalism’ Jessie (played Cailee Spaeny).

The film is absolutely exquisite and I’ll go ahead now and say that this is easily Alex Garland’s best work ever. It’s a sometimes reflective, often chaotic and definitely violent, intense and suspenseful road movie that doesn’t itself stop to take any prisoners along the way. Now, a lot of critics have taken the tack that the film, seen through the lens of the ladies and gentlemen of the press, doesn’t make any judgement calls or take political sides (I believe Garland chose those two unlikely allied states to detract from drawing a political message)... except for one of my favourite reviewers, who said the film is indeed political. Well, I don’t know who is right about that because, as long time readers will know by now, I don’t have a political bone in my body and so probably wouldn’t recognise any points being made. That said, I certainly didn’t think the movie was trying to pontificate for any one political alignment and the take away messages I took home from it don’t, I suspect, fall into any such camp.

I took away two things. Firstly, the message I always take from any film... people shouldn’t make war or go around killing each other. Behaving like that is just crazy outside the confines of mass cultural art and entertainment. 

 But the key thing the film seems to play around with for me... and it’s another old cliché of a point but it sits right with me, is this. What kind of human being are you if you stop to take pictures of the violence and injustice going on around you and don’t put the camera down and try to help out instead? The question is none too subtly explored in this film and Kirsten Dunst’s character, who seems to be secretly haunted by this herself, certainly addresses the issue head-on in a conversation she has with Jessie at one point. Her answer is that you’re there to document and let other people make the judgements and Lee and Jessie certainly come to a conclusion with their individual grasp of that context at the end of the movie. To say anything more about that matter would be to spoil the ending but, to that end, there are also certainly characters in the movie who, in the parlance of Star Trek, are definitely ‘red shirts’.

And the film is shot really well, edited really well and has brilliant sound design. I mean, sure, all the sound cliches are in there such as using upbeat or trivial songs juxtaposed to the horrors of a situation to highlight them... or the old chestnut of letting the music take over to the point where that’s all there is on the soundtrack, before it suddenly drops out and the artillery and explosions of the situation rush in to give a shot in the arm to the audience. But, clichés become that because they work really well and Garland and his colleagues use them to great advantage here.

Lastly, I have to say a word about the acting performances in this. Everybody is absolutely great but special shout outs go to both Cailee Spaeny (who you are in fear for throughout the entire movie) and Kirsten Dunst (turning in what might be the greatest performance of her entire career to date, as far as I’m concerned). There’s also a short but pretty scary and intense sequence featuring Kirsten’s real life spouse Jesse Plemons, which is almost unbearable to watch... a snippet of it can be seen on the trailer.  

And that’s me done with Civil War, I think. This seems to me, from this opening end of the lifespan of the film, to be a stone cold classic which I’ll snap up on Blu Ray when the time comes and, it’s good to see this before a real civil war breaks out in either the USA or the UK anytime soon (or both, as both countries seem to be just around the corner from that, it seems to me). Definitley worth a look if you want a suspenseful time at the cinema.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

Dracula Prince Of Darkness

Fresh Prince
Of Hell, Keir

Dracula Prince Of Darkness
UK 1966
Directed by Terence Fisher
Hammer/Studio Canal Blu Ray Zone B

I’ve never known why there’s no comma in the title of this movie but I’ve left it as it is for this review. Perhaps, if you are some kind of royalty in the world of vampires, there’s no need to bother with trifling grammar... but it’s a bit of a bizarre ommission, it has to be said.

Anyway... Dracula Prince Of Darkness is the third of Hammer’s classic Dracula film series... although only the second to have Dracula in it as an actual character. As such, the film starts with a nicely framed flashback to the climactic showdown between Christopher Lee’s Dracula and Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing in the first movie... framed as a kind of diamond shape and with streaming mist behind the diamond... an interesting choice which looks like something that would have been done on the old flashback in a theatrical serial of the 1930s. So it’s a bit of a mistake to say that Peter Cushing is not in this movie... he certainly is as one of his key scenes from Dracula (aka Horror Of Dracula, reviewed here) is played at the start.

In a scene made to set up the Van Helsing substitute of the movie... a wonderful, jolly priest called Father Shandor, played by future Professor Quatermass Andrew Keir... Shandor stops a superstitious bunch from committing the blasphemy of staking a local, recently deceased young lady, reminding them (and us) that there’s been no vampirism since the death of Dracula, ten years prior (more dates to totally sink the idea of timeline continuity within this series of films).

We then cut to two English couples, related by brothers, travelling around the area, consisting of the younger brother and his wife, played by Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer... and the slightly older couple played by Charles 'Bud' Tingwell (from the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movies) and Barbara Shelley (who would also star opposite Keir in Quatermass And The Pit... reviewed by me here). Pretty soon though, the English travellers find themselves in trouble and staying as guests of Dracula’s former butler Klove (played by Philip Latham... who looks a little in this like a sinister version of Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Show and its subsequent movie adaptation... I wonder if Richard O’ Brien had this character in mind in terms of the look?).

There’s a much less throwaway version of a Dracula resurrection scene in this, as Klove hangs Tingwell’s character upside down over a big coffin where he scatters Dracula’s ashes (he was melted by sunlight in the first film... although why Van Helsing never did something with the ashes is beyond me). He then slits the guys throat and, in this uncut restoration, there really is quite a lot of blood (bordering on Japanese arterial spray proportions) which mixes with the ashes and, in a long drawn out sequence of resulting mist and overlapping dissolves, revives Christopher Lee’s iconic take on the Count. Vampiric shenanigans ensue with the surviving younger couple fleeing to Father Shandor’s monastery where they are pursued by Dracula and his new vampire lady, Barbara Shelley.

And it’s a pretty good movie with some beautiful photography and direction from Terence Fisher, who uses some roaming camera for some sequences, such as an extended night time tour around the corridors of Castle Dracula which is almost like the ‘killer POV’ shots you would find happening later on, in a lot of US slasher films of the 1980s. Although the camerawork is in no way jerky, it’s very fluid and very controlled as it roves around the sets and actors. He does some nice things with colour too. A lot of the sets of the castle at night are lit up with blues but every now and again he will highlight something with a patch of bright red... such as a strip of curtains or a picture which is somehow bathed in red for no logical reason but looks great. Also, there’s a wonderful scene in Dracula’s coffin room where the light from a stained glass window is replicated and lit large as the lighting on a wall behind the actors in the reverse shot... with big blocks of different coloured shapes splashed against the background. It’s a bit like a slightly more pastel palette version of what Mario Bava might have done and it works really well.

The actors are all pretty good and we even have Thorley Walters turning up as this film’s equivalent of Stoker’s Renfield character, called Ludwig. Renfield was curiously absent from Hammer’s earlier Dracula movies but Ludwig pretty much does all the same things, including eating a pot of freshly caught flies at one point. Christopher Lee, famously, has no lines of dialogue in this movie... just goes about hissing at things and pointing. He allegedly announced he’d refused to speak the lines because the script was so bad but there have been several conflicting stories over the years as to why Lee has no lines in this... I suspect Lee’s version certainly has some elements of truth in it but how it played out exactly seems lost to time. I will say that, although Dracula is spread out into various sections of the movie, I would be surprised if Christopher Lee’s actual footage in the movie plays out for much more than five minutes. Probably his death scene under the ice of a moat in the castle, which somehow has running water under it and which looks truly awful in terms of the fake ice, has the most sustained footage of him (and this scene almost drowned Lee’s stuntman for real, from what I’ve read). He’s a definite presence in it though and the way he portrays him in this allows his facial expressions and physical skills to come more to the fore.

Dracula Prince Of Darkness ends, like many of the Hammer movies of this period of the 1960s, with a distinct lack of epilogue in terms of the wellbeing of the characters. Dracula is dead... again... and the credits run over his frozen features without fanfare or a real sense of resolution. It’s a mood which Hammer similarly employed for their third Quatermass adaptation, although the TV serial of Quatermass And The Pit (which I reviewed here) had a very long epilogue, from what I recall. Either way, this one is definitely an improvement over The Brides Of Dracula (reviewed here) and one of the better Hammer films of this, quite rich period in the company’s history, as far as I’m concerned. Definitely worth a look.

Monday 8 April 2024


J Arthur

Directed by Paul King
USA/UKCanada 2023
Warner Brothers Blu Ray Zone B

As I write these words, Wonka is still just about in the UK top ten cinema attractions, even though I watched it on its official Blu Ray release. Which is no mean feat after over three months in the charts... it would be fair to say that the film has somewhat surpassed any expectations the studio had of it, I should think.

Now, I hated the film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory and didn’t think much better of Tim Burton’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory either, for that matter (although the score was nice on that one). The reason being that I loved both of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka books as a kid... Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator (which carries on directly from the end of the first book, where Wonka, Charlie and the others burst through the roof of the factory in the elevator and go into adventures in outer space).

Now, I bought Wonka, sight unseen, because I thought it would be a nice family movie to watch over Easter, what with its implied chocolaty theme and, truth be told, I didn’t hate it. True, the moustached and bearded Wonka of the books is still, bizarrely, clean shaven in this film but, at least the film-makers had an excuse for that this time around, seeing as it is a prequel to the original story and Wonka is a much younger chap. I think I am forgiving it a lot because I don’t have to compare it to the original literature on this one. However, buying it for Easter was a mistake because, as it turns out, I was the only one in the household who didn’t think it was pretty terrible.

Now, there are things wrong with it and I think the real problem is nothing to do with the actors... Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Colman, Calah Lane, Sally Hawkins and co are all great but I think the writing, in terms of the story, is possibly at fault here. To explain... the characterisation of a young Wonka seems to me, certainly in terms of his dialogue and thought processes, absolutely spot on. But, the story seems to kind of let things down and we have a film which, to my mind, starts off strong with some good ideas and some acceptably agreeable musical numbers... which then kind of gets weaker and weaker until it kind of fizzles out, for the most part, towards the end.

Chalamet and Hugh Grant (as one of... and indeed all of... the Oompa Loompas) are great, they carry the movie somewhat in places (even though Grant is barely in it) and the songs and score by Joby Talbot (of pop group The Divine Comedy... who I remember seeing as an unknown support act to the great Voice Of The Beehive in Kentish Town in the 1980s) is pretty good. It’s ‘blended’ both in scoring and the flat out restaging of two of the songs from the Gene Wilder film... Imagination and the Oompa Loompa Song but, that actually works quite well and gives certain sections of the movie a charming lift.

But there were times in the whole thing where I did, I confess, find myself quite bored and certainly wondering how it could be making anything like the staggering box office it has because, I would never have guessed children would have sat still for this for large amounts of time.

It looks nice though with some impressively ornate set pieces and a sense of scale which, I suspect, comes off rather better in the cinema than it does for home viewing (which, ironically, is always going to be how the film is remembered). So, yeah, there was much head scratching in this household as to why it’s been so successful but, it’s definitely a big hit with people and so I guess yet another version of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, by way of a sequel (and thus rendering the references to the Gene Wilder movie redundant), can’t be far away. Wonka is not a big hit with me but, I am glad that it’s doing so well, for sure, because it’s obviously found it audience. So that’s alright then... I don’t have to ever watch it again.

Sunday 7 April 2024

The First Omen

Carlita Sway

The First Omen
Directed by Arkasha Stevenson
USA/Italy/UK/Canada/Serbia 2024
20th Century Fox
UK Theatrical Cut

Warning: Spoilers from 6am on the 6th day of the 6th month.

I don’t know. Like a London Transport bus, you wait ages for a decent nuncentric exploitation/horror movie to play at your local cinema and then two come along at once. The First Omen is a prequel that, I’m pretty sure nobody was crying out for but, what took me by surprise is that it almost gives the slightly superior Immaculate from last month (reviewed here) a run for its money and, while not nearly as good as the original movie The Omen (reviewed along with the sequels and reboot here), it’s still pretty great and is certainly, as far as I’m concerned, far better than any of those sequels and the unneccessary remake, for sure.

Okay, the film starts weirdly as the 20th century Studios logo comes up (except we all know it’s really 20th Century Fox, right?) but it’s the extended version of their fanfare, composed in 1953 by Alfred Newman to indicate that a picture is in the Cinemascope aspect ratio. However, this film is released in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio so, yeah, that popped me out of things right away... I hate it when the music is used incorrectly like that.

However, after that slight misstep, we are introduced to Father Brennan, the character who we know must survive to be in the original film, The Omen. And we understand this is him for a couple of great visual reasons. First up, they’ve made Ralph Ineson, the actor playing the role, look very much like Patrick Troughton (who played the part in the original movie). This one is set in 1971, the same year as the prologue to that movie and a few years before the main action of the original starts so, yeah, they do this quite well. But even before you catch a proper glimpse of the actor, they’re looking down at him from a POV of high up from a church, reminding you of just what happens to that character in The Omen and visually echoing/foreshadowing that sequence in the original where he gets impaled by the metal rod falling from the church steeple.

And, regarding this scene, you certainly know you’re in Omen territory right away because, a precariously hoisted piece of religious art is being clumsily raised up the rickety scaffold of the church and, like the premise of Lemony Snicket’s series of unfortunate events, you know that various, unexpected ‘accidents’ will be dangled in front of you just before they happen and, this is no exception. He goes into the church to talk to a throw away character played by Charles Dance and, you just know that something bad is going to happen when they both go and stand outside, just under where the builders are working.

And then we begin the main action properly... and we’re very much in similar territory to Immaculate in that it involves a young American coming to Rome to become a nun. She is played, quite brilliantly, by Nell Tiger Free, welcomed to the country by a cardinal played by Bill Nighy and is befriended by her new, ‘hedonistic before she takes her vows’ room mate Luz, played by Maria Caballero. Add to this cast the wonderful Sonia Braga (so good in Aquarius, reviewed here) and we have a movie which sings along doing all the right things.

Now, it’s not perfect... there are some clunky things about it. For instance, there’s a red herring of a character called Carlita (played by... well I don’t know... okay IMDB, explain to me what the two actresses listed as Carlita Picture Double means please?) and, while this character certainly features the familiar mark of the beast in a great hiding place, it seemed pretty obvious to me from the start (and quite badly telegraphed, literally by the formulaic visual shorthand that modern American movies tend to fall back on) just who the real mother of Damian from the original trilogy would turn out to be.

The other clunky thing about the movie is the whole extended ending of the film, which I suspect might well have been revised after the original cut. A fake feeling ‘rescue scene’ is added with a typical modern movie ‘have your cake and eat it’ epilogue. And while it’s necessary to see that, ‘oh yeah, Father Brennan did survive after all’ moment (because you can’t lead into the original films without him, once his presence here is established), the film also manages to set up the possibility of a sequel to this one independent from the original trilogy. Which, I have to admit, I quite like the idea of because, well, I really didn’t expect this movie to be so good.

Oh, and about the final line of the movie... it’s really ‘cringe’ as the kids would say. You remember the truly appalling bit at the end of that last, Fantastic 4 movie (reviewed here), where the kids are coming up with a name and realise there are four of them and they are quite fantastic (yeah, I wince even as I type)... well, given the events that preceded this sequence and the fact that the birth of a certain antichrist is accompanied by the score leaning full-on into a souped up arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s original opening titles to The Omen... did we really need a final bit of business where Father Brennan says to someone, something along the lines of... “They’ve even given him a name. Damien.” Yeah, really... would never have twigged that one, mate!

But despite these stupid sequences, the movie is absolutely riveting and, yeah, let’s talk about that score for a minute... and that sound design. Mark Korven’s score for the movie is absolutely brilliant, just what the film needs and certainly has a foothold in the 1971 setting of the story... and when he finally brings Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic melody... that works pretty well like it goes hand in hand with what else is going on with the music. And the sound design is really impressive too, with some nice ‘sound standing in for other sounds’ kinds of moments, a little similar to the music replaces scream scene I talked about in my review of Immaculate. Alas, as far as the score goes, there’s no proper CD release once again (the only Omen film not to have one, to date... I have the other five) and some wiley company needs to rectify that sorry state of affairs soon because I would love to give this one a listen.

So, yeah, The First Omen is really well made, has some great acting performances (spoiler... Nell Tiger Free’s breaking waters sequence rivals Claire Sweeney’s birth scene in Immaculate), brings the horror and is just genuinely, despite the clunky bits, a pretty cool film. And now I know what someone on Twitter meant when they said there’s a full on Isabelle Adjani Possession moment in this (reviewed by me here). This one’s an immediate Blu Ray pick up for me when it gets released and, yeah, I think most fans of the original series of movies (it kinda ignores the uncalled for reboot) should embrace this one. 

Monday 1 April 2024

The House Of Fear

Pipped At The Post

The House Of Fear
Directed by Roy William Neill
USA 1945
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

Inspired rather loosely by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure Of The Five Orange Pips, The House Of Fear is the tenth of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his loyal friend Doctor Watson. It also bizarrely, given the circumstances of the story, features Dennis Hoey returning as Inspector Lestrade but, since there’s only one scene near the start of the picture which features Holmes’ 221B Baker Street address, this is the second (I think, by my count) of the films to not include a brief appearance by Mary Gordon as housekeeper Mrs. Hudson.

It starts off, somewhat unusually, on a longish sequence with a voice over narrative setting the scene about a group of men living in a large house in Scotland who are each, night after night, getting delivered an envelope containing a steadily supply of diminishing orange pips as a forewarning of their horrible death in the next few hours. Each body is found mutilated beyond recognition, due to some grisly fate but identifiable due to a personal item or feature of the body (which immediately put me on my guard not to trust any one of these corpses... I won’t spoil the ending for you here though),

It then turns out this narrative set up is actually being spoken by an insurance agent at 221B Baker Street, as he has been telling Holmes and Watson the tale and calls them in to investigate. They arrive just as a third murder has been committed and they set about investigating, both in the house and the local village in this fun filled movie which, again, showcases all that’s best with these particular Holmes movies.

Being as it’s Universal, everything is lit by longtime director of the series Roy William Neill in that crisp but sinister looking, shadowy style which helped make their monster movies such a hit. Indeed, Neill directed the first of the monster mash ups, Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (reviewed here) for Universal a few years earlier (if you look closely near the end, you may be able to spot the wolf man’s cane). He even uses a nice Dutch angle at one point, as Holmes and Lestrade descend a staircase into a smugglers cave near the end of the movie.

There is a definite budget conscious re-use of sets and model shots etc on this one. For instance, the house in long shot is the old ruined church establishing shot from Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror (reviewed here), which makes no sense and doesn't tie in with the interior of the house (which I think is from at least one of the others). And the village and the pub sets will also absolutely feel like old friends to watchers of these Holmes films by this point too.

There are some clunky but fun parts here too, of course. I mean, why would Holmes call on Scotland Yard to come and give him aid when he’s in Scotland, when the local constabulary would surely do just as well? And why, in this case, would it be the always ineffective Inspector Lestrade who they send to help him. Not that I mind of course, Dennis Hoey was very much part of the team by this point and watching him bounce off the two principal leads is great fun. He also a nicely silly line in this when, in his confusion, he utters, “Suffering cats! What’s going on here.” Although, this is nowhere near as silly an exclamation as when Dr. Watson, true to form after he and Holmes are nearly flattened by a particularly nasty boulder pushed off a cliff at them, cries out, “Great Scott Holmes! That was meant for us!”

Other than this though, apart from a woman sporting the double bun style of hair which was popularised again by Carrie Fisher in the first Star Wars movie in 1977... and the novelty of the ending which I won’t reveal to you here (although you may well begin to suspect the final solution long before it’s revealed), The House Of Fear is another brilliant piece of classic mystery movie entertainment which I could revisit year after year if I didn’t have so many other movies to watch. So a short review for a short but sweet movie in this wonderful series of Holmes movies. Four more now to revisit.