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Jess Franco Double Bill Vol. 2 : Devil’s Island Lovers/Night Of The Assassin Region 2 DVD Review September 13, 2006

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Horror, Thriller , add a comment

The Movies

Jess Franco! A name to strike fear into the heart of any true cinephile. He’s been called Spain’s answer to Ed Wood and manages to live down to that billing extremely well and yet, for lovers of trash cinema there’s often much to enjoy in a Franco film. With titles like Swedish Nympho Slaves and Diary of a Nymphomaniac you’re not really expecting another Citizen Kane. And how can you not want to see Killer Barbys vs. Dracula?

This second release in Tartan’s Jess Franco Double Bill series pairs a couple of lesser-known offerings from the schlockmeister’s 70’s heyday.

First up is Devil’s Island Lovers from 1974. One of Franco’s preoccupations, particularly in the 70’s, was with imprisoned women. Caged Women (aka Barbed Wire Dolls in the US), Women Behind Bars and Ilsa, the Wicked Warden all came from his fevered mind. Devil’s Island Lovers is one of his earliest entries in the genre.

A fictional island’s corrupt governor who lusts after the girl, Beatriz, frames her and her lover for murder. The plot doesn’t really make a lot of sense, it’s just there to get the girl into the prison, although it takes almost half an hour to get there. The main reason for this is the flashback nature of the narrative, it’s told from the perspective of the couples’ lawyer as his investigations begin to uncover what happened to the young lovers.

Once we get to the prison you’d be forgiven for expecting a bit of nudity (or even a lot) and some lesbian action, probably featuring a dominatrix warden. You would be forgiven but you’d also be disappointed. For a Franco film, at least in this, the Spanish version, it’s remarkably tame. It’s also pretty dull and that’s a word you wouldn’t normally expect to hear describing a Franco film.

There isn’t really a lot you can say about the performances since everyone is dubbed into Spanish. Ivan Reitman’s wife Geneviève Robert makes her second appearance in a Franco film (the first was Dracula vs. Frankenstein) as Beatriz and it was obviously enough to put her off acting for almost twenty years (she didn’t make another film until Dave in ’93.) Dennis Price plays the lawyer and it’s sad seeing a once respected British actor (he starred in Kind Hearts and Coronets) reduced to doing something like this to pay the bills. He died of cirrhosis of the liver before this films release, a sad end to a career that encompassed great heights and, in working with Mr Franco, the ultimate low.

Is there anything to recommend the film? Well there is an incredibly catchy score from Bruno Nicolai who was the musical director on Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I was humming it for days after. Still that’s not really a good enough reason to put yourself through this.

Night of the Assassins was made in 1976 and is Franco’s version of the Edgar Allen Poe story The Cat and the Canary. It’s a tale of intrigue and murder set in Louisiana.

When Lord Archibald is murdered, his relatives gather for the reading of the will but one by one a mysterious masked killer picks them off and a second, completely different, will is discovered. Was the real Archibald murdered? Why are there two wills? Who is the killer? Don’t expect any logical answers from dear old Jess. What you do get is a pretty creepy atmosphere and a nonsensical but fun murder mystery although like the previous film it lacks the directors usual kinky sex and violence.

Franco has his own little stock company of actors and several make an appearance here. Lina Romay first worked with him on Daughter of Dracula in 1972 and she can’t seem to get enough as she’s still working with him, appearing in last years Snakewoman. Alberto Dalbés and Antonio Mayans are also regular collaborators but it would be stretching credibility to say anyone gives a good performance. Competent is about the nicest thing you could say without risking perjury.

The DVD

Video

Both films are presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1, their correct aspect ratio. Neither looks particularly great, with a soft image and little detail but given the ultra-cheap nature of the films, this is probably the best they are going to look.

Audio

The only audio option is Spanish mono. It does the job and is probably the best Tartan could do with the available elements. At least they haven’t gone the Anchor Bay route and done a pointless Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS remix.

Subtitles

You get the choice of English or English Hard of Hearing.

Extras

On the Devil’s Island Lovers disc we get about thirty minutes of alternate footage that was shot for the French version. All the nudity, kinky sex and violence missing from the Spanish version is here including a hilarious torture scene featuring two naked women chained to a wall and having a tennis ball bounced off their butts.

It’s a pity Tartan didn’t release the French version but from the look of the footage (it’s taken from video tape) a decent print wasn’t available.

Night of the Assassins only extra is an alternate credit sequence that adds nothing to the film.

Summary

So one bad and boring film redeemed somewhat by the deleted footage and one mediocre but still enjoyable whodunit. If you’re a Francophile there is almost certainly something here for you, if you’re not…well there’s always Citizen Kane.

District B13 Region 1 DVD Review September 11, 2006

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Science Fiction, Martial Arts , add a comment

The Movie

I first came across Parkour, or Free Running as it’s also been called, in the British TV documentary Jump London in 2003. It was an amazing film, charting the history of the sport/art as well as showing it in action around some London landmarks and I remember thinking that it would work well in a film. The highly successful French producer/director/writer Luc Besson had the same idea two years before me when he came up with Yamakasi (2001.) He only provided the basic idea for that film but in 2004, he returned to the sport this time coming up with District B13.

The French seem to have a thing for loose remakes of John Carpenter films; Florent Emilio Siri made The Nest (2002) that had much in common with Assault on Precinct 13, and District B13 is a French take on Carpenter’s Escape from New York. What sets these films apart from Hollywood-style remakes is that they only take the basic idea and use it as a springboard to create a new and exciting story.

The year is 2010 and the French government have walled in the most crime infested areas of the major cities. The worst of these is B13, though it’s not without its decent citizens and one such is Leito a man doing his best to clean up the streets he lives in. Sadly, the local Police aren’t looking to do the same and it’s Leito who finds himself in prison.

Jumping forward six months, we find undercover cop Damien Tomasa completing an assignment. It’s soon clear that even unarmed he’s a man who’s more than capable of taking care of himself, giving a display of Martial Arts that even Jet Li would be proud of. With barely time to clean up, he’s called to his superiors office. There’s a stolen ‘clean’ nuclear bomb in B13 and someone’s started the timer. Tomasa’s mission is to deactivate the bomb and he’s paired with someone who knows his way around the district…Leito. Leito wants back in to save his sister, she’s being held by the local crime lord who just happens to be the man with the nuke.

The movie moves at a breakneck pace with barely a moment for even the audience to draw breath let alone the protagonists. Everything about it is fast, the fights, the editing even the dialogue is delivered at a gallop so you’ll need to be a speed reader to keep up with the subtitles. Given his first chance to direct after working on a couple of Luc Besson produced action movies (Transporter II and Unleashed) Pierre Morel clearly wants to show what he can do, and on the evidence here, he can do a lot. The fight scenes flow nicely. I’m not usually a fan of the rapid, music video style editing of fights, it makes them seem less authentic but here it works, adding to the urgency of the situation. Even the use of slow motion is spot on, letting you experience the bone crunching impacts and some breathtaking stunts in all their violent glory. He also does a good job of capturing the energy of Parkour when Leito is running around and jumping off rooftops to evade the bad guys.

It’s difficult to say if the two leads can really act as all they’re really called on to do here is run, jump and knock the stuffing out of just about everyone they come into contact with. Cyril Raffaelli (Damien) has a background in Martial Arts and worked as a stuntman on the two Transporter films. Prior to this his most memorable role as an actor was in Kiss of the Dragon as one of the twins Jet Li fights near the end. He’s comfortable enough in front of the camera and with enough screen presence to be the next Van Damme if he wants to try his luck in Hollywood and can find a producer willing to give him a shot at the big time. David Belle who plays Leito was one of the creators of Parkour and Besson created this part with him in mind. As an athlete, he’s amazing and like his co-star has enough charisma and energy to carry the role.

There are only three other notable performances in the film. Tony D’Amario plays the man mountain K2 and brings a humanity to him not often found in a heavy. Bibi Naceri, who also co-wrote the script, plays the crime lord Taha Bemamud. While there’s a nod to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana (Scarface) in Taha he’s not just a carbon copy and, with a history of comedy work, Naceri adds a little humour to the part. Finally, there’s Dany Verissimo in the important role of Lola, Leito’s sister. With only a few scenes early in the film she manages to make Lola both tough and lovable, thus allowing the audience to sympathise with Leito’s attempt to rescue her. It doesn’t hurt that she’s unbelievably cute either.

While the film makes a small attempt at social commentary it’s not heavy handed and doesn’t get in the way of the all-important action. It’s nice to see that Hollywood doesn’t have a monopoly when it comes to big, dumb action movies and, with the added realism of the two leads doing all their own stunts and the blistering pace, it seems the French could teach Tinseltown a thing or two. Hopefully this will be the start for two new action heroes. I for one would like to see them again.

The DVD

Video

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the film looks great. The deliberately subdued colour tones are captured perfectly and there’s no lack of detail in the image. All in all a first class transfer.

Audio

If the video is good the audio is even better. You get the choice of four audio tracks – English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 EX or Dolby Digital 2.0. The French 5.1 track is one of the most active I’ve heard, with bullets flying from all corners of the room. It may lack subtlety but then so does the film.

Subtitles

Both English and Spanish are included.

Extras

The main extra is a Making of District B13 documentary that runs close to an hour. It covers almost every angle of the production from the original concept through the casting and rehearsals to the actual shooting of the film. The behind the scenes shots show just how hard and bruising this was to make. Almost all the notables are heard from and have something interesting to say with only Luc Besson sadly absent. And we find out that, unsurprisingly, Morel’s favourite word during production was ‘faster.’

Also included is a rough cut of the casino fight scene and some outtakes.

Bank Robbers, Cenobites, Cowboys, Soldiers and a Psycho September 10, 2006

Posted by Ian W in : DVD Viewing Journal , add a comment

Psycho

Hitchcock’s classic showed all the masters usual flair for suspense but with a touch of the macabre not found in his previous work. Anthony Perkins is so good as Norman Bates he’ll be forever remembered for the role.

This was the first film to take its inspiration from real life ‘Psycho’ Ed Gein but far from the last.

The Barbarian and the Geisha

One of John Wayne’s most underrated films; he plays Townsend Harris, the first US consul to Japan. While certain liberties are taken with the real life events (the Geisha Harris falls in love with was only 17 for one) it has has an authentic air thanks to its predominantly Japanese cast. This was unusual for the time, only two years before we had Marlon Brando made up to look oriental in The Teahouse of the August Moon, and it says a lot for director John Huston that he didn’t go down that route.

Wayne and Huston apparently didn’t get on, even coming to blows but that in no way impacted on what appears on screen. It’s an epic love story beautifully filmed and superbly acted. It’s told from the perspective of the Geisha played by Eiko Ando who does a terrific job, hard to believe she never made another film.

The Longest Day

This is a film about big stars and big spectacle and when it sticks to that it works well. However, its attempts at small-scale human drama fall mostly flat although there is one moment at the end that works extremely well (although that’s thanks to one of the aforementioned big stars.)

John Wayne and Robert Mitchum make the most of their parts but Richard Burton steals the film with that scene at the end. It adds a much needed ‘war is insane’ touch to the otherwise gung-ho proceedings.

You can also play The Longest Day game - how many stars can you connect to Duke via other films. I managed seven.

McLintock!

Wayne’s best comedy performance ably assisted by Maureen O’Hara and Chill Wills. This western reworking of The Taming of the Shrew works brilliantly thanks to James Edward Grant’s witty screenplay and the superb comic timing of the cast.

The larger than life role of George Washington McLintock is perfect for the larger than life actor who plays him. He’s the ultimate nice guy, buying drinks for the town drunks, helping the Indians, even hireing a widow and her son, and Wayne is clearly having a lot of fun. The legendary mudslide brawl is the most famous scene but there’s lots more to enjoy as well.

This may not be an important western but it’s a damn fun one.

The Hired Hand

Peter Fonda’s first film as director has not only left me wanting to see his other two but also wondering what Easy Rider would have been like if he been behind the camera instead of Dennis Hopper.

It’s a simple tale of a drifter who decides to return home to the wife he left years before. She’s mistrustful at first, thinking he will run off again but he slowly wins her over. However, there’s more than one relationship at the heart of the film, the other is between Fonda and his best friend played by Warren Oates and it’s their bond that leads to the films violent finale.

The film has two major things going for it, the first is the stunning look of the film. Fonda is quite simply a genius, coming up with one incredible shot after another. It’s a pity he didn’t spend more time behind the camera as, on this evidence, he’s a far better director than he is an actor.

Not that he gives a bad performance here, in fact he’s great. Still, when you’re up against Warren Oates (the films second big plus) you have to be. Oates made some superb films and this ranks among the best of them. Here he says more with a look than most actors could with a page of dialogue.

I have to confess that until this was released on DVD I’d never heard of it and I’m sure there are others in the same boat. Yet this is a film every western movie fan should see.

The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery

An early role for Steve McQueen as the college dropout who falls in with a gang of career criminals planning a bank job.

The film is far better than its low budget origins would suggest and not just because of McQueen. Writer Richard T. Heffron would go on to better things, most notably the pilot episode of The Rockford Files, and he captures the group dynamics of the gang perfectly. He even hints at the gang boss, played by Crahan Denton, having homosexual tendencies and an attraction to young Steve.

As for the soon to be star he does a fair job as the innocent kid who starts out as just the getaway driver only to be drawn deeper into things. He saves his best work for the big finish in the bank. The same year he made Never So Few with John Sturges and that led to superstardom.

Hellraiser

Clive Barker’s adaptation of his own short story still stands up as an effective horror film. It was also the start of a successful franchise that ranks alongside Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street for longevity.

It’s a tale of lust and desire and the penalties that can result. Andrew Robinson gets to play a good guy (for most of the film anyway) and does a credible job although it’s hard to shake memories of psychopathic killers and dodgy Cardassian tailors. Clare Higgins is effective, if very 80’s, as the ‘wicked stepmother’ but Ashley Laurence fails to impress as the films heroine, Kirsty. Still, it’s the Cenobites who steal the show and as their leader, Doug Bradley gives life to a horror icon in Pinhead.

The effects are a mixed bag. The gory makeup still looks good and Uncle Frank’s resurrection has stood up well. The visual effects when the Cenobites are sent back haven’t fared so well, looking like something out of a video game.

With Barker about to go behind the camera again, for the first time in over ten years, to make Tortured Souls: Animae Damnatae I hope he can recapture some of the energy from this his first and for me still his best film.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II

Continuing directly from the end of the first film this takes huge liberties with both continuity (the location is now the USA!) and the rules established in the first film (when Frank takes his brothers skin he looks like his brother, yet here when the same thing happens to Julia she looks like…Julia!)

The film is full of big ideas but Tony Randel lacks the vision of Clive Barker and Ashley Laurence is even weaker here than she was in the first film.

Thank god (or Leviathan) for the Cenobites as this would be devoid of entertainment without them. Pinhead steals the film again although he’s given a run for his money by Kenneth Cranham as the new Cenobite on the block.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth

Better than part two (although I didn’t think so when I originally saw it at the cinema in ‘92) this moves the story away from Kirsty, who only makes a cameo appearance.

This time the Cenobites are free in our world and only Terry Farrell (Jadzia Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) can save us. We get a new group of Cenobites that fail to live up to the originals and Doug Bradlry gets to be both good and bad as Pinhead and the ghost of the man he used to be.

The scariest thing about the film is that all the female characters have huge Brooke Shields eyebrows. Sod the Cenobites, that’s my idea of hell!

Severance September 5, 2006

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Horror , add a comment

Take a bunch of stock British sitcom characters and put them in a horror movie, that’s the basic concept behind Christopher Smith’s new horror comedy.

After an opening sequence that features a man and two beautiful women being chased through some woods by an unknown assailant we’re introduced to our main cast. The sales team of a multi-national weapons manufacturer are on their way to a luxury lodge in
Eastern Europe for a team building exercise. Following a disagreement with their non-English speaking coach driver, they find themselves abandoned by the roadside. Deciding to walk the rest of the way they end up at what Richard, the team leader assumes at first to be the lodge but it is anything but luxurious.

For most of this first half hour, with the exception of the film’s first scene that seems to be there to let you know this is, in fact, a horror movie, the film plays very much like a standard sitcom and an average one at that. But thankfully things take a darker turn as they realise that, not only is this not their planned destination, but there’s someone out in the woods who may be trying to kill them.

This is where the film finds its feet, as it marries graphic violence with side splitting black humour, and this is a very violent film make no mistake about it. Many of the cast meet extremely unpleasant ends, but then that’s one of the film’s charms. How many TV comedies have you seen where you wish the cast would all die horribly? I know I’ve seen a few, and this film gives you the pleasure of seeing such people meet a sticky end.

Tim McInnerny is annoying as Richard the boss who no one respects and the same can be said of Andy Nyman as Gordon, the everything by the book sort (very Gordon Brittas) but that’s probably deliberate. Toby Stephens (the villain from Die Another Day) tries hard but has to little to work with as the cocky handsome know-it-all. Only Danny Dyer and Laura Harris rise above their stereotypes as the ‘diamond geezer’ and ‘ice queen’ respectively. Dyer, who starred in last year’s British gangster film The Business provides most of the laughs although he has his fair share of gruesome moments too. Harris, whose most memorable roles have been on TV in 24 and Dead Like Me, makes an excellent action heroine, turning the conventional ‘scream queen’ part on its head and getting some laughs of her own in the process.

Considering this is only his second film as director, Christopher Smith does an excellent job. Comedy horror is always a hard balancing act as it’s easy to stray too far either way, yet Smith pulls it off like a master. He’s come a long way since his first film, the average and uninspired Creep and I’d say he now stands at the forefront of British horror directors alongside Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent.) Here he’s made the film that Hostel wanted to be, unrelentingly unpleasant while also roll in the aisles funny. This film should be required viewing for Eli Roth before anyone lets him loose with a camera again.

This is sure to become a cult favourite and for those who’ve seen it the mere mention of ‘the knife scene’ or ‘the bit with the plane’ will be enough to raise a smile or even outright laughter while everyone else will just look bemused. So if you don’t want to be left out in the cold get down to the cinema now, you won’t regret it. It’ll be the most fun you’ve had being scared for a long time.

Snakes on a Plane September 3, 2006

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Horror, Action , add a comment

Lets get one thing out of the way from the start: This is a Bad movie. It’s also a very well made and extremely entertaining one.

The plot is simple : an F.B.I. agent (Samuel L. Jackson) is escorting an important witness from Hawaii to
L.A. The diabolical bad guy comes up with the cunning plan to smuggle a crate of snakes onto the plane and release them mid flight (bet Osama wishes he’d thought of that one.) Jackson and the rest of the passengers must try to stay alive until they reach their destination. That’s about it for the plot.

This is essentially a modern take on the 70’s Airport series with added scares. The characters are all stereotypes; the celebrity, the ditsy blonde complete with pet dog, the newlyweds, the flirty stewardess…you get the idea. Thankfully, director David R. Ellis realises this and uses it to the film’s advantage, taking some of the viewers expectations and turning them on their head, while playing others for laughs.

The actors do a competent job considering they’re not exactly given well-rounded characters to play, although only Jackson and Julianna Margulies really make much of an impression. Margulies hasn’t exactly set the world alight since leaving ER six years ago (something of a mystery to me as I think she’s a terrific actress) so hopefully her role as the ‘spunky stewardess’ will lead to better things. She manages to turn a cardboard character into a likeable human being and the fact you’re rooting for her to live to see the end credits shows how successful she is.

As for Sam, well, he doesn’t exactly give his acting muscles much of a workout. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen from him before, in fact this could easily be called Shaft 2: Snakes on a Plane. He relies on charisma to carry the film and, thankfully, that’s something he has by the bucket load.

But it’s director Ellis who makes the biggest impact. He’s no stranger to the ‘concept’ film having directed Cellular (2004) while Final Destination 2 (2003) showed he could do scares. And it’s the scares that really make this work, there are more ‘jump out of your seat’ moments in this film than anything I’ve seen for a long time. This is a rollercoaster of a movie, a thrill ride that keeps going on momentum alone (it has to, it left logic and credibility back at the airport.)

I don’t think this will stand up well to repeat viewings, without that edge of your seat feeling the stupidity of the plot and flimsiness of the characters would be all too apparent. However, as a one off cinematic experience it’s a lot of fun. There has been talk of a sequel but I don’t think you could pull this off again, you’d end up with something like Speed 2, a pale shadow of the original. The fact that this hasn’t performed as well as expected could kill that idea anyway.

What I can see working again is the blending of 70’s disaster movie and horror flick (perhaps if Poseidon had tried that it wouldn’t have been such a flop.) What about The Towering Inferno with zombies? I can see the add line now - ‘What will get them first, the fire above or the zombies below?’ (If there are any studio bigwigs reading this who like that idea give me a call, we can do lunch.)

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