Archive for February, 2007

Demons of the Mind

1971, UK, Directed by Peter Sykes

Colour, Running Time: 85 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Optimum; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Mono

I am actually going to watch something other than a Hammer film at some point… I promise. I found this to be an interesting departure from the usual style of plot that Hammer adopted, quite daring in fact. A despotic father (Robert Hardy) keeps his incestuous (grown-up) son and daughter pretty much captive in a huge mansion, mainly because he believes the insanity that runs in the family has genetically afflicted them. Meanwhile, people in the village are being picked off and killed, thus creating the stereotype ‘angry mob’ of villagers out for revenge. Hardy has the brilliant Patrick Magee visit the house to conduct what they believe to be experiments in the hope of finding out more (and curing) this endogenous madness, whilst also having his daughter bled, possibly in order to drain the ‘infected’ blood from her body (something that was thought to be a cure for many diseases in the middle ages). There’s also a priest wandering around the woods who babbles to a point where you feel he’s not any more sane than the inhabitants of the mansion.

Your average, completely insane vicar.

It’s a difficult plot to describe but that’s partly because I feel it’s quite radical for Hammer. The concept borders on ideas of mental illness being sourced in the genes, crossed with older ideas that it’s due to supernatural causes. The film explores the material with some confusion to the viewer but it makes for a rewarding experience if you can get into it. There are some morbid moments in the film (the father quietly tipping a corpse into the lake against some eerie soundtrack music) and it is surprisingly violent in places. The conclusion is grim to say the least.

 

Optimum’s DVD (part of the Ultimate Hammer Collection or available separate) looks fantastic with nice colour and plenty of detail. There’s also a commentary track featuring the director and a trailer. Sometimes flawed, this is certainly worth owning because, while still a period piece, it deviates from Hammer’s usual story types and proceeds down a conceptually enticing and fairly morbid path.

Posted on 27th February 2007
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Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb

1971, UK, Directed by Seth Holt

Colour, Running Time: 90 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Optimum; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Mono

Typically (for a mummy film) this involves the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen in the body of someone who possesses a blood-line connection - Valerie Leon in both roles. Following a boring prologue Leon is given a ring that once belonged to the queen that triggers off the progressive possession.

Where can I get a costume like that for my missus?

Leon seems to do a fairly good job of achieving the schizophrenic results that the role requires, but it seems she was probably hired more so due to the fact that she is physically alluring, spending quite a few scenes wrapped in a skimpy nightdress (one apparent nude scene was shot with a double). Nevertheless, she brightens up an otherwise relatively average (maybe slightly above) film. There are a couple of standout sequences, particularly one set in the asylum where a variety of camera angles and timely edits nicely capture the insanity of the moment. Another striking shot is achieved with a scantily clad Leon wandering in apparent slow motion towards the camera, atmospherically lit with a breeze from the side. Generally I found it hard to really enjoy due to the mundane nature of the occurrences (yes, despite some blood-letting and plenty of smooth, bare flesh).

 

Presented with a pale, grainy but otherwise reasonable picture the disc also comes with ten minutes worth of interviews with several crew members (unnecessarily edited repeatedly with unrelated shots from the film, probably to pad out the meagre running time), some radio spots and stills. Seth Holt directed one of my favourite Hammers, Taste of Fear, something that will hopefully be receiving a DVD release soon. He was apparently enthusiastic about this film but it’s not quite as good as his former work. Surprisingly Peter Cushing actually started as Leon’s father but had to abandon after a day or so due to his wife’s illness. If this hadn’t have happened Cushing’s presence may have improved the film, as it often did. His replacement does a reasonable job however. Holt died near the end of filming and it was completed by Michael Carreras, so it seemed like the movie wasn’t enshrouded with the best of luck. If you quite like the film the disc is worth picking up (it’s available as part of Optimum’s Ultimate Hammer Collection).

Posted on 26th February 2007
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The Witches

1966, UK, Directed by Cyril Frankel

Colour, Running Time: 87 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Optimum; Video: Anamorphic 1.66:1, Audio: DD Mono

Not the 1990 fairytale with Angelica Huston, this is a lesser-seen Hammer from one of their most productive periods. Following a prelude set in Africa where we’re introduced to Gwen Mayfield (a rather fetching Joan Fontaine, for her age) and offered some idea why she might be considered neurotic thanks to a confrontation with voodoo practice, we skip forward to Gwen obtaining a job as headteacher at a rural school. Gwen heads off to the beautiful village (shot at a time before England’s countryside was pretty much razed to the ground to make way for apartments, asylum centres, prisons, and recruitment agencies) to take up her new role. The people there are an inbred bunch but welcoming enough and she soon finds herself knowing almost everyone. Before long though it appears as though Black Magic seems to follow her career path and there’s evidence that someone in the village may be involved in witchcraft.

You'll need a better car than that to get on around here, darlin'.

A surprisingly talky project, the first half of the movie is relatively uneventful other than character building and scene setting but the interesting thing that becomes apparent early on is the possibility that any supposed strange goings-on are only occurring in the mind of the neurotically imbalanced Gwen, this illustrated by a nice scene where she wakes up to see what appears to be a similar voodoo doll to what she was exposed to in Africa, only to find, following an irrational panic, that it’s simply the housemaid’s duster. The housemaid is played by Frank Spencer’s wife-to-be Michele Dotrice and, amusingly, Leonard Rossiter also makes an appearance as a sinister doctor. The Witches is a pretty good film and looks absolutely gorgeous thanks to a stunning colour palette and great location photography. The final act is a little on the insane side, however, and most modern audiences may find it unpalatable. It’s a recommended old-fashioned chiller with probably a little less actual terror than I would have liked.

 

The disc is part of Optimum’s 21 DVD boxed set (Ultimate Hammer Collection), which is a brilliant set despite a few undesirable titles in there (e.g. Prehistoric Women!), but the inclusion of some classics (e.g. Plague of the Zombies, Dracula Prince of Darkness, etc.) and some obscure stuff make it an essential purchase if you don’t own more than four or five of the best titles. There’s a nice booklet included and some postcards featuring original poster art. The Witches (also available as a separate release) looks great on DVD, anamorphically enhanced at its correct ratio, chromatically evocative, and sounding good too. Only extra is a trailer but the alluring film presentation itself makes it worthwhile overall.

Posted on 24th February 2007
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The Locals

2003, New Zealand, Directed by Greg Page

Colour, Running Time: 85 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Mosaic; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD 5.1

A couple of irritating lads head off into the beautiful NZ countryside for a weekend of quality time together. Running into two 80s throwback chicks they’re beckoned to follow them to some hip party but, losing the girls in a playful car-chase, they’re forced to abandon their vehicle when they manage to embed it in a ditch. Going to look for help they come across some solitary house where they witness a murder and, thanks to their inability to remain discreet, they’re spotted by the perpetrator. The film momentarily becomes scary at this point as he (and soon, the other eponymous locals) pursues the foolhardy witnesses to his crime.

DON'T... eat my Pringles again.

Relative newcomer Page seemed to be attempting to bring a fresh perspective to the genre but as far as I can say The Locals is a not much more than a nuts n’ bolts job, with elements of other well known films making up a good percentage of the running time and constituent ideas. It is a reasonably well made piece of work, with competent direction, unusual but functional lighting, average acting, fairly good editing, etc., etc. Nothing really stands out to make it a great film in my eyes due to the fact that it’s largely a Frankenstein job, cinematically speaking: take a bit of Mutant, Jeepers Creepers, Dead & Buried, 2001 Maniacs, and you have The Locals. Page does manage to make the film come across as a professional piece of work with some good aerial shots and an occasionally effective soundtrack.

 

DVD image quality is adequate, though the colours seem strangely washed out in some ways. DD5.1 track is bass-heavy and full of surround effects. Extras are quite comprehensive for a small movie, making a good DVD package here in England. The film is worth checking out as I’ve heard others mention that they really like it, but I felt it was a little too average in too many areas.

Posted on 23rd February 2007
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The Dead One

1961, USA, Directed by Barry Mahon

Colour, Running Time: 68 minutes.

Review Source: DVD, R2, BE; Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: DD Mono

Some guy (John) marries some babe (Linda) and sets off to his old family home (I think) for some kind of mundane honeymoon. There, in one of the old tombs, the housekeeper is practicing voodoo with the local community in order to exact revenge on John for wanting to sell the property, or something like that.

 

This is one of those Z grade movies that you can’t believe ever got committed to celluloid, full of bad acting, talentless direction, stock music, crap dialogue, etc. Some people actually enjoy watching this kind of pap but I’m not really one of them (unless inebriated, and even then it’s a struggle). Even by bad movie standards it’s a fairly boring film. The first ten/fifteen minutes or so features John showing Linda a night on the town (as rather amusingly foreshadowed in the trailer: “See the excitement of a night in New Orleans” - er, this film’s really sold New Orleans to me). Basically it’s them going from one club to another watching stage acts. In their entirety. I suspect this was because the film only came to 40 minutes and needed padding. This does, however, serve to present the film with its one and only victim, Bella Bella, a rather sexy Indian-style dancer who leaves something to be desired when it comes to actually speaking. I think the walking corpse murdered her due to her ridiculously lame acting personally, ’cause I sure as f**k felt like it. It’s not the worst film of all time though it will rarely wake you up (apart from some classic lines: “this place is giving me the creeps” and “stop or I’ll shoot”, the latter being said three times at various points). I also liked the cops who demonstrate American authoritative sensibility quite accurately - they show up, seeing a couple of people arguing and a walking corpse, obviously then saying, “what’s going on here.” The corpse pays them some attention and the cop goes, “stop or I’ll shoot,” the corpse then takes one very slow step in his general direction but still about 15 feet away, so the cop clearly feeling a bit threatened decides to unload a couple of rounds on him. Accidentally shooting the housekeeper in the process. Diplomatic but, I suppose, as in the Parisian opening of Team America, they got the job done somehow.

 

This was a pretty obscure film however and it’s nice, in a sort of perverse way, that someone has exhumed it for a DVD release. It was released stateside by Shriek Show a couple of years back (as Blood of the Zombie), coming with an entire bonus movie called Voodoo Swamp that was deservedly forgotten about until SS found the reels. I suspect the transfer on this UK disc is a port from the SS disc as both suffered from a marginally disproportional (slightly horizontally compressed) image. Otherwise the picture is good considering the source. Audio is a bit messy but then I’d attribute that to flawed sound recording in the first place. The trailer is, well, not much better than the film really. I wanted to see this film for years thanks to a couple of cool looking B&W stills of the walking dead guy. Unfortunately, in colour (and in motion) he tends to look more like a drunken Halloween party reject staggering home (and is about as threatening). As a historical slice of zombie cinema it’s worth watching for completists (that’s why I really bought it), or for lovers of Z grade crap.

Posted on 21st February 2007
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La Science des Rêves (AKA The Science of Sleep)

2006, France/Italy, Directed (and written) by Michel Gondry

Colour, Running Time: 105 minutes

Cinema screening, Image: 1.85:1 spherical, Audio: English, French, plus some Spanish

It takes a while to get used to, being completely manic and apparently insane, but once you become accustomed to the strange universe of The Science of Sleep it becomes a magnetic experience. The story weaves through the mind of Stephane, a Mexican guy who’s lost his dad, moving to France to join his mom - she gets him a job in this boring office gluing bits of paper together (he wanted something creative) and he meanwhile falls for his neighbour, the geeky but endearing Charlotte Gainsbourg.

 

Stephane (I know, it sounds like a girl’s name to us ignorant Brits…) has a problem (or a gift?) of finding it difficult to separate reality from his dreams and they often intertwine, becoming blurred at the edges. This is where the film is really unique because Gondry obviously has let his imagination run riot with optical tricks and strange stop motion animation to depict Stephane’s inner cerebral workings. It’s a surreal experience. Gainsbourg is not the protagonist’s first choice of girl - he is initially attracted to her sexy friend but finds the less obvious artist to be a much more interesting individual. She grows on the viewer too (or at least in my case she did). But his mind is such a chaotic place that he can’t help forcing the relationship that develops to meander between one apparently satisfying occurrence to another chaotic one, kind of resembling life. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what’s really happened and what is part of one of his dreams, but that kind of ambiguity makes this a more satisfying watch. Sort of like Videodrome but without the horror.

 

An interesting idiosyncrasy is the tendency of the dialogue to switch rapidly between English and French (primarily because Stephane has a problem with French) - quite unusual but I liked it as it helps keep the brain active. In the end it’s up to a viewer’s subjective opinion what they take from a film like this. In my opinion it’s a reflection that dreams and sleep are often far more satisfying than what’s actually happening in the supposed ‘real world’ itself.

Posted on 20th February 2007
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Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter

1972, UK, Directed by Brian Clemens

Colour, Running Time: 91 minutes.

Review Source: DVD, R2, Paramount; Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: DD Mono

In the English countryside (horse and cart era) people are dying, apparently from vampiric attacks - but the victims are not just drained of blood, they appear to have aged by decades too and, thanks to the arrival of Captain Kronos (Horst Janson), there may be some hope. The title character sounds like some ridiculous comic book hero but we’re talking about the King’s Guard type captain rather than Mr America. He’s some youthful dude who wields a sword to useful effect and travels around with his hunchbacked assistant (aren’t they all?) with a vendetta to settle thanks to his earlier unsavoury experiences with the undead. Caroline Munro is thankfully invited to hang out with them on their expedition and looks simply stunning in this movie. I mean, she never really looked like she was lacking in the physical appearance department but she must have peaked with this film. I always found her style of acting a little naive but she certainly brings visual candy to this film. For the girls, Kronos himself can be considered a looker and he and Munro inevitably get it together in the sack (or the hay, as is the case here).

Look at me when I'm speaking to you!

The film possesses the traditional Hammer atmosphere (including some awful day-for-night shooting, which plagued far too many of their films) although moves along at a slightly slower pace than I would have liked. It’s a reasonably enjoyable experience if you like the studio’s other output but by 1972 things were starting to move on and it would probably have appeared antiquated by this point. The fact that it’s a historical piece though saves it from seeming too dated, if you see my point. There is a fairly eerie sequence in the castle towards the end and overall it’s a film worth seeking out, particularly as it can be picked up fairly cheaply on DVD.

 

The US DVD transfer is good, although I thought there was a slight discrepancy in the levels between the vocal sound and music, the former being a little quiet in comparison. These are no great problems and, for its age, Captain Kronos fairs pretty well on DVD. A commentary track with Clemens, Munro, and a film historian is a welcome bonus.

Posted on 19th February 2007
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