Archive for June, 2007

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941)

1941, USA, Directed by Victor Fleming

Black & White, Running Time: 108 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Warner; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: DD Mono

Taking a virtually identical plot to the 1931 version (review here) there are a few differences worth noting. Hyde himself bears a more realistic appearance and comes across as a much calmer but calculating individual, speaking in a lower rasp than Frederic March’s raging animal. There’s a long, philosophically engaging conversation over dinner early on where upper-class friends discuss the ethics and validity of Jekyll’s theories (these were outlined in a university lecture in the Mamoulian film) and the film is less daring in a number of ways despite being made a decade later. Whilst it’s clear that Jekyll’s unsatisfied libido plays a large part in his motivation there is less emphasis on the sexuality that otherwise reveals itself to the doctor and viewers throughout (though the hallucination sequences touch on it in a fetishistic manner with Jekyll whipping horses that reveal themselves in a subsequent shot to be the two women in his life: village tart, Ivy, and his fiancée, Beatrix). While I very much admire a large portion of Ingrid Bergman’s film acting I think her casting (the role specifically requested by her) was a small mistake - Ivy does come across as a little corny and her odd Swedish-Cockney accent just doesn’t work. Saying that, she does manage to convey dramatic feelings of fear as Hyde’s sadistic hold over her strengthens.

Nice rod you have there, sir.

Hyde’s make-up is better but special effects had hardly progressed since the early thirties and the transformation itself is actually less impressive (the 1931 film made innovative use of filters to give the doctor’s face the appearance of changing without dissolves or cutting on several occasions). The movie as a whole comes across as a bigger budget effort, boasting fantastic cinematography, but falls down when comparing the brutality and sexiness of the 1931 equivalent. It is, however, a piece well worth watching.

 

Packaged with the earlier film the Warner DVD is an excellent buy which you can‘t go far wrong with. Picture quality is even better here, featuring remarkably sharp details, perfect greyscaling and well balanced contrast levels with very little print damage. Sound is as clear as it should be. The only extra for this film is a trailer that’s included on the other side of the disc with the 1931 version.

Posted on 29th June 2007
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)

1931, USA, Directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Black & White, Running Time: 92 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Warner; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: DD Mono

Innovative professor of science, Dr Jekyll, theorises that the primordial aggressive elements of a personality can be physically separated (and ultimately eliminated) from the benevolent nature that has superseded it through evolutionary development. On a domestic level he is happily expecting to marry the love of his life but his aspirations (and sexual desires) are thrown into disarray as her father continues to postpone approval of their impending marriage. Enveloping himself in his work he decides to test his theories by consuming the chemical formula he has developed that is intended to initiate the separation. It does the trick but not in the way he was hoping: a transformation occurs that gives birth to a manifestation of his darker side. Referring to himself as Mr Hyde, this almost Neanderthal incarnation of his inner self goes about making a general nuisance of himself until he begins to form a relationship with a prostitute that Jekyll helped earlier, a situation that the girl is too scared to end or escape from due to the escalating horrific behaviour with which Hyde conducts himself. Not realising that Hyde is the alter-ego of Jekyll she goes to visit the (oblivious?) good doctor for help again, at which point he realises what terror Hyde has caused and promises the traumatised woman that she will never see the monster again, determined himself to now leave alone the potion of his own creation. But Jekyll fails to anticipate that the formula has mixed inextricably with his blood and the transformation is no longer within his control.

Oh, not you again, can't you bug some other whore?

This wasn’t the first adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s well known novella - following stage interpretations there were a number of cinema versions as far back as 1920 - among them, the John Barrymore vehicle where the star changed into a grimacing monster without makeup, a forty minute film by Louis Mayer, and an unofficial German adaptation (a similar situation to Nosferatu) called Der Janus Kopf. The 1931 movie was the best to date (and possibly the best, period) featuring surprisingly sexual connotations for the period, Ivy the whore being the embodiment of this aspect with perpetually low-cut tops and recurring flesh exposure (even baring 80% of a breast at one point - virtually unheard of in 30s cinema). Jekyll’s science is Freudian in essence - the separation of good from evil is basically a distinction between the id (the primitive aggressive and sexually motivated nature of a being’s driving forces) and the superego (the moral overseer) respectively, though whether that was actually an influence over Stevenson is debatable as Freud was only just forming his theories as the novella was written. There’s plenty of philosophical meat there to think about and the tale itself was highly imaginative given the fact that the text was first published in 1886. With his strange mannerisms Hyde himself may come across as strangely comical on first sight but he quickly proves himself to be a remarkably nasty individual, later on becoming quite sadistic and monstrous (I’m sure he appears to be more animal-like with each transformation throughout the film) - as his relationship with Ivy progresses so does the violence and his visits to her room (the soundtrack usually acquiring foreboding silence) become pretty frightening, accumulating dramatic effect as one empathises with the woman’s increasingly desperate plight (akin to a domestic violence situation I should imagine). There’s an impressive opening sequence where the camera adopts Jekyll’s point of view for several minutes (no mean feat; cameras were cumbersome at the time) as well as technical ingenuity of the (admittedly overused) metamorphoses. A classic of the 30s and very edgy considering the conservative attitudes of the era.

 

Packaged with the 1941 version (review) of the same story the Warner disc is excellent value for money. The 1931 film itself looks as beautiful as you can expect. Problematic censorship history notwithstanding (footage excised from older films has often been difficult to re-obtain) I also believe that it’s complete - in British cinemas back in the 30s it only ran for 81 minutes! As a vintage chiller of great worth it’s up there with Frankenstein and Dracula.

Posted on 22nd June 2007
Under: Horror | 1 Comment »

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue

1974, Italy/Spain/UK, Directed by Jorge Grau

Colour, Running Time: 89 minutes

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

Cockney antiques seller George is heading north for a relaxing break over the weekend in a suitably isolated cottage in the Lake District when, stopping for petrol, his motorbike is unfortunately run over by a hopeless woman driver (Edna). Leaving the ruined bike at the garage he politely forces her to take him the remainder of the way in her Mini. Getting lost on the winding country roads they pull over so George can find someone to ask directions. While waiting for him Edna is attacked by a pallid, apparently mindless man but manages to escape to find George and the farmer he’s now talking to - the farmer jests that the description of the man (now absconded) sounds like a tramp who died a week ago. On his brief walk George also comes across a team of agriculturists testing new ultrasonic equipment that theoretically helps destroy crop-threatening insects. George agrees to drop Edna off at her destination so he can borrow her car to head towards the cottage but on the way they nearly run down Edna’s sister, Katie, who is in a state of panic due to her husband being murdered only minutes before. The police soon arrive on the scene but don’t believe Katie’s story about a deathly man attacking her spouse; the fact that she’s a heroin addict and was about to be institutionalised by her husband doesn’t help her case. Dragged into the situation George is prevented from leaving the village by the dictatorial sergeant and so he and Edna check into a local B&B. Determined to convince Edna that the person who attacked both her and her brother-in-law is not the deceased tramp, George takes her to the nearby cemetery to show her the man’s grave, but they get more than they expected when they’re attacked by walking corpses - George realises that their reawakening may have something to do with the equipment he saw being tested earlier.

Where you been shopping for clothes?

Clearly impelled by the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead Grau and his team bring more than a little ecological commentary to the foreground of the story, illustrated by opening shots of polluted Britain juxtaposed with images reflecting public ignorance (an issue possibly more relevant today). This theme is augmented by George’s discovery of the test equipment that stimulates destructively aggressive behaviour in primitive cerebral organs for the purposes of crop control (i.e. affected insects should kill each other), inadvertently affecting recently deceased humans along the way. This almost creates a science fiction premise but is quickly (or carelessly) undermined by a couple of scenes: the absence of an image of the living dead when photographed inexplicably borrows from cinematic vampire mythology, plus the transference of life to other cadavers via lacing their eyelids with blood. This anomaly aside the overall ride is an exciting one and centred by one of my favourite set-pieces ever, George and Edna’s gut-tingling visit to the graveyard. It’s a prolonged and progressive attack where they escape one confined area only to end up in another with the cop that’s been assigned to trail them, the entire action set against a backdrop of the isolated windy northern hills. Mention must also be made of Arthur Kennedy’s fascinatingly autocratic policeman who demonstrates narrow-mindedness and intolerance in the extreme. The gore effects (by Giannetto de Rossi, later of Zombi 2 fame), including a disembowelling and a woman’s breast being torn off, are stupendous for the period, managing to earn the film a place on the UK’s banned list in the 80s (it later surfaced on video heavily cut). The climactic hospital scenes predate those of The Beyond and conclude a riveting adventure through terror, establishing one of the genre’s most satisfying movies along the way.

 

Based on the US Anchor Bay disc containing a newly mastered, accurately framed transfer and a twenty minute interview with Grau, the UK disc (uncut for the first time and titled on screen as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie - a more accurate translation of its Italian title) was also accompanied by Nigel Burrell’s once separately available book outlining the plot along with a critical analysis and stills making it pretty much the best overall package of the film available (although the US disc was available in an LE tin for a while) until Blue Underground released their two disc SE. The image (of both AB discs) blew away every release before it, boasting attractive colour schemes and a soft but film-like quality while the 5.1 audio option helped embellish the ethereal soundtrack in places, though fortunately AB didn’t overlook the inclusion of a separate mono reproduction for purists. The US AB disc has since been duplicated by Blue Underground and then superseded by the same company, while the British disc has been re-released without the extras as a budget item. The film is a crucial requirement for any self-respecting genre fan’s collection.

Posted on 18th June 2007
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

Salem’s Lot (1979)

1979, US, Directed by Tobe Hooper

Colour, Running Time: 106 minutes

VHS, PAL, Warner Home Video, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

Returning to the town of his upbringing, author Ben Mears intends to write a book about a solitary house that sits on the outskirts of town, a place that has intrigued him since breaking into it as a child. Due to what he thinks he saw inside Mears has come to believe that the Marsten house is inherently evil and therefore attracts evil people; complying with his theory it has recently been purchased by the apparently malevolent Mr Straker, an outsider who is opening up an antiques shop in town. After a study session one night two schoolboys are walking home via a short cut through the woods. Becoming separated one of them manages to reach home but not before something has happened to him to result in hospitalisation. During his stay his missing brother makes a nocturnal visit to his room window where, upon entering, the deathly child bites his brother’s neck draining him of blood and life. Soon the town is in the grip of a vampire curse which begins multiplying and Mears reasons that it has something to do with Straker and his associate, Mr Barlow, a man nobody has actually seen.

'For Sale'

This is the theatrical cut of the original 3 hour made-for-TV version of Stephen King’s novel. They basically took the full version, removed a large portion of material (notably the vials that glow in the vicinity of the undead), inserted a couple of gorier shots and sent it out to cinemas. I always felt it was a tight and concise edit though the rapid pace of character introduction and development early on betrays the fact that footage has been excised - fans of the novel may be disappointed. 70s pop and TV icon David Soul plays the obsessive lead role well and the presence of James Mason brings a touch of class. The vampires are suitably inhuman and remain a near definitive rendition of cinema’s extensively-used bloodsuckers, in particular Barlow himself, who might just be the most repulsive and frightening vampire on celluloid. All traces of the romanticism that often pervade the sub-genre have been eliminated resulting in creatures that are uncanny and unnerving because of their utter lack of humanity - rotting shells devoid of souls. The score is reminiscent of an earlier era and aptly supports the material; Salem’s Lot is innately an old-fashioned chiller that relies on atmosphere rather than shocks (although there are a few) and outright bloodshed. The fact that it was made for TV possibly worked in its favour - nowadays, because film-makers can show everything they often do, sometimes forgetting about what else might make a project work in the process. One of the better King adaptations, this is also one of Tobe Hooper’s finest hours, a man who perennially seems unable to repeat the success of his groundbreaking first movie (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Surprisingly there was a ’sequel’ in 1987, A Return to Salem’s Lot: it’s elusive nowadays and, whilst obviously a cash-in, it wasn’t too bad if my memory serves me well.

 

Why hold on to this ailing video cassette? Well, Warner have been kind enough to grant us with the full length TV version but there is no sign that the theatrical edit will ever make it to DVD. The ideal disc package would obviously contain both. While people often want the longest version of a film possible I believe that in this case the shorter version provides a satisfying way to experience the film. There was also ostensibly a European cut that incorporated a couple of slight differences. Full-frame picture quality on the UK tape leaves something to be desired as does the sound, but until this becomes available on disc (whether it be SD or HD) I’ll be holding on to this tape.

Posted on 11th June 2007
Under: Horror | 7 Comments »

Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth

1992, USA, Directed by Anthony Hickox

Colour, Running Time: 92 minutes

VHS, PAL, High Flyers, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Ultra Stereo

Taking its lead from the conclusion of Hellbound the pillar that incarcerated Pinhead is purchased by JP Monroe, the decadent owner of a New York nightclub. Elsewhere a luckless reporter, Joey, is searching for her breakthrough story when she witnesses a ghastly and inexplicable death while at the hospital prompting her to hook up with the only person who might have any idea what‘s going on, JP’s homeless ex-girlfriend, who also happens to be in possession of the Lament Configuration puzzle box. Accidentally splashing blood on the pillar JP inadvertently reawakens Pinhead who needs bodies to manifest himself freely in the corporeal world. Consuming one of JP’s one-night-stands Pinhead persuades him to bring another. One death later Pinhead is released from his prison, proceeding to slaughter the entire population of the nightclub and escaping on to the streets accompanied by a newly acquired army of Cenobites. But now he wants the box that Joey has taken in order to eliminate any risk of him being summoned back to the hell from which he came.

Cheers, Doug!

Far removed in ambience from the preceding two films, the Cenobites have finally been reduced to mere cartoon characters, spouting one-liners that are even more inane than those that were introduced in Hellbound. Pete Atkins, writing the screenplays for both films, has a lot to answer for. Pinhead takes centre stage this time and Doug Bradley is also given more to do in his human form, now spiritually separated from his darker side, but Pinhead is noticeably less imposing here, his dialogue quickly becoming tiresome. Plus, something that had not previously occurred, he repeatedly laughs maniacally as if the producers were trying to transform him into another Freddy K. Terry Farrell as the lead female is remarkably boring, this reflecting most of the cast generally. Some early computer morphing doesn’t adequately do the job it was intended to although gore effects as a rule are superb and distinctly imaginative in places, these really showcasing during the film‘s only worthwhile sequence, the club massacre. Studios had clearly recognised a franchise by this point and their motivation resulted in a lacklustre and tiresome project that elicits virtually no emotional response in the viewer. The series continued with the infamous Bloodline in 1996 (one of the messiest production histories ever, the director ending up being ‘Alan Smithee’; it actually wasn‘t as bad as I expected), Inferno in 2000, Hellseeker in 2002 (Ashley Laurence making a transient return to the series), Deader and Hellworld (both 2005 and Deader wasn‘t even supposed to be a Hellraiser film until they decided to tag on a couple of Pinhead scenes specifically to qualify it - obviously they thought it was worthless otherwise), and a short film called Prophecy in 2006. Please, guys, enough is enough…

 

Every now and again I get out my old video machine and watch a bunch of tapes that I haven’t seen for years, this being one of them. As can be expected, the full-frame picture of this extended version (it contained extra gore over the theatrical release) exhibits colour bleed and blurred details but that was VHS for you. It’s available from Anchor Bay on DVD in the UK if you want it. I keep the cassette lying around because Doug Bradley himself, a great bloke who is articulate and unfairly typecast, was kind enough to sign the cover for me when I met him in the nineties. I saw Hell on Earth at the cinema in ‘93 and, as a 21 year old, I quite enjoyed it. Nowadays it simply doesn’t satisfy one’s urge to see a great film. With Hell on Earth the degradation of the original concept was complete.

Posted on 9th June 2007
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Hellbound: Hellraiser 2

1988, UK/USA, Directed by Tony Randel

Colour, Running Time: 99 minutes

DVD, Region 1, Anchor Bay, Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1

Larry’s daughter, Kirsty, is now locked in a mental institution due to her stories of doors opening to Hell and the soul-claiming Cenobites that emerge from them, these stories automatically condemned as being the product of a disturbed mind. The hypocritical complication is that the head doctor, Channard, has concealed a long-term obsession with the occult, collecting paraphernalia of various kinds including an array of puzzle boxes - the type that was used to open the aforementioned doorways. Based on Kirsty’s ‘insane’ babbling he retrieves the mattress on which Julia died, bringing in one of the institution’s tenants - a man burdened with the perpetual belief that his flesh is crawling with maggots, Channard knowing that once offered the means the patient will bleed himself on the mattress. This he does and Julia is returned to life, once again requiring an array of victims to fully complete her resurrection and leading to Channard‘s desire to personally witness the sights of the Cenobites’ realm. Meanwhile Kirsty also wants to hazard a journey to Hell, the intention being to bring back her father.

Can someone turn that central heating down a notch?

With a story that leads directly on from the original film the director’s chair for Hellraiser 2 was passed over to Randel, an inexperienced assisting editor on Hellraiser. He performed reasonably well and early on the sequel retains some of the gruesome ethics of Barker’s film, detouring a little to delineate details of Pinhead’s history, but there are several problems that arise. One: the location, despite apparently being the same (Larry’s house is present), inexplicably switches from England to America, something I never noticed until viewing the two films back-to-back. Two: there is inconsistency in the mythology - Julia looks like her human self on return to completeness whereas Frank took on the appearance of his final ‘donor’ (due to using that flesh) in Hellraiser. Three: there’s the time discrepancy - Channard’s assistant returns to the hospital to tell Kirsty he believes her but, before their trip back to the house, Channard somehow manages to acquire a large amount of bodies for Julia to consume as if a week or two has passed. Four: (not that I like picking flies you realise) the overly ambitious nature of the project hinders, notably with a depiction of Hell that isn’t supported by available visual FX resources. And finally, worst of all, is the introduction of one-liners after Channard’s Cenobite transformation (e.g. “the doctor is in,” and, “your case is closed… I’m afraid it’s terminal,” etc.). That latter issue became an abhorrent feature of many 80s genre films onwards (continuing into Hellraiser 3) and almost always results in dialogue that is at best unfunny and a waste of space, at worst irritating and distracting. Essentially the better elements of H2 are swamped by the pitfalls.

 

Anchor Bay’s R1 DVD somehow managed to acquire THX approval, but you wouldn’t have guessed viewing this often grainy print. It looks sharp during lighter scenes but the visually darker material suffers noticeably. The welcome 5.1 audio is much beefier than its original surround track and the disc comes with some informative extras. It also includes the cropped 4:3 version should one’s tastes extend to such aesthetic atrocities. Once heavily censored in the UK the uncut H2 has since been released over here, also by Anchor Bay.

Posted on 5th June 2007
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Hellraiser

1987, UK, Directed by Clive Barker

Colour, Running Time: 89 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, VCI; Video: Anamorphic 1.75:1, Audio: DD2.0

Having purchased a mysterious puzzle box from a foreign dealer in obscurities, Frank manages to solve it, unwittingly (or otherwise) opening a doorway to Hell through which a group of demonic creatures called Cenobites take his soul. Some time later his brother, Larry, and sister-in-law, Julia, move into the old family home to make a fresh start, the same house where Frank met his bloody demise. Unaware that Frank’s remains are rotting beneath the attic floorboards, Larry manages to cut himself while moving furniture in, spilling blood over the attic floor and supernaturally granting life to Frank‘s corpse once again. Brought back from Hell the unsightly Frank persuades Julia, who once had an affair with him, to help him completely reinvigorate himself by bringing men back to the house while Larry is out, specifically so Frank can drain their bodies of life thereby progressively recomposing his incomplete shell and allowing Julia to repossess her real passion, before the Cenobites come looking for him.

16x9

4x3

Clive Barker’s (feature-length) directorial debut followed a couple of ill-received ventures during the mid eighties directed by others (Rawhead Rex and Underworld), these also based on his own short stories. Hellraiser is a much better film though it’s clearly embedded in its era. Some of the performances are stilted (though I was quite impressed with Ashley Laurence) and, while the gore and prosthetic effects are for the most part excellent, the optical effects are very dated. Barker’s screenplay seems a little contrived but does work well enough to ensnare viewer attention. The Cenobites themselves are imaginatively monstrous and it’s interesting to retrospectively note that Pinhead, the creature who quickly became the staple of the series, is only onscreen for a few minutes. It’s inevitable through overexposure and marketing manipulation that they’ve since lost some of their original impact. What seemed quite an innovative conceptual world at the time now comes across as merely entertaining though admittedly quite dark in places, but there was clearly scope for further developing the rich mythos that Barker had created and, shortcomings aside, Hellraiser has proved to be something of a minor genre milestone.

 

One of the very earliest UK DVD releases, the VCI disc initially caused some uproar among home cinema fans because it was full frame only (something that plagued VHS for too long). They quickly repressed it to include a widescreen version on side 2 and the differences can clearly be seen from my screen captures above, although there is still a smidgen of information missing at the sides even in the wide version. Lacking vibrancy the picture holds up well enough given the period while the Dolby Surround, encoded at a measly 192 kbps, needed some loudness boosting from my amp to provide an acceptable aural experience. The VCI company were unique for including a sub-plot feature to take advantage of the new DVD technological capabilities: certain concepts could be chosen from the menu (e.g. Julia’s murders) and those sections of the film would be isolated and played in sequence. It didn’t take off but it was a nice try. Regardless, this disc has since been superseded by Anchor Bay’s superior release.

Posted on 4th June 2007
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Login     Film Journal Home     Support Forums           Journal Rating: 5/5 (16)