Archive for September, 2007

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

(AKA: Nosferatu The Vampyre)

1979, Germany, Directed by Werner Herzog

Colour, Running Time: 107 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Anchor Bay; Video: Letterbox 1.85:1, Audio: DD 5.1

Deep in the heart of Germany…

Estate agent Jonathon is offered the prosperous job of selling properties to a Transylvanian count but to do so must take a long trek into the isolated man’s homeland to close the deal. Thinking of career prospects and his beautiful wife, Lucy, he accepts and ventures via foot and horse into a lost world of mountains and forests, amidst which is the count’s ruined castle. Meeting the corpse-like Dracula, Jonathon closes the deal but, after realising that the villagers’ seemingly superstitious warnings of the living dead may have some foundation in truth, he soon finds himself prisoner in the castle, left to wander around for weeks as Dracula himself heads off to his new country by ship. Having spotted a picture of Lucy he’s also now out to acquire himself a new woman. Back in Wismar Dracula’s ship (now with a dead crew) arrives but unleashes on the town a horrific plague as rats pour onto the streets. Soon, mass numbers of the population are dying as the disease spreads and the vampire places his coffins at strategic points around the town; meanwhile Jonathon manages to escape before desperately attempting to head back home so he can save his otherwise doomed lover.

Now, where did I leave the caravan...

Taking the 1922 silent movie as a template was a fairly brave move as it was already an unofficial (and once legally denounced) version of Bram Stoker’s book and took many liberties with the source material. Thus the Werner Herzog film can be considered more of a remake of a film than yet another adaptation of Dracula, though it certainly qualifies as the latter too. Herzog framed many of the shots almost identically to the silent version, pre-empting the Psycho ethic that was (unsuccessfully?) adopted by Gus Van Sant a couple of decades later. It was a more relevant approach in the case of Nosferatu however because not only was it updating a silent film for sound-obsessed modern audiences, it also expanded on certain areas and created an altogether more powerful experience. In fact, the use of sound in this version is incredibly instrumental in formulating a profound experience for viewers - the castle itself is a gothic joy to allow oneself to become a part of as wind howls through the corridors and rooms while wolves constantly whine in the distance. The music (from classical sources as well as German ambient group Popol Vuh) is overwhelmingly dark, thrusting forward an incremental feeling of impending doom like few other movies. It’s a chillingly grim world that Herzog creates. Even before that the long journey to the castle is emphasised more here than in any other Dracula adaptation. Indeed, when Fox saw the first cut they wanted it shortened, not realising that Herzog was envisioning the metaphoric voyage of the spirit. Thankfully this is generally complete in the German cut. Use of landscape is monumental and absorbing.

 Hang on, is this number 10?

The actors are well suited to their roles: Bruno Ganz as Jonathon plays an innocent man lost in a supernatural realm, doomed to a fate he cannot realistically control. Similarly, the vampire (Klaus Kinski, an actor famous for his clashes with Herzog on their many team-ups) is withered and pathetic as his deathly existence continues to sprawl meaninglessly across centuries. Kinski’s portrayal here, while not necessarily aping the Stoker character exactly, is unique and fixating. The other lead, Isabelle Adjani as Lucy, provides a captivating physical appearance coupled with melancholic presence helping us identify with her character’s futile plight. The conclusion, without giving anything away, is different to both the novel and the silent Murnau film. Unfortunately the film was ridiculed in some quarters during its early days, not helped by the English version which was cut in the US and displayed a voice track uttered by people who couldn’t actually speak English, this alternate version having being shot simultaneously with the same cast/crew: it resulted in an oddity. The full German version gave cause to re-evaluate it but even there some may find it slow and theatrical in places. For me it works wonders and, dare I say (sorry, Stoker fans), the 1979 rendition of Nosferatu is actually my favourite version of Dracula.

Bugger off and let me get a bit of rest, will you?!?

For years I’d only seen this on Fox’s old UK videotape. It had the dreaded English language track (in mono) with a fullscreen transfer, plus it had been blasphemously shortened by some twelve minutes. Even then I gradually developed an appreciation for the material, so it was some revelation when I finally picked up the first Anchor Bay US DVD about seven or eight years ago: widescreen, German language, and uncut (though the monaural English cut was contained on the flip side of the disc). It was like a goldmine - what was once something that hinted at an incredible world suddenly became a beautifully nightmarish landscape of utter doom (that’s a good thing by the way). Of course it’s now one of my favourite viewing experiences. It’s been re-released by Anchor Bay various times in the US and UK but they’re basically variations on the same original disc. The transfer was good for it’s time but is looking quite rough now. I’d dearly love to see a Hi-Def remaster of this but until then I’m more than happy to keep revisiting Herzog’s ethereal and morbid realm of the supernatural on DVD.

Posted on 26th September 2007
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

The Aftermath

1980, US, Directed by Steve Barkett

Colour, Running Time: 92 minutes

Review Source: VHS, PAL, Trans-Global; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

Returning from a shuttle mission two astronauts find the civilised world a devastated ruin - while they were away a nuclear war kicked off and all but destroyed mankind (NASA obviously neglecting to mention it to them). All that apparently remains of thinking organisms are small pockets of now mindless mutations who will feed on anything still alive. Newman and Chris find a deserted house and temporarily try to continue as normal for a while before Newman decides to head off out in the hope of finding others; he gets more than he bargained for in the shape of Cutter and a group of militaristic (but amateur) assassins who are intent on claiming what’s left of Earth for themselves through a regime of brute force and rape. Momentarily finding sanity, Newman picks up a kid from a dying museum curator and later meets a wandering female, Sarah, who’s managed to escape Cutter’s love-hungry clutches. Telling Newman about Cutter’s campaign of tyranny he learns about a friend of Sarah’s still trapped in a prison camp run by the madman and decides to help break the woman free. Thus ensues a battle for supremacy and revenge between survivors who want peace and those who prefer dictatorship and violence.

It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye...

Superbore Steve Barkett does almost everything here including writing, producing, directing, and starring in this exceedingly ambitious film, but you can only stretch a budget of seven dollars so far before it starts to show. The razed city landscapes look like they were knocked up on Blue Peter and some interiors consist of a couple of foreground items against a black background, the production unit probably hoping that darkness would conceal the fact that they could only afford about four props. Some of the early mutants actually look quite good (though they’re only seen during a nocturnal attack) but the few that turn up in daylight look like school play rejects. Barkett plays the nihilistic Newman, a man who’s actually glad that humanity has wiped itself out after his wife and child died partly due to procedural red tape several years earlier. During the course of the story he manages to acquire himself a young beauty to mate with, proves himself to be adequate as a surrogate father, beats off an entire base of gun-toting nutters Commando-style, and manages to be an all round hero - a process which can’t help but stimulate accusations of egocentricism from any viewers that are still awake. He is, however, probably one of the most ambitious film-makers that ever surfaced in the wake of Edward D Wood Jnr., and you can’t completely knock someone for trying this hard, even if it does end up completely wasting a couple of hours of your precious life. I actually first saw this when I was about ten years old thanks to my cousin who was babysitting us at the time - he put this on in between bouts of repeatedly playing the Convoy bar brawl in slow motion (video was a new phenomenon at the time) and my innocent mind was horrified at the bloodiness. Years later the squib effects are pretty good and it does feature occasionally gory shoot-outs, probably the one aspect of this production that was executed with some efficiency. Somehow Barkett persuaded the legendary Forrest J Ackerman to take part as ‘The Curator’ and even roped Dick Miller in for some voice work (perhaps the only competent bit of acting in the movie), but this doesn’t fool anybody. Lynne Margulies provides the love interest as Sarah well enough and it’s a surpirse to see Sid Haig as Cutter, a prolific tough guy actor who’s recently acquired a bit of infamy from Rob Zombie’s films. The ending is quite nifty but whatever way you look at it though, The Aftermath is still a piece of garden waste.

 

Released in the early days of video (under its original title I believe) this was later put out on a cheapo label as Zombie Aftermath in some amoral attempt at selling it to people who might have been expecting a little excitement (as the cover almost warns: ‘They returned from space expecting a heroes [sic] welcome. They were met by something very very [sic] different.’). I bought it a few years ago hoping it might live up to my vague boyhood memories of something far more epic and nastier but it just goes to show that even nostalgia can’t always turn shit to gold.

Posted on 18th September 2007
Under: Horror, Science Fiction | 2 Comments »

Necronomicon

1993, USA, Directed by Brian Yuzna, Christophe Gans, Shusuke Kaneko

Colour, Running Time: 93 minutes

VHS, PAL, ITC, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Stereo

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, writer of strange tales about ancient creatures and alternate dimensions, visits an old library to research the phenomenon of death (and evasion of it) through an rare tome called Necronomicon. There he uncovers several stories that will prove to inspire him in his macabre iterations… In the first tale a man inherits a mansion that brings with it a grim past - decades before, the occupier, distraught at the deaths of his child and wife, is inexplicably visited in the night by a horrific creature who bestows him with a book - the Necronomicon - that will allow him to grant life again to his dead loved ones. He’s soon engaging in a bloody ritual to bring back the dead and return they do, only not quite in the shape that he remembered them. This has resonance with the new owner whose own wife was previously killed in a car accident. The second story introduces us to a reporter who’s looking into the case of a recent spate of rather odd murders, whereby the victims appear to have been drained of spinal fluid. He comes across a house that’s supposedly home to someone who should have died a long time before, but there’s no official record of the man’s death. There he’s greeted by a young woman afflicted by a rare illness whereby she claims to be allergic to heat and light. She recounts how she came to be ill, and reveals the truth about the man who never died and how he has influenced her own destiny. Through this the writer learns, to his misfortune, what’s been happening to the recently deceased. Lovecraft’s final reading opens with a car chase that results in the pregnant female cop and her boyfriend crashing the police car in a deserted area. Her boyfriend goes missing and in searching for him (and the crook they were chasing) she comes across a strange underground complex resided over by a couple who appear to be quite insane, muttering as they do about a ‘mad butcher’ and aliens. But as she discovers more of the subterranean world she realises that there is a hell down there that threatens more than just her life…

Squeal

The fiction of H.P Lovecraft has been noticeably absent from the big screen and it’s generally acknowledged that his work is difficult to do justice in cinema. In the past this may have been because special effects simply weren’t up to the job of efficiently recreating some of the author’s abhorrent visions, being as they were of unspeakably monstrous creatures that had often lay dormant for centuries. The other explanation for the difficulty of adapting, and something that could still be considered relevant, is that Lovecraft’s creations were indescribably morbid, often inducing madness in those unfortunate enough to witness their arrival: how can you visually represent something that imagination itself can conjure up in a far more horrifying state? By obscuring the exact nature of an entity it can become somewhat more frightening, an evolutionary remnant of our innate uncertainty of darkness, and fiction by default obscures these visual details permitting our imagination to clumsily (but effectively) fill in the gaps. By delineating everything visually cinema can often work against the very thing that it’s trying to achieve. Sometimes it works, but not as often as we’d probably like (assuming, that is, that we like being spooked!). Stuart Gordon took one of Lovecraft’s easier ideas to adapt and managed to create a cult hit with Re-animator, and later made a nice little return to Lovecraftian notion with Dagon. There have been a couple of other attempts along the way, one of them being something that seems to be unfairly unforgotten: Necronomicon. An unusual modern-day example of the anthology film, this film actually manages to approach the terror of Lovecraft’s work and reasonably apes it. Despite being made just before the CGI boom (something that was still the domain of huge budget films at the time) the generally gruesome special effects here, being mostly prosthetic, are prime examples of their kind - the creatures are gorgeously designed while gore is plentiful but not overly gratuitous. On a technical level the only thing that can be considered a drawback is the sometimes incompetent and excessively used music. The narrative takes the novel slant of suggesting that Lovecraft was not a writer of fiction, rather a man documenting ghastly tales of monsters that mankind was hitherto largely oblivious to. In a neat in-joke, Lovecraft is played by Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West in the aforementioned Re-animator) who is present in the wraparound story that sandwiches the other three tales. The first two stories, The Drowned and The Cold can be a little hard to follow as essentially they’re flashbacks within flashbacks and the viewer is having to keep track of what quite a few different characters in different times are up to. Once you get your head around that they’re pretty macabre and satisfying snippets of imagination, the nocturnal visitation in part one being a particular favourite of mine. David Warner makes a welcome entry in The Cold as a doctor obsessed with preserving life (similarities to the Herbert West character here), and the conclusive revelation is sufficiently dark. The final part, Whispers, is the best as it drags its heroine, almost literally, to hell but doesn’t necessarily bring her back. Just as you think there’s a cop-out happy ending you realise things are only getting worse. Whispers, is the one that really reflects the fear of insanity that made its mark in many of the author’s stories and its effective understanding of that gives it the edge over the other two sections in my opinion. Evident in the last two stories is an undercurrent of fears associated with birth and pregnancy, something which resonates on a particular level of the mind that some people may overlook but for me it adds an extra dimension of unease that helps to connect me with the material.

 

This promotional ITC video cassette is time-coded and fullscreen with a stereo soundtrack. Details obviously get lost in the many darker scenes and this is something that would be welcome on DVD. Indeed, aside from a French release, a disc release of Necronomicon is an unfortunate absence in the world of digital film media these days and hopefully someone will bring it to the attention of those who’ve managed to miss this on VHS in the UK and US. Not an overwhelming classic but a small lost jewel that’s worth having a dig around for.

Posted on 14th September 2007
Under: Horror | 4 Comments »

The Midnight Hour

1985, US, Directed by Jack Bender

Colour, Running Time: 90 minutes

Satellite Broadcast, Image: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

It’s Halloween in Pitchford Cove and the high school youngsters are arranging a huge party at an old house to celebrate. After a class presentation by Phil about the history of Halloween in relation to the town a small team of students decide to authenticate their fancy dress costumes by breaking into the witchcraft museum and stealing (sorry, borrowing) some genuine 19th century outfits as worn by various occupiers of the period, including a witch who was burned at the stake as she passed curse upon the place. Stopping off at the nearby cemetery they have the cool idea of reading out an old parchment that they found with the costumes - an incantation for raising the dead. Laughing of their antics they leave the cemetery to prepare for tonight’s party, unaware that their little joke has actually worked and bodies are returning to life along with the awakening of various demonic entities in the form of werewolves and vampires. Later at the party geeky Phil finds himself unable to attract the attentions of the girl of his dreams (she’s more interested in the football-playing beefcakes) and decides to head off home, not realising that the recently disturbed dead are invading the party and causing havoc throughout the town. On his way back he runs into Sandy, a girl he met earlier who also happens to have died thirty years previous (but passable as a living person due to a distinct lack of rotting flesh). Together they become aware that the town is undergoing a chaotic transformation as the dead turn the living into lifeless homicidal shells - Phil and Sandy have to find a way of restoring peace to Pitchford Cove as they rapidly become a minority in a town that’s filling up with ghouls.

Jonna Lee as Sandy Matthews

The fact that it was made for television shows with a clear lack of gore, violence, and sex, but I’m not one to let those deficiencies hold back my enjoyment of a film - after all, there’s still atmosphere and scares to be had, right? Well, maybe not here. It opens with a nice little set-up as we see the residents of the Cove preparing for Halloween celebrations, going to school, arguing about theft, etc. One of the main problems is the undead creatures - they’re a bit of a joke and are treated as such by the film-makers. The make-up is actually very good but overly emphasised in a Buffy-type sense and therefore not particularly unnerving. It’s not helped by having actors who think they’re comedians playing some of the parts and one corpse especially gets on my nerves with his clumsy antics. There’s also a hopeless werewolf whose attacks on mortals are completely bloodless and without tension. Lee Montgomery was never a very ballsy actor, here playing the lead role as Phil, but he’s a reasonably likeable dude and does the job. His newfound love interest, Sandy, is played by Rosanna Arquette lookalike, Jonna Lee, someone who worked mainly in TV before disappearing off the scene in the early nineties. Shame because she’s both attractive and competent here. The teenage behavioural tendencies are typical of the period and may provide some nostalgic fun for those of us who were there, but on occasions they can induce minor cringes. The film hits rock bottom though when, without explanation or precedence the entire undead cast of the house go into a Thriller-style song and dance number that lasts about five minutes - I’m not kidding: this has to be seen to be believed. It may have been fun to shoot but it’s completely embarrassing to watch - make sure nobody ever catches you viewing this as any remaining street credibility will be evaporated. There are one or two things going for Midnight Hour however. Firstly, it makes great use of fifties/sixties music like The Midnight Hour (obviously), Bad Moon Rising (slightly blasphemous as that track belongs to American Werewolf as far as I’m concerned!), and Sea of Love (by Del Shannon). In addition, once all the jerking around with musical numbers and the like is sorted out, the story temporarily becomes quite interesting as Phil and Sandy cruise through a town crawling with the walking dead, later becoming pursued by hordes as they go back to the house to retrieve certain things they’ll need to restore order. The last third or so of the movie almost make the journey worth bothering with, but not quite (that musical piece trashes it for me), plus the conclusion is a little on the sloppy side. One rather surprising point to note: the competent but pedestrian direction is by Jack Bender, someone who’s since gone on to enthral us with many of the episodes from Lost.

 

This recording was taken from a satellite broadcast back in the early nineties and reveals what is a noticeably colourful and sharp image. I don’t think this has ever received a sell-through release in the UK, disc or cassette, but Anchor Bay put out a barebones DVD on Region 1 years ago (the film itself was granted with a decent transfer); that disc is quite difficult to find nowadays. In a childish way The Midnight Hour is light entertainment at best, plus there is the slightly eerie segment of the last act to consider, but there is too much silliness to truly recommend seeking this out.

Posted on 2nd September 2007
Under: Horror | No Comments »

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