Archive for October, 2007

Hammer House of Horror

Following the gradual decline of Hammer’s film output during the seventies it was time to devote their attentions to something less expensive but lucrative enough to permit them to maintain business: television. The potential of the medium had clearly already been recognised by the company because Hammer themselves had previously adapted one or two popular series for the big screen in the shape of, for example, On The Buses. While most of Hammer’s more macabre cinematic outings were essentially gothic period pieces, the television work of the eighties took a much more contemporary stance by rooting scenarios in modern times, this probably being a smart move because it enabled a wider audience the chance to identify with the characters and material despite the fantastical but horrific nature of many of the situations. Spanning across (appropriately enough) only thirteen episodes there is a variable quality at times (as with any television series) but the overall impression of Hammer House of Horror is surprisingly upmarket, this aided by the fact that it was shot on film rather than video. Aside from a generally average to good standard of acting these episodes don’t feel as cheap as one might expect, exhibiting the consistently well crafted work of skilled technicians in their field, plus the location work was really nice and will make older (30+) UK viewers feel at home with realistic depictions of a picturesque span of English backdrops from the era. A couple of years later they produced another series called Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense but these were padded to feature length in order to meet the US broadcast criteria dictated by a movie of the week slot. The later series suffered as a result but HHOH itself was kept to a sensible fifty minutes per episode, thus giving the stories enough space to breathe without too much risk of boring the viewer. The opening/closing music score was a suitably melancholic and dark piece, reminding me of the score that came soon after for Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery. The stories themselves revolved around concepts of fear and the macabre, it goes without saying, but what may be less expected is that sometimes the feeling of unease projected from a story actually worked and there are a number of moments throughout the run that can still induce a chill through the body. It is, therefore, a sporadically successful piece of work in my opinion. Don’t look for something to cheer you up too much either - whereas the studio’s movie output tended to find good triumphing over evil, conversely there were rarely happy endings in Hammer’s TV House of Horror.

Carlton blessed us with a 4 disc set containing the entire series of HHOH, an average of three episodes per disc and, though not sequenced in their original broadcast order this is no great problem considering the unrelated nature of the stories. They’re presented in their original academy aspect ratios with DD2.0 audio, and each looks very sharp, detailed and naturally coloured. Extras are minimal but the set is the best way to view and own this sometimes overlooked series. During the following synopses and opinions I’ve attempted to refrain from using spoilers.

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Episode guide

The House That Bled To Death; Directed by Tom Clegg; UK Transmission 11th October 1980

A couple of new homeowners and child move into a house that was previously the place where a husband poisoned his wife before cutting up the body and burying her under the patio (and just about anywhere else he could find a place to dig a hole). Their arrival is followed by bouts of unexplained activity: the wife is nearly gassed, blood pours from various structural orifices, knives disappear and reappear, etc. While there are illogical details that only really materialise upon the film’s denouement, there is a sense of unease that develops as tale progresses, a constant feeling that something frightening is about to happen. Regardless of the final act the film works quite well, at least partly because we’re not aware if there are actual ghosts in the house, if the house itself is possessed, or the occupants are mad - it remains unexplained for the large part and this is an aid to the dread that is conjured up.

Silent Scream; Directed by Alan Gibson; UK Transmission 25th October 1980

A frail pet shop owner (Peter Cushing) is conducting experiments in captivity without the use of prison bars, i.e. training individuals to voluntarily stay within a confined area essentially through the use of electric shocks as a means of shaping behaviour. He uses animals to hone his techniques, basically exercises in classical conditioning, until an old inmate acquaintance attempts to steal something from him. The man himself triggers a trap which contains him in an underground room against his will, this providing the slightly unhinged wannabe-scientist a chance to practise his ideas with humans. Luckily the man’s girlfriend notices that he’s missing and heads off to find out what’s happened to him, neither of the couple realising that the old man is smarter than they think. Tapping into ideas relating to academic psychology provides an interesting slant and Cushing himself creates a cold and nasty sort of character, these factors working in the episode’s favour. Brian Cox does quite a nice job as the inmate who becomes imprisoned once again; hard to believe just a few years later he would be playing Hannibal Lecktor (as spelt in the film he appeared in). It’s an otherwise average story that merely passes the time.

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The Two Faces of Evil; Directed by Alan Gibson; UK Transmission 29th November 1980

Out on a family road trip in the countryside, Janet thinks she sees a man in a raincoat standing in the bushes as they navigate a junction. Later on a storm has kicked off and they see a hitchhiker ahead - someone in a raincoat. Not entirely convinced they should be picking him up, the husband stops anyway. Minutes later the hooded man attacks the husband, sending the car off the road and causing it to crash. Janet wakes up in hospital, she and her son okay but the husband quite severely injured. None of the staff seem to be particularly concerned that he was attacked, looking at the woman as if she’s insane while she tries to explain. Then the police locate a corpse - the suspect in the attack incident - near the crash site, but he looks remarkably like Janet’s husband. Anxious to get back to normal she eventually takes her son and the injured man home to recover, but all is not necessarily as it seems and normality is something that may be further than she’d like. Opening with an incredibly atmospheric situation the scenario is set up quite beautifully as we’re drawn into what is clearly a frightening world. The transition from sunny roads to storm-driven landscape is well handled and the intended feel of the piece is identifiable. What follows is an escalating series of frightening occurrences that remind me of a particular film (what it is I won’t name in order to prevent giving anything away about the concluding act) but, despite one small gripe with an inconsistency becoming evident at the end, still manages to stand on its own feet as an extremely sinister and chilling little tale.

The Mark of Satan; Directed by Don Leaver; UK Transmission 6th December 1980

A man undergoing brain surgery at an undisclosed hospital, the use of a mere local anaesthetic appearing to be in effect. Before dying he starts screaming, begging the surgeons (or whoever he believes is listening) not to touch his soul. Later on, a trainee mortuary attendant begins to get nervous when he realises the number 9 is popping up in his life with alarming regularity (his sweepstake winnings are nine pounds - hey, this was the eighties! He’s told to put a corpse into cabin number nine, etc.) and from there on his paranoia increases to a point where he’s becoming incoherent and homicidal, thinking that Satan himself is attempting to contact him. Are the people around him out to perform some sort of sacrifice or is it all happening within his mind? While the trainee is initially someone who many of us may be able to identify with, being a seemingly nice person struggling to cope with a new vocational situation, he gradually proves to be so psychotic it almost becomes too difficult to sympathise with him. Of course that’s partly the point as we’re never supposed to be sure whether the paranoia is simply that, or well-founded acknowledgement of a genuine threat. The characters are a little better played here than what was conventional for the series and, as may be viewed through the eyes of the protagonist, they do come across as quite sinister (Georgina Hale plays one of the creepiest single mothers you‘re ever likely to meet, plus Emrys James is gloriously theatrical in the role of Dr Harris). Hints at Rosemary’s Baby aside I did find it a little difficult to truly enjoy this slightly chaotic episode but the representation of confusion and fear is commendable.

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Witching Time; Directed by Don Leaver; UK Transmission 13th September 1980

A film music composer in the throes of domestic problems encounters a woman in the barn outside one stormy night. She claims to be a witch who has just travelled through time from a point several hundred years earlier when she was about to be burnt at the stake. After mating with her she soon begins to take a supernatural control over his life, and his situation is not helped when she seems to disappear every time someone else is around - soon his sanity comes under question with those who he tells, but things start to turn really nasty as attempts are made to end his estranged wife’s life. Quite a sexy entry in the series featuring a gripping climax. Jon Finch (Frenzy) brings his usual emotionally charged performance to the proceedings though the character’s fashion statements are a little out of date now. Overall, an average episode with elements to push it upwards in the quality stakes by a couple of notches.

Visitor From The Grave; Directed by Peter Sasdy; UK Transmission 22nd November 1980

A neurotic American woman blows the face off an intruder as he attempts to rape her. Returning home her English husband is somewhat disturbed to find blood all over the place and his wife curled up on the bed in shock. But rather than call the police the husband convinces her that there could be legal problems considering they don’t have a licence for the gun, plus he thinks his wife would be put into an institution for her actions: they cover up the crime and he buries the body in the woods. She then begins catching glimpses of the ghost of the man she killed and seeks help from a medium who tells her that the ghost has returned for revenge. Among attractive location shooting, plus the use of a cool Jaguar XJS, the formula here is unfortunately too predictable to be enjoyable, featuring a revelation that anyone who has seen more than a handful of chillers will spot a mile off. Further to that the concluding scene is feeble to say the least, and brought to a strangely abrupt halt as if the editor suddenly realised he’d reached his fifty minute episode quotient.

Rude Awakening; Directed by Peter Sasdy; UK Transmission 27th September 1980

This story repeatedly follows the activities of an estate agent who seems perpetually doomed to waking up and living each day only to find that the day was in fact a dream. Each morning he wakes up next to a wife with whom he has an unsatisfactory relationship, heads off to work where he flirts with his sexually charged secretary, has a call to visit a property that turns out to be disastrous or non-existent, and is accused at some point of killing the very wife that he woke up next to earlier on. This is a really interesting premise, taking on a Twilight Zone type of narrative and utilising the charismatic talents of Denholm Elliot in the lead role. Early on the viewer suspects (once they realise he’s reliving a dream with various threads of consistency) that the tale will become boring, but it actually becomes progressively more intriguing as we attempt to piece together a very Lynchian puzzle. Lucy Gutteridge’s secretary mysteriously takes on different personas in each dream while Elliot’s character simply can’t understand why his memory continues to process information normally while all around him are oblivious to his plight, passing through stages of confusion right to a point where he simply accepts/believes that what he’s experiencing is only part of a dream. This kind of confrontation with the nature of one’s perception of reality fascinates me, while the story itself must surely have been an inspiration behind the Danny Rubin story that became Groundhog Day.

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Charlie Boy; Directed by Robert Young; UK Transmission 18th October 1980

After being the near victims of a road rage madman, a couple who’ve recently come across an authentic antique voodoo doll (affectionately named ‘Charlie Boy’) facetiously place a curse on the man. Thinking nothing more of it, they’re disturbed to find out the man has later been murdered. But then their friends begin dying one by one, seemingly in the order they’re standing in a photograph. Initially sceptical about the doll’s voodoo power they begin to believe that it is responsible for the deaths and seek a way of destroying it before they themselves fall victim - they’re next in line on the photograph. Not a completely original idea but one that could have been developed into something much more creepy given the inherently eerie nature of its central concept. What proves to be an obstacle to the episode’s success seems to be the pedestrian abilities of the director. The road rage (not a term used at the time obviously) threat is executed in such a lame manner that all possible tension is rapidly disposed of, and later on when the doll’s existence comes under threat the music that should have contributed to the impact of the scene actually turns the whole thing on its head with a completely inappropriate approach. What we’re left with is something very average and non-enticing.

Children of the Full Moon; Directed by Tom Clegg; UK Transmission 1st November 1980

A newly married couple, Tom and Sarah, are one their way to stay at an isolated rural house when their car develops a serious malfunction causing them to bring a halt to the journey. Heading off into the woods by foot they find an old mansion and ask the owner if they might use the telephone. The place is populated by an odd Hungarian woman who cultivates a group of young children, some her own, some supposedly fostered. It’s also home to her unseen husband. After having no luck finding some help they’re welcomed to stay for the night, but heading off to the car to collect some things Tom returns in a panic saying he was chased by something half human. In the middle of the night Sarah thinks she sees some creature at the window and Tom goes off to investigate. While he’s out Sarah is attacked by the creature in front of a hoard of smiling children, and Tom falls while attempting to climb back into the house, knocking himself unconscious. Waking up in hospital his wife tells him, contrary to what he thought he experienced, that he must have dreamt the whole thing, as they were actually in a car crash. Temporarily believing her he is somewhat perturbed to find, following the unexpected announcement of her pregnancy, that she’s not behaving like her normal self. Perusing forums I believe this episode is amongst the most fondly remembered of the series. It’s a fairly traditional piece that rises above the norm with a suitably sinister family and, as is fairly common for HHOH, a country location off the beaten track - these places seemingly home to all manner of nasties. The episode is also concludes in a pretty dark fashion, rounding out a fairly satisfying tale that could easily have been extended to feature length.

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The Thirteenth Reunion; Directed by Peter Sasdy; UK Transmission 20th September 1980

Writing for the woman’s page of a newspaper, Ruth Cairns is given what she feels is yet another trivial assignment when her editor asks her to investigate a harsh but revolutionary new dieting process being promoted by a small hospital. There she finds attendees are virtually humiliated into slimming by a sergeant-like motivator, but there’s some light when she meets a professional man there who takes her to dinner and subsequently arranges to see her again. On his way home he is the victim of a fatal car accident but her suspicions are aroused when one of the employees of the local funeral parlour comes to her suggesting something strange is going on there, with bodies being unofficially shuffled about and the like. Thinking she’s finally onto a decent scoop she probes further only to find the body of her newfound boyfriend is missing. What draws her attention back to the slimming club is the apparent fact that they were contrarily trying to ‘fatten’ him up just before his death. Packing a fair few ideas into its fifty minutes this one certainly doesn’t waste much time, taking the heroine through a number of locations and in confrontation with several people as she gets deeper into her quest, which is ultimately one of career advancement. A couple of the scenarios presented are hardly politically correct in today’s society, demonstrating as they do the onscreen humiliation of fat people for example, but this was made in an era when people weren’t specifically looking to become offended due to some self proclaimed understanding of what makes an ideal world. I’m rarely concerned by such material, preferring to leave that to the acutely political perceptiveness of others while I sit back and enjoy what I’m watching (that was, after all, the fundamental objective). Julia Foster plays her character amicably under the assured direction of Peter Sasdy (despite what it says on the Carlton packaging). The final act is ahead of its time and suitably morbid, ending on a rather anti-commercial note, though I’ll refrain from giving details so as not to spoil it for others. Thanks to a story that’s a little more varied than what one might expect for television of the period, as well as the irreverent nature of the outcome, this proves to be one of the better HHOH episodes.

Carpathian Eagle; Directed by Francis Megahy; UK Transmission 8th November 1980

A crazy femme fatale is loose and choosing seemingly random male victims to butcher before disappearing to leave the police with a serial killer mystery on their hands. The officer in charge of the investigation (Anthony Valentine) meets up with a female writer whose work seems to resemble the modus operandi used by the killer a little too much, quickly progressing into a relationship with the creative woman. What he doesn’t realise is that she becomes so obsessed with her own work that an apparent affliction of Dissociative Identity Disorder (split personality) is causing her to virtually become her subjects even to homicidal extremes. Don’t worry about this being a spoiler as the point is revealed fairly early on. While the story ends in a relatively mundane fashion it is kept alive by an adeptly crafted script and excellent standards of acting from Valentine (still working in TV to this day). Suzanne Danielle also makes a striking lead female but most amusing is the appearance of a young Pierce Brosnan as a hormone-driven jogger who is brutally murdered after all of about four minutes of screen time - bet this doesn’t go on his CV anymore.

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Guardian of the Abyss; Directed by Don Sharp; UK Transmission 15th November 1980

Beginning almost in the tradition of a Hammer movie we’re plunged into a world of occultist, mind control, bloody sacrifice and the resurrection of long dead gods. Coming into contact with what appears to be a nice piece of silverware it becomes obvious to Michael (Ray Lonnen) and his girlfriend that it’s something far more when another collector offers them ridiculous amounts of money for it. On his way to have the plate valued Michael nearly runs down a girl who is on the run after nearly becoming the victim of a ritualistic sacrifice in the hands of a Satanic sect. Recognising the plate she tells him that it was owned by the (real life) sixteenth century mathematician and occultist, John Dee. A struggle ensues for both the girl and the plate (revealed to be a scrying glass, something used for supernatural visualisation, fortune telling, etc.). Quite adventurous this episode showcases the talents of John Carson, the next best thing to James Mason, here almost resuming a very similar role to the one he played in Plague of the Zombies. There are nice touches of imagination occasionally punctuating, such as Carson’s hypnotic tilting of his head causing Lonnen’s character to lose balance, plus a couple of tense moments that add a little new life to a story that’s not particularly innovative. The music is also fairly conventional but appropriate for the material.

Growing Pains; Directed by Francis Megahy; UK Transmission 4th October 1980

The final segment in the set begins with what initially appears to be an almost Omen-like scenario: grieving from the strange death of their natural son Terence and Laurie Morton adopt a strange child who seems to be responsible for all manner of ghastly occurrences from cars spinning out of control to maggots on food and influence over an uncharacteristically homicidal rottweiler. Simultaneously his botanist surrogate father is working on a plant that is intended to help with third world starvation by providing an abundance of protein, a potential side effect being hallucinogenic effects - are the family imagining it or is there something more supernatural happening thanks to their newly acquired child? While the episode is not especially admired it does manage to maintain a sense of the uncanny throughout as we’re kept on our toes by the decidedly unorthodox behaviour of the Mortons’ new son. He reminds me a little of the offbeat girl from The Child and, while the actor himself seems incapable of realistically reflecting emotion in his performance, the largely apathetic role suits his range of abilities and blank face quite well. The ambiguity of the narrative may have been intentional or it could be a sign that the film-makers themselves were unsure which direction to take it, something that becomes vaguely apparent by the final quarter. Other than that, it’s not a bad way to finish off a great boxed set.

Posted on 30th October 2007
Under: Horror, Miscellaneous | No Comments »

Switchblade Romance (AKA Haute Tension)

2005, France, Directed by Alexandre Aja

Colour, Running Time: 88 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Optimum; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD 5.1

Clearly the film that catapulted the Parisian Aja into the eye (almost literally) of a gore-hungry public, the director of the potent Hills Have Eyes remake was up until this point working in his native language. It proved to be a controversial outing primarily due to the subversive conclusion, more of which later, but there’s nothing like a bit of controversy to get oneself noticed. Story introduces us to two young carefree French girls, Marie and Alexia, who are driving out to stay at Alexia’s father’s house for a few days. It all starts off deceptively optimistic, a tool I often like in horror movies when skilfully executed for the simple reason that it creates an acknowledgeable contrast providing contextual perspective for the terror to come. Arriving at the house Marie is introduced to Alexia’s father and they’re all soon settling down for the evening in their separate rooms for a good night’s sleep, or so they’re hoping. As the dark descends Marie is disturbed by violent noises downstairs. She realises that there’s an intruder in the house and the man has quickly and brutally murdered Alexia’s father, working his way through the house generally causing carnage. Marie manages to keep herself concealed, avoiding the killer’s detection, but he kidnaps her friend and loads her into a van outside, tied up and beaten badly. Marie manages to get into the van without the killer realising but before she can release her friend they’re being driven elsewhere. At a gas station Marie escapes from the truck with the idea of alerting the police, but soon the killer is driving off with Alexia and Marie has to lay chase if she’s any hope of saving the injured girl.

Look, the joke's over, okay???

On the surface it’s a straightforward, albeit very well shot slasher but in the final act the entire story is turned on its head with a twist that shifts audience perception of what has previously happened to an entirely different understanding. It’s this twist that caused split opinion. Some people thought it was incredibly smart, others decided it was illogical and gimmicky at best. Obviously Aja was attempting to inject the tired slasher genre with a little new life by trying something unusual and on first viewing, for me, the film proved to be a reasonably effective experience. There is, as the French title suggests, plenty of high tension and this is well maintained, keeping unsuspecting audiences on their toes throughout - this upholding of tension is helped by a modest running time. Recently I watched it for the second time and therein the problem became apparent: it simply doesn’t work on repeat viewings. Where Sixth Sense, for example, was well thought through (though my appreciation of that film has diminished over the years) and enabled audiences to pick it apart in their hunger for logic, as much as is possible with such material. I’m sure that Haute Tension isn’t quite in the same category as we can’t help but look at the story differently once we realise what’s going on and it just doesn’t seem to glue together. I won’t go specifically into the illogicalities for fear of spoiling it for others, but they are there in abundance. In addition there appears to be little foundation is academic Psychology and I think the writers could have done with some real research into abnormal psychology before undertaking such a project where certain explanations are anchored so heavily in the field. There are hints of Giallo-style motivations evident and this homage, whether intentional or otherwise, is pleasing, almost as if the film is a hybrid between the slasher film and its more stylish Italian cousin. What’s really working in the film’s favour is the stupendous sound design, a really incredible soundscape that aids viewer immersion into the horrifying world that Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre creates. Brutality, as one might expect if Hills Have Eyes has already been seen, is notched up as high as possible with plenty of particularly unpleasant gore effects to squirm at, courtesy of genre maestro Giannetto de Rossi (who should need no introduction to horror aficionados - Zombi 2 anyone?). Haute Tension is worth taking a look at because, although it won’t stand up to scrutiny many people wet themselves with excitement when it first shook the slasher world and it does indeed demonstrate effective shock tactics, but don’t expect enjoyment for years to come. If you want to struggle to make sense of what really happened where then it may barely be possible, and as such a minor classic could have been born, but it may also be possible that the writers were simply trying to dupe their audience into thinking they had something genuinely innovative on their hands - it’s for the individual to decide.

 

The DVD from Optimum is not at all a bad effort. The image is mixed: darker areas look excessively grainy whereas lighter scenes look spectacularly colourful and detailed. Where the transfer excels further is with the 5.1 track, this being truly cinematic and atmospheric, plus there‘s some nice use of modern music. The dialogue is thankfully presented in its original French language with burned-in English subtitles, though there is a dubbed version available in the US if you‘re really lazy. Optimum are to be commended on securing a UK exclusive audio commentary with the director, principle actor, and the features editor from Total Film magazine, as well as including over an hour of documentary footage and interviews.

Posted on 25th October 2007
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Roadkill

1989, Canada, Directed by Bruce McDonald

Black & White, Running Time: 85 minutes

DVD, Region 1, VSC, Video: Letterbox 1.82:1, Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo

Not to be confused with the slasher film that later claimed a similar name (specifically, Road Kill, that movie being a Australian and UK re-titling of Joy Ride) this is actually a fairly obscure low budget rock n’ roll road movie made in Canada by the competent but relatively unknown team of director Bruce McDonald and writer/actor Don McKellar. Valerie Buhagiar plays an assistant to the obnoxious music promoter who sends her out on the road to shut down a tour being undertaken by an Indie band called Children of Paradise. Catching up with them, she finds the band in a state of disarray because the singer has gone off on a spiritual quest, leaving them to continue the schedule without him. Taking it on herself to restore order as the boss becomes increasingly agitated about the fact that he’s wasting money on apparent losers, she soon loses the band again but while in pursuit of them comes across a strange collection of lost individuals who populate the lesser known parts of the vast Canadian suburban and rural backdrops. These include a self-proclaimed serial killer (who’s yet to actually kill anyone), a band who stand in the middle of nowhere pounding out cool music, a fifteen year old boy who she makes love to, and an ostensibly mute hotdog salesman, among other weirdos.

Valerie Buhagiar

Quite a rarity and difficult to pick up on disc I originally saw this at my local arthouse cinema when they actually used to screen arthouse films (nowadays it‘s more likely to be Transformers or the like). Clearly shot with a very low budget and using many non-actors it creates a distinctive sort of world where souls seem to have lost their way, assuming there was ever a way to really follow, a realm where people become enveloped by their own idiosyncrasies and those around them don’t take any notice anymore. Ramona (Buhagiar) is someone who notices the strange tendencies of others on her journey to prove her worth, taking time to briefly entangle herself in the lives that would otherwise never have become known to her. She mutters early on in the film (as she’s been forced to take a several hour taxi journey by a driver who refuses to let her use the train) that she’s never been that far north, as though she’s somehow entered another dimension populated by alien beings. This is almost true from the viewer’s perspective also. There’s also an interesting contrast between the ethics of one of the film’s main characters, the music promoter, and those of the people who made the film itself: while the promoter cares only about the potential financial returns of a musical venture, screaming down the phone and eventually even killing people to enforce his point, the makers seem to utilise music to illustrate Ramona’s journey at every opportunity, be it known material such as The Ramones or that of almost completely unknown outfits, thereby providing free promotion to bands who might otherwise get none while also proving that music doesn’t have come from the supposed upper echelons of popularity to be significant and meaningful. The soundtrack creates some surprisingly emotive moments. The characters also offer partly humorous, partly philosophical contributions as they carry on about issues that may at first appear to have little value in the reality in which we think we have become immersed, but actually demonstrate about as much value as the things that common people seem to hail as relevant - that is, what’s to be considered important to a person is really a subjective area and therefore not necessarily of any greater or lesser concern that what’s important to another. As Ramona takes her unusual journey, so is the viewer taken along with her.

 

This disc is the only release I’m aware of for Roadkill and comes from Canada itself. The meagre budget is evident in the non-anamorphic transfer as grain is abundant throughout. For once, a rough transfer seems to be appropriate for a film that exemplifies what road movies should be about - the hazy recollection of life‘s noteworthy points. The extensively used music collection is suitably represented by a stereo soundtrack and there are a few extras to note, including a commentary from the writer and a couple of odd but skilfully executed short films from the same team. The package is rounded out with a liner sheet containing a short statement from McDonald.

Posted on 20th October 2007
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Maniac Cop

1988, US, Directed by William Lustig

Colour, Running Time: 82 minutes

Review Source: VHS, PAL, Medusa; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Stereo

Two yobs are chasing a nubile young female along the dark streets of New York at night, first wanting her money, then maybe more. An indistinct shadowy figure appears, upon closer inspection turning out to be a well built policeman: the yobs turn and run. Running into the hands of safety the female is relieved that help has arrived. The policeman brutally kills her. On Manhattan Island there seems to be an officer on the loose who’s killing anybody who happens to cross his path; detective McCrae is on the case. Foolishly he lets information slip to the press and, following a news report on television highlighting the presence of a ‘maniac cop’ in the city, everybody is suddenly frightened of the Law. One officer soon comes under suspicion thanks to his wife turning up dead and her diary containing details of his mysterious excursions into the night. But all is not what it seems and, while McCrae is convinced that the perpetrator is connected to the police force somehow, he’s not so sure the man is still an actively employed member. But given the nature of his activities, it seems he’s getting inside information from somewhere. And not only that, following an encounter with him before a close escape, he proves to be almost inhumanly strong and indestructible.

Damn it, I've spilled the cranberry sauce all over the place again!

A few years after making one of the greatest exploitation films ever (Maniac), Bill Lustig returned to his forte of the killer-on-the-loose study, but this time focusing on someone who would, at a glance, be trusted by his potential victims. Nice idea and one that is pulled off well enough thanks to some fitting performances by the likes of Tom Atkins (made for police detective roles; see, for example, Night of the Creeps) as McCrae, Bruce Campbell as The Wrong Man blamed for the spate of violent crimes in the city, and Richard Roundtree as the perpetually angry commissioner. Sam Raimi even turns up in a cameo appearance as a reporter. Initially the viewer thinks this may be comfortably erring towards moral expectation, with the killer cop knocking off villains and other people who deserve death, but it comes as a surprise when he actually brutalises innocent people. His own history is explained at a certain point in the film and this retrospective passage itself provides the story with its most horrific moment, though the nature of occurrences removes any positive moral standing that could have been taken with the film itself (though there are the questionable morals of a couple of characters to take into consideration). Rounding out the final act is a pretty exciting car/lorry chase that edges this movie into the uncommon action-horror genre, providing a reasonably satisfying way (without sophisticated expectations) to spend eighty minutes courtesy of exploitation specialists, Bill Lustig and Larry Cohen (Q The Winged Serpent).

 

The review was completed with the help of an old videotape released by Medusa. It was missing some of the gorier footage at the request of the BBFC, primarily during the attack on Matt Cordell, the slicing (by the editors) here being particularly sloppy. Censorship was to become more professional than this later on (how kind of them…) but here the jump cut at one point is ridiculously noticeable. It has since been released on a fairly basic DVD by Optimum in the UK and Elite in the US. The best disc to go for by far came from Synapse a year or so ago. Technically a slasher film I suppose, this isn’t up there with the nasty Maniac but, script and narrative anomalies aside, it has a moderate amount of entertainment value.

Posted on 12th October 2007
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Alien Terror

1980, Italy, Directed by Ciro Ippolito

Colour, Running Time: 92 minutes

Review Source: VHS, PAL, VTC; Video: 1.66:1 (and 1.33:1), Audio: Mono

A young girl goes wandering across the beach during a family holiday and foolishly attempts to satisfy piqued curiosity upon discovering some kind of pulsating ‘blob’. A short while later, after heading off to look for her, the mother is somewhat distraught to find the daughter whimpering with half of her face missing. Elsewhere a party of initially intrepid cave explorers is preparing for a mission to descend into a vast array of dangerous underground caverns when one of their number discovers a scattering of unusual rocks - he decides to keep one of them. Once beneath ground, and separated from the rest of mankind, not only do they become hopelessly lost but it’s not long before the rock turns out to be something of extraterrestrial origin and people start disappearing as they realise that there’s something inhuman down there with them, something decidedly alien, hostile, and unsympathetic towards human survival.

The original VTC cover

Long before The Descent there was Alien Terror. Okay, they’re not identical twins (and fans of the former may consider the latter to simply be low budget trash) but neither are they a million miles apart. The original Italian title (Alien 2 Sulla Terra) would suggest a sly attempt to cash in on Alien. Plot is as straightforward as it gets: group of people explore caves and die one by one at the hands of an unearthly terror. Therein partly lies the problem - much of the first hour fundamentally focuses on the party endlessly meandering the admittedly striking caverns (these are no sets!) and it can drag a little. If you’re in the right mood it does have a fair amount of atmosphere (the quirky but typically Italian score sometimes adding to this) and there have been occasions when I’ve enjoyed this slow moving film. Aside from a fun appearance by the omnipresent Michele Soavi, there are a number of pretty bloody deaths punctuating the endless searching of underground passages but one thing that the film-makers seemed to have tapped into is the potential claustrophobic terror of being lost in a subterranean world, monstrous being in pursuit or no monstrous being in pursuit - when they realise they’re hopelessly lost there is a creeping feeling of genuine fear that the viewer can possibly identify with on a pure instinctive level (and surely that’s where fear itself largely has its roots?), even after never having been lost beneath the earth‘s surface for oneself! Where the boredom is really put to sleep, however, is when one of the characters finally manages to break free, only to find a deserted city above ground suggesting that the extraterrestrial threat has infiltrated Earth on a much more catastrophic level. It’s quite potent and almost epic, but the film unfortunately fails to take it much further, this perhaps being a remnant of films such as Zombi 2, where the world is on the verge of the apocalypse just before the end credits interrupt. Nevertheless, it prevents Alien Terror being simply consignable to the dustbin.

 

Seems like an almost lost film in the digital age. I picked this up years ago on the old VTC cassette - once available separately, it’s smartly paired up here with the classic (depending on your view…) Nightmare City, making a cool double bill. It’s a large and chunky video box with OTT artwork emblazoned across the cover, and something I don’t particularly want to get rid of for the sheer thrill of owning something pretty rare. In addition, for the VHS format, both films actually look surprisingly clean and detailed, especially considering this tape is a quarter of a century old. While NC is definitely censored, AT is possibly uncut (though I can‘t be certain). One strange thing about the aspect ratio on AT: there is stock footage used throughout the earlier half of the film, kind of in the fashion of Ed Wood Jnr., but while the movie itself is letterboxed at about 1.66:1, the stock material is pillarboxed fullscreen - this strikes me as quite odd. Anyway, while the film can be quite boring it does have its merits and the VTC cassette is nice to own, particularly when AT can’t be found on DVD.

Posted on 5th October 2007
Under: Horror, Science Fiction | No Comments »

Re-Animator

1985, US, Directed by Stuart Gordon

Colour, Running Time: 86 minutes

DVD, Region 1, Elite, Video: Anamorphic 1.82:1, Audio: DTS

Ostracised from a Swiss hospital for extreme malpractice, genius student Herbert West shows up at the American Miskatonic University to further his studies. It’s not long before he’s antagonising an eminent tutor with his extravagant and radical ideas about mortality, theorising that life is merely a complex series of biochemical processes that can be reactivated even following the death of an organism. Taking up a tenancy offer with a promising fellow student (Dan), he continues his covert personal experiments, gradually progressing towards solving the ‘problem’ of death through his invention of a serum that can alter the chemical status of a cadaver for ‘re-animation’. As Dan finds out what West is working on he’s drawn into the situation to a point where he‘s actually helping the unhinged young man, partly due to West’s threatening knowledge of Dan sleeping with the university leader’s daughter, Megan Halsey, partly out of personal scientific curiosity. Before long Halsey senior has clicked on to the fact that West’s proximity to his daughter is of concern and, as an attempt at a solution, expels West while revoking Dan’s student loan. Now immersed in their experiments, Dan and West sneak back into the hospital with the intention of obtaining a fresh human corpse to inject with the serum. Finding out that they’re back Halsey rushes in to have them removed but stumbles in on a struggle between the two students and a violent re-animated body - Halsey is accidentally killed by the zombie. Anxious to try his serum out on a fresh corpse West promptly injects Halsey before security arrives as the scenario continues to spiral out of control - the effects of reviving dead bodies are somewhat outside the realms of predictability it seems.

See a bloody torso and limbs around here, mate?

Probably not exactly as Lovecraft would have envisioned it, Re-Animator makes for a highly entertaining experience nonetheless. Gordon takes the character created by Lovecraft along with the central premise and mutates it into something thoroughly modern, utilising an excess of gore and pretty black humour to help. The obsessive scientist, Herbert West, is perfectly represented by Jeffrey Combs who effectively demonstrates the character’s callous mindset completely devoid of moral concern in the pursuit of progression. Dan is a person who balances between a scientific but moral desire to prevent death, and the ethical considerations of the experimentation required to bring such results to fruition. His dilemma is complicated by the presence of a girlfriend who obviously errs towards ethics while unintentionally fuelling Dan’s vocational and academic aspirations by promising to marry him once he’s graduated. Not only that but she’s the daughter of someone who’s political decisions at the university are influenced more so by emotion than careful logic, this of course proving to be his eventual undoing. West finds himself unable to control the events that unfold in the wake of his own actions as things get more and more out of hand until the film reaches a climax of mindless attacking corpses and bloody violence. Richard Band’s deliberately Psycho-esque score gives the film an offbeat edge to its identity. The blackly humorous scenarios (e.g. West using a paper holder/spike to prop up a severed head that he’s about to return to life) combined with interesting story and dialogue exchanges prove to be extremely engaging, Re-Animator being one of those films where all the conditions for a great movie seemed to be precisely in place.

 

Hard to believe this was once quite heavily cut (by over two minutes!) in the UK, the BBFC clearly failing at the time to recognise the over-the-top, fantastical nature of the gruesome violence. They finally saw sense when Anchor Bay put it through again earlier this year and their new disc was essentially based on the definitive edition released by Elite a few years ago, the latter providing the source for this review. It blew all previous incarnations out of the water with a THX-approved (not always the jewel it should be) transfer that even today looks incredible - I recently watched it upscaled to 1080p and projected onto a 70” screen and it looked better than I could ever have imagined, particularly given the low-budget origins of this project. Detail is amazing and colours are very natural. The DTS soundtrack got the best out of limited elements (though the mono track is present for purists) while a second disc supplied us with a mountain of worthwhile extra material, altogether rounding out a superb package of one of the best eighties genre movies.

Posted on 1st October 2007
Under: Horror | No Comments »

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