Archive for December, 2007

The Ninth Gate

1999, US/France/Spain, Directed by Roman Polanski

Colour, Running Time: 128 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Universal, Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1

Whilst not considered a genre director, Polanski has visited horror and the supernatural on a number of occasions, bringing several brilliant excursions to the screen in the process. The first of these was the vivid exercise in mental deterioration and paranoia resulting in murder, Repulsion, still a powerful piece with an amazing central performance by Catherine Deneuve. This was followed by the Hammer homage/parody, Dance of the Vampires (on DVD as The Fearless Vampire Killers, its American title), something which is often misunderstood, possibly because it both was ahead of its time and possessed an unusual sense of humour that wriggles over most heads. Incorporating lovably offbeat performances (no stranger to acting, Polanski himself played one of the main roles) while creating a tangible atmosphere in its gothic trappings and hinting at apocalypse for the conclusion, Dance… works well for me. Then came the iconic Rosemary’s Baby, a perfectly ambiguous tale of possible satanic impregnation (the build-up to the birth of the Devil’s child), mistrust and delirium. After the horrendous violence of his version of Macbeth, there came the lesser known but quite superb Le Locataire (or The Tenant) in the mid seventies, where Polanski successfully took centre stage as the main character who undergoes psychological disintegration as he suspects his neighbours drove the previous occupant of his apartment to attempt suicide and are now doing the same to him. The spiralling madness of this film is superbly orchestrated and it’s a pity that it is not more widely acclaimed. 

Look, you can't recognise me in specs and beard, okay?

Two decades later there was The Ninth Gate, a slow paced, deliberate supernatural detective movie condemned by many on its release and, much like the director himself has sometimes been, generally misunderstood. Taking the book El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte as the source of inspiration, John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu, and Polanski removed entirely a secondary plot about a lost chapter to The Three Musketeers to focus their screenplay on the pursuit of a book containing an incantation to summon Satan - they wisely re-titled the film to reflect this shift in focus thereby openly acknowledging that the film was never going to be a 100% literal adaptation. Polanski’s first choice for the book detective Dean Corso was Johnny Depp, and Depp obliged by jumping on board and making the role his own in an understated performance that lends Corso a bit of mystery, his life outside of book obsession given little attention. Different to how the director originally envisaged Corso, Depp’s work here nevertheless pleased Polanski and functions nicely. Corso is hired by Boris Balkan, an authoritative Frank Langella, to track down several other copies of a rare occult book that Balkan has in his collection, an attempt to authenticate one of them and thus provide him with the means of granting manifestation to the Devil. Accepting a large paycheque Corso heads off to Europe to take a closer look at the few remaining copies, but he quickly realises that he’s not the only one interested in the book as several strange people seem to be on his tail. The plot also deepens as Corso’s analyses reveal that it may not be one book that is completely authentic, but a combination of all three, and Balkan will seemingly pay any price to carry out his ritual. Quite why The Ninth Gate seemed to attract a few bad reviews I’m not really sure, but I find the story, dialogue, and character interactions to be particularly gripping, the film appropriately constructing a world that evokes supernatural ambience without overtly indicating that such manifestations are definitely possible, the ambiguity of which being something that arises out of Polanski‘s personal disinterest in the Devil‘s existence, this paradoxically enhancing the supernatural material that he has worked on. Polanksi’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, looks at home in the role of a woman who herself may be a physical embodiment of Satan, with her strikingly European face and strong presence, and in supporting capacity there is Swedish-born Lena Olin as Liana Telfer, an incredibly sexy older woman who also seems to have a fanatical interest in the book that Balkan purchased off her husband the day before he killed himself. The score written by Wojciech Kilar really adds meat to the strange world we inhabit with the characters, sometimes quirky, occasionally creepy but always hinting at something unexplainable co-existing with humanity. This was the same man who provided the sweepingly powerful score to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the early 90s, though he generally tends to work in Polish cinema. Conveying a prominent love of books as both a physical entity and carrier of knowledge, Polanski’s film takes us on an adventure with its protagonist into the delights (or tortures) of the beckoning unknown.

 Hang on, this is where I'm staying?  I don't f**king think so!

Universal’s now quite old DVD presents the film correctly in (anamorphic) 2.35:1 and looks quite good, more so in exterior shots, however there is quite a lot of grain and dot crawl during darker sequences. An erring towards almost sepia-tinged interior photography does not lend itself well to chromatic vibrancy and a HD upgrade would be welcome, but overall the transfer here is not too bad. The Dolby track doesn’t possess much ‘oomph’ but is suitable enough for the wonderful music and otherwise mostly vocally driven soundtrack. Aside from stills, drawings and a hopeless promotional featurette (running a whopping two minutes in length), there are the worthwhile inclusions of a slow-talking Polanski commentary, and an isolated music track giving us the chance to enjoy Kilar’s score without sound effects and character dialogue. Settle back for a slightly old fashioned but carefully constructed voyage through a world of the subtle uncanny towards an indiscernible destination.

Posted on 30th December 2007
Under: Horror, Thriller, Other | 11 Comments »

Strangers on a Train

1951, US, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Black & White, Running Time: 96 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Warner, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

Professional tennis star Guy Haines is about to go through a bitter divorce with his argumentative coquette of a wife when he meets someone during a train journey who claims to be a fan of his, the man turning out to be surprisingly knowledgeable about Haines and his domestically dramatic life. The sociopath introduces himself as Bruno Anthony and proceeds to at first jokingly hint that they could exchange murders - Bruno murders Haines’s adulteress spouse while Haines kills Bruno’s unwanted father. Not entirely sure how to take such an unorthodox suggestion Haines humours Bruno before leaving him to his business but it seems the man was deadly serious when he later follows Mrs Haines on one of her flirtatious outings to a fairground where he takes her aside and strangles her. Before Haines is officially told of the news Bruno catches up with him and updates the understandably shocked sportsman, but then he is demanding that Haines carries out his part of the perceived bargain and begins making plans to facilitate his father’s murder. Between a rock and a hard place, Haines feels unable to tell the police as Bruno persuades him that Haines would be implicated anyway due to having a strong motive, etc. It seems the police are already following that lead up but the only person that Haines claims saw him at the time of the murder turns out to be too inebriated to remember anything anyway, thus the problem-stricken man finds himself at the centre of a murder investigation and fighting for his innocence, while on the other hand being pushed into a possible genuine murder by a psychopathic man that won’t leave him alone.

Granger

The concluding years of the forties and opening section of the fifties had not been especially kind to Hitchcock: Rope, despite being quite daringly experimental, was a commercial failure, while Under Capricorn was a bit of a mess with its long takes requiring set alterations while the camera was rolling in order to facilitate its movements, etc. Reviews of the Ingrid Bergman vehicle weren’t good, not helped by her publicised and media condemned affair with Roberto Rossellini. Stage Fright, an expected return to ‘classic’ Hitchcock form, was rushed into production but turned out to be a little boring - though at least it temporarily appeased Warner Bros., who were at that time unsure about green-lighting the convicted priest film that later became the brilliant I Confess (Catholicism had an influence over film censorship at that period). It was shortly after production of Stage Fright that Hitchcock, his wife (who assisted to no small extent with the writing of his films), and playwright Whitfield Cook became excited about a debut novel by Patricia Highsmith called Strangers on a Train, thus the rights were purchased cheaply (because she was an unknown at the time) and the story adapted into a treatment by Cook for a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, and subsequently Czenzi Ormonde. Elements were changed in the treatment, as they virtually always are with film adaptations, the most notable being the fact that the two central men actually do each other’s murder in the book whereas Haines is a little too weedy and moralistic to kill anyone in the film. The book ends with Bruno dying on a boat and Haines being apprehended by police, so it’s fairly different from the outcome of the movie. The direction is smart and inventive with a style of cinematography that hints at film noir, the gorgeous Black and White imagery suiting the atmosphere exceedingly well. While Farley Granger deliberately plays Haines as a wet rag, Robert Walker is sinister as the unpredictable sociopathic killer Bruno. One bit of casting I love is Patricia Hitchcock (i.e. Alfred’s daughter) as a young amateur sleuth who closely resembles the woman Bruno kills, causing him to lose control at one point and almost strangle another female. Her naïve but perceptive observations on the case at hand bring a little light-heartedness at punctuating points helping to balance out the film’s darker moments and, surely considering this was only 1951, the morbidity is quite strong when it comes to the murder of Haines’s wife: technically taking place off screen Hitchcock still permits the viewer to witness the event as the woman’s broken glasses distortedly reflect the entire action. Despite quite a few problems with censors over the years (many of his projects were changed prior to filming to comply with censorship guidelines and feedback) he continuously pushed boundaries when it came to violence, though this obviously comes second place to his sheer technical brilliance as a film-maker. One other commendable feature of Strangers on a Train is its almost unnoticeable use of special effects, composited shots of miniatures with live actors and the like. Special effects work is not something one thinks about while watching a film such as this and that itself is a testament to their brilliant implementation here. Strangers on a Train is a classic thriller and probably one of its director’s best.

Walker in the distance

Warner give great present presentation to the film with this double disc release, containing both a preview version and the final cut (with commentary), plus a 36 minute documentary featuring biographers and critics offering opinion alongside Patricia Hitchcock, Farley Granger and Walker‘s son (who looks so much like him I thought it was for a second). A great companion piece, though utilising clips from the film to excess I feel. M. Night Shyamalan makes an appearance for a 12 minute personal evaluation: not as bad as expected he offers genuinely insightful reasoning for his appreciation and touches on a very valid point regarding Hitchcock’s incredible talent for long but gripping dialogue scenes (one of which makes up a portion of the opening act when the two leads meet each other on the eponymous vehicle). There’s a couple of other featurette containing old 8 or 16mm footage of Hitchcock and his family along with some of their recollections laying down for us the legacy of an incredibly important figure in cinema history. The film itself for both versions looks superb, with generally consistent contrast levels and a huge amount of detail considering it’s only standard definition. A great package, both the film and DVD.

Posted on 20th December 2007
Under: Thriller | No Comments »

Combat Shock

1986, US, Directed by Buddy Giovinazzo

Colour, Running Time: 91 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Troma; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: DD Mono

Troma have been known for many ridiculous films along their career in film production and pick-ups (Tromeo & Juliet, Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, Surf Nazis Must Die, etc., etc. - do you need to see those films to understand my point?) but Giovinazzo’s debut (originally titled American Nightmare) stands out for a couple of reasons, firstly because it’s quite a serious entry but most notably because it’s impact is like a rather nasty bullet to the head. Following an overly long introduction where we learn that Frankie Dunlan did his time in the Vietnam conflict, coming out of it much worse for wear, the story essentially tracks his subsequent days trying to gather the pieces of his shattered life back together. He spends most of his time roaming around the drug-laced streets jobless and hopeless, going back to a home where his recently born son is deformed and perpetually ill while his wife complains about the deteriorating situation. Considering how low his life has become, Frankie is a reasonable person and is determined to stay on the good path despite all odds being against him, but his addict friend points out there’s only one way to survive and that’s through crime, plus his dying father won‘t or can‘t financially assist him. Meanwhile, also roaming the streets are some small time moneylenders from whom Frankie has borrowed in the past - a couple of scrapes with them and Frankie is left badly beaten. When he realises that there’s a gun in the bag of a woman who he mugged earlier (who in turn stole it from Frankie’s friend, who had himself thieved it) he decides to use it and from there on his fate is set to substantially change.

Look, these hard drugs are doing me no good whatsoever.

There is no light in this film; it starts off in jungles of Vietnam and moves to the urban jungle which Frankie finds to be his new prison. His life is a turmoil of negativity and social disintegration, a pit from which he can see no hope. Surrounding him are the many dysfunctional characters that are themselves embroiled in the nightmare that humanity is unfortunately capable of creating for itself - it seems unbelievable that a species that supposedly has voluntary control over its destiny will sometimes construct an undesirable world around itself but it happens. These characters are sometimes barely aware, almost oblivious to their enveloping cesspit, while sometimes they can recognise the problem but are impotent in response to it - his incessantly nagging wife being one person who fits into the latter category. The unseen birth of Frankie’s child has not aided him in his soul-destroying existence: it persistently wails in an inhuman fashion, can barely ingest food (not that there’s much of it to try - the cupboards are empty), is physically abhorrent and clearly in constant distress. The thing reminds you of the baby in Lynch’s Eraserhead and, apart from the odd special effect that permits it life, is quite a distressing entity. People in Frankie’s town queue up at the job centre and arrive to very little choice, while just down the road a pimp is presenting children for prostitution. Characters are appropriately represented onscreen by non-professionals, though I do often warm to this style of natural acting as it makes a change from Hollywood‘s egotistical and overblown attempts at verisimilitude. Giovinazzo’s world is horrific and the movie’s conclusion will never be forgotten. If you want to put any pitiful problems into perspective, watch Combat Shock.

 

On the disc are a couple of extras that are quite cool to own - a commentary track from the director (German gore master Jorg Buttgereit also making an aural appearance), plus some interview footage with Giovinazzo and Troma mainman Lloyd Kaufman. There are a few bonuses unrelated to the feature, such as trailers for other Troma movies that’ll give you an idea of whether the studio’s output is for you or not. Some of this stuff can be quite fun to rummage through if you go off wandering with your remote handy and a spare hour: the quiz is great fun - answer wrong and you get a scene of gore or violence from one of the company’s films, guess right and you’re shown a scene of female nudity; either way it‘s a laugh. I also found a ten minute interview with Dario Argento about Stendhal Syndrome - talk about random! Anyway, after years of being vaguely available in a version heavily cut by the MPAA, Troma finally released this Combat Shock DVD with all of its previously excised footage as a ‘director’s cut’ and given the fact that the transfer (taken from its 16mm origins) is the best one can imagine it to be, this must be considered the definitive release. As an anti-war comment or an insight into the depths to which humans are able to stoop as well as poverty in the modern era, Combat Shock makes its points in abundance - just don’t expect to come out smiling.

Posted on 14th December 2007
Under: Other | No Comments »

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

1948, US, Directed by Charles T Barton

Black & White, Running Time: 79 minutes

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

Several years after the conclusion to Universal’s domination of the horror genre, and their effective delineation of the very definition it could be argued, they were clearly out of ideas so the merging of two successful franchises seemed like sure success. It had already worked to some extent for one of the very franchises they were now attempting to grant new life to - the amalgamation of several of their famous monsters had prolonged the lifespan of said monsters with such films as Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman and House of Dracula. Despite some general critical dislike of such films I personally really enjoy them, almost as much as their real classics from the previous decade in fact. So, completely unable to inject any imagination into fright films Universal bring in Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to add their renowned comedic touch to drag out the classic monster series just a little bit further. So how did it go? Abbott and Costello play Chick (that’s a man’s name in America apparently) and Wilbur respectively, two bungling baggage clerks who are assigned to personally overseeing the delivery of two crates ostensibly containing the remains of both Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula to a wax museum. Once inside the museum basement Chick assigns Wilbur to various menial tasks while he attends to things nearby, at which point Stoker’s infamous vampire awakens - much to Chick’s discontent. Dracula manages to revive the monster (in a rather silly way, reminding me of the most uninspired scene from Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) before heading off into the dark. Implicated for the loss of the crates’ contents Wilbur and Chick find themselves in jail and under scrutiny in an insurance investigation while Dracula seeks help from a couple of scientists to insert a new brain into the monster for its obedient slavery: ultimate purpose undisclosed.

There aint no such thing as the undead...

Wrapped up in the story are a number of characters, all with distinct motivations - a female insurance investigator who woos Wilbur to get to the bottom of the case, a female doctor who woos Wilbur so she can get his docile brain inside the monster, the guy who owns the crates and wants his creatures back, etc.; this labyrinth of activity nicely provides some weight to the overall scenario. A&B’s antics kick off almost immediately with some Laurel and Hardy-like shenanigans and this early scene barely raises a smile. But during the following act where they drop off the crates to the museum’s storage area, the edges of your mouth being to force their way upwards - the repeatedly opening coffin resulting in Wilbur’s hysterical panic can’t help but come across as downright funny. They get so much mileage out of this it’s crazy that it actually works, but it does. The laboratory is on an island by itself and is a truly glorious Universal horror setting, surprisingly invoking some atmosphere and the sort of place it would be cool to have a wander around. What effectively happens is a workable collision between the two aforementioned franchises because it really seems like Abbott and Costello have accidentally sauntered into Universal’s realm of the supernatural, completely at odds with each other but having the intended impact nonetheless. I still don’t like the wolfman’s impotent scenes and Chaney, with his relentlessly doom-laden approach, doesn’t seem to realise his hairy character is being taken the piss out of, but aside from that I found myself having a great time watching this film far more than expected. The big question for fans of the Universal classics - and one I feel qualified to answer - is, does this movie ruin the studios more serious outings in what may appear to be a lack of respect for them? Personally I still feel able to go back and indulge those chillers any time so I don’t think there’s any damage done; possibly the contrary may be true.

 

…Meet Frankenstein is packaged on DVD with the way inferior …Meet The Mummy, which followed six years later and unsuccessfully attempted to approximate the preceding film’s formula - a largely different team were behind the production (though John Grant returned to take sole credit for writing the screenplay) so it’s no surprise the overall impact differs, specifically being diminished. The later film consists mostly of people running around the sets like fools and rarely looking at things they should be looking at in order to get a rise out of the audience, but it tends not to work. Because it’s bundled with a much better film the buy is not so bad, and both looking pretty good considering age it’s a nice little set to have in one’s collection.

Posted on 8th December 2007
Under: Horror, Other | 13 Comments »

Stereo

1967, Canada, Directed by David Cronenberg

Black & White, Running Time: 63 minutes

DVD, Region 1, Blue Underground, Video: Anamorphic 1.66:1, Audio: Mono

It’s generally considered that Cronenberg tends to wander between moderately commercial products (e.g. History of Violence, Dead Zone) and less commercial, more personal outings (e.g. Crash, Dead Ringers), sometimes blurring the boundaries as bigger names such as Ralph Fiennes become attached to ideas that would otherwise leave the general public completely cold, such as Spider. To really put his less commercial outings into perspective, however, one only need take a look at his very early work and the likes of Rabid and Naked Lunch suddenly become comparatively more approachable. Going way back to the late sixties we find that Stereo is undoubtedly a unique experience but not necessarily an enjoyable one: opening with a shot over two large hostile-looking stone buildings a helicopter drifts into view before letting off someone who oddly dresses himself almost as if he is a wizard. As the strange man attempts to find a way into the inaccessible structures a narrator articulately tells us about an experiment taking place within, something designed to investigate telepathic powers in a selected group of willing participants. Inside, the volunteers (all dressed in tights) wander the corridors occasionally interacting with each other, physically as well as on a telepathic level presumably, if the words of the narrator are anything to go by. Gradually they lose touch with the reality outside the premises that we never truly see.

The strangely dressed inhabitants of Stereo

The camerawork is quite engaging, adopting a personal perspective on many occasions as we wander through the barren corridors with the completely odd inhabitants of the institute. Use of slow motion, while quite clichéd in the likes of action movies, etc., is highly perceptive on Cronenberg’s part here and indicative of the talent that was later to embed itself into cinema history forever. The film plays almost silent - there are no sound effects and there is no music. The only things we ever hear are the voices of varying narrators explaining the intricate details of the scientific studies taking place in telepathic communication. The dialogue here is excessively intellectual but, while initially it may occur to the viewer that this is pretentiousness for the sake of ego, the relentless nature of the suffocating and informed depth of the words ultimately results in the appearance of authenticity, facilitating belief in the subject matter - this latter aspect comes about for the simple reason that it’s hard to imagine a subject being treated with such academic intelligence if there is absolutely no foundation in truth. There are some interesting points made amongst the concentration-stretching passages, for example the gradual introduction of the sexual relations between volunteers combined with the suggestion that such relations facilitate the telepathic connection brings to my mind the possibility that cerebral evolutionary development (which the narrators indicate is the consequential factor of man’s continued existence) is something designed purely to improve the reproductive chances of affected organisms, and therefore the genes within. Listening to this film is really as close as I can imagine to reading a textbook in parapsychology, the problem being that there are few such books that can be any fun to scour through and the film therefore becomes an extremely arduous task to sit through. That’s not to say there’s anything bad about Cronenberg’s debut, but the balance between scientific, philosophical detail and cinematic approachability that the director would later achieve is clearly a long way off being established here.

Blue Underground present Stereo looking superb considering its mega-low budget origins and age - there are celluloid flaws that are unlikely ever to be eliminated from the source. A pillarboxed 1.66:1 ratio takes advantage of anamorphic enhancement for a small but appreciated boost in resolution while audio is well represented, though it only has voices and silence to contend with - this is one instance where any kind of surround track would truly be a waste of bit space. What would have been very welcome is a commentary from the director, if only to decipher some of the film’s occurrences while explaining some of the thought processes involving in realising such a cinematic oddity, but perhaps having things left to our own personal delineation can prove to be a challenging experience (and therefore a deterrent for the majority no doubt). Considering the fact that this is included in a package with Fast Company and Crimes of the Future, this is a superb buy.

Posted on 2nd December 2007
Under: Science Fiction, Other | No Comments »

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