Archive for March, 2008

The Case of the Bloody Iris

1972, Italy, Directed by Giuliano Carnimeo

Colour, Running Time: 91 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Vipco; Video: Letterbox 2.35:1 (compressed to 2.00:1), Audio: DD Mono

An attractive young female waits as the crowded lift she’s in makes its way to the upper floors. As people gradually depart the lift for their respective floors she’s left alone and almost from nowhere a masked person materialises to brutally murder her. The first woman to see the girl dead is actually an off-duty nightclub dancer/stripper/wrestler (whatever - she puts on a great show either way!) and soon she’s discovered tied up and drowned in her own bathtub. Two carefree models move into the same apartment block and are soon caught up in the investigation, plus one of them in particular - Jennifer - brings her own set of problems to the mix. For a start she’s being stalked by her estranged ex-marital partner who himself could easily be the killer given his psychotic behaviour. Plus she’s a little neurotic herself, or at least appears to be when a couple of unsubstantiated attempts are made on her life. Then she starts dating Barto, one of the primary suspects in the case and himself seeming to be slightly unhinged with his unexplained phobia of blood and occasionally odd behaviour. Barto is actually the architect of the apartment block and some of his talk is a little contradictory, suggesting either a tendency to lie or something worse. To further complicate matters Jennifer’s neighbours are hardly a model of normality and as the bodies start piling up it’s questionable whether she herself will survive.

I'm not usually this forward, you understand...

It’s quite apparent you’re into conventional giallo territory within minutes here: a nubile woman murdered by a gloved, masked killer, the ensuing police investigation, an accused man - Hitchcock style, more stylistically shot murders and a groovy soundtrack. There seems to be a light-hearted appeal to this film, consisting of the funky music score by Bruno Nicolai (not always appropriately used however) and an undercurrent of humour conveyed by the characters, most notably the detective’s bungling assistant. This simultaneously maintains a sense of optimism throughout while (possibly inadvertently?) outlining the brutality of the murders through contextual contrast. George Hilton was something of a regular to this kind of material, here playing Barto the architect whose luck is both extremely bad and on the other hand unbelievably good: he’s implicated for the murders due to being in the worst place at the wrong time, the highlight being when a stabbed victim ends up grabbing on to him in the street just as everyone turns around to see him propping up the dead girl with blood all over his coat. But he also lands himself in the sack with Edwige Fenech, possibly the most stunning woman ever to walk on to a cinema screen. Not only does she have a pleasant, inoffensive personality combined with simultaneous naivety and sexual maturity, but she also has the most perfect body, face and long dark hair ever to be witnessed by mortals. Carnimeo knows this too well: she spends a significant amount of screen time in crazy but hot psychedelic clothes, skimpy clothes, or no clothes at all. While the film could hardly be described as the best the genre has to offer Carnimeo injects his own sense of style periodically; there are a handful of artistically realised shots interjecting the competently executed murder and action sequences. The suspects are quite a fun bunch to pick and choose from: apart from Barto himself and Jennifer’s sect-dwelling ex-lover, there’s the crazy old lady next door (who‘s immediately implicated when seen purchasing horror magazines!), her virtually mute husband, their scarred son, the lesbian neighbour, etc. What a bunch! Ultimately this is a pretty colourful, psychedelic, intermittently amusing ride through giallo territory, with Edwige Fenech as a major bonus.

 

Anchor Bay once released this stateside inside their much loved Giallo Collection box, while over here we were lucky enough to have Vipco handling the duties… Vipco are one company who truly failed to understand the DVD format with mundane release after mundane release of near VHS quality re-issues of the films that gave them their fame in the first place. Despite that their disc of Case… is actually one of their better ones, featuring an uncut widescreen transfer of a pretty good condition print. They couldn’t quite get the widescreen part right though: in 4:3 mode everybody is slightly thinner than they should be, in 16:9 everyone is slightly fatter, so somehow the proportions are not right, though it’s not quite bad enough to ruin the experience (note, I‘ve digitally corrected the JPEG still above). Sound (English mono) is clean enough while extras are limited to a few trailers for other Vipco discs. Vipco have since put this out in a cheapo iterant with very nasty packaging, plus they’ve coupled it with another film (Snowbeast) in one instance. The aforementioned AB disc was better (being correctly proportioned at anamorphic 2.35:1) but was only available as part the boxed set which is now difficult to get hold of. Blue Underground have since released a lower priced independent version of the same disc, hence that’s currently the best version to go for. Case… itself should moderately please giallo fans, though it’s not the best the genre has to offer, and it will definitely please Edwige Fenech fans. If you happen to be both then you can’t complain. (P.S. Case… has the rather brilliant alternate title of Why These Strange Drops of Blood on the Body of Jennifer?, a closer translation of its original Italian title.)

Posted on 30th March 2008
Under: Giallo | No Comments »

The Undying Monster

1942, US, Directed by John Brahm

Black & White, Running Time: 63 minutes

DVD, Region 1, Fox, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo

Looking for an answer to Universal’s The Wolf Man Fox took advantage of the up and coming German talent that was John Brahm by offering him a literary adaptation of a mystery-chiller to sink his teeth into. Sourced from a Jessie Douglas Kerruish novel the result was a little different to what Universal might have produced. Taking place mostly around a gloriously old gothic mansion we’re told that the Hammond house is cursed by the sporadic recurring appearance of some sort of abominable creature, something that makes noises suspiciously like that of a wolf. Drafting in the assistance of a couple of eager investigators the frightened household attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery as the threat of death becomes ever closer with the rabid monster that lurks in the woods.

Where the bloody hell's that window cleaner got to again?

The primary difference between Fox’s rare stab at lycanthropy and Universal’s earlier film is the minimal usage of the titular monster itself - whereas Universal could usually barely wait to display its cards at the earliest moment (though they were comparatively restrained in The Wolf Man) this story doesn’t even offer us a real glimpse of the creature until the last few minutes. Prior to that the film adopts the style of a mystery effectively making it a hybrid of two genres (it was actually marketed in the UK as The Hammond Mystery), therefore it’s quite unusual and refreshing in light of Universal’s then standard approach to fright films. This amalgamation of narrative types helps to highlight the project as something that stands out amidst a decade of stagnation in the genre (aside from some of Val Lewton’s productions). The other factor in this success is John Brahm’s artistic direction - often are we treated to imaginatively realised shots and aesthetically prominent lighting, surely something that stems back to Brahm’s Germanic roots. Some of the camera movements are quite daring and ahead of their time with tracking shots that one wouldn’t expect in a forties film and angles that remind the viewer of certain expressionistic ventures twenty years prior. The dialogue scene shot in its entirety from behind a fire is a memorable instance of Brahm’s desire to push cinematic ideas forward. The characters are typical forties stereotypes really, ranging from marginally neurotic to relentlessly optimistic, though it’s an amicable enough mix and their near constant dialogue exchanges keep the film moving along at a rapid pace, something which is necessary anyway when the film only runs at just over an hour long. Being so sparingly used (to put it mildly) the creature consequently has some impact, both in underpinning the entire story with its virtually invisible presence and in the anticipation that is aroused while one waits for its eventual onscreen appearance, something that you may start to doubt is ever going to happen such is the wait. However, this makes a nice contrast to Universal’s show-all philosophy, enhancing suspense in the process. Also, while it seems to be a given in most of the Universal films that supernatural phenomenon exists with many of the characters accepting such possibilities, here the people involved spend much of the film questioning the validity of the curse and looking for alternative explanations. This could simply be a reflection of the studio’s refusal to take the genre too seriously but it does add a richness to both the dialogue and characters themselves as they attempt to make sense of the threat that grips them.

 

Packaged with the other two films made during Brahm’s Fox contract this is a lovely set. Undying Monster has undergone restoration that shows surprising respect for the material and has resulted in pleasing image and sound. Along with trailer, stills and advertising poster sections, we also get a short but sweet 15 minute retrospective look at the director’s brief contribution to film (he later went on to work on such television projects as The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits so his talent didn’t completely go to waste). You’ll also find a couple of cool postcards inside the gorgeously designed box. Fans of the genre will want to seek out this set and rejoice that such a classy entry has been granted commendable treatment.

Posted on 25th March 2008
Under: Horror | 7 Comments »

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

2003, US, Directed by Marcus Nispel

Colour, Running Time: 94 minutes

DVD, Region 2, EIV, Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DTS

Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre had a seriously problematic history in Britain, it’s no secret, and it’s this BBFC-induced reputation that’s helped to tarnish fair opinion of it in many ways: commonly acknowledged as a ‘banned’ film it immediately attracted a certain kind of film fan (and I was that kind for a while), interested in gore and that which is forbidden. There wasn’t too much gore in the film; on the contrary there was hardly any, but one walked away with the impression it was much bloodier than was truthfully the case. Eventually it received a legitimate release in Britain and suddenly attracted another kind of viewer: the average Joe who’s heard about the controversy and wonders what all the fuss is about. Placing a metaphoric ten foot barrier in front of themselves while watching they invariably walked away without having flinched and thinking there was a big fuss for nothing. Unfortunately people’s self-erected barriers these days are so impenetrable it’s almost impossible to shock, plus the controversy itself overshadows the quality of the 1974 film and suddenly a notorious classic becomes a forgotten relic. Fuss aside, the original film is one of my favourites and something that I connect with on a level that’s difficult to describe to those blinded by surrounding politics and expectations, but I’m not particularly concerned because I can always go back and enjoy that amazing piece of cinema. So why remake such a revered (in some quarters) and overwhelmingly known film? Perhaps it was a drive to redress the balance and shock those who are otherwise unshockable. Perhaps the idea was to make a seventies low budget horror accessible to those who can’t sit through something made before they were born. Or maybe it was just a cynical way of making a few million out of a pre-established franchise. Either way the project was something I avoided like the plague for several years until a friend told me it was actually pretty good and I saw it in Music Zone for a few quid on DVD.

Not the best place for a road trip.

For a while it follows a very similar path to Hooper’s film: a group of kids are travelling in a small van (to Mexico) for a road holiday when they pick up a hitchhiker that causes them some concern with visible behavioural difficulties. An isolated house is discovered by a couple of members of the group and it’s found to be populated by a retarded family whose homicidal tendencies are inflicted upon the kids. The narrative quickly begins to deviate slightly from the original’s plot specifics with the hitchhiker they pick up, a girl who blows her own head off in front of them rather than playing Army with a knife (the new film being heavier handed no doubt but reflective of the sledgehammer approach of modern genre films). Beyond that it zigzags around the original storyline changing a few details to keep us on our feet while effectively remaining a retelling at its core. Initially I thought the kids this time around would be irritable, as they often always are in modern slashers, but once their bubble of optimism is burst by the hitchhiker’s suicide things tense up and they become quite realistic in their responses to their very threatening situations. Or at least as realistic as you can imagine people being when confronted with problems such as this - it’s difficult to predict how people will act of course. The family of creeps is realised effectively, topped by a fantastically sinister turn by Lee Ermey as the sheriff - he’s actually quite restrained compared to appearances in the likes of Full Metal Jacket but he’s so convincingly inhuman in his treatment of the kids you can barely prevent yourself from being glued to the screen. His presence is one of the primary factors contributing to the film’s success. The remainder of the cast are usually functional or above so there are no real complaints; in fact I was surprised by the intensity of Jessica Biel’s effort as the equivalent of Marilyn Burns from the original film - whilst not screaming to the point of excess she conveys a believable torrent of unleashed terror, another key to success in a film such as this it goes without saying. Naturally the make up and special effects are utterly gruesome whilst violence and outright sadism must surely top the original. The flesh-clad Leatherface has been developed visually  without betrayal of the source ideas (reportedly derived from the exploits of serial killer Ed Gein) and is all the more enhanced for it, similarly the production design is of a high standard and helps draw you into the nightmare. Overall the visual design has amazing impact - style of cinematography is artistically beautiful despite the nastiness that pervades the screen. A level of tension is reasonably well maintained for much of the running time and the result appears to be far from the gratuitous exercise is pointless ostentatiousness it could have been.

 

Entertainment in Video released this on DVD on behalf of New Line over here in the UK, granting us with a smart extra-packed two disc set too. The anamorphically enhanced, correctly framed image is immaculate boasting gorgeous colour schemes essentially consisting of green and brown palettes, and mountains of detail, while the DTS soundtrack (with optional Dolby Digital 5.1) will shake your walls if you want to show off your kit. A great set for a remake that’s not destined for the dustbin, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Posted on 20th March 2008
Under: Horror | 3 Comments »

Crimes of the Future

1969, Canada, Directed by David Cronenberg

Colour, Running Time: 63 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Blue Underground; Video: Anamorphic 1.66:1, Audio: DD Mono

Prior to Stereo (1967) David Cronenberg had been uncertain where to take his career and had flirted with proceeding along the science route to the point of enrolling and studying for a while, but a certain degree of boredom followed. Having switched academic direction to focus on English Literature he’d met a number of amateur film-makers and become fascinated by the immediacy of the results, therefore he began to dabble teaching himself the technical ins and outs of the art of film-making. Following two experimental shorts he persuaded the Canadian Council to provide some funding under the illusion he would be writing fiction, something he’d previously attempted to achieve success at via submission of short stories, though to no avail. The result was Stereo and pleased with the clinical product he was inspired to continue: he wrote and directed Crimes of the Future, something that resonates on similar levels to his previous work while foreshadowing elements that would materialise again in some of his later films.

You here for the Halloween audition too then?

Narrated by the controller of some kind of medical institution we’re exposed to the odd man’s fascination with various forms of sexual deviation and its occasionally consequential diseases. Along the way he comes across a person whose body produces complex miniature organs, described as a ‘creative cancer’ - this is no doubt the seed of Cronenberg’s frequent explorations of so-called body horror; the mutation of an organism into something else, whether it be evolutionary or initiated by the infiltration of an alien (not as in extraterrestrial) entity. There are influences here along with his future work that are derived from his earlier scientific studying, something cultivated by his father who openly encouraged anything Cronenberg would become passionate about no matter how transient it might prove. The richness of the director’s educational childhood would feed his visceral imagination later on with an abundance of unusual concepts, no doubt assisted by the fact that both of his parents were creatively inclined. However, his ideas would take time to filter and develop into something palatable by the general public and neither Stereo nor Crimes… can claim to be this. Like Stereo this later film, now shot in colour, is hard to digest and almost impossible to actually enjoy. Despite that there are occasions when it’s not easy to turn one’s eye away from the screen, such is the unusual nature of occurrences on screen - you never really know what’s going to happen next or where the meagre story will take you. Shot on 35mm film the look is fantastic and Cronenberg’s use of architecture is profound, his characters wandering around complicated structures that create a sense of foreboding. Much of the material is silent (though not to the same extent as Stereo), punctuated by the voice of the strange narrator in a rather Hal-esque fashion along with intermittent industrial sound effects that pre-empt David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The inhabitants of the institutes are so unusual, residents of another dimension almost, that the viewer won’t find it easy to connect emotionally with the material. On an intellectual level there is some food for thought, though it can reach academic levels of textbook iteration and therefore require concentration to comprehend and dissect. The explorations of homosexuality along with suggestions of other forms of sexual deviation border on the disturbing.

 

Blue Underground’s rescue of this incredibly obscure film is highly commendable - if not for them it could have remained unseen forever. The source material is in incredible condition and as a result the transfer looks like it could have been taken from a new film. The monaural soundtrack is in similarly excellent shape, the powerful silences uninterrupted by damage. Whilst one would have appreciated an accompanying director’s commentary we can’t ask for much more than this, though it may be hard to find on disc now as the hosting Fast Company double-discer is out of print. I am never going to love Crimes of the Future but as someone who admires much of its director’s subsequent offerings it is of historical and archival importance.

Posted on 15th March 2008
Under: Science Fiction, Other | 2 Comments »

The Fog (1980)

1980, US, Directed by John Carpenter

Colour, Running Time: 86 minutes

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

For every cool movie John Carpenter produces there almost seems to be a diametric stinker, particularly over the latter half of his career - in fact he‘s not actually released a feature film since the 2001 debacle Ghosts of Mars (Masters of Horror doesn‘t count). He’d already attracted attention in the mid seventies with the violent Assault on Precinct 13 but really established himself as a genre director of value with Halloween of course. Following a couple of inconsequential TV projects (where he met future star Kurt Russell) Carpenter signed a two film deal with AVCO Embassy and went back to the traditional ghost story to add his own modern spin for The Fog. Written with previous Halloween collaborator Debra Hill the story fixates on the perpetually windy coastal town of Antonio Bay, a place where a ship full of pirates died a hundred or so years before. Strange things start happening around the town as a thick fog drifts in slowly from the ocean and Nick Castle discovers that some old fishing friends have been brutally murdered while out to sea. Taking almost residential position at a lighthouse over the town is DJ Stevie Wayne, host of the one and only radio station in the town. As she realises that the fog contains something malevolent and unexplainable she takes to offering broadcast guidance to Castle and his companion as they try to rescue Wayne’s son while preserving their own lives.

Watch ya don't slip, missus!

As the ghost story it intends to be The Fog is successful on its own terms. Reuniting a couple of cast/crew from Halloween along with several other recognisable but not big-name faces, Carpenter generally has a readymade cast of likeable individuals at his disposal, including Jamie Lee Curtis (with her mom Janet Leigh showing up too) and a brilliantly cynical Nancy Loomis as a PA who really should have had more screen time. Tom Atkins (as Castle) is always fun to watch and almost approximates the same personality as my favourite of his characters - Detective Cameron in Night of the Creeps. Adrienne Barbeau’s DJ is a necessary part of the story but undeniably corny. DJ’s tend to become dated as quickly as the pop records they promote in my opinion and it’s this element that really drags the film back to the beginning of the eighties from whence it was born. It’s also a little too close to the embarrassing DJ effort later displayed in Fulci/Mattei’s messy Zombie 3, however it is marginally possible to become accustomed to over repeat viewings and so shouldn’t cause viewers too much lasting psychological damage. In fact she demonstrates such a degree of geographical insight when guiding Atkins and Curtis through the town she could probably have stood in for Google Earth prior to its inception. The overall feel of the film isn’t far removed from Halloween actually, both as far as its visual style is concerned and the creeping atmosphere. Aside from collaborating with Debra Hill again as well as utilising some of the same cast, this probably has something to do with the fact that cinematographer Dean Cundey returned to photograph for Carpenter as well as the director once again writing his own music score, something which he’s proved very good at over the years - his father worked as a musician with some of the more famous names of his era so John himself no doubt had a strong foundation from which to catapult his own musical inclinations. The Fog is a great film really and a guaranteed thrill ride I always look forward to, but it could have been a different story: much like Star Wars: A New Hope before it the earlier cuts were looking very bad and resulted in a few touches of violence being added, some reshoots, amendments to the score, etc. Carpenter and his crew managed to pull the rabbit out of the hat to release a low-budget movie that went on to pleasing success, since to become a recognised work of cult interest.

-

Momentum’s UK DVD provides us with the essential full Panavision frame (the US DVD provided a pan & scan version on side 2 which serves no other purpose than to illustrate in comparison how indispensable the 2.35:1 compositions are). While looking very good in lighter scenes the transfer exhibits excess grain during darker moments. There is also a slightly beefed up 5.1 mix of the original sound, obviously not competing with today’s surround tracks but serving to enhance the envelopment just slightly. Supplemented with plentiful extras we have a generous offering of a cool eighties movie that even modern day remakes can’t surpass…

Posted on 6th March 2008
Under: Horror | 10 Comments »

Macumba Sexual

1981, Spain, Directed by Jess Franco

Colour, Running Time: 77 minutes

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

Jess Franco has polarised audiences more than most over the years, largely due to the variable quality and the extremely subjective nature of responses elicited by his inordinate amount of movies, the actual quantity of which probably the director himself isn’t sure of. Whether he’s specifically a talented director or not is difficult to say: his output seems to swing between admittedly very good (Eugenie… The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion) the bad but still quite enjoyable on some level (Oasis of the Zombies; yeah I know everybody else hates it!) and the plain painful to watch (Down Town). If he’s an incompetent film-maker then why has he occasionally produced a minor gem, and similarly if he’s adept then why does he in other instances manage to create such horrific cinematic car wrecks? Macumba Sexual in my opinion falls somewhere around the middle of the scale: a simplified story appears at first glance to be merely an excuse for near-hardcore pornographic imagery, such is its abundance. Perhaps it is, but it may be worth looking deeper. Lina Romay was to Jess Franco what Dianne Keaton/Mia Farrow (etc.) has been to Woody Allen and Brigitte Lahaie was to Jean Rollin, and here she takes principal role (Alice, the actress billed as “Candy Coster“) as an estate agent enjoying a beach holiday with her husband. He’s attempting to write a novel while Alice sunbathes hoping her boss won’t disturb her. But of course she quickly receives a phone call asking her to visit a nearby island to sell some property to a resident princess who’s interested in buying abroad (shades of Dracula). Reluctantly heading off to the remote island, and leaving the husband to his book, she’s somewhat perturbed to find the princess is the same woman who’s been haunting her dreams for weeks. It’s not quite clear whether Alice is kept prisoner but for a while she’s explicitly seduced by the princess and her servants before being found washed up on the beach by her husband. What she doesn’t realise is that her husband has been having similar visions and, quite intrigued by her possibly false story of being violated, he takes off without her to the island so he can see or experience for himself whether what she’s told him is the truth.

Macumba1

Aside from Romay’s seemingly perpetually naked body the main thing this film really has going for it seems to be Franco’s forte: its surreal dreamlike atmosphere supplemented with symbolic imagery that may or may not be randomly chosen. Franco didn’t have access to the greatest actors on the planet (though some of them aren’t too bad) so their often offbeat performances actually contribute to his strange visions in this case. Pacing is sombre, again a contributory factor to the mood’s overall effect while a large portion of the running time is filled with surprisingly explicit shots involving almost all of the cast; more surprising is the fact that the BBFC passed it uncut in Britain, presumably this being partly because they probably feel that a film such as this will attract the smallest of audiences over here and is of minimal ‘threat’ to public morality. Then again, I’m not exactly familiar with current attitude towards hardcore so perhaps Macumba Sexual isn’t as edgy as it once might have been. Like Mansion of the Living Dead, which is almost a companion piece to this film, there’s the feeling that the characters are in a lost universe, such is the feeling of seclusion, and this of course works in the story’s favour but whether the viewer can enjoy such a journey is purely dependent on his/her temperament on the day along with their tolerance for unusual slices of cinema. While the film is technically superior to much of Franco’s other work - cinematographer Juan Soler must surely take significant credit for this, plus the tribal soundtrack is acute - some will still look at this a piece of horse manure. I don’t personally think it’s a supreme work of art by any measure but there is something alluring about the film and its expedition through surreal, sexually charged territories.

Macumba2

Taking the new master created by Severin in the US as a source, Anchor Bay have a very good transfer on their hands here. As aforementioned the film is uncut, presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio with original Spanish audio (reportedly there was no English dub available anyway), sound options as Dolby Digital mono or a quite unnecessary 5.1. The twenty minutes or so of interview footage on the Severin disc is omitted but considering the low price of the boxed set that Macumba Sexual inhabits one can’t complain and Anchor Bay should receive some commendation for bringing obscurities to British soil, regardless of how many or how few people actually admire such work.

Posted on 2nd March 2008
Under: Other | No Comments »

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