Archive for April, 2008

Alligator

1980, US, Directed by Lewis Teague

Colour, Running Time: 87 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Anchor Bay; Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: DTS

The potentially lethal ferocity of the alligator is displayed to us in the opening scenes when a public show turns to disaster as one of the participants is gorged by the creature in front of a horrified crowd (sort of akin to that scene from Faces of Death but more realistic…). A little girl there is bought a baby version of the reptile as a ‘pet’ - what they were intending to do with it once it grew up is unclear but her father is a touch narked about it and flushes the poor thing down the toilet. A couple of decades later severed limbs start turning up in the local water system and cynical cop (is there any other kind?) David Madison discovers that there’s an unfeasibly large alligator roaming around the subterranean tunnels. At first nobody believes him, including the little girl who’s now grown up into rather hot herpetologist Marisa Kendall. That is, until an irritating reporter takes bravery to new limits by heading down into the sewers - alone - armed with nothing more than a camera to catch the scoop of a lifetime. That’s exactly what happens too, as he’s quickly devoured by the creature while his camera accidentally catches several shots of it. This is all the proof Marsden needs as the recovered body and camera results in front page photos that awaken Chicago to a state of initially passive fear. As the authorities attempt to wipe the monster out with a strategy designed to corner it they inadvertently force it to break out on to the streets and a once passive fear becomes very active as the human-hungry alligator, mutated by the waste from experiments at a nearby institution, proves to be more difficult to track and kill than imagined.

Eat Meeeeeeeee......

Taking the Roger Corman approach to cinema the film-makers here have mixed Starsky & Hutch with Jaws - so obviously outlined by the music when the oversized alligator approaches some of its victims. Cop Madison is hard-bitten, down on his luck, ridiculed by his workmates after he tries to convince the world of the threat from below, and pushed to the sidelines by a strapping game-hunter when everybody finally does believe him, then kicked off the force altogether - there may be no end to this man’s bad luck, but alas he’s set to bag the girl and become a hero by the film’s end. Of course there’s not a great deal to be considered original about Alligator but execution is of a surprisingly high standard: special effects (varying techniques according to shot requirements) hold up nowadays for the most part and they’re strengthened by efficient cutting so that belief in what’s happening is facilitated as much as it can be. Sometimes labelled as a horror-comedy it is, almost to the contrary, played pretty straight for much of the time, adopting a semi-serious tone with intermittent humour that avoids any jarring effect. Having been cut on its original UK theatrical run to obtain a lower certificate this uncut restoration reveals a pretty gory movie, though not particularly shocking in today’s climate (it only has a 15 certificate), although it’s surprising to see them refrain from holding back when it comes to a young child being chomped to death (off screen in this case). There’s an injection of ecological awareness here too - scientific experimentation and illegal disposal of waste are the very factors that bring about the mutation of the reptile to the point of excessive growth. The scientists are apparently attempting to solve the world’s food problem by increasing the size of live stock but as usual they cause more harm than good when many of the city’s inhabitants become food themselves. The best way to approach such material as this is to knock the old brain into stand-by and sit back devoid of expectation - you’ll have a reasonably good time.

 

While once released in the UK on DVD by Digital Entertainment, that was a monster of a disc for the wrong reasons - extra-free with an ugly fullframe transfer, unrestored and thoroughly boring. Anchor Bay corrected that in spades - the newer disc is anamorphically enhanced widescreen (not 1.85:1 as some sources suggest - definitely 1.78:1) with various surround options that aren’t entirely successful but at least they’re there to choose from. Plus a commentary and an entire movie (Alligator 2) on a second disc . A recent Region 1 DVD had the commentary, some trailers, and a seventeen minute interview section but didn’t include the sequel. The Anchor Bay transfer of Alligator is stellar; incredibly vivid colours and balanced contrast with visual information you’ve probably never been aware of in this film, while digital grain is minimal - highly commendable. For an old-fashioned monster bash that pulls many of the right strings you can’t go too far wrong with Alligator, and this is a near superlative presentation.

Posted on 26th April 2008
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

Possession

1981, France/Germany, Directed by Andrzej Zulawski

Colour, Running Time: 123 minutes

DVD, Region 1, Anchor Bay, Video: Anamorphic 1.66:1, Audio: Mono

Genre amalgamations go back a long way, whether it be the obvious mixing of science fiction and horror abundant during the fifties, or gangster/vampire combinations such as From Dusk Till Dawn, etc. From what could easily have been the uninspiring and unproductive event of marital break-up in the life of Zulawski was borne Possession (not the one with Gwyneth Paltrow in it!) - something that might be described as an odd collision between social drama and gory horror. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani play Mark and Anna, a couple in the midst of a marital crisis where permanent split seems like the only viable outcome. Aside from having a young child to consider, Mark appears to be unable to live without Anna but has difficulty communicating what he’s feeling without descending into maniacal, emotionally charged babbling, often turning to manifested aggression in frustration. His psychological state spirals downward while Anna seems ambivalent about what she truly wants, often portraying a need to terminate the relationship between them whilst possibly still exhibiting some feelings that are positive towards her husband, amidst the obvious torrent of confusion. Mark finds out that she’s having an affair with someone and this does the situation no favours. Finding out who it is he goes to see the man, presumably without intention to discuss the problem diplomatically - the strangely androgynous Heinrich beats Mark up during the ensuing conflict. Arranging to have his wife followed it’s revealed that Anna is frequently retreating to a derelict area of the city (Berlin) where in a run-down apartment she’s mating with some sort of hideous multi-limbed monster.

Marriage is bliss!

So, rather than being a story of demonic infiltration à la The Exorcist, this movie investigates the results of the ‘possession’ of one human being by another, something that generally occurs in intimate relationships and is suggested here to ultimately have a destructive effect on its closest participants. The film distributors, particularly in America, didn’t really know how to market this project and in all fairness that’s quite understandable, especially in an era when films of a fantastically disturbing nature were good box office business - not only is the trailer a superficially ambiguous advertisement for what could easily be just another monster movie in its audience’s eyes, but the film itself had forty minutes or so removed by a studio who didn’t understand the content. Similarly here in the UK it was placed on the banned list by the BBFC and effectively condemned as a ‘video nasty’ (something that ironically probably helped gather a small cult reputation for the film). The film has since been restored in the US and permitted an uncut release in the UK under thankfully revised opinion. Controversies aside, what remains now though is something that’s difficult to understand with its apparent symbolism and personal meaning to the director. It’s clearly a response to the despair produced by the disintegration of his own relationship with his spouse but there is much here to decipher, and that’s where many viewers will drop off (to sleep in some cases). However, there are rewards to be had should you be able to mentally focus on what’s going on - the intricacy of Mark and Anna’s relationship is disturbingly realised and the physical product of their interpersonal deterioration is quite fascinating; that is, the terrifyingly passionate hatred between them seems to create the very monster that Anna ends up mating with (thereby producing more offspring). The creature itself is not seen too much but what’s visible is hideous, a bedridden octopus-like monstrosity that conceals something distortedly human in its nature. Anna’s occasional dismissal of her real husband hints at the possibility that she (i.e. the female) sees him purely as the machine that will impregnate her when required. The fact that she’d rather mate with something so horrific (than her husband) in order to produce more offspring possibly offers support to this idea. While Neill does a good job Adjani is simply astounding as Anna. The extremity of emotions she displays is worryingly realistic (indeed she won a couple of awards for this role), most notably in the train tunnel sequence where she goes into prolonged violent spasms before a disgusting miscarriage - this scene must be one of the most disturbing ever committed to celluloid, surely something very few actresses could have achieved, and it pretty much elicited outrage in some people. Its impact is profound and underlines the state of Zulawski at that time. As far as the film as a whole is concerned it can be a painful experience rather than specifically an enjoyable one, but the latter was hardly the director’s intention, plus it is too long. However films don’t come a great deal more challenging than this and its imagery and overall impact is quite unique.

 

Released a couple of times in the US by Anchor Bay Possession was restored to its full running time and Zulawski’s original vision, plus it was presented correctly at 1.66:1, anamorphically enhanced in a pillar-box fashion and generally pretty good looking. The DVD also came with director commentary and interesting text notes on his work. The second disc release was identical apart from the fact that it was coupled with Mario Bava’s final film Shock as a double-bill. Whilst Possession was passed uncut for home viewing in 1999 by the BBFC here in the UK, that was for VHS and I don’t believe there has been a DVD release on these shores. Wherever you look it’s quite a difficult film to get a hold of these days.

Posted on 20th April 2008
Under: Horror, Other | 6 Comments »

Rabid

1977, Canada, Directed by David Cronenberg

Colour, Running Time: 86 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Metrodome, Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: Mono

Straight on from the success of his first real commercial outing Cronenberg wrote a downbeat story about a couple who are involved in a motorcycle accident during a recreational trip. Spotted by the patients of a secluded specialist hospital the alarm is raised and they’re quickly picked up by the ambulance. Suffering merely damaged bones and minor injuries Hart (Frank Moore - a sort of Christopher Walken lookalike) is taken for conventional treatment but his more seriously injured girlfriend is rushed into the hospital for emergency surgery that includes groundbreaking skin grafting techniques. Waking up the dazed Rose can’t seem to stop herself attacking one of the hospital’s staff, after which she leaves the hospital prematurely and seemingly uncontrollably attacks a number of others while making her way back home. While her actions seem to be the product of a confused mind what she doesn’t realise is that she’s spreading a rabies-like disease via a prehensile, vampiric tube that protrudes from her armpit, possibly a by-product of the near experimental surgical procedures that were adopted during her operation. Before long her victims are spreading the disease through their own homicidal and quite insane behaviour and chaos throughout the region brings about martial law.

Would you trust this man in a porno cinema?

While Cronenberg was still a few years away from perfecting (as far as something can be perfected) his approach to film-making he had certainly broken away from the near incoherent arthouse pretensions of his earlier work (see Crimes of the Future and Stereo) to a point where he could construct a commercially viable outing that not only would a relatively large number of people be able to engage with but would also produce a profit whilst remaining commendably faithful to the director’s ongoing artistic ethic. Characters are fleshed out beyond their almost alien equivalents of his early work, becoming much closer to real people and consequently engaging the viewer’s attention a little easier. Rose in particular is an interesting oddity. The accident and subsequent operation leaves her in a sometimes confused state, her attitude swinging between apparently malicious and childlike bewilderment. What’s going on in her brain it’s difficult to determine, hence she becomes an enigma. Marilyn Chambers, someone known for her porn outings, makes a good job of conveying this enigmatic quality to the audience but a mainstream career was unfortunately not to be. While the porn trappings undoubtedly made the small number of nude scenes easier for her to deal with, what is more beneficial is the enhanced sexual understanding that injects her vampiric attacks with the duality of violence and eroticism. Scattered around the rest of the film are a few Cronenberg regulars and it’s quite fun to spot them: Joe Silver from Shivers, Gary McKeehan turned up in The Brood, Robert A Silverman from Naked Lunch and eXistenZ, that weirdo from the aforementioned early films, etc. In many ways this is all taking place very much in the same universe as the previous year’s Shivers, taking the conclusion of that film one step further by actually demonstrating the outcome of the infectious spread by touching on apocalyptic territory as the whole world around the characters begins to go mad and fall apart - there must surely be a debt here to Romero’s The Crazies and his earlier Night of the Living Dead, and effectively executed it is too. The conclusion to this film suffice it to say, without giving too much away hopefully, is pretty dark. This is quite an ambitious project for a director still in his vocational infancy and would prove to be just a taster of what was to come.

 

Opening credits present the film in roughly a 1.55:1 ratio, presumably accurate to the source. It then switches to 1.78:1 (enhanced) and is therefore cropped to a small extent. The image graduates between quite rough and average; on a small screen it’s not too bad, it just doesn’t hold up well to large screen projection. Mono sound quality occasionally exhibits hissing but like the image is not the worst I’ve experienced. There’s a short video piece of Cronenberg himself introducing the film, and this is welcome but the disc is otherwise barebones really. There was an ‘SE’ in the US but the only real advantage over this UK disc was the inclusion of a director’s commentary (though that’s a pretty good bonus in the case of Cronenberg, one of the most intriguing directors at work today). Adding a scientific literacy unusual to genre films at that point Cronenberg was establishing himself as a force to be acknowledged with these seventies films and Rabid therefore is an integral cog in the developing machine that was/is David Cronenberg.

Posted on 12th April 2008
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Gummo

1997, US, Directed by Harmony Korine

Colour, Running Time: 89 minutes

DVD, Region 1, New Line, Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo

It’s quite difficult to informatively describe what the Gummo experience is like unless the reader has already immersed themselves in its grim realm, partially because it has no specific plot as such (at least in terms of conventional cinema narrative), partially because the images and sounds burnt on to celluloid speak louder than explanatory words ever can. The viewer is dropped hard on their ass into a location somewhere in smalltown America, populated by unsophisticated people that may as well be of extraterrestrial origin, such is the utter unfamiliarity of their behaviour. We spend time following around two teenage boys - Tummler and Solomon, one of the strangest looking children you’ve ever seen - who catch and kill cats for money, sniff glue, have sex with whoever may be willing, etc. The story depicts the activities and eccentricities of these two oddballs for the large part. Then there are two sisters on the dawn of sexual awakening, men who wrestle violently with kitchen chairs, skinhead brothers who punch two types of f**k out of each other, an enthusiastic albino girl who searches for her dream boy while blissfully ignorant to the reality of her chances, deaf people rowing with each other in sign language, a man who charges money for lads to have intercourse with his handicapped sister, a messed up transvestite boy - an ethical enigma who also kills cats for money but in his case does so to support his virtually non-functioning grandmother, etc. Oh yes, and a gay black dwarf.

Breakfast in... bath?

This sometimes sounds on paper like the product of a banned film but Gummo’s relative obscurity has probably kept controversy at bay. Its effect is almost soul-destroying; the meaningless of people’s lives, here or perhaps anywhere, the cruelty of the world that surrounds them and their involuntary ignorance to this. Despite the near utter blackness of the movie’s material and its guerrilla, underground feel this was a serious project with a ‘proper’ film crew, a real studio behind distribution, actual funding (over one million dollars), and some talented actors. That’s right: actors. You’d swear from the convincing performances on display that all here were real people the director had found, being granted the privilege of filmed glimpses into their sporadically horrifying lives. But, while there are no major stars here of course and the majority of participants were inexperienced from a film perspective, there are quite a few established and professional actors contributing portrayals that you wouldn’t have believed them to be capable of, so realistic are their character depictions. My favourite amongst them is Chloë Sevigny. She’d already appeared in the same director’s previous film Kids, plus the rather smart Steve Buscemi project Trees Lounge and, surely as a testament to her talent, has since gone on to skilfully bring fantastic characters to the screen in American Psycho, Broken Flowers, and Dave Fincher’s Zodiac. At the time I first saw Gummo a few years ago I really believed she was somebody who came from one of these nasty small American towns (I’m sure they’re not all like this, honest!). Similar can be said of most of the occupants of this little world however and consequently the film almost gives the impression of a documentary into daily human life. Some of its brutalities are appropriately supported by extreme metal music though the soundtracks is surprisingly varied - how on earth did they obtain permission to use Madonna’s Like a Prayer here? Elsewhere we have everything from Roy Orbison and Johann Sebastian Bach to Bethlehem and Burzum. The soundtrack also claims to have utilised Bathory’s blistering Equimanthorn (from Under The Sign…) at some point but I’ll be damned if I can hear it anywhere. Anyway, the music is well selected and enhances the onscreen action just as it should. I do dislike the film’s irreverent attitude towards animals (though activity was professionally monitored), however aside from that personal gripe I think Harmony Korine can only be described as a director with an acute perceptiveness uncommon in humankind. Or perhaps he simply refuses to ignore that which everybody refuses to face.

It pays to dress weird.

New Line’s DVD looks superb, though bearing in mind some of the imagery was deliberately captured with gritty videotape it otherwise feels much more upmarket than it should. Extras are limited to some behind-scenes photographs with commentary, and filmographies. Gummo is nothing less than a vision of Hell on Earth, more frightening because places and people like this are out there somewhere and this is a diary of what a significant portion of humanity has become. You may be mortified but will likely find yourself staring on at the car-crash spectacle and even re-visiting every know and again to remind yourself that you aint so badly off after all.

Posted on 5th April 2008
Under: Other | 5 Comments »

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