Archive for December, 2008

Nightmares Come At Night

1970, France, Directed by Jess Franco

Colour, Running Time: 84 minutes

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

We take a moment to peer into the insane world of that Spanish auteur/madman Jess Franco, the director who’s created movies that even some of his ardent fans hate the sight of. Amidst an excessive proliferation of creative output there have been a few nails hit and some may consider it worth wading through the excrement to find them. Alternatively you may let us poor, tormented reviewers do it for you… A popular nightclub dancer’s act of strange and slow paced erotica lures the eye of an eccentric mademoiselle and the naïve woman is enticed back to a house where she is almost held willing captive for some period of time, the bars being the promise of fame/fortune, etc. During this time she repeatedly finds herself experiencing lucid dreaming, progressively confusing what’s actually happening around her with what’s possibly pure imaginative fantasy. The dreams take on a sadistic and increasingly sexual tone as the woman’s perceptions distort and sanity begins to crumble. Is she losing her mind or is there something more calculating going on with her mistress or the strange people across the street who peer at her from behind closed windows?

oooohhhhh....

The aura of Nightmares… is appropriately dreamlike and surreal, as in many of Franco’s better works. Whether intentional or not, the misty look of the image accommodates the uncanny nature of the material aptly, and our perception of what’s really going on is blurred with efficacy until closer to the conclusion. The crowning creative achievement, however, is Bruno Nicolai’s necessarily schizophrenic score, swiftly alternating between psychedelic jazz and the haunting whining of strings at the drop of a hat - he understands what Franco was trying to capture on film and accentuates it. The soundtrack is an integral part of the beauty to be found here. Conversely Franco’s cinematic techniques can be quite irritating at times: his compositions seem to be largely random, and that damned zoom lens (a staple of many of his works) should have been banned. For the most part the underlying story can be seen as a feeble excuse for consistent softcore pornography as the females relentlessly stroll around either naked or titillatingly exposed to varying degrees - it’s actually quite steamy and makes for comfortable entertainment on a couple of levels. Unfortunately the narrative is undermined by an attempt in the final act to authenticate the preceding events by returning the story to earth, thereby dissolving the mysterious ambience that had been built up. Franco drops the ball here and a shame it is because he inadvertently or otherwise had something quite ethereal and sexy on his hands up until that point. It is nevertheless essential viewing for Franco fans and those who might enjoy seventies eroticism or surreal fantasy. Everyone else may be driven mad.

 

Hardgore’s DVD would appear to be a convert of the earlier Shriek Show release, containing similar specifications and extras. The film has its original title over the credits (La Cauchemars Naissent la Nuit) but alas the audio is presented in awful dubbed English. The SS disc contained a French language option in addition to the English, so this alone makes it a clear winner. The Hardgore is well stocked aside from that sad omission: a twenty three minute featurette on the Eurocine production company, originators of many a terrible movie plus a few minor gems too - quite a few clips of rare pieces are included. This is followed by a twenty four minute interview with an aging but jovial Jess Franco, though I found his thick accent hard to follow at times. A fake trailer for Nightmares… is also present alongside a large number of trailers for other Hardgore releases, some of them worth watching, some of them need to be avoided but this at least gives you an idea which of their other discs might suit your tastes. I really can’t stand some of these modern shot-on-video timewasters, on the other hand a few of the pre-nineties movies (The Boneyard and Creepozoids for example) bring back memories and I may try to pick them up. Taking Hardgore’s DVD (admittedly nicely designed) cover art into consideration, much is made of Soledad Miranda’s involvement in Nightmares Come At Night but it should be noted the ill-fated beauty only has a small role, though she does get quite a portion of the extras devoted to her one way or another, and her costumes on screen in the movie itself are on the rather hot side… Nightmares… is an erotically-charged exploration of surrealism with expository flaws that could have been avoided, and aside from a soft, non-progressive image and English-only audio, it gives Hardgore their best DVD I’ve yet seen (thanks more so to US-based Media Blasters).

Posted on 27th December 2008
Under: Horror, Other | No Comments »

Axe

1974, US, Directed by Frederick R Friedel

Colour, Running Time: 68 minutes

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

Three criminals are on the loose in California and the story opens with them waiting for a couple of losers to return home so they can teach them a lesson for some wrongdoing. After beating and killing the losers the mobsters (one showing off a terrible afro that resembles him to Oddbod in Carry on Screaming) head out on the run across country, stopping only to humiliate a shop assistant in their ongoing search for amusement in the suffering of others. Later through their journey they discover an old farmhouse populated only by what appears to be the helpless combination of a young girl and her paraplegic grandfather - a seemingly perfect opportunity to hold out for a few days. After making themselves unwelcome by asserting their newly claimed territory one of them decides to have his wicked sexually-charged way with the innocent female, only to have his throat slashed following a struggle. After tricking one of the other wayward fools into hiding the body for her she’s soon accosted by one of the others and right in front of her lifeless grandfather too - minutes later the lawless man is finding himself on the nasty end of an axe as his blood is splattered around the room. The group have chosen the wrong house to hide out in it seems…

Watch out! You're being attacked by an alien monster from the planet Hair!

The opening minutes might bear a vague similarity to an area of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, though perhaps Axe has a little less sheen to it… I was prepared to write this movie off after around half an hour - very little happens and the acting is almost revolting. In fact for the first eight or nine minutes virtually nothing happens and bearing in mind the running time only extends to just over an hour that’s a significant proportion of the total that we’re sitting around effectively watching the paint of the opening set’s walls dry. The three stooges are such a charismatically challenged bunch too that we’re descending into almost irreversible boredom by the twenty five minute mark. Their brief interruption of serenity at a roadside shop - where they proceed to throw fruit, harass the assistant, and fire guns at an apple on her head - is a fairly pathetic affair and it can’t stop our diminishing confidence in the product from dropping out of sight. Then they come across the farmhouse and the oddball family of two that live there and some juice is injected at last. Lisa (the young girl) could be Rosalie from The Child albeit a couple of years older - quite a cold little girl, distanced from her own emotions and disconnected from normal social tendencies partly by her geographically isolated location: a perfect candidate for someone to be pushed over the edge towards homicidal revenge. Her minimal pleasures in life have resulted in a person with little to lose, except virginity, which the criminals are intent on taking. By the conclusion the story has revealed itself to be a very limited but to-the-point exercise which conversely doesn’t really seem like it actually has a point to make anyway. Its existence is based on the moderately brutal despatching of several people who didn’t need to be on the planet in the first place, and pretensions beyond that are entirely absent. Hence the short running time. If it wasn’t for some of the hopeless acting on display this perhaps could have been more widely recognised as a noteworthy film, coming as it does from the same era and mode of thinking as the likes of Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but its technical and artistic limitations will always prevent an audience of any reasonable scale from being interested in such a molecular dot in the history of cinema. Amidst the rubble that this film creates in its wake there are a couple of satisfying glimmers of light, or darkness, that keep it from drowning in its own occasional gore.

 

It’s hard to believe British authorities took offence to this one two decades ago and banned it on VHS, but that’s what happened (the highlight sequence - Lisa‘s dismemberment of one of the bodies - is admittedly quite darkly visceral). I’m sure Axe will never be high on anyone’s list for priority restoration so Hardgore’s DVD is almost as good as we might get. Many of these no-budget seventies exploitation flicks look appropriate with an opened-up fullframe negative and that’s pretty much what we have here I believe. Quality is acceptable whilst not providing demonstration material and the weird soundtrack survives equally. Extras are almost non-existent (a theatrical trailer), as is to be expected. Something Weird released a DVD in the US years ago that was quite padded out with little bonuses but most of it had nothing to do with the film in question, however they at least gave the package a little more value seeing as you’re not getting very much film for your money here (SW also generously added a complete bonus film, The Electric Chair, for real masochists). If you can find Hardgore’s DVD cheap enough you might want to check it out, and use it for a coaster if you discover it’s not been a good way to spend an afternoon with your first date (I wouldn’t recommend it…).

Posted on 22nd December 2008
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Strange Behaviour

1981, US/New Zealand, Directed by Michael Laughlin

Colour, Running Time: 95 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Hardgore, Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD Mono

The cover of Hardgore’s DVD might fool people into thinking they’re picking up a homicidal mutant flick but this is more of a twist on the old mad doctor movies, mixed with a little genuine psychological theory to keep its head above water (not that mad doctor movies ever needed that but the injection of credible science brings a touch of freshness). Pete Brady, a college student in a small American town (actually a New Zealand town for tax reasons but we would never have noticed), is in dire financial straits and takes up on the suggestion of a peer to earn some extra cash at the local laboratory, giving himself over to an experiment that he has almost no prior knowledge - obviously the resident scientists would have to go for students with this scam because few others would be stupid enough to succumb. Meanwhile a number of deaths are occurring around the town, the perpetrators being college students inexplicably acting out of character. When Pete actually shows up for his appointment he’s promptly strapped into a chair, reassured that everything’s fine and injected with a horrifically large needle; later Pete himself is beginning to act a little on the unusual side but can his policeman father stop him before he does something nasty?

I really don't see what's so funny about my perm

The film-makers have done a reasonable job of crafting a moderately professional offering with an obviously minimal budget, constructing a story that requires only people, locations, and a few nicely executed gore effects. Though Hardgore would have you believe otherwise when purchasing their UK DVD, there are no crazy mutants in this film (the image in question is actually a homicidal teen wearing a cool Tor Johnson mask), rather kids who have been manipulated into behaving against their normal conduct at the hands of a scientific organisation headed by an ancient professor who has somehow acquired extended longevity. Unlike today’s fright flicks the kids of early eighties horror were bearable and actually quite likable on occasions (today’s pretty young hipsters generally have the audience rooting for the killers) so the bunch here score marks for eliciting a modicum of sympathy - they include Dan Shor from Tron and Strange Invaders, hot babe Dey Young and Marc McClure who played Jimmy Olsen in the Superman movies! Theories were formulated and proven decades ago by the likes of Thorndike and Skinner to present to us today great insight into how humans and other organisms learn through voluntary actions in response to stimuli that persuades them to act or avoid depending on the expected outcome - this was called operant conditioning and forms the basis for some of the ideas in the film. Whilst liberties have been taken with these theories it makes a pleasurable change to find a film with a little thought in academic areas. The other real bonus is a catchy and emotively executed score by Tangerine Dream, a marvellous synthesiser instrumental specialist outfit from Germany who produced many noteworthy albums outside of cinema, plus created scores for the likes of the hip vampire movie Near Dark, Ridley Scott’s mess of a fantasy Legend, and Firestarter (before Drew Barrymore became a drug-lovin’ lesbian… I assume). There’s a pretty groovy disco/party episode as well that will have viewers smiling. On the downside Strange Behaviour (or Dead Kids as it was known in some territories) is slow moving and hardly shot with boundless energy - the camerawork is often quite static while the killings themselves have an oddly laid back pace about them.  The film rarely succeeds in exciting the viewer in any way, however you might consider checking it out for its positive aspects but it’s not necessarily one that will have you repeatedly reaching for it on dark stormy nights.

 

Hardgore’s DVD presents the film well enough considering the depths they‘ll usually stoop to, surprisingly anamorphically enhanced to its full Panavision ratio, well detailed and coloured quite naturally, if perhaps a little under saturated. In a move that could in truth be a sick homage to the subject matter of the film, the caveat here is that the BBFC have censored it by around 40 seconds - a scene depicting suicide in such detail that it would have had mindless Brits topping themselves everywhere. I’m sure if one is so inclined to voluntarily cease their own existence they wouldn’t be using Strange Behaviour as a step-by-step guide to aid them on their journey to The Beyond - whilst I can understand removal of scenes that depict real life animal cruelty (e.g. Deep River Savages) this is the sort of thing that tends to irritate me somewhat, especially in the internet age where people can access pretty much anything they want online without having to track down nasty gore films to fulfil their insatiable bloodlust. If this removal of footage bothers you then the version to go for was released not too long ago by Synapse in the US. Having said all that, this was submitted to the board around 2004 and perhaps attitudes may well differ these days. The Hardgore disc also features a written interview with writer Bill Condon, the man who later got involved with the Candyman franchise as well as netting himself an Oscar for Gods and Monsters. Finally there are a selection of trailers (one or two of them extremely bad) for a handful of other Hardgore DVDs, some of which persuaded me to avoid them like the plague - presumably not the intended effect. Butchered anyone? Somehow I don’t think so…

Posted on 18th December 2008
Under: Horror, Science Fiction | No Comments »

Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things

1971, US, Directed by Benjamin Clark

Colour, Running Time: 76 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Anchor Bay; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DTS

Night of the Living Dead was, as most reasonably knowledgeable film fans are aware, responsible for drastically altering the landscape of zombie cinema through transformation of the sub-genre from folkloric curiosity to something altogether more terrifying. In its wake followed outings directly influenced by its impact and success as this transformation continued its periodic evolutionary steps beyond the film’s first sequel right up to the present day, where the undead devils have now often learned to sprint faster than their living counterparts. But going back to the period between 1968 and 1978 (where Dawn of the Dead made its own indelible indentation) there were some interesting works being produced around the globe that pretty much had Night… to thank for their existence while possessing enough qualities to propel them to positions of value in their own right. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (i.e. immature teens shouldn’t mess with black magic and corpses, as we all know from personal experiences, natch) is one that’s survived to be noticed through the last three decades but continues to attract completely varying opinions.

Bloody dirt all over me!

The narrative ideas of the film clearly owe a lot to Night… where a group of people become trapped in an isolated house against a relentless onslaught of the rotting dead, although reciting the story in a little more detail goes something like this: Alan hires a troupe of young adults/wannabe actors to travel to a small island for a night’s fun interfering with the black arts via rituals and the like, something that’s almost exclusively designed to provide him with some amusement thereby breaking up what must be ongoing personal boredom with the more mundane aspects of life. Following some embarrassment at the apparent failure of his expression of satanic rites one of the troupe shows Alan how it should be done, everyone laughing before the budding director forces them to take a corpse from the cemetery back to their cabin for a bit more tomfoolery. Some of them go along with it, some are understandably perturbed, but Alan heads further down the road of pushing taste to its boundaries for the sake of attention and the sheer amusement of revelling in other people’s distress. Then the graves outside begin opening up - it seems Alan’s ritual was a success after all, and within minutes a horde of the walking dead approaches and surrounds the cabin in a thirst for blood. Where Night… was very straight faced in its dealing of the material the tactic here is somewhat different: the first half of the film takes a persistently facetious angle as it presents its characters to us, most of whom are wisecracking teens that are endearingly lacking in pessimism. Heading the group is Alan (actually Alan Ormsby, one of the scriptwriters and special make-up effects artists on the crew - this sort of thing happens in low budget productions…). Alan is possibly the character that makes or breaks this film for most viewers due to his relentless arrogance and obnoxiousness. And it goes on and on to a point where viewers might wonder if anything horrifying (beyond the barrage of verbal gags) is ever going to happen. That’s why, for me, this film is actually successful - when the shit does hit the fan its impact is multiplied. It goes from comic to dark in one very swift turn and the contrast lends the nastier second half an edge it might not otherwise have had - sort of a similar effect to that of Shaun of the Dead, or American Werewolf, though not quite in the same class. It’s the stuff that gets on everyone’s nerves that ultimately aids the payoff, if people can just see past the things that are getting on their nerves of course… For this reason the film works much better on multiple viewings. The show-stopping corpse rising sequence is something that Night… never had and it’s remarkably executed, having an air of the sinister and uncanny about it. The teens’ comedic and dramatic interactions up until that point turn to disbelieving terror as the final third spirals upward to a chilling climax and a final shot that hints at something apocalyptic on the horizon.

 

This has been consistently available in one form or another for years. In the video age it would surface time and again with the crafty re-titling tactics of small video distribution companies that would trick fools like me into repeatedly buying the same film (Revenge of the Living Dead for example, neither title nor (extremely bad) cover artwork bearing resemblance to the real film it was selling). There was a DVD from VCI in the US that then became the most acceptable way of viewing Children… for a long time (in the post laserdisc era of course), but its non-anamorphic, dark and fairly indistinct picture was not entirely desirable by modern standards. Anchor Bay UK then released this disc on review and improved things in some respects: we had a clearer anamorphic transfer, multiple (and unnecessary in the case of DTS 5.1!) sound options, and a commentary by Alan Ormsby. (Incidentally the sound design of the original film is absolutely brilliant - psychedelic and completely insane!) The problem with the AB disc was that it contained a shorter version of the film; the ball was well and truly dropped on that one. Finally, after a brief transfer hiccup that involved the discs being temporarily recalled, a marginally more definitive edition was put out a year or so ago in the US by VCI again: anamorphic enhancement for the full length version (approximately 87 minutes), another commentary, and several short featurettes. It’s a monumental shame that Anchor Bay could/would not obtain the full version for the UK disc as it would have resulted in the best overall presentation. The source material will only allow image quality of a limited standard with a film such as this so it must be considered that it might not look any better than the AB disc even on HD, at least not without the full restoration it will likely never get. All in all, this movie is a minor cult item that can bring rewards to the more patient viewer of the macabre.

Posted on 11th December 2008
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye

1973, Italy, Directed by Antonio Margheriti

Colour, Running Time: 95 minutes

DVD, Region 1, Blue Underground, Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD Mono

Following a mysterious opening sequence where a body is seen dumped in a cellar and horrifically disfigured by hungry rats we jump forward to meet convent girl Corringa, who is paying a visit to her old family home, a gothic castle in rural Scotland. She’s confronted with all manner of unhinged activity: people are - regardless of traditional gender matching in some cases - having illicit affairs with one another (which she inevitably becomes drawn into herself), there are arguments about the family wealth, and quickly the lady of the house is brutally murdered. This is followed by more killings as the police are brought in to find out who’s behind the bloody mess, Corringa probably wondering what sort of domestic madness she has stumbled upon.

Which one of these toffee-nosed bastards do you think's gonna get it first?

The title, production period, country of origin, and the initial impression of La Morte Negli Occhi Del Gatto may indicate we’re in store for a classic giallo but that’s only partly accurate: the film has a lot in common with the gothic Italian horror stories that proliferated throughout the sixties, a couple of which director Margheriti himself was responsible for (notably Castle of Blood/Danza Macabra and Virgin of Nuremberg). To throw a spanner into the works as far as our preconceptions about genre are concerned, once the killings are under way one of the characters hints at the possibility of vampiric activity (an undead vision at one point supporting this theory), while another blames everything on the poor cat that consistently hangs around doing no harm to anyone - the title seems to be tenuously designed to allude to the possibility that the cat itself witnesses the killings. There’s even a gorilla repeatedly spotted spying on several of the castle’s inhabitants and may be responsible for the deaths in some sort of anti-human vendetta. Hence there is a schizophrenic, slightly chaotic edge to the story outline that is not altogether outside the realms of commonality when it comes to seventies Italian genre output, and it certainly takes the ideas of any viewers who think they may be able to fathom out what’s going on and buries those ideas in the castle crypt, right alongside the coffin that’s discovered smashed open from the inside. Having said that, this imaginative approach to crafting an insane plot goes frustratingly astray by the film’s conclusion, which is rather conventional in comparison to what’s preceded it. The journey up until this conclusion is fun nonetheless. Margheriti (here credited with his usual anglicised pseudonym Anthony Dawson) generally seemed like a capable director who pumped out fairly large volumes of work without apparent detriment to quality, though his films aren’t A-class to be honest. Without going overboard on the sex and bloodshed he managed to construct fittingly atmospheric movies that were both raunchy and periodically violent, particularly for their respective eras - see for example the horrific rat face-eating sequence in Virgin of Nuremberg, a film made in 1963! Incidentally the prologue to Seven Deaths… reminds me of that earlier film, featuring as it does a horde of rats devouring some poor sod’s face. Riz Ortolani, one of my favourite Italian composers (e.g. Zeder), provides the score though it’s not especially emphasised and not as notable as some of his other works. The cast function reasonably well, English girl Jane Birkin taking centre stage as the sensual Corringa as she’s surrounded by an assortment of oddballs whose relational issues keep the pace trekking along nicely. The stereotype police inspector who materialises on the scene the moment a corpse appears, complete with Scottish (dubbed) accent, is an amusing touch. Regarding the soap-opera shenanigans, it’s sometimes hard to follow just what’s going on with who on occasions, but I found this can easily take a back seat to the homicidal nature of the proceedings if one so wishes to mentally disengage. The production design stands out along the way, lending an apparent finesse to the project. Successfully consolidating elements of the giallo and gothic sub-genres Margheriti again proves himself to be a director who delivers pretty much exactly what’s needed with this one.

Do you think my nipples show up too much in this dress?

The best version to seek out is undoubtedly Blue Underground’s DVD, placed on shelves several years ago. The image is soft, most likely a symptom of its source, while colours are strong, possibly a touch too saturated - overall a satisfying widescreen transfer. Audio is provided in English dub only which is marginally disappointing as I would have liked an Italian track at least for comparison. A couple of scenes seem to have missed English dubbing as they’re present in this cut but with Italian dialogue only (subtitled), however it’s not too jarring and commendation is due thanks to the cut being complete. Given the British setting the English dialogue is not out of place, so I can happily live with what’s here despite griping a little. An interview with Giovanni Simonelli rounds out an acceptable DVD release that could admittedly have been improved but is nevertheless welcome due to the film’s preceding obscurity.

Posted on 6th December 2008
Under: Horror, Giallo | No Comments »

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