Archive for January, 2009

In The Mouth of Madness

1995, US, Directed by John Carpenter

Colour, Running Time: 95 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, New Line; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD 5.1

Insurance investigator John Trent is dragged struggling into a cell within an institution for the hopelessly deranged. Visited by one Dr Wrenn he recounts his story: months ago he was hired to investigate claims made by a book publisher for the disappearance of one of their most prominent writers of terror novels - Sutter Cane. Sniffing a publicity stunt on the eve of the release of one of Cane’s most anticipated books Trent begins scrutinizing the situation more closely. After the meeting with the publishers he picks up a number of Cane’s books to see if there’s anything to fathom from those, however the perpetually sceptical man soon finds himself being drawn into the illusion of Cane’s supernatural domain as he spends the next day or two reading. Realising that the covers of Cane’s books contain a hidden map, presumably offering a clue as to the author’s whereabouts, Trent sets off on a long drive with one of the publishing assistants despite not being aware of precisely where Cane’s possibly fictitious town is. However, after a couple of days of driving and a number of odd encounters on the road they arrive at the place which, as far as any map is concerned, doesn’t exist - Hobb’s End. As strange occurrences begin to increase with frequency it appears to Trent that the possibilities of a publicity stunt were left behind long ago, and in its place is an uncanny nightmare that almost suggests that Cane has created everything that is happening. Or Trent has gone insane.

I was supposed to be on the 29!!!!

Amidst Carpenter’s erratic career those consistently familiar with his work often agree that there is a roughly fifty-fifty split between the genre busting classics and the oddly misfiring projects that a seasoned director would be expected to do something a lot better with. Whilst everybody agrees that, for example, The Thing is amazing and Ghosts of Mars sits at the other end of the extreme (yeah?) there are some that mix opinions, In The Mouth of Madness seemingly one of them. Sam Neill and his misjudged American accent together take on the role of John Trent, but I think considering the fact that he’s experienced and generally capable he doesn’t pull it off completely convincingly. There’s something that doesn’t quite work about him and it’s one of those things that you have to learn to live with if you’re going to be watching this more than once. Julie Carmen (the aristocratic vampire chick from Fright Night Part 2) thankfully tags along as his sidekick for the journey and brightens things up a touch, while other more renowned stars have brief (probably financially dictated) appearances here and there: most notably David Warner as Wrenn and Charlton Heston as the publisher. The film’s story confronts the idea that gruesome fiction can warp the minds of its followers, or at least that’s what it appears to be confronting although if this is a moral angle of some kind I see it as a slightly hypocritical ideal - preaching the pitfalls of horror on the human mind within a horror vehicle designed to entertain. Aside from this hiccup the movie winds up being one of the best interpretations of H.P. Lovecraft’s worlds of terror that’s not actually based on any specific Lovecraftian work. It sort of welds Stephen King to Lovecraft (the antagonist, Cane, representing the former, the domain he creates representing the latter) with a degree of success. Trent’s largely retrospective story is told from the cell of an insane asylum (a characteristic of many Lovecraft stories) as he recounts how the world outside began to go crazy during the release of Sutter Cane’s latest novel on to a blood-hungry public. In flashback he recalls noticing a thriving aggressive madness swelling around him as interest in the book became feverish, his own understanding of reality beginning to break down as he investigated the disappearance of the author - there are shades of Videodrome here (confusion of where the line between fantasy and reality lies resulting from immersing oneself in some form of entertainment). His trip into the fictitious town that may or may not have been created out of the imagination of a man is suitably nightmarish and one of Carpenter’s best realisations of the essence of terror in film. Illustrations of this include the strange geriatric cyclist who’s really a boy that can’t escape Hobb’s End, a sadistic old lady who mutates into a multi-tentacled monster, a psychotic crowd of children, Trent’s repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to escape the homicidal townspeople, etc. As with a number of his other projects, Carpenter was heavily involved with the music and this really announces itself over the lead titles as pounding metal guitar accompanies images of a printing press producing thousands of books that will eventually spread insanity across the globe. Therein lies the apocalyptic thread that flourishes throughout much of the director’s other material - The Thing, Prince of Darkness, Escape From New York… What I ultimately love about this movie is its inherently inexplicable nature, something substantiated by the conclusion - leaving the horrifying without explanation grants it the power to tantalise. It’s possible that Trent investigates the author’s absence and goes mad in the process, but this is only one possibility and, as usual, I enjoy this sort of ambiguity.

Fullscreen

Widescreen

Unjustifiably this has never reached the UK on DVD. Back in the nineties good old EIV put out a cropped fullscreen tape (which I believe was later followed by a widescreen version). It’s common knowledge that Carpenter prefers shooting in anamorphic Panavision (2.39:1) and his visuals always look unreasonably compromised when dissected in such artistic blasphemy - see the two stills above for an idea of how much information is removed in the pan & scan process. The US disc on which this review is based was released years ago by New Line and contains both wide and fullscreen options (allowing me to capture the comparative stills above), a trailer and a commentary from director and cinematographer. It is therefore the only sensible way to buy In The Mouth of Madness until someone has the understanding to undertake a Blu-ray restoration. The New Line DVD is not a bad choice in the meantime.

Posted on 24th January 2009
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

Scars of Dracula

1970, UK, Directed by Roy Ward Baker

Colour, Running Time: 95 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Anchor Bay; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Mono

As the cinema world moved on in terms of sophistication and evolution, so Hammer remained almost static (increases in gore and nudity aside) as they made an almost unnoticeable transition into the seventies. At the time their films may have began to appear old fashioned or tired but several decades on it hardly seems to matter as their output has taken on a cult status that many collectors today really get into. So after a run of a number of well concocted sequels in their Dracula franchise during the sixties Anthony Hinds wrote was became their most sadistic and cruel interpretation of all - possibly an attempt to modernise, perhaps a reaction to diminished censorship restrictions. A young carefree individual is caught in the aftermath of having had ‘relations’ with the burgomaster’s daughter and makes his escape by leaping from a window and landing in a horse/cart combo that carries him off into the wilderness. Coming across a melancholy village that’s in the grip of Dracula’s reign of terror Paul attempts to claim a room for the night by persuading another woman to mate with him, only to be turned away by the paranoid innkeeper, thus he hides in another horse and carriage as he’s whisked off again, this time to the castle owned by the infamous count. There the initial hospitality of the count, residing with his servant and a nymph, begins to turn sour as the count interrupts a love-making session between Paul and the young woman (this man‘s a love machine!). The count brutally stabs the woman as Paul stares on in shock, but as the sun comes up Dracula has gone - and the door has been locked. Already in trouble Paul is now locked in a room with a murdered woman! The castle itself is built precariously on the edge of a cliff and, ever resourceful, Paul attaches several sheet together and makes his way down the side to where he can see another window below. What he doesn’t realise until he gets there is that the window is the only entrance/exit to a crypt where the vampire sleeps by day; Paul is not seen again, or at least not alive… Later on his brother and part-time girlfriend attempt to retrace Paul’s steps having not seen him for some time, this leading them to the very same village, castle, and ultimate threat.

Her cross, I... musn't...look...down!

There are a multitude of real problems with Scars…, the first being the terribly unimaginative prologue establishing Dracula’s relationship with the nearby village. Basically a bat releases some blood on to Dracula’s cape, this reviving him, before a corpse shows up with holes in its neck. This prompts the villagers to go on a rampage attempting to burn the castle but only enraging the count in the process as he has the worshippers of the church massacred in a fit of deliberate blasphemy. Aside from the church massacre the ten minute introduction is woefully outdated and doesn’t set great expectation for what’s to come. Then there are two factors that cursed Hammer from the beginning, two things they never could get right: day-for-night photography, which never works and was overused; and those ridiculous bats! Seriously, even back in the sixties and seventies these hopeless bouncing rubber things surely didn’t convince anyone. And as if to rub out faces in bat shit, the damn things turn up at every single possible opportunity - they’re an embarrassment. Finally the overall problem is an obvious reduction in production values - the sets looks cheap and I think Roy Ward Baker has expressed his disappointment in the past over his arrival after accepting the script, only to find there was far less money available than what he thought would do the story justice. The climax - not to give anything away but it features a large burning thing falling from the castle top, down the side of a cliff- is a demonstration of god-awful special effects. Based on these issues Scars… may not be looking too hot - however! Once the prologue is out of the way and we’re introduced to Paul, his brother (a young Dennis Waterman) and their spicy female associate (Jenny Hanley) things look up. Paul’s antics get him into some comedic trouble forming the catalyst for a supernatural adventure into the unknown, as one obstacle leads to yet another increasingly difficult one and Paul spirals further into strife until his very existence is in the shadow of the vampire - this building of events catches you off guard after the mundane opening sequence, suddenly leading to quite an eerie series of situations. This is maintained as Paul’s brother and girl retrace the same route, Hanley is quickly dressed down to clothing far saucier, and the violence is stepped up a notch. Patrick Troughton’s servant character is both tragic and funny - twice during the course of the film he’s tricked into opening the door to unwanted company. On the other hand he reveals horrific scars that are routinely caused by his master as punishment for whatever the count considers an issue. The crypt built into the cliff wall is a great idea, both because it’s a suitably creepy hideout for the count (and a place for Paul to get himself trapped in) and due to the fact that it provided Baker with an opportunity at last to have Dracula scale a vertical wall on camera - an element of Stoker’s book that hadn’t been attempted by the studio prior to this. It’s brief albeit effective. Also the inn full of hostile villagers predates that of American Werewolf, though this period piece takes place a hundred or so years into the past - the cast there is headed by a perpetually angry Michael Ripper, Hammer regular as some of you may know. It’s disappointing that Hammer failed the cast, crew, and audience with a diminished budget as there is some good stuff here, almost ruined by stripped down production values. Nevertheless Scars of Dracula is a movie I’ve found myself rewatching a few times and lapping up the periodically creepy, sadistic, titillating moments that punctuate the craziness.

Region 1

Region 2

Anchor Bay put this out as a two disc set in the US (the feature documentary Many Faces of Christopher Lee making up disc two), uncut with a moderately soft widescreen image. Picking up the UK disc also (from Optimum) I made a comparison of the two (screen samples above, a portion of the frame captured only - hover cursor over them for identification). It seems to me that, whilst the source was probably the same, the UK transfer is slightly sharper in appearance perhaps due to a small increase in contrast. Colour is also a touch bolder on the R2; overall the UK disc looks more attractive by a small degree. It loses the documentary, however this can be found coupled with the Optimum UK release of Dracula Prince of Darkness, so it is reasonably easy to get a hold of either way. Both UK and US releases of Scars… also contain a commentary with the director and Lee along with other minor extras such as trailers/stills, etc. Significant flaws aside I’m happy to own this film and the DVDs available are pretty good.

Posted on 8th January 2009
Under: Horror | 10 Comments »

Titanic

1997, US, Directed by James Cameron

Colour, Running Time: 187 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Fox; Video: Letterbox 2.30:1, Audio: DD 5.1

Cameron’s nineties blockbuster Titanic is one of those movies that neatly slots people into categories: there are those that love(d) it, those that have seen it and hate it, and those that haven’t seen it but hate it anyway. It attracts such polarised responses not for the extent of its qualities as a piece of art or cinema I believe, but more so because of its status as an epic romance - hardly a recommendation for hip factor or street cred. The most obvious initial problem with tackling the story of the Titanic’s sinking is that everybody would already know how it ends (well, excepting today’s youth generation perhaps, who are apparently more aware of who Simon Cowell is than God himself according to recent surveys). What Cameron decided to do was weave in a fictitious onboard romantic drama with the historical details, one that should invite in audience sympathy via a side door rather than attempt the more obvious front door and risk preconceived boredom. Using a present-day wraparound idea, an old woman recounts her days aboard the Titanic ship on its maiden (and only - for the youngsters) voyage. An upper-class girl, Rose is about to be roped into a marriage to an abhorrent man, ultimately leading a life of unfulfilment and worthlessness. She feels trapped and suffocated by the fact that she’s being ushered along by cultural expectation and social/family pressures, thus she attempts to resort to the only escape she can imagine: suicide. That is until Jack persuades her otherwise. Having won his ticket to board, he’s essentially a homeless wanderer who lives purely for what each day brings as it materialises, travels to wherever he pleases, and does almost as he likes without really harming anyone. By all accounts he’s the antithesis of Rose and where he’s happy with his minimal status and non-existent financial worth she has everything materialistically to look forward but no joy. The instant and developing attraction between them is the cause for much class and personal conflict amongst Rose’s aristocratic acquaintances - then the boat hits an iceberg and their fight to survive together becomes infinitely more desperate.

The boat's made of iron and can't sink, ayeeeeee

Cameron had progressed his varying movie-making skills over the years, realising talents that were clearly budding back when Terminator was released, proving that with modest resource he could put together a cracking, technically adept story that brought in reasonable returns. Through The Abyss and the sequel to the 1984 Arnie classic Cameron established an ability to utilise cinema’s technologies, not just in a derivative manner but to a point where he was instrumental in their evolution. But beneath the wizardry he understood how to craft a story and this is the factor that’s kept his films alive all these years, including Titanic. If you can’t (or don’t want to) identify with the characters of Rose and Jack and their ensuing relationship then the film will fail for you - everything sinks or floats (excuse the pun) based on that. Thankfully I can identify with them, despite not having much of a liking for Leonardo DiCaprio, and I get sucked right in I’m sorry to say! Kate Winslet was at peak here and was photographed stunningly - her beauty was astounding and the plight that brings her to almost self-destruction is understandable and engaging. Titanic is almost a film of two halves, the first establishing the people along with their various situations while snowballing the relationship between the two leads, the second focusing on the effects of the catastrophic impact between ship and iceberg, the love story operating alongside. Because most of us truly feel for Rose and Jack by the time the ship strikes the berg there is a tingling emotional connection between us and the disaster that unfolds: the impact on the viewer is magnificent despite being pre-empted due to its historical significance. And even after seeing the movie several times, scenes where Rose is attempting to break Jack free from his handcuffs as water rises or the fumbling of a key in the lock of a barrier, for example, are incredibly tense; a sign of great cinematic storytelling. Underlying this are the class struggles that seemed to be more apparent in preceding eras, though divisions are probably as present now as they ever were. Herein people are treated according to their fateful status in life, and there is in hindsight a rather sledgehammer approach to this - the fact that Jack and Rose are from essentially opposing classes accentuates this social/political aspect of the narrative. This black and white view of life is where the only real problem in the film lies for me - the upper classes generate the handful of evil people in Titanic, and these people are all English of course (good being generally represented by Irish and American). This seemed to be the start of a trend for English-bashing in film, something that’s an easy target in today’s PC times. Aside from this hiccup, unconscious or otherwise, and a smattering of corny occurrences along the voyage that I don‘t really need to go into, Cameron pulls us inevitably to the sinking of the ship. This monolithic climax lasts for at least an hour, one very frightening and sobering hour, and this leads to a very emotional conclusion. The touching score is instrumental in maintaining the ongoing emotive drive and thankfully Celine Dion’s sappy voice and the piece that infinitely did the rounds on the radio back in ‘98 doesn’t kick in until the end credits are rolling. Whether Titanic is a historical recreation first and foremost or a romantic epic is up to the viewer to decide, but either way it’s a powerful and emotionally vibrant tale from a gifted director who’s been absent from feature films for way too long.

Posted on 1st January 2009
Under: Other | 7 Comments »

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