Archive for October, 2010

Witchcraft

1964, UK, Directed by Don Sharp

B&W, Running Time: 80 minutes

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

Happy H

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) In the name of Progress a building contractor has an ancient cemetery bulldozed to make way for a new complex, against the wishes of the Whitlock family whose ancestors are buried there. Wrapped up in the building project is Bill Lanier, the head of a family who has traditionally been at odds over the centuries with the Whitlocks. His involvement brings him into conflict with an ageing Morgan Whitlock, the main person who is vehemently opposed to the reuse/relocation of the graveyard despite nobody having been buried there for aeons. While this domestic bickering is going on, one of the upturned coffins on the building site is revealed to be open, and from it has emerged a long-dead woman - a subject of the aforementioned arguments and someone famed for her witchcraft practice back in darker ages, and the fact that she was buried alive for her crimes. Before long the contractor who had the Whitlocks’ cemetery plots ripped up in the first place is drowning in his own bath, then the old lady of the rival Lanier family inexplicably drives herself off the edge of a cliff - the resurrected witch would appear to be extracting sinister revenge using uncanny powers of mental projection and psychological manipulation.

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Don Sharp’s Witchcraft is comprised of a strong cast belting out their lines as if convinced by the proceedings, especially in the cases of Jack Hedley as main family man Bill Lanier and Lon Chaney as Morgan Whitlock. The latter, despite looking podgy and old, actually puts in a surprisingly aggressive performance that really grants his character an air of uncompromising intimidation. A sweet looking Diane Clare (from Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies) makes an appearance too as Morgan’s niece, someone who has forged a covert relationship with one of the Whitlocks adding an extra touch of complexity to the family feud. Sumptuously shot in Black & White this is a great example of the gothic chiller brought into the modern day (well, the sixties) mixing both worlds quite adeptly. At a glance resembling Barbara Steele in Black Sunday the witch who is accidentally returned from the grave is a creepy creation, one who wanders around quite mute but causing death in her wake, usually through some sort of mentally projected suggestion and/or the use of voodoo dolls. Her awakening is one of the film’s highlights: as Bill is surveying the damage during a nocturnal expedition to the graveyard he keeps thinking he can hear a sound coming from the upturned coffins, a quiet moaning in the dead of night - enough to make anybody jump in the car and rapidly exit I should imagine!

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Coupled with Devils of Darkness under the ‘Midnight Movies’ monicker (adopted by Fox following the acquisition of most of MGM‘s home video distribution rights in 2006), Witchcraft is the better of the two by some margin. The pacing is improved, acting uniformly more interesting, execution higher in atmosphere. The link between the two conceptually lies first and foremost in the portrayal of a group of devil-worshippers at the heart of each story. As a further and less obvious connection, it’s amusing to note that Leslie Nielson lookalike Victor Brooks plays an inspector in both films. In fact the actor seemed to be typecast as police authority figures but this clearly stems from his credible ability in such roles. The DVD transfer is very good as far as the video/audio quality is concerned, however I believe the image is cropped from a widescreen ratio (of 1.66:1) to fullscreen. This is unfortunate but it’s far from unwatchable. Nevertheless, the double bill has always been reasonably priced and for one spooky chiller coupled with a fairly average one it’s certainly not bad value.

Posted on 31st October 2010
Under: Horror | 3 Comments »

Devils of Darkness

1965, UK, Directed by Lance Comfort

Colour, Running Time: 88 minutes

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

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) Prologue: we get a glimpse into the past of some foreign land where a vampire (parading by the name of Count Sinstre!) curses the local gypsy community with his malevolent presence. Choosing one of the more nubile specimens to be his bride (presumably this being nothing to do with the titillating dance she performed just moments prior) he swiftly drains the life from her, to the horror of her genuine newly acquired husband, before granting her shell with undead re-animation so that her now pitiful existence is entirely focussed on serving him from that point on. Jumping forward to the sixties, a few friends are enjoying either general tourism or potholing trips in a French village. Whilst tunnelling underground a couple of them discover two coffins, one of which is empty, the other revealing an emerging hand! Of course not only does the adventurer quickly disappear but also so does the female friend of Paul, one of the men staying at the hotel. In the place of his abducted friend, Paul finds a bat-shaped talisman lying on the floor, unbeknownst to him this being an important part of a ritual that the aforementioned vampire is soon to hold whilst accompanied by his growing posse of hexed followers. Back in England the sceptical Paul attempts to find out more about people who believe in supernatural forces such as witches and the like. What he doesn’t realise is that Sinsitre is also in town, looking for the stolen amulet as well as a little revenge to appease his discontent. Paul befriends an elegant and solipsistic woman at a party before even she is lured in by Sinistre’s hypnotic advances, though this time for sacrificial purposes…

Devils of Darkness

Decidedly anaemic in terms of sex and violence and living in the shadow of Hammer‘s output of the time, Devils of Darkness is a reasonably efficient albeit ploddingly paced take on the vampire theme, entwining ideas of what was then increasingly popular satanic worship practices. The film tends to (leisurely) explore fears of devil-worship through a desire (represented by the thoughts/actions of the main character) to find sense in a practice increasingly at odds with a scientifically propelled new world. William Sylvester makes a decent mark as said central character Paul, a man whose rational mind is thrown off course by the barrage of strangeness that comes his way - you may remember Sylvester for his prominent role as Dr Floyd in Kubrick’s 2001. On the other hand I can’t make up my mind whether the campy Frenchman Hubert Noël is an asset to the film as Sinistre. I get the impression the production team were taking Hammer’s lead by introducing hints of sex and bright red blood at various intervals - Paul’s new London girlfriend is quite a sleek and voluptuous thing, baring as much flesh as the producers dared (which is not that much, believe me), and it’s no wonder Sinstre’s wife gets a tad jealous when she sees his new ‘acquisition’! Making fine use of the Eastman process, this colourfully shot film (transferred well for DVD) is talky and lacklustre is many respects, but does adequately demonstrate a couple of the fears of the time with some thought. Perhaps a more lively approach could have embedded this slightly deeper into the annals of cinema history, although at the hands of tired director Lance Comfort this would never be - this film was the end of his cinematic career and pretty much the end of his life (he died just a year later).

Posted on 24th October 2010
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

House of the Devil

2009, US, Directed by Ti West

Colour, Running Time: 95 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Metrodome; Video: 1.78:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS-MA

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) Heading into House of the Devil somewhat blindly I was admittedly expecting a traditional haunted house movie, having avoided reading much in way of reviews simply because I liked the look of it and didn’t want too much revealed before seeing it. Without spoiling much it’s more of a movie that’s ultimately about devil worship and ritual sacrifice, a world that Samantha, the young college student who is onscreen almost throughout, unwittingly gets herself tangled up in. Looking for some survival cash Samantha finds an advertisement for a babysitter role out in the countryside. On an evening happening to coincide with a widely publicised lunar eclipse, Sam persuades her friend Megan to drive her out to the place, which turns out to be a creepy old house near a cemetery. Meeting the strange old owner of the house it turns out the ‘babysitter’ advert wasn’t entirely truthful and the resident couple in fact want someone to make sure the lady’s mother is okay while they go out for the evening. Megan is suspicious of the whole thing but is persuaded to arrange collection of her friend around midnight after a substantial amount of money is offered to Sam for just four hours of vigil. After some time alone downstairs Sam starts looking around the house but sees no sign of the mother, however things start happening to suggest not all is normal in the household - Sam’s imagination may be overly active given the mystical climate of the night (and the fact that Night of the Living Dead is on TV!) but it’s clear there’s an air of uncanny discomfort in the isolated house.

House of the Devil

Most of the film does take place within the creepy titular building and there’s a surprisingly slow build up before any nasty stuff starts happening. I do generally like slow developments in a story personally, as it provides opportunity to appreciate the hell that eventually breaks loose, and its with this latter aspect that I have small issues - after all happens it feels a tad anti-climactic, without a solid point to acknowledge. There is a generous dose of atmosphere, plus the central performance (by Jocelin Donahue) is quite likeable and proficient, reminding me a little of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. There are amusing nods to the genre with the emergence (sometimes brief) of several cast members who’ve appeared in movies you’ve probably already seen: Mary Woronov was a genre regular from the likes of the funky Night of the Comet, to the not so funky Chopping Mall; Dee Wallace was of course in The Howling, Cujo, and a million other things (she’s still pretty prolific); Tom Noonan played one monster in Manhunter, and another kind in Monster Squad. Certainly a fun cast to help elevate the lower budget movie to the realms of the credible. What the director and his team have commendably managed to achieve is to create an incredibly authentic late seventies/early eighties vibe and appearance - you could really be fooled into thinking this had been shot in the around 1980 rather than a couple of years ago. Overall an efficient film that I think (after one viewing) needed a bit more chaos to balance out the slower pace of the first hour; as some films take time to grow on you it’s something I’ll return to possibly in a year or so.

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A specially commissioned VHS tape of House of the Devil was produced in the US to celebrate the film’s encapsulation of seventies/early eighties horror, apparently the first VHS to be commercially released in several years. I believe some time back Dark Sky (the US distributor) were doing a pretty cool VHS/DVD bundle that could be picked up by more dedicated fans. More interested in the best possible A/V presentation I opted for the movie on Blu-ray Disc. The 1080p/24 frames per second Blu-ray transfer looks very good with plenty of detail, though darker scenes are a bit swamped with black. Viewers will undoubtedly notice that there’s a fair amount of grain - some may be unhappy about this, however, it is to be expected more so than usual when a film is shot on 16mm (an unusual choice nowadays, but one I’m sure is deliberate given the objective). I still think it looks better than DVD, so once you get used to the grain it’s no real problem. The sound mix is less retro - DTS-HD makes sure there’s plenty going on with loud music effects often coming from behind and edging up the tension a bit. I certainly enjoyed the higher resolution sound mix myself (plus there are some nice music choices along the way). Extras include some deleted scenes, a 14 minute ’shooting’ documentary, trailer, plus two audio commentaries. Generally a good package of a film that will work well for some, yet need more time for others I suspect.

Posted on 9th October 2010
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Nekromantik

1987, Germany, Directed by Jorg Buttgereit

Colour, Running Time: 75 minutes

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

Amassing a notable degree of underground notoriety in the late eighties, Nekromantik was/is a film that refused to hold back in any sense, whether referring to its onscreen depiction of visceral gruesomeness, its rarely explored concept, or the downright bleakness of the story at hand. Rob is a bit of a loser who can’t hold down a job - somehow he just doesn’t fit in with the average group of people, of which there are surreptitious reasons for. His current role as ‘street cleaner’ involves removal from site of dead bodies after various unexpected incidents such as car accidents, suicides, accidental murders, etc. What his workmates don’t know is that he thieves bits of bodies (e.g. internal organs) whenever he sees the opportunity, taking them home to store in jars of formaldehyde. Surprisingly, he’s not a loner - his live-in girlfriend shares the same morbid passion. And this passion is granted vivid manifestation when he manages to get a complete corpse back to the apartment - the couple proceed to make sickening love to each other and the putrescent mess that lies on the bed. But his antisocial nature at work soon gets him an instant dismissal, causing his girlfriend some stress at the fact that he won’t now be able to obtain fresh cadavers and the like - she swiftly departs taking the rotting body with her. Rob’s mind descends into a turmoil and his life spirals further out of the grasp of whatever control he ever even had.

Nekromantik German poster

This film is something that you view very differently as you age, with opinion shifting between perversely screwed up entertainment to feeling downright depressed at the atrocities on sight and in mind. The infamous corpse-fu**ing sequence is shot with various optical effects obscuring the activity somewhat but there is enough there to render it pretty horrific (if one must be a necrophiliac then surely it would be more pleasant to get hold of a body that wasn’t rotting down to the bone!), and as it remains hung on the wall between bouts of ‘love’ making its dirty fluid drips into bowls beneath - with that and the jars of internal organs, etc, littering the shelves, the place must reek to Hell. Rob’s slide further into existential instability is accompanied and symbolised by interspersions of animal violence (the virtually unwatchable slaughter and skinning of a rabbit) and dreams where two lovers run through a field in slow motion tossing intestines to one another. All of this is accompanied with some of the most downbeat and devastating acoustic music ever heard on film: this stuff brings you spiritually to your knees. Rob’s destruction of the cat he buys to appease his girlfriend (thankfully the death not actually visible in this instance) is enough to break your soul. The eventual and inevitable resolution of his predicament of lost love is something you’ll never have seen in cinema before, and you’ll hope never to see again. The message seems to be that Life is stripped down to its primordial essentials and there is no God in the universe and no saviour from our journey to death and the decomposing shambles we are doomed to become afterwards. Admittedly amateurish in places, Nekromantik is nevertheless not a film any sensitive person is likely to enjoy, but it does elevate itself to the level of the unforgettable with its sheer audacity, visceral intensity, guts (no pun intended), and utterly bleak nihilism.

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Barrel’s DVD was released around 2001 and remains the sole disc worth picking up, though it’s long out of print. Presenting the fullframe version of the film about as well as possible on home video (it was shot on Super 8 so I doubt even Blu-ray could do any better with this primitive material) the image is as clear as it needs to be, especially if, like me, you originally experienced this film on bootleg VHS tape in horrendous condition. There are also loads of extras present (including one of Buttgereit’s insane 8mm shorts) making this a true collector’s edition. Not a film for the masses, or even the majority of horror fans, but something that has stamped its dirty mark on humanity and, for better or worse, remains indelibly in the minds of all who have witnessed it.

Posted on 2nd October 2010
Under: Horror | No Comments »

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