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Breakfast In The Ruins



Far Out isn't Far Enough.



Updated: 2018-01-18T12:15:14.462+00:00

 



Half Time Report:
Twin Peaks: The Return
(2017)

2018-01-17T17:39:35.781+00:00

PLEASE NOTE: For the avoidance of confusion, I’ve chosen to refer to the third series of Twin Peaks aired in 2017 as “Twin Peaks: The Return”, or “Twin Peaks 2017”. The blu-ray box set sitting next to my TV may herald it as “A Limited  Series Event”, but that makes it sound like promo for a range of aftershave or something, so I’ll avoid it and just stick to shorter suffix if nobody minds. ALSO: As a side effect of my decision to stick to general impressions rather than being drawn into the discussion of individual plot points or story elements in the text below, this post remains largely free of spoilers, so – readers who are even later than me in catching up with the new ‘Twin Peaks’ are advised to read on and fear not.Given that I posted my reflections on revisiting the original 1990-91 run of ‘Twin Peaks’ almost exactly two years ago, I suppose there may conceivably be some readers wondering what I made of the series’ much heralded 2017 reiteration. So, eight months late (which in fairness beats the 40+ years of lateness that apply to most of my posts here), it’s time for me to come down from the mountain and present my thoughts on the first 50% of this project’s epic eighteen episode run, which I have been watching for the first time this month.At some point in the near future, I will aim to follow this up with another post, in order to assess how these half-digested impressions, opinions and hypotheses hold up once I have completed by viewing of the series.1. Running on Empty: Episodes #1 - #6Though episode # 1 sailed by nicely on the excitement and anticipation of being back in this world and meeting these familiar characters again, I’m afraid I can’t avoid the fact that episodes #2 to #6 proved a real drag. My experience of watching them was in fact characterised by a slow realisation that ‘Twin Peaks’ 2017 was shaping up to be a considerable disappointment – either an entirely cynical venture on the part of David Lynch & Mark Frost, or else a colossal artistic miscalculation.It’s not that the footage and ideas of which the seemingly endless, disjointed narrative strands that comprise these episodes are objectively bad, or boring, or offensive or anything, but… how can I best put this?The core episodes of the original 1990-91 ‘Twin Peaks’ (which I would define as including everything up to and including the unmasking of Laura Palmer’s killer) were alternately mysterious, terrifying, funny and charming.That’s not just a random list of subjective hyperbole either – it’s a very specific one. It is difficult for a piece of narrative film to maintain any of those feelings over an extended period of time, yet ‘Twin Peaks’ succeeded in delivering a intoxicating mixture of all of them, in over-powering quantities, week-on-week. That – more than any of the cultish Lynchian weirdness that people immediately associate with the show – is the reason why it made such an impression on viewers, and why it has acquired such legendary status.This achievement is thrown into stark relief by the fact that the initial batch of episodes of the 2017 ‘Twin Peaks’ – as master-minded by a pair of creators now gifted with total freedom and seemingly unlimited resources – initially fail to deliver on any of these qualities.Somewhat uniquely in my experience of watching film and television, they furthermore beg our indulgence in asking us to sit through an expanse of footage longer than some directors’ entire filmographies, before any equivalent redeeming qualities may or may not eventually begin to coalesce. Should I wish to, I could prattle on for thousands of words about the myriad things that annoyed me through the arid expanse of episodes #2 to #6, but in retrospect, it occurs to me that what really irked me about them was basically the way that – just like show’s original run – ‘Twin Peaks’ 2017 taps into the aesthetic of its era.Just as the unique qualities of the ‘Twin Peaks’ 1990-’91 grew from the mutated framework of an ‘80s-‘90[...]



Annual Report:
The Sweeney / 1978.

2018-01-07T12:01:28.212+00:00

If there’s one thing I always like to find under the tree on Christmas morn, it’s a bloody good annual, and as such, I’m happy to be able to revive the ‘Annual Report’ feature I instigated here two years ago, this time with a look at one of the gifts I was lucky enough to receive during the recent festive period – The Sweeney Annual, as published by Brown Watson in 1978.For readers outside the UK who may be unaware of the precise significance of The Sweeney, or indeed unfamiliar with the concept of annuals as a whole – never fear. Basically the cover reproduced above tells you everything you need to know. I’m sure that your own home country must have boasted its own equivalent TV show (and questionable cash-in merchandise thereof) during the 1970s, thus equipping you perfectly to conceptualise the riches that The Sweeney Annual (1978) is about to rain down upon us, swept in upon a magnificent tide of orange, brown and grey. [If you do require further clarification however, here's a wiki link.]As was usual practice in this era, the writers, artists, editors and designers who contributed to The Sweeney Annual remain entirely anonymous – and indeed a case could be made that they may have been happier that way, given the obvious haste with which this volume seems to have been thrown together. There’s not even a contents page, or any introductory text – it just gets straight down to business with the comic strip below.As you’ll note, the art here is a tad inconsistent, although the decision to lead with a story in which The Sweeney take on international terrorists, rather than the domestic crooks who normally filled their schedule, is an interesting one. Otherwise, the mixture of casual racial stereotyping and a notable lack of the usual pungent Sweeney badinage leave me feeling a bit “meh” about this one, although there are some very nice individual panels here and there.After a space-filling article on ‘Famous East End Criminals’ (no prizes for guessing which one gets the most space), we move on to that highlight of any annual – the crossword!Remember what I said about suspecting this annual was put together in a bit of a hurry? The prevalence of pages like the one below speaks for itself I think.I love the combination of the photo and title/font accompanying the text story below. It would have made a great readymade record cover for some second wave aggro-punk band that might have formed a few years after this was published.If the earlier comic strip was a bit of a disappointment, the colour one scanned below is an absolute belter I think, neatly compressing everything that was good and right about The Sweeney into a concise six pages. A bang-up job by whichever anonymous British comics freelancers were responsible.No, me neither.There follows another boring article about the applications of science in modern policing, but…. cor, strewth, turns out maybe I should have scanned those bits for you anyway – looks like we’ve got to take a test! What is this, school!?And, that’s it! Final page – we’re outta here!To check your answers to the Sweeney crossword and quiz, please check Found Objects postings for January 2018.[...]



The 25 Best Films I Watched for the First Time in 2017.

2017-12-26T19:43:06.438+00:00

Reminders of a better world, more or less. 1. Belladonna of Sadness (Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)Words like “astounding” and “inexplicable” don’t even begin to do justice to this one-of-a-kind motion picture, wherein a team of ambitious creatives working for manga godhead Osamu Tezuka’s short-lived animated film studio were somehow allowed to create a feature length psychedelic fantasia loosely inspired by Jules Michelet’s 19th century mystic reinterpretation of the European witchcraft mythos, ‘La Sorcière’. Constructed principally around hundreds of ink & water-colour images created for the project by idiosyncratic illustration genius Kuni Kukai, the film is further enlivened both though the application of every kind of wild and ramshackle animation technique that anime circa 1973 had to offer, and by a hair-raising freak-rock/avant-jazz/enka score from composer Masahiko Satô. The resulting exploration of feudal suppression, female empowerment, psychotropic delirium and manichean cosmology is by turns erotic, grotesque, harrowing, frightening, transgressive and almost overpoweringly beautiful, throwing weighty symbolic/sexual imagery around with the wild abandon of Alexandro Jodorowsky gate-crashing an acid test in the offices of Metal Hurlant magazine. It’s pretty damn far-out, and if you’ve not yet seen it, you really should.2. Lone Wolf & Cub: Babycart at the River Styx (Kenji Misumi, 1972)One of my greatest cinematic pleasures in 2017 has been finally getting around to watching the ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ series in its original (non-‘Shogun Assassin’-ated) form. Though the first film (‘Sword of Vengeance’) is decent enough, it is with this second instalment that things really take flight, as the usually mild-mannered Kenji Misumi unleashes one of the most spectacularly surreal celebrations of extreme violence ever seen on screen.Any sense of narrative structure or physical logic is soon lost as blood and limbs fly, colours dance and trampolined bodies pirouette through the air in slo-mo, transforming Kazuo Koike's austere manga into a psychedelic nightmare of bushido melodrama taken to ever more ridiculous extremes.Utilising both sheer excess and an almost cartoon-like sense of visual imagination, Misumi and his collaborators take advantage of the unusual degree of freedom offered by Shintaro Katsu’s independent ‘KatsuPro’ studio to deliver a fantastical martial arts epic as jaw-dropping as anything achieved by Hong Kong’s more technically accomplished action cinema… 3. Lone Wolf & Cub: Babycart to Hades (Kenji Misumi, 1972)….and, this somewhat less celebrated third movie in the series is just as good! Picking up exactly where he left off, Misumi & co. if anything go even crazier in this one, whilst the director also somehow finds time for some surprisingly tender moments, expanding upon Ogami and Diagoro’s father-son relationship and allowing us a glimpse of the latter’s fairly unique experience of the world, reminding us of the affecting mixture of bloodshed and pathos that defined Misumi’s best entries in the ‘Zatoichi’ franchise.Also, the finale of this one, in which Ogami Itto literally takes on an entire army single-handed, is arguably the highlight of the entire series – a sequence so extraordinary and shamelessly absurd, you’ll scarcely have time to question where exactly Ogami went in Tokugawa-era Japan to get his baby-cart kitted out with a brace of apparently recoil-free sub-machine guns, before the next onslaught of carnage rains down. Rarely if ever have depictions of man’s inhumanity to man been so seamlessly transformed into pure, guilt-free, exhilarating entertainment. 4. Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1931)I think I can just about get away with classing this as a ‘first time viewing’, because although I had  tried to watch my old VHS copy of Carl Th. Dreyer’s exceptionally strange film on a number of occasions, the picture quality was so bad I n[...]



Exploito All’Italiana:
Night Train Murders
(Aldo Lado, 1975)

2017-12-17T20:26:32.345+00:00

In the course of writing previous reviews for this ‘Exploito All’Italiana’ thread, I’ve made frequent references to “the great Italian rip-off machine” and suchlike, but how are we supposed to respond on occasions when this “machine” upsets our patronising critical notions by delivering a “rip off” that is actually considerably better than the source film it is imitating…?In qualifying this assertion, I should probably admit straight away that, influential and epochal though it may be, I’m not a fan of Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House On The Left’ (1972). If that means I have to hand in my badge at the front desk and surrender my right to pass judgement on exploitation movies, then so be it, but what can I say? When cinema gets down to the ‘Last House..’ level of nastiness, I’m basically just too nice for this game, and, unless there’s some reassuringly legit good filmic artistry to go along with the sleaze, I’m bailing out.Which, conveniently, is exactly where Aldo Lado comes in, with his film ‘L'ultimo Treno Della Notte’ (‘Last Stop on the Night Train’, aka ‘Don't Ride on Late Night Trains’, ‘Torture Train’ and ‘Xmas Massacre’, but best known in the English speaking world simply as ‘Night Train Murders’), which hit Italian screens in April 1975.As you might well expect given the thoughts expressed in the preceding paragraphs, I have previously tended to avoid Italy’s attempts to cash-in on ‘Last House On the Left’ like the proverbial plague, and ‘Late Night Trains’ is, undeniably, an imitation of ‘Last House..’.  In terms of plot synopsis in fact, the two films are virtually identical, with Lado adding little to Craven’s minimal rape/murder/revenge scenario beyond the addition of a train.(Of course, Lado may well have claimed he was taking his inspiration from Inger Bergman’s ‘Virgin Spring’ (1960) – the original source for ‘Last House..’ – but no prizes for guessing whether it was Bergman or Craven’s box office that the producers had in mind when they took this particular project to market.)(1)Thank heavens then that Aldo Lado was far from your typical exploito-sleaze merchant. In fact, he is a director I am increasingly inclined to regard as some kind of unheralded savant of Italian genre cinema, at least on the basis of the three films by him I have seen to date. His two gialli (1971’s ‘Short Night of the Glass Dolls’ and 1972’s ‘Who Saw Her Die?’) are among the best, and most unconventional, films that genre has to offer, and as such, it was Lado’s name (along with admiring comments from several critical voices whose opinions I value) that finally convinced me to take a deep breath and press play on ‘Night Train Murders’. And, without wishing to sound too pompous about it, I’m very glad I did, because, as it turns out, this is a far more challenging and rewarding film than its subject matter, promotional material and unsavoury reputation would ever have led me to expect.Certainly, there is little in the film’s lengthy opening sequence – a tightly edited montage of footage of the bustling, pre-Christmas shopping streets of Munich, set to Demis Roussos’s exuberantly good-natured pop hit ‘A Flower is All You Need’ – to suggest that we’re about to take a stumble into bleak video nasty territory. Instead, it is happy merely to function as a lively and extremely skillful slice of visual storytelling, ensuring that, by the time they’ve boarded a train bound for Italy (heading back home for a family Christmas), we already feel as if we know our ostensible protagonists Margaret (Irene Miracle, who later appeared in Argento’s ‘Inferno’) and Lisa (Laura D’Angelo, who didn’t) pretty well.Likewise, quick cutaways to the exploits of the characters we will subsequently know only as ‘Blackie’ (Flavio Bucci, who surprisingly went on to play Daniel the blind pianist in ‘Suspiria’ just two years later) an[...]



Exploito All’Italiana:
Mad Dog Killer
(Sergio Grieco, 1977)

2017-12-11T23:10:08.281+00:00

Arriving towards the tail-end of the poliziotteschi’s ‘golden age’ in October 1977, the premise of Sergio Grieco’s ‘La Belva Col Mitra’ (which google tells me this translates literally as ‘The Beast With a Uterus’ – surely some mistake!?) most closely resembles that of Umberto Lenzi’s seminal ‘Almost Human’ (1974), telling as it does the unedifying tale of Nanni Vitali (Helmut Berger), a remorseless, adrenalin-crazed psychopath who has just broken out of prison with the help of his loyal gang of thugs, and  of Inspector Santini (Richard Harrison), the dogged cop who is hot on his trail.Despite adopting this ‘Dirty Harry’-derived “cop vs psycho” framework however, ‘Mad Dog Killer’ (let’s just call it that and avoid the whole ‘uterus’ business) never really gets the engine running as either a police procedural or an action movie, with Grieco instead spinning the wheel in a different direction entirely. (1)Clearly this was a pretty rushed, slap-dash production, and Grieco’s direction often feels pretty amateurish. Editing is ragged, continuity between shots is all over the place, and DP Vittorio Bernini’s framing and photography is the very definition of ‘perfunctory’, all of which suggests that this crew had little desire to compete in the high stakes game of ‘70s crime movies.To highlight one of the movie’s more glaring technical shortcomings - we expect exterior shots during car chase sequences to be undercranked in films like this in order to create the illusion of speed, but how are we supposed to react to a movie that apparently can’t be bothered to re-adjust to the correct speed for interior car shots, thus lending the vehicles’ occupants the twitchy, insane mannerisms of hummingbirds? Or, to put it another way, can you imagine the sheer amount of non-fuck-giving it takes to shoot footage like this and keep it in the final cut of your commercially released crime movie? Even Jess Franco – who was occasionally known to fake slow-motion by getting his actors to move slowly – must surely salute Grieco’s audacity here.If questioned on the matter, I’d imagine Grieco’s answer would likely have been that there was no time to re-shoot, and anyway, it looks wild, so gives a fuck? Such is the punk-ass ideology that seems to prevail throughout ‘Mad Dog Killer’, and, once you get into the spirit of things, it’s difficult to deny that it suits the film’s unpalatable subject matter pretty well.More problematically however, this approach also serves to make a nonsense of what should be one of the movie’s pivotal set-piece scenes, in which Berger’s gang carry out a raid on the factory where Marisa Mell’s character’s father works as a security guard, unaware that Harrison’s cops await them in hiding. It’s the perfect set-up for an absolutely storming, off-the-hook action sequence, but unfortunately things are conceived and staged in such a nonsensical manner that it falls completely flat, with logic, character motivations and physical geography all so woefully skewed that viewers are simply left confused, rather than enthralled. You’d think a guy who spent most of the ‘50s and ‘60s making pirate and spy movies would be able to keep a better handle on things, but again, Grieco’s spirit whispers in my ear, who gives a fuck? I mean, this clearly wasn’t the kind of thing they were going for here anyway.What they were going for, in a word, is *nastiness* - pure, nails-down-the-blackboard post-‘Last House On The Left’ grindhouse sadism. And, on that score, ‘Mad Dog Killer’ delivers in spades, subjecting us to a sweaty, gasoline-choked ordeal somewhat in the vein of Mario Bava’s ‘Rabid Dogs’ or Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Hitch Hike (if, admittedly, at rather the other end of the scale of cinematic competence).As such, the movie’s REAL calling card sequence (or at least, one of two, along with the astonishing finale[...]



Exploito All’Italiana:
Five Dolls For An August Moon
(Mario Bava, 1970)

2017-12-05T11:14:53.399+00:00

Quite possibly the least celebrated of Mario Bava’s many contributions to the horror / giallo field, ‘5 Bambole per la Luna d'Agosto’, realised in Italy in March 1970, is unlikely to find a place on many Bava fans’ top ten lists… or even many Edwige Fenech fans’ top ten lists, for that matter. If you’re a dedicated viewers of European genre movies, perhaps it won’t even make your top ten William Berger films. Hell, even top ten films for which Piero Umiliani did the music might be pushing it. But, nonetheless, I still retain a huge soft spot for this underachieving body count picture. Taken purely as a compressed dose of pure 1969/70 Italian Riviera decadence in fact, I actually find it pretty unbeatable. (1)It is well-known by this point that Bava directed this film under protest, after the producers refused him the extra time he had requested to rework Mario di Nardo’s script into something he considered workable. And, watching with almost fifty years hindsight, I think we can probably share Mario’s pain, for it is di Nardo’s shoddy and derivative plotting – and the production’s dogged determination to stick to it – that is ultimately responsible for ‘Five Dolls..’ failure to attain the same level of quality as the classics Bava usually seemed capable of banging out like clockwork whenever he was allowed near the horror or giallo genres.Vague and incoherent (though not in a particularly fun way), this Agatha Christie-derived island-bound whodunit scenario revolves – thrillingly - around the formula for a new kind of industrial resin. This is held solely within the bonce of Berger’s grumpily moralistic Herr Dr Scientist (who is immediately differentiated from the conniving playboys around him through his decision to wear an uncomfortable-looking woolly jumper to his sunny island retreat). Needless to say, the aforementioned conniving playboys and their equally conniving wives are all on the case to obtain said formula, and soon million dollar cheques are being idly tossed around as inconvenient corpses concurrently start to pile up, the latter generating a sense of mild annoyance in the surviving characters roughly equivalent to which might be expected if they discovered that, say, the meat for their dinner had gone bad or something.Such is the overwhelming disinterest generated by this scenario that, when the characters start indulging in sordid extra-marital liaisons and accompanying back-stabbing, the sense of transgression is somewhat muted by the fact that we can’t quite remember who most of them were supposed to married to in the first place.Unfortunately, my own (non-conniving) wife tends to be a stickler for all this bloody “plot” rubbish, so, after the film’s spectacularly nonsensical attempt at a twist ending rolled around, we were obliged to spend a good ten minutes vainly trying to establish what was going on – including replays of certain key scenes – before she’d let it be. In the end she reckoned she’d solved the mystery to her satisfaction, but I remain happily and uncaringly mystified.Never fear though, because, more so than ever in Italian genre cinema, IT DOES NOT MATTER what is actually going on here. Effectively leaving the script for dead at the side of the road, Bava instead wisely concentrates his efforts upon distracting us from its all-too-evident shortcomings, doing his utmost to make each shot more striking, more gloriously opulent and packed with more weird, incidental detail, than the last. And when Mario Bava sets his utmost in that direction, you know you’re in for a good time, regardless of overbearing producers, lazy-ass writers or budgetary constraints.As is often the case with Bava, the environment in with ‘5 Dolls..’ takes place is almost entirely illusory, with the beautifully executed matte shot that creates the impression of a ultra-kitsch space age beach house perched precariously upon an[...]



Got Carters.

2017-11-26T18:01:50.930+00:00

Much like the later New English Library Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks, collecting these Carter Brown books with the Robert McGinnis girly artwork can start to feel like assembling a pack of trading cards or top trumps after a while.Perhaps paperback collectors should devise some sort of game where we deal them out and play for keeps, using a system of values based on the coolness of the cover art, or something?Anyway, here are three particularly choice additions to my hand, all picked up on a trip to Hay On Wye over the summer. ‘The Velvet Vixen’ in particular is one of my absolute faves I think. Look at that foot!All of these were published in the UK by New English Library’s Four Square imprint between 1964 and 1966.[...]



October Horrors Bonus Edition (#15):
The Devil’s Men /
‘Land of the Minotaur’

(Kostas Karagiannis, 1976)

2017-11-11T15:22:17.275+00:00

Yes, I know it’s no longer October and Halloween has long been and gone, but - would you believe that, on the same night that I watched The Flesh & The Fiends last month, I took another random pick from my pile of unwatched British horror films and *accidentally* managed to cue up a Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasence double bill? I didn’t get a chance to finish my review of the second feature in time to slot it into October’s marathon, but, in light of such a splendid synchronicity, it would seem a shame to leave the second Don & Pete extravaganza un-reviewed, so here we go.---A long, drifting, rather sun-dazed expanse of nothing of particular importance, ‘The Devil’s Men’ (released in the USA under the somewhat more instructive title ‘Land of The Minotaur’) forms part of a small sub-set of ‘70s horror films that attempted to relocate the familiar atmospheric traits of gothic horror to the more ‘exotic’ terrain of Greece - a country that had recently become a lot more accessible to foreign visitors as a result of the contemporaneous boom in package holidays.Sitting in a loose triumvirate of “Hellenic horror” alongside Robert Hartford-Davis’s troubled ‘Incense For The Damned’ (1970) and Julio Salvador & Ray Danton’s ‘Hannah: Queen of The Vampires’ (an American/Spanish co-production, aka ‘Crypt of the Living Dead’, 1973), I'm sorry to have to report that, even when placed in this less than august company, ‘Land of the Minotaur’ probably stands as the weakest entry in this most marginal of sub-sub-genres, despite being the only one actually directed by a Greek, and the only one to make use of the opportunities presented by Greek mythology and culture.The story here posits an island (Crete presumably, although I’m not sure where the film was actually shot, and an exact location is never specified in the script) on which a remote, mountainous town has rather unfeasibly fallen under the control of – wait for it - Count Corofax, an exiled Carpathian aristocrat, played of course by Cushing. In his new home, Corofax (did he live in the next valley over from Count Filofax or something?) has seen fit to revive an ancient Minoan fertility cult, convincing the local populace to join him in a kind of Lord Summerisle-type arrangement that sees them assist him in sacrificing wandering tourists to a fire-breathing Minotaur statue(!) located in a secret chamber beneath the town’s (extremely impressive) ancient ruins.For some reason, the sacrificial victims must always take the form of a male/female couple, which would rather seem to contradict the conventional notion of the Minotaur being offered an annual selection of virgins, but… well, as you’ve probably already gathered, this is not the kind of movie in which attention to such historical detail plays a big role.On the other side of the island meanwhile, Father Roche (Donald Pleasence) is an irascible but good-natured Irish priest with a penchant for befriending the happy-go-lucky, hippie-ish traveller types who seem to keep crossing his path in their VW camper vans. Several of the Father’s young friends have already gone missing after venturing into Corofax’s realm, and being at heart a priest of the old fashioned type, he needs little encouragement to begin ranting about how said land belongs to the devil and no god-fearing person should go near it etc etc.Early on, ‘Land of the Minotaur’ pulls a bit of a ‘Psycho’ by initially presenting some of Father Roche’s archaeology student chums as our protagonists… only to see them fall victim to the Minotaur cult in pretty short order after they disregard the priest’s advice and start mooching about in the cursed ruins. The girlfriend of one of the missing men (Luan Peters, from ‘Twins of Evil’ and ‘The Flesh & Blood Show’) is subsequently left high and d[...]



Happy Halloween, etc.

2017-10-31T23:48:47.355+00:00

Well, that’s that. Over 20,000 words of horror movie reviewin’ posted in thirty days, somehow fitted in alongside an extremely busy and stressful period of day-to-day life. I must be crazy. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them and watching (at least some of) the films, anyway.As it turns out, I stuck pretty much entirely to writing about films I was watching for the first time during this reviewing marathon, so, to round things off, here are some quick capsule takes on a few old favourites / repeat watches I also managed to fit in over the October season, culminating in a few more first-watches from a Halloween movie night I undertook with friends this weekend and don’t have time to write up in full. (Naturally those last ones weren’t my own viewing picks, but sometimes it’s nice to hand the reins to someone else and see where you end up, y’know?) Anyway - PHEW.House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944)IMHO, this is probably the weakest link in the chain of Universal’s core “Frankenstein & pals” monster movies (Abbott & Costello not withstanding), so I found myself really questioning my priorities in life upon realising I was watching it for a third time. In my defence, I can at least make the case that the opening twenty minutes or so here are *really good*, with Boris Karloff putting in an absolutely fantastic turn as the sociopathic Frankenstein disciple freed from his cell by a convenient bolt of lightning before absconding with his hunchback assistant to hook up with George Zucco’s travelling sideshow troupe, who are on the road with The Authentic Coffin of Count Dracula. Just wonderful, old school monster movie stuff, oozing atmosphere. Such a shame that after that it all goes to hell – the entire segment featuring John Carradine’s spiv Dracula is just bloody awful (it looks as if they pulled him in off the backlot for the role with about five minutes’ notice before shooting), and, after he’s disposed of, the promise of the opening seems to have dissipated, with the remainder of the movie becoming a lame-brained whose-brain-is-going-where type farce, with Karloff more or less giving it up for a bad job as Chaney’s Larry Talbot bangs on incessantly about his woes and the rest of the supporting cast run around killing time until the torch-wielding mob turns up. Ho hum.House of Dracula (Erle C. Kenton, 1945)My first time revisiting this one for a while, and it’s actually a fair bit better than its predecessor, despite the lack of Karloff. Carradine seems to have got his shit together sufficiently to turn his “Baron Latos” take on Dracula into a rather more menacing and interesting character this time around, and Kenton likewise comes through with some rather cool set-piece scenes and proper filmmaking type flourishes.The plot-line – which sees Onslow Stevens’ rationally minded neurologist somehow ending up with both Dracula and the Wolfman on his list of patients and Frankenstein’s Monster defrosting on his gurney, all within the space of one memorable evening – is weird enough to maintain interest, and overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable curtain call for the Universal monsters, wisely ushering them off the stage before things got *too* ropey in the post-war years.Twins of Evil (John Hough, 1972)A while back, my friend Anthony took me to task for omitting this one from the “Top 15 Hammers” list I did a few years ago, and, upon re-visiting it for the first time in a few years, I must offer him my apologies, because it is indeed absolutely fantastic, and well deserving of a high ranking place on any such list.Tudor Gates’ ultra-pulpy script drives things way over the edge of self-parody (perhaps the reason I’ve underrated the film in the past?), but the chaps in charge of production design, [...]



October Horrors #14:
The Flesh & The Fiends
(John Gilling, 1960)

2017-10-30T10:36:04.071+00:00

 “THIS IS THE STORY OF LOST MEN AND LOST SOULS. IT IS A STORY OF VICE AND MURDER. WE MAKE NO APOLOGIES TO THE DEAD. IT IS ALL TRUE.”Thus reads the text super-imposed over the picturesque opening shot of 1960’s ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’, an exceptionally seedy grave-robbing melodrama that must surely rank as one of the most artistically accomplished films to have emerged from under the auspices of notoriously tight-fisted British producers (Robert S.) Baker & (Monty) Berman.Now, before we get stuck into this one, I must confess that the whole Victorian grave-robber/Burke & Hare mythos has never really appealed to me very much. Of all the perennial horror subjects that have persevered through the history of cinema in fact, I’ve always thought that this was one of the least compelling. In reality of course, the Edinburgh grave-robbing flap in which Burke & Hare played the most infamous part - largely an unfortunate side effect of the city’s medical college allowing impoverished students to pay for their studies in bodies (I mean, what did they THINK was going to happen?) – is fairly interesting, but, in terms of fiction, it doesn’t exactly strike me as a tale that deserves to resound through the ages. I mean, a few shifty characters start selling bodies to doctors in order to get by - so what? In horror terms, it’s pretty banal stuff. I don’t have much time for real life-inspired serial killer films either, but at least those guys had a certain mystique about them, y’know what I mean?The best way to approach this subject, I therefore feel, is to bypass the usual logic of a horror film and instead explore the wider milieu of the class inequality and social circumstances underpinning the grim tale… which thankfully is the approach that co-writer/director John Gilling here delivers in spades (no pun intended).I’ll save you my whole cahiers du cinema bit, but, suffice to say, the deeper I dig into British commercial cinema of the ‘50s and ‘60s (and digging has been slow, but steady over the past decade or so), the more convinced I become that Gilling should be considered as one of the great, lost auteurs labouring in that particular field.Though the journeyman nature of his career makes it difficult to draw a straight thematic line through all his work, I believe that Gilling’s films tend to be characterised by a strong feel for gutsy, working class directness (not exactly an uncommon trait amongst British directors of his era, admittedly), combined with a black-hearted sense of cynicism aimed at all levels of society – the latter being particularly tangible with regard to the awkward or threatening situations in which different social classes interact.Such an approach made Gilling a natural for hard-boiled crime movies – indeed, he made numerous films in this vein, and the one I have seen to date (1963’s ‘Panic!’) is excellent – but it also led him into more troubled and uncertain waters when box office trends caused him to turn his attentions increasingly toward horror, science fiction and historical adventures during the ‘60s, lending his work in these genres a raw and morally ambiguous flavour that sometimes proved pretty difficult for audiences to digest.Front and centre in this regard stands ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’, which, though it is not my personal favourite of his films (hey, dude directed Plague of the Zombies), could well be a contender for Gilling’s masterpiece, should the auteurists eventually come knocking.From the outset, ‘The Flesh..’ draws a sharp distinction between the austere elegance of the private medical academy presided over by indefatigable anatomical research enthusiast Dr Knox (Peter Cushing), and the raging underworld of unruly taverns and brothels that surround it amid the w[...]



October Horrors #13:
Graveyard Disturbance
(Lamberto Bava, 1988)

2017-10-29T01:16:40.087+01:00

So it occurred to me that if there is one thing missing from Halloween movie run-down thus far, it’s *’80s*.Scanning over potential viewing options for a way to rectify this, I hit upon ‘Graveyard Disturbance’. Yes, Graveyard Disturbance! It’s a great name for a thrash metal album, and hopefully a great name for a horror movie too. It’s helmed by Lamberto Bava shortly after he came off the ‘Demons’ movies, and, as per just about every Italian horror movie of note made after 1980, Dardano Sacchetti is on script duty. Perfect, barrel-scraping ’88 vintage. Party on!Well, as I soon discovered, asking “what could possibly go wrong?” of a Lamberto Bava movie is always a foolhardy proposition, but, before Italio-horror’s prodigal son delivered the answer in spades, ‘Graveyard Disturbance’ did at least open in precisely the way I hoped it would.As a second-rate Duran Duran style electro-pop number plays from a dashboard boombox, we see a series of bold images, all of which are soon revealed to be air-brushed onto the chassis of a van belonging to one of the movie’s gaggle of teenage characters. Amongst the things this dude has painstakingly reproduced on his wheels are: the poster to Dario Argento’s ‘Inferno’; the cover of Judas Priest’s ‘British Steel’ album; the famous barbarian-woman-riding-giant-bird poster from the ‘Heavy Metal’ movie; Madonna circa ‘True Blue’; some leering zombie/vampire heads; a photo-realistic representation of a rock band on stage; some big, Rolling Stones style lips on the bonnet, smokin’ a doobie. It is just about the greatest thing I’ve seen in my life.Riding in this magnificent vehicle are a gaggle of hapless, instantly dislikeable teens, straight from slasher movie central casting. I suppose we must consider the possibility that they may have been slightly more endearing in the original Italian, but the English dub (my only option for viewing) is brutal. Enraging me right from the outset, the characters irk the van driver/owner guy by variously referring to his beloved van not only as a “heap of junk”, but even more insultingly, as a “car” and, on one occasion, a “truck”. The fucking idiots. I know sloppy post-sync dubbing isn’t necessarily their fault, but I still can’t wait for them to die. Because that’s what happens is these films. Isn’t it? Lamberto, Dardano, can you clarify…?Anyway, before we get ahead of ourselves - I’m not sure what part of the world these kids are supposed to be from, where they’re supposed to be going, or where they currently are – aside from a single reference to them being on “vacation”, we’re left in the dark. But what does it matter, once the Horror Movie Fun begins. Because, it will begin. Right guys…?After they ill-advisedly steal some chocolate bars from a convenience store and swerve through a line of red & white tape to avoid a police check-point (what?), our young protagonists find themselves hopelessly lost in a remote, fog-shrouded woodland area of whatever-place-it-is-they’re-in, where, for no reason, they see driverless, Dracula-style coach.Abandoning the van (nooo) after an unsuccessful attempt to cross a river, they are forced to continue on foot with their camping gear, and their annoyingness intensifies. One guy’s sole personality trait is that he is a would-be wilderness survival type, so he decides what to do (“follow the river, rivers lead to towns”), whilst the others mockingly call him “Rambo”. Another guy meanwhile plays jokes and does a Bela Lugosi voice. Van owner guy (his thing is, he owns the van) rounds out the male trio, whilst the fairer sex is represented by one girl who is “dumb”, and another who has no discernable personality traits, but she does wear glasses a[...]



October Horrors #12:
The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb
(Michael Carreras, 1964)

2017-10-26T22:46:40.408+01:00

 It’s funny how, when it comes to mummy movies, the fortunes of Hammer’s entries in the sub-genre during the 1960s/70s almost exactly mirror the pattern established by Universal three decade earlier – i.e., an artistically accomplished but commercially under-performing initial film, belatedly followed by a series of considerably less ambitious, lower budgeted sequels that are generally considered the lowliest entries in their respective catalogues of horror movies. Could this really have been an accidental case of history repeating itself, or were James Carreras and Tony Hinds to be found flicking through The Big Book of Movie History in the early 1960s, asking “right, where did Universal go next”..?This many decades down the line, who can say, but, either way, I have an inexplicable fondness for the mummy sequels of both eras, and I feel that Hammer’s efforts in particular get an undeservedly bad rap. ‘Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb’ (1971) is a fine example of weird, contemporary-set ‘70s UK horror, and whilst ‘The Mummy’s Shroud’ (1967) is certainly no classic, it nonetheless has some strong elements and is, I believe, a lot better than its dismal critical reputation would tend to suggest. That just leaves us then with 1964’s ‘The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb’, which until this month was one of the few Hammer horrors I had never seen. So, now that I’ve finally ticked it off the list – time for a review!And, well – ahem - this one is a b-movie alright, there’s no question about that. Written, produced and directed by son-of-the-boss Michael Carreras, ‘Curse..’ might as well begin with workmen constructing the sets behind a board reading “utilitarian supporting feature mummy movie in progress – apologies for any inconvenience”, such is its straight-down-to-business determination to deliver the expected mummy movie ingredients with a minimum of fuss. Set in 1900, what we have here is an entirely predictable tale of an ersatz-Carter archaeological team uncovering the lost tomb of the great Pharaoh Ra-something-or-other, and falling victim to the titular curse when they ill-advisedly go against the advice of the Egyptian government(!) and ship the whole caboodle back to London.The Egyptian stuff in Carreras’s script (written under his Henry Younger pseudonym) seems to have been derived purely from comic book cliché without the slightest resort to genuine reference material, and… basically things proceed exactly as you would expect them to within the established remit of a mummy movie, so I won’t bore you with the details. The only note of narrative interest in the initial plot set-up arises from the conflict between the earnest archaeologists (Ronald Howard and Jack Gwillim) who want to see their discoveries properly persevered in a museum, and the crass American huckster who funded their expedition (Fred Clark), who wants to take the Pharaoh’s mummy on the road as part of a corny sideshow attraction.Reading between the lines, I can’t help but speculate that this plot line might to some extent have reflected tensions within Hammer at the time; as Terrence Fisher, Cushing and Lee all laboured away on the creatively ambitious but somewhat uncommercial The Gorgon, might Carreras have felt himself charged with saving their bacon by knocking out a goddamn, no-nonsense mummy picture to pull a few undemanding punters into the ensuing double-bill…? Again, who can say.Leaving such speculation aside and getting down to business however, ‘Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb’ suffers in the first instance from a notable lack of recognisable Hammer ‘faces’. Which is not to say that the cast members who are here don’t acquit themselves perfectly adequately, but the lack of th[...]



October Horrors #11:
The Man From Planet X
(Edgar G. Ulmer, 1951)

2017-10-24T16:19:00.879+01:00

Long on atmosphere but short on story, this weirdly compelling poverty row oddity from B-movie auteur Edgar G. Ulmer remains historically noteworthy as one of the very earliest entries in what would soon become a veritable avalanche of horror-inclined science fiction movies throughout the 1950s.Though the writing here is sketchy in the extreme – never really bothering to take its ideas beyond the kiddie matinee level – ‘The Man From Planet X’ can nonetheless make a good case for itself as the very first ‘alien visitor to earth’ movie to emerge from Hollywood, quietly prefiguring [or at least, produced in parallel with] the familiar defining classics of the genre – which must have made it’s tale of a lone representative of a dying alien race pitching up on a remote Scottish island and using the mind-controlled locals to help it prepare for a full scale colonisation project feel at least somewhat sensational to its initial audiences.*Of course, these kind of stories had been knocking around in literary SF for decades by this point, but such subject matter was still a novelty when it came to the movies, to the extent that Ulmer and writer/producer Jack Pollexfen (how could he not make SF movies with a name like that?) seem unsure how to handle it. Essentially, they seem to have decided to tackle the material in the style of a 1940s horror movie, imbuing their extra-terrestrial visitor with a genuine sense of uncanniness and mystery that would swiftly vanish from the more scientifically-minded movies that followed later in the decade, and it is this approach, rather than any claims of alleged historical importance, that continue to make ‘The Man From Planet X’ worth seeking out all these years down the line.Filmed at least partially on sets left over from the Ingrid Bergman version of ‘Joan of Arc’ (1948), and enhanced by some absolutely beautiful miniatures and matte paintings (reportedly created by Ulmer himself), the film’s fictional Scottish island – upon which a crumbling medieval ‘broc’ (repurposed as an observatory) stands out starkly on a craggy outcrop surrounded by boulder-strewn wilderness - is a baleful, fog-shrouded studio creation that rivals anything Mario Bava achieved on similarly low budgets in later decades.Though some atrociously shoddy theatrical backdrops used here and there, and you’ll sure get sick of looking at those same few rocks used in close-ups by the end of the picture, the sheer isolation of the island setting is nonetheless powerfully conveyed (in this regard, ‘The Man From Planet X’ reminded me strongly of far later UK-based monster movies such as ‘Island of Terror’ (’66) and ‘Night of the Big Heat’ (’67), and the overall atmosphere created here is rich, consistent and deliciously weird – a fine, classic draught for connoisseurs of studio-bound cinematic gothic.This is just as well, as the film’s writing, as mentioned above, is less than top drawer. The human drama – as represented by the potential love triangle between square-jawed hero Robert Clarke, demure scientist’s daughter Margaret Field and cowardly creep William Schallert (he has a little black beard, so watch out) - is pure boilerplate stuff, just treading water until the scary stuff shows up, in a formula already familiar to poverty row horror films that would unfortunately go on to be replicated in hundreds of monster movies over the next few decades.Much time meanwhile is similarly ill-spent on expounding reams of ‘science stuff’ that is unlikely to have convinced even the most credulous 1950s school boy, concerning as it does the path of the alien’s blighted home planet, which his race have seemingly sent careering through space, putting it on[...]



October Horrors #10:
ITV Playhouse: ‘Casting the Runes’
(Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1979)

2017-10-22T09:44:03.950+01:00

Two years after he completed his remarkable run of ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ for the BBC, winning plaudits in particular for his innovative adaptations of the work of M.R. James, director Lawrence Gordon Clark found himself working on the other side of the dial at ITV, where he was presented with the prospect of helming a (somewhat more modest) version of one of major James stories he hadn't been able to tackle for the BBC, ‘Casting The Runes’.Presumably rejected from consideration as a ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ on the basis that it doesn’t actually have any ghosts in it, this story is probably best remembered as the basis for Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 classic ‘Night of the Demon’. So yes, in case you were unsure, it is indeed the one about a vengeful suburban sorcerer cursing those who try to interfere with his work, ensuring their precisely timed destruction by demonic forces by means of fragments of runic script he has covertly handed to them.The source material is here updated for the 1970s by playwright Clive Exton, with our main protagonist becoming female TV journalist Pru Dunning (Jan Francis), who made the mistake of mocking reclusive occultist Julian Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson) during a light-weight exposé of contemporary witchcraft.* The primary setting for the unfolding drama thus becomes a microcosm of the mid-level media milieu of the UK in the late ‘70s – thus pretty close to home for cast and crew alike, no doubt – and, for a few brief passages during this fifty minute TV play, Clark succeeds in summoning up glimpses of the kind of fearful, impressionistic atmos that made his BBC ghost stories so remarkable. Notably, it tends to be the scenes shot on location (and/or those without much scripted dialogue) that see Clark’s direction coming to life, perhaps reflecting his background in documentary.In particular, the opening sequence – which sees a man falling victim to one of Karswell’s demonic avatars whilst walking his dog across a snow-covered heath – is excellent. Compositions and editing are painstakingly planned out here, as Clark wrings maximum eeriness out of the seemingly mundane surroundings, giving us a text-book demonstration of his oft-noted ability to locate almost sub-conscious resonances of fear and anxiety within placid, naturalistic environments.The director is helped in achieving this by the fact that much of the location shooting seems to have taken place during severe snow storms that hit the UK during the winter of 1978/79 (coincidentally recalling the ‘Christmas’ associations of the earlier James adaptations, perhaps), whilst the (uncredited) musical score – a mixture of gently atonal, Elder Gods-style fluting and doom-laden electronic dirges – also contributes greatly to the overall effect.Other factors however mitigate against any concerted attempt to recapture the feel of Clark’s earlier James adaptations. Whilst the production – which was presumably produced on a budget equivalent to any other ‘ITV Playhouse’ episode - managed to score some 16mm film for the aforementioned outdoor sequences, interiors by contrast are shot on the kind of flat and fuzzed out, domestic camcorder grade video tape that serves to make the majority of British TV from this era look inherently cheap and lifeless (think of a late ‘70s/early ‘80s Dr Who episode and you’ll get the idea).Drab interior sets are also used extensively, and, unfortunately, both the nature of story itself and the stagey nature of Exton’s adaptation demand that – in stark contrast to the almost existential, landscape-based expanse of the BBC ghost stories – we spend the majority of our time within them, as the character[...]



Deathblog:
Umberto Lenzi
(1931 – 2017)

2017-10-19T18:20:59.993+01:00


Sadly I don’t have the capacity today to pay appropriate tribute to the man who, in a weird sort of way, feels like the quintessential Italian b-movie anti-auteur, but we definitely need to put the brakes on the horror marathon for a day or two to mark the passing of the great Umberto Lenzi.

Some out there may do a double-take at my use of the “great” epithet, but that’s their problem – as far as I’m concerned, Lenzi was legit. I’d be the first to admit he knocked out some trash in his time (and the less said about his use of animal cruelty in those early ‘80s cannibal flicks, the better), but, when you’re working at the kind of speed and on the kind of budgets he did, who wouldn’t?

The majority of Lenzi’s films are wild, fast-moving and full of life, and the best of them achieve a level of pure pulp poetry that is too cool for words.

Like I say, no time to do justice here to his four full decades of fringe commercial movie-making, but – for ‘Kriminal’, for ‘Super Seven Calling Cairo’, for ‘So Sweet.. So Perverse’, for Spasmo and ‘Eyeball’, for ‘Oasis of Fear’/‘Dirty Pictures’, for ‘Almost Human’, ‘Manhunt’, ‘Violent Naples’, ‘Syndicate Sadists’ and ‘The Cynic, The Rat & The Fist’, for ‘Nightmare City’ (ESPECIALLY for ‘Nightmare City’), for ‘House of Witchcraft’, and for potentially dozens of other bangers I haven’t got around to watching yet…. thank you Umberto!

More substantial tribute hopefully/possibly coming soon.



October Horrors #9:
The Void
(Jeremy Gillespie &
Steven Kostanski, 2016)

2017-10-18T18:36:01.021+01:00

Our token new movie for this Halloween season, and I’m sad to report that, despite a “can’t miss” outlay (heavily Carpenter-influenced action/survival horror about inter-dimensional Lovecraftian beastliness breaking loose in an isolated hospital) and a fair amount of positive word of mouth, ‘The Void’ never really came together the way I wanted it to.Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good stuff in here - some solid performances, genuinely fearful notions, great practical effects and a few eyebrow searingly intense moments, but, for all its good references and technical acumen, it felt to me like a film that never quite got the drop of what it wanted to be, or how it intended to get there.To get straight to the heart of one of the film’s biggest problems, well… let’s put it this way: ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, ‘The Thing’, ‘Prince of Darkness’, ‘Halloween’, ‘Reanimator’, ‘The Resurrected’, ‘Possession’, ‘Hellraiser’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘The Beyond’. Did I miss any, guys? Let’s swap lists and compare.I normally have a pretty high tolerance for in-jokes and cultural references in cinema, to the extent that I’d normally be perfectly happy for filmmakers to let me know in no uncertain terms that they think any of the items on the above list are really cool, but, even by the furthest reaches of what it allowable in a post-Tarantino world, there are limits.If Gillespie & Kostanski were merely making a fun monster romp, their decision to pay tribute to the aforementioned inspirations, not by harnessing the ambition, atmosphere or imagination that made them so memorable in the first place but instead merely by shamelessly imitating bits of them, might have flown ok with me. For better or for worse though, that is not what they’re making (or at least, I don’t think it is – like I say, there is some confusion of intent here), and ‘The Void’s combination of fan service-level borderline plagiarism with a tone of deadly seriousness, bordering on outright solemnity, sat poorly with me.This then leads us neatly on to second big problem, which to be honest is the one that really irked me. Throughout the film, I found there was an uncomfortable disjuncture between ‘The Void’s ostensible identity as a gore n’ tentacle splattered, shotgun-blasting self-aware horror movie, and its apparent desire to simultaneously Address Serious Themes – an ambition it achieves only in a manner both humourless and heartless, badly harshing the buzz of the movie’s horror aspects in the process.If I might broaden our scope slightly to make a more general point: although literary theorists in recent years have had a field day expounding upon the ego-crushing existential vanishing point of the ‘cosmic horror’ sub-genre pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft, it is nonetheless instructive to remember that, for those of us who enjoy these stories of universal doom and hopelessness, they represent a form of escapism just as potent as any sword n’ sorcery fantasy.To not put too fine a point on it, when we find ourselves contemplating the slumbering survival of Great Cthulhu and the forthcoming epoch of madness and extinction, we have basically just found another way to temporarily excuse ourselves from the more day to day miseries of disease, poverty, loneliness and stress. Like losing oneself in a floor-shaking doom metal record – or, hey, why not a horror movie? - the darkness of an aesthetically stylised annihilation becomes a comfort blanket, much the same as any other.By seeking to place issues regarding the grief that follows the death of a child and the subseq[...]



October Horrors #8:
Mania
(Renato Polselli, 1974)

2017-10-16T17:17:36.432+01:00

Until recently, this 1974 feature from the infamous Renato Polselli – director of ‘The Reincarnation of Isobel’/‘Black Magic Rites’ (1973), ‘Delirium’ (1972) and The Vampire and The Ballerina (1960) – was considered a lost film, with the director himself reportedly claiming that all materials related to the production had been seized by an irate distributor following its (minimal) theatrical release, their fate unknown.No sightings, screenings, bootlegs or even verifiable rumours regarding the film’s survival leaked out over the next four decades, leaving Euro-cult devotees with little proof that ‘Mania’ had ever existed at all, beyond a poster and a tantalising, battered trailer.This all changed however in September last year, when, out of the blue, some wonderful, anonymous person posted the entire movie on Youtube, in the form of a rough VHS rip with the opening and end credits removed, seemingly produced as a TV broadcast master at some point in time. Shortly thereafter, the Youtube upload disappeared, but, even more mysteriously, it was subsequently replaced by a much better copy of the film (now with credits), apparently sourced from a film print.A wave of giddy excitement swept through the dark corners of the messageboard/social media landscape where such things hold currency, and verily, files were ripped, subs translated, uploads uploaded, and the genie was out of the bottle for good. Safely stowed away for posterity on the hard drives of weird film collectors across the globe, ‘Mania’ is lost no more.Leaving aside the heart-warming tale of its rediscovery however, the good news here is that, whilst it can’t compete with the aforementioned high watermarks in Polselli’s filmography, ‘Mania’ still more than lives up to its name, proving a valuable addition to the extant filmography of one of Italian genre cinema’s most notorious wildmen.Clearly completed at great speed on a budget that would have made even Franco or Rollin blanch, and populated with a cast of performers unknown to even the most dedicated Euro-cult buffs, ‘Mania’ is utter bottom-of-the-barrel, moving Fumetti kitsch, but cut through with a heavy dose of vicious lunacy. It may not be “good” in any sense of the word, but it’s certainly crazy. Like most of Polselli’s ‘70s films, watching it feels a bit like snorting some unidentified substance at a party and really wishing you hadn’t.This is particularly true of the opening fifteen minutes, which are rushed through with the impatience of a twitchy lunatic, as we follow an extremely overwrought conversation between a couple (Lailo, played by Iscaro Ravaioli who once appeared as a henchman in Bava’s ‘Danger! Diabolik’, and Lisa, played by Eva Spadaro, who, like most of the cast here, only ever appeared in other Renato Polselli films), who are busy yelling at each other as their car careers dangerously along a cliff top highway at night. Between hysterical bursts of self-pitying infective, Lisa narrates a portion of her personal history, which unfolds before us in flashback. It seems that Lisa, who sports a cropped, bleach blonde look in the ‘present day’ footage, used to possess a magnificent bouffant, and used to be married to a mad scientist named Brecht, who lived in a crumbling villa somewhere.Brecht has a moustache worthy of a Bollywood villain, and appears to have a smoking cement mixer in the centre of his basement laboratory, as well as an inordinate fondness for silver foil and bubble-wrap. He claims that he can “control living matter” and “stop a bee in mid-flight”, but he can exercise no such con[...]



October Horrors #7:
The Undead
(Roger Corman, 1957)

2017-10-14T11:40:02.188+01:00

More bona fide Roger Corman weirdness here, with what I think must rank as by far the strangest – certainly most unconventional – film he turned in during his black & white double feature years at AIP. These days, I suspect the film itself is far less widely seen than its striking (if somewhat misleading) poster design… and perhaps for good reason, as, make no mistake, ‘The Undead’ is some real oddball shit. A curious mish-mash of ideas that never really coalesces into anything terribly appealing, but is nevertheless noteworthy, not just for its sheer strangeness, but for the way in which it strongly prefigures most of the themes and aesthetic fixations that would come to define Corman’s directorial career over the following decade.We know we’re in for something a bit different right away here, as the film opens with a brief introduction from no less a personage than The Devil himself. As embodied here by actor Richard Devon, Satan sports a neat black goatee, a Robin Hood hat and wields some kind of bloody great trident thing. “Behold the subtle working of my talents,” he declares “and pray that I may never turn my interest… upon you”, before bidding us farewell with an outrageous theatrical guffaw.Once that’s over with, we find ourselves in the spooky, mist-shrouded exterior of the ‘American Institute of Psychical Research’, where Dr Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour), whose appearance and mannerisms remind me somewhat of Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper, is escorting a lady - Diana, played by Pamela Duncan - inside to meet the unassuming Professor Olinger (Maurice Manson), who appears to be the boss of the whole outfit. [Special thanks to IMDB for helping me to get through that paragraph in one piece.] As it transpires, Ratcliff is a former student of the Professor who has just returned from Nepal (hey, makes a change from Tibet), where he has been hanging about with some Yogis and mastering all kinds of whiz-bang techniques that (he claims) are sure to revolutionise the way that the American Institute of Psychical Research does business. Diana, it is strongly implied in non-production code busting fashion, is merely a hooker he has picked up on his way over. (The two men make various derogatory remarks about her low intelligence and corresponding susceptibility to hypnosis etc, all whilst she is clearly within earshot.) Anyway, it seems that Ratcliff intends to put Diana into a 48 hour trance state, wherein he will attempt to prove his theories regarding reincarnation and so forth by allowing her consciousness to regress straight through to her past lives.Now, as I recall, William Hurt had to ingest massive quantities of psychoactive drugs in order to achieve this in Ken Russell’s ‘Altered States’ a few decades later, so Ratcliff must really be some real hot shit, because he manages to get Diana over the wall with little more than a few hand gestures and a bit of the old “you are feeling sleepy..” type patter. From this point onward, we leave faux-Agent Cooper and the American Psychical Society far behind, as we journey back to a gothic fairy-tale version of medieval Europe, where Diana’s distant ancestor Helene is locked up in ‘The Tower of Death’, facing execution at dawn – by decapitation, no less - on a charge of witchcraft.After a bit of good advice from the disembodied voice of her 20th century descendent however, Helene manages to clobber her gaoler with a chain and make her getaway. Subsequent to this, we are gradually introduced to a wider cast of spectacularly annoying medieval characters, including a painfully [...]



October Horrors #6:
Santo in the Wax Museum
(Alfonso Corona Blake &
Manuel San Fernando, 1963)

2017-10-12T11:14:07.224+01:00

Ah, El Santo! Despite my occasional fondness for Mexican luchadore movies, it occurs to me that I’ve never actually written about any of them on this blog, so, ‘Santo en el Museo de Cera’ from 1963 should prove a pretty good place to start, right?Well… as it turns out, I actually found the first half of this one a bit of a chore, sad to say. The Wax Museum Owner Guy – Dr Karol, played by Buñuel regular Claudio Brook - is initially more of a self-regarding blowhard than a scenery-chewing villain, banging on endlessly about how unfair it is that the police dare question a man of his stature about the assorted murders that have taken place in the vicinity of his establishment. He even goes so far as to recruit Santo to try to prove his innocence by “catching the real killer”, or somesuch. (I know this is relatively early in his crime-fighting career, but shouldn’t ‘El Enmascarada de Plata’ be dedicating his time to something a little more socially improving than clearing the name of some entitled asshole? Or punching some mummies, at the very least?)Moreover, the wax museum itself seems like a bit of a shoddy affair too. Despite its owner’s grandiose claims, it is neither as grotesque nor as atmospheric as one might have hoped of a wax museum in a ‘60s Mexican b-movie. Furthermore, there is precious little action to be found between all the overly respectful yakking in the first 45 minutes here, unless of course you count the several lengthy wrestling sequences.  [I’ll readily admit that these are never a big selling point for me, beyond marvelling at all the flagrantly illegal moves that seem to have been allowed down in old Mexico. I don’t think that Greco-Roman purist chap from Dassin’s ‘Night And The City’ would have approved.]But, this being a Santo movie, there are of course also some welcome eccentricities to enjoy along the way – not least the fact that Santo and his Important Scientist Friend apparently share an innovative piece of technology that allows them to “tune into” each other via giant TV sets in their respective laboratories, giving them a view of what the other is doing at any time of the day or night, even when they are nowhere near any kind of camera or receiving device. Leaving aside its obvious technical implausibility, you’d think this arrangement might raise some questions about the nature of the relationship between Santo and his Important Scientist Friend, especially given that, to my knowledge, ISF appeared in no other Santo movies and is promptly killed off in this one, but… I’m sure we have better thing to do here than get bogged down in snarky over-think, so let’s just accept it and move on.As Todd Stadtman observed when reviewing this film on his old Lucha Diaries site, poor old Santo actually cuts a rather lonely figure in this movie, and, aside from his televised chats with Scientist Friend, his life seems to revolve entirely around wrestling engagements, investigating crimes, and knocking about forlornly in his conspicuously empty and heavily shadowed lab. (No high-flying associates or glamorous lady-friends for our hero here.)At this comparatively early stage in his movie career in fact, Santo’s parallel roles as wrestler and superhero don’t really seem as neatly integrated as they would later become, and, at several points in ‘..Museo de Cera’, he – adorably - says things like “I have some important new evidence that may reveal the identity of the killer, but, I have to go and wrestle now – I’ll tell you in the morning.”Also of note [...]



October Horrors #5:
‘The Dracula Business’
(Anthony de Lotbiniere, 1974)

2017-10-10T21:52:19.056+01:00

Originally broadcast as a Tuesday night documentary by the BBC in August 1974, ‘The Dracula Business’ is a thoroughly entertaining forty-five minutes, structured in the ever-popular “this thing happened, also this largely unconnected thing happened” manner beloved of mondo movies and parapsychology paperbacks.After an (unattributed) playback of the ship scene from Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’, proceedings begin, naturally enough, in Whitby. “I wonder if Count Dracula found this church yard as odd as I do?” muses presenter and Boris Johnson lookalike Dan Farson. Farson is the great nephew of Bram Stoker no less, and a “renowned Soho character” according to my (extremely limited) online research. After treating some local children to a round of ‘Count Dracula’s Secret’ ice lollies, Farson quizzes them on their knowledge of vampire lore (chalk that up as “scene you definitely wouldn’t see in a documentary these days” # 1), before he attends a meeting of The Dracula Society at Purfleet (and these guys deemed 1972’s ‘Blacula’ “…the mosty horrifying film of the decade” according to my copy of the soundtrack LP, so they know what the hell they’re talking about). “Haven’t you got even ONE crank?” Farson asks the assemblage of mild-mannered eccentrics somewhat disappointedly.In an attempt to demonstrate how much these programmes cost to make (gag © Eric Idle/Neil Innes), Farson next travels to Transylvania (“..there IS such a place..”) in present-day Romania, where the production captures some remarkably atmospheric footage, visiting a medieval convent decorated with appropriately infernal frescos, wherein nuns ward off evil by circling the grounds hammering planks of wood, whilst peasant-folk who look as if they could have stepped straight out of a Universal torch-wielding mob meanwhile queue up to kiss a carved icon above a well. We are even presented with a picturesque rural funeral procession, featured in-between shots of mist raising from the forest, as Farson rambles on in pompous Wheatley/Lee type fashion about the depths of ancient superstition and an apparent “outbreak of Vampirism” that ravaged the area in the 18th century.Remarkably, the filmmakers even manage to track down a woman – one of the singers at the funeral – who, interviewed against a backdrop of the local cemetery, tells Farson (via an interpreter) that her own father was suspected of being a vampire, and was disinterred and staked by village elders. Beat that for local colour.Back in London meanwhile, things get a tad sillier, as Farson stalks about Highgate cemetery, musing on some recent cases of premature burial. Jarringly, we then jump straight from Farson recalling some spectacularly grim family tales about the ordeals faced by the Stoker family during a cholera outbreak in County Sligo during Bram’s youth, to the London offices of Lorimer Press, where some eager fanboys are sorting through a huge pile of Euro-Horror posters, preparing “..the latest work on vampire films”. “Paul Naschy, the hunchback of the morgue!”, one of the guys exclaims happily, drawing our attention to a one-sheet for that very motion picture, which sits atop a fairly awesome French poster for (of all things) ‘Blacula’. I’m not sure who these fellows are (we’re not given their names at any point), but they seem like some cool dudes, with a lot of interesting things to say on their subject – perhaps the 1970s precursors to the Kim Newmans and Stephen Throwers of today?Arguably somewhat less of[...]



October Horrors #4:
And Now The Screaming Starts
(Roy Ward Baker, 1973)

2017-10-08T23:36:49.822+01:00

Word of mouth regarding this late period gothic throwback from Amicus (not to be confused with Scream and Scream Again, ‘The House That Screamed’ or ‘And Soon The Darkness’) has never been terribly good, but by jove - just zoom in on the poster and look at that cast; Cushing, Lom, Magee, Ogilvy, Beacham - together at last! Add to that the new-found respect I’ve gained for Roy Ward Baker after finally watching ‘Quatermass & The Pit’ last year, and it was inevitable that I was going to have to sit down and give this one a try at some point.And, well, I don’t think I’ll be watching it a second time at any point in my life, I can tell you that. Dear lord, the first half of this thing is a drag.It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it as such – the age-old “new wife arrives at the home of family with a dark secret” yarn plays out in much the way that tradition deems it should (rendered slightly more contemporary via an additional dose of post-‘Rosemary’s Baby’ pregnancy paranoia) and Stephanie Beacham and Ian Ogilvy are engaging enough as the central couple, even if they’re not given a great deal to do. The production design meanwhile is grand indeed (making excellent use of the familiar Oakley Court in Windsor, previously seen in these pages in Die Monster Die!, The Reptile and more besides), whilst Denys Coop’s cinematography hits some splendid gothic high notes and Baker’s direction is confident and fluid as ever.But, at the same time the whole thing is just so… uninspired. Events plod along rather joylessly, everything staying well within the established remit of this particular sub-genre, and the intermittent horror/shock moments are particularly poorly handled. As is so often the case in Amicus’s movies, the “spooky stuff” here – involving mischievous severed hands, eyeless apparitions and sundry other spectral nonsense – is knowingly silly, yet refuses to take the full leap into comedy or surrealism, instead maintaining a dogged pretence of dramatic seriousness that simply makes these scenes seem cheap, opportunistic and – crucially - dull. Geoffrey Whitehead is very good in his few dialogue scenes as the sinister, birthmark-scarred woodsman who carries much of the story’s menace, but, even if you’re willing to roll with ‘And Now..’ as a kind of dumbed down, Poundland version of Jack Clayton’s ‘The Innocents’, the film’s sub-William Castle “shocks”, which I suspect must have been foisted upon the production from above, generate little tension and make naff all impact. At least Robert Hartford-Davies’ similarly themed ‘The Black Torment’ from a decade earlier had the decency to summon up an atmosphere of looming, malignant dread to disguise its uneventful storyline, but attempts to achieve an equivalent feel here are ruined by laughable, ‘will-this-do?’ touches like the inexplicable ball of day-time fog that appears to exist solely within the gates of the estate’s tiny family cemetery, whilst the sun shines outside.As in his similar doctor role in Peter Sykes’ far superior ‘Demons of the Mind’ (’72), Patrick Magee lowballs it here with an uncharacteristically mellow, soft-spoken performance, but things do at least pick up considerably when Peter Cushing finally makes the scene, at about the fifty minutes mark. Playing one of his fastidious, polite-yet-rude Holmesian investigator roles, and sporting a truly flamboyant hair-piece, Cushing is, as ever, magnificent. When he is on screen,[...]



October Horrors #3:
Inquisition
(Jacinto Molina, 1977)

2017-10-05T11:09:55.325+01:00

 Believe it or not, I’ve never really been a big fan of the whole witch hunter/tortures of the Inquisition sub-genre, in spite of the fact that I seem to have spent half my life watching examples of it. As such, I have held off investigating Paul Naschy’s inevitable entry in the “religious hypocrisy is explored, meanwhile naked ladies get bits cut off them” sweepstakes for quite some time, feeling that it would most likely prove a somewhat unedifying experience.Now, don’t get me wrong here - of course I’m a big fan of Naschy and I love many of the wild n’ wooly horror movies he starred in unreservedly. But, I found myself thinking, is there really anything worthwhile he could contribute to the kind of heavy, historical subject matter necessitated by a project like this, beyond just another dose of imitative, ‘Mark of the Devil’-style sadism..?Well, let’s just say that I hang my head in shame for underestimating El Hombre Lobo, because it turns out Naschy actually had a great deal to bring to the table here, and, assuming one can overlook the fact that it is at least partially cobbled together from reheated bits of ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘The Devils’, ‘Inquisition’ is a far better, and far more sincere, film than many might have anticipated.In fact, when Naschy - using his birth name Jacinto Molina - took the plunge and began directing his own films in the late 1970s, he departed significantly from the kind of goofy monster rallies we might reasonably have expected of him. Instead, Naschy/Molina met the collapsing market for independent horror films in the second half of the decade head-on with a series of unexpectedly challenging projects, including the ’10 Rillington Place’-esque serial killer film ‘The Frenchman’s Garden’ (1978) and the bizarre medieval morality tale ‘El Caminante’(1979). First in line in this apparent attempt to reinvent himself as a more serious filmmaker though was perhaps the jewel in the crown of this strange, transitional period in his career – ‘Inquisition’.Although he was stepping behind the camera for the first time, Molina’s direction here is extremely confident, arguably achieving more professional results than any of the men who had helmed his projects up to this point. Apparently inspired by such works as Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ and (inevitably) Michael Reeves’ aforementioned ‘Witchfinder General’, Molina establishes a tone that is sombre, stately and doom-laden right from the outset, utilising well-choreographed crowd scenes and carefully composed long shots to establish a genuine feel for the lingering mediaeval barbarism of the rural 17th century setting. The director is aided in this by some exceptional production design; Molina was apparently a stickler for historical detail, and his collaborators do him proud here with an impressive range of costumes and set dressings that, along with the oppressively dense, earthy tones of Miguel F. Milá’s cinematography, combine to create a brooding atmosphere of febrile menace and mud-splattered feudal poverty.*Though the film is, shall we say, deliberately-paced, Molina’s tale of a trio of beleaguered witch-hunters trespassing upon the hospitality and inner secrets of an isolated French community threatened by the approach of The Black Death remains sufficiently compelling that boredom never comes knocking (which is certainly more than can be said for some of Naschy’s earlier movies) and, once the story get[...]



October Horrors #2:
Creature From The Haunted Sea
(Roger Corman, 1961)

2017-10-03T12:51:13.198+01:00

 Though Roger Corman is often celebrated for the prolific output and gift for last minute improvisation he demonstrated through his early years as a director, the further one digs into his catalogue, the clearer it becomes that the results of his working methods were, to put it kindly, a bit of a mixed bag.True, he made ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ in two days, and the result is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. On another occasion however, he had some time left over after shooting ‘Battle of Blood Island’ and ‘The Last Woman On Earth’ back-to-back in Puerto Rico, so he persuaded some of his cast and crew to hang around for a few days and made… this.Set during the aftermath of the Cuban revolution – pretty damn topical for 1961, then - ‘Creature From The Haunted Sea’ begins with Corman regular Anthony Carbone doing his best Bogart impression in the role of an unscrupulous American pleasure boat captain who finds his vessel commandeered by a bunch of loyalist officers and soldiers who, on the run from Castro’s rebels and with a substantial percentage of the nation’s treasury under their “protection”, are keen to hightail it to South America ASAP.Hip to the fact that his new passengers are in carrying a substantial stash of loot, Carbone and his crew of comedic layabouts decide instead to lead the Cubans on a wild goose chase of the islands whilst they pick them off one by one with the aim of taking possession of it. But, how do they pick them off one by one without the survivors getting suspicious? Well, naturally they contrive to make the ‘accidents’ look like the work of a Gillman-esque sea monster, using fake teeth marks, foot-prints, monstrous roars and so forth… which is all just dandy until a *real* sea monster shows up!Now, I’m well aware that the movie I’ve outlined in the last two paragraphs sounds like an absolute hoot (hell, it’s certainly original, if nothing else). But, sadly, that just makes it all the more dispiriting to gradually realise that ‘Creature From The Haunted Sea’ is categorically lacking in anything even remotely hoot-worthy. I mean, seriously, seeing the guy who played the doctor in ‘The Pit & The Pendulum’ doing Bogie is honestly about as close as it gets to a highlight.Scriptwriter Charles B. Griffith does his best to inject some rib-tickling wise-guy humour into proceedings, and the voiceover that fills us in on the action early on contains a few good zingers (“the Cuban treasury was now in the gentle hands of Renzo Capetto, the most trustworthy man ever to be deported from Sicily..”). The fact that this moderately amusing spiel is limited to voiceover, and presumably added in post-production, however speaks volumes. When it comes to the stuff that was actually unfolding in front of Corman’s camera in Puerto Rico, evidence suggests that Griffith – assuming he was even involved at this stage – had no more idea of what the fuck was actually supposed to be going on than anyone else present. Most of the cast seem confused and disinterested in the material, with at least some of them giving the impression of only vaguely being aware of the fact they’re appearing in a movie at all, reciting dialogue that was presumably being fed to them from behind the camera with a bare minimum of enthusiasm.Needless to say, the monster-suit featured here is a real “all time worst” contender even in terms of zero budget ‘50s matinee flicks, an immobil[...]



October Horrors # 1:
Werewolf of London
(Stuart Walker, 1935)

2017-10-01T12:22:07.770+01:00

During the Second World War, American studio horror films (and Universal’s efforts in particular) managed to boil themselves down into a set of formulaic clichés that have come to broadly define the idea of “cheesy horror films” in the popular imagination ever since.That much we know, but the shadow cast by eight subsequent decades of monster movie branding makes it easy to forget that, a full decade before Glenn Strange was stomping about in the Frankenstein get-up and some mad scientist was trying to decide which brains to put where whilst the torch-wielding mob knocked on his door, many of the first wave of American horrors from the early/mid 1930s were far more unpredictable and just-plain-weird than this reductive set of clichés would suggest - and not just the designated classics helmed by Whale, Browning, Freund and Ulmer either. My theory, y’see, goes that, during the pre-war years, studio directors and writers who found themselves assigned to a horror picture were obliged to strike out in all kinds of tentative new directions, faced as they were with a new, commercially popular genre for which no easily replicable template had yet been established. For a few years at least after the runaway success of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’, the thinking seemed to be that a big part of what pulled the punters in to see these movies was the sheer novelty of their subject matter – that oh-so-bankable “nothing-like-this-seen-before-on-the-screen” factor. Rather than merely seeking to imitate those earlier hits therefore, Universal and the other studios seemed to want their boys to crank out some genuine ‘Shock of the New’… and mad-as-a-barrel-of-bats pictures like ‘Werewolf of London’ were the inevitable result.As everybody knows, it was Curt Siodmak’s script for 1941’s ‘The Wolf Man’ that basically laid down the law for all future cinematic werewolves, pretty much inventing the werewolf mythology we now take for granted, and, as such, it feels all the more surprising to go back a further six years and discover that Universal’s first – commercially unsuccessful - stab at a werewolf movie completely ignored the monster’s origins in European folklore, instead pulling together elements of “exotic” orientalist adventure fiction, newly minted Frankensteinian mad science, slight echoes of ‘abominable snowman’ mythos and a hefty dose of Jekyll & Hyde to tell a very different tale of lycanthropy.Written from scratch by John Colton and producer Robert Harris (was this the first Universal horror that didn’t even pretend to follow any literary antecedent?), we’re essentially talking here about a werewolf story that involves excursions to remote Himalayan valleys, rare night-blooming flowers, sinister underground networks of lycanthropy sufferers, electronically-generated artificial moonlight, hints of faux-Buddhist mysticism, octopus-tentacled man-eating plants, Jack The Ripper-style Victorian London skulduggery, and… well, you get the idea. It’s all great stuff, and, watching for the first time, I went through most of the film with absolutely no idea where it was all going next -- which is a lovely feeling when it comes to a genre movie made over eighty years ago.On a more prosaic level meanwhile, another thing ‘Werewolf of London’ has going for it in the weirdness stakes is the casting in the lead role of Henry Hull – a prolific character actor[...]



October Horror Marathon:
Intro.

2017-09-30T11:53:06.208+01:00


 As I have opined in these pages in past years, whenever October rolls around, as the nights draw in and we feel the chill in the air, I tend to find myself looking at other blogs and websites undertaking pre-Halloween marathons and “30 horror films in 30 days” challenges and suchlike, and feel a tinge of jealousy as a result of the fact that October is also a time of year in when I am usually really f-ing busy with a lot of tedious and draining, non-horror/Halloween-related things.

In all likelihood, this year will be no exception – indeed, obligations and flagged emails are already starting to pile up. But – this time, I’ve planned ahead. Despite the annoyances of sunshine and low-level frivolity, August and September actually proved pretty good months for mainlining horror movies, and thus I’ve managed to stockpile a stack of draft reviews to give myself a head start. So, whilst I’m not realistically going to be able to manage a post-per-day leading up to Halloween, I hope I will at least be able to average one horror movie review every two days through the coming month.

Given the time pressure under which they are being written, I can’t necessarily guarantee carefully polished prose, insightful observations and so on, but I will do my best. Expect about 75% first time viewings, leavened with reflections on a few old favourites, and perhaps even some documentaries, TV episodes, shorts and stuff thrown in for good measure. Mostly old/classic era stuff, but perhaps some newer bits and pieces too – we’ll see.

Well, whatever happens, I hope it will all help to get you in the mood for whatever depraved bacchanal festivities you have planned for All Hallows, and for an enjoyable winter of guttering candles, macabre tales and walks in the leaf-strewn cemetery more generally.  

Posts beginning tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Nunhead Cemetery photograph credited to 'Martin Brewer', respectfully stolen from here.