Monday, 30 November 2020

Double Deathblog.

Daria Nicolodi 
(1950-2020)

Like all euro-horror fans I’m assuming, I was very sad to hear last week that the great Daria Nicolodi has passed away at the age of 70.

Personally, I've always subscribed to the belief that Nicolodi played a big part in the writing and conception of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’; not that there seems to be much hard evidence for this, but I just really want it to be true. The former masterpiece in particular seems to herald the introduction of a distinct, new voice into Argento’s cinema, and, be it coincidence or otherwise, the sharp nosedive in the quality of the director’s work after the estranged couple ceased working together at the end of the 1980s speaks for itself.

Always a bold and outspoken figure, Nicolodi’s own account of her subsequent career seems, sadly, to have revolved around the notion of her creative input being ignored or misinterpreted by male filmmakers - first by Luigi Cozzi on Paganini Horror and the disasterous ‘De Profundis’/ ‘The Black Cat’/ ‘Demons 6’ (both 1989), and then latterly when her proposed script for the concluding chapter of the ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy was again disregarded by Argento as he set to work on what eventually became 2007’s ‘Mother of Tears’.

In all likelihood, we’ll never know the true extent of her behind the scenes contribution to the films she was involved with, but for her acting roles alone, she was one of the greats - eccentric, charismatic and super-cool in pretty much everything she appeared in, from her breakthrough in Elio Petri’s ‘Property is No Longer Theft’ (1973) to her defining role playing opposite David Hemmings in ‘Profundo Rosso’/’Deep Red’ (1975), to Mario Bava’s ‘Shock’ (1977) and beyond. 

Now and forever, Daria rules. RIP. 

 

Sandy Harbutt 
(1941-2020)

And meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, we must also say farewell to another guy whose creative artistry never really got its due, Sandy Harbutt, pioneer of independent Australian cinema and writer/producer/director/star of the greatest biker (sorry, bikie) movie ever made, 1974’s ‘Stone’, which I reviewed on this blog way back in 2010.

A landmark of outsider/psychedelic cinema, positively overflowing with talent, energy and raw craziness, ‘Stone’ remains an absolute blast, and the fact that Harbutt managed to single-handedly pull it all together in a country that basically didn’t have a film industry at that point remains an incredible achievement.

Subsequent leading lights of the livelier end of Australian filmmaking, from Peter Weir to Brian Trenchard Smith, and most particularly George Miller, owe Harbutt a huge debt of gratitude from essentially clearing the ground and establishing the parameters of the nation’s highly specific genre cinema aesthetic, and the fact he was never allowed the opportunity to follow up his debut feature or make a living from his film work is little short of criminal, given the phenomenal promise shown by ‘Stone’.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, just watch the trailer here, and I’m pretty sure you’ll want to rectify that ASAP.

Raising a glass to you Undertaker - RIP.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Two-Fisted Tales:
Brother Cain
by Simon Raven

(Panther, 1965)



Though the brightly-hued cover photo affixed to this edition of Simon Raven’s second published novel ‘Brother Cain’ carries a distinct whiff of pop-art / psychedelic chic, Panther’s paperback was actually printed in February ’65, too early to have really hitched a ride on the ‘swinging sixties’ bandwagon, whilst the book itself was first published back in the grey, buttoned up world of 1959.

One of those renowned-in-their-day-but-now-largely-forgotten authors whose work always sparks a certain fascination, Simon Raven (1927-2001 - and yes, that was indeed his birth name) wrote voluminously through much of the latter half of the 20th century, and, read today, his books feel both strikingly modern (in terms of their frank and non-judgemental approach to sexuality and general air of shark-ish cynicism) and hopelessly old fashioned (being largely concerned with a segment of upper crust British society whose values and behaviours now seem entirely alien, probably even to those lucky enough to have been born into it).

Freely mixing elements of personal / social writing and thinly veiled autobiography into popular genre thrillers, Raven’s more noteworthy works include Oxbridge vampire yarn ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ (loosely adapted into Robert Hartford Davis’s disastrous Incense for the Damned in 1971) and, on the other side of the coin, the ten volume ‘Alms for Oblivion’ sequence, which follows the lives and loves of a cadre of toffs, set against the changing social and political mores of post-war England. (I read the first few chapters of the first volume of this epic saga a few years back and actually found it quite compelling, but unfortunately I lost my copy on a train and haven’t got around to picking it up again since.)

Throughout his early literary career, Raven seems to have been fixated on the dilemmas faced by male scions of the English upper classes who, whether through conscious rebellion or mere lethargy and personal weakness, have squandered the privileges conferred to them by their noble upbringing and must find alternative paths through life. This theme is certainly front and centre in ‘Brother Cain’, whose protagonist Jacinth Crewe (note the Moorcock-ian initials) finds himself in a predicament closely mirroring that apparently faced by the author himself a few years beforehand.

Having been expelled from Eton on the grounds of moral turpitude and subsequently forced to curtail his studies at Cambridge due to what we might charitably call a self-inflicted lack of funds, the novel joins Crewe as he is invited to offer his resignation to the British army’s elite training academy at Sandhurst, having accrued gambling debts sufficiently gargantuan as to bring his entire regiment into disrepute.

“Honour and dishonour are conventions,” Captain Crewe’s understanding commanding officer advises him during their final interview, effectively establishing the theme of the novel to follow. “They are relevant in the world in which you have so far existed: they will not be relevant in the world for which it is clear you are now destined.”

Retreating to London with his tail (amongst other things) between his legs, Jacinth throws himself upon the mercy of his regiment’s allotted merry widow, one Miss Kitty Leighton, who, after a night or two of wild passion at her Chelsea flat, places a call to a mysterious contact who may be able to assist her disgraced and destitute young lover before the debt collectors come knocking.

Thus, Jacinth is summoned to a lunch date at the Trocadero in Piccadilly (decades before it became the tourist-choked hellhole we know it as today), where he is greeted by dirty mac-clad, brown ale supping “professional messenger” Mr Shannon - a character I found it impossible not to imagine being played by Donald Pleasance.

Though highly suspicious on all levels, the proposal Mr Shannon’s anonymous employers wish to convey to Captain Crewe is entirely too good for the desperate young layabout to resist. In short, his gambling debts will be covered in full, and he will be issued with sufficient funds to allow him to fly to Rome and install himself in the swank Hotel Hassler overlooking the Spanish Steps, there to await further instructions.

What with this being the height of the First Cold War and everything, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that when those orders do eventually arrive, they direct Jacinth to an appointment at a shabby ‘Institute for the Promotion of Mediterranean Art’, a flimsy front for a top secret wing of the British government whose job, to all intents and purposes, is to create new James Bonds.

Which is to say, Jacinth and the other young rascals corralled by the nameless ‘organisation’ are pointedly not being groomed as spies or intelligence agents. Instead, they are basically just hatchet men - proponents of what one of their instructors (who is of lower middle class extraction, and so naturally a graceless, grudge-bearing git) bluntly calls “the cold art of murder”.

Taking a more refined view on things, the Big Cheese of the whole operation, who naturally enjoys the benefit of a ‘proper’ education, instead waxes lyrical to his new recruits about how, in the light of communist infiltration and so forth, the democratic institutions so cherished by western nations can only be preserved through the unilateral execution of acts which the champions of democracy would find impossible to countenance, should they become aware of them.

(Being unfamiliar with Raven’s own political leanings, assuming he had any, it’s difficult to get a handle on whether this justification for extra-judicial murder and mayhem, which continues at some length, is being presented as satire, or simply as a statement of the author’s own beliefs.)

Furthering the Bond parallel, Jacinth and his fellow recruits are essentially allowed to adopt the lifestyles of globe-trotting playboys, so long as they follow their orders precisely, ask no questions, and leave whatever moral scruples they may once have possessed at the door. And, if they have any thoughts of ducking out and taking their chances in civilian life, well…. their more ruthless classmates will simply have an easy first assignment to look forward to, won’t they?

Despite his military rank, Jacinth Crewe is still more a feckless dosser than a cold-blooded killer, and, still bedevilled by confused notions of personal honour and brotherly conduct, he is naturally terrified by the prospect of having to immerse himself in the paranoid, compassionless world promised by his new profession - all the more so when, with a neatness which surely defies mere coincidence, he is paired up for training with one Nicholas Le Soir, the former schoolmate whose charms led to his being expelled from Eton for corrupting the morals of a younger boy. (This incident directly mirrors Raven’s real life expulsion from Charterhouse public school, incidentally.)

Now a qualified surgeon, Le Soir has arrived at the ‘organisation’ after being struck off and effectively exiled from the UK for performing an illegal abortion upon the daughter of a prominent Catholic family (oops), and the plot is further thickened once both Jacinth and Nicholas find themselves drawn into an embryonic love triangle with Le Soir’s promiscuous yet sexually dysfunctional cousin Eurydice, who is also resident in Rome, working for an equally questionable ‘cultural mission’…. and who seems suspiciously keen on pumping her two mixed up suitors for information on the nature of their employment.

And, there I will leave my plot synopsis, but suffice to say, Raven proves himself eminently capable of setting up a fast-moving, exquisitely intriguing yarn here, even if his story’s conclusion - following an incident in a bat-infested railway tunnel, a scheme to virally infect the whores of a high class brothel and a head-spinningly convoluted murder scheme set against the backdrop of a Venetian masked ball, amongst other diversions - eventually veers more toward the kind of existential, internecine futility in which John le Carré would later specialise than the two-fisted action-adventure stuff beloved by Ian Fleming’s fans.

In view of the fact that ‘Brother Cain’ was first published a full decade before the legalisation of male homosexuality in the UK, one of the most striking aspects of the book for modern readers is Raven’s forthright and unapologetic presentation of his male characters’ bisexuality. Not only acknowledging this dark secret of the English public school system, which tended to be referred to only through implication and innuendo by other writers of this era, he seems keen on eagerly exploring its every nook and cranny, pushing the book’s language about as far as the era’s censorship would allow.

“I’m not a homosexual, or at least, not very often,” Jacinth muses to himself as he drifts into introspective reverie in the flight to Rome. (“What shall I do about women? Well I suppose there must be brothels..,” he charmingly adds, as if to bolster his own sense of masculinity.)

As soon as he falls asleep though, he finds himself dreaming of a beautiful American boy he once briefly courted at Cambridge (and who will, of course, play an integral role in the unfolding plot), and as the book goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Jacinth’s most significant and long-lasting relationships have always been with other men.

In spite of its attention-grabbing plotline in fact, ‘Brother Cain’ often reads more like a semi-autobiographical personal novel than it does a thriller. More specifically, it seems like an attempt on Raven’s part to take stock of his life to date, and to redefine his place in the world as he hit his early 30s. As noted, the parallels between the background of the book’s protagonist and that of the author himself are considerable, and, given the multiple accusations of libel which were levelled against Raven as a result of his writing over the years, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that many of the secondary characters in ‘Brother Cain’ were simply thinly veiled versions of his own friends, lovers and acquaintances.

Suffice to say, Raven was presumably not actually press-ganged into committing top secret outrages on behalf of the British crown, but, at a push, you could perhaps see Jacinth Crewe’s recruitment by the ‘organisation’ as a reflection of Raven’s own unique arrangement with the publisher Anthony Blond, who, when the author found himself in particularly dire straits, is reported to have agreed to pay him £15 a week in perpetuity and to publish his books as and when he completed them, on the understanding that he should leave London and never return.

Elsewhere, the book’s story is jammed with sinister, wisdom-dispensing potential father figures and unbalanced, mothering women, whilst Jacinth’s ruthless generational contemporaries all seem ready and willing to trample on his yearning, sensitive soul, creating a maelstrom of weird moral / psychological angst which can only really end with our protagonist becoming entirely consumed by it as he slips helplessly between the cracks separating the world of ‘honour and dishonour’ from the one in which most of us now live, in which such concepts are simply a quaint irrelevance.

Normally of course, I’d be pretty pissed off to find a book which has all the makings of a rip-roaring mid-century thriller derailed by such a load of ponderous navel-gazing, but Simon Raven was such a fascinating character, and the lost world of foppish decadence in which he dwelled such an enticing one to visit, that in his case, I’ll happily make an exception. 

Whatever you may think about his conduct or way of life, Raven was a strange and unique literary talent; even at this early stage of his career, his prose and plotting are crisp, witty and ruthlessly efficient, and I’ll certainly be redoubling my quest for more of his work as soon as the doors of the world’s surviving second hand bookshops begin to creak open once again.

 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Noir Diary # 12:
Big House U.S.A.
(Howard W. Koch, 1955)

With a plot that takes in extortion, kidnapping, blackmail and child murder whilst offering up an utterly unsympathetic, morally reprehensible protagonist and setting him against a supporting cast of equally loathsome, cut-throats heavies, John C. Higgins’ screenplay for ‘Big House U.S.A.’ (from a story by George Slavin and the supremely named George George) seems to scream its film noir credentials to the rafters. Director Howard W. Koch and producer Aubrey Schenck’s presentation of this grim subject matter however..? Not quite so much. (1)

Indeed, I was rather taken aback as the film begins by taking us to some kind of summer camp in the picturesque mountains of Colorado, where a plucky young lad wants to compete against the other boys in running races, despite his chronic asthma. After descending into a coughing fit and being threatened with a big needle by the camp’s nurse, the humiliated kid runs away into the wilderness, and search parties are dispatched to find him.

In unhurried fashion, we are subsequently introduced to the steadfast local sheriff, to the missing boy’s panicked (and apparently very rich) father, and to assorted forest rangers, cops and such. Meanwhile, the tearful lad is discovered hiding on the undergrowth by a wandering fisherman, who would seem fairly benevolent at first, were it not for the fact that he’s played by Ralph Meeker of ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ fame - an actor who, rather uniquely, combines the energy and good looks of a traditional Hollywood leading man with an aura of sheer malevolence which clearly marks him out as a grade-A piece of shit.

And, thus he proves to be; instead of alerting the authorities, Meeker leaves the boy imprisoned in a remote/abandoned lookout station whilst he calls up Panicked Dad and gives him the low-end on what appears to be a pre-meditated kidnapping scheme. This in turn prompts the introduction of a smug FBI agent (Reed Hadley), who arrives in good time to drone on and on about the fool-proof, scientific methods utilised by the feds to deal with such cases.

Complete with all the thrills and spills of an episode of ‘Little House on the Prairie’, this kidnapping plotline proceeds to plod along for ten minutes, then twenty, then eventually a full half hour, as I gradually found myself wondering whether the good folks at Kino Lorber had mixed up the reels with some other movie when they created their transfer of this film. Where was this “Big House U.S.A.” we’d been promised? And what of the incredible rogue’s gallery of b-movie sluggers promised by the poster? When are they all going to to factor into things?

Well, our journey toward them eventually gets underway when, in the first of several moments of startlingly callous brutality which punctuate the movie, the kidnapped kid takes a fall and dies whilst trying to escape his captor. Without so much as a second thought, Meeker picks up the kid’s body and hurls it over the nearest cliff into the rushing river far below.

After this shocker, things understandably take a darker turn, as Meeker is caught red-handed attempting to leave the National Park after retrieving (and secretly stashing away) the ransom money provided by the father. He tells the feds that he never actually laid eyes on the kid and was merely taking advantage of the situation by shaking down the dad for some quick dough, and, unable to prove a definite connection between Meeker and the kid’s disappearance, the cops have no choice but to allow the faux-fisherman - who has earned himself the tabloid nickname “The Ice Man” for his both determination to stick to his story and his refusal to disclose the location of his ill-gotten gains - to cop a plea on an extortion charge.

Thus we get to see Meeker merrily shipping out to spend a year or two cooling his heels on (FINALLY) a thinly-veiled fictional analogue of Alcatraz Island - but of course our man’s troubles are far from over. Despised by his fellow inmates as a probable child-killer, he finds himself transferred - via the connivings of Mr Smug FBI Man - to a cramped cell housing the worst of the worst of the prison’s hard-nuts.

Headed up by sly mob boss Broderick Crawford, this happy crew also comprises Lon Chaney Jr (“a nice guy, so long as he’s locked up”), a young Charles Bronson (introduced as a mad-dog killer, his character is really more of a practically-minded, musclebound moralist), and best of all, William Talman (‘The Hitch-Hiker’ himself!) as Crawford’s jittery, bug-eyed lieutenant.

The general idea is that, placed in such tough company, The Ice Man will soon melt and spill his guts to the feds. Unbeknownst to the powers-that-be however, Crawford and the gang are mid-way through planning their Big Break Out, and the prospect of taking Meeker with them and forcing him to hand over his hidden loot is just too good to resist.

Unsurprisingly, this central ‘prison movie’ section is by far the most entertaining part of ‘Big House U.S.A.’, ploughing through the usual clichés with gusto, whilst the gang’s escape plan presents a sublime bit of craziness straight out of a Men’s Adventure magazine. Basically, they’ve been stockpiling stolen oxygen cylinders, keeping them hidden in a hollow chamber inside the giant furnace which forms the centrepiece of the prison’s factory floor. When the time comes, they’re just gonna slide their way into the water via the machine’s waste pipe and frogman their way to freedom, getting picked up on open water by a fishing boat rented by Crawford’s outside cronies.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to spend half as much time as we might have liked with this esteemed line-up of craggy-faced bruisers (more Bronson in particular would have been welcomed), but they all do fine work in what little screen time they’re allotted, and the sheer sight of them all crammed together in a tiny cell will be worth the entry price alone for some viewers.

Crawford and Talman do great work her as a tag-team of comic book villains, whilst Chaney, looking shockingly haggard here considering he’d been slogging his way through Universal’s dapper ‘Inner Sanctum’ mysteries only a decade beforehand, is his usual doddering, likeable self nonetheless. He is also gifted with what is by far this film’s best line, delivered after Meeker protests that, “I’m no skin diver, I can’t even swim,”. “You’ll make out, just pull the water toward you like it was a big dame” - truly a tough guy swimming lesson for the ages.

I confess, if I were reading this review, I’d be thinking at this point that ‘Big House U.S.A.’ sounds like an absolute riot, but seriously folks - don’t build yr expectations up too high for this one. Writer Higgins and producer Schneck had previously worked together on 1947’s T-Men, and unfortunately the same feeling of a solid, hard-boiled story sabotaged by reams of ass-covering “crime doesn’t pay” procedural bullshit also predominates here.

Unlike that earlier film however, ‘Big House..’ has neither John Alcott’s majestic photography nor Anthony Mann’s brooding, no bullshit direction to fall back on. Instead, Koch’s pacing is stupefying slack, largely compressing the ‘good stuff’ we came to see into a middle half hour sandwiched between the workmanlike, TV drama opening described above and a listless, tension-free trudge toward the story’s dispiriting conclusion, whilst Higgins’ scripting meanwhile is full of needless complexity and annoying incongruities.

Beyond the inevitable, ‘Dragnet’ style voiceover which patronisingly book-ends the movie, we spend what feels like hours hanging around in the Park Rangers’ office in the company of self-satisfied Special Agent Hadley and boring cop Roy Roberts as they trudge through every pain-staking step of building their case against Meeker, then as they proceed to snidely torment him once he’s behind bars - all wasting valuable time we could instead have spent watching Broderick Crawford puffing on a bootleg cigar or Bronson cracking his knuckles (or indeed, checking in with Felicia Farr, who has a great bit-part here as Meeker’s duplicitous female accomplice).

With the unrivalled efficiency and moral superiority of the forces of law and order reinforced at every turn, it’s enough to get the attendees of yr average PTA meeting yelling “fuck you, cop!” back at the screen, but worse than that, this concentration on the unflappable righteousness of the fuzz completely ruins the movie’s final act.

Handled differently, Meeker, Crawford and Talman’s fugitive journey across state lines, frantically trying to get one up on each other as they navigate their way toward the Colorado treasure-trove, could have made for some fantastically gripping, hard-boiled stuff. Here though, this potential is just thrown away - and not only because their journey conveyed via an unconvincing series of time-compressing ellipses, clearly thrown together as time and/or funding was running short.

As eccentric and perversely charismatic as these crooks may be, the film has basically granted them little agency, no intelligence, and no chance to develop anything beyond a one dimensional persona for themselves. As they approach their goal, we know that law enforcement is one step ahead of them, lurking in the bushes with fingers on their triggers, and the hoods’ collective failure is a foregone conclusion.

On paper, the downbeat fate doled out to these admittedly horrible characters should be an explosion of classic noir fatalism, but as executed here by Koch and co, it’s simply banal, with Special Agent Smug Bastard adding insult to injury as he dusts off his hands and warns us all to stay straight and fly right.

Though noteworthy for its stellar cast, unconventional structure and stark moments of callous (albeit off-screen) violence, ‘Big House U.S.A.’ is ultimately a poorly rendered disappointment which does little to capitalise on the talents of those on either side of the camera. A passable mid-week watch, but one best left for completists or the morbidly curious, I suspect. 




-----

(1) After directing this movie back to back with the more highly regarded b-noir ‘Shield for Murder’ (1954), Howard W. Koch’s brief directorial career went on to include the likes of ‘Bop Girl Goes Calypso’, ‘The Girl in Black Stockings’ (both ’57) and the oddball Boris Karloff vehicle ‘Frankenstein 1970’ (1958) before he transitioned into a far more successful career as a producer from dawn of the ’60s onward.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Horror Express 2020:
End of the Line.

The moon outside my gabled window this All Hallows Eve. “No filters,” as the kids say.

So, that was October folks. I hope you managed to have a good one, and I’m sorry I didn’t quite manage to keep up the marathon posting schedule I’ve established for myself in previous years, or to include any of the more varied content I like to try to throw in to break up the endless movie-talk (you know, stuff about books, documentaries etc).

Nonetheless, I had a pretty great time across the month. In fact, for the first time in my life, I managed to watch more than one movie per day across the month of October (a record-breaking thirty-eight in total, in case you were wondering), which is some weird kind of personal achievement, I suppose. So, thank you for that one, corona-virus pandemic! Now let’s just hope it doesn’t happen again next October.

In case you’re interested, viewing in our household over Halloween weekend comprised ‘Fright Night’ and ‘The Devil Rides Out’ on Friday, followed by ‘Black Sunday’ and ‘The Fog’ on Saturday, and a fine time was had by all (by which I mean ‘both’, if you don’t include cats).

As per tradition, I’ll probably now take a week or two off from posting here whilst I get some new content together, and relish the prospect of watching and reading some things which aren’t horror (Noirvember, anyone?). Meanwhile, I’ll hope to put together a new list of all the October Horrors reviews I’ve done over the past few years on the sidebar, in case anyone wants to keep things going by catching up on some they missed, or somesuch.

All else aside though, thanks so much to anyone who’s still reading this, and to those who have left nice comments - it’s hugely appreciated, as always.

And in closing: citizens of the U.S.A., you know what you must do tomorrow. We in the rest of the world will thank you for it. I’ll leave it at that.

Friday, 30 October 2020

Horror Express 2020:
More Short Takes.

Three more shorter-than-usual takes on recently watched Horror films to glide us into the big day itself tomorrow. Including some actual positive comments this time around.

#14 
It Conquered the World 
(Roger Corman, 1956)


When AIP released The She-Creature (reviewed earlier this month) in 1956, it formed one half of a double-bill with this rather more widely remembered little number from Roger Corman. Quite a night out, by my estimation. For the sake of random cyclical completeness therefore, I thought I’d dig out ‘It Conquered The World’ and give it a quick going over, having not seen it for many a long year.

During the first half, I was surprised to note such a high incidence of clunky dialogue, painfully bad line-readings and general meandering tedium, which has no doubt done a lot to aid the film’s retrospective status as a more-or-less definitive cheap n’ cheesy b-movie. In view of the fact that the film's principal creatives were all smart and competent people however, I tend to suspect there was a certain amount of sniggering self-awareness creeping in here, which makes me sad.

As cynical as the production circumstances behind Roger Corman's movies may have been, when it comes to his directorial efforts, I've always appreciated his earnest dedication to making a straight-facedly decent movie out of whatever meagre resources were available to him. So, it’s disappointing to imagine him knowingly signing off on a load of sub-par crap at some points on this one, underestimating the intelligence of his audience in precisely the manner he usually so strenuously avoided. Perhaps Lou Rusoff’s script - just as shamelessly barmy as the one he provided for ‘The She-Creature’ - might to some extent be to blame?

Anyway, regardless, there is nonetheless a lot to enjoy here right from the outset. Surely no genre movie fan can fail to be moved by the sight of a (relatively) young Lee Van Cleef firing up his inter-planetary radio-set (hidden behind a curtain in the corner of the living room) to speak to his friend from Venus? 

Appearing just a few years after he played sneering, homosexual hitman Fante in Joseph H. Lewis’s classic ‘The Big Combo’, Van Cleef’s plummy, pointed-finger-aloft delivery of his dialogue here (“listen Paul - listen to the VOICE!”) must have become an acute embarrassment for him as he began settling into his more familiar taciturn cowboy persona over the next decade or so.

Meanwhile of course, the thunderously obvious nature of the obligatory anti-commie sub-text, expressed through Van Cleef’s interplanetary collaboration with a malign being who promises heaven on earth to mankind in exchange for their emotions and individuality, is so clearly comical that I’d like to believe that Corman - not to my knowledge a rabid McCarthyite - very much did have his tongue in his cheek in this regard.

And, once things get going in the second half, ol’ Jolly Roger really gives us our money’s worth. In fact, as soon as the Best Movie Monster Ever (accept no substitutes) shows up, conquering the fuck out of Bronson Canyon (if not quite the world) with his killer grin and adorable, residual-arm-waggling “just frontin’” moves, it’s all gravy for a surprisingly action-packed final act.

First we get the great Beverly Garland blasting away at the bugger with a shotgun (and, how often do we get see the heroine of a ‘50s sci-fi movie sneaking out from under her husband’s nose to give the monster hell, incidentally?), then the Dick Miller Commandos show up with their bazooka, and finally, an enraged Van Cleef getting up close and delivering the foam-melting coup de grace with an f-ing blowtorch, of all things! His final words: “I bid you welcome to this earth... you made it a CHARNEL HOUSE!”

For all the missteps and faffing about in the first half in fact, this is a thing of beauty and a joy forever - god bless you, Mr. Corman. 

 
#15 
Daughter of Darkness 
(Stuart Gordon, 1990)


Nothing to do with Harry Kumel or Delphine Seyrig, this is a made-for-TV vampire movie shot in Romania, directed by the late Stuart Gordon. In view of the info in the preceding sentence, I'd always assumed it must naturally be a Full Moon/Charles Band joint (some kind of spin off from their Eastern European ‘Sub-Species’ films perhaps?), but when I finally sat down to watch it this week, it immediately became clear that we’re dealing with a different kettle of fish entirely.

None of the usual suspects or company logos turned up on the straight-laced opening credits, and once things get underway, the tone is very different from yr usual Empire/Full Moon house style. It’s slicker for one thing, with somewhat higher production values, but also blander and more conventional, as if attempting to appeal to a mainstream TV audience, rather than rabid horror fans.

The plot sees a young American woman (Mia Sara) arriving in Bucharest in search of her long lost father, who turns out to be none other than Anthony Perkins. Along the way, she collides with variety of sinister and/or seductive characters, gets into a few scrapes involving the sinister dragon pendant she inherited from her Dad, has ominous bad dreams in which she traverses areas of the city she has never previously visited, and so on and so forth.

Thanks to Gordon’s brisk pacing and inventive direction, this is all fairly diverting, but unfortunately, once it gets down to brass tacks, vampire stuff in Andrew Laskos’ script is pretty hackneyed, much of the dialogue is fist-in-mouth terrible (the alleged “flirtatious banter” between Sara and U.S. embassy attaché Jack Coleman is especially painful) and the performances (with the exception of Perkins and a couple of the Romanian actors) are extremely poor. This latter point is especially disappointing, given that Gordon's theatrical background and good eye for casting usually helped his films to punch well above their weight in terms of acting and character stuff.

Meanwhile, the obvious requirement to stick to PG-level content also proves a stone drag. Although there are a few potentially memorable horror scenarios, and vampires’ manner of feeding proves a bit of an eye-opener, you can almost feel the director straining at the leash, wishing he could unleash some of the nastiness of his better-known work, but clearly under orders to keep things as mild as possible.

On the other hand though, the film is, as mentioned, very well directed, and the photography (by Romanian DP Iván Márk) is extremely good, making excellent use of the evocative and unusual urban locations. In fact, whereas many American horror films over the years have tried to hide the fact that they were made in Eastern Europe for budgetary reasons, this one makes a real virtue out of being shot under the nose of the Ceaușescu regime, which by my calculations must have been struggling through its final tempestuous final months at around the time ‘Daughter of Darkness’ was filmed.

As such, the film’s evocative and seemingly authentic Bucharest street footage carries an electric and fearful atmosphere, effectively conveying the idea of a city living under a cloud of intrigue and paranoia, and even incorporating a sub-plot about Sara being pursued by the dictator’s secret police.

With a stuttering electricity supply, gun-toting soldiers on every corner, and brief glimpses of breadlines and dishevelled streetwalkers visible as Sara roars through the streets in a broken down taxi, the film suggests an interesting contrast between these symptoms of late 20th century misery, and the older, more dust-shrouded European world represented by the shabby five star hotels, over-priced restaurants and subterranean craft workshops which both she and the vampires are obliged to frequent.

At times, I was even reminded of Zulawski’s use of East Berlin in ‘Possession’ (a comparison further suggested by the fact that this film’s main bad guy, British actor Robert Reynolds, is a dead ringer for a young Sam Neill), but... there the similarities end, unfortunately.

Overall, I’m not sure I’d recommend going to the trouble to track down ‘Daughter of Darkness’ unless you’re a Stuart Gordon completist (or an Anthony Perkins completist?), or unless you have a special interest in films shot in Romania, possibly. But, it is at least a sufficiently respectable effort for me to continue truthfully claiming that I’ve never seen a Gordon film I didn't enjoy. 

 
#16 
Gemini 
(Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999)


To be honest, I've never been much of a fan of director Shinya Tsukamoto, but I am a fan of films based on the writings of Edogawa Rampo, wild gel lighting and buying stuff from Mondo Macabro, so I thought I'd give this one a go.

Results proved…. mixed, shall we say. The basic Rampo-derived story, about a former battlefield surgeon (Masahiro Motoki) being terrorised by his doppelganger, remains very compelling, using an ostensibly simple horror conceit to explore a wide range of uncomfortable thematic territory, touching on the dehumanising effects of war, the collapse of family hierarchies and, most pointedly, the pernicious violence inflicted upon society by the rigid enforcement of socio-economic inequality.

Rest assured however, this is all treated by Tsukamoto more as a visceral, ero-guro tone poem than some high-minded political allegory, as he adapts his jarring, dissociative audio-visual style (often likened to the cinematic equivalent of a tape cut-up or extreme noise record) to the needs of a slightly more refined period setting, delivering some truly shocking and bizarre moments for us to, uh, ‘enjoy’, in the process.

Former pop idol Motoki does fine work too in what is a challenging pair of roles to put it mildly, with his portrayal of the ‘evil twin’ character in particular standing as easily the most unsettling display of skin-crawling evil I’ve encountered during this October season.

In many other respects though, I’m afraid I just didn’t dig the approach Tsukamoto takes to this material. Although there is some beautiful photography in places, the ‘extreme’ colour schemes used through much of the film are achieved through ugly-looking post-production filtering rather than actual, on-set lighting and production design, with the unfortunate effect of making a lot of the footage feel as if it’s been brutalised by the pre-sets on an arty teenager’s iPhone, whilst the director’s fixation with lo-o-ong sequences of people silently maintaining creepy/natural postures or just generally freaking out in front of the camera for minutes on end likewise got on my nerves.

Ultimately, these questionable aesthetic decisions served to distract me from the central narrative (which I was enjoying) to a sometimes catastrophic degree, ultimately making the whole venture feel a bit pretentious and uninvolving.

I’m also not really sure why the occupants of the film’s early 20th century “slums” all needed to be crazy, Noh-dancing neo-primitive cyberpunks, but hey, you hire the guy who made ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’, that's what you get I suppose.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Horror Express 2020:
Short Takes.

As regular readers may have noticed, I’ve been having trouble this year keeping up with my self-imposed marathon posting schedule for October, so to plug the gap a bit and make up the numbers, here a few short write-ups, pulled from notes I’ve made after viewings over the past couple of weeks. Spoiler: apparently I didn’t like any of these films very much.

#11 
La Bambola di Satana 
(Ferruccio Casapinta, 1969)

There are some surface level pleasures to enjoy in this one: the candy-coloured photography, the idyllic rural locations, the zany music score, haphazardly slapped together feel and general ‘contact high’ Euro-horror vibes. Such ambient appeal can only get you so far however, and once we get beyond that.... boy, what a stinker.

By rights, ‘La Bambola di Satana’ should at least prove interesting in genre history terms, representing a rare transitional entry in the Italian gothic horror cycle, bridging the gap between the more sombre, black & white era (roughly 1960-66) and the erotic / psychedelic wave of the early ‘70s. Unfortunately however, one-shot writer/director Ferruccio Casapinta seems uninterested in engaging with the conventions of either tradition, instead taking the most tedious gaslighting-the-heiress plotline imaginable and doggedly stringing it out for ninety minutes with no particular enthusiasm and few surprises.

I mean, the easily identified two-faced villains in this one don't even want to steal the castle heroine Erna Schurer has recently inherited from her wealthy uncle - they just want her to sell it to them. So, surely there are easier ways to go about this? Even if they can’t persuade Erna to sell, given that they're clearly rich enough to buy a castle, couldn't they just go and look at a different one? And, given that she seems perfectly happy for them to hang around the place indefinitely, what do they even stand to gain from owning the joint in the first place? Such are the thrilling, property market-based questions that ‘La Bambola di Satana’ forces us to contemplate. (1)

Also - NO SATAN. Schurer’s character is in no way a “doll of Satan”, and neither, except perhaps in the most nebulous sense of the term, is deceased-uncle’s-secretary / chief schemer Aurora Bautista. (2) There are no Satanists, no Satanism, no mention of Satan. I want my money back!

If you’re as obsessive a chronicler of early’70s Erotic Castle Movies as I am, ‘La Bambola di Satana’ might be worth seeing for the five-minute sequence in the middle in which it suddenly turns into a crazy / sexy horror movie, with Shurer writhing on her bed in a translucent nightie, dreaming that she’s being brutalised in the castle’s subterranean torture chamber by hooded inquisitors, complete with flashing disco lights. But, after that, it’s content to just go back to being the most boring giallo ever for another 40 minutes or so. Ho hum.

 

#12 
Invisible Ghost 
(Joseph H. Lewis, 1941)


Bela Lugosi’s first film for Monogram I believe, this one delivers... very little of anything, to be perfectly honest. Frankly, the script is so rambling, poorly constructed and lacking in interest that I’m amazed it got the go-ahead to enter production. I mean, I know that poverty row studios were cheap, but surely they also had a vested interest in actually putting things people wanted to see on the screen? Such as “invisible ghosts”, for instance.

Well, no dice here on that score, needless to say. Where the title came from is anyone’s guess. I kept waiting for the big reveal of whatever the story’s horror twist was going to be - is Lugosi secretly a mad scientist? Is he being telepathically controlled by his wife for some malign purpose? Is he being possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor or something? - but it never came.

So, basically, it seems Bela is just an affable chap whose wife has left him to run off with another man. Unbeknownst to him however, the eloping lovers suffered a car crash whilst making their getaway, which, somehow, leaves the wife wandering around the grounds of Lugosi’s house in a kind of mindless / brain-damaged stupor. Whenever Bela sees her through the windows, he snaps into a hypnotic fugue state and heads off, zombie-like, to strangle the nearest servant. No attempt is ever made to explain why this happens. That's yr lot, plot-wise.

The cigar-chewing detective who turns up each morning to investigate this ongoing series of strangulation murders repeatedly fails to link the crimes to Lugosi, despite the fact that all of the killings take place in his house, and that he has no alibi and precisely the right shaped hands. Meanwhile, the heroine (Lugosi's daughter, played by Polly Ann Young) responds to such events as her fiancée being executed for a crime he didn't commit by putting a spirited “oh!” in front of her lines, but otherwise expresses no emotion on the matter.

The film's music score consists of a load of random needle-drops which run incessantly from beginning to end, with no attempt made whatsoever to match them to the on-screen events, giving the impression that someone just left a radio on in the background whilst the movie was shooting. (This causes confusion during a scene in which a murder victim actually DOES leave the radio on.)

Sadly, there’s not even much fun here for Lugosi completists, given that he flatly intones his lines when in “normal” mode, then just waggles his fingers around as someone shines a torch under his chin when in “mad strangler” mode. Not exactly one of the great man’s towering screen roles.

The only thing I’ve got in the ‘plus’ column in fact is that director Joseph H. Lewis pulls off some bold and unconventional shots here and there, anticipating the style he’d go on to develop in his later, better-known (and frankly just plain better) films.

That aside though, I declare ‘Invisible Ghost’ a total waste of everyone's time; a gift for trash-talking critics such as myself, the only thing I can imagine the inexplicable title actually referring to is the ghost of the reason this damn thing exists in the first place. Ah well - you live and learn, and at 63 minutes it didn't kill me.

#13 
Edge of the Axe 
(José Ramón Larraz, 1988)


If you're coming to this film as a fan of director José Ramón Larraz, well, the good news is that the car wash murder sequence which opens the film is quite sombre and stylishly done. After that however, you might be best advised to turn the damned thing off and fill the next 85 minutes of your life with something more rewarding, because the rest of the movie could basically have been directed by any old bozo with a basic understanding of how to keep things in focus.

If on the other hand though you’re approaching it as a fan of late-to-the-party, independently financed oddball slasher flicks, well.... more good news! It’s fairly watchable, which spells success in this benighted corner of cinema.

In fact, although this film is objectively bad in just about every respect, it has a certain misfit charm that made me quite like it. Mainly I think, this was due to English-as-a-second-language scripting which, though it never scales ‘Troll 2’-esque heights of surrealism, frequently has the poor cast members (primarily hired in Texas, where the film was shot) enunciating mouthfuls of garbled blather which no human being would ever actually say.

Meanwhile, there’s some retrospectively rather charming stuff about the film’s central teen couple plugging their delightfully bulky home computers into “the central terminal” so that they can talk to each other chatroom-style - an innovation that the film’s other characters treat as if it were akin to some form of Satanic brain-washing.

Elsewhere, some of the violence is reassuringly violent, momentarily reminding us that the guy who made ‘Vampyres’ is at the wheel, and it’s really nice to see iconic Spanish horror stars Jack Taylor and Patty Shepard popping up briefly in minor roles.

That aside though, about the only thing I could find to connect ‘Edge of the Axe’ to Larraz’s earlier work is an unusual subplot involving the young protagonist’s best friend, who has ill-advisedly married a woman many years his senior. Although the film is generally pretty sexless (unfortunately), this seems to speak perhaps to the director’s career-spanning interest in the sexuality of older women (albeit entirely off screen in this case).

---

(1) Born in Naples in 1942, Erna Schurer’s other credits include the similarly under-powered Erotic Castle Movie ‘Blood Castle’ (1970) and Andrea Bianchi’s ‘Strip Nude for your Killer’ (1975), as well as such choice titles as ‘Deported Women of the SS Special Section’ (1977), ‘Sex Life in a Women’s Prison’ (1974), ‘Carnal Revenge’ (’74), ‘Les Lesbiennes’ (’75), and - I kid you not - ‘Erotic Exploits of a Sexy Seducer’ (1978).

(2) A prolific Spanish-born actress, Aurora Bautista went on to appear in both Eugenio Martin’s ‘A Candle for the Devil’ (1973) and Larraz’s ‘El Mirón (1977).

Monday, 26 October 2020

Spells and Incantations:
Being Thee 10th Annual Stereo Sanctity/
Breakfast in the Ruins Halloween Mix CD.

 [Cross-posted with Stereo Sanctity.]

As we kick off Halloween week, here, as tradition demands, is a just-under-80-minute mix of ragin’, unholy audio to get you in the mood for whatever safely socially distanced blasphemous rites and abhorrent festivities yourself and your household support bubble/coven have planned this year.

Given that this is the tenth instalment in the series (research gleaned from the long-shuttered archives suggests that the first occurred back in 2008, but that I skipped both 2018 and 2019), you’ll appreciate that the back catalogues of the true greats of Horror-Rock have already been thoroughly tapped by this point, but, as so often in life, metal has stepped up to save the day.

Betwixt the riffage, we also dip a disfigured toe or two into the faddish yet undeniably appealing waters of ‘dungeon synth’, and explore a wide range of atavistic diabolism during the first half, before a brief diversion into lycanthropy ushers us into some unspeakable realms of cosmic terror, concluding with a nod to everyone’s favourite Obeah Man. Dare you stand before the altar and offer up your mortal soul? Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, a quick click on the mixcloud ‘play’ button is all it takes.

Alternatively though, if you miss the riskier business of getting naked and throwing questionable fluids around the place, the old school mp3 download link below the tracklist may prove more to your liking.

(As usual, bands and artists who are still a going concern and deserve your support have been linked below as appropriate.)

 

00:00 One’s blessing...
00:59 Debbie Lyndsey - Spells and Incantations 
03:46 Aggressive Perfector - Onward to the Cemetery 
09:06 Midnight - Rebirth by Blasphemy 
12:15 Blood Ceremony - Witchwood 
19:12 Dream Division - The Gateway of the Pit 
21:32 Witchfinder General - Witchfinder General 
25:20 Dream Division - The Ancient Sanctuary 
26:49 Shooting Guns - Silver Bullet Remix 
32:27 Horse - The Sacrifice 
38:39 Ennio Morricone - Magic and Ecstasy 
41:33 Ted Dicks - Virgin Witch # 9 
46:37 Eskaton - Dagon 
56:34 Ogre - Hillside Necropolis 
58:56 Candlemass - Demon’s Gate 
1:08:02 Sunn O))) - It Took The Night To Believe 
1:14:00 Exuma - Exuma’s Reincarnation 
 
    ((( Download link. )))

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Nippon Horrors / Horror Express 2020 #10:
Kaidan Hebi-Onna /
‘Snake Woman's Curse’

(Nobuo Nakagawa, 1968)

 A decade or so after he turned out a series of fairly wacky horror pictures like Ghost Cat Mansion and The Lady Vampire for Shintoho, Nobuo Nakagawa - who had largely retired from directing after directly contributing to the bankruptcy of the aforementioned studio with his 1960 epic ‘Jigoku’ [‘Hell’] - returned to the fray for this considerably more conventional kaidan effort, produced under the unlikely auspices of Toei.

I say ‘unlikely’, because, although they soon would soon go on to cut a bloody swathe across the early ‘70s with some of the most grotesquely violent and OTT genre movies ever made, supernatural horror was never really Toei’s ‘thing’, leaving Kaidan Hebi-Onna [‘Snake Woman’s Curse’] feeling like a bit of a curious one-off.

According to what little background info I can find on the film, the production seems to have originated with writer Fumio Kônami, who apparently told the producers that he would only allow the studio to film his script if Nakagawa (who had not worked in the industry for about five years at this point) was hired to direct. (1)Apparently keen to try to establish a viable kaidan/horror line at the time, Toei acquiesced to the writer’s request, and…. bob’s yr uncle, as we say over on this side of the globe. (2)

Plot-wise, ‘Kaidan Hebi-Onna’ is in most respects a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill kaidan picture - essentially a variation on the old bakeneko (ghost-cat) story, in which a wronged woman returns from the grave with the help of an animal spirit to take her vengeance on the hateful aristocrats who have destroyed her family, only with snakes used as the totem animal this time around instead of cats.

Set (and presumably filmed) somewhere in Japan’s remote far western region, the story opens with an elderly peasant farmer (the ubiquitous Ko Nishimura), practically throwing himself under the wheels of the local landlord’s coach, as he begs for leniency vis-à-vis the repayment of his debts. Needless to say, such mercy is not forthcoming from the venal plutocrat (Seizaburô Kawazu), but, on his death-bed, the farmer is still pleading deliriously for the chance to save his family’s small-holding, uttering the key phrase which will go on to become something of a catch-phrase for the film’s spectral avengers: “even if I have to eat dirt, I will pay you back”.

After the man’s death, the landlord decrees that his homestead will be demolished in order to clear space for the planting of mulberry trees (used in the production of silk), whilst his wife (Chiaki Tsukioka) and adult daughter (Asa, played by Yukiko Kuwahara) are cheerfully informed that they will be taken into service in the landlord’s household, there to ‘work off’ their late patriarch’s debts.

As you might imagine, this is far from an idyllic prospect for the two women. Set to work weaving silk in what basically amounts to a small scale Victorian sweatshop, Asa must work sixteen hour days under the supervision of the landlord’s thuggish, lecherous son (Toei yakuza/action regular and future Roman Porno director Shingo Yamashiro), whilst her mother meanwhile becomes a general domestic dogsbody, bullied and belittled at every turn by the landlord’s sadistic wife (Kurosawa regular and future ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ / ‘Sex & Fury’ legend Akemi Negishi).

Although their fellow servants treat them with kindness, and although Asa still has steadfast fiancée Satematsu (Kunio Murai) waiting for her on the outside, the inhumane treatment doled out to the two women leads them, inevitably, to their sad and undignified deaths. Asa’s mother, significantly, has always made a habit of habit of helping unloved animals (she was nursing a pigeon back to health when the family lost their home), and she is struck down whilst attempting the prevent the killing of a snake which has intruded into the landlord’s house.

As anyone who knows the ‘rules’ of this genre will be well aware by this point, the Big Man and his horrid family had better watch the hell out, as Nakagawa and his crew prepare to get busy with the thunder crashes, gel lighting, stage blood, green-faced living corpses and double-exposed snake effects, for the riotous closing act of vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave.

To Western audiences, these films often play more like ritual re-enactments of familiar folk tales than exercises in contemporary story-telling, which perhaps to some extent accounts for their failure to gain much of an overseas following, as the lack of novelty within their narratives can soon become pretty dispiriting. Once you’ve seen a handful of ‘em, you’ll know exactly how things are going to play out, right from the outset. The only interest comes from seeing how efficiently the filmmakers will accomplish their task, in technical and dramatic terms.

For domestic audiences however, we must assume this would not have been so much of a problem. More accepting of the traditions behind the bakeneko form, and more able to appreciate the more subtle cultural resonances within it, one hopes they would have been able to view each addition to the cycle with fresh eyes. 

(By way of comparison, we can perhaps imagine how a viewer largely unfamiliar with American culture would feel after being sat down and told to watch 25 early ‘80s slasher films. We might love them all for their minor eccentricities and variation on the theme, but to the uninitiated, aren’t they all kind of the same, more or less?)

In some ways, ‘Snake Woman’s Curse’ feels like a case in point in this regard. As eye-rollingly over-familiar as the basic storyline may be, look deeper and some very specific points of departure from the norm begin to emerge. For a start, the film is set during the Meiji era (1868-1912), a time of dramatic change and modernisation for Japan, immediately differentiating it from the more historically static Edo or Tokugawa eras in which kaidan stories more traditionally take place.

Again, domestic audiences would likely have been keyed into this right from the start, as the landlord is seen roaring through his domain in a Western-style coach, whilst his son sports a bowler hat and other foreign accoutrements. The mechanised ‘sweat-shop’ in which Asa is put to work likewise represents a form of industry unknown in pre-Meiji Japan, but whilst the the adoption of these innovations by the film’s villainous aristocrats would seem to indicate an implicit support for the older, folk-based way of life favoured by the hard-done-by peasants, the approach taken by Kônami’s script is, as usual, a little more nuanced than that.

The ambiguous attitude to modernisation and/or Westernisation so frequently encountered in early ‘70s Japanese genre cinema is perfectly encapsulated here via a memorable one scene cameo from Tetsurô Tanba, playing a regional police chief dispatched to investigate the murderous goings on within the landlord’s domain.

Effectively acting as the very personification of modern, democratic state governance, Tanba reduces the landlord to a fit of spluttering disbelief as he calmly undercuts the local lord’s Shogunate-derived feudal authority, daring to suggest that the police may wish to investigate the death of one of his peasants, and that he might even dare to implicate members of the aristocrat’s own family in the process - an absolutely unthinkable prospect for a man born into the strict caste system of the Tokugawa era, and an amusing demonstration of that the way that, however keen the ruling classes may have been to enrich themselves using technological innovations offered by contact with Western capitalism, their understanding of the social and political implications of such development tended to lack somewhat behind.

As you will no doubt have gathered from the preceding paragraphs, ‘Kaidan Hebi-Onna’ is about as politically conscious a kaidan pictures as you could possibly hope to find, taking the age old fantasy of the rural peasantry exacting revenge against their cruel feudal overlords baked into all bakeneko stories, and hammering it home for strongly than ever, applying it to a more nuanced, more realistic and more historically recent setting in the process.

Some might be apt to suggest that the film’s success as a horror movie suffers as a result of this heavy emphasis on socio-economic angst, and indeed Nakagawa’s pacing here is glacially slow, whilst the atmosphere he builds is painstakingly sombre. The inevitable horror ‘effects’ which dominate the final act meanwhile, whilst inventive and fun, are strictly conventional within the genre.

So, we’re definitely not looking at a Friday night horror banger here I’m afraid, but, if you can approach the film in an appropriately sober, arthouse-y frame of mind, Nakagawa’s execution at least is absolutely top notch. Performances are excellent across the board (in addition to the aforementioned esteemed actors, there are also turns from such Toei notables as Yukie Kagawa and Hideo Murota), whilst Yoshikazu Yamazawa’s photography, highlighting the fertile-yet-foreboding topography of Japan’s mountainous Western coast, is beautiful, radiating an overpowering brown n’ green aura which seems to link the earth where the snakes crawl directly to the hallowed afterlife from whence the spectres emerge.

Shunsuke Kikuchi’s score meanwhile is richly evocative, and the carefully wrought production design includes a wealth of great “folky stuff” (songs, costumes, local festival customs) for Japanophiles to enjoy. Most importantly perhaps, Nakagawa manages to imbue the script’s off-the-peg structure with a handful of genuinely haunting, transcendental images which will live long in the viewer’s memory after viewing.

Born in 1905, the director was sixty-three years old as the time of this film’s production, and it would be all too easy to interpret the slower, more meditative direction Nakagawa takes here as the work of a filmmaker trying to establish himself as a more ‘serious’ voice in cinema during the twilight years of his career, after half a lifetime spent churning out rushed 60 minute programmers and battling the studios for budgets.

Unfortunately for us reviewers’ desperate need to try to impose a narrative onto everything however, Nakagawa rather kicked this idea in the nuts by immediately going on to make a brief but prolific comeback as a commercial director in 1969, directing five action/yakuza pictures for Toei in quick succession before, curiously, adopting the pseudonym “Ise Tsugio” in order to make what I presume to be a series of obscure, independently distributed pinku (erotic) titles (ubiquitous S&M / rope torture guru Oniroku Dan is credited as writer on at least one of them). All of these hit cinemas before the year was out, with the director’s anonymity surely somewhat undermined by the fact that they were all proudly produced by his own ‘Nakagawa Pro’.

So, once again, we return to the idea of ‘Kaidan Hebi-Onna’ seeming like a real one-off - an odd, inexplicable diversion in the paths followed by its director, writer and studio. It is what it is, I suppose - but thankfully for those with an interest in this particular overlooked corner of Japanese culture, what it is is very worthwhile indeed.

---- 

(1) An absolutely pivotal figure in the golden age of Toei exploitation, Kônami (1933-2012) went on to contribute to a huge number of the studio’s best and/or most outrageous films from the early ‘70s, including the entire ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ series, Sonny Chiba’s Yakuza Deka movies, the extraordinary Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope, the horrifying Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs and Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘Sympathy for the Underdog’ and ‘Graveyard of Honour’, to name but a few. 

(2) CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE DEPT: All background info on the production of this film is taken directly from Jonathan M. Hall’s well-researched commentary track on the 2007 Synapse DVD release.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Horror Express 2020 #9:
The Night Eats The World
(Dominique Rocher, 2018)

I was kind of in two minds about this one. On the one hand, it certainly starts off strong, as a well-directed and well-shot take on the ol’ zombie apocalypse formula (last-man-on-earth subdivision), with requisite nods to ‘I am Legend’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘28 Days Later’ all present and correct, and that gut-wrenching “something dreadful is about to happen” feeling effectively established.

Protagonist Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), sole survivor of a zombie-crashed house party at his ex-girlfriend’s Paris apartment, initially seems to have reassuringly good survival instincts too - scoping out his surroundings, stockpiling food and weapons and sizing up the abilities of his undead opponents, just as we’d all probably like to think we would in his situation. But, as the film transitions from the straight survival horror of its first act toward a more psychological study of long-term isolation and loneliness, it lost focus and began to annoy me.

Although on one level we’ve got to commend the filmmakers for having the foresight to essentially make a lockdown movie in 2018, their protagonist’s predicament never really rings true (see below), and, well… basically, as we spend more time with the man, and as his actions become more irrational and self-indulgent, we begin to realise that he's actually a bit of a dick. Not in a “the filmmakers are challenging us to accept an unsympathetic protagonist” sort of way either, I should specify, but more of a “this character is the fimmakers’ idea of a relatable, everyday guy, but frankly that guy is a tosser” situation. And when you’re watching a film with only one character, that’s kind of a problem.

Also, despite the film's painstakingly naturalistic, contemporary setting, the apocalyptic scenario it is asking us to accept begins to seem more ridiculous, the longer you stop to think about it.

By which I mean - a crucial element of this film is that its zombies are not capable of breaking through locked doors. Our protagonist survives the initial, nocturnal zombie attack because he is unconscious in a locked room. When subsequently reclaiming the apartment block, he simply secures the exterior doors and windows, and is safe for the duration.

So far so good, but, given that MOST people essentially spend their nights asleep behind a locked door or two, and probably tend to at least look out of the window in the morning before they step out for a stroll... surely there would be loads of survivors? The idea that everyone else in the city has been wiped out overnight by zombies with less agency than feral animals is patently absurd.

Likewise, despite the movie being set in the late 2010s present day, no one in this apartment building seems to have owned a computer, or a TV, or even a radio. Instead, like our painfully hip, DIY musician protagonist, the residents seem to have favoured cassette tapes (so retro and chic, y’know?). Conveniently, this allows him to bop around the empty rooms using up the batteries on a walkman he reclaimed from a ‘punk’ teenager’s bedroom (in 2018? really??), instead of, say, using his smartphone to try to contact the outside world. (You see what I mean about this whole ‘dick’ thing?)

In fact, he briefly checks his voice messages on his phone during the first morning, establishes that his nearest-and-dearest are dead, then abandons it. I get that “isolation” is the film’s watch-word, but the idea that he wouldn’t have at least tried to find out what was happening in the wider world whilst the electricity was still running is difficult to accept.

Of course, I don’t mind directors bending a film’s world to suit their own needs in a movie whose presentation is pulpier or more fantastical, but given this one’s absolute realist aesthetic, the failure to address these issues just seems like an insult to the viewer’s intelligence - a wilful refusal to provide us with the information we need to make this story work for us, on either an emotional level or a purely narrative one.

My wife, incidentally, has already christened ‘The Night Eats the World’ “that emo zombie movie”, and whilst I wouldn’t go that far in my criticism (I thought it had its moments), I get where she’s coming from.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Gothic Originals / Horror Express 2020 #8:
The Ghoul
(Freddie Francis, 1975)

 I make a point of trying to cover at least one previously unseen Peter Cushing film each October, and I've had this one lying around as a VHS-rip since god knows when, so here we go.

As anyone who has read up the history of British horror cinema will probably recall, Tyburn productions (named for the infamous site of London’s public gallows) was a short-lived outfit founded by Kevin Francis, son of Freddie, with the deliberate intention of reviving the more old-fashioned style of gothic horror filmmaking which had pretty much been driven to extinction in the UK by the mid-1970s.

(Precisely the kind of films the then 25-year-old Kevin had grown up watching his father work on in other words, although this is neither the time nor place to dwell upon the psychological motivations underpinning forty-five year old entrepreneurial ventures.)

Be that as it may, Tyburn was not a success. To put it bluntly, there were good reasons why production of traditional gothic horrors had flatlined in the preceding years, and the young Mr Francis had no ace up his sleeve to help overcome them. Greeted with almost total disdain by audiences and critics alike when they scraped into cinemas in ‘74-‘75, the three feature films Tyburn produced attracted little interest, and the company faded from existence shortly thereafter.

Released in June 1975, ‘The Ghoul’ was the last Tyburn film to see the inside of a projector, and, true to its producer’s intentions, it’s a sombre, slow-moving and ultimately pretty dispiriting attempt to revive the ‘stately’ (read: stuffy / Victorian) feel of classic-era Hammer.

Indeed, Hammer’s own Anthony Hinds (writing under his John Elder pseudonym) provided the script, a substantial portion of which is directly recycled from his work on 1966’s The Reptile - only, this time around, there’s no reptile, which gives you an immediate insight into what a bloody-mindedly uncommercial production we’re getting into here.

Dour as it may be though, ‘The Ghoul’ does have its charms - not least an excellent, late-era Cushing performance. As so often in this era, the actor seems to be drawing pretty heavily on his own well-publicised battle with grief, and I really hope that the scene in which his character cradles a photograph of his late wife, reflecting that they will “always be together” and so forth, was not added to the script simply to capitalise on the star’s personal circumstances. (1)

Either way though, Cushing handles it all with the grace and dignity we’d reasonably expect of him, whilst his character Dr Lawrence - a morally compromised former missionary, returned from India with a dark secret and henceforth dedicated to his solitary passion for building violins - incorporates enough psychological nooks and crannies for the actor to really get his teeth into (so to speak), irrespective of the relatively shoddy stuff which surrounds him.

It's a shame therefore that second-billed John Hurt pretty much phones it in as the simple-minded groundskeeper/hobo type character who skulks about Lawrence’s swampy, dilapidated country pile, luring young ladies back to the literal chicken-shack he calls home and falteringly attempting to abuse them. Despite being painfully uninteresting, this vacant numbskull is assigned an absolute ton of screen-time, and although he essentially representing the film’s only portrayal of a working class character, neither script nor actor bother to put in a very good showing.

Having already played leading roles in several higher profile films by this point, as well as being nominated for a BAFTA for his harrowing supporting performance in Richard Fleischer’s ‘10 Rillington Place’ (1971), it’s possible that Hurt simply felt this gig was beneath him - and indeed, with its Wurzel Gummidge costumery, moptop wig and clunking, remedial dialogue, it quite possibly was. But, he could still have taken a few tips from Cushing vis-à-vis counting one’s blessings and making the best of things, I would suggest.

Elsewhere, it's great to see Ian McCulloch (‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, Zombi Holocaust) popping up a few years before his Italio-horror glory days (there’s some uneasy, class-based tension when, noticing that Hurt’s character is a former soldier, McCulloch’s young officer starts bossing him about in regimental fashion, igniting an awkward battle of wills), Whilst Veronica Carlson (‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’, ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’) makes for a far ballsier heroine than you normally encounter in this sort of thing, taking charge during the film’s opening car race, and generally lording it over her male co-stars in no uncertain terms.

Despite of ‘The Ghoul’s all-pervading atmosphere of nostalgic gloom in fact, some efforts have clearly been made here to bring a more contemporary feel into proceedings. The unusual 1920s setting for instance seems to have been introduced largely in order to facilitate some rambunctious, jazz-age merrymaking into the film’s opening scenes (retro ‘20s hi-jinks were, oddly, often a by-word for envelope-pushing modernism in ‘70s cinema, post-‘Bonnie & Clyde’), whilst the aforementioned nocturnal car race - in which the movie’s hateful young toffs recklessly roar around ill-lit country roads in their vintage motors - is both well-executed and quite exciting, surpassing the similar scenes featured in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1968).

Beyond ‘The Reptile’ meanwhile, Hinds’ script also seems to have borrowed at least some of its structure from ‘Psycho’, and the film’s scenes of violence, few and far between though they may be, are effectively gory and hard-hitting.

Indeed, given that it is inevitably being tagged as a boring, old fashioned throwback by British horror fans, it is ironic that ‘The Ghoul’s “bright young things find themselves at the mercy of doddering old weirdos” plotline entirely mirrors the far edgier films being made by directors like Pete Walker at around the same time, realigning the class-based conflicts underlying most of Hammer’s output to reflect the generational rifts more frequently explored by younger filmmakers during the ‘70s.

Conversely however, some viewers might be liable to find other elements of ‘The Ghoul’s script more retrogressive and objectionable - specifically, its apparent portrayal of Indian culture as an ‘exotic’, sinister sort of business which serves to undermine steadfast, Christian morality; a conduit for depraved, pagan beliefs which Cushing’s character has opened himself up to by “going native”, destroying his family in the process.

Embodied in the figure of Cushing’s taciturn housekeeper Ayah (a ‘browned up’ Gwen Watford), who rather unfairly emerges as the primary villain of the piece, this strain of pulp fiction-era racism was already present to some extent in ‘The Reptile’, but regrettably it becomes more emphatically pronounced here.

Whilst I certainly couldn’t argue with anyone who would wish to dismiss the film on this basis however, I personally found that the ambiguous atmosphere (Freddie) Francis and Cushing bring to the film help to steer the material in a more interesting direction than that of mere xenophobic scare-mongering.

Though the elder Francis’ talents as a horror director were often taken for granted, even his lesser efforts are usually characterised by their close attention to production design, lighting and camera-work, and the pungent atmospherics he summons up during the better passages of ‘The Ghoul’ are no exception. Thus, the idea of an “alien” Indian/Eastern culture subtly underlying the prosaic surface of a conventional English country house is given a great deal of play here, and actually becomes quite intriguing.

The house is kept sweltering by roaring fires in every room because “we’re used to the heat”, whilst the residents speak primarily in Ayah’s native tongue, awkwardly reverting to English for the benefit of their guests. Meanwhile, in a striking visual metaphor, the shrine of the black onyx Thuggee goddess worshipped by Ayah literally sits directly behind Dr Lawrence’s modestly adorned Anglican chapel, hidden from sight by a flimsy screen, as the compromised patriarch writhes in culturally conflicted mental agony before his impotent, gold-plated cross.

Imaginatively rendered through the film’s production design more-so than its writing, this all adds up, in its own way, to a curious sideways reflection on the ‘end of empire’ and the effects of the Indian experience upon upper-crust British identity, whilst Cushing, mindful no doubt of these sensitive themes, making a lingering sense of guilt and displacement the keynote of his performance.

In saying this, I realise I’m probably giving ‘The Ghoul’ more credit than it deserves. To the casual viewer, much of the movie will simply seem clumsy, boring and amateur-ish, in addition to its questionable racial political. This all comes home to roost when, after well over an hour’s painstaking build up, the climactic reveal of the titular ‘ghoul’ (played by prolific bit-part actor Don Henderson and a couple of buckets of blue paint) proves a crushing disappointment all round.

Filmed in perfunctory, one-take fashion amid a haze a Vaseline-lensed blurriness, it feels as if Francis was reluctant to even put this nonsense on camera (which is saying something, given that his recent directorial assignments had also included Herman Cohen’s ‘Craze’ and Ringo Starr & Harry Nilsson’s atrocious ‘Son of Dracula’). Just a hideous embarrassment for all concerned, the less said of this farrago of a finale, the better, to be honest.

Sad to say, these final scenes serve as an absurd and rather pathetic final pratfall for the traditional British gothic, of which this was, effectively, the final example. It feels especially fitting therefore that, with a thoughtfulness characteristic of the sub-genre’s most gifted and iconic performer, Cushing claws back some degree of dignity in the film’s last moments, furnishing it with an appropriately sombre grace note and a memorably doomed closing image. Nice work Pete - you earned your fee on this one, and then some.

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(1)As per IMDB trivia; “according to Veronica Carlson, director Freddie Francis made Peter Cushing do multiple takes during the scene where he talks about his love for his wife. This caused Cushing great distress, and reduced him, and some of the crew, to tears.” So that would seem to confirm my worst suspicions then.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Horror Express 2020 #7:
Doctor Blood’s Coffin
(Sidney J. Furie, 1961)

 Following a move to London at the dawn of the 1960s, the first project young Canadian director Sidney J. Furie got off the ground was the off-brand horror picture about the son of the local GP in a picturesque Cornish village performing Frankensteinian resurrection experiments in an abandoned tin mine.

Echoing the predicament faced by Furie himself to a certain extent, the film finds Dr Peter Blood (Keiron Moore) cheerily skipping back into the quiet life of his father Robert (Ian Hunter - not the Mott The Hoople guy, needless to say) after four years spent studying bio-chemistry in Vienna. 

Given that the re-appearance of Dr Blood Jr. neatly coincides with a rash of mysterious disappearances in the local area and repeated thefts of medical equipment from his father’s clinic, few viewers will be surprised to learn the it is the younger doctor’s ‘coffin’ we’ll soon be peering into, in spite Moore’s bland, leading man good looks.

There is a certain amount of promise here - not least the somewhat novel idea of wrapping up the romantic lead and the mad scientist within the same character. Unfortunately however, Nathan Juran’s script proves decidedly ropey throughout.

Full of excruciatingly poor dialogue (“Do you know that I had analysed the protein value of an acorn by the time I was six?”; “You want me to deny God and instead kneel down and worship a new God - science!”) and low level absurdities (why do a bunch of blokes who look as if they’ve never left the local area in their lives need to rely upon guy who’s just returned from four years overseas to lead them through the local caves?), Juran’s tale also, fatally, retains some long stretches of uneventful tedium in its first half, instantly consigning ‘Doctor Blood’s Coffin’ to the status of half-remembered ignominy within the Brit-horror canon.

Given that Juran was better known as the director of ‘The Deadly Mantis’ (1957) and ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ (1958), it makes sense that (according to Jonathan Rigby’s English Gothic, at least) his script originally took place on the other side of the Atlantic, in an Arizona mining town. Quite why Furie went to the trouble of importing and anglicising this unpromising potboiler though is another matter entirely.

The story’s American roots can perhaps be glimpsed through the actions of Kenneth J. Warren’s policeman character (it’s incongruous to see an English copper organising the occupants of the local pub into a posse on the slightest pretext, and yelling down the phone that he needs “twenty armed men” to form roadblocks), but for the most part it seems to have survived the Transatlantic crossing surprisingly well - which is a shame in a sense, as some out-of-place Americanisms might at least have livened things up a bit.

By the time he got around to directing ‘The Ipcress File’ a few years later, Furie had reinvented himself as a mod-ish, cinematic stylist, but unfortunately there’s little sign of that ambition here, as he approaches his craft with dogged, nailed-down-camera conventionality, seemingly imitating that static, old fashioned style which Hammer’s Terrence Fisher was often (rather unfairly) accused of perpetrating.

On the plus side however, the whole thing is at least handsomely realised despite its presumably low budget, utilising some absolutely splendid - very early '60s - colour photography to highlight the picture-postcard shooting locations. (I’m obliged to mention at this juncture that Nicholas Roeg served as camera operator under ‘Zulu’ DP Stephen Dade.) Meanwhile, the film also benefits from a propulsive, Hammer style orchestral score, courtesy of Buxton Orr and the ubiquitous Philip Martell, which helps considerably with the pacing issues.

Though the cast boasts no big names, a few of the supporting players will be familiar to more discerning British horror fans. You’ll recall the aforementioned Mr. Warren for instance for taking work which should rightly have gone to Milton Reid in the likes of ‘Demons of the Mind’ and The Creeping Flesh, whilst Fred Johnson - here playing a Hugh Griffiths-esque undertaker - also essayed “old geezer” roles in ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, ‘City of the Dead’ and ‘Brides of Dracula’ amongst others.

Most significantly of course, our leading lady (indeed, the ONLY lady on the cast list) is Hazel Court. Playing widowed nurse / mad doctor love interest Linda, she brings a strong and radiant screen presence, but her noble efforts are probably best consigned to the “does her best with a thankless part” file.

The film’s horror content meanwhile is slow to make its presence felt, but, clearly inspired by Hammer’s success in the field of medical horror, there are a few bits of ‘Curse of Frankenstein’-inspired surgical grue, including some gruesome beating heart close-ups and so forth. This is all framed by Furie without a great deal of additional, atmospheric fuss, as if he believed that success within the genre was entirely predicated upon proximity to corpses and body parts.

This approach lends the film a rather morbid, unsavoury aura, despite its relative mildness, which reaches its apex during the conclusion, when, in a fit of spurned petulance, the younger Dr Blood digs up Hazel's dead husband, who's been mouldering in the grave for over a year, and actually sticks a new heart in what's left of him. Yuck!

As a horror film, I found ‘Doctor Blood’s Coffin’ to be entertaining enough in an undemanding sort of way, despite its myriad weaknesses - perfect for the Monday night on which I chose to watch it. What I enjoyed most of all about the film though was actually its extensive use of Cornish locations. 

[The evocatively named hamlet of Zennor, near St Ives, largely stood in for village, whilst the cliff-top ruins and abandoned mine workings were played by beauty spots near St Just and Botallack - a full breakdown and a wonderful set of ‘then and now’ photos can be enjoyed on the Reel Streets website.]

As well as looking absolutely beautiful in their own right under the nigh-on atomic glare of Dade and Roeg’s Eastman Colour lighting, the village exteriors provide a wealth of time capsule-worthy period detail, which I’m sure anyone who grew up in a similarly remote corner of the British Isles should be able to enjoy. (Athough this was of course considerably before my time, the Hillman touring cars, the curtain fabrics and Court’s costumes, even the occasional glimpses of the village shop, all provide a shudder of tribal recognition.)

Even during the film’s longueurs, there’s a certain pleasure to seeing familiar actors trudging about these out-of-the-way provincial locations, so rarely visited by British genre films, which is worth the entry price alone. (In this regard, I’m reminded of the even more mundane and uneventful ‘Night of the Big Heat’, filmed in Dorset and Buckinghamshire a few years later.)

In fact, I’m even go so far as to say that gazing upon the quiet cottages of Zennor circa 1961 gave me a real twinge of sadness, reminding me that I've not been able to make it out to the coast or the countryside at all this year. All the while, the memories of earlier days and older ways of life, fleeting captured on celluloid here as an incidental backdrop to the clumsy tale of Dr Blood gadding about with his chloroform and formaldehyde bothering Hazel Court, fade further out of sight with each turn of the season, buried deeper ‘neath the wheely-bins and people-carriers of the 21st century day-to-day.