Saturday, 21 December 2019

Best First Time Viewings: 2019
(part # 1 of 3)

Well, it goes without saying I suppose that 2019 has once again been – in the parlance of our times - a bit of a shitter, even for those of us lucky enough to live in parts of the world not subject to violent repression, mass incarceration, saturation bombing, flooding, drought, or else actually on fire. But, I think I’ve been banging on about the imminent extinction of human civilisation each very year since about 1997, and somehow we’re all still here, so don't take my word for it. And, more to the point, we’ve still got movies.

My Best First Viewings list this year will be a top 30, split into three posts. Here’s hoping you can pull some enjoyment form it, or that it helps point you in some rewarding celluloid directions for 2020.

21. Nightmare at Noon
(Nico Mastorakis, 1988)

A wonderful, wonderful mixture of ‘80s action trash and free-wheeling eccentricity is the order of the day here, as an albino Brion James and his army of silent goons rock up in a small Arizona town in their hi-tech TV detector van and proceed to contaminate the water supply, as part of some kind of fiendish and inexplicable experiment, turning the population into badly behaved, green-blooded zombies!

Never fear though – a b-movie dream-team of Bo Hopkins, Wings Hauser and George Kennedy (High Priest of all ‘80s movie sheriffs) is on the case, busting out the local police station’s armoury and proceeding to make many, many things explode in slow motion. (Bo and Wings are spared zombification because, in an act of pure macho idiocy, they decided to have beer with their truck-stop breakfasts; George meanwhile is furtively keeping quiet about his early morning cup o’ joe.)

Also featuring rudimentary computer graphics and VR sun-glasses, a sub-John Carpenter electronic score, heavy-handed tributes to The Great American Western and an obscenely over-extended helicopter duel(!) that has very little to do with anything in the script, this feels like a pretty audacious venture for Greece’s premier trash-meister Nico Mastorakis, and it may in fact be his masterpiece. I watched it twice on two consecutive evenings, and still have a hard time not weeping with joy each time I remember that I am lucky enough to exist in the same world as films such as this one.

22. Killer’s Moon
(Alan Birkinshaw, 1978)

From October:

“I’m not sure what it says about me that I managed to find a film about a gang of maniacal, animal-mutilating rapists so thoroughly charming, but…. there’s just something about ‘70s British horror, isn’t there? That sense of haunting, otherworldly mundanity and whimsical oddness that just seems to rise atavistically from the landscape itself, completely defusing my critical faculties…. and ‘Killer’s Moon’ has it in spades.
An extremely strange film by any yardstick, ‘Killer’s Moon’ ultimately fits into no known lineage of British horror, despite the atmospheric similarities outlined above. To my happy surprise in fact, it reminded me not so much of any rape-atrocity film, slasher or ‘Clockwork Orange’ knock-off, but rather of the kind of films Jean Rollin was making at around the same time on the other side of the channel.
To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, we’re looking here at a freakish mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production; too weird to live, too unique to die. It’s up there on the shelf next to ‘Exposé’ the next time I need something easy-going to cheer myself up.”

23. Cut and Run
(Ruggero Deodato, 1985)

So, uh… wow. I’ve never really warmed to the thorough-bred Italio-exploitation films Ruggero Deodato specialised in during the ‘70s, but when the ‘80s hit and the coming of VHS brought a new world of commercial possibilities for violent action product, making all these guys giddy with mainstream aspirations – THAT’S where the magic really happens in Deodato’s career I think.

As you’ll be aware, 1982’s ‘Raiders of Atlantis’ was pretty mind-blowing, but ‘Cut and Run’, I mean, man… what even is this thing? It kind of seems like an extremely precarious attempt to marry the mean-spirited nastiness of Deodato’s earlier jungle / cannibal films with the kind of slicker, more approachable action-adventure movie which New Line were presumably expecting when they bank-rolled the thing, leading to a frequently astounding movie in which it is genuinely impossible to guess what will happen next at any given point.

Barbaric, sickening gore? Crazy, gung-ho machine guns n’ helicopters action and post-‘Raiders..’ heroic hi-jinx? Mordant reflections on the futility of media intervention in war-zones and the corrosive effect of American capitalism on third world nations? (Just a little bit.) Or hey, how about Richard Lynch as a psychotic Jonestown survivor reinventing himself as a messianic drug baron? Not to mention good ol’ Michael Berryman leaping out of the river every five minutes to disembowel somebody with a machete. Yeah, this movie is really…. something? Not quite sure what yet, but the doctors tell me I seem to have enjoyed it a great deal.

24. The Corruption of Chris Miller
(Juan Antonio Bardem, 1973)

Similar to ‘Whirlpool’ below, this previously little-seen Spanish giallo / psychological horror, resurrected on blu-ray this year by Vinegar Syndrome, proves a minor revelation. Oddly reminiscent of Norman J. Warren’s ‘Prey’ (1977), the fun here begins when a sinister hippie drifter played by Barry Stokes – who went on to play the alien interloper in Warren’s film – smarms and seduces his way into the idle n’ opulent household of a bitter, covertly kinky divorcee (Jean Seberg) and her mentally unbalanced teenage daughter (the titular Chris(tine) Miller, played by Spanish pop idol Marisol).

As you might well expect, the phenomena defined by one critic writing about ‘Prey’ as “the sub-Losey atmosphere” is soon in full effect, even before we begin wondering who the unseen killer who keeps bumping people off with an imaginative variety of bladed instruments might be. I mean, we seem to have seen Stokes bloodily dispatching a famous movie star during the film’s prologue, but it can never be quite that easy in a picture like this, can it..?

Relatively lavish production values, pacey editing, sublimely weird performances and a cracking score from Waldo de los Ríos all combine to make this a decidedly superior Euro-Trash pot-boiler – and then, just when you think we’re safely ensconced in “yeah, this is cool, but we’ve seen it all before” territory, Bardem hits us out of left-field with one of the most startling, full-on horror sequences I’ve seen this year. I mean, just the sight of that guy, done out in that inexplicably terrifying hooded rain slicker, shades on, sickle in hand – my god. It’s a shocker alright, in the best possible way.

25. Walker
(Alex Cox, 1987)

In the past, I’ve been inclined to think that the characterisation of Alex Cox as a ‘punk’ filmmaker has been a bit overplayed. Then, this year I finally got around to watching ‘Walker’, his nigh-on apocalyptic historical epic about American corporate adventurism in 19th century Nicaragua, and found it to be tasteless, chaotic, hyperactive, violent, confused, obnoxious, repetitive, amateurish, polemical, idiotic, headache-inducing and frequently jaw-dropping – so, about as punk as it’s possible to get, in other words.

Playing in part like some kind of left wing / trustafarian reinvention of ‘The Wild Bunch’, complete with about a hundred secondary characters all shouting and screaming, trying to steal screen-time from a monomaniacally intense Ed Harris in the title role, and in part like a deliberate attempt to recreate the calm and collected shooting circumstances of ‘Apocalypse Now’ in the midst of the Nicaraguan Contra’s utopian guerrilla insurgence, I’m not sure that the movie which eventually emerged from the chaos qualifies as ‘good’, but it’s certainly unique, I’ll give it that.

Thirty plus years down the line, the fact that Cox was actually able to make this thing with money provided by a major Hollywood studio seems almost literally unbelievable. The sheer balls it must have taken to swing by Universal and screen a rough cut for the suits, I can’t even imagine… never mind “you’ll never work in this town again” [he didn’t, incidentally], he’s lucky he didn’t find himself rotting in the bowels of a CIA torture camp, to be honest. Respect is due.

26. Erik the Conqueror
(Mario Bava, 1961)

Tim Lucas has declared this one to be “Bava’s most underrated movie”, and who am I to disagree? It’s certainly as fine an example of silk purse / sow’s ear alchemy as you’re likely to find anywhere else in the maestro’s filmography, with his exceptional cinematic craftsmanship helping transform a tired rehash of Richard Fleischer’s ‘The Vikings’ (1958) into a lavish feast of budget-defying, phantasmagorical spectacle, its visuals overflowing with heady, haunting atmospherics and searing Eastman-colour majesty.

The brooding, blood-drenched beach-side battle scene (beat THAT for alliteration) is a definite highlight, and the studio-bound slave galley / naval warfare sequences almost rival the final segment of ‘Kwaidan’ in their ingenuity, but best of all is the netherworld of the Vikings’ vast subterranean gathering chamber, which more or less takes the movie into full-on fantasy territory, using repurposed sets from the same year’s ‘Hercules in the Haunted World’ to create a vast, shadowed space, dominated by a gigantic, gnarled and ancient tree trunk. Therein, the ever-groovy Men of the North enjoy rockin’ drum workouts, exotic dancing and climactic axe-throwing contests, alongside their battle planning and run of the mill debauchery. By thunder, those were the days alright.

27. Whirlpool
(José Ramón Larraz, 1970)

Arrow’s HD resurrection of José Larraz’s first film, shot in England at the dawn of the ‘70s, was certainly one of this year’s biggest causes for celebration amongst die-hard Euro-cult buffs, and whilst ‘Whirlpool’ is certainly no masterpiece, it’s still a more than worthy addition to the director’s other extant work, proving that the unique sensibility he subsequently brought to the likes of ‘Symptoms’, ‘Vampyres’ and the under-rated ‘The Coming of Sin’ was in full effect right from the start of his career.

Eerie, stylish atmospherics, some excellent photography and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink giallo-styled soundtrack from Stelvio Cipriani all help elevate this cheap n’ sordid tale of a pervy, potentially deranged young photographer (Karl Lanchbury) luring models back to the shabby, just-outside-London country home he shares with his predatory lesbian “aunt” (Pia Andersson) to a level of artistry which few contemporary viewers or critics seemed able to appreciate. They must have all been distracted, I suppose, by masses of surprisingly explicit (yet sensitively presented) kinky sex, rampant substance abuse, teeth-grindingly awkward strip poker sessions, shocking violence, grisly corpse disposals and some of the most head-spinningly bizarre English-as-a-foreign-language dialogue that long-suffering anglophone actors have ever been asked to recite word for word. All the fun of the fair for the cynical, slavering miscreants who make up the modern audience for movies like this, in other words, and discoveries like ‘Whirlpool’ make it a happy time to be amongst their number.

Now if we could only get a similarly great restoration of ‘Deviation’ to put next to it on the shelf before the world and/or the market for high-end physical releases of old horror movies ends… (fingers & toes crossed).

28. The Initiation
(Larry Stewart, 1984)

Though it initially seems like little more than an ill-thought-out mega-mix of slasher movie clichés, this ostensibly embarrassing attempt to gate-crash the fading hours of sub-genre’s early ‘80s party actually turns out to be one of the select few examples of the form that I really enjoyed. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but I suppose I liked the way that the familiar tropes (sorority pranks, dark family secrets, camp-out in locked shopping mall etc) are slapped together in such a haphazard fashion that the film takes on a surreal, self-parodic quality, whilst the characters are sufficiently off-beat and likeable – in a quasi-John Hughes kind of way – that we actually get quite caught up in their unlikely hook-ups and grisly demises.

Add a cracking pace, efficient direction, pleasantly random digressions and some very unexpected hand brake turns in the final act, and you’ve got a rather charming little movie about innocent teenagers running around getting slaughtered, which I’d personally rank alongside the sub-genre’s canonical classics, although I’m aware that the majority of slasher-cult gatekeepers seem to disagree with me on this point. And, wow, how about that poster?

29. Dark Blue
(Ron Shelton, 2002)

Heavy James Ellroy vibes predominate in this frowny, ultra-cynical police corruption thriller, set against the backdrop of the 1992 L.A. riots. I’m not sure that the film’s heavy-handed, bombastic tone really meshes all that well with the issues raised by the hyper-specific, real-world setting, but taken as a straight up, hard-hitting cop movie, it certainly does the business, thanks at least in part to a commanding, against-type lead performance from Kurt Russell, whose portrayal of an amoral, racist bully is liable to prove uneasy viewing for those of us who grew up cheering him on in John Carpenter movies.

30. Unearthly Stranger
(John Krish, 1963)

This extremely odd, poverty-stricken British sci-fi movie fleetingly recalls both Nigel Kneale’s early Quatermass scripts and Joseph Losey’s ‘The Damned’, featuring as it does an audaciously insane premise (which sees a coterie of stiff-upper lipped scientists in a tiny Space Research Institute located on the top floor of a Whitehall office building attempting to project their consciousness through deep space and regrow new bodies on alien worlds, solely by means of concentrating really hard), and industrial strength quantities of cold war paranoia.

The latter aspect, plus strong, idiosyncratic performances from the central cast, find the film groping uncertainly toward the kind of serious, thought-provoking drama of which Kneale may have approved, and although if it soon loses its footing and collapses into high camp once it becomes clear that they’re getting to us through our women, John, THROUGH OUR WIVES [not an actual quote, but you get the idea], it’s no less entertaining for that.

Also featuring some striking, noir-ish directorial flourishes (definite nods to both ‘Double Indemnity’ and Tourneur’s ‘Night of the Demon’ here, methinks), “but what about LOVE?” type dialogue worthy of James T. Kirk, and absolutely none of the special effects or futuristic paraphernalia the outlandish storyline would seem to demand, this is a fascinatingly weird dead-end lurking just off the main road of British SF cinema, and comes highly recommended.

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