Thursday, 28 January 2016

Lovecraft on Film:
Die, Monster, Die!
(Daniel Haller, 1965)

“Upon everything was a haze of restlessness and oppression; a touch of the unreal and the grotesque, as if some vital element of perspective or chiaroscuro were awry. I did not wonder that the foreigners would not stay, for this was no region to sleep in.”

At what point does a H.P. Lovecraft adaptation sufficiently depart from its source material that it ceases to be classifiable as a ‘Lovecraft movie’? This is the question we will probably find ourselves asking with increasing frequency as we plough through the troubled legacy of Lovecraftian cinema, and it occurs for the first time when contemplating American International Pictures’ second attempt to squeeze HPL’s uncooperative stories into the shape of a ‘60s gothic horror film - an extremely loose adaptation of 1927’s ‘The Color Out of Space’, retitled with characteristic AIP subtlety as ‘Die Monster Die!’ (a title that, along with the attention-grabbing poster-art reproduced above, remains arguably the best thing about the entire project).

I actually know very little about the circumstances of ‘Die Monster Die!’s production, but, given that it was filmed largely on location in England in early 1965 and marks the directorial debut of Daniel Haller, the much-celebrated art director on AIP’s Poe series, my guess is that DMD! (as it will henceforth by termed for the sake of brevity) must have been produced as an adjunct to Roger Corman’s last two Poe pictures, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Tomb of Ligeia’, which were shooting in the UK during 1964.

Given the rushed and rather confused feel of DMD!, it is easy to believe that it might even have been fitted in around the slack in the production schedule on Corman’s films, much as 1963’s ‘The Terror’ was infamously pulled together to capitalise on a few days of studio time left over from ‘The Raven’. Having said that though, the relatively low level of cast & crew crossover between the films tends to suggest that DMD! was actually shot in parallel by a different unit, thus wringing maximum value from AIP’s transatlantic jaunt - even if Jerry Sohl’s threadbare script doesn’t exactly speak of a great deal of advance planning.(1)

Speaking of planning, I’d also be interested to find out why AIP – who had insisted that The Haunted Palace be rebranded as a Poe film before they’d release it – suddenly came round to the idea of making H.P. Lovecraft movies as the ‘60s wore on.

We might presume that, urged on by Corman, Haller or other HPL boosters amongst their creative staff, AIP took a chance on DMD! as a low budget experiment to fill the lower half of a double-bill. But, given that Haller’s film didn’t exactly set the box office aflame, and in fact generated precious little enthusiasm even from horror fans, why did they let Haller go back to the well yet again for the comparatively high profile ‘The Dunwich Horror’ in 1970? Changing times perhaps, and the growing popularity of Lovecraft amongst the ‘counter-culture’ audience that the studio was trying to attract by that point..? No idea. (2)

I mean, for all I know, Nicholson & Arkoff might have just told their people “make us some more of them horror movies” and left the specifics to producers lower down the food chain. I don’t know. That I even care at this stage perhaps speaks poorly for my priorities in life, though one imagines any AIP experts in the audience may have some thoughts on the matter. (As ever, thoughts are welcome in the comments.)

Anyway, getting back to the matter in hand – ‘Die Monster Die!’ is an odd one and no mistake. Not ‘odd’ in a good way necessarily, but it is certainly one of the strangest and most thematically unglued of AIP’s ‘60s horror films – a drifting and uncertain production that quickly loses sight of whatever point it was trying to make and never really regains it, despite some diverting moments of all-out weirdness.

To begin at the root of the film’s problems, ‘The Color Out of Space’ has always struck me as being one of the most thoroughly ‘unfilmable’ of Lovecraft’s many unfilmable works. Admittedly, it does take place entirely in a real world location and doesn’t call for any cyclopean cityscapes, cosmic vistas or gigantic alien deities, which is helpful from a budgetary POV. But at the same time, it is also singularly lacking in human characters or interactions, with its success as a story resting largely upon the author’s evocative descriptions of impossible colours, weird alien flora, pungent, stifling aromas, and other such things that are extremely difficult to recreate in a motion picture, regardless of financing.

If such material presents a challenge to filmmakers, then I fear it is one that Haller and his collaborators were singularly unprepared to meet on this occasion, resulting in the immediate jettisoning of so much of Lovecraft’s story that they might as well have changed a few names and just presented it as an original screenplay. As in ‘The Haunted Palace’, there are a few token attempts to infuse new “Lovecraftian” ideas into the film, but these are never very well integrated into the main narrative, meaning that, beyond the basic kernel of “a meteorite falls in a place, weird stuff happens”, they were pretty much off into uncharted territory straight away with this one - and sadly, the resulting lack of direction shows through all too clearly.

Also problematic is the fact that, once HPL’s distinctive macabre prose is removed from the equation, ‘The Color Out of Space’ is basically a pure science fiction story, making it an awkward fit for the AIP’s preferred gothic horror template. For the lack of anything better to do, Sohl seems to have decided to get around this problem by rehashing various bits of Richard Mathesons’s script for The Fall of the House of Usher, expanding on Matheson’s concept of the lands surrounding the Usher house being ‘blighted’ by some unknown malignancy, and tying it in with the effects of the infernal meteorite that crashed upon the remote country estate of one Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff), back in the days when his father was lord of the manner.

Deciding to rekindle one of the more evocative and under-utilised ideas in Matheson’s script wasn’t such a bad idea. In fact it serves as a somewhat ingenious way of introducing familiar gothic tropes of familial decay and dysfunction into a plotline whose pseudo-scientific basis leans more towards a ‘50s-style cold war monster movie than a castles n’ cobwebs flick, and indeed, the by-now-traditional foreboding trudge through the blighted wasteland is actually one of the film’s most rewarding sequences, with real life woodland locations enhanced by some splendid matte paintings and a touch of fog whilst regular Hammer composer Don Banks goes all out for ‘ominous’ on the soundtrack.

Sadly though, Sohl didn’t leave his cribbing from Matheson there, instead porting over whole swathes of narrative structure, character interaction and dramatic set-pieces straight from ‘..Usher’, to the extent that DMD! often begins to resemble a rather tepid, under-funded remake of the earlier film, as our obligatory straight-talking leading man Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) strides across the aforementioned blasted heath to Witley’s crumbling manse and demands to see the suspicious old geezer’s beautiful daughter Susan (Suzan Farmer) whom he previously met in college in Boston, and so on and so forth. (3)

Yet another bump in the film’s road to the screen comes via the circumstantial decision to shift the action from the backwoods of Lovecraft’s beloved New England (as so indelibly described in his story’s celebrated opening passages) to, well, old England - which is rather less atmospherically introduced by having Nick Adams step off a commuter train at, uh, ‘Arkham’ station and wander around an A-road bisected village that looks a bit like somewhere you might pass through whilst taking a diversion off the motorway in Leicestershire. [It's actually the village of Shere in Surrey, as previously seen in The Earth Dies Screaming and the telescope sequence in ‘A Matter of Life & Death’, no less. – fact-checking Ed.]

Maybe this will be a problem specific to UK viewers, but the quaintness and everyday realism of such a location sits very poorly with the foreboding gothic fantasia that the script is going for, and makes the straight-from-central-casting obstructive locals who shun Reinhart’s requests for help in getting to “the old Witley place” seem outright ridiculous, as exemplified by the proprietor of a bicycle hire shop whose first response to a stranger looking to hire a bicycle is an accusatory “WHERE WOULD YOU BE PLANNIN’ TO RIDE IT?”.

None of this is exactly helped by the fact that, during these scenes, Nick Adams gives every indication of being a singularly dislikeable leading man, speaking, scowling (and indeed dressing) as if he were midway through failing an audition for the part of a tough in a local theatre production of a Mickey Spillane story. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t want to give him accurate directions either if he accosted me outside the greengrocers.

In the grand tradition of Mark Damon in ‘..House of Usher’ and John Kerr in ‘The Pit & The Pendulum’, he’s basically an overbearing, out of place jerk, but, whereas those films made sure that more appealing characters were swiftly offered up for us to invest in, DMD! opens with a fifteen minute stretch in which we are expected to identify solely with frustrating and seemingly pointless travails of this rude and boorish man, fostering a sense of audience alienation that bodes poorly for the tale that follows.

When Adams finally does reach the “old Witley place” (as if anyone would ever refer to a local stately home as such in rural England), it turns out to be none other than good old Oakley Court, near Windsor – a location that will need no introduction to fans as Hammer’s stately home of choice, in addition to its usage in many other British horror titles over the years (José Larraz’s ‘Vampyres’ foremost amongst them).

Despite the overly familiar aspect of the main house’s frontage, Haller nonetheless manages to achieve some suitably atmospheric shots during Adams’ approach the estate, concentrating on readymade details such as the rickety, wrought-iron gates and the imposing, moss-covered fountain on the front lawn to bring out a whole new aspect of this much-exploited location.

Sadly though, details such as these are rarely returned to in the later sections of the films, and, acknowledged master of artificial sets though Haller may have been, he somehow manages to get surprisingly little value out of the interiors here. Once we’re inside the house, it’s difficult to really establish whether the drab and slightly claustrophobic antechambers were filmed on location or built as sets, but either way, they fail to really make much of an impression, despite some pleasantly cluttered set dressing. The stuff that was definitely filmed on sets meanwhile fares better, with Witley’s eerie subterranean crypt (complete with wheelchair lift) and the house’s dusty, picturesque chapel both fulfilling their purpose very nicely.

Once we’re safely ensconced within the house, the movie more or less continues to trudge through a loose variant on the ‘..Usher’ template with no great enthusiasm. Despite the filmmakers’ intermittent attempts to liven things up via hints of a very odd mystery, a crazed maid on the loose outside and eerie consultations with Karloff’s bed-ridden, vengeful wife, it all just lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

Freda Jackson actually very good in the latter role, hitting the appropriate frenzied gothic notes very nicely, but Farmer as her daughter is a rather different story. A bright and cheery co-ed in a pink angora-sweater, with early ‘60s ‘torpedo’ breasts in full effect, she makes for a comically incongruous addition to the cloistered weirdness of the Witley household, reminiscent of the misfit ‘normal’ daughter in The Munsters.

As to Karloff himself, I can only imagine that his fans, having seen him apparently on fine form in ‘The Raven’ just two years earlier, must have been shocked to see Boris confined to wheelchair - seemingly out of necessity rather than for the purposes of a particular characterisation - with the effects of a sudden decline in health written all to clearly across his newly drawn, somewhat wizened features.

Although DMD! represents the first entry in what I suppose might be termed Karloff’s “geriatric era”, he is, as usual, all business here, delivering a direct and solid performance in his familiar ‘genteel, domineering patriarch’ mode that bears little sign of his more obvious physical deterioration, and making the absolute best of the few good ‘horror’ bits the script offers him. (“Chains… for devils…”, he remarks apropos of nothing at one point whilst fishing a length of chain from an old trunk, in a moment that’s worth the entry price alone.)

As with so much else in this film, the problem is that the script seems to have little idea what to do with Karloff’s character. Though Witley is ostensibly the main figure of threat through much of the picture, in truth the malign aspects of his persona never really extend much beyond being a bit grumpy and secretive, and by the movie’s final act he has more or less entirely redeemed himself, belatedly becoming something of a misguided good guy as he sees the light and attempts to rid his household of the weird radioactive curse that has overtaken it.

Such an approach is workable of course – after all, Vincent Price specialised in turning initially antagonistic characters into sympathetic figures in his horror films - but crucially, DMD! bungles it by failing to establish any other credible threat for the characters to face up to, meaning that Karloff’s abdication from evil-doing leaves the movie with a chronic “villainy vacuum” - and frankly a glowing rock in the basement just isn't going to cut it, monster-wise.

DMD!’s various attempts to address this – first via a homicidal, deformed maid running around the grounds, and eventually through Karloff’s ludicrous transformation into a silver-skinned, radioactive monster-man straight out the cheapest of ‘50s b-movies – are too inconsistent and half-hearted to really make much of an impact on the story, meaning that the central good-evil / hunter-hunted conflict essential to a good horror movie is simply absent, with the result that DMD! eventually leaves us with the impression that we’ve simply been watching a bunch of slightly weird stuff happening to some odd, unhappy characters, all to no very clear purpose.

It’s just as well then that some of this “weird stuff” is fairly diverting, and it is in this spirit of curious perplexity that much of DMD!’s remaining appeal lies.

From Konga in 1961 through to Jack Cardiff’s ‘The Mutations’ in 1974, the notion of “strange goings on in the greenhouse” seems to have exercised an inexplicable fascination for budget-conscious American producers making horror films in the UK, and DMD! certainly provides one of the more memorable sequences in this particular micro-genre, as Adams and Farmer negotiate a couple of padlocks to get a look at the results of Old Man Witley’s meteorite-enhanced botanical experiments.

The ‘effects’ used in realising Witley’s giant-sized produce may leave something to be desired (basically they just stick some tomato plants in the foreground and have the characters stand further back and remark upon how huge they are, seemingly trusting that the audience won’t understand perspective), but, once our protagonists move on to investigate the eerie, dolphin-like shrieks emanating from a darkened potting shed, well - good grief.

If they may not be exactly what the Old Man of Providence had in mind, the creatures we are briefly shown therein are probably the closest thing to a genuine encounter with the unknown that we’re exposed to in any of these ‘60s Lovecraft adaptations. Some kind of strange, globular hand puppets with wobbly, fluid limbs, these beasties really are exceptionally bizarre in both conception and realisation – halfway between some previously undiscovered forms of deep water sea life and mutant rejects from the Star Wars cantina.

It’s hard to think of many other horror films that would go to such lengths to create non-threatening monsters, but these things are so repulsive and surprising in their aspect – more piteous than scary – that they are actually quite memorable and impressive. Of course, in keeping with just about every potentially interesting aspect of Sohl’s screenplay, they are allotted a bare minimum of screen-time, and both Adams and Farmer seem to entirely forget that they’ve witnessed seen such an extraordinary sight for the remainder of the picture, but hey – it’s a really weird moment, which is probably about all we can ask for by this stage in proceedings.

Also worth chalking up in the film’s favour is a regrettably brief cameo from this blog's offical favourite actor, the ever-wonderful Patrick Magee, who pops up as the local doctor whom Adams consults to get a second opinion on the Witley family.

Appropriately, Magee seems to be lurking in some stifling Victorian parlor in which you can almost smell the damp seeping off the walls, and the script’s intimation that he has been driven to drink and had his medical career ruined as a result of the trauma he experienced when called to the Witley place to preside over the death throes of Karloff’s father (of course, no one else ever saw the body, and there was no autopsy) is a splendidly Lovecraftian idea (if admittedly one borrowed from ‘The Dunwich Horror’ rather than ‘The Color Out of Space’).

With his patented steam-out-of-the-ears over-acting prowess cruising comfortably at about, say, 6 out of 10, it’s a delight to see Magee giving Adams his best hate-filled stare and sloppily downing an early morning glass of scotch – the perfect traumatised victim of prior Lovecraftian hullaballoo - but the extreme brevity of his appearance proves a real disappointment. I suppose the great man must have had something more pressing in his diary that week.

A few other interesting, authentically ‘Lovecraftian’ touches are introduced into DMD! here and there, largely arising from the film’s attempts to meld occult/spooky imagery with a sci-fi storyline, but yet again, these ideas are left largely undeveloped, probably inspiring more confusion than anything else in the minds of casual viewers.

Although Karloff’s character claims to be a man of science for instance, the underground chamber in which he keeps his glowing meteorite (housed in a gated well with a hand crank, reminiscent of the one in ‘The Haunted Palace’, as if he fears the stone might jump out and run away) is clumsily decorated with skull-shaped carvings and Satanic murals.

Viewers who have been paying attention to the dialogue might presume that it was the old man’s father who, being of a more superstitious bent than his son, was responsible for these decorations. But if so, why are they of such an unhinged, ‘primitive’ character, looking like the kind of thing remote tribesmen or beatnik artisans might have come up with, rather than reflecting the more ‘refined’ tastes one might expect of a titled gent in Victorian England?

I mean, they’re quite nice morbid carvings and murals, I’ll give them that, but like so many things in this film, their presence just doesn’t quite click on an aesthetic level, as if something was lost in translation when the action was shifted from the redneck American backwaters of Lovecraft’s story to the English Home Counties.

Similarly, the brief appearance of a ‘forbidden’ grimoire that Adams flicks through in the Witley library – rather bluntly titled ‘The Cult of the Outer Ones’ - turns out to be a complete non-sequitur, clarifying little beyond perhaps the origin of Witley Snr’s more outré tastes in interior décor, and basically just functioning as an opportunity for the filmmakers to say, “well ok folks, we might have thrown out just about everything in his story, but look – a Lovecraft thing!”

The fact that none of Lovecraft’s beloved lurid tomes are referenced anywhere in the text of ‘The Color Out of Space’ sadly renders this a bit of a wasted effort, whilst the fact that the railway station Adams arrives at is named ‘Arkham’, and that the name ‘Witley’ (which is not featured in the original story) is clearly derived fron HPL’s oft-used ‘Whateley’, seem equally tokenistic gestures – notable solely as early examples of the kind of “see what we did there” in-jokes that would be soon become ubiquitous as horror cinema became increasingly self-aware from the ‘70s onwards. (Along similar lines, keen-eyed viewers will also spot a version of Lovecraft’s ‘elder sign’ amid the murals in Witley’s crypt, suggesting that there was at least some hardcore HPL fandom going on amid the film’s creative staff.)

In a nutshell, I think perhaps the essential problem with ‘Die Monster Die!’ is that it is a project thrown together opportunistically, taking a pile of promising elements – Karloff, Haller, a Lovecraft story, an English manor house, a van full of nice props – then mixing them all up and hoping for the best, but failing to account for a total lack of vision, direction or self-belief that makes the finished product feel like far less than the sum of its parts.

A  wash-out though it may be as a horror film however, DMD! is another one those misbegotten Lovecraft adaptations that I find it difficult to really hate. In a way, it is its very failures - its fuzzy logic, shoddy special effects and aimless meanderings - that render it oddly enjoyable if approached in the right state of mind; that preferably being what we might euphemistically term a ‘mellow’ one.

Even if it is more than likely entirely accidental, the film’s sheer off-beat vibe, nearly, almost, kinda, sorta serves to tie it in with the aesthetic of the later ‘60s counter-culture that was emerging at around the time of its production.

Although none of the explicit nods to California beat culture and new age spirituality found in Roger Corman or Jack Hill’s AIP films are present here, the general ‘feel’ of DMD! is nonetheless so out to lunch that at times it almost works as a kind of zonked out ‘head movie’, in much the same way that something like Ed Wood’s ‘Bride of the Monster’ (which the loopier second half here to some extent resembles) does.

Even when viewed on DVD or Blu-Ray, it is the kind of film that is impossible to fully separate from the warped and faded “I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing-here” vibe of a late night UHF broadcast. Factor in the wonderfully ominous, trippy title sequence and the weird, non-threatening puppet creatures, and the gentle ebb and flow of post-midnight psychotronic otherness eventually conquers all.

And… that’s about the best way I can find to explain the strange appeal of ‘Die Monster Die!’, which I have to admit I still quite like, despite having just spent the best part of three thousand words slamming it. For all its faults as a Lovecraft adaptation and a piece of cinema, it’s still a shonky, crack-brained b-movie that throbs with its own febrile glow of dementia and decay, and sometimes that’s enough to see you through the night.



(1) Primarily known as a TV writer, with episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’, ‘The Outer Limits’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents..’ under his belt, Jerry Sohl also wrote a number of science fiction novels, and stepped in to ghost-write for ‘Haunted Palace’ scriptwriter Charles Beaumont after the latter became seriously ill… which perhaps explains the AIP connection.

(2) Though overlooked as a potential b-feature for ‘Masque of the Red Death’, ‘Die Monster Die!’ eventually saw release in the US in October 1965, propping up Mario Bava’s ‘Planet of the Vampires’. Leaving aside the evidently superior qualities of Bava’s film, the fact that AIP didn’t even consider DMD! worthy of headlining over a dubbed Italian sci-fi flick perhaps tells us something about their thoughts on Haller’s finished film.

(3) Suzan Farmer was Hammer’s virginal victim of choice for the 1966 season, with roles in both ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ and ‘Rasputin’, after which she went on to a ton of groovy British TV work. Nick Adams meanwhile spent the ‘50s rubbing shoulders with Hollywood’s finest via supporting roles in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, ‘Hell is For Heroes’ and ‘Pillow Talk’ amongst others. I don’t specifically recall him in any of those, but going by his ‘bullying jerk’ screen persona in DMD!, one imagines he spent quite a lot of time getting punched by heroes. He even got a “Best Supporting Actor” nod for ‘The Charge is Murder’ in 1963, but sadly died of an accidental drug overdose in 1968.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Year End Stuffs & Top 20 First Time Viewings for 2015.

Mickey Curtis as Ono-san in ‘Why Don’t You Play in Hell?’ (Sion Sono, 2013)

After somehow managing to watch zero contemporary films during 2014, I did a little better in 2015, catching several ‘new’ movies, along with a number of memorable items from that currently booming segment of the market - documentaries about old movies.

As regards the former, we went to see ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, and you what? Eff the haters, it kicked ass. Though rich in minor aesthetic missteps just waiting to be griped about, they amount to small beer indeed within the context of a movie that pretty much takes every living Hollywood action/blockbuster director back to school and shows them how it’s done. Let’s hope they were paying attention.

Elsewhere, I watched ‘Terminator: Genisys’ on the plane to Japan, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, although having said that, I was expecting it to be pretty much the worst film I had ever seen, so that’s faint praise indeed. In between a dreadful opening twenty minutes and a dreadful closing twenty minutes though, it managed to incorporate a lot of ideas and set-pieces that could theoretically have been part of an actual good movie, which is more than I was expecting.

I also watched a recent Japanese film (a manga adaptation, presumably) released to English audiences under the name ‘Assassination Classroom’. This was notable for its absolutely loopy high concept premise (imagine perhaps a misguided mash-up of ‘Battle Royale’, ‘The Thing’ and ‘Dead Poet’s Society’), but proved disappointing in that it failed to really capitalise on any of the more interesting aspects of its odd subject matter, instead taking a goofy, non-threatening family comedy approach that, combined with a regrettable reliance on cheap CGI conjuring tricks, ultimately rendered it both charmless and borderline insufferable. It would have been interesting to see what a decent/risk-taking director like Takashi Miike or Sion Sono might have done with the property, but never mind, can’t have everything I suppose.

Oh, and I also began 2015 by watching Alex Cox’s ‘Bill the Galactic Hero’, which didn’t really work for me for a variety of reasons, but, like most recent Cox films, it was a noble experiment in the limits of DIY, outside-the-industry genre filmmaking, and deserves a certain amount of praise for that alone.

On the documentary side meanwhile, ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’, ‘Lost Soul: the Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau’, ‘Eurocrime! The Italian Cop & Gangster Films That Ruled the ‘70s’, ‘Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films’ and of course Andrew Leavold’s ‘The Search for Weng Weng’ all comprise various degrees of essential viewing for those who enjoy the kind of material covered on this blog, with the first two in particular filling out the fertile new niche of documentaries about old films that don’t actually exist.

I think that just about wraps up new film things experienced in 2015, so let’s move onto a quick run-down of the best old movies I watched for the first time in 2015.

I very much enjoyed doing a list along these lines last year, so for 2015 I’ve expanded it to a top 20, and added a brief write up for each entry. If nothing else, hopefully it will at least serve as a reminder that the kind of dusty old gothic horror flicks that I tend to end up writing about here do not by any means present a full picture of my cinematic tastes.

1. The Getaway  
(Sam Peckinpah, 1972)

Though one of Peckinpah’s most commercial films, for my money ‘The Getaway’ ranks alongside the very best of his more ‘personal’ projects. Although little remains of the spirit of Jim Thompson’s novel, the sheer quantity of blood, sweat and tears exerted here to turn what could have been a forgettable star vehicle into a visually captivating, emotionally resonant and formally innovative piece of cinema is little short of breathtaking.

2. The Long Good Friday 
 (John Mackenzie, 1980)

How did I manage to get so far in life without watching this one? Whilst there have been many British crime / gangster films worthy of praise over the years, let’s just say that it would be difficult to contemplate a list of such that didn’t place Mackenzie’s film at #1. An exemplary example of the form, and a sickeningly relevant indictment of the effects of pre/post Thatcherite ideologies on British society too, should you wish to ‘go there’.

3. Runaway Train 
(Andrey Konchalovskiy, 1985)

Another flick that smashes through the boundaries of genre cinema into realms of epic, white-knuckled catharsis, this one-off mongrel production (Russian director, American cast, Canadian location, Isreali financiers, Japanese scenario writer..) is the kind of film that just leaves you feeling flattened, in awe of what those on both sides of the camera managed to achieve in what one imagines must have been pretty trying circumstances.

4. 8 Diagram Pole Fighter 
(Chia-Liang Liu, 1984)

I still didn’t have much of an idea what ‘eight diagram pole fighting’ is when I got to the end of this late period Shaw Bros ballet of acrobatic Shaolin mayhem, but I did know that I felt very much like applauding ‘til my hands fell off, before succumbing to dizziness and passing out. Wildly inventive, astonishingly choreographed and authentically blood-thirsty, this is about as good as kung-fu cinema gets.

5. Kids Return 
(Takeshi Kitano, 1996)

Stepping back somewhat from the absurdist violence and world-weary fatalism that defined Kitano’s better known early yakuza films, this compassionate, low key coming of age tale goes for a considerably more direct approach, but nonetheless manages to hit exactly the right notes, thus allowing me to heartily recommend it to viewers for whom the concept of a “compassionate, low key coming of age tale” sounds like complete anathema.

6. Raw Force  
(Edward Murphy, 1982)

If you find yourself in search of the perfect gift for the ‘cult movie’ aficionado in your life at some point in the near future, I recommend acquiring a copy of this movie (as rescued from oblivion last year by Vinegar Syndrome), adding a case of beer, then retreating to a safe distance and listening to the sound of an exploitation fan’s dreams coming true. Seemingly shot by a gang of drunken, horny ex-G.I.s let loose in the Philippines on a mission to fuse ‘Enter the Dragon’ with ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘Raw Force’ may be ragged as all hell and ethically questionable to boot, but its first two thirds comprise such a hyper-kinetic rampage of filmed-on-the-fly destruction that by the time we eventually get around to the kung-fu zombies, we’re almost too exhausted to even care. Featuring Cameron Mitchell as a grizzled alcoholic sea captain, more boobs-per-minute than any other non-erotic film I’ve seen in my life, and an actor successfully delivering a flying kick to the window of a moving van, among other delights.

7. Thief 
(Michael Mann, 1981)

Until recently, I would have been apt to claim that the work of neither Michael Mann nor James Caan appealed to me a great deal, but turns out this monomaniacal masterpiece of ultra-stylised, post-Melville crime cinema is pretty hard to fault on any level, be it aesthetic, technical, emotional, narrative, performance, believability, directorial vision, or whatever. The kind of film that should come complete with a ‘Masters At Work – Do Not Disturb’ sign for the screening room door, it’s so good it’s almost suspicious.

8. Dust Devil 
(Richard Stanley, 1992)

Though it constantly threatens to topple over into realms of monumental pretension, Richard Stanley’s South African occult serial killer yarn is ultimately an extremely impressive piece of work, achieving a weighty atmospheric heft and skirting around some genuinely unsettling metaphysical ideas in the process. Rather like a late ‘80s Neil Gaiman/Alan Moore Vertigo-type comic book put on film, I thought.

9. Furious  
(Tim Everitt & Tom Sartori, 1984)

Transcendental VHS stoner-fu bafflement as it’s finest, as extensively discussed here.

10. Ikarie XB1  
(Jindrich Polák, 1963)

This pioneering Czech science fiction film may not boast a story that in any way sets it apart from legions of other ‘60s space adventures, but in terms of tone, atmosphere and production design, it is entirely remarkable, breaking away from the garish technicolor hi-jinks of most of it’s Star Trek-era contemporaries to establish a moodier, more existential take on cinematic space travel that wouldn’t really come into its own until ‘2001’ (for which it served as a direct reference point), ‘Dark Star’ and eventually ‘Alien’ all took the ball and ran with it.

11. Night of the Sorcerers  
(Amando de Ossorio, 1974)

Quintessential euro-trash perfection, as Jack Taylor and Kali Hansa take on daffy quai-Satanic voodoo in the darkest heart of a strangely Iberian looking Africa, and no one can quite find the courage to tell de Ossario that filming his vampire fangs & fur bikini equipped ‘leopard women’ in Blind Dead-esque slow-mo really won’t serve to make them in any way scary. What we in the biz like to call “a hoot”.

12. Plein Soleil  
(René Clément, 1960)

This Alain Delon-starring adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ may well have been higher up this list, were it not for the fact that I watched a fuzzy pan & scan version of it on an Air France LCD screen whilst zonked out mid-way through a flight home from Tokyo. I believe there’s a UK blu-ray available, so I’ll see what I can do in regards to a proper screening some time. Too cool for school, anyway.

13. Battles Without Honour & Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

This first sequel in the ‘Battles..’ series may not hold a candle to the iconic opening instalment, but taken on it’s own merits it’s still yet another cracking yakuza flick from master Fukasaku, with the set-piece in which mad dog Sonny Chiba’s gang storm their opponents’ HQ in particular standing out as one of the most hair-raisingly chaotic and desperate sequences the director ever shot (which is saying something).

14. Devil’s Kiss 
(Jordi Gigó, 1976)

Cheap and cheerful Spanish/Italian ramble through the conventions of the ‘Erotic Castle Movie’ takes movie blogger to a happy place – story at eleven. (Accusations that “it’s just like a Eurocine movie without the sleaze” strenuously denied.)

15. Night Moves  
(Arthur Penn, 1975)

As a Chandler-esque detective story, the logic of this one slips through your fingers like a sandwich left out in the rain, but as a mood piece it sticks in my mind very strongly, with it’s portrait of a world in which the pre-baby boomer generation find themselves cynical, divorced and lost as middle-age sets in ultimately proving more harrowing than any of the routine private eye business. Somehow, the closing image of Gene Hackman lying with his leg broken, adrift in a stolen pleasure boat, says it all really. He’s solved the case, but nobody ever really cared either way. (A potentially perfect double feature with Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’, needless to say.)

16. Mahakaal  
(Shyam & Tulsi Ramsay, 1993)

Naturally enough, the Ramsay Bros decade-late answer to ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ takes the time to include Michael Jackson impersonations, kaleidoscopic tracksuit-clad musical numbers, rapey drunken guffawing villains meeting kung-fu based comeuppances, a positively psychedelic water bed murder set-piece and one of the most elaborate monster lair / Satanic altar sets in movie history. As fans of this heroic family, we would have expected nothing less.

17. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll  
(Terence Fisher, 1960)

A much under-rated and under-discussed early entry in the Hammer horror cycle, this take on the Jekyll & Hyde mythos offers up some pretty shocking surprises to those who associate Fisher’s films solely with stuffy Victorian moralism, largely as a result of Wolf Mankowitz’s sexually charged and somewhat psychotic scripting, and a fabulously louche performance from Christopher Lee as a debauched young aristocrat. Going somewhat beyond the confines of ‘bawdy’ into outright lewdness, it unsurprisingly made the British censors have kittens, and subsequent cuts probably did much to harm it’s reputation, but it is nonetheless a fascinating oddity in the Hammer catalogue, and definitely worthy of fans’ time, despite a few significant flaws.

18. The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail  
(Sergio Martino, 1971)

George Hilton smarms magnificently whilst Anita Strindberg plots and freaks and Luigi Pistilli does his Columbo bit in this splendid Martino giallo that I somehow overlooked when I was first going through these a few years back. I’d say it’s one of Martino’s best, but then to be honest I can’t think of an entry in this loose cycle that isn’t one of his best. (Scores bonus Jess Franco points for featuring both Janine Reynaud and Luis Barboo too.)

19. The Case of the Bloody Iris  
(Giuliano Carnimeo, 1972)

Edwige, George and the gang in another top tier giallo that I’d imagine must often by mistaken for a Martino flick, for fairly obvious reasons. This is the one where Edwige and another fashion model share an apartment leased to them by Hilton and there’s a psycho love-cult leader ex-boyfriend out to get her… or is there? Etc etc. Fantastic, tripped out visuals, a great Bruno Nicolai score and some wonderfully kinky moments make this one of the best entries in the entire genre from a non-household name director, I reckon.

20. The Red Queen Kills Seven Times  
(Emilio Miraglia, 1972)

Ending this list on a hat trick of giallo greatness, this ultra-campy rampage perhaps even bests Miraglia’s more widely seen ‘The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave’ for stretching the genre’s conventions to their absolute silliest extreme. A wise man says: if this was only the 20th most enjoyable film you saw in a year, you had a pretty good year.