Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Happy Halloween, etc.

Well, that’s that. Over 20,000 words of horror movie reviewin’ posted in thirty days, somehow fitted in alongside an extremely busy and stressful period of day-to-day life. I must be crazy. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them and watching (at least some of) the films, anyway.

As it turns out, I stuck pretty much entirely to writing about films I was watching for the first time during this reviewing marathon, so, to round things off, here are some quick capsule takes on a few old favourites / repeat watches I also managed to fit in over the October season, culminating in a few more first-watches from a Halloween movie night I undertook with friends this weekend and don’t have time to write up in full. (Naturally those last ones weren’t my own viewing picks, but sometimes it’s nice to hand the reins to someone else and see where you end up, y’know?) Anyway - PHEW.

House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944)

IMHO, this is probably the weakest link in the chain of Universal’s core “Frankenstein & pals” monster movies (Abbott & Costello not withstanding), so I found myself really questioning my priorities in life upon realising I was watching it for a third time. In my defence, I can at least make the case that the opening twenty minutes or so here are *really good*, with Boris Karloff putting in an absolutely fantastic turn as the sociopathic Frankenstein disciple freed from his cell by a convenient bolt of lightning before absconding with his hunchback assistant to hook up with George Zucco’s travelling sideshow troupe, who are on the road with The Authentic Coffin of Count Dracula. Just wonderful, old school monster movie stuff, oozing atmosphere.

Such a shame that after that it all goes to hell – the entire segment featuring John Carradine’s spiv Dracula is just bloody awful (it looks as if they pulled him in off the backlot for the role with about five minutes’ notice before shooting), and, after he’s disposed of, the promise of the opening seems to have dissipated, with the remainder of the movie becoming a lame-brained whose-brain-is-going-where type farce, with Karloff more or less giving it up for a bad job as Chaney’s Larry Talbot bangs on incessantly about his woes and the rest of the supporting cast run around killing time until the torch-wielding mob turns up. Ho hum.

House of Dracula (Erle C. Kenton, 1945)

My first time revisiting this one for a while, and it’s actually a fair bit better than its predecessor, despite the lack of Karloff. Carradine seems to have got his shit together sufficiently to turn his “Baron Latos” take on Dracula into a rather more menacing and interesting character this time around, and Kenton likewise comes through with some rather cool set-piece scenes and proper filmmaking type flourishes.

The plot-line – which sees Onslow Stevens’ rationally minded neurologist somehow ending up with both Dracula and the Wolfman on his list of patients and Frankenstein’s Monster defrosting on his gurney, all within the space of one memorable evening – is weird enough to maintain interest, and overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable curtain call for the Universal monsters, wisely ushering them off the stage before things got *too* ropey in the post-war years.

Twins of Evil (John Hough, 1972)

A while back, my friend Anthony took me to task for omitting this one from the “Top 15 Hammers” list I did a few years ago, and, upon re-visiting it for the first time in a few years, I must offer him my apologies, because it is indeed absolutely fantastic, and well deserving of a high ranking place on any such list.

Tudor Gates’ ultra-pulpy script drives things way over the edge of self-parody (perhaps the reason I’ve underrated the film in the past?), but the chaps in charge of production design, cinematography etc don’t seem to have noticed the shift in tone, instead delivering one of the best-looking and most atmospheric (not to mention most gory and erotically charged) films Hammer produced during the ‘70s. The result is a film that is really funny (the almost ‘South Park’-like antics of Cushing’s puritan witch-burning club), slyly subversive of the Hammer formula (no moral black & whites to be found here) and an exceptional example of straight up, late period gothic horror to boot. I give it a multitude of thumbs up, gold stars and whatever else.

Hands of the Ripper (Peter Sasdy, 1971)

In contrast, I actually found this one somewhat less impressive when returning to it for a second time, despite its growing reputation as an overlooked gem in Hammer’s latter-day catalogue. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very well made, fast-moving film with a unique storyline that certainly must have proved an eye-opener for viewers expecting a straight up Jack the Ripper flick; it’s also full of fun, sleazy Victorian carrying on, has a terrific central performance from Eric Porter and the finale in St Pauls is stunning, but… I dunno.

Despite its ambition toward becoming a Freudian psychological thriller, any exploration of this idea is largely sidelined in favour of a contrived, bloodshed-every-ten-minutes proto-slasher formula, whilst the woman supposedly at the centre of all the psychoanalytical intrigue remains a complete cipher – a blank slate whose primary role in the film is to flip out and kill someone every time the bell rings. In effect, Sasdy presents a story that borrows heavily from the conventions of the murder mystery whilst offering no mystery whatsoever, which kind of upsets the balance of the movie’s many good elements. Or something. Correspondingly re-filed under “fun, interesting, but flawed”, anyway.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

I probably haven’t sat down and watched this since I was about sixteen, but… turns out it holds up pretty well! It has a very one dimensional, comic-book type feel – clearly aimed at a younger teen audience, even if the studio's submission to the ratings board presumably claimed otherwise – but basically, Craven & co just had such a great idea for a horror movie on their hands they couldn't go wrong. And indeed they wring maximum value from it, with an almost non-stop barrage of great scenes, imaginative visuals, random '80s pop cult surrealism and sundry other memorable moments.

Also – really cool synth score and some lovely photography in the ‘dream’ bits. Also – John Saxon as Cop Dad! Despite ripping off the ending from ‘Phantasm’ to little effect, this is by far the most entertaining/worthwhile Wes Craven film I’ve seen to date, and it’s little wonder it became such a monstrous, sequel-spawning hit.

Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016)

Immediately after viewing, my opinion of this latest much-hyped example of new-Gallic-extreme-whatever cinema was pretty low. Leaving aside the hereditary cannibalism-related hi-jinks that place it within the horror realm, I found the film’s miserable depiction of the lifestyles of relatively privileged 21st century young people to be depressing in the extreme, feeling that any attempt to summarise the plot could probably be appended with “..meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, some people have real problems that they didn’t just make up to fill the time”.

Thinking further however, I will at least cop that Ducournau manages a lot of successful button-pushing here, shaking up the punters whilst offering no easy answers in a manner somewhat reminiscent of early Cronenberg. Furthermore, there is something almost Ballardian about the eerie brutalism of the (wo)man-removed-from-nature world in which the drama seems to take place, blurring the line between baroque ‘High Rise’ style decadence and what I take to be stark life-in-2017 realism just a little too much for comfort.

That I didn’t like it is probably just reflective of the fact that Ducournau’s vision veered pretty far from engaging with any kind of world I understand, or from addressing any issues I care about, rather than a judgement on her film’s objective quality. For viewers in other times and places in their lives, the possibility is certainly there for it to hit hard and correspondingly produce pertinent thoughts, I daresay.

Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2007)

Well…. this was alright. Fairly good fun - if you’re able to tolerate a relentless, monster-sized dose of Tim Burton-y pumpkins n’ candy American Halloween kitsch, at any rate. Not exactly my favourite flavour, but I can just about stomach it, so as such I rather enjoyed the clever way in which Dougherty avoids routine anthology movie drudgery by having his assorted short stories weave in and out of each other, resulting in a few really nice cross-overs and surprise twists – almost like a mainstream horror re-invention of the old ‘Nashville’/’Slacker’ drifting camera approach, I suppose.

Despite the well-scrubbed, post-Buffy aesthetic and well-rehearsed wise-cracks, I also liked the fact that it has the balls to function as a full strength, gory horror movie too, with some very nasty ideas and suggestions creeping out from beneath the candy-floss as the movie goes on, and not being treated in *too much* of a thoughtless/offensive fashion when they do fully emerge. Not entirely my cup of tea then, but certainly an enjoyable new spin on the more multiplex-acceptable side of modern American horror, and welcome proof that you can still break new ground within the genre without getting all “dark” and “extreme” and monochromatic about it.


And, finally, that’s it. October Horror Marathon concluded. I haven’t had time to convey to you my compressed thoughts on revisiting ‘The Man With Two Brains’, or ‘Kill Baby Kill!’, or ‘The Devil Rides Out’, but, long story short: I STILL REALLY LIKE THEM.

Stay safe everybody, and I’ll see you when I’ve had some sleep!

Monday, 30 October 2017

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


Thus reads the text super-imposed over the picturesque opening shot of 1960’s ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’, an exceptionally seedy grave-robbing melodrama that must surely rank as one of the most artistically accomplished films to have emerged from under the auspices of notoriously tight-fisted British producers (Robert S.) Baker & (Monty) Berman.

Now, before we get stuck into this one, I must confess that the whole Victorian grave-robber/Burke & Hare mythos has never really appealed to me very much. Of all the perennial horror subjects that have persevered through the history of cinema in fact, I’ve always thought that this was one of the least compelling.

In reality of course, the Edinburgh grave-robbing flap in which Burke & Hare played the most infamous part - largely an unfortunate side effect of the city’s medical college allowing impoverished students to pay for their studies in bodies (I mean, what did they THINK was going to happen?) – is fairly interesting, but, in terms of fiction, it doesn’t exactly strike me as a tale that deserves to resound through the ages.

I mean, a few shifty characters start selling bodies to doctors in order to get by - so what? In horror terms, it’s pretty banal stuff. I don’t have much time for real life-inspired serial killer films either, but at least those guys had a certain mystique about them, y’know what I mean?

The best way to approach this subject, I therefore feel, is to bypass the usual logic of a horror film and instead explore the wider milieu of the class inequality and social circumstances underpinning the grim tale… which thankfully is the approach that co-writer/director John Gilling here delivers in spades (no pun intended).

I’ll save you my whole cahiers du cinema bit, but, suffice to say, the deeper I dig into British commercial cinema of the ‘50s and ‘60s (and digging has been slow, but steady over the past decade or so), the more convinced I become that Gilling should be considered as one of the great, lost auteurs labouring in that particular field.

Though the journeyman nature of his career makes it difficult to draw a straight thematic line through all his work, I believe that Gilling’s films tend to be characterised by a strong feel for gutsy, working class directness (not exactly an uncommon trait amongst British directors of his era, admittedly), combined with a black-hearted sense of cynicism aimed at all levels of society – the latter being particularly tangible with regard to the awkward or threatening situations in which different social classes interact.

Such an approach made Gilling a natural for hard-boiled crime movies – indeed, he made numerous films in this vein, and the one I have seen to date (1963’s ‘Panic!’) is excellent – but it also led him into more troubled and uncertain waters when box office trends caused him to turn his attentions increasingly toward horror, science fiction and historical adventures during the ‘60s, lending his work in these genres a raw and morally ambiguous flavour that sometimes proved pretty difficult for audiences to digest.

Front and centre in this regard stands ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’, which, though it is not my personal favourite of his films (hey, dude directed Plague of the Zombies), could well be a contender for Gilling’s masterpiece, should the auteurists eventually come knocking.

From the outset, ‘The Flesh..’ draws a sharp distinction between the austere elegance of the private medical academy presided over by indefatigable anatomical research enthusiast Dr Knox (Peter Cushing), and the raging underworld of unruly taverns and brothels that surround it amid the winding, hilly streets of Edinburgh’s old town - environs from which Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Donald Pleasence) almost literally seem to ooze.

The uneasy flashpoints between these two worlds are highlighted by the characters in the film who come closest to being sympathetic, namely hapless medical student Chris Jackson (John Cairney) and brazen tavern hussy Mary (Billie Whitelaw), whose fumbling, sub-Pygmalion romance eventually leads them both to a miserable end at the hands of messrs B&H, inadvertently exposing the unsavoury conduct of Knox’s preferred corpse-suppliers in the process.

A bleak and furtive exercise in full spectrum cynicism, Gilling’s film venomously attacks the conduct of rich and poor alike, ensuring that even the film’s younger, more ostensibly ‘sympathetic’ characters (to whose ranks we can add a square-jawed ‘good’ medical student and his love interest, Knox’s niece) are variously portrayed as too naïve, vacuous, self-involved, snobbish or undisciplined to even fully understand the games their elders are playing around them, let alone assume any mantle of ‘heroism’.

As Dr Knox, Cushing offers a fascinating variation on the persona he perfected in Hammer’s Frankenstein series, his characterisation of an obsessive, technocratic scientist destroyed by his moral blind spots and lack of human empathy deepened by the more realistic setting offered here.

In a delightful touch, Knox literally turns a blind eye to the crimes of his insalubrious associates, his left eyelid drooping down over a sightless socket – a subtle imperfection that mars his otherwise primly symmetrical appearance, and a brilliant visual metaphor for the fatal character flaw that tips him over the fine line separating a celebrated philanthropic surgeon from a notorious, corpse-mangling monster.

At the other end of the social spectrum meanwhile, Donald Pleasence [in what I believe was his first significant genre role] cuts an equally memorable figure as Willy Hare, portrayed here as a wily tavern parasite and low level thief within whom the discovery of the easy money to be made via late night visits to Knox’s cellar awakens a latent psychopathic tendency, expressed by Pleasence through an increasingly unhinged palette of craven, somewhat effeminate mannerisms that blur the line between melodrama-appropriate scenery chewing and more distrubingly intense, method-ish performance tics.

Pleasance of course comprises one half of a double-act with the largely forgotten actor George Rose, whose idiot-grinning, easily led Burke lends the duo a kind of Satanic, inverted ‘Of Mice and Men’ vibe. After initially being presented as a pair of seedy rogues in the light-hearted Dickensian/Victorian tradition, B&H’s behaviour, and the interplay between them, becomes more uncertain, open-ended and upsetting as the film progresses. As their decision to take up a career as murderers causes the strictly defined parameters of their squalid urban working class existence to begin falling apart around them, their sense of ‘normality’ collapses along with it, causing their actions to become wilder and more unpredictable, with any understanding of cause and effect, let alone right and wrong, completely off the table.

By establishing these characters and their world so credibly, Gilling sets the scene for what is undoubtedly a very effective horror film as well as a social allegory, and the scenes between Burke & Hare and their unfortunate victims are probably the most effective in the picture.

Their first murder in particular is an astonishingly unsettling sequence – probably the most chilling thing I’ve encountered in this whole October review marathon. Certainly, few viewers will forgot the deranged ‘death dance’ that Pleasence performs as he goads his dim-witted companion into suffocating the life out of a derelict old woman, mockingly replicating the scene in real time as she expires before him.

After the deed is done, Hare recoils disgustedly from the sight of a dead rat that the cackling Burke dangles in his face, the queasy balance of power between the duo temporarily upended as their victim, folded in two and shoved in a crate ready for delivery, sits ignored in the corner. It’s as horrifyingly convincing a portrayal of base human villainy as you’re liable to find anywhere within the pulp realm.

Needless to say, with stuff like this going on, ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’ must have proved extremely strong meat for the British film industry in 1960. Perhaps it was the film’s more “serious” historical setting and ostensibly moralistic ending – or perhaps it’s black and white photography and relatively low profile – that allowed it to walk away uncut with an ‘X’ certificate? Who knows. Reading about the troubles Hammer were encountering with the censors at around this time, one imagines Hinds and Carreras would have been flogged in the street and exiled to the colonies if they’d dared to submit a film this packed with whiffy-looking corpses and gruelling on-screen killings for consideration by the BBFC.

This free pass from the censor seems especially curious given that, in stark contrast to the more black & white morality of the travelling theatre-derived Todd Slaughter-style speckle-flecked melodrama from which it draws much of its aesthetic inspiration, ‘The Flesh & The Fiends’ succeeds in asking considerably more complex ethical questions of the viewer than was common in horror films of this era.

Like Richard Fleischer’s ‘10 Rillington Place’ a decade later, Gilling’s film is crystal clear in its argument that, whilst predatory psychopaths and individuals prepared to kill for their own advancement are always with us (and should indeed be held accountable for their crimes), the wider social circumstances of poverty, ignorance and inequality that allow vulnerable people to fall victim to such predation are just as much to blame, if not more so.

In ‘The Flesh..’, these inequalities are personified by the figure of Dr Knox, the wealthy, educated man whose refusal to acknowledge – and willingness to even personally reward - the human suffering that underpins his work makes him the direct enabler of every single act of violence that takes place in the film. A frighteningly prescient metaphor for all of us 21st century first world consumers to ponder perhaps, but one that is problematised by an extremely divisive ending that appears to see the good doctor getting off scott-free. (Again, no pun intended.)

Whilst watching ‘The Flesh &The Fiends’ for the first time, I was absolutely astonished to see Gilling pull a last minute, Scrooge-style moral rebirth on Cushing’s character, exonerating him from blame with a round of applause and even granting him a cloying, moralistic closing speech, effectively allowing the eventual perpetrator of all of the film’s miseries a chance to begin his life anew as a changed man, whilst his lowly-born accomplices swing for the crime literally outside his window.

On first glance, this seems a sickening betrayal of the systematic demolition of hypocrisy within the social hierarchy that Gilling has undertaken across the preceding eighty-five minutes, but, really, the film’s final message all hinges on the way in which each viewer sees the very delicate shading given to the on-screen events falling.

On the surface of it, this is a facile/contrived happy ending that senselessly undermines the message of what has come before; but, if we look past Cushing’s earnest portrayal of a sinner reborn a saint, and the valedictory applause of his sycophantic pupils, we perhaps see a coal-black glint of the director’s true intent shining through.

Because, Gilling seems to dare us to realise for ourselves, this is the way it always goes down in the real world, isn’t it? Time after time, the rich, well-presented man allowed a “second chance”, applauded for his humble recognition of his own “mistakes”, whilst the disreputable lackeys who did his dirty work meanwhile hang dead from the gallows, or succumb to the mob who bay for their blood.

Look around you, skim through today’s paper – it’s happening right now, just as it did in Edinburgh in 1828. Where do you stand, between the jeering of the mob and the empty applause of the students, Gilling seems to be asking us. Because at the end of the day, those are the only choices you’ve got buster, and no square-jawed young hero is going to storm in to change jack shit.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

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

So it occurred to me that if there is one thing missing from Halloween movie run-down thus far, it’s *’80s*.

Scanning over potential viewing options for a way to rectify this, I hit upon ‘Graveyard Disturbance’. Yes, Graveyard Disturbance! It’s a great name for a thrash metal album, and hopefully a great name for a horror movie too. It’s helmed by Lamberto Bava shortly after he came off the ‘Demons’ movies, and, as per just about every Italian horror movie of note made after 1980, Dardano Sacchetti is on script duty. Perfect, barrel-scraping ’88 vintage. Party on!

Well, as I soon discovered, asking “what could possibly go wrong?” of a Lamberto Bava movie is always a foolhardy proposition, but, before Italio-horror’s prodigal son delivered the answer in spades, ‘Graveyard Disturbance’ did at least open in precisely the way I hoped it would.

As a second-rate Duran Duran style electro-pop number plays from a dashboard boombox, we see a series of bold images, all of which are soon revealed to be air-brushed onto the chassis of a van belonging to one of the movie’s gaggle of teenage characters. Amongst the things this dude has painstakingly reproduced on his wheels are: the poster to Dario Argento’s ‘Inferno’; the cover of Judas Priest’s ‘British Steel’ album; the famous barbarian-woman-riding-giant-bird poster from the ‘Heavy Metal’ movie; Madonna circa ‘True Blue’; some leering zombie/vampire heads; a photo-realistic representation of a rock band on stage; some big, Rolling Stones style lips on the bonnet, smokin’ a doobie. It is just about the greatest thing I’ve seen in my life.

Riding in this magnificent vehicle are a gaggle of hapless, instantly dislikeable teens, straight from slasher movie central casting. I suppose we must consider the possibility that they may have been slightly more endearing in the original Italian, but the English dub (my only option for viewing) is brutal.

Enraging me right from the outset, the characters irk the van driver/owner guy by variously referring to his beloved van not only as a “heap of junk”, but even more insultingly, as a “car” and, on one occasion, a “truck”. The fucking idiots. I know sloppy post-sync dubbing isn’t necessarily their fault, but I still can’t wait for them to die. Because that’s what happens is these films. Isn’t it? Lamberto, Dardano, can you clarify…?

Anyway, before we get ahead of ourselves - I’m not sure what part of the world these kids are supposed to be from, where they’re supposed to be going, or where they currently are – aside from a single reference to them being on “vacation”, we’re left in the dark. But what does it matter, once the Horror Movie Fun begins. Because, it will begin. Right guys…?

After they ill-advisedly steal some chocolate bars from a convenience store and swerve through a line of red & white tape to avoid a police check-point (what?), our young protagonists find themselves hopelessly lost in a remote, fog-shrouded woodland area of whatever-place-it-is-they’re-in, where, for no reason, they see driverless, Dracula-style coach.

Abandoning the van (nooo) after an unsuccessful attempt to cross a river, they are forced to continue on foot with their camping gear, and their annoyingness intensifies. One guy’s sole personality trait is that he is a would-be wilderness survival type, so he decides what to do (“follow the river, rivers lead to towns”), whilst the others mockingly call him “Rambo”. Another guy meanwhile plays jokes and does a Bela Lugosi voice. Van owner guy (his thing is, he owns the van) rounds out the male trio, whilst the fairer sex is represented by one girl who is “dumb”, and another who has no discernable personality traits, but she does wear glasses and looks grumpy, so there’s that.

The gang soon find themselves in a wonderfully atmospheric set of ancient ruins – a mixture of real locations and studio sets, it is lit with heavy phosphorescent blues and clouds of slightly lit smoke emerging from doorways, creating a look faintly reminiscent of that achieved by Lamberto’s dad Mario in his masterpiece ‘Kill Baby Kill’/’Operatione Paura’ in 1966.

Simon Boswell’s music – a period appropriate mixture of synth, gated drums and fretless bass, quite possibly composed for one of the ‘Demons’ films – comes to the fore here, and it swiftly becomes clear that what we’re actually looking at is the film-within-a-film that the patrons/victims watch in the cinema during ‘Demons’, remade and extended into a full length movie. Not such a bad idea really, and it certainly helps explain the prevailing tone of tongue-in-cheek slasher pastiche idiocy.

What happens next is that the bedraggled teens rather unexpectedly stumble upon a bar (well, a pub, taverna, what you want to call it) operating out of one of the mouldering dungeons, complete with a neon Miller Lite sign hanging outside in surreal fashion.

Initially, things don’t look so good for protagonists as they enter to find that the place hasn’t been refurbished (or cleaned) since the middle ages, whilst some scraggly-haired troglodytic types hack away at hunks of meat behind the bar and the only other patrons glare at them with glowing eyes. But, things improve as they engage in some banter with the one-eyed inn-keeper (who throws a rousing “Ar-HA-Ha-HAR” into his speech after, and frequently during, each sentence), swap gags with one of the scary customers and enjoy plates of sausages, hunks of bread and cold beer all round.

Clearly this place rules. As a veteran of numerous camping expeditions, I can scarcely express how happy I would be to stumble across such a hospitable joint in which to spend the evening, but, being a bunch of graceless idiots, our teens (aptly described by the inn-keep as “chicken-hearted sprattlings”) don’t quite see it that way, and keep bellyaching about how scared they are and how much they want to leave.

They begin to get a bit more interested however when they notice a big bell-jar stuffed full of cash, gold trinkets and priceless jewellery. The inn-keeper explains, in between garrulous guffawing, that the roots of this go all the way back to some guy who once attempted to steal the legendary thirty gold pieces from Judas Iscariot. Eternally cursed for his trouble, he was buried beneath these ruins, and thereafter the denizens of the tavern have for many centuries made a wager with passing travellers, asking them to add their worldly goods to the bell jar, whose entire contents will be their reward if they can spend but a single night in the catacombs. And of course, none have ever returned (AR, Ha-Ha-HAR, haar).

Now, as much as I appreciated the ambience of the tavern, I will nonetheless cop that handing all your money over to the proprietor and his friends and allowing them to lock you in the basement overnight doesn’t really sound like a very good idea. But, as we have already established, our gang of teens are card-carrying idiots, so naturally they like those odds, and are well up for the challenge.

For my part meanwhile, it was shortly after this that I began to feel that I had signed up for a similarly idiotic wager when I suggested to my wife that we might want to watch this movie on Friday night.

Up to this point, I’ll freely admit that I was quite enjoying ‘Graveyard Disturbance’; even the bad dubbing had generated enough sniggers to keep us going. But, this enjoyment rested largely upon the promise of some good ol’ Italio-horror business yet to come – a hope was to be cruelly dashed at every turn for the remainder of the movie.

Had I taken the time to seek out but one review of ‘Graveyard Disturbance’ before taking the decision to watch it, a few vital facts would undoubtedly have been made clear to me. Firstly, despite being widely issued on VHS etc as a stand-alone feature, the film was actually produced for Italian television (as part of the ‘Brivido Giallo’ series of TV movies that ran 1988-89).

Secondly, as befits its TV origins, ‘Graveyard Disturbance’ is NOT the violent / exploitative horror film promised by the name, poster and personnel involved. Instead, it is a PG rated, family friendly type affair, akin perhaps to Lamberto’s take on ‘The Goonies’. Which is to say, a take on ‘The Goonies’ in which all the characters are interchangeable, charmless assholes and all of the humour falls completely flat.

Imagine if you will, the kind of slasher movie set-up I’ve described in the first few paragraphs of my plot synopsis above. But, rather than being killed off one by one as tradition dictates, the dislikeable teens instead all live happily to the end of the picture, whilst we meanwhile spend the best part of an hour trapped with them as they troop back forth across a handful of claustrophobic sets, nattering incessantly in an ever more grating and ignorant fashion.

Yes folks, it’s a grim prospect. Without wishing to sound too much like a gore-fixated psychopath, I’m afraid this party is *over*.

What is most frustrating about the decision to turn ‘..Disturbance’ into.. this kind of movie.. is that, if they had gone all out for a full strength horror film instead, the potential would have been there to make a pretty good one.

Eccentric touches early on – the van, the inn-keeper – are great, and, as has been mentioned, the sets, lighting and production design in general are all very nice here too; pleasantly atmospheric and full of loving nods to the way Bava Senior and Uncle Dario used to do business. The special effects used to realise the film’s assorted ghouls and zombies meanwhile are actually really good, probably even a step up from the workmanship seen in the ‘Demons’ movies – which makes it all the more disappointing that they basically just pop up occasionally and wander about a bit, without presenting any kind of real threat.

Probably the most memorable and accomplished sequence in ‘Graveyard Disturbance’ in fact is a scene in which a family of ghouls – including a ‘mother’ figure in a Marie Antoinette dress with multiple eyes, and a “heavy metal” kid with a single massive front tooth and a Kiss t-shirt – pop out of their tombs and enjoy a grand meal of slugs, spiders, worms etc. As a standalone effects set-piece, it’s rather delightful, so again, it’s a shame it doesn’t play into anything that happens in the rest of the movie.

But, as is probably clear by this point in this review, the whole thing is a shame. A damn shame. All the ingredients for a minor classic of shamelessly trashy, late period Italian horror were lined up and ready to go. With whom then did this idea of trying to turn it into some kooky, teen-friendly caper originate? The result is a film that fails on all levels and most likely appealed to absolutely no one, so please, can we get someone to blame up here? Was it the producer’s fault, or the TV company? Lamberto? Dardano? Would you like to take the stand?

Meanwhile, I’m afraid my advice to anyone faced with the prospect of viewing ‘Graveyard Disturbance’ must be: watch the first forty minutes, then turn it off and spend the remainder of your evening drawing pictures of what you think should have happened in the rest of the movie. Then perhaps post them to Lamberto Bava. Trust me, it will prove a lot more fulfilling.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

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

 It’s funny how, when it comes to mummy movies, the fortunes of Hammer’s entries in the sub-genre during the 1960s/70s almost exactly mirror the pattern established by Universal three decade earlier – i.e., an artistically accomplished but commercially under-performing initial film, belatedly followed by a series of considerably less ambitious, lower budgeted sequels that are generally considered the lowliest entries in their respective catalogues of horror movies.

Could this really have been an accidental case of history repeating itself, or were James Carreras and Tony Hinds to be found flicking through The Big Book of Movie History in the early 1960s, asking “right, where did Universal go next”..?

This many decades down the line, who can say, but, either way, I have an inexplicable fondness for the mummy sequels of both eras, and I feel that Hammer’s efforts in particular get an undeservedly bad rap. ‘Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb’ (1971) is a fine example of weird, contemporary-set ‘70s UK horror, and whilst ‘The Mummy’s Shroud’ (1967) is certainly no classic, it nonetheless has some strong elements and is, I believe, a lot better than its dismal critical reputation would tend to suggest.

That just leaves us then with 1964’s ‘The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb’, which until this month was one of the few Hammer horrors I had never seen. So, now that I’ve finally ticked it off the list – time for a review!

And, well – ahem - this one is a b-movie alright, there’s no question about that. Written, produced and directed by son-of-the-boss Michael Carreras, ‘Curse..’ might as well begin with workmen constructing the sets behind a board reading “utilitarian supporting feature mummy movie in progress – apologies for any inconvenience”, such is its straight-down-to-business determination to deliver the expected mummy movie ingredients with a minimum of fuss.

Set in 1900, what we have here is an entirely predictable tale of an ersatz-Carter archaeological team uncovering the lost tomb of the great Pharaoh Ra-something-or-other, and falling victim to the titular curse when they ill-advisedly go against the advice of the Egyptian government(!) and ship the whole caboodle back to London.

The Egyptian stuff in Carreras’s script (written under his Henry Younger pseudonym) seems to have been derived purely from comic book cliché without the slightest resort to genuine reference material, and… basically things proceed exactly as you would expect them to within the established remit of a mummy movie, so I won’t bore you with the details.

The only note of narrative interest in the initial plot set-up arises from the conflict between the earnest archaeologists (Ronald Howard and Jack Gwillim) who want to see their discoveries properly persevered in a museum, and the crass American huckster who funded their expedition (Fred Clark), who wants to take the Pharaoh’s mummy on the road as part of a corny sideshow attraction.

Reading between the lines, I can’t help but speculate that this plot line might to some extent have reflected tensions within Hammer at the time; as Terrence Fisher, Cushing and Lee all laboured away on the creatively ambitious but somewhat uncommercial The Gorgon, might Carreras have felt himself charged with saving their bacon by knocking out a goddamn, no-nonsense mummy picture to pull a few undemanding punters into the ensuing double-bill…? Again, who can say.

Leaving such speculation aside and getting down to business however, ‘Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb’ suffers in the first instance from a notable lack of recognisable Hammer ‘faces’. Which is not to say that the cast members who are here don’t acquit themselves perfectly adequately, but the lack of the kind of larger-than-life presence that even Hammer’s ‘second division’ leads like Andrew Keir or Andre Morell could have brought to proceedings is sorely felt.

Probably the most charismatic person on screen in fact is leading lady Jeanne Roland, who, speaking with what I assume to be her natural French accent, emerges as one of the most dynamic and adorable of Hammer’s ‘60s heroines, even though, regrettably, her character is appallingly written – a supposedly intelligent, highly educated woman who becomes a simpering ninny the moment obvious villain Terence Morgan puts the moves on her, casually two-timing her fiancée without even seeming conscious of her actions. (“Do you know, you are the first man I’ve met who has ever realised what a home can mean to a woman,” she tells Morgan in one particularly cringe-worthy moment.)

Accompanying this casual misogyny meanwhile, we have some wholly predictable casual racism too, as the Egyptian characters (primarily represented by Hammer’s go-to guy for ‘ethnic’ roles, George Pastell) are portrayed as a sly lot of fez-wearing so-and-sos who all live in tremulous fear of their Old Gods (when they’re not sneaking about stealing and murdering on their behalf, that is) - even within the highest echelons of the nation’s government, or so it is implied.

Whilst we’re at it, it should also be mentioned that the mummy himself, when he eventually turns up, is a bit of a let down. To be frank, stuntman Dickie Owen looks a bit chubby in his costume here, which is not really what you want from a mummy (I’m reminded of the fat skeleton in Shaitani Dracula), and I’m pretty sure you can see the outlines of his clothes poking through the bandages slightly too. Not so good. Several of the rejuvenated Pharaoh’s ‘shock’ entrances meanwhile seem directly modelled on those of Christopher Lee’s far more impressive and intimidating regent in 1959’s ‘The Mummy’, to sadly deflated effect.

‘Curse..’ is at least extremely gory for a 1964 UK horror, revelling in the inclusion of several severed hands, and a rather startling scene in which the mummy crushes a character’s head beneath his bandaged boot – the latter prompting a hilarious moment when a shocked police inspector, having just witnessed this ghastly incident, instructs his men to “follow it, see where it goes… but best keep a safe distance”.

The scene in which mummy tosses the body of Clark’s character into an (off-screen) Thames, shortly after the latter has gallantly gifted a few guineas to a shivering prostitute, also has a gleefully pulpy feel to it, as do some nocturnal ambushes and sundry sneaking about in the Professor’s fire-lit study.

In fact, ‘Curse…’ is largely saved from ignominy by the sheer dedication and technical acumen of the crew behind the camera. Bernard Robinson’s detail-packed sets often belie the obvious cheapness of the production, and, skilfully lit by hands unknown, Otto Heller’s surprisingly lavish scope cinematography emerges as absolutely gorgeous in places. The film is tightly paced, with some sinuous camera movements and effective POV shots keeping things visually interesting, whilst Carlo Martelli provides a score that is livelier and more varied than the usual James Bernard bombast, despite hitting up the expected “middle eastern” signifiers as shamelessly as you might expect.

All of this helps ensure that, in spite of the aforementioned deficiencies, that inimitable Hammer ‘feel’ is in full effect here, as reassuring as a roaring fire and a glass of sherry on a cold winter’s eve. Against all the odds therefore, ‘Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb’ remains eminently watchable throughout, standing as proof that, during their Bray years, Hammer couldn’t make a truly bad horror film even if they tried (which certainly seems to have been the case on this occasion).

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

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

Long on atmosphere but short on story, this weirdly compelling poverty row oddity from B-movie auteur Edgar G. Ulmer remains historically noteworthy as one of the very earliest entries in what would soon become a veritable avalanche of horror-inclined science fiction movies throughout the 1950s.

Though the writing here is sketchy in the extreme – never really bothering to take its ideas beyond the kiddie matinee level – ‘The Man From Planet X’ can nonetheless make a good case for itself as the very first ‘alien visitor to earth’ movie to emerge from Hollywood, quietly prefiguring [or at least, produced in parallel with] the familiar defining classics of the genre – which must have made it’s tale of a lone representative of a dying alien race pitching up on a remote Scottish island and using the mind-controlled locals to help it prepare for a full scale colonisation project feel at least somewhat sensational to its initial audiences.*

Of course, these kind of stories had been knocking around in literary SF for decades by this point, but such subject matter was still a novelty when it came to the movies, to the extent that Ulmer and writer/producer Jack Pollexfen (how could he not make SF movies with a name like that?) seem unsure how to handle it.

Essentially, they seem to have decided to tackle the material in the style of a 1940s horror movie, imbuing their extra-terrestrial visitor with a genuine sense of uncanniness and mystery that would swiftly vanish from the more scientifically-minded movies that followed later in the decade, and it is this approach, rather than any claims of alleged historical importance, that continue to make ‘The Man From Planet X’ worth seeking out all these years down the line.

Filmed at least partially on sets left over from the Ingrid Bergman version of ‘Joan of Arc’ (1948), and enhanced by some absolutely beautiful miniatures and matte paintings (reportedly created by Ulmer himself), the film’s fictional Scottish island – upon which a crumbling medieval ‘broc’ (repurposed as an observatory) stands out starkly on a craggy outcrop surrounded by boulder-strewn wilderness - is a baleful, fog-shrouded studio creation that rivals anything Mario Bava achieved on similarly low budgets in later decades.

Though some atrociously shoddy theatrical backdrops used here and there, and you’ll sure get sick of looking at those same few rocks used in close-ups by the end of the picture, the sheer isolation of the island setting is nonetheless powerfully conveyed (in this regard, ‘The Man From Planet X’ reminded me strongly of far later UK-based monster movies such as ‘Island of Terror’ (’66) and ‘Night of the Big Heat’ (’67), and the overall atmosphere created here is rich, consistent and deliciously weird – a fine, classic draught for connoisseurs of studio-bound cinematic gothic.

This is just as well, as the film’s writing, as mentioned above, is less than top drawer. The human drama – as represented by the potential love triangle between square-jawed hero Robert Clarke, demure scientist’s daughter Margaret Field and cowardly creep William Schallert (he has a little black beard, so watch out) - is pure boilerplate stuff, just treading water until the scary stuff shows up, in a formula already familiar to poverty row horror films that would unfortunately go on to be replicated in hundreds of monster movies over the next few decades.

Much time meanwhile is similarly ill-spent on expounding reams of ‘science stuff’ that is unlikely to have convinced even the most credulous 1950s school boy, concerning as it does the path of the alien’s blighted home planet, which his race have seemingly sent careering through space, putting it on course to pass extremely close to the earth in, ooh, a couple o’ days.

The island on which the film takes place has been picked – both for the observatory and the alien scout’s initial landing – on the basis that it will be the point on the earth’s surface that will come closest to the passing Planet X, thus making it the perfect spot for the alien invasion force to do a quick hop from one globe to the other. So I mean, we’re not quite working on an Arthur C. Clarke level here, y’know?

Even the film’s great, flash-forward opening – in which we see Clarke alone in the darkened observatory, scribbling his story by candle-light before he steps out to face the alien menace that has overcome his companions - turns out to be a cheat, as, when we eventually reach that point in the main narrative, it turns out that he has a whole regiment of police and soldiers from the mainland waiting outside to back him up, whilst his friends are merely temporarily indisposed by the alien’s mind control beam.

If you’ll allow me a quick -- SPOILER ALERT – moment, I should also outline the nature of our hero’s plan for overcoming the alien threat in the nick of time before Planet X reaches the Earth. Basically, Clarke advocates approaching the mind-controlled humans who are serving the alien and, just, y’know, talking to them and shaking them about a bit until they snap out of it. Then, he’ll lead them all to safety, the soldiers will blow up the alien’s ship with a fizzy sparkler rocket launcher, and bob’s yr uncle – invasion averted! Yes ladies and gentlemen, he apparently brooded all night trying to come up with that plan. I ask you.

But anyway, leaving these script deficiencies aside, we should probably also spend some time discussing the alien itself. Though the sight of a diminutive spaceman waddling about in a big domed helmet with grabby extendable arms and a ray gun would soon became the very essence of cheesy sci-fi cliché, the creature here – apparently played by a performer whose specialty was a “slow motion vaudeville act” - is really quite striking.

There is something genuinely odd, and, well… alien… about this alien, and the complete failure of the human characters’ attempts to communicate with it feels like a far more believable portrayal of the frustrations of two entirely different life forms trying to suss out each other’s intentions than the convenient “we learned your language from your TV broadcasts, earthling” kind of shtick that would become common currency in subsequent SF films.

Although he is ostensibly an aggressor, the travails of this poor little fella, traipsing around a distinctly unwelcoming landscape, with big, maniacal apes forever threatening to shut off his all-important breathing apparatus if he doesn’t co-operate with their incomprehensible desires, are actually quite affecting in a weird sort of way.

When he resorts to the mind control beam to recruit some local help and shuts himself up tight in his landing craft, we have to ask ourselves if a human astronaut would have done any different in equivalent circumstances. As such, ‘The Man From Planet X’ achieves a sense of parity between the two race’s respective encounters with the ‘alien’ that, again, would rarely be matched by the more polarised, Cold War-inclined sci-fi that followed.

As with all of the Ulmer movies I’m familiar with, ‘The Man From Planet X’ has a certain aura of darkness about it that prevents it from ever being written off as campy or unintentionally humourous, despite its clumsy scripting and rudimentary special effects. As in the director’s other films, there is a sense of dislocation and confusion that predominates here above all else, as the characters find themselves lost in a situation beyond their understanding or control, their free will seeping away as inexplicable events shift the terrain around them, and as even their own individual motivations become increasingly unclear.

In this sense, ‘The Man From Planet X’ seems more reflective of the war-haunted fears of the 1930s and 40s than of the heavy-handed Cold War sub-texts that would soon come to dominate the SF genre as it developed, and it remains all the more memorable and mysterious as a result - a small, cheap and knowingly silly movie that nonetheless orbits a core of the genuinely uncanny, and the genuinely fearful, keeping full understanding and resolution forever just out of reach.


* To clarify, ‘The Man From Planet X’ actually premiered in March 1951, one month before Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s ‘The Thing From Another World’, with which it shares a number of story elements. The more immediately influential ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ followed in December, and after that, ‘50s sci-fi was officially off to the races.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

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

Two years after he completed his remarkable run of ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ for the BBC, winning plaudits in particular for his innovative adaptations of the work of M.R. James, director Lawrence Gordon Clark found himself working on the other side of the dial at ITV, where he was presented with the prospect of helming a (somewhat more modest) version of one of major James stories he hadn't been able to tackle for the BBC, ‘Casting The Runes’.

Presumably rejected from consideration as a ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ on the basis that it doesn’t actually have any ghosts in it, this story is probably best remembered as the basis for Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 classic ‘Night of the Demon’. So yes, in case you were unsure, it is indeed the one about a vengeful suburban sorcerer cursing those who try to interfere with his work, ensuring their precisely timed destruction by demonic forces by means of fragments of runic script he has covertly handed to them.

The source material is here updated for the 1970s by playwright Clive Exton, with our main protagonist becoming female TV journalist Pru Dunning (Jan Francis), who made the mistake of mocking reclusive occultist Julian Karswell (Iain Cuthbertson) during a light-weight exposé of contemporary witchcraft.*

The primary setting for the unfolding drama thus becomes a microcosm of the mid-level media milieu of the UK in the late ‘70s – thus pretty close to home for cast and crew alike, no doubt – and, for a few brief passages during this fifty minute TV play, Clark succeeds in summoning up glimpses of the kind of fearful, impressionistic atmos that made his BBC ghost stories so remarkable. Notably, it tends to be the scenes shot on location (and/or those without much scripted dialogue) that see Clark’s direction coming to life, perhaps reflecting his background in documentary.

In particular, the opening sequence – which sees a man falling victim to one of Karswell’s demonic avatars whilst walking his dog across a snow-covered heath – is excellent. Compositions and editing are painstakingly planned out here, as Clark wrings maximum eeriness out of the seemingly mundane surroundings, giving us a text-book demonstration of his oft-noted ability to locate almost sub-conscious resonances of fear and anxiety within placid, naturalistic environments.

The director is helped in achieving this by the fact that much of the location shooting seems to have taken place during severe snow storms that hit the UK during the winter of 1978/79 (coincidentally recalling the ‘Christmas’ associations of the earlier James adaptations, perhaps), whilst the (uncredited) musical score – a mixture of gently atonal, Elder Gods-style fluting and doom-laden electronic dirges – also contributes greatly to the overall effect.

Other factors however mitigate against any concerted attempt to recapture the feel of Clark’s earlier James adaptations. Whilst the production – which was presumably produced on a budget equivalent to any other ‘ITV Playhouse’ episode - managed to score some 16mm film for the aforementioned outdoor sequences, interiors by contrast are shot on the kind of flat and fuzzed out, domestic camcorder grade video tape that serves to make the majority of British TV from this era look inherently cheap and lifeless (think of a late ‘70s/early ‘80s Dr Who episode and you’ll get the idea).

Drab interior sets are also used extensively, and, unfortunately, both the nature of story itself and the stagey nature of Exton’s adaptation demand that – in stark contrast to the almost existential, landscape-based expanse of the BBC ghost stories – we spend the majority of our time within them, as the characters hash out the details of the fairly complex and idea-heavy plot line.

If it inevitably falls short of Clark’s BBC ghost stories though, ‘..Runes’ does at least work pretty well as a more traditional TV drama, benefiting from very good lead performances from Jan Francis and Bernard Gallagher, both of whom shoulder intimidating quantities of expositional dialogue with verve and enthusiasm, simultaneously adding a warmth and believability to their characters that draws us into the story very effectively.

The TV play’s conception of the malevolent Karswell meanwhile is distinctly different from either the original story or the Tourneur film, and, in my opinion, works very well. Rather than the avuncular philanthropist and shady local celebrity of earlier versions, this Karswell is a full-on scary recluse – a boogeyman / hate figure to people in his local area, he spends his life in complete isolation, pursuing his strange, egotistical vendettas solely through the means of disarmingly folksy ‘sympathetic’ black magic(k) (he utilises corn dollies, and a fully furnished dolls house), without even pretending to function as a regular member of society.

Personified in the form of Iain Cuthbertson, this Karswell cuts a strange figure on the rare occasions when he actually appears. Large enough to physically intimidating, his thinning hair, OAP glasses, thick regional accent (don’t ask me which region) and strange, smirking grin give him an vibe halfway between a hulking, Karloff-style heavy and the kind of creepy maths teacher school governors would be well-advised to keep an eye on.

When Pru infiltrates the deconsecrated rectory Karswell calls home, she is subjected to a disorientating whirlwind of cut-price video effects (again, very Dr Who) and a heavy dose of psychic aggression. According to the local newspaper man who accompanies her on her visit, the housekeeper who answers the door is known to locals as a woman who died three years previously.

An unsettling and rather original villain, the malign influence Karswell wields over the world of the film is emphasised by a wealth of minor, synchronicitous details that are easy to miss upon first viewing – the butterfly broche Pru wears at one point mirrors one Karswell was seen fondling in a preceding scene, whilst a sinister looking latin motto (a banishment or something perhaps?) is casually spray-painted on the wall outside the rectory, a prominently displayed carrier bag featuring an image of an owl mirrors a stuffed one seen in Karswell’s study, and so forth.

Meanwhile, the day-to-day ‘70s landscape within which the more down to earth aspects of ‘Casting The Runes’ takes place now lend the film an overpowering nostalgic resonance that will entrance British viewers of a certain age, with each shopping bag, car, typewriter, carpet or piece of domestic cutlery that appears on-screen threatening to reduce us to shivering wrecks more efficiently than any of the story’s actual horror content.

Though Exton’s writing is a bit brutally functional in places, his script is nonetheless very well constructed, and, despite the collective ravages of video tape, interior dialogue scenes and some truly ropey special effects (an attempt at a giant spider attack proves particularly regrettable), hints of the visionary quality Clark displayed as a director of ghost stories still break through the murk whenever we switch back to 16mm.

This all I think helps to lend ‘Casting The Runes’ a uniquely endearing quality, allowing it to remain compelling viewing to this day, and confirming it as an essential addition to the library of anyone with an interest in the spookier and more experimental end of British TV.


* Probably best known for scripting ’10 Rillington Place’ (1971), Exton’s other big screen genre credits range from 1972’s ‘Doomwatch’ to ‘Red Sonja’ in 1985.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Umberto Lenzi
(1931 – 2017)

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

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

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

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

More substantial tribute hopefully/possibly coming soon.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

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

Our token new movie for this Halloween season, and I’m sad to report that, despite a “can’t miss” outlay (heavily Carpenter-influenced action/survival horror about inter-dimensional Lovecraftian beastliness breaking loose in an isolated hospital) and a fair amount of positive word of mouth, ‘The Void’ never really came together the way I wanted it to.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good stuff in here - some solid performances, genuinely fearful notions, great practical effects and a few eyebrow searingly intense moments, but, for all its good references and technical acumen, it felt to me like a film that never quite got the drop of what it wanted to be, or how it intended to get there.

To get straight to the heart of one of the film’s biggest problems, well… let’s put it this way: ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, ‘The Thing’, ‘Prince of Darkness’, ‘Halloween’, ‘Reanimator’, ‘The Resurrected’, ‘Possession’, ‘Hellraiser’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘The Beyond’.

Did I miss any, guys? Let’s swap lists and compare.

I normally have a pretty high tolerance for in-jokes and cultural references in cinema, to the extent that I’d normally be perfectly happy for filmmakers to let me know in no uncertain terms that they think any of the items on the above list are really cool, but, even by the furthest reaches of what it allowable in a post-Tarantino world, there are limits.

If Gillespie & Kostanski were merely making a fun monster romp, their decision to pay tribute to the aforementioned inspirations, not by harnessing the ambition, atmosphere or imagination that made them so memorable in the first place but instead merely by shamelessly imitating bits of them, might have flown ok with me.

For better or for worse though, that is not what they’re making (or at least, I don’t think it is – like I say, there is some confusion of intent here), and ‘The Void’s combination of fan service-level borderline plagiarism with a tone of deadly seriousness, bordering on outright solemnity, sat poorly with me.

This then leads us neatly on to second big problem, which to be honest is the one that really irked me. Throughout the film, I found there was an uncomfortable disjuncture between ‘The Void’s ostensible identity as a gore n’ tentacle splattered, shotgun-blasting self-aware horror movie, and its apparent desire to simultaneously Address Serious Themes – an ambition it achieves only in a manner both humourless and heartless, badly harshing the buzz of the movie’s horror aspects in the process.

If I might broaden our scope slightly to make a more general point: although literary theorists in recent years have had a field day expounding upon the ego-crushing existential vanishing point of the ‘cosmic horror’ sub-genre pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft, it is nonetheless instructive to remember that, for those of us who enjoy these stories of universal doom and hopelessness, they represent a form of escapism just as potent as any sword n’ sorcery fantasy.

To not put too fine a point on it, when we find ourselves contemplating the slumbering survival of Great Cthulhu and the forthcoming epoch of madness and extinction, we have basically just found another way to temporarily excuse ourselves from the more day to day miseries of disease, poverty, loneliness and stress. Like losing oneself in a floor-shaking doom metal record – or, hey, why not a horror movie? - the darkness of an aesthetically stylised annihilation becomes a comfort blanket, much the same as any other.

By seeking to place issues regarding the grief that follows the death of a child and the subsequent damage inflicted upon relationships and/or mental health at the centre of their story, Gillespie & Kostanski cross the streams of this particular equation rather heinously, making it difficult to enjoy frequent cutaways to some “hey dude, remember that bit from ‘The Thing’?!” kind of scene whilst also leaving the ‘real world human emotion’ stuff feeling inauthentic and crass, handled as it is in the frowning, hand-wringing manner of a TV mini-series tearjerker.

That’s not to say of course that such subject matter can’t or shouldn’t be explored within a pulp fiction context – far from it. But there’s a way to do it and a way NOT to do to it, y’know?

For a particularly egregious example of the way that ‘The Void’ keeps flubbing it, look no further than the nigh-on-unbearable sequence during the build up to the film’s finale wherein, for a few moments, it looks as if a terrified, untrained medical intern is going to have to perform an emergency caesarean section upon a traumatised pregnant woman, whilst an elderly man with a hand weapon keeps guard against the faceless murderers who may or may not be roaming the corridors outside.

Now, I must declare a personal ‘thing’ here, in that anything involving pregnancy, birth and new-born children in a violent/horror context always twists my guts and freaks me out something rotten. As such, you will appreciate that watching this scene was not a terribly happy experience for me, but regardless.

The point is, when it is subsequently revealed that both mother and child are actually mutated minions of the film’s demonic/alien evil, I can’t imagine I was alone in experiencing not the shock and horror that the filmmakers presumably intended this (fairly predictable) revelation to evoke, but instead simply feeling relief that we were back in the fantasy realm of monsters and special effects, and no longer needed to deal with the more tangible reality of that other scene. Which is all pretty ass-backwards if you take a second to think about it.

On a more prosaic level meanwhile, whilst ‘The Void’ is undoubtedly shot and edited with admirable skill, its core visual storytelling often feels weak in a manner common to many 21st century films. Despite their painfully obvious veneration for the John Carpenter canon, the filmmakers don’t seem to have fully appreciated that, when a director like Carpenter staged this kind of tense action/survival scenario, he presented it to us simple, uncluttered fashion that allowed us to easily understand the logic of what was going down on the ground level.

I had initially composed several paragraphs of reactionary, old man griping on this subject, but... nobody needs that, so I've nixed them for now. Let's just say that, whilst of course I wouldn’t advocate a return to the freedom-crushing excesses of a top-down studio system, this is the kind of for-the-love-of-it indie movie that I find myself thinking could have benefited from some cigar-chewing exec locking the ‘creatives’ in the editing room until they got their shit together and gave him a sellable picture.

In writing this, I seem to have ended up being considerably harsher on ‘The Void’ that I intended to be. There is honestly a lot of good stuff here. It’s certainly a hell of a lot better than the most contemporary low budget horror films, that's for sure, but…. there’s nothing that invites a bad review so much as a movie that *almost* makes the grade, is there? One that has all the right moves but just keeps slipping up when it matters.

Ah well, don’t take my word for it – give it a watch yourself and draw your own conclusions. If you’re interested in contemporary horror movies, it’s worth your time at the very least.

Monday, 16 October 2017

October Horrors #8:
(Renato Polselli, 1974)

Until recently, this 1974 feature from the infamous Renato Polselli – director of ‘The Reincarnation of Isobel’/‘Black Magic Rites’ (1973), ‘Delirium’ (1972) and The Vampire and The Ballerina (1960) – was considered a lost film, with the director himself reportedly claiming that all materials related to the production had been seized by an irate distributor following its (minimal) theatrical release, their fate unknown.

No sightings, screenings, bootlegs or even verifiable rumours regarding the film’s survival leaked out over the next four decades, leaving Euro-cult devotees with little proof that ‘Mania’ had ever existed at all, beyond a poster and a tantalising, battered trailer.

This all changed however in September last year, when, out of the blue, some wonderful, anonymous person posted the entire movie on Youtube, in the form of a rough VHS rip with the opening and end credits removed, seemingly produced as a TV broadcast master at some point in time. Shortly thereafter, the Youtube upload disappeared, but, even more mysteriously, it was subsequently replaced by a much better copy of the film (now with credits), apparently sourced from a film print.

A wave of giddy excitement swept through the dark corners of the messageboard/social media landscape where such things hold currency, and verily, files were ripped, subs translated, uploads uploaded, and the genie was out of the bottle for good. Safely stowed away for posterity on the hard drives of weird film collectors across the globe, ‘Mania’ is lost no more.

Leaving aside the heart-warming tale of its rediscovery however, the good news here is that, whilst it can’t compete with the aforementioned high watermarks in Polselli’s filmography, ‘Mania’ still more than lives up to its name, proving a valuable addition to the extant filmography of one of Italian genre cinema’s most notorious wildmen.

Clearly completed at great speed on a budget that would have made even Franco or Rollin blanch, and populated with a cast of performers unknown to even the most dedicated Euro-cult buffs, ‘Mania’ is utter bottom-of-the-barrel, moving Fumetti kitsch, but cut through with a heavy dose of vicious lunacy. It may not be “good” in any sense of the word, but it’s certainly crazy. Like most of Polselli’s ‘70s films, watching it feels a bit like snorting some unidentified substance at a party and really wishing you hadn’t.

This is particularly true of the opening fifteen minutes, which are rushed through with the impatience of a twitchy lunatic, as we follow an extremely overwrought conversation between a couple (Lailo, played by Iscaro Ravaioli who once appeared as a henchman in Bava’s ‘Danger! Diabolik’, and Lisa, played by Eva Spadaro, who, like most of the cast here, only ever appeared in other Renato Polselli films), who are busy yelling at each other as their car careers dangerously along a cliff top highway at night. Between hysterical bursts of self-pitying infective, Lisa narrates a portion of her personal history, which unfolds before us in flashback.

It seems that Lisa, who sports a cropped, bleach blonde look in the ‘present day’ footage, used to possess a magnificent bouffant, and used to be married to a mad scientist named Brecht, who lived in a crumbling villa somewhere.

Brecht has a moustache worthy of a Bollywood villain, and appears to have a smoking cement mixer in the centre of his basement laboratory, as well as an inordinate fondness for silver foil and bubble-wrap. He claims that he can “control living matter” and “stop a bee in mid-flight”, but he can exercise no such control over his woman, as is made clear when Lisa begins a torrid affair with his identical twin brother(?!), instigated “out of rage” as a means of “insulting his love”, according to the film’s fan-subs.

Following the lead of Brecht’s moustache, the inter-character scenes here have all the subtlety of a Bollywood melodrama, and things head toward craziness more or less straight away, as, warned by the beautiful housemaid Erina (Mirella Rossi) of his wife’s dalliance, Brecht needlessly kills her (the maid, that is) for pretty much no reason whatsoever, suffocating her with a plastic bag in rather sickening fashion… only, wait, hang on, apparently she’s not dead, she’s merely been “reduced to a deaf and dumb mute” by the experience, it says here.

Shortly thereafter, Brecht’s lab explodes into flames, and Lisa, who holds the keys to the locked gates, takes exultant pleasure in watching her husband burned to death as his brother (whom she claims to love) tries desperately to save him. This woman is going to be our heroine for the next seventy minutes, ladies and gentlemen, so put that in yr “the protagonist must be sympathetic” pipe and smoke it.

Back in the present day framing narrative meanwhile, Lisa and Lailo find themselves chased and attacked by a driverless “ghost car”, which Lisa claims is under the control of Brecht’s vengeful spirit, and, so, yeah… it’s going to be one of THOSE films, isn’t it?

Thereafter however, things do calm down considerably, as present day Lisa returns to her husband’s old villa, where, so her tough-love psychiatrist insists, she must confront her fears and overcome them, lest she fall victim to insanity.

Upon her arrival however, she seems liable to fall victim to far worse than that, as it seems Brecht’s now disfigured and wheelchair-bound brother and the now-barely-clothed mute maid-servant are running the joint like a goddamn house of horrors, carrying on about how Il Professori lives on after his physical death, and so forth.

Although ‘Mania’ is entirely lacking in usual visual trappings of gothic horror (presumably for budgetary reasons), the eventual storyline, once it settles down after the deranged opening, is very much in keeping with over-heated Italian gothic psychodramas of yesteryear.

Films such as The Whip & The Body, Nightmare Castle, and, in particular, Riccardo Freda’s ‘The Ghost’ would all seem to be valid reference points here, and for a good long while through its middle section ‘Mania’ essentially functions as a villa-bound, unreliable-narrator-in-peril ghost story, replete with muddy footsteps on the balcony, faces at the window, hands looming out of darkness etc. (Frequent cut away shots of trees shaking in the breeze meanwhile seem a direct call back to Polselli’s own early gothic, ‘The Vampire & The Ballerina’.)

With Polselli at the helm though, things were always going to be pushing toward the far edges of sanity, and sections of the film achieve the same overpowering sense of delirium that helped the director to define the sensibility of Italy’s very best/craziest entries in the Erotic Castle Movie sub-genre in the years immediately preceding his work here.

Events pile up with the strained logic of a nightmare, as if scenes were pieced together entirely at random in post-production, whilst, at all times, the characters remain so hysterical they’re practically on the verge of strangling each other, their actions and reactions baring only to most distant resemble to those of actual human beings.

Although most of the film is curiously devoid of erotic content (which is surprising, given its era and director), one scene during the second half breaks rank and absolutely goes for it, as an insane, naked cat fight break out between the mute Erina and Lisa’s own, oddly robotic maid (Katia, played by Ivana Giordan), each apparently fighting for their mistress’s affections as she looks on.

Although the idea of any of these characters enjoying a Sapphic relationship is never really addressed at any other point in the film, the idea of these two strangely physically/mentally afflicted maids running around in their skimpy night shirts and occasionally scratching each other up in jealousy has a bizarre, pervo Jess Franco kind of vibe to it, and Polselli’s disinclination to exploit this further seem rather curious, given the outrageous content that dominates most of his ‘70s output.*

‘Mania’s music meanwhile is credited to one Umberto Cannone (published by the amusingly named Edizioni Musicali Tickle) and, during the first half of the film, he provides us with an appropriately assaultive palette of bongos, distorted synths, crazy sci-fi effects and bursts of funereal organ.

Towards the end however, a tell-tale Bruno Nicolai-style freakbeat groove takes over, and, by the time Katia is shown making a phone call to Lailo at his home and speaking to him there whilst he is simultaneously lurking about in the villa’s gardens, any remaining pretence at logical storytelling is left far behind as the various characters proceed to chase around and attack each other in various states of rage, fear and confusion for the remainder of the run-time.

Before you know it, Lisa has been trapped in a net(!) and menaced with what look like eels (?!), whilst poor old Erina suffers a gruelling assault by wheelchair, and things get more and more out-to-lunch as we head toward a final 15 minute stretch that’s just as much of a disorientating riot as the opening.

Essentially resembling a ‘60s gothic that has smoked a big pile of ‘70s and gone berserk, ‘Mania’ does suffer from both its obvious budgetary limitations and a fair share of repetitious padding, but if doesn’t quite live up to the brain-melting freak-outs of ‘Delirium’ or ‘Black Magic Rites’, never mind. Those movies set a pretty high bar for such things, after all.

Even as their scrawny, underfed cousin, ‘Mania’ still manages to propel itself into a realm of trash cinema dementia that is more or less beyond criticism, beyond sanity, and quite possibly beyond good and evil too – a finely cracked addition to its creator’s marginal but uniquely twisted legacy. If you’ve yet to sample its pleasures then reach out to the torrents and the .rars my brethren, and drink it in.


* Although I’ve not seen a copy myself (ahem), I am informed that a photo-novel based on ‘Mania’, published in Italy’s ‘Cinesex’ magazine, provides evidence that the film may once have featured far more extensive sexual content than is seen in the currently extant print, so… make of that what you will, as I don’t suppose clarification will be forthcoming any time soon.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

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

More bona fide Roger Corman weirdness here, with what I think must rank as by far the strangest – certainly most unconventional – film he turned in during his black & white double feature years at AIP.

These days, I suspect the film itself is far less widely seen than its striking (if somewhat misleading) poster design… and perhaps for good reason, as, make no mistake, ‘The Undead’ is some real oddball shit. A curious mish-mash of ideas that never really coalesces into anything terribly appealing, but is nevertheless noteworthy, not just for its sheer strangeness, but for the way in which it strongly prefigures most of the themes and aesthetic fixations that would come to define Corman’s directorial career over the following decade.

We know we’re in for something a bit different right away here, as the film opens with a brief introduction from no less a personage than The Devil himself. As embodied here by actor Richard Devon, Satan sports a neat black goatee, a Robin Hood hat and wields some kind of bloody great trident thing. “Behold the subtle working of my talents,” he declares “and pray that I may never turn my interest… upon you”, before bidding us farewell with an outrageous theatrical guffaw.

Once that’s over with, we find ourselves in the spooky, mist-shrouded exterior of the ‘American Institute of Psychical Research’, where Dr Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour), whose appearance and mannerisms remind me somewhat of Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper, is escorting a lady - Diana, played by Pamela Duncan - inside to meet the unassuming Professor Olinger (Maurice Manson), who appears to be the boss of the whole outfit. [Special thanks to IMDB for helping me to get through that paragraph in one piece.]

As it transpires, Ratcliff is a former student of the Professor who has just returned from Nepal (hey, makes a change from Tibet), where he has been hanging about with some Yogis and mastering all kinds of whiz-bang techniques that (he claims) are sure to revolutionise the way that the American Institute of Psychical Research does business. Diana, it is strongly implied in non-production code busting fashion, is merely a hooker he has picked up on his way over. (The two men make various derogatory remarks about her low intelligence and corresponding susceptibility to hypnosis etc, all whilst she is clearly within earshot.)

Anyway, it seems that Ratcliff intends to put Diana into a 48 hour trance state, wherein he will attempt to prove his theories regarding reincarnation and so forth by allowing her consciousness to regress straight through to her past lives.

Now, as I recall, William Hurt had to ingest massive quantities of psychoactive drugs in order to achieve this in Ken Russell’s ‘Altered States’ a few decades later, so Ratcliff must really be some real hot shit, because he manages to get Diana over the wall with little more than a few hand gestures and a bit of the old “you are feeling sleepy..” type patter.

From this point onward, we leave faux-Agent Cooper and the American Psychical Society far behind, as we journey back to a gothic fairy-tale version of medieval Europe, where Diana’s distant ancestor Helene is locked up in ‘The Tower of Death’, facing execution at dawn – by decapitation, no less - on a charge of witchcraft.

After a bit of good advice from the disembodied voice of her 20th century descendent however, Helene manages to clobber her gaoler with a chain and make her getaway. Subsequent to this, we are gradually introduced to a wider cast of spectacularly annoying medieval characters, including a painfully unamusing “bewitched” gravedigger named Smolkin (Mel Welles), a standard issue knight in shining armour (Richard Garland), a proper, no-messing-around pantomime witch (Dorothy Neumann, rocking some of the worst ‘warty nose’ make-up ever seen on screen), and, most pleasingly, Livia (Allison Hayes of ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ fame), a hella intimidating, shape-shifting femme fatale of a Bad Witch, whose ‘sinful curves’ are displayed to fine advantage by the faux-medieval equivalent of a slinky little one piece number.

Upping the ‘medieval weirdness’ quotient considerably, Livia travels everywhere with some kind of perpetually cackling imp/familiar type creature that I’m going to assume must be played by an actual adult person of small stature, because the alternative possibilities are too weird/horrid to contemplate.(1)

The pair frequently transform into bats (fake, unconvincing ones), cats (real ones) and sometimes mice or spiders (could go either way). This is achieved by means of a sparkler-aided variation on the old ‘Bewitched’ style jump cut effect (which, as Saxana proved, never gets old). Naturally, Livia and her imp are up to their necks in some high level scheming, primarily aimed at ensuring Helene does indeed get executed as a witch, thus allowing Livia to steal the hunky knight-in-shining-armour guy from her.

And, if you’re wondering by this point where the hell all this is going, the answer is… nowhere fast. Whilst ‘The Undead’s heavily atmospheric, overtly fantastical take on a medieval setting – half Edgar Allan Poe, half ‘Wizard of Oz’ – clearly sets the stage for aesthetic sensibility Corman would go on to develop in his epochal Price/Poe films a few years later (and more specifically, the strain of heavily stylised medievalism that fed into both his ’62 remake of ‘Tower of London’ and the extraordinary ‘Masque of the Red Death’ in ’64), ‘The Undead’ is early doors for the director’s exploration of this sort of material, and there is an overriding “horribly misguided community theatre production” vibe to these fairy tale scenes that soon begins to grate. (2)

Indeed, as these tiresome, pantomime-like characters proceed to faff about to no great effect, belting out the charmless cod-Shakespearian dialogue of Charles Griffiths’ script as if they were delivering it to an gymnasium full of noisy school kids, it was only my slack-jawed disbelief at the sheer strangeness of ‘The Undead’ that kept me going at some points.

It is just as well then that the movie’s final act sees things getting even stranger, as, back in the 20th century, Dr Ratcliff suddenly becomes concerned that his meddling with past life regression might have brought about a bunch of temporal paradoxes or something. This leads him to decide that he must follow Diana’s spirit back into the past to set things straight. Achieving this through means that are never really made clear to us, the good doctor arrives in the middle ages naked, Terminator style, and swiftly steals a set of clothes from a passing knight before setting off to track down Diana/Helene.

Shortly thereafter, most of the characters attend a Black Mass(!) in a cemetery, presided over by the Robin Hood-hatted Satan. He is keen on gathering signatures for his black book, and, in return, he hands a big bag of money to some old geezer who complains he’s led a wretched life, and cures Dick Miller’s leprosy (hurray!).

In a scene that must have looked absolutely superb during the fuzzed-out UHF TV broadcasts through which I’d imagine this movie was primarily viewed for many years following its theatrical release, three female dancers in appropriately charnel garb provide the entertainment at this infernal knees-up, swaying and swirling like otherworldly gothic swamp creatures with polystyrene gravestones behind them, before they disappear in a cloud of smoke.

Elsewhere, a couple of people get their heads cut off, Lavinia gets rather gorily stabbed for her trouble and there’s a ‘knock down, drag out’ fight between the doctor and ‘Gobbo, the Jailer’ – all of which helped ensure that ‘The Undead’ was actually refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Censors in 1957.

Thereafter, some deals are done and some conflicts resolved, Satan gets the last laugh, as well he should, and… I dunno, what more can I tell you? A quintessential “what the fuck did I just watch?!” sort of picture, ‘The Undead’ seems to have been specifically designed to leave inebriated late night TV viewers waking up the next morning wondering whether or not they dreamed it. But let me tell you friends, I watched it relatively early in the day, whilst sober, and I can assure you – it is absolutely real.

As well as providing an early demonstration of Corman’s interest in gothic/medieval settings, ‘The Undead’ also touches upon his quasi-bohemian interest in new age psychology and mysticism, and his penchant for disorientating his viewers by flinging them across time and space (something that reoccurs not just in his late ‘60s “psychedelic” movies but also in his remarkable directorial swan-song ‘Frankenstein Unbound’ from 1990).

But, most of all perhaps, ‘The Undead’ simply serves to demonstrate Corman’s increasing dissatisfaction with the back-to-back formula pictures he was churning out for AIP. The film may not have really proved much of success in this regard, but whatever you make of it, it’s certainly a big leap forward from ‘Attack of the Crab Monsters’ in terms of narrative ambition, that’s for sure.


(1)IMDB confirms that the imp is actually played by renowned littler person actor Billy Barty, who made his first screen appearance in 1927 at the age of three, appeared uncredited as a “baby” in ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ at the age of eleven, and continued to work consistently in film and TV right up to the late 1990s. Respect is due.

(2) Interestingly, ‘The Undead’ actually debuted a full eighteen months before ‘The Seventh Seal’ – which was certainly a huge influence upon ‘Masque of the Red Death’ – was released in the USA, meaning that Corman significantly pre-empted Bergman’s reinvention of metaphysical medievalism in cinema here, for whatever that’s worth.