Tuesday 30 October 2018

October Horrors # 14:
The Monster Club
(Roy Ward Baker, 1981)

Yet another British horror film that I’ve put off watching for a long, long time, ‘The Monster Club’ sounds on paper like a uniquely unappealing prospect.

The very last gasp of Milton Subotsky’s Amicus productions, it saw the company considerably toning down the more violent elements of their long-running horror anthology series, going instead for a family friendly, tongue-in-cheek approach, whilst simultaneously making a desperately misguided attempt to court a youth audience more interested in slasher and zombie flicks by adding a pop music / variety show aspect to proceedings.

Clearly smelling embarrassment a mile off, both Cushing and Lee declined to participate, and I wonder to what extent they regretted their decision in subsequent years, given that, against all the odds, ‘The Monster Club’ somehow turned out to be an absolute delight.

Vincent Price, always game for this sort of caper, conversely described it prior to shooting as “..the best script I’ve been offered in years”, and indeed he anchors the anthology’s extensive framing sequences with gusto, playing an urbane vampire who takes a midnight snifter from the neck of the miraculously-still-alive John Carradine, portraying these stories’ real life author, R. Chetwynd-Hayes.

I confess, I’m not familiar with the work of Mr Chetwynd-Hayes (despite having spent much of my life skulking around second hand bookshops, I don’t recall ever actually seeing one of his books), but, based on the version of stuff that made it to the screen here, I think Price had a point.

Although each of the three stories presented here (four if you count the framing narrative) sounds pretty twee on paper, they all manage to temper their Halloween party silliness with a reassuring edge of pitch-black nastiness that causes them to linger longer in the memory than they really should.

The “monster genealogical chart” – tracing the complicated results of inter-breeding between vampires, werewolves, ghouls and humans – which provides a jumping off point for the three segment is a strange and imaginative conceit that I’ve never really seen explored elsewhere, and most people’s pick for the best of the stories will probably be the tale of James Laurenson’s lovelorn ‘shadmock’ (a creature who makes up for his position as the lowest and most diluted form of monster with his uniquely destructive whistle).

Aside from the fact that everyone treats Laurenson as if he is hideously deformed when clearly he’s just a fairly normal looking fella with heavy make-up and a bad haircut, this tale is really beautifully done, mixing some doomed, fairy tale-style emotional yearning with some proper, EC Comics style poetic justice and a cat-incinerating gimmick reminiscent of Jerzy Skolimowski’s then recent ‘The Shout’ (1978).

Furthering the spirit of the in-jokery introduced by featuring Chetwynd-Hayes as a character, the stakes are upped when the movie’s second story is introduced by a much-loved movie producer named, uh, “Lintom Busotsky”(!), who introduces what is purportedly a preview of a film he has made based upon his own childhood.

You see, Lintom’s dad (Richard Johnson) was a vampire – an exiled Count who now has to “work nights”, commuting from the suburbs to the West End for his nocturnal fix, leaving the youngster in the care of his adoring mother (Britt Ekland!). Admittedly, this business skims pretty close to the realms of tweeness, but the stuff about the exiled aristocratic vamps having to slum it as down-at-heel refugees, bullied and feared by their neighbours, adds a nice bit of verisimilitude, and things get considerably more interesting once Donald Pleasence is introduced as the chief of “The Bleeney”, a sinister, black bowler-hatted police division charged with the investigation of “blood crimes”(!).

Splendidly enjoyable stuff, this segment ends up toying with our sympathies in an uncomfortably ambiguous fashion; where do we stand, between the cheerily blood-thirsty, family-man vampire, and the cold, pinched-lipped cops who want to make poor Britt a widow..?

Somewhat surprisingly, both of these first two stories boast pretty solid production values, with some impressive set design, striking compositions and beautiful photography. (The vampire story even achieves some Bava-esque moments, with saturated gel-lights blurring into deep shadow.) Having presumably put the ignominy of Scars of Dracula far behind him, the sixty-four year old Roy Ward Baker proves here that he was still capable of knocking out of the park when circumstances allowed.

The third story, it must be said, looks considerably more poverty-stricken, but its tale of a ghoul-haunted village lurking just off the M4 nonetheless delivers the film’s most sustained dose of fetid, horror-ish atmosphere. As several commentators have noted, the fog-shrouded village with a graveyard at its centre seems like a deliberate call back to Amicus’s very first horror film, 1960’s ‘City of the Dead’, and the self-aware vibe continues as we’re introduced to a film director - a brash, Porsche-driving American played by the perpetually hungover-looking Stuart Whitman. (Named “Sam”, and notable for his cantankerous attitude and insistence upon realism, I briefly wondered whether this character was intended as a kind of vague skit on Sam Peckinpah.)

After he finds himself imprisoned in the village inn whilst in the process of scouting locations for his latest horror movie, Sam befriends a sympathetic young “humegoo” (human / ghoul hybrid), and also enjoys a few run-ins with the one and only Patrick Magee. It must be said, Magee doesn’t really seem to be putting a lot of effort into his role as the inn-keeper here (perhaps he was miffed at the absurd make-up he had to wear?), but it’s nice to have him around nonetheless.

Sadly this segment is regrettably over-lit (nixing the fancy lighting seems to have been a common Baker move when pressed for time), which serves to draw attention to the iffy sets and abysmal ghoul make-up (green faces all round), but things are once again saved by the strength of the writing, including some grisly details of the ghouls’ corpse-chomping lifestyle, and some interesting reflections on the torn loyalties of the unfortunate Humegoo.

A strong as these stories are however, I think it’s fair to say that ‘The Monster Club’ will always be chiefly remembered for what goes on in-between them, as Price introduces Carradine to the pleasures offered by the titular club, including performances from a selection of the very finest rock n’ roll acts that a bunch of elderly men working for a small film company on the verge of bankruptcy could persuade to record vaguely monster-themed songs for them during the uncertain, transitional year of 1980.

First, we get a sort of tough, new wave-aspirant pub rock band called The Viewers, whose members are probably still lurking in various North London pubs bitterly complaining about the fact that the only thing anyone remembers them for is this stupid bloody film. Though blighted by a truly dreadful set of lyrics, their song ‘Monsters Rule OK’ has a good, Stiff Records style power-pop chug on the verse and an affirmative, sing-along chorus that you’ll find impossible to shake after hearing the track twice during the movie.

Next up, the bitter ending to the Shadmock story is swiftly forgotten as we head straight into a performance by some character named B.A. Robertson. I confess, I’d never heard of this guy before, but according to Wikipedia he recorded for the Asylum label through the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with a certain amount of success, before becoming a bit of a minor celeb on UK TV.

‘Sucker For Your Love’, Robertson's contribution to ‘The Monster Club’, is actually a bit of a banger - in fact it’s easily my favourite song in the film, and I’d definitely commend it to any contemporary garage / punk band in search of a good, off-beat song to cover.

Filmed entirely in sweaty close-up (we never get to see his band members – maybe they didn’t make it to the shoot?), Robertson works through some fairly bizarre shtick here, alternatively rolling his eyes and staring at the ground whilst delivering extraordinary lines about “making love to a colander” and such like. Wild stuff indeed.

Probably the most awkward segment in a film that often seems entirely predicated on awkwardness comes from a band named Night, who deliver the next musical performance. The musicians here resemble a Rorschach test of guys who all got kicked out of different bands for being too sleazy and/or thuggish, whilst out-front a Bonnie Tyler styled female vocalist belts out a tune entitled ‘I’m a Stripper’, which I refuse to describe further, simply on the basis that I don’t even want to think about it anymore.

After this traumatic experience, our septuagenarian protagonists enjoy The Monster Club’s own strip routine. Filmed in silhouette, this is actually a quite inventive bit of animation in which – surprise, surprise - the performer strips right down to her skeleton! (“What a glorious set of bones,” exclaims Price).

In what seems to be a bit of an R. Chetwynd-Hayes trademark, all of this jolly business suddently takes a darker turn than expected, as Price instigates a debate with the “club secretary” (who resembles a member of The Goodies dressed as a werewolf) over whether or not the author’s fictional analogue should be allowed to become the first human to attain membership of The Monster Club.

“Can we truly call this a monster club if we do not boast amongst our membership a single member of the human race?” Price asks, before running through a quick list of humanity’s more monstrous achievements before an audience of startled-looking extras in Halloween masks. The death camps, the trenches of WWI, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the witch trials and the horrors of the inquisition all get a look-in – oh, such laffs.

A celebratory closing number was clearly needed after that jarring bit of heavy-handed moralising, and who better to provide it than pioneering ‘60s/’70s psyche-rock wildmen The Pretty Things? As a fan of the band, I was very much looking forward to seeing them close the show, but - oh boy.

I know it has often been said that most survivors of the ‘60s found themselves in a pretty dark place at the dawn of the ‘80s, and, on the evidence of this footage, it seems as if the Prettys were feeling the pain more than most. I’ll spare you the sartorial details (although vocalist Phil May’s short-sleeved shirt must be singled out for its sheer awfulness), but, far more onerously, the band seem to have been taking some tips at this point from the cod-reggae sound of UB40 (who also contributed something or other to ‘The Monster Club’s soundtrack, although mercifully they declined to appear on-screen) and the results are… not good, to put it mildly.

The Pretty Things’ Wikipedia page notes that “the new wave sound did not improve their sales figures,” and that they split up shortly after filming their appearance for the film, but their gently skanking, prog-funk direction nonetheless apparently held enough appeal to get Price and Carradine out on the dance floor, where they proceed to boogie away unsteadily for a few minutes, Vincent dancing hand in hand with a young lady in an alien mask and a fat suit. It is not a sight easily forgotten.

Despite the evident silliness of these Monster Club segments, it’s still a shame I think that Cushing and Lee turned this one down. In spite of everything, the evident good feeling and ‘anything goes’ attitude that characterised the making of this film could have make it a delightfully irreverent farewell for the old gang.

I know that the wizards at Cannon deigned to bring us ‘House of Long Shadows’ a few years later, but, aside from the wonderful performances from all the horror stars, I’ve always found that film to be a rather dour, poorly conceived mess, in which director Pete Walker’s darker sensibility mitigated against the gentler, more whimsical take on gothic tropes that his stars (and their fans) might have preferred for their final curtain call.

If they’d all decided to call it a day with ‘The Monster Club’ though, well, just imagine – Vince, and John, and Peter all arthritically jiving to the last, spluttering gasps of The Pretty Things’ career, as Sir Chris sits glowering at a table in the corner, spluttering at the indignity of it all. Never fear though, I’m sure Vincent could have had a quick word in his ear, promising to insert some high-falutin’ reference to The Seal of Solomon into the script or something, at which point he’d have perked up a bit, and perhaps even smiled and snapped his fingers. Ah, it would have been lovely.

But -- he have what we have, and happily ‘The Monster Club’ is still far better than it really has any right to be. More than anything, it feels akin to watching a top quality Amicus anthology movie interspersed with a particularly barrel-scraping instalment of Top Of The Pops 2 - and what better entertainment could we in the British public possibly ask for than that? Why this hasn’t become a much-loved Christmas TV fixture, I can’t possibly imagine. I almost felt like swapping my usual hard liquor for a box of Quality Street and a milky cup of tea whilst watching it. Perfect comfort viewing for all the monster-lovin’ family.

Sunday 28 October 2018

October Horrors # 13:
The Devil Within Her
(Peter Sasdy, 1975)

AKA ‘I Don’t Want To Be Born’, AKA ‘Sharon’s Baby’.

There is a lot to like about Peter Sasdy’s ‘I Don’t Want To Be Born’ / ‘The Devil Inside Her’ (I’m not sure which of those titles to go with really, either in terms of audience recognition, or my own personal preference).

For one thing, this is a quintessential “London in the ‘70s” film, with Kenneth Talbot’s nuanced and attractive photography and Sasdy’s confident direction helping to highlight all manner of glorious period detail, as the story veers uneasily between the gaudy middle class idyll of Joan Collins and Ralph Bates’ Chelsea townhouse and the seedy Soho strip club milieu within which Joan until recently made her living.

Like many New York films of the same era, it does a very good job of exploring the way in which the inhabitants of various, drastically different social strata (nuns and Harley Street doctors, high-flying young businessmen and ad executives, strippers and pornographers) must all find a way to co-exist within the same, imperfectly delineated urban landscape.

It’s all too easy to imagine the scummier worlds of ‘Death Line’ and Permissive living and breathing just around the corner, and the events of Sitting Target taking place just a short hop away on the tube.

The extravagant, almost barbaric period décor of the lead couple’s curtained living room is a thing of wonder to me – as is their none-more-70s approach to parenting, wherein the best solution to an infant’s violent behavioural problems is to lock him in his room and head downstairs for a stiff drink.
Indeed, these new parents spend so much of their time knocking back hard liquor that, to be frank, application of Occam’s razor might tend to suggest a simpler explanation for their troubles than demonic possession.

I was also delighted to see Bates visiting the same Italian food shop in Soho that I sometimes pop into to buy lasagne verdi sheets, and to discover that it looked exactly the same in 1975 as it does today.

And, I would also love to learn more about the place Collins goes to at one point for a tense meeting with John Steiner’s truly repulsive strip club owner. An indoor swimming pool – apparently also located in Soho – decorated with bright blue and green tiles, wherein visitors could apparently take a seat right at the edge of the pool and be served ham salad sandwiches and glasses of nut-brown ale by formally-attired waiters, whilst swimmers are splashing around right next to them. What a world of wonders this film is.

In terms of performances too, ‘The Devil..’ / ‘I Don’t Want..’ / whatever is great. Most notably, Donald Pleasence is on absolutely top form here as the family’s long-suffering paediatrician. He gets loads of screen-time, and does all that great Donald Pleasence stuff that we love so much. Along with ‘Death Line’ and ‘Wake in Fright’ in fact, I think this ranks as one of my all-time favourite ‘70s Pleasence performances.

Eileen Atkins, who plays a severe though enlightened Italian nun (Bates’ sister), also delivers an excellent performance, and her feisty academic discussions with Pleasance are one of the film’s highlights.

There is an extremely strange sub-plot about her continuing her program of scientific research whilst stationed in a London convent, which I’d imagine must have caused every single person who has ever watched this film to stop and ask themselves, “what the hell kind of Catholic Convent contains full laboratory facilities for carrying out animal experiments anyway…?!?”

No explanation is offered, and the film is all the better for such bizarre details, although I could have done without some brief footage of some bunny rabbits being given a hard time.

As mentioned, Steiner is great value here too, earning himself a prominent place in British cinema’s long lineage of vile, Soho sleaze-merchants – a more debased, crass and spiv-like successor to Christopher Lee in 1960’s ‘Beat Girl’, perhaps?

The sequences set in his club meanwhile are as lengthy, colourful, gratuitous and skeevy as furtive cinema-goers in 1975 may have demanded, representing perhaps ‘70s British horror’s most extended delve into this-sort-of-thing (although personally I still prefer the sheer, poverty-stricken weirdness of the equivalent scene in Norman J. Warren’s ‘Terror’ (1978), with Milton Reid as the doorman).

Oh yeah, and that reminds me! Caroline Munro is in this movie too, as Collins’ best friend and fellow stripper. Always nice to see her.

I’m not quite sure about the whole thing with Ralph Bates pretending to be Italian (did Franco Nero drop out at the last minute or something?), but again – his highly questionable accent is just another divertingly peculiar detail to throw on the pile.

Ron Grainer’s music is excellent too, particularly during the last few reels, when the movie spins way off into the realm of chaotic derangement in a manner I quite enjoyed.

So, yes – all of these things are good.

[Deep breath.]

I just really wish, in my heart of hearts, that these things hadn’t all been used to tell a story about Joan Collins giving birth to a demonically possessed baby after being cursed by an evil, strip club compere dwarf named Hercules.

I mean… I don’t know how best to break this down for those of you who have never seen this film but… we’re supposed to believe that the baby scratches people’s faces with his little baby fingernails, and pushes babysitters into lakes. Later, he makes a break for it out of upstairs windows, climbs trees, swings ropes around people's necks, and disposes of bodies.

Hercules meanwhile struts around the place leering and jeering and occasionally arranging for his face to be super-imposed over footage of the baby, as if daring the relevant campaign groups to instigate a lawsuit. I don’t think we ever get much of an explanation as to why he has evil, Satanic powers and can curse unborn children, except that, well, he’s a dwarf, and he goes around leering and jeering, and such.

It’s….. all just absolutely fucking ridiculous, to be honest.

Based on the information above, I think you can probably make an informed decision on whether or not this is a film you would like to watch. Rest assured, if you’re leaning toward the affirmative, the movie revels in its own bad taste to such an extent that it’s got longer legs than Joan Collins as a jaw-dropping camp / comedy item, if that’s your bag.

Perhaps it’s just my own fault that I’m sitting here wishing that, on some level, it could have been, y’know…. actually good?

Frankly, I think I would probably have been happier watching a movie in which Joan and Ralph just sit in their magnificent sitting room getting plastered, and invite Dr Donald, and the nun, and Caroline Munro, and the sleazy strip club guy (but maybe not Hercules) over for an impromptu cocktail party.

It probably would have ended up with just as many bodies hidden in the back garden, but it would have been a lot more fun.

Thursday 25 October 2018

October Horrors # 12 / Thoughts on…
(Panos Cosmatos, 2018)


“Where the mystic swims, the psychotic drowns,” attentive listeners may hear Nicholas Cage growl during his climactic show-down with Linus Roache’s narcissistic, Mansonite cult leader towards the end of Panos Cosmatos’ ‘Mandy’. I’m unsure of the origin of this phrase (it sounds like it could be an unattributed quote from somewhere or other?), but it certainly seems to hit the mark re: Cosmatos’ apparent desire to leave both his characters and, potentially, his audience struggling to keep their heads above water amidst a veritable tsunami of sensory overload.

I recall director Ben Wheatley, in interviews around the release of his (excellent) film ‘A Field in England’ a few years back, lamenting what he saw as the disappearance of the “Head Movie” – a phenomenon he saw as being exemplified by films like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’ – from contemporary screens, and declaring his intention to add his own modest contribution to this seemingly defunct canon. Cosmatos, we assume, must have felt a similar absence… but his own reaction to it is anything but modest.

Refracting its director’s apparent desire to create the Ultimate Acidhead Movie through the lens of what I take to be his own childhood aesthetic obsessions, and further filtering it through the grand stylistic excess of some his contemporaries in nouveau-cult cinema (Winding Refn, Strickland etc), ‘Mandy’ is, inarguably, one hell of a trip.

Like a powerful psychotropic experience, it is a film that leaves a long, pungent aftertaste. It’s the kind of movie that sits in the back of your mind after viewing, like a big mental snowball of unearned experience, just waiting to be poked with a stick.

The fact that many of ‘Mandy’s on-screen characters spend much of their time tripping balls provides a none-too-subtle hint that this is indeed a valid way to read the film, but there is far more going on here than just some ‘Fear & Loathing..’/‘Inherent Vice’ styled stoner fantasia. Applying this phantasmagorical portrayal of chemically-altered perception to an ultra-violent horror/fantasy framework, the film offers us characters whose psychotropic intake has taken them to the very edges of humanity, and in some cases terrifyingly far beyond them.

At the opposite end of the scale from those who approach drug-taking from the comfortable, new age perspective of guided meditational growth, this is a film for those wild(wo)men who prefer to go into it weaponised – with extreme metal in their ears, darkened woods or concrete hinterland as their surroundings and physical danger close at hand, as if daring the expanded universe to tear them apart.

I am very much not one of those people, but, so long as it all remains safely within the confines of a motion picture screen, with sound properly balanced and the camera safely mounted on a tripod, I can surely dig it.

Based on reviews I’ve read so far, ‘Mandy’ seems to have left writers unable to resist the temptation to resort to dubious, hyperbolic sound-bites in an attempt to encapsulate the experience of watching the film, so, here’s my shot at the pull-quote bulls-eye: ‘Mandy’ is like watching Jodorowsky direct a ‘Death Wish’ sequel written by Robert E. Howard, as your pupils expand to the size of dinner plates and your fingers begin to wriggle before your eyes like Lovecraftian spaghetti.

If that sounds like a recommendation to you, I highly recommend finding time to catch this one theatrically whilst you have the chance. Please take this opportunity to search for screenings in your local area.

In the meantime, the following numbered thoughts and tangents may be best appreciated by those who have already seen the film, but if you haven’t, I shouldn’t worry – it’s pretty difficult to “spoil” a story that can be expressed in its entirety in one sentence, and that was probably first carved in stone by some ancient scribe before the dawn of recorded time.


‘Mandy’ has rather strange relationship to reality… and not just because of all the acid, either.

In one sense, the film, particularly during its opening (pre-revenge) section, is a detailed and highly specific evocation of a particular time and place (a mountainous area of the USA, 1983). (1)

Every prop, item of clothing, vehicle or piece of furniture, and each small aspect of the web of cultural reference points that drift through the idyllic existence of Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) – all of these have been carefully chosen to scratch a nameless, deeply buried nostalgic itch that many viewers (particularly those born in the ‘80s) will not even have been aware of until they watch this movie and feel a touch of it in their bones. (2)

These temporal conjurations extend even to the texture of the film itself. Though evidently shot with all the smooth, HD clarity that the 21st century has to offer, ‘Mandy’s photography simultaneously swarms with a thick, almost intrusive layer of film grain, recalling more than anything the unique ‘feel’ of 16mm footage blown up to 35, as exemplified during the ‘80s by break-out low budget features such as ‘The Evil Dead’ and Jim VanBebber’s ‘Deadbeat at Dawn’.

Within this scheme, visual textures are deliberately tweaked scene by scene to sink hooks into deep-buried memories. When we see Red engaged in his work felling trees, climbing into a chopper with his co-workers for the ride home, the heavy grain is combined with washed out greens and browns, recalling any number of ‘80s Vietnam / forest survival type movies, whilst a later scene in which he and Mandy drift in a boat upon shimmering lake adopts a blown-out, over-saturated VHS kind of look, flashing us straight back to the gently psychedelic drift of a ‘70s bigfoot documentary.

In this regard, ‘Mandy’ is an exercise in high level aesthetic alchemy – a creative excavation of the recent past comparable to that which the Ghostbox label have carried out for the UK of the 1970s. As an evoker of *feel*, as a wrangler of the wildly divergent strands of temporal-cultural suggestion, Cosmatos here proves himself a master.

Naturally, the more obvious and potentially comedic signifiers of the era have for the most part been avoided; by and large, things are more subtle. This may, for instance, be the most METAL film not to actually feature any metal on the soundtrack. (3)

The use of fonts, cult-ish visual signifiers and the occasional t-shirt is as far as it goes, but the essence of METAL (in capitals) nonetheless runs rich and deep through these two hours. Fans of the genre will be left no doubt that Cosmatos is one of their own, though nary a power chord is struck nor a devil horn thrown. (A battle axe is forged in the shape of the ‘F’ from the Celtic Frost logo however, so… what more proof of good faith could fans possibly require?)


But, on the other hand… well, speaking of battle axes, let’s just say that my reference to Robert E. Howard above wasn’t just plucked out of thin air. After the prolonged and appalling home invasion/murder sequence that constitutes ‘Mandy’s transitional central phase, it becomes increasingly clear that a hologram of Howard’s Hyborian Age has been super-imposed upon the USA of the early 1980s.

(A not inappropriate collision of worlds, given how thoroughly the sword & sorcery genre suffused that era’s popular culture, with John Milius’s 1982 ‘Conan the Barbarian’ in particular instigating an unsettling communion between Howard’s might-is-right prehistoric philosophy and the equally fantastical macho individualism of Reagan-ite political discourse; a heady fusion that, nearly forty years later, still filters through to ‘Mandy’s otherwise rather contradictory notion of a fuzzily nostalgic vigilante revenge story.)

When Red hits up his enigmatic pal Carruthers (a wonderful one scene bit from 80s/90s action vet Bill Duke) to reclaim his crossbow, we’re presented with a fistful of the kind of ominous exposition you’d usually expect some D&D players to receive from an aged traveller in a remote tavern. There have been “rumours of dark riders”, they were last seen heading for such-and-such a place, he “once glimpsed them upon the horizon”, and so on.

Leaving aside the question of exactly what kind of druggy, Satanic grapevine Carruthers picked up this info from, given that he seems to be a total recluse, we may find ourselves rubbing our eyes and wondering where exactly we are again..? The United States in 1983 suddenly seems very far away.

Indeed, from front to back, this is a story that, with a few minor adjustments, could have happened to Conan or King Kull, rather than a 40-something lumberjack played by Nicholas Cage, and the simplistic, video game-like storytelling favoured by Howard predominates from the moment Red’s quest for vengeance begins. [You know - Conan/Cage obtains weapons, confronts enemies, is captured. Escapes, kills enemies, reclaims weapons, proceeds directly to next set of enemies, and so on.]

We know this is not a post-apocalyptic world, because there’s stuff on TV, and people have jobs and visit grocery stores, but at no point do we actually visit a human habitation that comprises more than a single building. Isolated, makeshift homesteads and compounds dotted around the wilderness provide our only points of reference, and signs of wider societal organisation are entirely absent. No vehicles that are not directly connected to our story travel the roads through the forest.

Much of this I think is this is simply the result of Cosmatos’ desire to cut absolutely all connecting tissue out of his narrative. Acting less on the basis of conventional, A-to-B cinematic story-telling and more like some restless, ‘Metal Hurlant’ style comic book artist, this director doesn’t really give a damn about how his characters get from one place to another, or how they find out where they’re supposed to be going in the first place.

Instead, he is happy simply to teleport his hero (who, lest we forget, is actually wielding a battle axe) straight from one spectacular action set-piece to the next, wringing maximum value out of each epic confrontation, with no time for any non-epic messing about in-between.


Boy, those Cenobite bikers (can we go with “Cenobikers”?) are quite a piece of work. I won’t go into their “origin story” (as it is one of the few details of ‘Mandy’s plot that it is probably best for viewers to discover as they go along), but, jesus - what a terrifying conception.

The moment when they are first ‘summoned’ – interrupting what up to this point has been a film ostensibly set in the real world, and a richly detailed version of it at that – is truly startling, causing us to share to some extent the fear we might actually experience if we found one of these creatures standing in front of us.

Deep, nasty dread is henceforth infused into all that follows, and I found the subsequent strobe-lit nocturnal kidnapping almost impossible to watch; it is just too horrible to contemplate, recalling the ghost of childhood anxiety that, no matter how unlikely it seems, or however often your parents tell you otherwise, such horrors – as expressed through the somehow-very-‘80s biker / serial killer / demon composite that I’m sure I recall all too clearly from some nasty comics that my parents should probably have not let me read at the time - may actually be out there somewhere.

And, indeed, they might. One of the things that makes these particular monsters so ghastly is that, though they may lurk at the very far end of unlikelihood and have no real life analogues (I hope), the explanation that is eventually offered for their existence is not actually a supernatural one. As a ready-made urban myth ready so be shared wherever young people gather to take drugs and get up to no good in the dark, they are wonderfully potent. (I mean, there’s a whole slasher movie franchise just waiting to happen there, at the very least.)

Also: along with this fairly direct tribute to ‘Hellraiser’, one of the relatively few blunt, Tarantino-style “homages” that creeps into ‘Mandy’ involves a big shout-out to Phantasm II, of all things. We’re among friends here, no doubt. (4)


Ok, the Nicholas Cage thing. Let’s get on with it.

Personally, I really ‘cannot hang’ (as I believe the phrase goes) with this comedy/meme thing that’s built up around Mr Cage in recent years. To be honest, I prefer to think of him as just a extremely fine actor whose apparent willingness to say ‘yes’ to just about anything, though admirable, doesn’t always help his reputation in these days of social media snark.

To misquote Norma Desmond, it’s not his playing that’s too big, it’s the pictures that are too small. Like a modern day Klaus Kinski, he might get a bit goofy and OTT in the mediocre, run-of-the-mill assignments that take up much of his time, but, once in a blue moon, a project arrives that is worthy of his particular, highly tuned sensibilities - and at that point, you can just wind the fucker up and watch him go.

A few years back, Werner Herzog (funnily enough) gave him one such opportunity with the brilliant (and seemingly quite under-rated?) ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans’ – and, needless to say, with ‘Mandy’ Cosmatos gives him another chance to strut his stuff on the level where he truly belongs. Once again, he does fantastic work here. (5)

I would leave it at that, were it not for the fact that many attendees the screening I attended evidently thought differently in this regard, having apparently pitched up with the primary intention of wringing maximum Cage-laffs from proceedings.

There is, it must be said, a lot of intentional humour in ‘Mandy’. There are zany one-liners and everything, and these tend to be mixed up quite jarringly with passages that are otherwise harrowing or savage. So, I appreciate that people may get a bit disorientated by this and take a “what can you do but laugh?” approach to navigating the choppy waters of this singularly intense and unusual movie.

There are other sections here however that are clearly not meant to be funny. The already infamous ‘bathroom scene’ is one of them, but, in view of the unspeakably terrible things that happen to Cage’s character during this film, I don’t believe he is overplaying here at all. Hell, if anything, he’s underplaying. Few of us, I’d imagine, would proceed in quite such a reasonable manner in similarly dire circumstances.

Seemingly channelling Warren Oates’ devastating portrayal of masculine grief in Peckinpah’s ‘Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (a divisive head-trip of a revenge film with which ‘Mandy’ shares more than a few eerie parallels, now that I come to think of it), Cage is pretty on point here, and I could really have done without the chuckles in the row behind me.

I’d assume that at least some of these chucklers were the same people who were already loudly yakking away on their phones about other things in the queue ahead of me as they left the auditorium, whilst the closing credits were still rolling. I mean… c’mon man. Maybe you liked the movie, maybe you didn’t, but please - give it a few minutes to settle in before you’re planning tomorrow’s fucking brunch.

Thankfully though, these were not the only people who made it to this sold out city centre screening. A middle-aged couple with matching straight black hair, silently putting on their matching leather battle jackets. A big guy with impressive wrist tattoos and an unreadable metal band logo t-shirt, smoking a rollie with shaking hands on the step outside the cinema. Various other lone, scraggle-haired individuals, quickly striding off into the late afternoon shadows; heading straight back to their black light basements, I would like to think.

In aspirational terms at least, these folks feel more like my kind of people, and it is spiriting to see that word of mouth (or word of wi-fi, at least) has already connected ‘Mandy’ to its real audience.


For all its savage violence, drug-damaged black humour and kaleidoscopic visuals, and despite the crassness of its neanderthal boilerplate revenge storyline, ‘Mandy’, like ‘..Alfredo Garcia’ before it, is a love story.

I mean, the clue’s in the name, man. Cosmatos could easily have called his film “Demon Fire” or “Serpent’s Eye” or something, and would probably have sold some extra tickets to people who might currently be apt to mistake it for a romantic comedy whilst scanning the listings - but that’s not what it’s about.

Without Mandy, and the thirty or so minutes we spend with her, none of the other stuff in the film would matter a damn. It would be some huge, empty, post-modern, lol-worthy mega-action laff-fest, and I probably would have concluded my thoughts on it far earlier than this.

Like ‘..Alfredo Garcia’, this is a film split into two halves, hinged around a transitional moment of blackest desolation at its centre. And, as with ‘..Alfredo Garcia’, it is the first half – slow, almost meditative in tone – that will eventually live longest in your memory.

So, how can I best put this? I have a very strong, very good feeling about Red and Mandy’s life together in the early part of the film. Their house and its surroundings are beautiful, the pace of their life and the time they spend together is beautiful. I mean, I may not particularly want to go to work as a lumberjack, but that aside – their life is about as close to a vision of an ideal existence as I could possibly imagine.

Perhaps not everyone will share this feeling, but as we have established, ‘Mandy’ is probably not a film for everyone. For those within a certain age-group though, or those who hark back to the recent past, or enjoy things like rock music, or science fiction, or solitude…? Well I’d imagine that if you’re reading this weblog, you’re probably in the club, let’s put it that way.

Mandy herself is not some generic, pretty wife character who exists solely in order toprovide moral justification to Arnie or Charles Bronson as they embark upon their regulation seventy minutes of cathartic violence. Mandy is different. Mandy is cool.

In spite of a necessarily limited amount of dialogue and screen time, Andrea Riseborough does an amazing job of building her into a fully-formed person (and, she is probably going to have to deal with people staring at her on the street and silently mouthing “mandy” for years to come as a result).

We’re perhaps not going to fall head-over-heels for her like Roache’s creepazoid cult leader does, but she is someone we would all like to play a bit part in our lives. She is the kind of acquaintance we would always think of warmly, wondering what she’s up to, but confident that it must be a-ok, whatever it is – and most of all, we’d appreciate what a good thing she has with Red. She’s the kind of affirmative, self-contained person who might send you a postcard now and then, and you’d always be very happy to receive it.

We in the audience might all chuckle at it when it plays out the first time, but in retrospect, the scene in which Red and Mandy sit together on the sofa, distractedly eating their dinner whilst completely enraptured by Don Dohler’s ‘Night Beast’ (1982) as it plays out on their fuzzy portable TV, is… well it’s something that will stay with us, let’s put it that way.


Perhaps the soul of any revenge movie can be judged by what the revenger does after his or her labours are complete. It is always a tricky, uncertain moment, determining what we will be left with after the fleeting catharsis of vengeance has faded, and there are many directions a story can be taken in during those vital few minutes before the credits roll. Something though tells me that any such film in which the protagonist brushes off their hands and goes home, congratulating themselves on a job well done, is probably not a good one.

As Nicholas Cage sits dazed after his final confrontation, he is closer - in appearance, mental state and deed - to one of the Cenobikers he has recently dispatched than he is to the man who initially set out on his quest for vengeance. He has tasted their sacred acid and worn their armour; he is just as plastered in blood and filth as they were, and has committed acts scarcely less horrendous.

The thought of his returning to any kind of quote-unquote ‘normal’ life after all this is unthinkable. This netherworld of drugs and psychosis and mindless debasement would seem to have swallowed him whole. Has he indeed drowned, as per the aphorism he so recently muttered?

We might worry at this point that the film, along with its central character, has rather lost touch with  where it began, left empty and exhausted after a solid hour of mind-flaying, hysterical madness.

But then – that flashback. Perfectly placed. Devastating. I’ll spare you the details.

Tears in our eyes at the end of a film in which Nicholas Cage snorted a faceful of cocaine off a shard of broken glass after crushing the head of a demon biker?

I know this film has had a lot of hype already, but really – believe it.

Movie of the year? Are you kidding..?

Like Mandy listening to that cult leader’s hippie folk song, I survey the competition and laugh.

Stay metal, friends.


(1) Suitably vague, the film’s stated location of “The Silver Mountains” generates search engine hits for areas in Washington, Idaho and Michigan, and ‘Mandy’ was seemingly filmed in Belgium, rather surprisingly.

(2) Oddly enough, the one thing that didn’t really ring true for me in the film’s production design was Mandy’s Motley Crue t-shirt. She and her husband are more-or-less in their 40s, we presume, and it seems unlikely to me that someone who was this age in 1983 would have much use for Nikki Sixx and co. (They would, in fact, be baby boomers pretty much – of the same generation as the psychotic hippies who proceed to persecute them.) All is forgiven however, when she wears a Black Sabbath T in the next scene. Spot on.

(3) Admittedly, doom-lord Stephen O’Malley’s contributions to the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack probably help in this regard. Before any arguments erupt, we should also probably note at this juncture that the use of the one pre-existing song featured in the movie – ‘Starless’ by King Crimson – is both totally sublime and hugely appropriate… but calling it metal is probably a stretch, for my purposes at least.

(4) FUN FACT: Christopher Figg - producer of the original ‘Hellraiser’ and subsequently of Neil Marshall’s ‘Dog Soldiers’ (2002), amongst other things - can be found prominently listed in ‘Mandy’s production credits. For his apparent role as a behind-the-scenes instigator of superior horror cinema across four decades, we salute him.

(5)As an aside, I wish that Herzog could / would return to his brief dalliance with making fictional, Hollywood-type movies. I mean, we all know he can draw a few thousand quid from the bank and make a weirdo Werner Herzog documentary without breaking a sweat, but the strange collision between Werner wackiness and mainstream genre movie aesthetics made both ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and ‘Rescue Dawn’ fairly extraordinary, IMHO.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Born Too Late Radio Show # 4.

Well, it had to happen. How could it not?

As you’ll be aware if you’ve been reading this weblog for a while, I used to make a downloadable Halloween mix CD every October, and posted it both here and on my music weblog. [Check the mixtapes tag to peruse mixes from past years – links are probably dead, but always happy to re-up on request.]

Last year, I knocked this tradition on the head simply because filling eighty minutes with a consistent mix of top quality horror-related material was becoming a bit of a stretch, but since I’ve now started doing an irregular podcast/fake radio show thing (CHECK IT OUT), what more reason did I need to trek back through a whole decade’s worth of Halloween mixes, picking out my favourite bits and assembling an All Time Greatest Hits of Horror Rock / Best Halloween Radio Show Ever type play-list, with a little bit of added talking thrown in?

So, here it is. I can’t speak for talking bits, but if the music herein doesn’t get you in the mood for a ragin’ good All Hallows Eve, nothing will.

(Lacking the time or energy to pull together any original artwork, I did the next best thing and stole some promotional artwork for ‘The Monster Club’.)

Mixcloud box, full track-list with time-codes and mp3 download link follow.

00:30 Goblin - Tenebre
04:48 Roky Erickson & The Aliens - It's a Cold Night for Alligators
08:17 The Misfits - Night of the Living Dead
10:13 The Cramps - Teenage Werewolf
14:53 *blather one*
18:19 Blood Ceremony - Oliver Haddo
26:56 Exuma - Dambala
32:30 The Del Aires - The Zombie Stomp
34:46 *blather two*
36:35 H.P. Lovecraft - The White Ship
42:38 The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets - Goin' Down to Dunwich
45:44 Acanthus - Le Frission des Vampires
49:56 The Spits - Witch Hunt
51:40 *blather three*
53:18 Mike Rep & The Quotas - Donovan's Brain
59:28 Ultimate Spinach - (Ballad of the) Hip Death Goddess
67:36 The Factory - Path Through the Forest
71:34 *blather four*
73:09 Greg Stone - Here in the Darkness
75:00 Gravediggaz - Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide
78:56 B.A. Robertson - Sucker For Your Love
82:25 *blather five*
84:41 SSQ - Tonight (We'll Make Love Til We Die)
88:40 Electric Wizard - Devil's Bride
95:10 *blather six*
96:13 Mount Vernon Arts Lab - While London Sleeps
104:28 Michael Hurley - The Werewolf
110:11 *blather seven*
111:57 Roky Erickson - Bloody Hammer (acoustic)
117:36 Anaal Nathrakh - Pandemonic Hyperblast
121:32 Ada Moore - The Devil

(Download link.)

Sunday 21 October 2018

Gothic Originals / October Horrors # 11:
Scars of Dracula
(Roy Ward Baker, 1970)

Another year, another straggler crossed off the increasingly short list of “Hammer horror films I’ve never seen”. In fact, if we strictly limit things to their period/gothic horror output, I think this might be the very last one to unfold before my tired eyes.

I suppose I’ve previously avoided ‘Scars of Dracula’ due to the general consensus that it is not very good, but I’ve recently noted some people speaking positively about it, and it’s had a re-release on disc, so… I mean, at the end of the day it’s a Christopher Lee Dracula entry with a reputation for gory violence and Roy Ward Baker calling the shots. How bad can it be, really?

The answer, unfortunately, is very bad indeed. Seriously folks, this one is shockingly poor. It is so unapologetically shit in fact that, if I hadn’t already been in my own living room, and if it hadn’t been raining outside, I probably would have walked out in protest.

Say what you like about Jimmy Sangster’s much-maligned ‘Lust for a Vampire’ and ‘Horror of Frankenstein’ (both of which went into production the same year as this one – ye gods, what on earth was going on over at Hammer House?), at least they were trying to do something a bit different.

‘Scars..’, by contrast embraces the same tone of smirking, half-hearted crappiness, but applies it to a script that is bluntly derivative of earlier entries in the series, barely even summoning the energy to drag itself through the same old clichés one more time.

If you’re feeling charitable (which I tend to be, when it comes to this sort of thing), the two Sangster films could also be excused to a certain extent by the fact that they were helmed by an inexperienced director, trying to bring the blackly humourous aspect of his writing to the screen, with fairly disastrous results.

‘Scars..’ however has no such excuse. Indeed, Baker usually managed to bring some notably superior cinematic chops to the British horror films he directed, sometimes elevating mediocre material to a higher level than it really deserved. Like all work-for-hire directors though, he was at the mercy of what was placed before him by his employers, and it is painfully clear that he has given naff all to work with on ‘Scars..’, whether in terms of budget, scheduling, script, crew or anything else.

The first real warning sign, I think, is the bats. The film opens with the unedifying spectacle of a big, floppy bat-on-a string drooling Kensington gore all over Dracula’s ashes, which are helpfully spread out along with his best cape, on a slab in his mid-European castle at some unspecified point in the fairy tale past (never mind the adventures he had enjoyed in 1890s London in Peter Sasdy’s excellent ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’ six months earlier). (1)

Admittedly, achieving decent bat effects has always been a problem for gothic horror films, but this one looks particularly onerous, with a sculpted plastic face and an overstuffed body like some giant bluebottle. For a single shot, perhaps we could excuse it, but unfortunately these bats actually go on to play a pretty significant role in the film. Acting as Dracula’s primary avatars, they’re flapping about all over the place, and are central to several of the film’s main horror set-pieces. And yet -- they look absolutely stupid throughout.

The fact that neither Baker nor line producer Aida Young were able to have a quiet word in the ear of one of Hammer’s big-shots to say, look, we’ve got to do something about these bloody bats or the film will be a laughing stock, speaks volumes about how little the company actually cared about the quality of their product at this point in time.

A few years earlier, viewers could have had confidence that even the most mindless horror films Hammer turned out could to some extent be redeemed by their technical accomplishments, proving that a little bit of beautiful photography and classy production design can go a long way. (The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is a good example.) Those days seem to have been long gone by 1970 though, and ‘Scars of Dracula’ is blandly over-lit throughout, leaving no shadows, no room for atmosphere, and nothing to hide its rather ugly, poverty-stricken sets.

In stark contrast to the attention to detail that used to prevail at Hammer, the props and costuming too are almost unbelievably shoddy here. When Patrick Troughton, playing Dracula’s craven servant Klove, is seen dragging an animal carcass over the back of his horse at the end if a hunting expedition, it looks as if he’s been handed a bedraggled soft toy splashed with red paint and told to make the best of it. I’m not even sure what kind of animal it was supposed to be, to be honest.

Again, I only bring this up as a symptom of the wider malaise affecting every aspect of this production. The fact this scene was filmed and printed, rather than being put on hold whilst the art director was bawled out and some production assistants dispatched to come up with something better before the next tea break, again speaks for itself. (2)

I should make clear that it’s not really my intention to get all high-minded when it comes to assessing the quality of Hammer Dracula movies. I have no desire to echo Christopher Lee’s snooty approach to such things, and I’d be perfectly happy to enjoy a ragged, pulpy Dracula movie full of sex and violence (for such is the reputation of ‘Scars..’ has acquired over the years). But… this damn thing can’t even get being sleazy right.

The bawdy behaviour that comprises much of the first half of the film is pitched strictly at a Benny Hill / pre-‘Confessions of..’ level, with Christopher Matthews as a leering, jack-the-lad type chancer getting his end away with a succession of flirtatious barmaids and the like, but with no actual nudity, and none of the (relatively) grown up eroticism that caused such a stir in Baker’s previous assignment for Hammer, ‘The Vampire Lovers’.

As to violence meanwhile, Baker seems to have realised that his only hope of winning the fans over with this one was to just go for it (I’m reminded of Brian Trenchard Smith’s tales of how he started desperately hacking off limbs and throwing blood around when his budget for 1980’s ‘Turkey Shoot’ was cut in half mid-way through production), and if nothing else, ‘Scars..’ is at least a contender for the goriest film Hammer ever made.

Even here though, things are compromised by those bloody layabouts in the art department. Hammer’s preferred shade of bright scarlet house paint never looked as absurd as it does here in the light of Moray Grant’s remorselessly bland photography, and the resulting parade of rubber bat attacks and lurid close-ups of poorly applied wound make-up achieves the rare distinction of simultaneously feeling both prurient and boring. (3)

One of the more interesting aspects of ‘Scars..’ is its apparent attempt to associate Dracula with bladed weapons. (“Be careful, it’s sharp” is his introductory line, as he walks in on Matthews’ character admiring the obligatory crossed swords mounted on his castle wall.)

This isn’t necessarily a bad idea (and I’m sure Lee would have relished the opportunity for a bit of supernatural swashbuckling), but it is poorly developed here – most notably in an absolutely astonishing scene in which, following an almost shot-for-shot re-tread of the bit in Terrance Fisher’s ‘Dracula’ where The Count reprimands his bride for trying to take a bite of the Harker-surrogate’s throat before him, Dracula here proceeds to punish her by whipping out a butcher’s knife and stabbing her to death.

Aside from the fact that it is entirely unmotivated by the script, this is… very un-vampiric behaviour, to say the least. (If Dracula were to resort to sword-play, surely he’d do so purely for the purposes of pageantry and sadism, rather than hacking away at one of his vassals like some back alley slasher?)

This is basically only a taster though for an even more witless moment later on, when the Lord of the Undead, whose mesmeric powers can crush a man’s soul with a mere glance, apparently resorts to drugging the heroine’s soup. As Jonathan Rigby laments in his review in English Gothic, “what use has Dracula for these pantomime contrivances?”

Anyway – on to positives. There must be some, I suppose?

Well, it’s hard work, but… at least Christopher Lee gets some lines in this one I suppose, with Dracula speaking calmly and assuming his ‘cold but polite host’ role for the first time since Fisher’s 1957 ‘Dracula’, I believe.

Given the voluminous litanies of complaint Lee liked to issue each time he was – ahem – “forced” to appear in another Dracula film, one can only imagine how cheesed off he must have been whilst participating in this particularly shabby instalment, but even if he’s not exactly giving it his all, such are the meagre pleasures offered by ‘Scars..’ that merely hearing Christopher Lee say some things is quite nice.

As always, it’s nice to see Hammer lucky charm Michael Ripper getting a significant role too, appearing here as the world’s least hospitable inn-keeper. He gets quite a lot of screen time in ‘Scars..’, and spends almost all of it ordering people to get out of his inn, refusing to let them in in the first place, or telling them to “go to the devil”. He does though have one lovely moment when he temporarily drops his guard, wistfully telling our lead couple they should enjoy their best years together… shortly before he discovers they’re also would-be vampire hunters and manhandles them out of the front door before they’ve even finished their soup.

As a fan of ‘The Sweeney’, I was delighted too to see a young Dennis Waterman popping up as our ostensible hero, although it’s doubtful that this role did much to help propel him to his later TV fame, as he delivers a veritable master-class on the theme of “ineffectual youth”, despite being thirty two years old at the time.

I also found it interesting that – for some reason – ‘Scars..’ takes the opportunity to include the rarely filmed scene from Stoker’s novel in which Jonathan Harker abseils out of his locked room in Dracula’s castle and find himself trapped in the lower chamber which houses The Count’s coffin. This bit was relatively well done, and provided a welcome break from the remorseless grind of reheated cliché that comprises the rest of the film’s action.

And… that’s about it really.

[Deep sigh.]

In general, I tend to feel a great warmth and fondness for British horror films of all stripes, and for Hammer films in particular. As such, I can usually find a certain amount to enjoy in just about any of them, even if it’s just a bit of period charm and some familiar faces popping in for a scene or two. Even on this basis though, I can’t stress enough just how dispiritingly rubbish I found ‘Scars of Dracula’ to be. It’s really the pits.

Essentially playing out like some cruel, self-reflexive pastiche of the company’s public image, ‘Scars..’ feels less like an actual Hammer film, and more like a realisation of what the closed-minded contemporary critics who wrote horror films off as juvenile trash and never went to see them might have imagined a Hammer film to be like.

By pandering to this kind of Lowest Common Denominator public expectation, the company did themselves a dreadful disservice in ‘70/’71, and this one seems to me to be the absolute nadir of the particularly dodgy patch they seemed to be going through at the time.

At least we can take succour in the fact that they bounced back shortly thereafter with great pictures like ‘Twins of Evil’ and ‘Vampire Circus’, keeping themselves afloat creatively speaking for at least a few more years before the inevitable end arrived in the mid ‘70s. Maybe I should watch one of those again to help take the taste away...


(I do LOVE some of this foreign language poster artwork for this film though…)

(1) At the risk of sounding like the worst kind of nit-picking fanboy, the fact that ‘Scars of Dracula’ completely blunders the (admittedly loose) sense of chronological continuity established by the other Hammer Draculas just seems to add insult to injury. I mean, after Dracula is defeated in London at the end of ‘Taste the Blood..’, it would seem to set things up perfectly for his resurrection in the same city almost a century later in ‘..AD 1972’ – yet we’ve got this damned mess in the middle, which drags him back to the vague, mittel-european gothic setting we’d previously kissed goodbye to (and frankly had quite enough of) in ‘..Risen from the Grave’ a couple of years earlier!

Is ‘Scars..’ thus non-canonical? Is it a prequel? This being 1970, I’d imagine Tony Hinds and Michael Carreras would have had little to say on the subject beyond, “What the bloody hell are you talking about? Get out of my office!”, but it still irks me.

(2) For further evidence of just how badly put together this movie is, I suggest consulting the unusually extensive list of ‘goofs’ on IMDB.

(3) We should make clear that, after serving a long apprenticeship as a camera operator through the ‘60s, Grant did far better work as DP on ‘The Vampire Lovers’ and ‘Vampire Circus’ amongst others – so again, we can perhaps chalk up the fact that ‘Scars..’ looks as if it was shot under office strip lighting to budget and schedule shortcomings.

Friday 19 October 2018

October Horrors # 10:
A Quiet Place
(John Krasinski, 2018)

Welcome to the High Concept Zone, where we find a very 21st century iteration of the ideal American nuclear family living in a state of total silence, in an eerily depopulated version of rural upstate New York.

They are isolated survivors, adjusting as best as they can to circumstances in which the slightest sound brings instant death, courtesy of the huge, apparently unstoppable, alien predators with over-sized hearing apparatus covering most of their heads who lurk just out of sight, waiting to pounce on any outburst of noise with lightning speed.

The extent and immediacy of this threat is made clear to us in no uncertain terms during the film’s opening sequence, when, as the family tip-toe back to their bucolic farmstead following a scavenging expedition to the nearest town (they wear no shoes, and have tramped down their route with sand), the youngest of their three children covertly inserts some batteries into a toy space shuttle he has acquired without his parents’ knowledge. The results are not pretty.

Jumping forward a year or so from this tragedy, the other members of our family remain alive and well, and we learn that they have in fact been granted a significant boon in the survival stakes via the fact that their eldest daughter is deaf. This means that they were already fluent in communicating via sign language (which is helpfully sub-titled for us) before the alien invasion hit, and were to some extent already used to sharing her soundless world.

As the might well imagine, this is a film clearly designed with theatrical exhibition in mind. It was definitely not intended for viewing at home, particularly when your next door neighbours are having a house party, or your pets are making a fuss, or whatever else. The first ten minutes or so of the film play out in total silence, and the sounds we hear thereafter are strictly limited to those the characters hear – each one a potential harbinger of death. IMDB trivia informs me that the first line of spoken dialogue (whispered, naturally) occurs 38 minutes in.

It’s a bold move for a commercial feature, but, after briefly wondering whether I could really make it through ninety plus minutes of this whilst sitting, subject to distractions, in a friend’s living room, I was surprised by how easily I adjusted to the film’s world of silence. (The fact that traditional, non-diegetic music gradually begins to creep in as action intensifies later in the film probably helps in this respect.)

One thing we should make clear straight away is that, to get anything out of ‘A Quiet Place’, one must Indulge The Concept. Spend a few minutes testing its real-world foundations, and it clearly don’t hold up too good. How long can a human being really go without coughing or sneezing or snoring..? How do the family intend to silently harvest and process the golden fields of corn they’ve apparently raised on their farmstead..? The father (played by director Krasinski and his fulsomely moisturised beard) may be a DIY homesteader/inventor par excellence, but surely even he must have trouble sawing wood and hammering nails in silence..? And so on.

We could continue in that vein for quite a while, but what would be the point? Far better just to accept Krasinski (and co-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck)’s idea as an ingenious, Twilight Zone-style thought-provoker – exactly the kind of thing that Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont might have come up with back in the day, invested with a wistful American specificity worthy of Ray Bradbury - and to see where they want to go with it, basically.

Thematically speaking, I fear their eventual destination is nowhere too remarkable. Aside from a strong emphasis on the virtues of familial love and cooperation (the fact that Krasinski stars opposite his real life partner Emily Blunt probably helped in this regard), and an earnest survival-above-all-else message common to most high-minded disaster/post-apocalypse tales, I suspect there is little that can be pulled out of ‘A Quiet Place’ to beef up anyone’s thesis on the socio-political aesthetics of the contemporary U.S. horror film.

As a straight-forward narrative entertainment however, it is at least extremely well-realised. Assembled with a spirit of hand-crafted professionalism that oddly mirrors the practical achievements of its male protagonist, ‘A Quiet Place’ makes effective use of its reasonably glossy production values (the dread name of Michael Bay appears alongside a bus-load of other credited producers, and there are more people listed in the credits than in probably every pre-2000 film I’ve reviewed this October put together).

Editing rhythms and real-world cause-and-effect remain as tight as the premise demands, and, throughout the film, suspense is tightened, released and re-tightened with confident ease. The keep-quiet-or-die conceit gives the filmmakers the opportunity to explore some novel variations on the well-worn methodology of nail-biting tension, including, as you’d imagine, many hands thrust across mouths at the last second, and a whole bit of business with a loose nail sticking out of the basement staircase that is just delightful.

Spectacle and peril are both kept on a tight leash through a long and convincing slow-burn, only to be let loose in the final act, when certain incidents-which-we-shall-not-spoil-here have made clear that all bets are off. As is only right and proper, the film’s big-eared monsters are initially kept at a distance – gigantic, toothy blurs that crash across the screen, leaving destruction in their wake. When we do get to see a little more of them however (and eventually, we see quite a lot of them), they are very cool and impressive creations.

Next gen descendants of the questionable critters who once galumphed across our screens in Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’ and clear ‘Quiet Place’-precursor ‘Pitch Black’ (2000, with Vin Diesel - remember that one?), they seem to reflect a positive development I’ve noted in a number of films in recent years, vis-à-vis the creation of CGI monsters that convey convincing weight and physical presence, and, as a result, do not look laughably ridiculous when placed within ‘real’ filmed environments.

The design of theses beasties’ heads in particular – with multiple, overlapping jaws opening like the petals of a flower to reveal some kind of vast, fleshy hearing apparatus – is memorably horrific, hitting some of the same ‘uncanny’ buttons as the original, similarly eyeless, ‘Alien’ blue-print.

One of the most interesting twists in the film’s storyline comes via the fact that Blunt’s character is pregnant. Just think about that for a moment. I mean, you can teach your older children to keep quiet, but how are you going to tell the new arrival..? The thought that holding a new born baby is essentially the equivalent of lighting a stick of dynamite is an unpleasant fact that the human race within this film is basically going to have to find a way around, should they wish to survive.

I’m not sure I find Mr Can Do Dad’s solution – which involves a padded, sound-proofed wooden box with pumped in oxygen – entirely convincing (and the notion of an infant who spends his or her early years confined to a series of increasingly large boxes sounds like material for an entirely different kind of horror film), but… I certainly couldn’t come up with any better ideas, and imagining how the forthcoming birth was going to play out proved a fascinating and rather terrifying prospect.

Unfortunately, it is at this point that I felt ‘A Quiet Place’ dropped the ball somewhat. Somewhere along the line, the more familiar mechanics of modern, commercial horror movies start to come into play, precipitating a gruelling stalk-and-hide sequence which culminates in a landmark “you’ve got to be f-ing kidding me” moment that feels so ludicrous that I hope readers who have seen the film will know what I mean when I say that it comes very close to torpedoing our ability to take the remainder of the movie seriously.

Furthermore, to jump on what seems to have become a personal hobby-horse of mine, I do wish that modern filmmakers could ditch their habit of using child birth and new born infants merely to ‘up the ante’ on horror and suspense set-pieces. Of course, issues of parenthood and reproduction are always ripe for exploration, and of course the ‘child/mother in peril’ trope is as old as time itself, but, now that the unspoken taboo re: placing maternity ward business in close proximity to grisly violence and imminent death seems to have been broken, the way in which this freedom is increasingly exploited (in this film, The Void, and The Witch, to name but three films I’ve reviewed here) often strikes me as merely crass and manipulative. (Admittedly, this could just be because it succeeds in manipulating me so well, but…)

And, whilst I’m getting my licks in, I also need to pre-warn viewers of the regrettable (and unexplained) deus ex machina which occurs toward the end of ‘A Quiet Place’. Just think the movie version of ‘Day of The Triffids’, and we’ll say no more about it. Not that I have any better ideas on how to end the thing I hasten to add, but, as with the pregnancy thing, the suspicion that the scriptwriters have written themselves into a corner is hard to shake

So, in conclusion… well I don’t really have a conclusion. This is a well made, compelling movie. As an example of some well-intentioned Hollywood types making an original, imaginative and highly watchable genre film, it should probably be celebrated, and should certainly be given preference over the thousandth pointless derivation of ‘Amityville’ or ‘The Exorcist’, or whatever else is being advertised in shades of black, grey and red on the side of buses this month.

I didn’t really feel particularly strongly about it however, and a few significant blunders and an overriding feeling of low level, aspirational smugness prevent me from really wanting to pin a ‘Quiet Place’ badge on my lapel and start enthusiastically talking it up to friends, etc. Make of it what you will, but you could certainly dial up far worse from your preferred streaming service, that’s for sure. (Just remember to wait until all potential noise-makers in your immediate vicinity have gone to sleep before pressing ‘play’.)

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Nippon Horrors / October Horrors #9:
Ghost Stories of the
Seven Wonders of Honjo

(Gorô Kadono, 1957)

Original title: 怪談本所七不思議 / 'Kaidan Honjo Nanafushigi'

The introduction to this Shintoho b-feature could prove a bit perplexing for us many of us gaijin, as voiceover narration tells us about a Tanuki (Japanese ‘racoon-dog’) who lives in a certain area (is it Honjo?), and seems to have especially noteworthy magical powers, but the narrator never really gives us the full low-down on this, because it seems to be assumed that everybody already knows all about it..?

Well, no problem – such are the pleasures of watching films whose makers would never have dreamed that people on the other side of the world would be assessing their efforts sixty years later.

Anyway, both the film’s title and this intro (in which forthcoming events are briefly ‘previewed’ via super-imposed shots of assorted characters we have yet to meet) would tend to suggest that we’re in for an anthology film -- an extremely cut price ‘Kwaidan’, perhaps? What fun! Actually though, once things get going, it soon becomes clear that the film (which clocks in at a sprightly 54 minutes) intends to concentrate on just a single ghost story, and an achingly over-familiar one at that. But, like most of these Shintoho ghost pictures, it’s an enjoyable business nonetheless, and not without its own quirks and surprises along the way.

Initially for instance, we meet a pair of fishermen, who, eager to get to their favourite drinking place before they run afoul of that aforementioned Tanuki, run instead into a brace of Yokai, including such ten carat spooks as a faceless woman (Yokai ID currently undetermined), a big guy with the eye in his forehead (an Ao Bōzu variant, perhaps?), the ever popular hopping umbrella thing (Karakasa-kozō), the big head dude (Abura-sumashi), and even a brief appearance by everybody’s favourite, the long-necked Rokurokubi.

The effects here are actually pretty great – easily the match of those seen in Daei’s Yokai films from the ‘60s – and, though brief, it’s all lots of eerie fun. (I particularly liked the bit in which, in an odd reverse Charles Fort kinda thing, the fishermen’s catch begins to levitate, and floats off into the sky.)

The next thing we know, the aggrieved fishermen and a bunch of their friends seem to have caught the mischievous Tanuki, whom they hold responsible for sicing the spooks upon them. Before they can turn it into soup however (for such is their stated intention), the animal is rescued by an elderly samurai patriarch (Hiroshi Hayashi) who happens to be passing. Fresh from visiting the grave of his first wife, he takes pity on the poor creature, and feels an urge to save it from the brutish treatment the fishermen no doubt have in mind.

Back home however, the old man has plenty of troubles, not least the fact that his rogueish nephew (the splendidly seedy Shigeru Amachi, whom you’ll recall from The Lady Vampire and several Zatoichi instalments) is trying to scam money off him whilst simultaneously making time with his much younger second wife (Akiko Yamashita), with whom the debauched young samurai had a fling at some point in the past. (1)

Fear not though, as the grateful Tanuki spirit appears to the old man in the form of a charming young girl (Michiko Tachibana) and her accompanying folk dancing troupe. The Tanuki pledges to protect the elder’s interests in return for his saving her life, so… what could possibly go wrong, right?

It’s rare to see a Japanese period film in which the aristocratic patrician guy turns out to be the aggrieved victim of the inevitable crimes and betrayals rather than perpetrator, but Amachi and Yamashita are such a convincingly vile pair of ne’erdowells that, as soon as they’ve teamed up in an adulterous union and started plotting to dispose of the old geezer, our sympathies are firmly nailed down, and we basically know where this is all heading.

Happily though, the film soon breaks away from the formal, ‘staged folk tale’ feel common to many earlier Japanese ghost films, allowing this standard issue tale of supernatural vengeance to become a simple, yet gripping and sensationalistic, b-movie melodrama, dynamically directed by the little-known Gorô Kadono, and played out with theatrical vigour by the cast.

Considering the year of production, a surprising amount of sexual impropriety follows the inevitable violent demise of the patriarch, as the leery Amachi has his wicked way with the bride of his morally upstanding cousin and Yamashita engages in some heavy-duty flirting with craven servant Gosuke (Saburô Sawai). Meanwhile, the lightning flashes and the winds howls outside the noble family’s now thoroughly profaned residence, and we all know that a bad end for the murderous adulterers will soon be on the way.

Justice soon marches in the corporeal form of the deceased patriarch’s aforementioned chivalrous son, who has returned from an extended stay in Edo upon hearing of his father’s death (I like the fact that this good samurai helpfully wears a white kimono, whilst Amachi of course favours black), whilst our mischievous Tanuki meanwhile is of course cooking up a right old storm in the spirit realm.

It may seem a bit disingenuous to claim that a film derived (at some level of remove, admittedly) from Japanese folklore was influenced by ‘Macbeth’, but, given that Kurosawa’s ‘Throne of Blood’ had premiered seven months before this film saw release in July 1957 (just in time for the Obon season, perhaps?), the possibility of a bit of hand-me-down influence doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.

Certainly, the echoes here of Shakespeare’s immortal yarn will be plainly obvious to Western viewers, and the film definitely succeeds in evoking what I can only describe as a ‘Macbeth-type atmosphere’, as what initially seemed like a light-hearted, fairy tale type film is gradually transformed into a doom-laden supernatural revenge tragedy, culminating, inevitably, in a rain-soaked, chanbara blood-bath in which the villainous Amachi gets what’s coming to him via his cousin’s shining blade.

It’s nothing we’ve not seen many times before, but I for one am happy to see it again, and, with all this blood-curdling incident compressed into less than an hour, the story certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. Despite the miniscule budget, the kaidan atmosphere here is thick as a bowl of fermented miso, and all the stuff with the Yokai and sundry other ghostly manifestations is a lot of fun.

There’s also a great bit with a gravel-voiced Buddhist exorcist doing his thing, until his ritual is curtailed by a rain of poisonous snakes (!), and, whilst I won't spoil the details of the fate the Tanuki and her multitudinous ‘friends’ contrive for the bad guys, but it’s rather delirious and wonderful, in the best tradition of these kind of b-kaidan pictures.

Strangely enough, the most disappointing aspect of ‘..Seven Wonders of Honjo’ is probably the music, which consists of lazy/random needle drops that often undermine the painstakingly rendered atmos to a certain extent, particularly during the finale, in which the highly charged sword battle is sound-tracked by what sounds like a jaunty, brass band marching theme that sounds like it was pulled off some dusty old disc left behind by the U.S. occupying forces.

I can’t for the life of me imagine why the film’s producers chose to lay this down over the action in preference to some more appropriate and evocative Japanese music (which must surely have been available to them), but, given the extreme haste with which films like this one were presumably knocked out, I doubt anyone had time to quibble over such details in post-production. Visually, this scene is excellent, so it's a real shame that the music makes such a mess of it, but what can you do?

That aside though, whilst this marginal and rather eccentric item may not exactly be the best place to start with vintage Japanese ghost films, it’s a delightful surprise for those us of who already have a taste for them.

I’m still none the wiser regarding “the Seven Wonders of Honjo”, but I’m sure they can wait for another day.

(My profound thanks to the heroic souls who recently fan-subbed this film and stuck it up on the interweb, incidentally.)


(1) An actress who seems to have worked almost exclusively in the milieu of Shintoho ghost movies, Yamashita can also boast appearances in in ‘Girl Divers at Spook Mansion’ (1959), Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (1960), and an apparently Western-inclined vampire movie whose existence I was previously unaware of, 1960’s ‘Vampire Bride’ [‘Hanayome Kyûketsuma’].

Monday 15 October 2018

October Horrors #8:
(Michael de Gaetano, 1977)

I’ve been interested in seeing this film ever since I first caught a glimpse of the poster reproduced above. I mean, just look at it. “It began the day they installed that telephone booth in the cemetery!” What? Crazy, man.

If the same warped mind-set that created this poster to some degree played into the making of the film itself, it surely must be worth a watch.

Such was my thinking when I set out to track it down earlier this month, but, now that I have watched it, I’m sad to say that the craziest thing here is probably the fact that someone actually had the balls to offer this motion picture to cinema-goers as a commercial horror film.

It’s not that I’d consider ‘Haunted’ an objectively terrible film (many probably would, but, as discussed below, I feel a certain warmth toward it). It’s more that… well let’s just say that what we have here is really more of an independent character drama that occasionally hints at the possibility of supernatural events, rather than a horror film.

You know all those regional U.S. horrors from the early 1970s that just feel a bit… zoned out? I don’t mean the really effective and acclaimed ones like ‘Let’s Scare Jessica To Death’ (1971) or ‘Messiah of Evil’ (1973). I mean the really sketchy, marginal ones that are just waaay out there. Things like ‘Death by Invitation’ (1971), ‘Blood Sabbath’ (1970), ‘Moonchild’ (1974), or ‘Track of the Moonbeast’ (1976). Well, despite being fairly late to the game in ’77, ‘Haunted’ has this feeling in spades… just without any actual horror content to balance it out.

Although no hippies or drug users appear on screen at any point, the “action” here feels as if it was orchestrated from behind the viewfinder through a thick haze of quaaludes, marijuana and blinding desert sun. It is reeeeally zoned out. By which I mean, it is slow, basically. Reeeal slow (and I’ll stop filling this review with unnecessary repeated vowels at this point, I promise).

Like the similarly somnambulant ‘Death by Invitation’, the film begins with a jarring and unconvincing period prologue in which a Native American woman named Abanaki (played, unaccountably, by Ann Michelle of ‘Twins of Evil’/’Virgin Witch’/’Psychomania’ fame) is accused of witchcraft by some obnoxious frontier settler types. As punishment, she is stripped naked and sent out into the desert on a horse, to presumably wander alone until she succumbs to the elements.

It’s all quite odd. I’m afraid to say that Michelle seems to have been “browned up” for the occasion, and I’m not really sure whether the extensive exposure given to her undoubtedly impressive hooters was intended as exploitation, or just some kind of dazed historical verisimilitude.

Once that’s all over with, we cut to present day Arizona, and learn that the same locale is now a struggling, family run ‘movie ranch’ built around a standing western town set. When I say the business is ‘struggling’, I mean, it doesn’t seem to have had any business whatsoever for many years. It does have a genuine frontier-era cemetery in the middle of it however, and when the film opens, the phone company are indeed in the process of setting up a call box in the midst of the headstones.

Watching this installation are several people, including a pair of teenage boys, the younger and nerdier of whom is in the process of installing some kind of radio receiver on the roof of one of the buildings, and a burly middle-aged handyman / caretaker guy (played by ‘50s tough guy stalwart Aldo Ray) who seems to be quite agitated by these goings on.

It subsequently becomes clear that the two boys are effectively the heirs to this moribund ranch, upon which they also live. It seems that their father, along with their aunt, perished under traumatic and slightly mysterious circumstances in an automobile accident some years ago. Their mother (former Hollywood starlet and character actress Virginia Mayo) was blinded in the same accident, and seems to spend much of her time wandering around in a state of delusional reverie. Angry old Aldo – a case study in barely articulate redneck frustration – is their uncle.

The older boy, Patrick, played by Jim Negele, is quite athletic and outgoing – he likes cycling and swimming and has a nifty muscle car – whilst his younger brother (Russell, played by Brad Reardon, who went on to achieve immortality in the role of “punk” in ‘The Terminator’) is more introverted, seemingly devoting most of his time to his ham radio set up.

One of the film’s more engaging scenes (relatively speaking) takes place in a disconcertingly authentic looking local bar, where the sheer dearth of activity in the area is highlighted by the fact that the installation of the new phone booth is a lively topic of conversation. Aldo drunkenly argues with some guy over the phone company’s intentions whilst a harried, long-haired barman tries to keep the peace. The legend of Abanaki (who of course left a curse) is also discussed.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (and how I cherish the opportunity to use that phrase literally), the family’s unhappy status quo is about to be upset forever – not that you’d know it from the lackadaisical pacing and affectless performances – by the arrival of a young woman with an English accent who is having car trouble.

Yes, it’s Ann Michelle again, now with her natural skin colour. She’s an aspiring actress en route to Hollywood, funnily enough, and, amid much scintillating discussion of whether or not her car will need to be towed to Tucson and when and how she might be able to pick it up, she begins to form a romantic bond with Patrick.

Seeing new possibilities for his adult life opening up before him, Patrick makes the decision to close down the ranch and move on. Mother will go to a care home, where she will get the help she clearly needs. Patrick and Russell will move to Phoenix with Ms Michelle in tow, and Aldo can do whatever the hell he likes, because he’s a jerk, and no one likes him anyway.

In brief, this turn of events pushes Aldo over the edge. He imagines that he receives a call in the cemetery phone booth from Abanaki (or does he actually receive it? – AMBIGUITY ALERT!). Though rather evocative, her words are mystifyingly obtuse (“If you try to look at me, you shall see nothing, yet cast your glance into the night and you shall see, I am that light which reflects across the face of the glass, the bit of day which cuts itself against the darkness of the night..”, and so forth), and poor Aldo seems confused.

The voice on the phone says something about an “old hag” having the answer, and so, clearly in search of more helpful advice, Aldo goes to visit an Indian fortune-teller, who lives in a kind of tepee made from repurposed industrial junk, on an island in the middle of a mountain lake(!) Seemingly a bit of a stirrer, the fortune-teller tells him that “the spirit of Abanaki is reincarnated in the body of the girl”, and sets him loose to do as he pleases.

Needing no further encouragement, Aldo kidnaps Ann Michelle whilst the boys are off in town having a burger, and ties her to a chair in his workshop. Rambling on in a generally incoherent fashion, he menaces her with a knife, and reveals some dark family secrets. She escapes, and, after a few minutes of running around, takes shelter in the phone booth. Whilst attempting to recapture her, Aldo somehow manages to accidentally impale himself on a sharpened broomstick handle and sets himself on fire. It’s a horrible way to go, but it’s probably for the best in the long run.

And, that’s all that happens in ‘Haunted’, really. That’s the end. I’m sorry for spoiling it for you, but as you’ll appreciate, it’s nothing too earth-shattering.

I’ll admit, I really don’t know what’s going on with this movie. Although Aldo Ray, Virginia Mayo and Ann Michelle weren’t exactly what you’d call top line stars in 1977, their appearance at least indicates the participation of a professional casting director or talent agency, not to mention the promise of enough money to make an extended trip to Arizona worth their while.

This sits oddly though with the fact that, in all other respects, the film is only a notch or two above the kind of thing that some ambitious (and chronically stoned) high school students might have thrown together during a long, slow summer holiday. Why would director Michael de Gaetano go to the trouble to sign up ‘name’ actors for his film, but otherwise appear totally unconcerned with including anything that might help sell it to a paying audience?

On the plus side, ‘Haunted’, in common with many films shot on remote and evocative locations, can at least boast a wealth of atmosphere. The ‘movie ranch’ (an apparently genuine one) looks authentically decrepit and sinister, and the natural beauty of the surrounding country is remarkable, even (perhaps especially) via the washed out transfer currently under review.

At one point, we see Patrick emerge from a beautiful mountain lake, jump on the bike he has left on the side of the road and begin cycling home, without even needing to dry off or change his clothes. Filmed in long-shot with an off-hand naturalism that suggests he didn’t even know he was being filmed at the time, this sent me off on a few minutes of delightful reverie, reflecting on what it would be like to grow up in a place like that.

Likewise, the scene in which Patrick reveals a previously undisclosed musical talent, serenading Michelle by the campfire with a genuinely beguiling psychedelic folk number on a 12 string guitar, has “hippie horror” vibes to burn. (Man, what a find he is for her – a gentle, talented hunk of untouched, mountain-raised masculinity; I hope she didn’t go on to corrupt him with her cynical Hollywood ways in the non-existent sequel.)

There is also, it must be said, a lot of intriguing imagery scattered through ‘Haunted’. The phone booth in the graveyard, the radio wires and phone lines somehow intersecting with the past of the mouldering frontier town and Indian curse myths that seems to be trying to invade the present; and the suggestion that the younger characters are trying to escape it, whilst Aldo and Mayo - sad, doomed victims of past trauma - are consumed by it.

In his surprisingly positive write-up in ‘American Nightmare’, Stephen Thrower praises the oblique nature of the film’s plotting, and even floats the possibility that it may have been conceived as an Antonioni-esque reflection on the impossibility of human communication, but… nothing along these lines ever really comes together, to be honest.

In the right frame of mind, the film’s slow drift of non-sequiturs and barely cogent, half-explored ideas could prove rather intriguing I suppose, but de Gaetano’s disengaged direction and the vacant performances (from everyone except Aldo, who seems authentically out to lunch) fail to make any of it very compelling, whilst the fact that de Gaetano’s only other credits comprise a 1974 UFO expose and a 1980 sex comedy tends to mitigate against the possibility that he was actually some kind of inarticulate, backwoods auteur.

If ‘Haunted’ is about anything at all, I suppose at heart it must be about the two young men attempting to overcome familial tragedy, and to find a place for themselves in the adult world and so on… but even pulling that much out of the images and words presented here feels like a stretch.

It’s curious to note that, two years later, a day-or-so’s drive in the direction Ann Michelle was presumably driving in before she broke down, a younger director than de Gaetano would take these same potent themes, together with a similarly disconnected atmosphere and sense of post-gothic American surrealism, and would emerge with results that I can say without any sense of hyperbole were at least one thousand times more effective.

‘Haunted’ meanwhile remains a dustbowl lost in the breeze; a cinematic question mark that no one can be bothered to resolve. A 2.2 IMDB rated 100 movie box-set filler that seems to be trying to say something about something… but who knows what?

GREAT poster though, huh?