Thursday, 31 January 2019

Dick Miller

Very sad news today, as I learned (via Tim Lucas’s blog) that the great Dick Miller has passed away, mere weeks after celebrating his 90th birthday.

In keeping with the majority of Miller’s screen appearances, I’ll try to keep this brief, and won’t patronise readers by presuming that they don’t know who Dick Miller is.

Even if, for some reason, you don’t yet know his name, if you have watched a reasonable number of American films, you will inevitably be able to identify him using the holy, ceremonial title of oh, THAT guy (an attainment acknowledged by the title of this 2014 documentary about his career, which I would love to see, incidentally).

Personally however, I’ve never known him as oh, THAT guy, because I was fortunate enough to see him playing the unforgettable role of the wouldbe beatnik sculptor / loveable simpleton Walter Paisley in Roger Corman’s wonderful ‘A Bucket of Blood’ (1959) fairly early in my movie-watching career. Ever since then, I have been fully aware of the fact that he is Dick Miller, and that he is awesome.

(If I tell you of the quizzical looks I’ve received over the years, each time I’ve found myself compelled to suddenly yell “DICK MILLER!” whilst watching some movie or other in company, I’m sure many cult movie buffs will be able to relate.)

Given the strength of Miller’s performance in ‘A Bucket of Blood’, I’ve often wondered why he never really moved into playing lead roles. Part of the explanation I suppose is simply that Hollywood – even in its most marginal, low budget off-shoots – rarely makes movies with Dick Miller type people in the lead roles. I mean, I’m sure he could have absolutely nailed it as some off-beat, ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ type hero or something, but for whatever reason, it never happened.

More likely though, I’d tend to suspect that Miller’s decision to specialise in cameos and one-scene-wonder character parts was simply due to a general recognition that – please forgive me for this one – a little Dick goes a long way.

By way of further explanation, I think I’ll need at this point to revert to the aforementioned Mr Lucas, whose memorial post (linked above) sums things up perfectly*:

“He made bad movies fun, good movies better, and great movies... great movies with Dick Miller in them! Simply put, he was somebody we were always happy to see.”

Amen to that.

R.I.P., and our condolences to the great man’s nearest and dearest. A sad day.


* I also stole the photo above from Lucas’s blog, because it’s unbeatable – I hope he doesn’t mind.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

(Part # 2)

My apologies for the delay in getting this finished off. Did posting the top 15 first and then waiting two weeks make for a bit of an anti-climax? Well, c’mon, the numbers don’t really mean anything. It's just a good way for me to clear the decks before moving on (a bit late in this case) to tackling some 2019 viewing.

16. Exorcismo
(Juan Bosch, 1975)

Apparently, Paul Naschy always insisted that he wrote the script for ‘Exorcismo’ before Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ was released, and that he had a postmarked envelope or something to prove it. Given that the film which eventually emerged from his script plays out like a cross between a ‘Devil Rides Out’-inspired Satanic cult movie and a hot-house giallo body count thriller, with a bunch of opportunistic Exorcist-type stuff crowbarred in as an after-thought, I for one am happy to believe the great man!

Furthermore, I am even happier to report that this weird mish-mash of genre DNA results in a movie at least ten times as entertaining as the one which may have resulted had Senor Lobo waited a few years and instead made a bog standard Euro Exorcist rip-off.

Firstly, the Black Mass sequence which kicks things off - allegedly taking place on an English beach! - is an absolute classic, one of my very favourite such scenes in Eurocult cinema (and *cough* I’d consider myself something of a connoisseur). It’s really cool.

Secondly, the film’s decision to upgrade the requisite possession victim from a little girl to a full-grown, sexy ingénue (a common motif in Euro-Exorcism films, unsurprisingly) here proves an inspired one, allowing her to rampantly lie and cheat and seduce and deceive her way through the denizens of her upper-crust household, until she is eventually confined to bed suffering from all the usual craziness and the poor old priest is belatedly called in to take care of business.

And, Naschy himself is an absolute delight as said priest, playing it totally straight as he delivers Wheatley-esque speeches about the malign powers of darkness and the irresponsible lifestyles of those long-haired, occult-dabbling hippie-types, furrowing his brow heroically and fretting for the immortal souls of his young brethren. (He has a great “yes, I’m soft-spoken and down with the kids, I can enjoy a drink or two whilst I earnestly debate science vs religion – but what’s that around your neck, young sir? A PENTAGRAM? Why, have you even READ this gigantic black book of evil I keep conspicuously displayed on my shelf, you no-nothing punk?!” kind of thing going on.)

And… I don’t really remember too much else about this film, to be honest (I confess, I’d probably had a few ales at the time of viewing). I do remember that I REALLY LIKED IT however, so that’s the main thing.

17. Just Before Dawn
(Jeff Leiberman, 1981)

It’s funny, isn’t it – I’ve never really been that enamoured with John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance’, but nonetheless, every film I’ve seen that could be loosely categorised as a ‘Deliverance’ rip-off has been genuinely outstanding. Both Walter Hill’s ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981) and Peter Carter’s ‘Rituals’ (1977) punch way above their weight, and to that esteemed company I can now add Jeff Leiberman’s ‘Just Before Dawn’.

Admittedly, eccentric indie-horror auteur Leiberman [‘Squirm’, ‘Blue Sunshine’] sticks pretty faithfully here to the teen slasher blue-print that had become more or less de rigour for commercial horror films by this point, and as such injects a certain quantity of goofy humour and ‘80s kitsch into the Deliverance sub-genre’s obligatory backwoods grit and nail-biting suspense (not to mention to curious addition of an elderly George Kennedy loping laconically through the wilderness nattering to his pony, as the sheriff-stand in park ranger). But, nonetheless, if you’re going to watch just *one* slasher movie from the golden year of 1981, my advice would be to make it this one, because Leiberman delivers big-time.

The National Park location photography is stunning and the brooding synth score is chillingly effective, creating a truly ominous atmosphere. Performances and character development are actually pretty good as far as slashers go, the tension rarely lets up for a second and the central horror set pieces have a quality of raw, weird viciousness about them that really makes an impression.

Both a consummate piece of button-pushing genre filmmaking and a superior backwoods survival potboiler, seasoned with just a little bit of tongue-in-cheek sugar amid the salt, ‘Just Before Dawn’ adds up to a great night’s entertainment. Four thumbs up!

18. The Incubus
(John Hough, 1982)

Wow… now this is a weird one. Much in the same way I used to earnestly argue that great horror fiction could only emerge from a genuinely damaged mind (cf: Lovecraft, Poe), there is much to be said for commercial horror films like this one, in which everything is just a bit off.

If I tell you that this opportunistic Canadian adaptation of Ray Russell’s icky demon-rape novel finds John Hough busting out the same gothic chops he brought to ‘Twins of Evil’ and ‘The Legend of Hell House’, and that it stars John Cassavetes in full, I-am-fucking-committed-to-this-project form as a shifty yet sympathetic doctor recently arrived in a witch-haunted New England backwater suddenly troubled by a spate of human biology-defying rape-murders and teenage bad dreams…. well, that sounds like a pretty great start to me (offers of counselling gratefully received), but it’s only the tip of the iceberg as far as the full spectrum of ‘The Incubus’s weirdness is concerned.

Though Cassavetes’ character is basically our central protagonist, and we kinda like him, there are frequent suggestions of an incestuous union and dark, shared secrets between him and his teenage daughter. They mutter darkly about the terrible fate that befell Dad’s second wife, and about how no one in their new home town should be allowed to find out about it. Apparently they succeeded pretty well in this regard, because we never find out about it either – it’s all just left hanging, unresolved, casting a weird shadow over the characters we’re ostensibly supposed to identify with, short-circuiting the usual good/evil horror movie dynamic extremely effectively.

Meanwhile, goofy slasher-style sequences in which unsuspecting young people are stalked by an unseen beast with scaly monster hands are followed by acres of grim aftermath, in which Cassavetes and his medico / police colleagues slug coffee from polystyrene cups in hospital corridors, discussing varying quantities (and colours) of sperm, damage wrought by giant phalluses, “dry intercourse” and other such delightful forensic detail. Forgoing his razor and chain-smoking like a mofo, poor old John looks pretty close to the edge.

The town in which this is all taking place, by the way, seems to be some kind of quasi-fantastical New England backwater, a stand-in for Salem (or Arkham?) in which everybody lives in spooky old ‘Salam’s Lot’ style houses and the interior of the local library is decorated in gothic castle façade, complete with waxworks of hooded witch-hunters and suchlike. At one point, a girl is molested by ol’ lizard-hands in a cinema bathroom whilst an audience of quasi-new wave delinquents sit entranced by what seems to be a screening of a video by Bruce Dickinson’s pre-Iron Maiden band Samson.

What does it all mean? By the time we get past the hour mark, I honestly have no idea. Cassavetes starts feverishly reciting chunks from old occult books whilst arguing with the town’s unbelieving aristocratic matriarch, and any remaining logic hangs by the very thinnest of threads, ready to snap irreparably – which is does, magnificently, but beyond that, my lips are sealed.

Raging tonal inconsistency, uncomfortable descriptions of sexual assault and wildly confused scripting may have helped keep appreciation of ‘The Incubus’ fairly muted over the years, but if we accept that the essential point of a horror movie is to leave the viewer feeling disorientated and vaguely traumatised, head full of errant, weirdly inspired imagery, then it succeeds brilliantly.

19. Train To Busan / Seoul Station
(Sang-ho Yeon, 2016)

Combined here simply because they feel so much like two parts of the same whole, I think I’ve already written enough here about Sang-ho Yeon’s perfect South Korean yin-yang of zombie mayhem and social commentary – see my reflections of both films here, and my flawed / rescinded initial review of ‘Train..’ here.

20. Idaho Transfer
(Peter Fonda, 1973)

Anyone who has seen Peter Fonda’s excellent revisionist western ‘The Hired Hand’ (1971 - I reviewed it here ages ago) knows that he had a lot more going for him as a filmmaker than his rep as a sneering, Hollywood royalty bad boy may have suggested, and this bleak, low budget science fiction oddity seals the deal.

Apparently filmed on a shoestring amid the desolate salt deserts of Idaho, the story here concerns a subterranean military research facility whose investigations of the properties of certain radioactive materials have led them to inadvertently discover of a form a time travel. An extremely risky business, the resulting ‘transfer’ process requires participants to strip down to their underwear and crouch in a sort of tomb-like, lead-lined box, re-emerging at an unspecified point in the near future.

This transfer apparently inflicts such punishment upon the human metabolism that only young people can emerge from it unscathed (at one point in the film, a guy in his late twenties gives it a go, and soon expires from unspecified internal damage), and as such, a loose community of teenage students and drifters have been assembled to serve as test subjects. Disconcertingly, their reports from the future suggest that the USA will soon become an uninhabited desert, devoid of radio signals or any other signs of civilisation.

Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before the Pentagon’s decision to violently shut down all this unauthorised weirdness leaves the kids lost in this seemingly post-apocalyptic future with no means of return, allowing Fonda to embark on a kind of strung out ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario that often feels like a wake for the doomed ideals of the ‘60s counter-culture, particularly when the stranded teens, who have initially held on to some vague notion of repopulating the barren earth, discover that the time travel process has left them infertile.

Grim and thought-provoking viewing, ‘Idaho Transfer’ represents one of the strangest footnotes of the “New Hollywood” era, mixing hard SF plotting with ominous, cold war pessimism, frozen, post-psychedelic vistas of dead landscapes and elegiac reflections on humanity’s lost hopes. A brave and unique project that is well worth tracking down.

21. Revenge of the Ninja
(Sam Firstenberg, 1983)

“The only thing that can stop a ninja is…. another ninja!”

Oh, man. Where to begin. The second instalment in the Cannon Group’s Ninja trilogy may lack the sight of Franco Nero and Susan George sweatin’ it out in the jungle cursing their agents, and it may not match up to the full throttle insanity of ‘Ninja III: The Domination’ (WHAT COULD?), but it’s still an exultant trash-action masterpiece in its own right, and perhaps the purest possible distillation of the Spirit of Cannon.

From the cheerily psychotic, head-lopping massacre that begins proceedings and the opportunistic decision to shoot the movie in Salt Lake City, to the bizarre plot-line that sees benign ninja Shô Kosugi (yes, he’s the good guy in this one) setting up shop selling high end Japanese dolls(?!) to the Mormon cognoscenti, only to discover that the forces of evil are intent on smuggling (presumably very small quantities of) EVIL DRUGS within his miniature merchandise, ‘Revenge of the Ninja’ is ON.

Highlights of the ensuing avalanche of life-affirming carnage include Mario Gallo’s exquisitely foul-mouthed Mafioso bad guy (“what the shit is this??” he exclaims when an associate gets a shuriken to the face), the sight of a ten year old boy (Shô’s real life son Kane Kosugi) mercilessly kung-fuing the hell out of a full grown woman (you sure didn’t get that in ‘Karate Kid’), an outrageously offensive sequence featuring a “Native American” assassin who dresses like Tonto and throws tomahawks at his foes, and, of course, more portentous ninja hoo-hah than Godfrey Ho could have imagined in his wildest dreams.

My god, just the script for this thing, you wouldn’t believe. Meanwhile credited roles that supporting cast members were lucky enough to be able to add to their CVs include: “Big Thug”, “Cowboy Thug”, “Shooting Thug”, “Tattooed Torturer”, “One-Eyed Informant”, “Unlucky Door Guard” (both #1 and #2), “Hallway Tripper”, “Hotel Thug”…. and on it goes. (Such a rainbow of thugs - it warms the heart to see.)

Much like ‘Exorcismo’ above, there are some big gaps in my memory when it comes to this one, but what I chiefly recall is ninety solid minutes of uncontrollable, beer-chugging laughter, and a subsequent child-like urge to fling myself around the living room, throwing ‘ninja’ poses and misquoting particularly fruity lines of dialogue. It constitutes a very happy memory indeed from 2018, and I’d happily put a photo on the mantelpiece as a memento, if only I’d been able to stop guffawing for long enough to take one.

22. Jamaica Inn
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1939)

Over the years, I’ve heard 1939’s ‘Jamaica Inn’ dismissed on several counts – as a travesty of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, an impersonal, job-for-hire Hitchcock film (knocked out in a rush just before he left for Hollywood), and an expression of monumental self-indulgence on the part of Charles Laughton. All of these things it might well be, but sadly, those critics failed to note that it is also an exceptionally entertaining, bawdy adventure movie, and riotous fun from start to finish.

I confess, I’ve always had a real soft spot for these kind of stories about wreckers, smugglers, revenue men, crooked local magistrates and shady goings on along the torrid coastline of Cornwall and/or Normandy – and, needless to say, ‘Jamaica Inn’ proves to be the absolute motherlode for this particular aesthetic.

Flouncy shirts and swashbuckling, knee-breeches and tri-cornered hats, nocturnal coach journeys across blasted clifftops and bilious provincial corruption by the bucket load; dirty deeds done dirt cheap at the local piratical hideaway, much life or death scrabbling around caves and cliff-faces, and the ever joyous sight of scurvy ne’erdowells dragging the chests of dead sailors to shore, delivering a quick coup de grace to any of ‘em who don’t seem to have got the message that they’re supposed to be bloody drowned -- it’s all here folks, get it while it’s hot. If they’d taken the time to throw in a dandy highwayman too, this movie would score a straight 100% on the scale of rum, 18th century type goings on.

Whilst I realise that we amateur film critics have a ready-made lexicon of terminology regarding actors “wood-chippering the scenery”, “serving up the ham with extra bacon” etc, I don’t think any such phraseology can really express the extent to which Charles Laughton dominates ‘Jamaica Inn’. Though his character Sir Humphrey Pengallan was a relatively minor figure in the novel, Laughton transforms him here into a villainous grotesque of truly epic proportions - ranting, conniving, leering, lumbering, hyper-ventilating, hallucinating and generally bestriding world of the film like the living personification of gout-ridden, syphilitic decadence.

Acting as an uncredited producer and general guiding light for the film, Laughton, assisted by his pal J.B. Priestley on rewrite duties, hi-jacked Du Maurier’s narrative to such an extent that Pengallan’s antics comprise at least 50% of the screen time, whilst the movie’s grand finale is entirely concerned with his descent into delusional insanity. Some may beg to differ of course, but speaking as both a fan of Laughton and of spittle-flecked over-acting in general, I am totally on board with these changes.

Even Laughton’s full-spectrum dominance though can’t hide the strengths of the film’s other performances. Leslie Banks is fantastically menacing as the gimlet-eyed Joss Merlyn (the movie’s true heavy), whilst Maureen O’Hara makes for a great, plucky heroine – check out her pirate-shoving bravery as she races to smother the clifftop beacon during the climactic wrecking sequence.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock may have deliberately limited his contributions here to a technical level, but such was the height of his expertise on that level by this point in his career that ‘Jamaica Inn’ stills beats the pants off just about any other films being made in the UK in the late 1930s. Both atmosphere and suspense are wrangled beautifully throughout, with the pacing ticking along nicely in spite of the vast swathes of time devoted to Laughton’s mugging.

Production values swing toward the ‘grand’ end of the scale, but Hitch clearly knew how to put them to best use. Shot in what must have been a fairly huge studio ‘tank’, the sequences of storm-lashed ships meeting their doom upon the rocks apparently proved so intense that one supporting cast member is said to have died from pneumonia; a story which is all too easy to credit in view of the visceral and exciting footage seen in the finished film.

As I say though, forget the well-publicised backstage turmoil and bugger the critics – ‘Jamaica Inn’ remains number one to this day within the rarefied ships n’ smugglers sub-genre - accept no imitations. (Except possibly ‘Fury at Smugglers Bay’, see below. Or ‘Captain Clegg’. Or what the hell, accept ALL imitations, this stuff is gold.)

23. Doctor X
(Michael Curtiz, 1932)

Though undermined somewhat by a surfeit of time spent with Lee Tracy’s comedy newspaperman, ‘Doctor X’ nonetheless stands as one of the craziest, most shocking and most forward-thinking of Hollywood’s pre-code horror films, and it remains a roaring good time to this day. I reviewed it here back in April.

24. Le Femme Publique
(Andrzej Zulawski, 1984)

As inexplicable and difficult to digest as each of Andrzej Zulawski’s films may seem when considered in isolation, once one gains a wider familiarity with his work, it becomes increasingly clear that he was a director who basically just liked to keep doing the same stuff again and again, obsessively returning to his own personal tarot deck of cinematic images and ideas, irrespective of where the unpredictable winds of international art cinema financing ended up dumping him at any given point in time.

This tendency for self-quotation is particularly evident in ‘Le Femme Publique’ (the director’s first film since ‘Possession’ three years earlier), which often seems to play out like some kind of self-parodic mega-mix, delivering all the Zulawski stuff that his fans and admirers could possibly have wished for.

The film concentrates upon the travails of a damaged, sexually promiscuous young woman (Valérie Kaprisky) as she ploughs through the rain-swept streets of Paris in a state of perpetual nervous excitement, occasionally making some dough by allowing sleazy men to take photographs of her in an ‘artist’s studio’ as she performs insanely uncoordinated, naked interpretive dance routines.

Before long, she becomes the muse and lover of a firebrand Czech émigré film director, who is shooting an avant garde adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Devils’. On set, a cast of wildly eccentric, exhibitionistic actors howl and rant and convulse (both in-character and out) as the camera sweeps majestically through the chaos, and the director berates and abuses Valérie for failing to deliver an extraordinary monologue about finding a giant spider in her wardrobe with sufficient depth of feeling.

It turns out that the actress Kaprisky is replacing in the production has disappeared without trace – possibly murdered by the director for some reason? – and Valérie seemingly becomes determined to literally take her place, wearing her clothes, adopting her mannerisms and instigating a traumatic, masochistic love affair with her distraught husband (another Czech immigrant), who is subsequently drawn into some kind of murky conspiracy which sees the deranged director forcing him to assassinate a visiting Catholic cardinal.

Meanwhile of course, we get to enjoy ominous Steadicam explorations of dusty old buildings, loads of vertiginous spiral staircase shots, mad, rough sex, mental breakdowns and weeping in the bath, unhinged domestic scenes in which food is ruined and glass significantly smashed, beautifully photographed machine gun blasting car chases, the odd painstakingly choreographed street fight, fire and explosions and, well, you know… Zulawski stuff.

Viewers coming to a film like this cold may be inclined to find themselves exhausted or completely overwhelmed, tearing their hair out as they try to get a grip on what it all means (“would this make sense if I was Polish??”). Having spent a fair bit of time immersed in Zulawski’s strange world over the years though, I think I’ve finally learned to put all that aside, clear my mind, and instead just enjoy the outrageous spectacle, electrifying energy and sheer technical bravado of one of cinema’s greatest madmen simply doing his thing, hurling to the kerb any damn fool producer who tries to stop him.

25. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry
(John Hough, 1974)

Or, ‘Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry AND THAT OTHER GUY’ as it should more properly have been called, given that poor old Adam Roarke is front and centre throughout the film, effectively playing the straight man to Peter Fonda and Susan George’s bickering misfits.

I’m not sure what Roarke had to say about AIP’s questionable re-titling of this adaptation of Richard Unekis’s novel ‘The Chase’, but I can’t imagine he was any too happy about it, especially given that the quirky, love-hate relationship between Fonda and George is probably the least convincing element of the production.

Essentially marking the exact mid-point between ‘Two Lane Blacktop’ and ‘Smokey & The Bandit’, ‘DM,CL’ (if you will) is a bit of an odd beast, basically playing out like an attempt to recast the existential, counter-culture road movies of the early ‘70s as pure drive-in entertainment, but hitting a few suspension-shaking bumps along the way.

For what is ostensibly a ‘70s crime film, ‘DM, CL’ is surprisingly good natured. No one draws a gun at any point, the stuff with Vic Morrow and Ben Niems as the sweaty, fist-shaking cops is played purely for laughs, and although Fonda and Roarke are kidnappers and thieves, the film never suggests that they really hurt anyone in the process.

At the same time though, there’s still a wastoid, anti-establishment edge to Fonda and George’s characters - seemingly harking back to the bad attitude proto-punks of Corman’s ‘The Wild Angels’ - that must have chafed against any attempt to win over an All-American family audience. (In fact, it’s fun to imagine that Fonda’s frustrated racing driver could even be the same character he played in that film, eight hard years down the line and still acting like an unbelievable dick.)

Indeed, it is strange now to contemplate an era in which a film that clears aspires to mainstream commercial success could appoint such a pair of obnoxious sketch-balls as its central characters, and even in the mid-‘70s, it’s difficult to imagine that their cynical, sexualised banter went over too well with law-abiding citizens who just turned out for the car chases and good vibes. (At one point, Fonda tells George he’ll “braid her tits” if she “tries another stunt like that again”.)

Putting all that aside though, we’ve really got to give it up here for the ever-reliable John Hough. Having gifted the world at least three world class horror movies (see ‘The Incubus’, above), he proved here that he could also handle action like an absolute pro – and indeed, it’s as a pure action film rather than as some goofball, post-hippie buddy movie that ‘DM, CL’ really shines.

Plotting and characterisation soon takes a back seat as the second half of the film is given over almost entirely to the sight of our merry trio of no-future outlaws racing flat-out against the cops in their lime green Dodge Charger, and verily, it is awesome. Seriously, in terms of daredevil driving and stunt work, I would put this up against anything I’ve ever seen, and Hough and his crew get it all on screen just brilliantly. (I’m guessing George Miller and the Ozploitation contingent were taking careful notes.)

The car vs helicopter set-piece is particularly jaw-dropping, and all the more-so for the knowledge (seemingly impossible to replicate in our era of CGI and sensible safety precautions) that these goons actually DID this stuff, probably after smoking a few doobies behind the trailer and whilst dressed like they were on their way to an Eagles concert. Goddamn [shakes head].

In fact, I’ll raise you “don’t” and suggest that they simply CAN’T make ‘em like this anymore, for a wide variety of reasons. Which is probably for the best to be honest, but hey, what you gonna do? Treasure films like ‘Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry’ as glorious relics of an era in which overgrown boys could get their kicks on Route Whatever without a care for life, limb, cultural sensitivity or environmental preservation, that’s what. Yee and indeed Hah?

26. Christine
(John Carpenter, 1983)

Given that I’ve often been apt to discuss my profound appreciation for the works of John Carpenter in these pages, you might well wonder why it took me until 2018 to get around to watching this film, released at the very pinnacle of his early 1980s glory days. Well… what can I tell you. Somehow, it’s just never appealed. Sentient cars? Stephen King adaptations? ‘80s nostalgia for the ‘50s? high school morality tales and white fence, small town American blah? None of these things really get my motor running, if you know what I mean.

And, having finally watched ‘Christine’, they still don’t do much for me to be honest. The script and storyline here I could really take or leave from any other filmmaker, but as a testament to the kind of value Carpenter was able to bring to an otherwise unremarkable movie at the peak of his powers, it’s a remarkable achievement. I mean, let’s face it – any half decent director could probably have made an enjoyable movie out of material as good as ‘Escape From New York’ or ‘The Fog’, but to turn this questionable yarn about some dork falling in love with a demonically possessed ‘50s jalopy into a memorable and rewarding cinematic experience..? That takes some talent.

The best sections of ‘Christine’, I think, are those that take place once the car is finally out for blood, extracting revenge from the musclebound jocks who trashed her and bullied her owner. With graceful, cinemascope framing and noir-ish spot lighting picking out the asphalt as the engines roar, Carpenter’s elegiac soundtrack (one of his best) finally begins to blast like it should instead of the cornball, post-’59 rock n’ roll hits heard earlier. These sequences are richly cinematic, belaying the essential silliness of the events being portrayed with a dark, automotive grandeur.

Meanwhile, the strength of Carpenter’s casting decisions and work with actors also shines through. Most notably of course, Keith Gordon delivers a real career-making performance as the virginal nerdling whose relationship with the car transforms him into a back-talking, leather-jacketed rebel, and eventually a death-trippin’ whacko. A clichéd transition on paper perhaps, but Gordon puts it across brilliantly, ably supported by a world-class cross-section of under-appreciated character players in the ‘grown up’ roles.

Robert Prosky is great as the cheroot-chomping, blue-collar warrior owner of the “DIY garage” where Gordon stores his Satanic wheels, and the final act introduction of the late Harry Dean Stanton as the unconventional detective investigating the car’s crimes is truly inspired. (The initial scene in which Harry Dean corners Gordon in the car park is so good I hit rewind and watched it twice, just to drink it all in -- inter-generational aggression sparking off their semi-improvised dialogue, it’s just fantastic.)

A rock solid addition to the Carpenter canon then despite its hum-drum subject matter and somewhat over-extended run-time, ‘Christine’ is a fine piece of filmmaking, full of incidental pleasures and sly humour. Any fans who, like me, have sidestepped until now are advised to get on that post-haste.

27. The Monster Club
(Roy Ward Baker, 1981)

Cinematic comfort food of the highest order for fans of ‘60s/70s British horror films and related culture, I said of this one back in October that, “It's 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 possibly ask for than that?”

28. Mr Vampire II
(Ricky Lau, 1986)

A landmark success in both commercial and creative terms, 1985’s ‘Mr Vampire’ is a stone-cold classic of Hong Kong cinema that pretty much defined the parameters of the horror / action / comedy sub-genre that would prove consistently popular over the following decade.

Needless to say, it’s pretty great, but personally I perhaps extracted even greater enjoyment from this astonishing crack-brained sequel, which seems to have resulted from some genius in the Golden Harvest production office surveying the box office returns from their previous year’s biggest hit and saying, “yeah, that’s all well and good, but what our next hopping vampire movie really needs is to be a bit more like ‘E.T.’”.

Thus, everyone’s favourite Taoist master Lam Ching-Ying (colloquially known overseas as “that guy with the eyebrows”) finds himself propelled into the 1980s along with his obligatory bungling comic assistants (one of whom is played on this occasion by kung fu mega-star Yuen Biao). Here, the hapless crew’s penchant for tomb-raiding results in the unleashing of not just one jiang-shi, but a whole family of the buggers.

Before you know it, Mommy and Daddy Vampire are both leaping across the bonnets of exploding cars in down-town HK, soaking up gunfire from armed police response units -- which is awesome, but what most people will remember this movie for is the parallel exploits of the rather more approachable Baby Vampire, who finds himself adopted by a pair of adorable, chubby children, initially hiding in a closet during the day to hide his existence from the family’s hard-working single dad.

Delightfully, the kids have recently watched a TV documentary about refugees, and the mini-vamp’s pale skin and antiquated mode of dress leads them to believe he is a defector from mainland China – and so of course, they do their best to help him out!

For his part, Baby Vampire is soon sporting over-sized shades, rockin’ out on a skateboard, using his magical hopping powers to shake down bullies at the local playground and generally quashing discrimination and teaching people to live together in peace and mutual understanding wherever he goes… which is easily achieved, because he’s just SO DAMN COOL – I mean, look, he’s got sunglasses on and everything.

Of course, whereas everyone can feel happy and shed a tear when E.T. heads home, things are complicated here by the fact that the little tyke is a reanimated corpse - a carnivorous, super-powered menace to humanity who must be dealt with accordingly. I won’t spoil the wonderfully off-hand manner in which Lam and his boys eventually sort things out, but let’s just say that it’s, well, a bit different from the one we might expect to see in an equivalent American movie.

Belonging to a loose cross-section of Asian cinema that seems to take delight in taking the kind of cute / funny kids stuff generally restricted to the ‘Family’ section of Western video shops and mixing it up with violent action, coarse humour and (in this case) scarifying horror movie mayhem, ‘Mr Vampire II’ is a delirious masterpiece of tonally unhinged, hyper-energised kitsch, executed with all the top flight production values and death-defying stunt-work you’d reasonably expect of a mid-‘80s Hong Kong blockbuster.

29. A Thousand & One Nights
(Eiichi Yamamoto, 1969)

Though it can’t hold a candle to Eiichi Yamamoto and Kuni Kukai’s extraordinary ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ (see my best first viewings list from 2017), this first ‘Animerama’ feature from Osamu Tezuka’s ill-fated Mushi Pro is still well worth a look.

More firmly grounded in traditional cel animation than ‘Belladonna..’, this one – loosely adapted from various incidents in The Arabian Nights – is considerably lighter in tone, introducing a degree of goonish humour and unfortunate racial stereotyping into proceedings that undercuts the transgressive nature of the – still pretty hair-raising – excesses of eroticism and sadism on display.

Though the central plot-line – which sees the hapless “Aldin” ploughing through endless capers and diversions in pursuit of his lost love Miriam, eventually becoming a kind of world-conquering demi-god for his trouble – remains fairly engaging, helped no doubt by what looks to be some authentic Tezuka character designs, the real strength of ‘A Thousand & One Nights’ lays instead in its function as a more abstract parade of kaleidoscopic visual wonders.

Whereas the two subsequent Animerama productions were clearly feeling the pinch of reduced budgetary circumstances after this first effort bombed at the box office, here Yamamoto and his colleagues seem to have been given more or less unlimited scope to indulge their imagination, resulting in a jaw-dropping cavalcade of ever-shifting psychedelic lustre that pre-empts (and to a considerable extent, surpasses) anything that Ralph Bakshi or the ‘Heavy Metal’ movie would bring to the “animation for grown ups” table in subsequent decades.

Clearly owing a debt of inspiration both to Disney’s best early films and also to the culture of mind-bending drugs, free love and merry, culture-appropriating’ decadence that was exploding across the world at the time of production, ‘A Thousand & One Nights’ barely settles down into static, anime convention for more than a few seconds at a time across it’s epic 130 minute run time; with unexpected or extraordinary sights being thrust upon us more or less constantly, it’s one hell of a trip, to coin a tired phrase.

Meanwhile, Arabesque noodlings from Isao Tomita and a relentlessly groovy, hard-rockin’ psyche-funk theme from Kobe band The Helpful Soul (who soon metamorphosed into ug-rock demi-gods Too Much) help to keep things hoppin’ nicely on the aural level too. Well worth a punt for an LP (re)issue if you’re looking for a successor to the ‘Belladonna..’ soundtrack, Finders-Keepers!

30. Fury at Smugglers’ Bay
(John Gilling, 1961)

Though it may not prove particularly noteworthy for many viewers, this off-brand variation on Hammer’s early ‘60s half term swashbucklers immediately earned a place in my heart by vestige of the fact that much of it was filmed upon the beautifully rugged coastline of North Pembrokeshire in West Wales - an area that I spent much of my early life exploring, and still visit regularly.

Given that British film productions were generally loath to travel more than half an hour’s drive from the studio if it could possibly be avoided, the fact that a low budget, independent production like this should venture so far afield – a full day’s car journey from London if not more so, in view of the primitive transport infrastructure of the early’60s – is in itself pretty remarkable to me, and I’d love to learn more about how it came about. The practicalities of keeping such a remote unit supplied with props, costumes, lighting and camera equipment and cast and crew members – not to mention appropriate facilities for processing and storing negatives – must have been nightmarish.

Whoever was in charge of it though, they must have done a fairly good job, because the resulting film is both visually sumptuous and a whole lot of fun. Essentially a blander, more stiff upper lipped take on the same kind of material explored in ‘Jamaica Inn’ (see above), it delivers the pulpy action-adventure goods in a quantity and quality exactly equivalent to Hammer’s contemporary piratical / historical pictures, complete with all the requisite wreckers and smugglers and coach chases and dashing, ruffle-shirted rogues and such-like. And, even better, this one actually throws in a Highwayman too! And he’s the hero! Top marks. (I wouldn’t have thought he’d do much business roaming around the desolate cliff-tops of darkest Cornwall or wherever this is supposed to be set (no Welsh accents are in evidence), but what do I know?)

Peter Cushing heads up the cast as the conceited local toff Squire Trevenyan, essaying exactly the same kind of stern, morally compromised patriarch role he’d recently played in both Gilling’s The Flesh & The Fiends and Hammer’s excellent crime drama ‘Cash on Demand’. As in those films, his final act realisation that his arrogance has blinded him to his moral failings, and his subsequent attempts to make amends, lend the film an emotional charge that it may otherwise have lacked, even though there is little room here for the kind of dark ambiguities that Gilling brought to his best films amid all the heroic loin girding and sword clanging (none of it on Cushing’s part, sadly) that must inevitably bring a picture like this its conclusion.

Nonetheless, Gilling’s writing and direction is solid as ever – definitely a cut above the level expected for this sort of generic, youth-orientated material – and his usual themes of class conflict and inter-generational anger ring out loud and clear in the film’s best line, acidically deadpanned by Cushing after he returns home to find his errant son indulging in a spot of fencing with the groundskeeper: “I don’t think much of your choice of a servant for a sparring partner – I trust you always win?”.


And, bubbling under….

31. Black Lizard (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)
32. Super Infra-Man (Shan Hua, 1975)
33. Not Of This Earth (Roger Corman, 1957)
34. On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray & Ida Lupino, 1951)
35. Violent Panic: The Big Crash! (Kinji Fukasaku, 1976)

36. Zatoichi & The Fugitives (Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1968)
37. The Suspicious Death of a Minor (Sergio Martino, 1975)
38. Bastard Swordsman (Chun-Ku Lu, 1983)
39. Cementario del Terror (Rubén Galindo Jr, 1985)
40. The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964)

SUCH a good year for movie watching, if for little else in the wider field of human endeavour.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

(Part # 1)

I managed to watch a lot of movies in 2018. This makes me happy. As is now traditional, brief(?) write-ups on some of the best ones I watched for the first time follow. It’s quite a long list this year, so I’ve split it into two, just for the sake of convenience and sanity. (I could easily have easily have gone for a Top 50 if I had the time.)

As an aside, I like the way that a lot of the films on this list have ended up kind of “talking to each other” in some strange fashion that will perhaps become clear if you read both this post and its impending follow-up straight through.

Happy New Year everybody, and thanks as always for reading.

1. The Unknown 
 (Tod Browning, 1927)

Over ninety years since it premiered, Tod Browning’s ‘The Unknown’, which I reviewed here back in April, remains one of the strangest and most morbidly compelling stories ever told on screen; a still jaw-dropping testament to the kind of unsavoury obsessions that can be played out before a movie camera, anchored by an almost physically unbelievable performance from Lon Chaney. A cornerstone for all that would follow in the realm of weird/horror cinema.

2. Mandy
(Panos Cosmatos, 2018)

Fresh out of the cinema, you’ll recall that I really went to town on this one back in October.

I’m still putting off watching it for a second time at home, worried it won’t hold up and I’ll feel silly for flipping out over it so comprehensively. I dunno though - I have a feeling it will hold up. Anyway, for now, I’m still saying, believe the hype.

3. Cohen and Tate
(Eric Red, 1988)

Having already made a significant impact on ‘80s genre cinema via his scripts for ‘The Hitcher’ and ‘Near Dark’, 27 year old Eric Red made his directorial debut with this taut bickering-hitmen-in-a-car-with-a-kid thriller, and if you haven’t seen it, you probably should, because it’s absolutely great.

In fact, it is such an exceptional picture that I think the fact Red went on to spend the next few decades intermittently making low budget horror movies instead of following a Scorsese/Coppola career path tells you everything you need to know about the creative bankruptcy of ‘90/’00s Hollywood.

Coaxing career best performances from Roy Schneider (yes, I know, I’m standing by it) and Adam Baldwin, Red gives us a set of desperation-wracked, wise-ass characterisations worthy of prime Elmore Leonard, alongside a set of grand-standing action and suspense set-pieces that wouldn’t have embarrassed James Cameron (‘80s era, I mean).*

Happily, Red also totally nixes the sentimentality too, despite the presence of a (very well-played and non-annoying) child character, fronting with a kind of full spectrum reptilian brutality and a great feel for empty highway / road-to-somewhere-even-worse bleakness in which even the dim neon of a deserted truckstop signals some temporary, doomed hope. (Great, cap-doffing use of those Jim Thompson/’Touch of Evil’ Texas oil wells too.)

But, crucially, he never loses sight of the human empathy at the centre of his story either; those twenty-odd seconds it takes for the otherwise implacable Schneider to put his envelope in the mailbox are all it takes. Just brilliant writing; a few shots, no words, and more poignant than any number of pages of “my brother died in Nam” type drivel.

Representing perhaps the all-time high water mark of the perennial ‘kidnapped in a car’ sub-genre first instigated by Ida Lupino’s ‘The Hitch-Hiker’ (see below), ‘Cohen & Tate’ is a film that, weirdly, ends up feeling minimalist and maximalist at the same time. How does that work? I don’t know, but regardless - for my money it’s dancing a three way tango with ‘Thief’ and ‘To Live & Die in LA’ for the title of the best American crime movie of the ‘80s, so I hope that’s high enough praise to persuade you to check it out.

* Ironically, Red later accused Leonard of ripping off this movie’s central relationship for his novel ‘Killshot’ – he gets quite angry about it in his audio commentary. Having read the book in question though, I tend the feel the similarities are more likely to be an accidental result of the line of influence rubbing the other way, if you get my drift.

4. Mona Lisa
(Neil Jordan, 1986)

Essentially relocating the core structure of a classic film noir to the unsavoury environs of Thatcherite London, Neil Jordan’s admirably uncategorisible film posits Bob Hoskins’ small-time thug/mob patsy as a complete innocent – the thin skin of his unconvincing gangster bravado swiftly torn to shreds as he descends into the treacherous netherworld occupied by Cathy Tyson’s high class prostitute, attaining ‘experience’ in traumatic and heart-breaking fashion.

Alongside what now seems a historically potent tour of the sleazoid pleasure pits of VHS/peep-show era Soho and pre-regeneration Kings Cross (not to mention some great ‘80s motorway service station ambience and a shabby-chic Brighton sea-front finale), Jordon invests this ostensible work of gritty realism with a weird strain of fantastical/fairy-tale imagery and journey-to-the-underworld gel lighting, bringing a disorientating magical-realist feel to proceedings as the story’s harrowing threads of sexual abuse and teen prostitution are queasily juxtaposed with ice cream sundaes, white rabbits and adventure playgrounds, reflecting both the victims’ curtailed childhoods and the juvenile simplicity the characterises our protagonist’s preferred approach to life.

Like ‘The Long Good Friday’ before it, ‘Mona Lisa’ could easily be read as a commentary on the predatory underbelly of ‘80s capitalism, but it functions just as effectively as a more abstract journey from care-free ignorance to numb and devastated knowledge, applicable to any human environment – just like the ‘40s noirs that presumably inspired it.

Indeed, like the very best noir, ‘Mona Lisa’ remains an unflinching and upsetting experience, irrespective of vintage sheen, tempered with just enough mystery and bloodshed to get those crime movie endorphins flowing.

5. La Chute de la Maison Usher
(Jean Epstein, 1928)

Epstein’s take on ‘..House of Usher’ – which I was lucky enough to catch in 35mm with live musical accompaniment at the BFI back in November – represents the genesis (some might even say apotheosis) of what we tend to think of as European gothic horror cinema, just as much so as Dreyer’s Vampyr.

Whereas Dreyer’s meditation on death and spiritual dissolution was weird, ragged, and disorientating however, Epstein’s is more purely beautiful – a glimmering tone poem of haunting, oneiric imagery, as smooth as a still lake in the sun, and just as seemingly transparent too. It is also, somewhat surprisingly, one of the more faithful adaptations of a Edgar Allan Poe story to make it to the screen, conveying what I can well imagine to be an authentic impression of Baudelaire’s legendary French translations of Poe.

Amid a phantasmagoria of bare, lifeless trees, billowing curtains, guttering candles and mysteriously animated book shelves, Marguerite Gance’s Madeline Usher (looking uncannily like Daria Nicolodi) appears gaunt and robotic, possessed of life only when she appears within the frame of Roderick’s obsessive portraiture, blurring subjective and objective space without a care in the world. Once again, it is a vampishly attired femme fatale who provides the beating heart of the uncanny to this early horror landmark, and once again it is the slow, coffin-bearing march to a burial (hers, in this instance) that provides the stand-out sequence.

In purely technical terms, Epstein was a master, and he is not afraid to show it. Given the year of production, his use of sensuous, gliding slow motion and disorientating, surrealistic double-exposures is extraordinary, culminating in the other-worldly fresco of alien stars which forms a background to the final conflagration of La Maison Usher.

Given the extent to which the uncertain boundaries between art and reality are explored by the film’s compositions, it seems fitting that the whole thing feels, more than anything, like a film made an artist, in the old fashioned sense of the word – like the mad, tormented canvas of some attic-dwelling, paint-spattered visionary shocked through Franensteinian electricity into eerie, morbid life.

6. Vengeance Is Mine
(Shôhei Imamura, 1979)

One of the more rewarding “true crime reconstruction” type movies you’re ever likely to encounter, Shôhei Imamura’s return to fictional filmmaking after a decade or so concentrating on documentary presents a painstakingly detailed chronicle of the opportunistic series of killings and sundry other crimes committed by an unstable drifter named Akira Nishiguchi – here renamed Iwao Enokizu and played by Ken Ogata - across Japan during the 1960s.

Repeatedly interrupting the flow of his vérité-style reconstructions with jarring temporal disjunctures and startling outbursts of expressionist technique, Imamura stirs a dose or two of melodramatic fiction into his quasi-documentary aesthetic sensibility, mirroring his determination to trace out his own vision of the complex web of psychological motivations and societal failures lying behind even the most pathetic and seemingly random of crimes.

Indeed, the film takes on a whole other level of meaning once it becomes clear that Imamura intends to explain Enokizu’s crimes entirely in relation to the killer’s dysfunctional relationship with his father (Rentarô Mikuni), a flawed and guilt-ridden Christian believer who has established a chaste and tormented relationship with his son’s long-suffering wife.

Sounds like a real barrel of laughs, right? Well, yes – ‘Vengeance is Mine’ is a demanding and troubling film in many respects, but it nonetheless remains effortlessly captivating viewing – and not just in the prurient “scratching a bleeding scab” sense common to lesser examples of these portrait-of-a-serial-killer type movies either.

Though the film’s early scenes of violence are staged with a blank, factual neutrality that feels far more upsetting than the more emotionally-engaged material that follows later, the strange fires of passion that Immamura locates within this seemingly unedifying tale of wasted lives and random cruelty burns white hot, making ‘Vengeance is Mine’ (“..sayeth the lord” being the pertinent completion of the quote referenced by the title) a grand technical and dramatic achievement for all concerned… excluding perhaps the surviving participants upon whose unhappy history the story is modelled.

7. Cannibal Apocalypse
(Antonio Margheriti, 1980)

A malordorous, flaming cocktail of gore, random insanity, post-Nam PTSD anxiety and high velocity urban zombie mayhem, ‘Cannibal Apocalypse’ seems purpose-built to bring joy to the hearts of Italian exploitation fans across the globe. I didn’t think ol’ Margheriti had it in him, but damn, this one is a banger. I reviewed it back in October.

8. Killer Constable
(Chih-Hung Kuei, 1980)

Seemingly taking greater inspiration from Japanese samurai epics and the work of Sam Peckinpah than from his fellow kung-fu specialists at Shaw Bros, horror specialist Chih-Hung Kuei’s sole excursion into wuxia territory makes for an unusually dark (in both senses of the word) and thematically complex addition to Hong Kong’s storied historical swordplay genre.

A world away from the stage-bound hi-jinks of Chang Cheh’s Shaolin sagas, this tale of a merciless and nihilistic law enforcer (Kuan Tai Chen) cutting a bloody swathe across 19th century Manchuria in pursuit of a horde of gold stolen from the Empress Dowager finds room for a surprising degree of historical verisimilitude, brooding bitterly upon state hypocrisy and racial/class-based discrimination in Chinese society, as well as reflecting more broadly on the moral legitimacy of violence, the ultimate futility of vengeance and other things that never seemed to unduly concern Clint Eastwood.

Partially shot night-for-night and utilising some beautifully jagged, deep focus mise en scene, ‘Killer Constable’ is a richly atmospheric production, with a menacing blue and brown colour palette that adds greatly to the dramatic intensity. Martial Arts junkies however can be assured that, despite the more ‘serious’ tone, the action here remains frequent, blood-thirsty and hair-raisingly exciting, performed and edited with such consummate skill that you’ll feel like standing up and applauding each time the eviscerated body of a significant character falls lifeless to the ground (which is to say, often).

A curiously unheralded masterpiece of Hong Kong popular cinema – or indeed violent action cinema in general – ‘Killer Constable’ impressed me a great deal, and I recommend it highly.

9. The Hitch-Hiker
(Ida Lupino, 1953)

Having perhaps become tired of being pushed into directing quote-unquote “women’s pictures”, the formidable Ida Lupino here took the opportunity to helm what is essentially the least woman-y picture imaginable – a bitter, dust-choked low budget crime/suspense thriller in which two good ol’ boys on a fishing trip find themselves shanghaied by a wandering psychopath (brilliantly played by none-more-twitchy William Talman) and drawn into an extended ordeal of bullet-sweatin’, gun-barrel-behind-driver’s-seat tension.

By the standards of Hollywood 1953, this is very rough stuff indeed. The early sequence in which we see Talman doing away with a lone woman in her car is pure, pre-‘Psycho’ horror, and by the time the central hostage situation is in full effect, we get a gruelling “relations between men in desperate straits” drama that could have come straight from the darker moments of Hawks or Huston, allied to a sense of razor-sharp, b-movie brutality, with the looming threat of sudden violence ever-present. (Watching this, it’s little wonder Peckinpah held Lupino in such high regard.)

Run-time may have been cut back to a triple bill-friendly 70 minutes, but for a story like this, that’s all that’s needed. By the halfway point, it feels as if the camera itself has five days stubble and BO, and not even the studio-mandated cutaways to the neat n’ tidy police station (where they’re closing in on the guy and everything’s just dandy) can blunt the raw, nihilistic edge of the movie’s best scenes. Enjoy ‘The Hitcher’, ‘Rabid Dogs’, Hitch-Hike, ‘Road Games’ or ‘Cohen & Tate’? Well that whole thing began here, and it began in style.

10. Terror in a Texas Town
(Joseph H. Lewis, 1958)

There seems to have been a bit of a reaction in cinephile circles in recent years against the idea of considering “Wagon Wheel Joe” Lewis (you’ll soon see how he got his nickname here) as an ‘auteur’. I’m not too bothered either way to be honest – more pertinent I think is the fact that every Lewis film I’ve seen to date absolutely rocks, each of them embracing genre cliché with pulpy gusto whilst adding just enough perverse weirdness to the formula to make things truly memorable - and the director’s final theatrical feature, ‘Terror in a Texas Town’, is no exception.

True, the whole thing may be a fairly transparent low budget rehash of ‘High Noon’ and John Sturges’ ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’, complete with gratuitous stock footage, endlessly repeated establishing shots and time-saving cutaways… but at the same time, I sure don’t remember either of the aforementioned films kicking quite this much ass, nor generating quite so many laughs, whoops, boos, curses and sundry other expressions of excitement from my personal one man peanut gallery.

Sterling Hayden is bizarrely loveable here as the straight-laced Swedish whaler who turns up in our titular Texas town to discover that his father has been done in by a cabal of land-grabbing degenerates, but Nedrick Young is even better as his opposite number – a cynical, alcohol gunfighter, his professional prospects stunted by an accident that has left him with a cast iron right hand.

There’s a touch of almost ‘Johnny Guitar’-like camp about Young’s character, as he swaggers around in his all-black, leather bad guy uniform as if it were fetish gear, his remaining hand shaking as he raises his glass and an evil, Bogart grin smeared across his chops. But then, everyone in this movie is equally larger than life, from Carol Kelly’s frazzled bad-girl-with-a-heart to Sebastian Cabot’s venal, cigar-chewing capitalist gutlord, to Victor Millan’s salt-of-the-earth Hispanic family man (no prizes for guessing his fate, in a wonderfully blunt bit of anti-racist, pro-working man audience manipulation).

As in ‘High Noon’, there’s a potent bit of HUAC/McCarthy-era drama lurking behind the scenes here – Hayden infamously named names, whilst Nedrick Young, less famously, was one of those named – and, as the poster reproduced above so subtly implies, the resulting head of steam all builds up to a truly jaw-dropping variation on the old “man who brings a knife to a gun fight” chestnut, as the twitchy, one-handed leather-daddy gunfighter finds himself facing off against an indomitable Swede wielding an actual, honest-to-god whaling harpoon. (I mean, a proper, Moby Dick-style javelin harpoon too, not some fancy-pants harpoon-gun kind of thing.) Unforgettable stuff, to say the least. I mean, the Freudian implications alone…

11. Mr Majestyk
(Richard Fleischer, 1974)

Ah – all Mr Majestyk ever wanted was to pick his melons. He’ll give you a job too – if you know melons. Because apparently there’s plenty to know.

Yes folks, welcome to the best movie you’ve ever seen about melon-farming. Charles Bronson was never been cooler than he is here, heading up Elmore Leonard’s own adaptation of one of his more eccentric variations on the old mano-a-mano conflict template in classic, stone-faced fashion (“he’s round the back – I shot him”).

Notorious nutter Al Lettieri (whom you’ll recall from ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Getaway’) is flat-out fantastic as the fuming, furious mob hitman our hero finds himself pitched against – a hyper-ventilating whirlwind of aggression who bounces perfectly off Bronson’s wall of stoic, zen-like calm.

Hearing Bronson give voice to Leonard’s clipped, taciturn dialogue is an absolute pleasure, and the wildly contrasting acting styles of the two leads adds a touch of hysterical humour to every scene they’re involved in. Combine this with Leonard’s tendency to make each one of the film’s many action set-pieces feel off-kilter, unpredictable and just a bit weird (you won’t believe the outrage you’ll feel at the sight of Lettieri’s goons machine-gunning Bronson’s melons), add Fleischer’s stolidly workmanlike ‘70s action direction and a great running gag about how both parties keep denigrating Paul Koslo’s smirking, would-be cowboy character (“who’s this asshole?”), and the result is a movie that had me grinning pretty much flat-out from beginning to end.

Set within a wonderful, lost world in which heroes wear double denim 24/7, dudes with too many rhinestones on their shirt are not to be trusted (especially when they talk too much) and anyone who’s anyone drives a sweet muscle car, ‘Mr Majestyk’ is a beautiful, big-hearted exemplar of everything that was good and right in American popular cinema during the 1970s. They sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and for that I shed a tear each night.

12. 52 Pick Up
(John Frankenheimer, 1986)

More Elmore Leonard here, as Frankenheimer relocates the Big El’s titular novel of kidnap and blackmail from the grey, industrial environs of ‘70s Detroit to the coked out neon sleaze haven of mid-‘80s L.A., a transaction carried out to what I think can be confidently termed “great effect”.

As usual, Roy Schneider pulls solid middle-aged leading man duty, whilst Ann Margaret does what she can to add some punch to the rather undercooked “relationship on the rocks” stuff, but it’s fair to say they’re both over-shadowed here by the villains Schneider’s character finds himself charged with out-smarting and taking down in order to both prove his manhood and assuage his infidelity-related guilt.

Clarence Williams III is convincingly wild-eyed and unpredictable as sleepy-eyed psychotic gang-banger Bobby Shy (the scene in which he menaces his girlfriend/trick-baby Vanity is flat-out terrifying), whilst Robert Trebor does the sweaty, wheedling low-life bit to perfection and John Glover plays amoral porn hustler and would-be criminal impresario Alan Raimy with all the subtlety of Alan Rickman on a coke bender. Together, this mob are as fine a gaggle of combustible, self-deluding scumbags as have ever been assembled on screen, simultaneously hilarious, clueless and genuinely dangerous, and it is their relentlessly OTT interactions that really make this movie.

Personally championed and dragged onto the screen by Frankenheimer after he read the novel on a plane, ’52 Pick Up’ finds the veteran slugger’s no nonsense “film the book” instincts tempered by the participation of the Cannon Group (who ended up financing the picture a year or so prior to their chaotic dissolution), and happily the trademark Cannon combo of slick action and wanton sleaze is in full effect here.

Several of the era’s most notorious porn stars writhe around in various states of chemical abandon at Glover’s movie shoots/parties, lending a ‘Body Double’-era De Palma feel to proceedings, whilst the videotaped murder that provides the plot’s main device is handled in a raw, queasily upsetting fashion that will stop most viewers in their tracks.

Though this rather, uh, full-on approach the story’s more exploitable elements has probably prevented ’52 Pick Up’ from gaining the kind of critical clout it deserves over the years, viewers happy to roll with the punches can chalk it up as a rock solid crime thriller, enlivened by both an exceptional set of performances and a period-specific aesthetic style so pumped up it almost feels as if we should be snorting the celluloid off a mirror.

13. Salvatore Guiliano
(Francesco Rosi, 1962)

Despite employing a similar combination of historical verisimilitude, challenging temporal dislocation and thriller-like construction to ‘Vengeance is Mine’ (see #6, above), Rossi’s ambitious reconstruction of the events surrounding the life and death of the titular Sicilian bandit and folk hero otherwise takes the complete opposite approach to Imamura’s film.

Rather than delving deep into the psychological make-up of his controversial subject, Rosi effectively removes him from the narrative altogether, concentrating instead upon the effect Guiliano’s decade-long campaign of partisan/outlaw activity had upon the world around him, the oft-excessive reaction of the authorities (both fascist and post-war varieties) to his troublesome presence, and the changes wrought as a result upon the remote, economically deprived milieu from which he and his gang of followers emerged.

Early in the film, a reporter for a mainland Italian paper tells his editor over the telephone that the only thing he can say for certain about the much-disputed circumstances surrounding Guiliano’s violent demise in 1950 is that “he’s definitely dead”. Two hours later, that remains about the only conclusive fact we in the audience can draw about him, in spite of all we’ve learned along the way about Sicilian culture and the power struggles underlying the establishment of the post-war Italian state.

Further highlighting the ambiguity of Guiliano’s legacy, I loved the way that Arrow’s blu-ray presentation of the film includes two contrasting interviews - one with a campaigner for Sicilian independence and proud descendent of Guiliano, who praises his ancestor as a patriot and champion of the people, dismissing his alleged involvement in an infamous massacre of unarmed left wing protesters as government disinformation… and the other with a historian who states in no uncertain terms that Guiliano was a hit man employed by the Mafia, who opened fire on the leftists at their command.

Of course, I know which of the two interview subjects I’m more inclined to believe, but with so many conflicting interests potentially creeping around taking turns with the ‘evidence’ in the immediate aftermath of the events portrayed in the film, it seems unlikely that the dust of this man’s conflicted life and death will ever be allowed to settle.

The genius of Rosi’s film lies in his understanding of the fallibility of recorded history, and his refusal to overlook it or to take sides merely for the sake of making a more conventional “bio-pic”. The result is both an invaluable portrait of rural Sicily in the mid-20th century and a fascinating meditation on the extent to which a man can change the course of both history and culture whilst remaining a complete enigma.

14. New Battles Without Honour & Humanity: The Boss’s Head / New Battles Without Honour & Humanity: Last Days of the Boss
(Kinji Fukasaku, 1975/76)

Whilst Kinji Fukasaku’s initial entry in Toei’s cash-grabbing ‘New Battles..’ trilogy feels like a slightly half-hearted rehash of the first ‘Battles..’ film, I’m inclined the think the two subsequent instalments (combined here for the sake of convenience) are actually pretty damn great, representing a real return to form for the series.

The decision to revert to entirely fictional, stand-alone yakuza stories, with Bunta-san and his pals portraying different characters in each, feels like a very wise one, allowing Fukasaku to sidestep the confines of jitsuroku “true account..” realism that tended to make the later entries in the original ‘Battles..’ quadrilogy feel like a series of board meetings punctuated by random violence.

Instead, the maestro here goes for a more melodramatic, all-out entertainment approach to blood-curdling Yakuza hi-jinks; cutting the labyrinthine narratives back down to simpler, emotionally-charged tales built around a core of central characters, indulging his oft-overlooked passion for extravagantly stylised lighting and production design, lavishing a bit more attention on this none-more-macho genre’s oft-abused female characters, and even taking the opportunity to throw in a bunch of what the Japanese film industry charmingly referred to at the time as “car action” (a tendency Fukasaku would take to its natural conclusion in ‘75’s aptly named ‘Violent Panic: The Big Crash!’).

Though the resulting films may by liable to catch some flak from fans as “jitsuroku-lite”, or for failing to match up to the harrowing and chaotic excesses of the director’s more acclaimed Yakuza dramas, I’d nonetheless defend them as extremely accomplished additions to the genre. Compelling, high octane gangster flicks with an absolute master of the form behind the camera and some of Japan’s most charismatic performers in front of it, all clearly having a blast, both ‘..Boss’s Head’ and ‘Last Days of the Boss’ earn an honoured place on my ever-growing list of “awesome Kinji Fukasaku films that anyone with the faintest interest in Japanese cinema and/or crime movies should watch immediately”.

15. Sinfonia Erotica 
(Jess Franco, 1980)

Given that period settings and gothic atmos often seem to have functioned as anathema to Jess Franco’s modernist / improvisational approach to filmmaking, it’s ironic that this Victorian hothouse stately home caper – complete with formal attire, horse-drawn coaches and classical music cues - turns out to be one of the most artistically engaged pictures to emerge from his second golden era in the early 1980s.

Having recently severed his ties with Erwin C. Dietrich’s Ascot/Elite organisation, Franco here takes full advantage of his new creative freedom to instigate a disorientating nightmare of mirror shots, reflecting glasses, transparent draperies and blinding, unfiltered sunlight, transforming almost every shot into a rulebook-shredding celebration of effervescent photographic mayhem.

Though the plot-line here is a familiar mash-up of quasi-Sadean hi-jinks, the sexual content is relatively restrained (despite finding time to throw in one of the only male/male sex scenes in the entire Franco canon), allowing Lina Romay to convey a sense of mental collapse and spiritual dissolution in a manner not entirely expressed through displays of naked writhing – which, by this stage, makes for a refreshing change.

Sharing the sense of bleak, dehumanised dread common to much of Franco’s best work from this era (from Doriana Grey through to Mil Sexos Tiene La Noche), ‘Sinfonio Erotica’ seems to some degree like a shot at a slightly more elegant / mainstream-acceptable project for Jess and Lina after a few years largely spent wallowing in the scummiest depths of exploitation – and for my money it achieves this goal surprisingly well (certainly more so than the bland, PG-rated thrillers Jess insisted on intermittently knocking out alongside his horror/sex work through the ‘70s and ‘80s), momentarily trespassing into territory more commonly inhabited by directors like Polanksi or Borowczyk, whilst revelling into a sense of psychedelic Victoriana that is all its own.

To be continued...