Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Best First Time Viewings: 2019
(part # 2 of 3)

11. Don
(Chandra Barot, 1978)

Nearly five years after I first cracked the spine of Todd Stadtman’s essential Funky Bollywood: The Wild World of 1970s Indian Action Cinema, I finally found at least a few hours this year to start acquainting myself with the cinematic territory the author so diligently maps out therein, beginning in the most obvious place possible with what has become far and away the best known ‘70s Bollywood crime movie amongst Western viewers (‘best known’ being very much a relative proposition in this instance), Chandra Barot’s 1978 Amitabh Bachchan vehicle ‘Don’.

What an absolute joy it was to sit in my living room on some militantly ring-fenced weekend afternoon earlier this year, curtains drawn against the sun, and to take this thing in in its correctly sub-titled entirety. It was all I could have hoped for.

What sticks in my mind most strongly from this 166 minute marathon of head-spinning plot convolutions and all-purpose sensory overload, I wonder? Bachchan’s assorted scenes of rough n’ tumble, seemingly Shaw Bros-inspired, ass-kicking mayhem, as he faces up to what must be one of the most intimidating line-ups of goons in motion picture history? Or, his exuberant hymn to the joys of chewing betel leaves (that one certainly came out of leftfield)? Perhaps ubiquitous Bollywood dancer Helen’s pneumatic gyrations, as Asha Bhosle gives voice to Kalyanji-Anandji’s mind-blowing ode to fornication, Yeh Mera Dil? Or Zeenat Aman’s unforgettable turn as an implacable female avenger?

All of these highlights are trumped though, I think, by the pivotal scene in which Bachchan, playing a humble good guy impersonating the titular Don, who happens to be his exact doppelganger (don’t ask) crashes his crime syndicate’s big party wearing an over-sized tiger head, delivering a song in celebration of his own basassery. As ever, written descriptions can only go so far when it comes to conveying the multitudinous pleasures of Bollywood, but thankfully in this instance, Youtube provides. If you’ve yet to enter the world of ‘Don’, consider the above links my new year’s gift to you.

12. The Blood Drinkers
(Gerardo de Leon, 1964)

From April:

“Originally filmed in the Tagalog language under the slightly more poetic title ‘Kulay Dugo Ang Gabi’ [“Blood is the Colour of the Night”] and re-cut and re-dubbed for U.S. audiences shortly thereafter, ‘The Blood Drinkers’ turns out in fact to be an under-appreciated masterwork of world-wide weird gothic cinema – a uniquely oneiric excursion into monster movie dream-space, in which ‘logic’ and ‘narrative’ are reduced to distant, blurry figures waving vainly from the far-off hills, whilst de Leon instead conjures a pungent, indelible atmosphere that at various points bears comparison to the work of Jean Rollin, José Mojica Marins, and the productions of Abel Salazar’s Cinematográfica ABSA in Mexico.

So, yes, basically what I’m saying is, if you were to boil down all of your old Mondo Macabro DVDs into a magic potion, drinking it would probably produce a vision rather like ‘The Blood Drinkers’. I hope I’m not over-selling it, but seriously folks, this is great stuff.”

13. Brawl in Cell Block 99
(S. Craig Zahler, 2017)

I confess I’ve been a bit slow in checking out S. Craig Zahler’s follow ups to the excellent Bone Tomahawk – indeed, ultra-macho, ‘hard man’ subject matter and online mutterings of right wing sympathies have caused a certain amount of hesitation on my part – but I’m glad I final took the plunge, because ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’, like his aforementioned debut, is as fine and rewarding a piece of no nonsense popular cinema as the 21st century has thus far managed to offer.

The basic plotline here is just as much of an unashamed b-movie throwback as the film’s splendidly lurid title; most of it could have been ported straight in from a ‘70s Jack Hill movie and/or some late ‘80s kick-boxing flick. The action meanwhile leans heavily on OTT horror movie gore, but for all the wanton bone-cracking and head-stomping, Zahler’s careful pacing and subtle, naturalistic approach to storytelling – together with legit, seriously intended performances from Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Carpenter – lend the material a sense of dramatic intensity and actual, honest-to-god poignancy that it could never have been expected to achieve in the hands of a less committed filmmaker.

Though a writer-director who pits a white, male hero with an American flag proudly planted on his front lawn against a coterie of Hispanic villains abetted by an evil East Asian abortionist is inevitably going to have some questions to answer in our current climate of cultural warfare, Zahler’s ability to frame such potentially contentious details as natural outgrowths of the story he is telling and the characters he is creating generally convinces, and the lengths he goes to to establish his protagonist as a respectful, thoughtful man rather than a mere rage-choked killing machine also helps create a far more nuanced and open-ended set of relationships than a basic plot synopsis might suggest on paper.

(Obvious though it may be to point this out meanwhile, judicious use of an excellent soul revival soundtrack also does a good job of undercutting the film’s potential to devolve into the dour, desaturated testosterone freak-out its marketing has tended to imply.)

I’ve not quite steeled myself for ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ yet, but ‘Brawl..’ at least leaves Zahler two-for-two when it comes to making artistically ambitious yet solidly entertaining contemporary genre movies, whose ability to deliver the goods on all levels almost puts me in mind of a young John Carpenter [steady now, let’s not get carried away here – Ed.].

14. Morocco
(Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg’s first American feature, made shortly after they wowed the folks back home with ‘The Blue Angel’, ‘Morocco’ takes the kind of throwaway romantic escapism for which Hollywood was (and is) often derided and raises it to an exquisite level of artistry, essentially minting the perennial formula which would give us both ‘Casablanca’ and ‘To Have and Have Not’ (the movie, not necessarily the book) a few years later, as well as creeping into higher cultural echelons via such works as Paul Bowles’ ‘The Sheltering Sky’.

You know the deal - star-crossed First World lovers thrown together in an exotic and treacherous locale (a North African city for preference), getting into scrapes with an oppressive authoritarian regime and lounging around in an elegant, multi-cultural bar/cabaret type environment, and so on. More specifically, the story here sees Dietrich’s mysterious, world-weary-yet-fragile nightclub singer falling for Gary Cooper’s happy-go-lucky French Foreign Legionnaire, with social and political forces and romantic rivalries pushing then hither and yon as the sparks of passion fly.

Dietrich, needless to say, is magnificent – not least in the notoriously provocative night club scene which sees her kissing a flapper-ish young lady full on the lips as part of her act - and Cooper is very likeable here too, in spite of his apparent insistence on playing his scenes ‘cowboy style’, with one foot raised on a table or box and his hands resting on his knee.

We should also spare a thought meanwhile for the character whom I thought represented one of the film’s most interesting divergences from cliché, Adolphe Menjou as the older, richer rival for Dietrich’s affections. Rather than the moustache-twirling villain we might reasonably have expected, Menjou remains courteous and gentlemanly throughout, humbly acknowledging his losing role in the film’s love triangle, and sincerely wishing his lady love the greatest of happiness. What a good egg, and such a rare thing to see in a melodrama like this – I was quite touched.

The real star of the show though is the film’s production design - the chiaroscuro lighting and highly detailed, claustrophobic sets mustered by von Sternberg to recreate the splendours of Morocco on the Paramount backlot are an incredible achievement, retaining the grand excess and technical sophistication of the late silent era, even as the film moves full speed ahead toward the darker, more complex undertones and literary allusions enabled by the coming of sound; about as fine a draught as the cinema had to offer in 1930, I’d venture.

15. The Asphyx
(Peter Newbrook, 1973)

Though it ostensibly falls under the banner of the “British horror film”, Peter Newbrook’s ‘The Asphyx’ feels in some ways like something else entirely – a morbid, ingenious and authentically disturbing venture, unique in terms of both its atmosphere and subject matter.

The story is a cracked alternate history of sorts, in which aristocratic paranormal researcher and early pioneer of moving pictures Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), left distraught after his wife and son are killed in an on-camera boating accident, discovers that a new lighting device he has invented to aid his photography allows him to witness the manifestation of an ungodly creature – which he names “the Asphyx” – that descends to suck the life force out of each living creature at the moment of death. Each soul, it transpires, has its own personal Asphyx – so if Sir Hugo could only find a way to trap it once it appears, preventing from reaching its target, what then…?

Needless to say, this bizarre metaphysical speculation, combined with the ghastly Frankensteinian atrocities which ensue as Sir Hugo undertakes perilous experiments, blasting assorted varieties of light at his subjects in the seconds before their bloody demise in order to try to gift them with artificial immortality, makes for a heady and unsettling brew.

On a more down-to-earth, cinematic level meanwhile, ‘The Asphyx’ also proves a bit of an oddity. Seemingly made by a cast and crew who otherwise never ventured near the horror genre, it is notable for almost entirely eschewing the usual ‘effects’ and familiar faces, despite the well-realised Victorian setting. Instead, it often plays like a straight costume drama gone very, very wrong; the opening scenes could almost be an Austen-esque comedy of manners, until Sir Hugo casually mentions to his guests that he’s been photographing dead people on behalf of The Psychic Research Society, and… suddenly we’re not just taking tea in the drawing room and traipsing through the flower gardens any longer.

British horror fans rarely seem to discuss this film – and I can kind of see why, to be honest – but it’s certainly one of the strangest, darkest and most thought-provoking outliers in the field, and is well worth a look.

16. A Return to Salem’s Lot
(Larry Cohen, 1987)

There’s so much going on in this name-only sequel to Tobe Hooper’s Stephen King adaptation that I’ve been trying to piece together a review for much of this year, but just haven’t been able to really get an angle on the whole thing.

Entirely jettisoning the ostensible source material from the outset, Cohen instead has the audacity to open his movie with what looks like some off-brand outtake from ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, as Michael Moriarty’s reckless, alpha male anthropologist attempts the document an Amazonian tribe’s human sacrifice rituals, setting the stage for the unsettling exploration of moral relativism which continues through the rest of the film.

After family responsibilities call him back to ‘civilisation’, he finds himself attempting to bond with his estranged son, setting up home in the titular New England town, which, in this version of the mythos, is a seemingly idyllic, old fashioned / old moneyed community whose dusty elders are in fact a coven of respectably turned out, socially conservative vampires, literally feeding off any young and unruly interlopers who are unwise enough to hit the city limits after dark. Cohen certainly goes all out in his depiction of this generational/cultural conflict, and if the queasy sight of a bunch of society ladies in Nancy Reagan-style get-up sinking their teeth into an unfortunate, Madonna-esque ‘punk’ girl must have been a bit “on the nose” for a late 80s audience, well, it’s no less startling for that.

Things soon get even weirder meanwhile, as no less a personage than Sam Fuller himself rocks up, cigar clenched in his teeth and a silver-plated luger in his fist, in search of fugitives from the Third Reich. “I’m not a Nazi hunter, I’m a Nazi KILLER,” he proudly declares.

Though ‘Return..’s relentlessly oddball plotting, questionable special effects, comedic banter and slap-dash action sequences may leave viewers who tuned in for a straight horror sequel feeling pretty non-plussed, us Larry Cohen fans on the other hand are in for an absolute treat – against all the odds, this stands as one of the most personal and uncompromising works of the great man’s career.

In true Cohen style, the script represents a multi-pronged mess of unsettling socio-political allegories, whilst the interplay between Fuller, Moriarty and Moriarty’s son as they bond into an ersatz family unit of vampire hunters is both funny and extremely touching. The director, who became a close friend of Fuller in the last years of the latter’s life, clearly put a great deal of himself into this multi-generational group of cantankerous, idiosyncratic male trouble-makers (working class, Jewish NY backgrounds entirely optional), and it’s difficult not to care for them just as much as he does as they set out together to kick the ass of some particularly hoity-toity, old moneyed New England evil.

17. Magic Cop
(Wei Tung, 1990)

More pretty-much-perfect pre-handover Hong Kong cinematic entertainment here as the late, great Lam Ching-Ying transposes his much-loved ‘Mr Vampire’ character to the realm of the contemporary cop thriller, playing a ghost-busting Taoist super-cop from a remote island province who travels to the big city to take on a zombie-wrangling ancient sorceress who seems to be using a drug gang as cover for her attempt to unleash an unspeakable demonic evil upon the world.

Needless to say, some breathtakingly choreographed, high velocity action, imaginative / improvised folk-magic shenanigans, crazed pyro/wind machine-based destruction mayhem and lashings of the inevitable goofball, low-brow humour all ensue, alongside some splendidly atmospheric, quasi-psychedelic Asian horror stylings.

To be honest, I find it difficult to come up with much to say about HK movies beyond the obvious (which is why I never manage to afford them full length reviews), so let’s just stick with the obvious state that this one’s a corker; if you’re looking for a good entry point into commercial cinema from this particular time and place, you could do a lot worse.

18. Eastern Condors
(Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, 1987)

“It's the American’s fault. They got us into this. Idiot Americans, fucking America, goddamn America!”
“When this is over, where do you think you'll go?”
“Back to America!”

This one can probably be best appreciated I think by entirely bypassing the issue of whatever comment it may or may not have been trying to make on the Vietnam war as experienced from a Hong-Kong Chinese perspective; instead, it can probably be enjoyed on a similar basis to Quentin’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ – a war movie about war movies, in which Sammo Hung and his all-star pals pay garrulous tribute to every one of the damned things they can remember (‘Deer Hunter’, ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – they’re all in here somewhere), decamping to the familiar terrain of Nam-in-The-Philippines to leap, blast, kick, slide, punch, stab and scrap their way through one of the most irreverent, out-of-control action extravaganzas the HK film industry ever produced.

The ‘Dirty Dozen’-derived plot sees an uncharacteristically slim n’ straight-faced Sammo leading an all-star contingent of Asian-American misfits (including such luminaries as Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-Ying) into the heart of the Mekong Delta to neutralise a cache of missiles thoughtlessly abandoned by the yanks, and may seem over-busy, whilst the Cantonese comedy banter threatens to become even more impenetrable than usual… but just let is slide - as soon as the bullets and/or fists start flying, this thing is ON, and there’s no looking back. The big finale on the ‘missile silo’ set in particular is stunning - surely one of the most extraordinary feats of long-form fight choreography ever realised.

19. Dark August
(Martin Goldman, 1976)

From October:

“The first thing which struck me about the film is its uncanny mixture of stylish, technically accomplished filmmaking (particularly in terms of its editing, camerawork and presentation of the natural environment), and candid naturalism in terms of its performances, plotting and character interactions. A very ‘70s combination, I would suggest, but one which was rarely attempted, let alone achieved, by filmmakers outside of the artier end of the Hollywood industry.

Far away from the work of even the most sophisticated of ‘70s independents (Romero, Hooper etc), ‘Dark August’ instead feels more like a distant cousin to such studio-backed quasi-horror films as Altman’s ‘Images’, Roeg’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ (definitely a conscious influence, I suspect), or even Philip Kaufman’s remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (which admittedly was made a few years later, but still).”


“To put it simply, ‘Dark August’ is excellent. If you’re a fan of subtle, slow-burn horror with a folk-magic / witchcraft element or independent ‘70s U.S. cinema in general, I would recommend obtaining a copy of Arrow’s new transfer and watching it post-haste.”

20. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood
(Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

To be honest, I think I probably spent quite enough time sifting through what I did and didn’t like about this shallow and divisive, yet techncially awe-inspiring and hugely entertaining, retromantic epic back in August.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

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

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

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

21. Nightmare at Noon
(Nico Mastorakis, 1988)

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

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

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

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

From October:

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

23. Cut and Run
(Ruggero Deodato, 1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25. Walker
(Alex Cox, 1987)

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

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

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

26. Erik the Conqueror
(Mario Bava, 1961)

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

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

27. Whirlpool
(José Ramón Larraz, 1970)

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

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

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

28. The Initiation
(Larry Stewart, 1984)

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

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

29. Dark Blue
(Ron Shelton, 2002)

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

30. Unearthly Stranger
(John Krish, 1963)

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Noir Diary # 7:
(Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

“I was just a lad, nearly twenty two
Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you
And now I'm lost, too late to pray…”
- Hank Williams, ‘Lost Highway’ (1949)

If the canonical ‘A List’ of ‘40s Film Noir is largely made up of relatively lavish studio pictures which were recognised as commercial and critical successes right from the out-set (‘Double Indemnity’, ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Mildred Pierce’, and so on), the ubiquity of these “big hitters” only serves to make the corresponding ‘B-list’ - comprising lower status studio programmers, independent productions and poverty row quickies which have had to fight tooth and nail for their cult status (and indeed their very survival) across the decades – all the more alluring to the genre’s fans.

Broadly speaking, these B-Noirs were a few years behind their Hollywood counterparts, hitting their creative peak around the dawn of the ‘50s, as crime films and mysteries slid further down the movie industry food chain and the fractured disillusionment of post-war masculinity began to make its presence felt on the cultural margins, but the film which many would consider the very best of the B-Noirs – perhaps the definitive exemplar of the style, even – actually hit far earlier, having been shot whilst the war overseas still raged.

Right off the bat, it’s easy to see why 1945’s ‘Detour’ has acted as pure cat-nip for critics and cineastes over the years. The work of an enigmatic, cult director frequently name-checked in Cahiers du Cinéma, this sub-70 minute item from ‘poverty row’ mainstays PRC boasts bold, expressionistic visuals, brutally minimal plotting and a script ripped to the gills with frazzled pulp-poetic artistry - much of it spat out with psychotic fervour by hate-choked harridan Ann Savage, truly an anti-heroine for the ages. (“Who do you think you’re talking to - a hick? Listen Mister, I been around, I know a wrong guy when I see one. Whatcha do, kiss him with a wrench?”) (1)

Beyond any of those considerable pleasures however, ‘Detour’ is chiefly notable I think for the way it pushes the comfortingly moralistic metaphysics of Hollywood noir way off the deep end into pure, unmoored existential fatalism.

To not put too fine a point on it, the classic ‘man’s-decent-into-hell’ narrative of noirs in the ‘Double Indemnity’ tradition tend toward a Judeo-Christian, or even specifically Catholic, view of things. The protagonist’s journey to perdition begins from the moment his moral judgement lapses, when greed or lust temporality take control of his actions. Thereafter, he finds himself rocketing straight toward a fate which, though it may seem puritanically harsh, is not unfair within the film’s moral schema. At the end of the day, it is the characters’ own weakness which leads them to damnation; the old ‘original sin’ jive writ large.

In ‘Detour’ however, poor old Al Roberts (Tom Neal) sets out to hitchhike coast-to-coast from New York to L.A. with nothing but love in his heart, and a healthy disinterest in monetary gain. (“What was it anyway,” he asks himself as he contemplates a ten dollar tip. “A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn't buy anything I wanted.”)

Al’s only aim in life is to re-join his beloved fiancée in California, and the extraordinary set of circumstances which instead find him heading back east with two potential murder raps hanging over him, a dead man’s bankroll in his pocket, no legal name or identity and the harried, unshaven face of a Death Row inmate, are not his fault in any way whatsoever. They are simply the result of extremely bad luck and a few botched attempts at self-preservation. As he puts it himself, in the voiceover monologue which comprises probably the film’s most famous dialogue;

“That's life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you. […] Yes, fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”

Who but the shadow-haunted Edgar G. Ulmer could dish out this kind of full strength Franz Kafka shit to the Great American Public a few months after VJ day, and call it entertainment? I ask you. No wonder us weirdos here in Europe love him so much.

Like many of Ulmer’s films, ‘Detour’ essentially seems to concern itself with the travails of a naïve/benevolent figure stumbling into dark and malevolent zone inhabited by weird and predatory figures who seem impossible to relate to or reason with. One minute, Al Roberts is thumbin’ a ride and dreaming of his darling, tired and dusty but unbowed. The next, he’s listening to the repellent Charles Haskell Jr (Edmund MacDonald) cheerfully declare that the wounds gauged out of his hands by a woman he recently tried to rape are going to turn into a real nice set of scars (“..there oughta be a law against dames with claws”), before he urgently requests a bottle from the glove compartment and begins chomping down some unspecified pills.

You’d imagine our protagonist must have been around the block a few times during his time as a New York nightclub pianist, but there’s nothing in the film to indicate that he’s used to dealing with this level of sleazoid craziness. (Neal’s nervous “uh, yep” responses to Haskell’s ‘locker room banter’ are great.)

More than anything, Roberts’ time with Haskell strikes me as a precursor to the kind of traumatic exposures of youthful, rational innocence to psychopathic, criminal experience which David Lynch always likes to include in his films – think Jeffrey encountering Frank for the first time in ‘Blue Velvet’, or Balthazar Getty sharing a ride with Robert Loggia’s Mr. Eddy in ‘Lost Highway’ (a film whose title would have been perfect for this film incidentally, had Hank Williams only had the good grace to record his definitive rendition of Leon Payne’s song a couple of years earlier).

And if Al thought Haskell was bad news, well… just wait until fate sticks out a particularly gangrenous foot and puts Vera (Ann Savage) in his path - good god.

In deference to standard film noir lingo, I’ve read Savage’s character described on various occasions as a ‘femme fatale’, but that designation feels both woefully off-base and laughably inadequate when it comes to trying to define Vera. No weak-assed “seductive spider luring unsuspecting men into her web” shit for this gal – she’s a full-on Amazonian destroyer right from the out-set, heart full of hate, claws at the ready and eyes black as coal.

Clearly a stronger and more lethal denizen of the same predatory netherworld that Haskell sprang from (it was she who left him with those aforementioned claw-marks), Vera is a venom-spitting, animalistic witch whom the script gifts with absolutely no redeeming qualities or sympathetic characteristics whatsoever.

We could sketch in the kind of hellish upbringing which must have led her to adopt such an unholy attitude at the tender age of twenty-four, but you’ll get little help from the script in that regard, beyond an implication (unconfirmed) that she is slowly dying from TB or some similar condition. Or, we could go for a straight misogynistic reading and blame her with dragging Roberts down to hell… except for the fact that Haskell’s death had already left him riding the Lost Highway before he even met her.

Perhaps it is best however to simply see Vera more as a personification of pure, undiluted self-preservation and material greed than as a human character, or as a demon sent forth simply to accelerate Roberts’ journey to damnation, her intersection with him merely a symptom of the randomised cruelty of the universe.

But – and it’s a BIG ‘but’ - all that I’ve written above presupposes that we believe the story Al Roberts is selling us. Another reason ‘Detour’ has remained so endlessly fascinating across the decades is that, though Ulmer never deigns to obviously signpost the idea for his audience, the film’s narrative bears all the hallmarks of what later generations of viewers will likely recognise as a classic “unreliable narrator” type deal.

Excluding the opening framing device which finds the doomed and dishevelled Roberts bemoaning his fate in a road-side diner, the entirely of ‘Detour’ is recreated for us in flashback, filtered through his subjective recollections. With this in mind, do the extraordinary circumstances which put him in the immediate proximity of two suspicious deaths whilst remaining guilt-free really, on reflection, seem remotely plausible..?

Or, are we merely seeing the stories he’s cooked up for the judge, repeated and rehearsed so many times in his mind’s eye that they’ve supplanted the more damning truth in his memory?

Once this seed of doubt is planted of course, everything we see in the film becomes suspect. Could any real person be as single-mindedly monstrous as Vera, or as unrepentantly sleazy as Haskell? And what about Al’s seemingly idyllic relationship with his sweetheart back in New York? It seems unlikely that she’d suddenly up sticks and relocate to the West Coast without prior warning, leaving him behind to do as he pleases, if things were really this rosy between the couple. Could it be that she actually made the move specifically to get away from him..?

In other words, are all of the events we see portrayed in ‘Detour’ merely the self-justifying fantasies of a character who is in fact exactly what he initially appears to be – a psychotic, delusional drifter, lost forever on the road, haunted by the ghosts of the crimes and personal failures he refuses to acknowledge?

Whether or not Ulmer consciously intended us to engage with this subjective reading of the film, we will probably never know, but for viewers who want to take the plunge, all the clues are there for the taking, right down to our narrator’s guilt-diffusing suggestions that his ‘victims’ would probably have croaked sooner or later anyway (Haskell’s pill-popping, Vera’s TB).

Viewed anew through this distorting lens, ‘Detour’ begins to feel less like a prime slab of Film Noir and more like a precocious early exemplar of the kind of reality-dissembling psychological horror which would eventually reach full flower in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in the wake of ‘Vertigo’, ‘Repulsion’, Bergman’s ‘Persona’, and Altman’s ‘Images’. (2)

Certainly, in keeping with much of Ulmer’s work, ‘Detour’ carries a heavy-lidded, narcoleptic atmosphere, instinctively signalling to us that reality is not quite what it seems. From the ludicrously fog-shrouded, consciously artificial ‘New York’ scenes, which seem to be taking place more in some featureless, oneiric void than a modern cityscape, to the slow, languorous scene transitions and heavy use of super-imposition, we’re in Uncanny Valley here right from the moment Roberts’ internal monologue takes over.

Elsewhere, Ulmer even manages to incorporate some of his beloved expressionist horror tropes into the film’s production design. The tightly directed spot-lights which illuminate Roberts’ eyes against his otherwise darkened face as he begins reminiscing in the diner seem to have come straight from Lugosi in ‘White Zombie’ (or perhaps more pertinently, Karloff in Ulmer’s ‘The Black Cat’?), whilst our first glimpse of Ann Savage, during the scene in which Al picks up her up at a deserted gas station, sees her made up as if she’s literally just risen from the grave – dirt and grease in her hair, cracked white pancake make-up and heavy shading beneath her eyes. You can almost imagine her brushing the coffin-dust off her shoulders just after the scene cuts.

That Ulmer manages to achieve this ambience whilst simultaneously anchoring the film in the dusty, blue collar realism characteristic more grounded, ‘50s style noirs – shot-on-location backwoods scrubland framing a drab world of motel cabins, gas stations, cheap suits and cardboard suitcases which defines the perimeters of transient American life – is a remarkable achievement.

I know I keep going on about him in these noir reviews, but when it comes to mapping out the treacherous horror-noir borderlands within which ‘Detour’ seedily lurks, it’s difficult not to recall the work of Jim Thompson. During the latter half of the film in particular, the kind of gruelling psychological torment which would later define Thompson’s novels becomes almost palpable, as Vera and Al are forced by the unswervable impulses of blackmail and greed to co-operate and co-exist despite being pretty much continually at each other’s throats, their mutual hatred pushing them even closer together as distrust refuses to allow either of them let the other out of their sight.

By the time we find two characters who can’t stand the sight of each other spending entire days playing cards in a stuffy, furnished apartment as they passively wait for some old man neither of them have actually met to die of natural causes… well, there is a sheer surrealistic perversity to the situation that seems to pre-empt Thompson’s frighteningly bleak sense of humour, with the European-aligned Ulmer perhaps arriving at the same destination via Kafka or Sartre.

Uniquely perhaps, the irresolvable mystery of intent behind ‘Detour’ leaves us with two films in one, each of them authentically brilliant. Even if we allow Al Roberts to take us (and himself) for suckers, we’re still left with an eye-watering shot of pure, cask strength b-noir essence – a quintessential tale of hapless rube caught up in a world that increasingly resembles a giant mousetrap, walls closing in and exits disappearing as fate inevitably leads him on toward a room full of what Vera memorably describes as “…that sweet perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers”.

And, if we call our narrator on his BS meanwhile… well, we’ll soon find ourselves descending into even darker realms, as that good old abyss begins to look back into us, reflected impossibly off the asphalt of the Lost Highway.

Poster & Lobbycards sourced via Wrong Side of the Art.

(1) ‘Detour’s script is ostensibly credited to William Goldsmith, adapted from his own novel, though research carried out by Ulmer biographer Noah Isenberg indicates that very little of Goldsmith’s work actually made it to the screen. Instead, Ulmer (we presume) pretty much rewrote the film on the fly during shooting, entirely dropping a parallel storyline involving Roberts’ girlfriend’s travails in Hollywood and created the finished film’s tightly-locked subjective flashback structure during editing.

(2) Why do all of these films – ‘Detour’ included – have ambiguous / abstract one word titles, incidentally? Answers on a postcard, please.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Kaiju Notes:
Godzilla Raids Again
(Motoyoshi Oda, 1955)




Ok, so first off – that English language title. It’s always really annoyed me. Ostensibly I suppose, it must have been intended to be read as a lazy pun on the “…rides again” suffix sometimes attached to sequels, but really this just makes it doubly nonsensical.

Firstly, given that he is a giant dinosaur with very short legs, the laws of physics decree that Godzilla is extremely unlikely to ever ‘ride’ anything, and secondly because, well -- raids? Since when has Godzilla ever raided anything? What did they think he was gonna do, hop out of the ocean and steal all the candy bars or something? When The Big G hits dry land, he is playing for keeps! This is an essential part of his character, I feel – strategy and short term goals (prerequisites of a ‘raid’) play no part whatsoever in determining his actions. When he’s on the scene, he’s just going to get stuck in and keep on rocking until something forcibly stops him (or, until he just gets tired and slinks off somewhere to have a nap, which is allowable on the basis that he basically just behaves like a 200-foot-tall cat; terrifying and adorable in equal measure).

So yeah, fuck this stupid title, and the clueless Anglophone marketing department it ‘rode’ in on. (Not that the original Japanese Gojira no Gyakushū [roughly, ‘Godzilla’s Revenge’] is much better, it must be said, but it’s at least slightly less annoying.)

Though a decidedly minor effort on its own terms – the very definition of a law-of-diminishing-returns short order sequel, rushed into production after ‘Godzilla’ proved a hit, with Toho programme director Motoyoshi Oda subbing for Ishirō Honda, who was already committed to other projects - ‘..Raids Again’ is nonetheless historically significant on the basis that it establishes the template which would be followed by all of Toho’s subsequent Showa-era Godzilla movies.

In other words – Godzilla pops up like a bad penny in some random place (a remote, snow-capped island in this case) and takes on a new opponent (big spiny, armoured fella Anguirus). The resulting action is inter-cut with a somewhat charming but basically forgettable human story, and beyond that the film simply concentrates on delivering vast quantities of stuff that young boys want to see - model tanks and artillery pieces truckin’ around the place, stock footage battle-ships manoeuvring about, tiny fighter planes endlessly shooting their missiles at mountainsides, and outlandish monsters waving their arms about looking monstrous. It may all get rather monotonous for us grown-ups, but even today, show me the ten year old who wouldn’t be totally down with this relentless programme of toy town militarism.

Further evidence that ‘…Raids Again’ is not exactly courting a discerning, adult audience can be found in the film’s obligatory “big governmental briefing” scene, which sadly feels like a rather tired parody of the surreal and politically charged sequence from Honda’s ‘Godzilla’.

Herein, the two daring commercial pilots who inadvertently witnessed the first big dust-up between Godzilla and Anguirus are asked by the resident ‘expert’ to pick the latter monster out of an illustrated children’s book – 1945’s The Dinosaur Book by Edwin H. Colbert, apparently.

“Yeah, that’s the guy, I’d recognise him anywhere” they basically declare, pointing to an Ankylosaurus, prompting the chief scientist to inform the assembled dignitaries that this beast is thought to have been around 150-200 feet tall (?!), and that it’s brain was located partially in its thorax, and partially in its abdomen (?!?!). He furthermore proceeds to step pretty firmly into the realm of ‘stuff we will almost certainly never know about dinosaurs’ when he declares that the Ankylosaurus was known for its extremely aggressive and territorial behaviour.

Now, I’m no palaeontologist, but… I can only assume the good folk back at the university made sure they kept this guy well out of the way when it was time to put the skeletons together. (1)

Though my sincere hope that the Godzilla sequels might play out somewhat less idiotically in their original Japanese iterations was severely shaken by all this however, it was nonetheless nice to see sober, sad-eyed Takashi Shimura turning up again as Dr Yamane from Honda’s ‘Godzilla’ (one of very few personnel to cross over to the sequel on either side of the camera).

Though the gratuitous use of repeated footage as padding is inexcusable, I enjoyed the way Dr Yamane projected a movie of Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo from first film (notably more impressive than anything in this one), before despairingly telling Osaka’s high-and-mighty, “yes, so that’s pretty much what’s going to happen it your city. We currently have no way to stop it, and no plans for defeating Godzilla. Any questions?”

I wish I could report that Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects footage here – including Big G’s first proper Kaiju battle! – are impressive enough to save the day, but sadly the monster footage too feels compromised and sub-par, compared to that seen in the first film. The Godzilla suit used in this one may have reportedly been a lot more comfortable and easier for filming, but it doesn’t look as good on screen, and, inexplicably, some of the monster battle scenes appear to have been under-cranked for some inexplicable reason, speeding up the monsters’ movements and thus ruining the natural / animalistic movements which were the chief advantage of the “man in suit” approach.

Quite why they did this, I have no idea, but if nothing else, it at least seems an apt visual metaphor for the rushed, rather slap-dash nature of this production.

Despite these set-backs however, there is a certain amount of good stuff to be enjoyed in ‘..Raids Again’. A slight touch of first ‘Godzilla’s apocalyptic gravitas can be detected during the monsters’ destruction of Osaka, and the ominous black-out which eclipses the city’s famed neon signage in particular is beautifully conveyed with some well executed matte shots across the city’s harbour.

The sheer brutality with which The Big G takes down Anguirus – the franchise’s first big K.O. moment! - is also pretty cool, as is a spectacular shot during their initial battle, in which the two monsters plunge into the water from a towering cliff-face (an arresting image which would be reprised, far less successfully, at the conclusion of 1963’s ‘King Kong vs Godzilla’), and the climactic airborne attack upon Godzilla’s glacial island hang-out is excitingly and dynamically filmed, at least initially, before the tedium of all those endless tiny planes shooting off their payloads sets in.

Breezy, likeable and fairly good fun for the most part, ‘..Raids Again’ is eminently watchable, and even somewhat admirable as a finely honed bit of efficient movie-making craft, but it is of course doomed to be forever eclipsed by the gargantuan shadow of its predecessor.


(1) In fairness – and I stress again that *I’m no palaeontologist* - I suspect that the extraordinary claim in this film’s dialogue re: the location of the Ankylosaurus’ brain could merely be a misunderstanding and/or mistranslation of the theory that some dinosaur species may have had enlarged nodules at various points within their nervous system, which helped their tiny brains to co-ordinate bodily movement and so forth...?