Monday, 26 October 2009

Erotic Nights of the Living Dead

Boy, they sure don't make 'em like they used to.... In 1979 Italian exploitation extraordinaire Joe D'Amato made Porno Holocaust, boldly fusing hardcore porn and gory splatter together in one film. Box office gold seemed certain, but it was not to be - Porno Holocaust with its sucking, fucking and flesh eating zombies, proved a misfire. Undaunted, D'Amato took another shot at the formula in 1980 with Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (or Sexy Nights of the Living Dead, the title on the print used for Shriek Show's DVD) which pared down the sex of Porno Holocaust, and amped up the horror. Erotic Nights of the Living Dead's threadbare plot concerns a property developer (Manlio Certosino) meddling in the affairs of a seemingly deserted island which he intends to exploit for the Caribbean tourist trade. Despite the warnings from the island's two sole inhabitants, an old man and his beautiful bewitching grand daughter (Laura Gemser), and against the advice of the cautious skipper of his yacht (George Eastman) he continues with his plans unwittingly causing the dead buried in the island's graveyard to rise up and take revenge...

At two hours Erotic Nights is a bit of a slog, the hardcore stuff adds a lot of fat to the movie, but the film has a number of longeurs where the film grinds to a halt so D'Amato can spend someone else's money pointing his camera at pretty shots of the ocean. The sex while not as frequent as Porno Holocaust really has only one big hardcore sequence where Certosino beds two whores in his hotel room. The other sex scenes are not nearly as explicit - Laura Gemser (who never preformed hardcore sex on celluloid) has two soft love scenes in the film. Also, worth mentioning the rather astonishing sequence where George Eastman kicks back with a stripper who has an amazing technique for uncorking champagne bottles (and yes, you should rush out and buy the DVD for this scene alone). The zombie element in the film is strictly poverty row stuff - don't expect any of the moldering creations of Giannetto De Rossi that shuffled through Fulci's zombie epics, the living dead in D'Amato's film are as mangy as they get.

Despite the disastrous pacing and the low budget, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead somehow works. Whatever the shortcomings of D'Amato's cheap day-for-night photography, the film does have a strange dreamy atmosphere to it, and there's at least one extraordinary sequence, where Gemser and Eastman are frolicking in the surf as the zombies watch them from the shore. The presence of Laura Gemser in D’Amato’s films always lift them out of the mire, and she's especially gorgeous here; the director really caught her beauty at its most ethereal. George Eastman (who penned the screenplay) is good too, he has real presence in the movie, and like Gemser is one of Joe D'Amato's greatest assets (his appearance in the D'Amato's 1981 film Absurd turns a routine slasher film into a minor classic). Must mention also the brilliant electronic soundtrack, by the unlikely sounding Pluto Kennedy (or Marcello Giombini if you prefer) which to me sounds like a sickly and feverish Tangerine Dream.

Shriek Show's DVD is fine addition to their Euro-cult library and is a good presentation of D'Amato's film in all its cork popping uncut glory. Extras include about 27 minutes of alternate scenes, a photo gallery and the French opening credits as an Easter egg. Be warned though - Shriek Show has put out a softcore edition of the film also, so be sure to avoid that.

Lights! Camera! Kong!

Dino de Laurentis’ contemporary remake of Cooper and Schoedsack's iconic monster movie earned some considerable critical heat upon its release but for this viewer, it was my first cinematic encounter with King Kong and thanks to a healthy run of TV screenings throughout the 80’s the film would become a favourite of mine...

The story remains by and large the same as the original, with a few changes. Charles Grodin plays Fred S. Wilson, an oilman heading up an expedition to the mysterious fog enshrouded Skull Island. On board is paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) and bubble-headed wannabe actress Dwan (Jessica Lange, and yeah its really spelled Dwan), picked up by the crew when her life raft was spotted adrift on the ocean. Once at Skull Island, its business as usual as Kong takes a shine to Dwan, and Wilson hatches a plan to sell Kong to the natives back in New York...

There’s a scene after the first encounter with Kong at the sacrificial altar, where Jeff Bridges says to an incredulous Charles Grodin, Who do you think did that, a guy in an ape suit? – this cheeky exchange sums up the breezy mood of Kong ’76. The pioneering stop motion effects that brought Kong to life in the 1933 film have been replaced here by Rick Baker’s apesuit. It’s a dicey prospect and admittedly some of the effects creak and groan like old floorboards, most of all in the final act where Kong scales the World Trade Center. Still, it’s a huge leap forward from Toho’s 1962 effort King Kong vs Godzilla, and while Peter Jackson’s 2005 film is Kong is the most magisterial, Baker’s face masks are wonderfully expressive – the look of melancholy on Kong’s face, held captive in the hull of the ship is heartbreaking. Carlo Rambaldi designed an animatronic Kong but it looks awful and thankfully is used fleetingly in the finished film.

Of the three leads, Jessica Lange, girlish, gorgeous and sexy in her first role looks every bit the movie star her character aspires to be in the film. The scene where Kong playfully removes her skimpy ceremonial costume is genuinely erotic stuff. Jeff Bridges, bearded and beatific is strong as the hero and Charles Grodin playing the oilman-turned-PT Barnum is great, and throws out some of the film’s best lines (Take plenty of TNT when you go inland. Any sign of a monkey bigger than four feet send him bang-bang).

Director John Guillermin, having previously made The Towering Inferno does a fine job bringing Lorenzo Semple Jr's screenplay to the screen. The widescreen vistas of Skull Island (or Hawaii) look great and there are a number of excellent set pieces throughout the film – look out for the brilliant sequence where a fearsome Kong smashes his way through the island’s high wooden wall and is snared in the chloroform pit. Also worth mentioning is John Barry for his suitably epic score, and cameraman William Kline who’s shadowy lighting smooths over some of the shortcomings of Rick Baker’s ape suit.

Long available on Paramount DVD on both sides of the Atlantic, the best way to currently see King Kong ’76 is the region-free French Blu-Ray which towers above its DVD companions. Included on the Blu is a short making of, and some deleted scenes. Well worth seeking out.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Naples Connection

Lucio Fulci’s one and only contribution to the Italian Crime genre, Contraband made in 1979 follows Luca (played by the always great Fabio Testi), a big time cigarette smuggler working out of Naples. When a routine drop off goes sour, Luca learns that a sadistic drug dealer (Giorgio Mariuzzo of French Connection fame) is cutting in on his territory and wiping out the local bosses. After his brother has been viciously gunned down, and his wife kidnapped Luca becomes hell bent on revenge…

While Contraband is certainly not a high point of Italian Crime cinema, it remains a minor classic of the genre enjoying something of an infamous reputation for its sheer violence. Bodies are riddled red from bullet hits, heads torn asunder from machine gun fire and in one of Fulci’s most notorious death scenes; a woman’s face is scorched with a Bunsen burner. But aside from the violence, Fulci seems very much disconnected from the film, and his usual stylish direction is notably absent here. Even the look of the film is jarring in comparison with the incredible widescreen vistas of the director’s previous film Zombie Flesh Eaters. Other than an eerie sequence early on in the film in a smoky sulfur mine, Contraband may well be cameraman’s Sergio Salvati’s most unremarkable film, shot in that soft, gauzy style that might have lend itself to the fantasy world of Fulci’s 1983 film, Conquest, but here it is something of a miscalculation. Its possible Fulci was already looking ahead to the feverish visions of City of the Living Dead made the following year and Contraband, with its speedboats and double-crossings was a stop gap until then.

Still if its thrills and spills you want, there’s plenty of it here, and Contraband is a fine muscular action film. Incidentally look out for Fulci’s Hitchcockian cameo in the film’s blazing climax, as he dishes out some machine gun etiquette to the rival gang. Blue Underground’s edition of Contraband remains the best presentation of the film, following on from an inferior (and cut) Dutch DVD, known under one if its alternative titles The Smuggler. For Fulci fans and Italian Crime fans it is, despite its shortcomings, required viewing.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

Vincent Ward’s excellent if not entirely successful medieval adventure story is set in Scottish village in the 14 century as the Black Death is ravaging its way across Europe. A teenage boy experiences a prophetic dream vision of deliverance from the plague – a brave band of explorers must journey to a distant land and mount a spire on top of a church, and with this offering to God, sparing the village from certain doom. Their quest involves tunneling deep into the earth where they rather ingeniously emerge out into modern day New Zealand.

The idea of characters displaced in time is hardly new - Les Visiteurs had Jean Reno play a 12th century knight lost in 20th century France, while Time After Time flung HG Wells and Jack the Ripper into modern day San Francisco – but The Navigator uses this premise with intelligence and restraint. There’s not much in the way of knockabout comedy (like the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek IV, arriving in 20th century California to be confronted by a punk and a beat box) and most of the action set in New Zealand takes place at night. One sequence has the strangers in a strange land negotiate a busy highway, but it’s a poignant rather than comic scene as one their men is left behind, too afraid to make the crossing.

Occasionally Ward’s ambitious vision runs ahead of the film – a boat journey across a harbor, encountering a surfacing submarine (which the hapless explorers attack with their spears and rocks), doesn’t quite come off, but still it’s a minor complaint in an otherwise wonderful heartfelt adventure story. Fans of Bergman and Tarkovsky should seek this one out as The Seventh Seal and Andrei Rublev were no doubt a visual influence on Ward who shot the sequences in the snowy Scottish village in luminous black and white. Ward’s direction is stylish and compliments nicely the mystical mood of the film. One wonders what Ward could have done with Alien³ which he was attached to briefly before David Fincher came on board.

If you can still find it, the best presentation of The Navigator on DVD remains Australia’s Madman edition which sports a very fine transfer of the film, if not a whole lot of extras. Also available from Madman is Ward’s 1984 film Vigil which is a fine companion piece to The Navigator.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Lucio Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse

Four of the Apocalypse made in 1975 was to be the second western Lucio Fulci would direct, appearing between Massacre Time (1966) and Silver Saddle (1978). In comparison with the director's other westerns Apocalypse is far less conventional and easily the best of the three. The story begins in the town of Salt Flat, where the Sheriff (a nice little cameo by Donald O'Brien) decides to clean house of the town's misfits and undesirables. Four strangers are exiled from the town to wander the wilderness in search of a new home. They are Stubby, a card-shark conman, Bunny a pregnant hooker, Clem, a washed-up drunk and Sam, an eccentric African slave. Along the way they meet Chaco a seemingly friendly gunslinger, who provides them with food courtesy of his sharp shooting. But soon things take a darker twist as the gunslinger turns out to be anything but benevolent...

Four of the Apocalypse has long been considered something of a bloodthirsty, savage western with scenes of torture and rape. Even Fulci manages to factor in some cannibalism at one point. But surprisingly Apocalypse turns out to the one of Fulci's most optimistic films, at least in the final bitter sweet act of the film where the birth of a baby brings new hope to a town on the edge of oblivion. Its one of Fulci's most leftfield plot turns considering he rarely allows his characters to get away unscathed before the credits of his films roll. Despite the obvious western genre iconography, Fulci's film could easily be refitted as a post apocalyptic sci-fi drama, with the characters lost in a harsh unforgiving landscape stalked by a sinister scavenger of the wastelands, and carrying with them the promise of a new beginning for a doomed civilization.

Four of the Apocalypse is one of Fulci's most enjoyable films of the 70's. Of the eclectic cast two of the more interesting faces include Lynne Frederick who plays the long suffering Bunny - even through the canned dub she turns in a good, gutsy performance, and Michael J. Pollard playing the bumptious alcoholic Clem is, well Michael J. Pollard. Its the two leads that really deliver here - Fabio Testi playing Stubby with depth and sensitivity, and Tomas Milian playing the sinister gunslinger, his role pitched somewhere between Rasputin and Charles Manson. It’s a leisurely paced film, and Sergio Salvati’s soft focus cinematography further adds to the strange ethereal nature of the film. Worth mentioning also, the soundtrack with its soft pastoral folky rock. Its been known to grate the nerves of some viewers but it’s not nearly as brazen as the music of Keoma or Mannaja.

Anchor Bay's edition of Four of the Apocalypse (later appropriated by Blue Underground) sports a fine presentation of the film, framed around 1.85 and featuring an English audio track which switches to Italian (with English subs) for portions of the film that were not originally dubbed into English. Extras include interviews with Fabio Testi and Tomas Milian. For Fulci fans, the film remains required viewing and for the more adventurous western fan, the film certainly deserves a look.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Plutonium Shores Mix Tape Vol. 1 - Horror Soundtracks

This compilation I put together last year is mostly well known classics and one or two personal favourites that I snuck on (like Manhunter and two selections from The Burning), plus a snippet of dialogue from Halloween. I hope everyone downloads a copy and has a listen...I specifically made it CD lenght so it can be copies onto a CD-R, so a lot of good stuff didn't make the final cut, so a second volume is promised....

The album is in a zip file, and uploaded to Mediafire... Anyone unfamiliar with Mediafire, simply follow the link below and enter the captcha if prompted. Zip is about 88M, and is tagged and numbered for mp3 players....

Whispers In The Dark - A Plutonium Shores Compilation

The blood on the tracks...

01 The Burning - Campfire Story - Composed by Rick Wakeman
02 Deep Red - Main Titles - Composed By Goblin
03 Phantasm - Main Titles - Composed By Fred Myrow and Malcom Seagrave

04 Manhunter - Coelocanth - Composed by Coelocanth
05 Nosferatu - On the Way - Composed by Popol Vuh
06 Halloween - Dialogue by Donald Pleasance

07 A Nightmare on Elm Street - Main Titles - Composed by Charles Bernstein
08 Hellraiser - Resurrection - Composed by Christopher Young
09 The Beyond - Main Titles - Composed by Fabio Frizzi

10 The Shining - Main Titles - Composed by Wendy Carlos
11 Cannibal Holocaust - Main Titles - Riz Ortolani
12 The Burning - End Titles - Composed by Rick Wakeman

13 Suspiria - Main Titles - Composed by Goblin
14 The Thing - Humanity Part 1 - Composed by Ennio Morricone
15 Night of the Living Dead - End Titles - library music

16 Theme from 2000 Maniacs - Composed by HG Lewis
17 Videodrome - 801 A/B - Composed by Howard Shore
18 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - End Titles - Composed by Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell

Friday, 5 June 2009

Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha is something of a lost Martin Scorsese film these days, its certainly the least celebrated film of his dazzling run of pictures from the 70’s even more so than the underrated New York New York. Until I got hold of the MGM DVD the film had eluded me for years – it rarely turned up on network TV, and in my years of collecting VHS I never managed to unearth a copy. The film made in 1972, and set in rural America during the Depression was another Roger Corman cash-in on the success of Bonnie & Clyde (1967, and followed Corman’s own Depression era exploitation film Bloody Mama, 1970), and stars a fresh faced Barbara Hershey and David Carradine as the outlaw lovers holding up the railroad company and giving the loot over to the railroad union.

For a Scorsese film of this vintage, Boxcar Bertha is remarkably restrained – it has neither the wild experimental style of Scorsese’s 1967 debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door, or the sheer stylistic brilliance of Mean Streets (which announced the arrival of a major American film maker), but is simply a competent exploitation film, complete with violence, sex, and the standard car chases (which Corman insisted upon). Scorsese interjects the film with some style here and there but overall it has a journeyman quality to it. Its possibly down to Corman’s ruthless shooting schedule – a one-shot 24-days, but perhaps Scorsese was putting his head down after his sacking from The Honeymoon Killers production in 1968 for making an art film out of something considerably more down and dirty. Still, it’s a well shot film and the performances are great – especially Barbara Hershey. Hershey and Carradine were a couple at the time and the loves scenes have a real warmth. Also among the cast is the great John Carradine as the railroad boss.

Boxcar Bertha may suffer from a sense of anonymity, but Scorsese fans will surely enjoy one of the climatic scenes where a character is crucified against a railroad car – the reverse angle shot of the nails splitting the wood looks forward to an almost identical shot in The Last Temptation of Christ some 16 years later, which of course included Barbara Hershey who played Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, it was Barbara Hershey who, during the course of shooting Boxcar Bertha, introduced Scorsese to Nikos Kazantzakis' great novel.

Postscript: In between writing this review and posting it here, I found out that David Carradine has passed away. I kept the review as it was, I didn’t want to rethink the film in the shadow of Carradine’s death. Carradine, while never an actor I truly loved left behind an eclectic and interesting body of work, appearing in among others Mean Streets (1973), Death Race 2000 (1975), Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg (1977), Larry Cohen’s Q The Winged Serpent (1982) and of course the eponymous character from Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003/4)

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Fires On The Plain

Kon Ichikawa's anti-war masterpiece Fires On The Plain is set during the final devastating days of the Imperial Japanese Army's campaign in the Philippines and follows Private Tamura, exiled from his unit (for having TB) and left to wander through a bleak and dangerous landscape. Along the way he encounters peril from American forces and more deadly still, his own comrades who due to starvation and desperation have resorted to murder and cannibalism. All the while throughout his journey he passes the mysterious fires on the plain, which may be a sign of benevolent farmers or death-traps set by guerillas...

50 years after it was made Fires on the Plain remains a powerful experience. With a searing honesty it begs the question of how it was received by Japanese audiences in 1959, with its depiction of soldiers murdering their comrades to feast on their flesh. Certainly the scenes where the wasting Japanese soldiers debate surrendering to the Americans in the hope of being fed is a departure from other contemporary war films like Toho's 1960 epic Storm Over the Pacific (aka I Bombed Pearl Harbor), which portrayed the Japanese as men of great courage and sacrifice. However Kon Ichikawa who saw first hand the destruction of Hiroshima in 1945 has no time for ideology - his message is clear: war is a sheer hellish miasma. War debases all men, on all sides.

Before production began on Fires on the Plain, Daiei the studio financing the picture wanted Kon Ichikawa to shoot the film in color as was standard of Daiei films of that era. Kon Ichikawa insisted he make the film in black and white and won. His decision was correct - Fires on the Plain looks extraordinary. The black and white cinematography by Setsuo Kobayashi (who also lensed Kon Ichikawa's brilliant color film An Actor's Revenge in 1962) lend the film an incredible documentary like texture. It's a visually arresting film too - one scene has Tamura wander through a field of fallen soldiers, while in an early part of the film Tamura stumbles upon crows feasting on a mound of dead soldiers. Needless to say its an infernal vision, but its not without its moments of humor - look out for a scene where a soldier casts off his broken booths only to be picked up by another soldier to replace his own. Sterling performances too from the cast - the film is unusually underplayed for a Japanese film of the period, and adds much weight to the grim story.

Criterion's DVD of Fires on the Plain is addition to their line of classic Japanese Cinema. The complex visual scene (all dense jungle and rain) is transferred faithfully to DVD and overall the 2:35 transfer is mostly excellent. Supplements include an introduction by Japanese Film scholar Donald Richie and an excellent 20min interview with Kon Ichikawa and actor Mickey Curtis.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Shock Waves

Shock Waves, Ken Wiederhorn's debut film from 1977 is a fast paced energetic zombie film about a group of tourists who find themselves marooned on an island and stalked by living dead Nazi soldiers. While the post-Night of the Living Dead set-up of a group of characters stuck in a isolated place sounds familiar, Shock Waves comes as something of a surprise, swapping the flesh-eating carnage of Romero's iconic film for a more old-fashioned, moody vibe closer to say Hammer's Plague of the Zombies.

If the opening act seems eerie - with scenes of the cruise boat sailing through a weird atmospheric disturbance, and colliding with a dilapidated shipwreck, the second half of the film when the action moves to the island is positively scary. That the film manages to sustain its tone in the second half is something of an achievement for director Wiederhorn, who shot all the scenes in stark daylight, and never resorts to cheap gags. Look out too for some very expressive underwater photography as the camera drifts through the remains of the shipwrecked SS boat. Of course the star of the show here are the zombie shock troops, with their white waterlogged flesh and black goggles (to keep out the destructive glare of day it seems). The scenes where they rise from the watery depths are some of the best of their kind in zombie Cinema. The zombies themselves were designed by Alan Ormsby, of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and Deranged fame). The film is strengthened also by a fine cast headed by the always great Brooke Adams, and two short but memorable cameos by John Carradine as the salty captain of the cruise boat, and Peter Cushing who explains the back-story behind the SS and how they met their end at the bottom of the ocean. Finally, not to forget one of film's major assets - Richard Einhorn's brilliant creepy electronic score this adds considerable power to Shock Waves' visuals.

Interestingly, the living dead would occupy the bodies of SS for a few more cinematic outings - namely Jess Franco's Oasis of the Zombies, Jean Rollin's waterlogged Zombie Lake, and Bloodsucking Freaks director Joel M. Reed's unremarkable Night of the Zombies, all of which fall well short of the ingenuity of Shock Waves. The film would in fact make for a great late night double-bill with Death Ship, a 1980 chiller about a haunted Nazi ship...

Shock Waves has been around on DVD for quite awhile now. Its first incarnation was a dire VIPCO effort which was hardly a step up from VHS. Avoid. Thankfully Shock Waves would resurface as a Blue Underground disc and despite the film looking rather grainy (taken from the best surviving print), the film looks better than ever. The disc is rounded out with a lively entertaining commentary track by director Ken Wiederhorn, Make-Up Designer Alan Ormsby and schlock filmmaker Fred Olen Ray.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Offence

One of Sidney Lumet's most overlooked films, The Offence, his 1972 film is an intense pyschological drama about a cop's brutal treatment of a man suspected of being a serial child rapist. The cop so convinced of the man's guilt carries out an illegal interrogation and ends up killing him.

The film, an adaptation of a stage play, This Story Of Yours is less concerned with the question of the whodunnit, but the dynamic between Sean Connory's cop and Ian Bannen's suspect (both extraordinary). Rather than extract a confession out of the suspect, the cop betrays his own inner demons to his prisoner - his petty jealousies, his frustrations over a stalled career and a loveless marriage, and most damaging, his inability to subdue the horrors he's witnessed throughout his career (a sexualized murder of a woman is briefly seen in recurring flashbacks). When the suspect makes the cop face his demons head on, the cop short circuits and beats him to death.

Director Sidney Lumet brilliantly loosens the drama from its stagey origins by investing the film with a subtle experimental edge. The narrative refuses to conform to a conventional structure - the interrogation itself is saved for the last act of the film, after the audience has discovered the cop has murdered the suspect; while visually, the film, which begins outdoors among residential areas, turns inward with the action becoming increasingly confined to offices and rooms. There’s a kind of intentional visual blandness at work here, with the modern soulless architecture of the outdoor locations and the seemingly half-finished decor of the police station. All this lends the film a powerful alienating effect. In addition to the two leads and Lumet, special mention also for Vivien Merchant as the cop's exhausted wife, and a cameo by Trevor Howard as an internal affairs investigator.

The Offence was made fast and cheap, and apparently funded by UA as part of a deal for Connory's return to play Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. The film was something of a reunion for Lumet and the two leads. All three had worked previously on The Hill in 1965, and for Connory, The Offence would be his third of five films with Lumet (they being The Hill, The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Family Business (1989)

The Offence is available from Optimum (and an OOP MGM) as a bare bones R2 DVD, the image is nothing stunning but a serviceable enough 1:66 non-anamorphic transfer. (Note! the OOP MGM disc is anamorphic!). The sound quality is fine and makes for a good representation for Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff's brilliant experimental score. Highly recommended.


Just finished watching the latest of Criterion's excellent run of Akira Kurosawa films. Dodes'Ka-Den, Kurosawa's 1970 comeback film after his humiliating sacking from Tora, Tora, Tora! remains one of my favourite Kurosawa films, and to replace my 10-year old taped-from-Channel 4 VHS copy is a joy. The film, set amongst a community living on the edge of a sprawling Tokyo rubbish dump is not exactly new - Kurosawa mined similar territory with The Lower Depths in 1957, but Dodes'Ka-Den has the significance of being Kurosawa's first colour film, and goes flat out with a dazzling and often surreal use of colour - think of a cross between Red Desert and Kwaidan. For newcomers to Kurosawa, Dodes'Ka-Den is hardly a good entry point to dive into his filmography - it's two & a half hours of heavy, heavy drama, but for fans of eclectic World Cinema, the film is highly recommended. The title of the film by the way is a literal spelling of the sound of a train in motion, which one of the characters mimics. A sort of Japanese version of clickity clack...

Criterion's disc is their usual top shelf production - the color scheme has been transferred to DVD with great care (with the colours neither faded or burning off the screen) and for extras we another segment of the long-running Akira Kurosawa series, It's Wonderful to Create, a 36min episode, focusing on Kurosawa's trials and tribulations in the 60's - the abandoned project Runaway Train (which was eventually directed by Andrei Konchalovsky in the 80's), his ill-fated involvement with Fox and Tora, Tora, Tora!, and the filming of Dodes'Ka-Den. That the film was a critical and commercial flop and Kurosawa attempted suicide in its wake goes unmentioned but its well documented in the Kurosawa biogs that are out there.

Monday, 20 April 2009

David Lynch's Industrial Symphony No. 1

It begins with a phone conversation - a guy breaks up with his girl (both played by Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern who were making Wild At Heart at the time), then we are transported to a space filled with various detritus, where a floating angel (Julee Cruise) sings a lament, and below her a girl, naked save for black panties writhes about on a wrecked car...

Eccentric even by Lynchian standards, Industrial Symphony No. 1, subtitled The Dream of the Broken Hearted is a 50 minute piece of experimental theatre featuring songs from Julee Cruise's first two albums and various soundscapes by long time Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. The action filmed on stage features plenty of familiar Lynch iconography - pipes, bits of discarded metal, sinister light bulbs, and as a nod to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, a log that is sawed by none other than Michael J. Anderson who played The Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks. The songs are mostly exquisite - with Cruise's ethereal vocals given a dark power by Badalamenti's subtle post-rockish guitar licks. The songs are separated by short interludes of dark ambient washes of sound, and the atonal noise of machine guns and wailing sirens.

Industrial Symphony No. 1 premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as a part of the New Music America Festival on November 10th 1989. As a piece of performance art Industrial Symphony No. 1 would have been quite an experience to see - there are at least two startling scenes - a 12ft skinless deer appears onstage, and towards the conclusion of the piece, dozens of naked baby dolls are eerily lowered from the ceiling. As a piece of film, its less successful, with its minimal lighting (mostly lit by spotlights) the visuals are often obscure and difficult to make out. It’s probably best to see the film in a darkened room to savor the various color filters and strobe effects.

Industrial Symphony No. 1 briefly made an appearance on VHS and laserdisc in the early 90's, before going out of print. The film is now once again available as part of the mammoth 10-DVD David Lynch retrospective The Lime Green Set.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Wes Craven's Swamp Thing

Wes Craven has had more than his fair share of hits and misses over his long career as a director. As well as bona fida classics like Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street, there have been failures like Shocker and most notoriously The Hills Have Eyes sequel. Swamp Thing, from 1982 is neither a classic nor a failure, but part of a stratum of Craven films, that include Deadly Blessing, The Serpent & the Rainbow and The People Under the Stairs that are interesting enough to warrant a viewing or two.

Swamp Thing began life an unlikely comic superhero in the early 70's, a scientific fusion of plant and man, out to revenge the murder of his wife by arch nemesis Dr. Anton Arcane. After a series of dark, low-key independently produced exploitation films, Swamp Thing's transition from page to screen was to be Craven's big break out into mainstream fantasy cinema. For the film, the comic was condensed into some 90min, and sees the creation of Swamp Thing, a fledgling romance between Swamp Thing and a female scientist, and a showdown with Anton Arcane who in the film’s last act is himself turned into a monster. For all its weaknesses - and there are many, Swamp Thing is fast paced and hugely enjoyable fantasy romp. The Swamp Thing creature admittedly is a little phony (no Rick Baker wonders here, and the less said about Anton Arcane's warthog man-beast the better) but its hard not to get swept up in the excitement of Craven's direction, as Swamp Thing dispatches heavies and takes bullet hits with wild abandon. One scene has Swamp Thing lose one his arm by a machete chop only for it to later grow back with the help of a little photosynthesis. Craven also acknowledges his source material with some comic book style dissolves and wipes.

The film has a great cast - Ray Wise (famous for Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks), Nicholas Worth (of Don't Answer the Phone fame) and star of the show, the ever fantastic Adrienne Barbeau, who makes for a tough resourceful and sexy heroine. She also contributes a memorable topless bathing scene (but more about that in a minute). Craven is also reunited with Last House on the Left arch villain, David Hess. In fact, watching the film as part of Craven's body of work reveals some interesting parallels - the sequences in the wooded swamps of South Carolina recall Last House on the Left, and there's a spectacular stunt where someone is set alight - a similar scene would turn up in A Nightmare on Elm Street. That Craven took on a film shot around swampland is itself interesting. In 1980, Craven was set to direct a film called Marimba, a brutal action film set in the jungles of South America. The film never came to fruition but the script was reworked and eventually went before the cameras some years later under the title of Cut & Run, directed by Ruggero Deodata. Like Swamp Thing, Cut & Run features lots of scenes of actors jumping in and out of murky waters (mostly by Hills Have Eyes star and poster child Michael Berryman)

Swamp Thing is available as a barebones DVD courtesy of MGM. In the US the first pressing of the DVD was mistakenly given a PG rating, and was later pulled from distribution due to Adrienne Barbeau's aforementioned topless scene, and some nudity in a sequence where Anton Arcane's army of hired goons are entertained by some prostitutes. The presentation is fine, if a little soft but that was probably how the film was shot anyway. A sequel followed in 1989 and is best avoided...

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Gospel According to Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), a film of the life of Christ remains one of the director's greatest works. That Pasolini actually made the film is remarkable - Pasolini himself was a gay Marxist, and prior to The Gospel According to Matthew he had caused a scandal with the short film La Ricotta, an irreverent look at the Passion, which almost landed him with a 4 month stretch in jail for blasphemy. However, a change of Popes at the Vatican had caused a shift towards a more liberal view, and after Pasolini submitted his shooting script was allowed to go ahead with his project.

The Gospel According to Matthew depicts most of the episodes from the life of Christ, but one can sense that Pasolini is more interested in Christ as an enraged social reformer rather that a deity. The film is closer to Pasolini's own film Accettone than The Greatest Story Ever Told. What is most extraordinary about the film is how it breaks with the traditional conventions of the Hollywood religious film. Pasolini uses Neo-Realist aesthetics, shooting in black & white with hand held cameras (by Pasolini’s regular cameraman Tonino Delli Colli who shot 12 of his films), tight, abrupt and sometimes patchwork editing, and a cast of non-professional actors - a mixture of people Pasolini found on location, and a number of writers and poets.

Intriguingly, Pasolini had considered Jack Kerouac for the role of Christ, but nixed the idea when he realised his image of Kerouac was based on a photograph 15 years out of date. One can almost sense the cinema veritae style of the film is informed by the rugged and ragged landscapes depicted in the film. Pasolini decided against shooting the film in the Holy Land, which he felt has overused and instead moved production to Calabria, an impoverished mountainous region south of Naples. Incredible also is the director's eclectic choice of the music from Bach and Mozart to rather brilliantly contemporary music like Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child (hauntingly sung by Odetta), the striking Congolese Missa Luba (for the credits), and Blind Willie Johnson’s wordless wail Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.

Worth mentioning also is Pasolini's casting of his mother Susanna to play the middle aged Virgin Mary, a choice which some commentators on the film have scoffed at. Watching the film now in 2009 I feel there is something of a strange resonance at work here - its now widely believed that Pasolini's brutal murder in 1975 was a political assassination. Speculation aside, what is evident is the influence the film had on Martin Scorsese's own film about the life of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese originally wanted to shoot his film in Southern Italy, (but instead settled on Morocco) and certainly Scorsese's Christ shares the same forcefulness and urgency as Pasolini's. Whether you belive the film is a piece of religious art or a classic of European cinema, it is in a word, magnificent.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Rolling Thunder

Possibly one of the driest revenge thrillers of the 70’s Rolling Thunder has for years been collecting a steady following of exploitation fans, for its somber mood and atmosphere. Unlike the righteous payback of say, Coffy or Death Wish, the revenge served up in Rolling Thunder is very cold indeed. The story concerns a recently discharged Viet vet, Charles Rane (played by William Devane) who arrives back home in Texas after enduring seven years of torture and captivity in a Hanoi prisoner of war camp. Rane returns home to a broken marriage and a son he barely knows. Worse is to come as a gang of Mexican toughs arrive at his home looking for cash. When Rane refuses to hand over the loot, the gang execute his wife and son, and plunge Rane’s arm into a garbage grinder, leaving him for dead. Rane emerges from his ordeal equipped with a metal hook for a hand, and hell bent on revenge, with the help of Vohden, his Vietnam buddy who’s eager for a bit of trigger pullin’...

Rolling Thunder began as a Paul Schrader penned script, which by the time it got to AIP, had undergone some changes, namely the character of Charles Rane who was originally a hard-line Texas racist. Although Schrader’s original idea for the character would not survive the re-write, Rane would appear in another guise – as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Still, the film features some of Schrader’s preoccupations – guilt, self torment, and most explicitly, his love for The Wild Bunch, which informs the last act of the film as Rane and Vohden shoot it out in a Mexican whorehouse.

Originally Rolling Thunder was to be Schrader’s first shot at directing, but instead the directorial duties were handled by John Flynn who specialized in hard edge tough guy films like Best Seller, Lock Up, Out for Justice, and The Outfit, his best film after Rolling Thunder, an excellent Point Blank style thriller from 1973 starring Robert Duvall. Flynn’s direction is appropriately muscular but balanced by a great performance by William Devane who walks through the film like a ghost that left its body back in the POW camp. He’s a haunting presence in the film, his life meaningless and all but destroyed – the scene where he listens impassively to his wife’s dissolution of their marriage is one of the film’s great moments. Worth mentioning also, Rane’s restless Vietnam buddy Vohden, played by Tommy Lee Jones in a minor but memorable early role. In fact he delivers the best line in the film when he flatly declares to a prostitute, “I’m gonna kill a bunch of people

Rolling Thunder remains an impressive film today, in spite of a thousand meaner and meatier revenge films that came in its wake. Influential too; First Blood director, Ted Kotcheff probably lifted the short black & white torture flashbacks from Flynn’s film. Tarantino is a major fan and has done much to promote Rolling Thunder over the years, showing a print at film festivals, and naming his distribution company after the film. Unfortunately, the film is still unavailable on DVD but can be found through the usual grey sources, and is well worth tracking down.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Japan, 1976)

Famous nowadays for lending its name to the Canadian post-rock collective, Mitsuo Yanagimachi's 1976 documentary follows a Tokyo motorcycle gang called the Black Emperors. Unlike the outlaw gangs of Hunter S. Thompson's Hell Angels, the Black Emperors are depicted as bike-obsessed male teens indulging in a bit of anarchy - painting their logo on a wall (in English with a swastika nestled between the Black and Emperor); there's talk of rallies and rumbles with rival groups, but the most heat the gang catch is from the cops breaking up their meeting or frisking them down for weapons and drugs. Early on in the film one of the Black Emperors pleads with his mother to go with him to court, as a character witness so he might escape a jail sentence. That said, the film includes a rather edgy sequence where a young Black Emperor is punched and kicked in the face as a punishment for some transgression against the group. Its a key sequence in the film as Yanagimachi seems to have caught the group in perhaps the death throes of its 8 year existence - early on in the film, a senior Black Emperor appeals to the riders for greater unity, but by the end of the film, the group is facing an uncertain future and tries desperately to cling onto departing members.

Marking their territory: the Black 卐Emperor logo

Biker movies had been popular in Japan in the early 70's, and Yanagimachi's independently produced film was picked up for distribution by Toei to some considerable success. The film, shot in 16mm black & white is appropriately grungy looking with inky dark visuals and the ever constant whirl of the camera on the soundtrack. The soundtrack itself features a pretty good sampling of 70's Japanese rock and proto-punk. The film is available on DVD in Japan, (sadly unsubbed), and in various grey market editions elsewhere. My copy was put out by Superhappyfun, and while it looks great - sourced from a clean print, the subtitles never quite seem to be in sync with the action.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Dennis Hopper is The American Dreamer

The American Dreamer, a documentary portrait of Dennis Hopper is one of the great lost films of the early seventies. Made in 1971, as Hopper was basking in the glory of his Cannes winning film Easy Rider, and before the release of his second film The Last Movie (which would turn out to be a colossal bomb), The American Dreamer was filmed mostly around Hopper's ranch in New Mexico and finds the bearded director (who could have strayed from the cover of The Band's second album) baring his soul (and his ass) for the camera. Hopper's musings on art, film making, photography, sex and politics are wonderfully pretentious, including an incredible sequence where Hopper, with the need to feel "self conscious" strips off his clothes and walks down a sleepy LA suburban neighborhood, balls naked. In between bouts of Hopper firing off various hand guns and rifles, and indulging in some softcore grappling with 2 girls in a bathtub, we see a pensive Hopper overseeing the endless editing on The Last Movie, while trying to stave off Universal who are anxious to see what Hopper did in Peru with all their money.

The American Dreamer remains commercially unavailable today; apparently the film has been kept out of circulation by Hopper himself, which is not surprising as the film is hardly a flattering portrait. In one unnerving sequence, he indulges in, some rather Manson-like group sex with a bunch of groupies, (which he calls a "sensitivity encounter"), and at one point, Hopper mentions that he has visited Manson in prison. In a cringe worthy sequence, Hopper declares he is a male lesbian - I'd rather give head to a woman than fuck them...Basically, I think like a lesbian

The American Dreamer was co-written and directed by L.M. Kit Carson who would go on to write Paris Texas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Part 2. The soundtrack is composed of some rather lame folk songs, written specially for the film – at one point the track The Screaming Metaphysical Blues goes - Here's to Mr. Hopper who traded in his chopper (?) The film's two best songs, Outlaw Song and the title track are by The Byrd's Gene Clark. The film may not be officially available but can be found through the usual channels, and for Dennis Hopper fans and students of American independent Cinema, it is required viewing.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Cremator

I picked up a few Eastern European films on DVD this week which inadvertently led me to grab this 1968 Czech film off my shelf. The Cremator directed by Juraj Herz tells the story of Karl, a professional, petit-bourgeois cremator who's murder fantasies are given full expression as the Nazi's begin their occupation of Czechoslovakia. Karl's profession allows him to dispose of the bodies without suspicion - for his new Nazi masters it’s a matter of ethnic cleansing, for Karl it's releasing the living from the suffering of life. For such a dark story, the film is surprisingly humorous - look out for the running joke about the bickering couple who turn up at various points of the film, and Rudolf Hrušínský playing the cremator himself is wonderfully charming and amusing. The story which was adapted from a book may have its origins in the murderous exploits of Marcel Peroit, a doctor who murdered and robbed Jews and resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France, and the film has a certain resonance with Fritz Lang’s M and Ulli Lommel’s M inspired film The Tenderness of the Wolves. And certainly Repulsion, Polanski’s study of a deranged young woman would appear to be a key influence on the film.

As befitting such a grim story, The Cremator is suitably nightmarish, shot in stark black and white and full of strange dreamy surrealism, conveying Kurt’s increasing mania. Herz's direction is often magnificent, using a number of arresting visual techniques like rapid-fire montage, extreme close-ups, a dazzling use of wide angle lens, and a wonderfully disorientating editing style that shifts time and space from scene to scene, causing the viewer to readjust his focus of where and when the film is taking place. The Cremator is available as a very pleasing R0 DVD from Second Run. The sole extra on the DVD is an insightful introduction from the Quay Brothers, and the DVD comes packaged with a fine booklet of notes and essays by Daniel Bird. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Warren Oates - Across the Border

I had some time yesterday to grab a screening of Tom Thurman's hour-long 1993 documentary Warren Oates - Across the Border, which comes as an extra on Anchor Bay's DVD of Cockfighter. I first saw Warren Oates in probably The Wild Bunch, but it was seeing him in Two-Lane Blacktop as The GTO, that made me fall in love with this great unsung American actor who died prematurely of a heart attack in April 1982

Across the Border is a light but affectionate look at an actor who specialized in not only playing losers, but playing characters who Ned Beatty describes as authentic...real. The film narrated by Beatty, includes interviews with friends, family and colleagues - including, Monte Hellman, Peter Fonda, Harry Dead Stanton, Stacy Keach, Millie Perkins, Ben Johnson and American film critic and author David Thomson. There's also some clips from Oates' films, mostly Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, his 4th and final film with Sam Peckinpah.

Two-Lane Blacktop is still my favourite Warren Oates performance, along with his mesmerizing wordless turn in Cockfighter. Looking through Oates' filmography, is like a journey through an era of American Cinema that remains unrivaled in its richness and daring - Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Shooting, In the Head of the Night, The Wild Bunch, Two-Lane Blacktop, The Hired Hand, Dillinger, Badlands, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Cockfighter, 92 In the Shade, China 9 Liberty 37, all of which are essential viewing...

Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue

Jorge Grau's magnificent film, Non si deve Profanare il Sonno dei Morti, or more widely known as The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, a Spanish Italian production, was made in 1974 and is part of the first wave of zombie films inspired by George Romero's 1968 horror Night of the Living Dead. The story set in the English countryside, concerns a mismatched couple George, and Edna who become mixed up in a spree of murders, caused by zombies returning to life...

Comparisons with Romero's landmark film are inevitable, but refreshingly Manchester Morgue is not strictly locked into the zombie conventions set by Romero and John Russo. An intriguing notion which seems like it strayed from a Hammer film, has the creatures extend the zombie plague by rubbing blood on the eyelids of the dead who in turn rise up to kill. Also, unlike Romero's film which vaguely explained the zombie phenomena as a consequence of a satellite returning to Earth and raining down a deadly Venusian radiation, the writers of Manchester Morgue had a more ecological concept in mind. The film's opening sequence before the story begins proper is a montage of city streets filled with rubbish, and commuters hurrying to work wearing smog-masks. The film suggests that a new experimental ultrasonic device for killing agricultural pests may be responsible for the zombie plague, reanimating the nervous systems of the dead, but one might infer that the it may be Nature itself that is rebelling against mankind for its constant interference, and in a sense the film draws a parallel with Deliverance, which had mountain men emerging out of the woods like ancient forest spirits seeking revenge on the four businessmen for the damming of the river by the power company.

And while the film takes a dim view of city living, the countryside may be no better, as the film captures the Peak district of England, as a dark, damp claustrophobic place. Certainly the film belongs to a lineage of films which took a sinister view of the British countryside, films like Witchfinder General, Straw Dogs, The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan's Claw. Also adding some chills to the film is the terrific sound design, the creepy experimental score, and some rather unnerving electronically treated bird calls. The film is well cast, with cult actor Ray Lovelock appearing as the leading man, and co-star, Cristina Galbó who appeared in What Have They Done to Solange? Also appearing in the film is Arthur Kennedy who plays a bigoted fascist detective. The English dub struggles with the various regional accents but Arthur Kennedy's voice is especially grating, being a rather horrible Oirish accent!

When the film was released in 1975 it was quite noteworthy for its gore (courtesy of Giannetto De Rossi) and by 1984 it was still strong enough to attract the attention of the DPP who removed the film from video shops across the UK, and was given the status of video nasty. The film was re-released some 18 months later with cuts to some of the stronger zombie carnage. It’s a testimony to the film's quality that it still remained hugely watchable in spite of the cuts. My copy of Manchester Morgueis the old Anchor Bay DVD edition, which is thankfully uncut (and known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie on the print). However this edition has since been made obsolete by Blue Underground's stellar 2-disc edition which needless to say is highly recommended to fans of European fantasy cinema.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Tobe Hooper's Cannon Trilogy

The Cannon trilogy is not so much a trilogy of related films but is rather a 3-picture deal Tobe Hooper signed on to make with Cannon pictures.... The films were Lifeforce (1985) Invaders from Mars (1986), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II (1986). The films of the Cannon trilogy would themselves be the last of a great run of movies Hooper would direct, beginning with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive, Salem's Lot, right through to Poltergeist, The Funhouse and the Cannon films. Since then Hooper has suffered much interference from producers and distributors recutting his subsequent films, with only 2004's The Toolbox Murders showing only occasional flashes of greatness.

The first film of the Cannon Trilogy, Lifeforce, an adaptation of Colin Wilson's 1976 novel Space Vampires about alien creatures unleashing a vampire plague upon London remains one of the great sci-fi horror films of the 80's. The novel explores the intriguing premise of the phenomena of vampirism brought to Earth by aliens, and swaps the traditional blood-sucking for soul-sucking, the life force of the film's title. Colin Wilson apparently hated the film, and sure, it’s ludicrous and overblown but there is much to enjoy - a great cast, a surprisingly epic Harry Manfredini score and excellent old-school visual effects from John Dykstra. The film is so well paced, there's hardly a minute to dwell on the story's shortcomings, and the final act of the film as London becomes besieged with marauding blood sucking zombies is a real treat. Had Lifeforce been made 20 years earlier it could easily have been a Roy Ward Baker project starring Peter Cushing, or Christopher Lee, and the film could be seen as a sort of spiritual heir to Quatermass and the Pit. Interestingly, the script was co-written by Dan O'Bannon who would also write the screenplay for The Return of the Living Dead (which was to be directed as a 3D film by Tobe Hooper) made the same year as Lifeforce. Both films have some interesting parallels, and at least one idea, a shriveled corpse coming to life on a mortician's slab, would be recycled between films.

Lifeforce released in June of 1985 would prove to be a commercial misfire. Cannon effectively sabotaged the film by cutting 15 minutes out of Tobe Hooper's original 116-min cut, causing some storyline problems, but more disastrously the studio opened the film around the same times as Cocoon, a Speilbergian mega-hit confection about some old folks who have their lifeforce rejuvenated by aliens...

Lifeforce for me was one of the most memorable VHS sleeves of the 80's. The back cover featured a still of queen vampire Mathilda May and her breasts in all their glory. No trip to the video store was complete without catching a look...
After the box office belly flop of Lifeforce, Hooper's second picture with Cannon, Invaders from Mars would be made for half the budget of the first film. Invaders from Mars, is a contemporary remake of the 50's chiller about a boy who discovers his parents and his town are being taken over by aliens. Sadly, Hooper's film was dogged with problems, going over schedule and released to a lukewarm critical response, and more disastrous box office returns. Invaders from Mars is actually a very good movie, well cast, with Karen Black, James Karen, Sam Bottoms and Louise Fletcher, and featuring more fantastic visual effects by John Dykstra, and some of Stan Winston's most impressive creature designs. Winston would also work on Aliens the same year and both the subterranean lair in Invaders from Mars and the alien hive in Aliens are not too dissimilar. Hooper's direction has its fair share of great showy moments, and his kinetic camerawork, one of Hooper's greatest strengths as a director is often magnificent. However, the film would prove to be another financial failure for Cannon, and truthfully the film was probably too dark and sinister for the adolescent audience it was aimed at. Special mention also for Christopher Young’s wonderfully strange experimental score.

With the poor box office receipts from Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars (both of which failed to recoup even half their production costs), relations between Tobe Hooper and Cannon were understandably strained. The third and final picture made for the studio would be sequel to Hooper's extraordinary breakthrough film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It seemed rather inevitable that a Chain Saw sequel would be rolled into production, and thankfully it was Hooper at the helm. Apparently a sequel was planned in the 70's by some other film makers, and by all accounts the screenplay for this particular version was definitely not up to scratch. Cannon by now had the knives out for Hooper, and unnerved by the thought of more financial losses, gave Hooper a budget of $5million and a brutal production schedule - the film went before the cameras on the 5th of May and was in theatres on the 22nd August. The film penned by L.M. Kit Carson has the Sawyer family (with a few personnel changes from the original Chain Saw) relocated to Dallas and pursued by a crazed Texas ranger hell bent on revenge for the murder of his nephew in the first film. Hooper's idea for the tone of the film was to go in a different direction to the first film amping up the black comedy of the all-American dysfunctional family that simply loves to kill. It was a bold move, and the film has its fair share of detractors but Texas Chain Saw Massacre II is driven by a relentless carnival ride atmosphere, and by the time the film reaches its final act, it feels genuinely out of control.

"Lord, help me beat this stranger that walks beside me and takes away my strength" - Dennis Hopper on a mission in Texas Chain Saw Massacre II
That the film would turn out so well is something of a miracle and is testimony to the fearlessness of cast and crew, who worked a punishing 15-hour day, six-day week to get the film completed. Much of L.M. Kit Carson’s screenplay had to be re-written on-set as Cannon routinely shaved days off the schedule and to get the film finished, Hooper cut the film together as it was being shot. Hopper has outfitted his film with another great cast - a dazed looking Dennis Hopper as the Texas Ranger, Bill Mosley as the demented Chop-Top, and Caroline Williams, excellent as a feisty Texas DJ. Sadly Gunnar Hansen would not return as Leatherface, but Bill Johnson does a good enough job behind the mask. Of the 3 films made for Cannon, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II would actually turn a profit, despite Tom Savini's gory effects causing the film to be passed up for an R rating.

Of the 3 Cannon films, Lifeforce and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II are both available on DVD. Lifeforce was issued as a barebones MGM DVD but thankfully, is the full Director’s cut. Following a barebones disc, Chainsaw II was re-released on DVD in 2008 as a very fine 2-disc edition with comprehensive extras. Invaders from Mars was once available as a stand-alone disc or coupled with Strange Invaders, and both editions can still be located fairly easily.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Rob Zombie's Halloween

If anyone was in doubt that John Carpenters 1978 film Halloween was a holy grail of modern Horror Cinema, consider the critical mauling that Rob Zombie's remake suffered when it arrived in theatres in August 2007. Of the current crop of horror remakes, Halloween-2007 has seen the most controversy. Remakes of The Omen, Black Christmas and The Fog, all came and went, disappearing from memory, while the modern retellings of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes were greeted with a cautious enthusiasm. However, for Halloween, the film would for months after its release be subjected to intense heat across online message boards of the Horror community. It’s probably fair to say the film was doomed from the outset - when it was announced that Zombie would helm the film horror fans were immediately skeptical, and would scoff at Zombie's arrogance when the term remake was pushed aside in favor of reboot. The film was released in 2007 and did good business, but almost immediately the backlash began. For its DVD release, the film was initially put out in its theatrical cut, and was quickly followed by Rob Zombie’s final director's cut which is the version I saw. I haven't seen the Theatrical Cut myself but I understand the film is best served as the director intended it.

Worth saying at this point that I actually consider Halloween a rather good film, certainly better than the junk that followed Halloween 4. Rob Zombie's screenplay goes back the beginning of the series and is retro-fitted with the missing details from John Carpenter and Debra Hill's original film - the first half of the film concentrates on Michael Myers' early life, while the second half settles into more generic slasher territory. Interestingly the character of Sam Loomis, the psychiatrist assigned to the Myers case has been given a new slant - in the original film Loomis is something a modern day witch-hunter, where as in Halloween, the character has built a lucrative writing career on the psychopathology of Myers and Loomis' final showdown with Myers has a certain karmic resonance. Where the film succeeds is as a mood piece - its dark and edgy, and visually Zombie has kept the prowling Steadicam sweep that gave the original film much of its power at bay in favor of a nervy hand held look (which admittedly includes some rather disastrous framing). Some terrific moments throughout, including the brutal assault on Annie, and if you can ignore a corny false ending, its worth hanging on for the last sequence in the film where Michael Myers literally rips his old crumbling house to pieces in search of Laurie. The cast do a fine job - Scout Taylor-Compton playing Laurie Strode is a great scream queen while a suitably creepy Daeg Faerch plays the 10 year old Michael Myers. With Malcom McDowell as Sam Loomis, Sheri Moon Zombie as Michael's stripper Mom, and look out for Danielle Harris (returning from Halloween 4 and 5), Danny Trejo, Brad Dourif, Clint Howard, Udo Kier, Dee Walace, Ken Foree, Sybil Danning, Sid Haig and a strange cameo by Mickey Dolenz !

In 2008, Halloween was released for the third time on DVD this time as a 3-disc edition, porting over all the extras from the earlier Director's Cut release, but adding a third disc containing the staggering 4 and a half hour documentary Michael Lives, The Making of Halloween, a massive chronicle of the thirty-odd days of the film's shoot plus some additional days of reshoots. Its a hugely impressive work, that one hopes might offer some redemption to the much maligned film, and besides some backslapping by the cast, its absolutely required viewing for film students. Just don't expect this to be a Hearts of Darkness or a Burden of Dreams, despite all the onscreen carnage, it looks like Zombie's film was a relatively stress free shoot...

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Grindhouse - The Japanese DVD

Grindhouse (term)

A grindhouse is an American term for a theater that mainly showed exploitation films. It is named after the defunct burlesque theatres located on 42nd Street in New York City, where 'bump n' grind' dancing and striptease used to be on the bill

Grindhouse (film)

An American anthology film featuring two feature-length segments, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, bookended with trailers for fake upcoming movies, advertisements and theatre announcements

After Grindhouse spectacularly flopped following its April 2007 release to an indifferent movie-going public who didn't know/care about exploitation movies, the Weinstein Company dumped the original 190-min anthology film, and put out Rodriquez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof as extended stand-alone features. Both films were never re-instated back into Grindhouse, and still today, the original film remains unreleased on home video in the US and Europe. Fortunately, the Japanese were treated to a spectacular 6-disc boxset that contained the original Grindhouse film.

Grindhouse in its original 190-min uncut form is a hugely enjoyable experience. As well as the two films which contrast nicely with one another, the fake trailers are a lot of fun. Rodriguez's Machete trailer, a Mexploitation revenge film genuinely looks like it was cut from a complete movie. Rob Zombie's trailer, Werewolf Women of the SS is a delirious cross between the SS Exploitation films of the 70's, like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and hybrid trash classics like Rock 'N Roll Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Look out for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu - possibly his best work in years. Edgar Wright’s trailer Don't is a wicked tip of the hat to British exploitation movies of the 70's and the films of Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren. The "Don't" of the title which is repeated in a frenzy as the trailer intensifies is a nice riff on the cycle of mostly 70's horror films with Don't in their title - Don't Answer the Phone, Don't Go In the House, Don't Look in the Basement etc... The final trailer, Thanksgiving by Eli Roth, is an homage to holiday-set slasher films like Halloween, Friday 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas etc. and has just the right amount of teens, tits and decapitations.

Whether you consider Grindhouse a throwaway novelty film or a piece of conceptual art is a matter of taste. Personally, I think its the latter - homages are one thing but what Rodriguez and Tarantino have done with the film - artificially adding dirt and debris to the print, adding scuffs and bad splices, was a extraordinary bold move. At one stage of the Rodriguez segment, a love scene appears to grind the movie to a halt only for the film to melt in the projector gate and jump cut into the next scene following a "Missing Reel" announcement card. Perhaps the segments should have been shot full-frame, but its a minor point. Both films photographed by their directors in Cinemascope, look great with appropriately grungy lighting and colors. Tarantino's segment is visually the cleaner of the two but look very fast at the beginning of the front credits, and there is an almost subliminal title card announcing the films as Quentin Tarantino's Thunderbolt, the implication being that the Death Proof title was grafted onto the print at a later date (which was often the case with exploitation films dumped on the re-run circuit) Rodriguez's segment is most faithful to the grindhouse experience - the film could easily have been a New World release from the early 80's, and is loaded with affectionate nods to American films such as The Crazies, I Drink Your Blood and Return of the Living Dead, as well as European zombie films like Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City and Lucio Fulci's Zombie. Tarantino pays respect to the car-snuff genre of the early 70's - Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Gone In Sixty Seconds, and explicitly references the great car chase classic Vanishing Point.

The Region 2 6-DVD set made for the Japanese market is nothing short of dazzling. As well as the original Grindhouse film, the set contains Planet Terror and Death Proof in their extended forms plus copius extras. The set is housed in an appropriately beat-up looking case, and folds out into a large 2 tier digipak holding the 6 discs which look like jukebox 45's. The packaging is illustrated throughout with stills, posters and ad mats of the various trailers and segments. On the discs themselves, the Japanese subtitles are removable. The set is almost the complete Grindhouse experience, almost, because missing from the set is a rare 5th trailer, Hobo with a Shotgun which played with the film on a very select run in Canada. The fake trailer was directed by some first-time film makers who won a Grindhouse trailer competition organised by Rodriguez…