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...