Tuesday, 31 August 2010

La Soufrière (Werner Herzog)

In 1976, the sleeping giant of La Grande Soufrière, a volcano on the island of Basse-Terre (part of the Guadeloupe archipelago), awoke with all the signs that a catastrophic eruption was imminent. After a mass evacuation of the natives, Werner Herzog and 2 cameramen travelled to the doomed island to investigate a newspaper story that all but one of the of Basse-Terre residents had left for safely elsewhere...

La Soufrière is the kind of film that only Herzog would make. Despite the warnings that the volcano could erupt with the power of several atomic bombs, Herzog was compelled to go to the island and find out what strange force was keeping this man in harm's way. In fact, Herzog found a handful of resilient natives who were calmly awaiting the Day of the Final Judgement to arrive on Basse-Terre. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of filming a volcano in all its fury, Herzog and his crew hiked as close to the action as possible before clouds of poisonous sulphur, and destructive shock waves forced their retreat. Luckily the only casualty was cameraman Ed Lachman's glasses which were inadvertently left behind on the mountain.

In the end La Soufrière defied all scientific predictions and the volcano returned to its slumber which Herzog admits in his closing narration, was something of an "embarrassment", but the film remains a remarkable work, and with its eerie scenes of stray animals wandering around the deserted city streets, its nothing less than a genuine record of the apocalypse.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

On the Road is on the way...

I heard some news today that filming is well under way of Jack Kerouac's iconic novel On The Road. I must say the news brings mixed emotions. On one hand, On the Road is one of those novels that has a mythic quality to it, the idea of making a film out of it always makes me nervous, a typically mediocre Hollywood film adaptation would cheapen the book. From time to time, plans to make a movie of On the Road have surfaced with various directors attached - Gus Van Sant, Francis Ford Coppola and rather distressingly, Joel Schmacher. On a more positive note, production company American Zoetrope have chosen Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles to helm the film. I have yet to see Motorcycle Diaries but I hear its good.

Cast wise, Sam Riley who was impressive as Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in the 2007 film Control, is playing the Kerouac role of Sal Paradise while Garrett Hedlund (whom I don't know) is playing the book's Neal Cassidy alter ego Dean Moriarty. Hedlund in particular has big shoes to fill. Also among the cast is Kirsten Dunst, Steve Buscemi and Viggo Mortensen who's playing Old Bull Lee, the character based on William Burroughs. On the Road will be released in 2011 and whatever happens it should be interesting to see how they handle the amphetamine rush of Kerouac's great American novel. At least they didn't offer it to the Crank guys...

Post-script: 13 December 2014 Watched Walter Salles' film of On the Road last night, and found it curiously uninvolving. Hard to put my finger on it - it's well directed and acted, it looks fantastic and is richly evocative of the era - but for all its pan-American zig-zagging, the film never leaps off the screen like Kerouac's novel leaps off the page, and it all felt a little too polite and genteel, when I was yearning for something more freewheeling and experimental, even a little rough around the edges. On the plus side, I really enjoyed Viggo Mortensen's William Burroughs, and Tom Sturridge playing Allen Ginsberg with the primal energy of a young Sean Penn...

Friday, 27 August 2010

Truck Drivin' Man - Convoy

Fritz Lang once said that widescreen photography was only good for snakes and funerals. You can add 18-wheelers to that list. Convoy, Sam Peckinpah's 1978 film, based on a song by singer-songwriter C. W. McCall, is essentially one long chase sequence - Martin "Rubber Duck" Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) a trucker passing through Arizona picks up some unwanted heat from crooked cop with a vendetta, Lyle Wallace (Ernest Borgnine). With a convoy of truckers in tow, Rubber Duck floors it for the state line, his evasion from the law becomes a national media event, and an unlikely hero is born...

Essentially, a western in disguise, the cowboys of Peckinpah's film may have updated their horses for trucks but the territory is still the same. Forced to turn outlaw, there's only one place to go for these desperadoes, and that's the tequila flavoured freedomland of Mexico. Admittedly, Convoy is not regarded as one of the maverick director's better films. Legend has it that much of the film is the work of second unit director James Coburn, so heavy was Peckinpah's booze and coke intake during the shoot, that the director would not emerge from his trailer for days on end. In fact, the production of the film was something of a disaster - it went over budget, over schedule (which led to a temporary shutdown so Kristofferson could go on tour), and by the time the film was released in theatres, a few other truck-themed films riding on the back of the success of Smokie & the Bandit beat it to the finish line, no doubt zapping some of its potential box office.

Against all odds the film proved to be a hit with audiences, but it wouldn't be enough to stitch back together Peckinpah's ragged reputation. His next film The Osterman Weekend would be 4 years away. Big, loud and often stupid, Convoy is a hugely entertaining piece of pop cinema. It rushes by at a full throttle, its got great action, great set pieces (a memorable brawl at a truck stop, lots of senseless destruction and mayhem), and a cast of Peckinpah veterans - Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch), Kristofferson (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), Burt Young (The Killer Elite) and Ali MacGraw (The Getaway). Peckinpah threw out the original screenplay and had the actors improvise their lines, and while we never learn anything more about Rubber Duck than his real name, the actors perform well enough to give the film an extra kick and a few laughs.

A runaway truck drives thru Peckinpah's cocaine stash
The film might be dismissed by critics fawning over The Wild Bunch, but it has been referenced at least twice in the last few years inother movies. Tarantino took a wink at the film by having a rubber duck fixed to his villain's car in Deathproof. And the name Stuntman Mike may be derived from Franklyn Ajaye's character in the film Spider Mike. Also the CB voice of Rusty Nail, the truck driving killer from the 2002 film Roadkill, is almost exactly like Kristofferson's. Also, look fast for Peckinpah's cameo as one of the camera crew filming Rubber Duck and his convoy.

A quick director cameo - proving that Peckinpah did at least show up for work some of the time
Currently the best way to see Convoy is the Region 2 Optimum DVD, which features a fine 2:35 widescreen image, and strong audio. This being a no-frills disc, only a trailer is supplied by way of an extra. A shame Stdio Canal didn't commission an audio commentary from Peckinpah scholars Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, who have given insightful and fascinating commentaries on previous Peckinpah DVDs. It would have been very interesting to hear their thoughts on this most underrated film.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Halcyon Days of the Horror Fanzine

This post is by no means a history of the Horror film fanzine, but rather my own small tribute to some favourite underground publications of the '80's and 90's...

The United Kingdom has been an especially fertile place for the bloggers of the pre-Internet Age, fired up by a love of Cult Cinema, and rallying against the aggressive censorship of the British censors (which in effect lasted until BBFC head-honcho James Fermann stepped down in '99). Popular fanzines of the day were Samhain, Delirium, Giallo Pages, Cold Sweat, Mkultra, Eastern Heroes, Invasion, and Trash City. Samhain in particular was note worthy for its classifieds section where fans could buy/sell/trade rare tapes. If you needed a copy of Men Behind the Sun, you probably could have found it thru the pages of Samhain.

Regular fixtures among the fanzine community included Video Nasties, Italian splatter, Hong Kong action cinema (then frequently referred to by the now defunct term "Heroic Bloodshed") Anime, as well as filmographies and articles on unsung European film makers like Jesus Franco, Jean Rollin, Paul Naschy, none of whom had the exposure on home video back then as they do now. Today in the DVD age, mainstream film magazines are now savvy enough to mention Cannibal Holocaust when discussing The Blair Witch Project, but it wasn't always so, and a generation of horror fans were discovering a whole world of Secret Cinema in the pages of their favourite fanzines...


Shock Xpress which ran from 1985 to 1989 championed the films of Clive Barker, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and featured memorable essays on strange subgenres - biker films, LSD Cinema; plus some groundbreaking features on the work of Boris Karloff, Jesus Franco and the Southern Fried Gothic of S.F. Brownrigg (surely a first!). Shock Xpress editor and chief Stefan Jaworzyn's acidic editorials about the state of Thatcher's Britain and his love for the Butthole Surfers were often the best thing in the magazine, and Jaworzyn took a sadistic delight in administering a dose of "shock treatment" to readers who complained about negative reviews of Hellraiser II, in the letters page. Shock Xpress would later appear as an irregular annual, finally disappearing after 3 volumes. Stefan Jaworzyn would later author the excellent Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion, play bass on the first Skullflower EP, and would front the British improv noise band Ascension.

Author, musician and all round Renaissance man, Stephen Thrower took a novel approach to fanzine publishing with Eyeball, mixing exploitation and art cinema together, and was home to fans of Gestapo's Last Orgy and Godard's Weekend. The magazine ran for just 5 issues from 1989 to 1998, and the best of Eyeball's material was collected together in a single volume available from FAB Press. With a heavy emphasis on European Cinema, Eyeball stood out among the crowd for its high quality of writing (although occasionally it got too scholarly for its own good) and guest writers included Ramsey Campbell and Kim Newman. In addition to reviews, it featured interviews with Alexandro Jodorowsky, Andrzej Zulawski and Paul Morrisey, and fascinating essays on important films like Performance, Possession and Tenebrae. Stephen Thrower would go on to write, Beyond Terror, The Films of Lucio Fulci and Nightmare USA, both absolutely essential reading. His book on the films of Jess Franco is in the works.

UK mag In the Flesh started life like a lo-fi punk fanzine but editor Steve C soon developed it into quite a professional looking publication. It ran for 11 issues from 1989 to 1992 and included a serialized round-up of the Video Nasties (Franco's anti-masterpiece The Devil Hunter earns 1 star), interviews with the likes of Gunnar Hansen and Jorg Buttgeriet, a regular feature on censorship in other countries, a short story section, breakdowns of censorship cuts imposed by the BBFC, a review section for obscure films (Poor Albert and Little Annie, anyone ?) and book and video reviews. Issue 11 which would prove to be the final issue came with an impressive mini poster of the Dutch VHS jacket of The Beyond. The final Video Nasty reviewed was Night Train Murders. What Steve C and his team lacked in prose skills, they made up for with sheer passion and enthusiasm, and I still today leaf through copies of In the Flesh for fun.

European Trash Cinema, Craig Ledbetter's fanzine from the Lone Star state, came on the scene in even more humble circumstances than In the Flesh, originally appearing in 1989 as an eleven-page news sheet with smudgy graphics alongside the standard typeface. By 1992 it had grown into a proper magazine with striking color covers and unusually sized somewhere between a Video Watchdog and a regular magazine. ETC was heavily concerned with Italian Cinema, gialli, directors like Dario Argento, Joe D'Amato, and Enzo Castellari but would occasionally spread its wings to include Jean Rollin and Brigitte Lahaie ("after all, it is called European Trash Cinema" Lebetter once wrote in an introduction). ETC also managed to unearth the most obscure films for its review section like Fulci's 1975 Dracula In the Provinces, a film I know almost nothing about but the ETC review reassuringly promises it to be "loopy"...

Once Upon a Time a Revolution: Dario Argento's Le Cinque Giornate

Now that we finally have an English-language presentation of Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Argento's least seen, most elusive film remains his 1973 historical comedy Le Cinque Giornate or The Five Days of Milan. The film, about the people of Milan battling against Austrian occupation was made exclusively for Italian audiences so no English dub was ever created for the export market, and at the time of writing, no English-language DVD has surfaced, strange considering Argento's considerable fan base. Le Cinque Giornate, like Cronenberg's Fast Company is an anomaly in the Argento cannon, and after the film was met with a lukewarm response by Italian audiences, Argento would return to the type of films he made his name with in 1969 with Bird With the Crystal Plumage. So is the film, any good ? Well, yes, it is. Even without the benefit of knowing what's going on The Five Days of Milan is quite an enjoyable romp...

Set around the mid-19th Century, The Five Days of Milan follows the adventures of two miss-matched buddies as they wander the streets of war torn Milan... The major criticism of the film, put down to Argento and his co-author Luigi Cozzi's mishandling of comedy, is fair enough - the sequence where our two heroes are in a panic when they have to deliver a baby is just plain silly, and that the action is speeded up, Keystone cops style shows a desperation on Argento's part about his material.

Still, its not all played for laughs, there's a sequence where a crowd of peasants are ruthlessly massacred (including a striking shot of a child at his fallen mother's side) and the film does move at a fair pace over its 2-hour length with its impeccable period design, and the big crowd scenes, there's much to enjoy. Argento's direction is solid, his camera always roving and moving in on the action, and the film looks particularly gorgeous, shot in Cinemascope by Deep Red cameraman Luigi Kuveiller. By the way, Euro Cult fans should look for among the cast, the boyish good looks of Salvatore Baccaro, otherwise known as The Beast In the Heat

Watching the film, you get the impression that Argento had probably seen The Leopard a few times for inspiration, and naturally, there are shades of Leone, and there's a nice bit of Fellini grotesqerie in a sequence where a countess has a moment of sexual liberation amid the murder and mayhem of battle and gangbangs a troup of peasants. Also one wonders if Argento was pre-occupied with A Clockwork Orange at the time - dropped in among the traditional musical cues are moog-versions of Beethoven, à la Wendy Carlos; and there's a home-invasion style rape with similar camera angles to the famous scene in Kubrick's film.

Eagle Pictures' Italian DVD Le Cinque Giornate is excellent, presenting the film with a nice sharp 2:35 image. Audio is in Italian only and sadly there are no English subtitles provided. The sole extra here is a trailer. Until an English-language DVD surfaces, this is the best way to see this Argento rarity, so if you're game and you've got a few words of Italian, the disc is worth picking up.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Cracked Actor - A film about David Bowie

Filmed by the BBC in August/September of 1974, Cracked Actor is a superb snapshot of David Bowie during the American leg of his Diamond Dogs tour. The documentary has over the years achieved something of an infamous reputation for showing Bowie, well into a long cocaine addiction, looking gaunt and frail. Bowie himself would admit in later years that revisiting the documentary was a painful experience. All that aside, Cracked Actor is an intelligent, sensitive film, and finds Bowie in a whirlwind of creativity - on stage the Diamond Dogs songs, only a few months old were already mutating from the hard rock stomp of the album, to a more soulful black sound, which Bowie was soaking up, in preparation for the Young Americans LP. Bowie is also seen applying the Brion Gysin/William Burroughs' technique of the Cut-Ups to his lyrics, by literally cutting and pasting different lyric sheets together.

Bowie remains refreshingly unpretentious about his music discussing the impact of fame, the Frankenstein's monster that was Ziggy Stardust, and his interest in creating different personas. Bowie is gracious, revealing and down to earth which is more than can be said for some of his fans interviewed for the film, spaced oddities trying to come to terms with the enigma that is Bowie. Music wise, Cracked Actor sees Bowie in tremendous form on stage. The documentary includes rare live footage from a show at Los Angeles Universal Amphitheater and some cuts from D.A. Pennebaker's, then hard-to-see, 1973 film of the Ziggy Stardust retirement concerts. There's some well chosen songs from Bowie's LPs too - Quicksand and After All and a brief scene of Bowie rehearsing Right. Only once does the film come off the rails when during a live version of Rock n' Roll Suicide, there's an unnecessary and maudlin tribute to rock casualties - Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones.

Perhaps Cracked Actor's most significant achievement is that it gave Nicholas Roeg the idea to cast David Bowie in his 1976 film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Roeg had seen the documentary on TV and was instantly drawn to Bowie's alien-ness. In fact Roeg would work some scenes from the documentary into his film - the scenes in Cracked Actor where Bowie is travelling in the back of a limousine across Middle America (Bowie hated to fly) would later reappear in similar form in Roeg's film, not to mention the hat that Bowie wears would turn up in the famous last shot of Roeg's film.

The Man Who Sold the World...
...and the Man Who Fell To Earth

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Music inspired by the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker

Composed by sound artist Lustmord in collaboration with ambient musician Robert Rich, Stalker is a 68-min album inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film of the same name. In the film, a nameless Writer and Professor are led by a tracker, or a stalker through the Zone, a dangerous shape shifting landscape, to the Room which contains a power that makes wishes come through...

Almost immediately after its release in 1995, Stalkerwould be hailed as a landmark album of the Dark Ambient / Isolationist genre. The music is heavy, gloomy and brooding. Like the Zone itself, the album's 7 tracks run continously to form a single shape shifting soundscape, with ghostly foghorns, whispered voices, deep subterranean rumbles, and ominous dark drones that bellow up and dissiapte like plumes of black smoke. Robert Rich provides some of the album's lighter moments with his ethnic musical sounds (which is the closest the album comes to the film's soundtrack and composer Edward Artemiev's electronically treated flutes). The CD from Fathom Records perfectly compliments the music with its sleeve of images by landscape photographer Brad Cole whose haunting work is well worth checking out.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Criterion turns on with Head

Criterion continue to astonish and mystify with their selection of films. November will see the release of a 7-film boxset called America Lost and Found: The BBS Story comprising of Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, The King of Marvin Gardens, Drive He Said, A Safe Place and Head. Easy Rider and Last Picture Show are favourite films around here, but I'm really excited about Head, the wacky and surreal Monkees movie from 1968. The film follows the Monkees on a series of crazy adventures, mixing TV commercials, documentary inserts (including starting footage of the infamous head shot execution of a Viet Cong) and psychedelic effects; and featuring some of the band's best music. (the live performance of Circle Sky is a highlight). The screenplay was written by Jack Nicholson who can be spotted in a brief blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo when the film crashes thru the fourth wall to reveal the cast and crew, including director Bob Rafelson making the film - its one of the many delights of this acid-soaked Pandora's box.

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David Cronenberg on Andy Warhol

Cronenberg fans should head over to the amazing Ubu website, a wonderful treasure trove of experimental art, films and sound, where you will find a 30min audio documentary delivered by Cronenberg about Andy Warhol and his influence on culture and Cronenberg's own approach to art and film making. The documentary is divided, chapter style into 21 downloadable mp3 files. Essential listening.

David Cronenberg on Andy Warhol (scroll down the page)

Be sure to pay a visit to the Unflinching Eye blog where Alymer has posted an incredible article on the influence of Cronenberg's ideas on contemporary art and design. Fascinating stuff...

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Prince of Darkness

John Carpenter's 1987 film Prince of Darkness comes right near the end of a dazzling run of films that began with his debut feature Dark Star in 1974 right thru to his last film of worth, They Live, also from 1987. In Prince of Darkness, a group of theologians and scientists led by Father Donald Pleaseance and Professor Victor Wong, are held up in the basement of an inner-city church, deciphering ancient texts and carbon dating a mysterious canister of swirling green gas, that is, the very essence of evil - and it wants to get out...

Interestingly on the laserdisc commentary for Halloween, Carpenter acknowledged the influence of Dario Argento and Suspiria whilst making his iconic slasher classic, but the spirit of Argento is most felt in a sequence in Prince of Darkness when a character is slashed with a scissors by an assassin that could have wandered out of an Argento film. In fact this may be Carpenter's most Italian film - there's a scene where a man literally crumbles into a writhing mass of cockroaches, and the climax that recalls the mindwarp of the final act of The Beyond. There's also a nice bit of business involving a surreal dream sequence which reoccurs throughout the movie and appears as fuzzy video-shot footage, the kind of thing that's over used nowadays, but must have been quite startling back in 1987.

Alice Cooper and friends stand guard for the Prince of Darkness

Carpenter's direction is as stylish as ever, truly he was a master of shooting in 'scope. Looking back on the film some 23 years later, the film has a pleasing sense of retrospection to earlier Carpenter films, namely The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13. In the latter film, Carpenter's heroes were surrounded by the Street Thunder gang, while here its a gang of murderous derelicts, led by a creepy looking Alice Cooper. Donald Pleaseance makes his third appearance in a Carptenter directed film, and Victor Wong and Dennis Dun return from Big Trouble In Little China.

In the current absence of a Blu-Ray, Prince of Darkness is best served by Momentum's R2 DVD, which sports a good transfer framed around 2:35, and comes with a commentary track by the director. I haven't sampled it myself, but when Carpenter's on good form, he's worth listening to. Incidentally, Hammer fans will appreciate Carpenter's homage to the studio during the opening credits where he credits his own screenplay to a Martin Quatermass.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III

There's road kill all over Texas... natural order of things

Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III on the face of it, may appear to be the next installment of Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel's story of the Sawyer cannibal clan, but Jeff Burr's film is perhaps best described in today's vernacular as a reboot, and it was this break-away from the original sacred text that fiercely divided horror fans on its release in 1990. The plot of the film itself could be lifted from any one of the backwoods slasher films that came in the wake of the original film - a couple en route to Florida take an ill-advised turn off the highway only fall into the clutches of a family of killers with a taste for human flesh...

Leatherface gets his name on the title for this one, but had you missed the opening credits, you might think you were watching something more akin to The Hills Have Eyes. So far so cliched, but under Jeff Burr's direction the film moves at a fair lick and it's easily the best looking Chainsaw in the series - a scene where one of the killers is introduced, lit by the crimson glow of a flare is a visual highlight. What really impresses about Leatherface is its delight in sheer sadism, and takes the woman-in-peril concept as far as it can go - in the original film Marylin Burns was tied to a chair, in this film, Kate Hodge is nailed to one (causing much grief from the MPAA). It's gruesome, gory, and subversive too - one of the twists on the cannibal family is that it includes a 10year old girl, who delights in bringing a sledge hammer down on a victim's head. No wonder the British censors refused to pass this in 1990.

Performances are mostly great, the family get the best lines, and a pre-stardom Viggo Mortensen really shines as Tex, a cowboy who's charming, sly and deadly dangerous in equal measures. The Leatherface character is nothing special though - if you missed Gunnar Hansen from the first film, you might now be missing Bill Johnson from the second, but its not a big deal with Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree among the cast.

New Line's DVD presents Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III in a fine looking 1.85:1 transfer. The film is uncut (with the useless R-Rated version on the flipside), and comes with a good commentary track from Jeff Burr and crew; a half-hour documentary on the making of the film, and some scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Martin Scorsese's American Boy

Filmed in January 1977, American Boy is a wonderful 55-min documentary about Scorsese's friend Steven Prince, a fast-talkin' New York hipster who appeared in Taxi Driver as a gun salesman, and New York New York as a record producer. Prince spins stories of his life, from his childhood when he tuned a fast buck selling bagels to wealthy New York Jews, to his adventures as road manager for Neil Diamond when he was just 21, and his experience with drugs from which he developed a serious dope habit.
Prince knows how to tell a funny story, but behind the hollowed out eye sockets there's a kind of world weary wisdom - Prince had watched a kid get electrocuted when setting up a stage show, and he himself shot a hopped-up stick-up man six times when he was working the til of a gas station. Prince rightly describes himself as a "survivor" and in one of the final scenes Scorsese tries to push his subject's buttons by asking him to describe his relationship with his dying father - something that is obviously painful for Prince, but he holds tough and remains composed. Watching the film I wondered if Scorsese had been a fan of Portrait of Jason, Shirley Jackson's 1967 indie documentary about a black, gay hustler. Certainly Quentin Tarantino has seen American Boy - the scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman gets an adrenaline shot into the heart is lifted directly from one of Prince's anecdotes...