Thursday, 25 November 2010

Peter Christopherson 1955 - 2010

I'm still stunned and confused by the sudden death yesterday of Peter Christopherson aka Sleazy, one-quarter of Throbbing Gristle and one-half of Coil. I've been listening to TG and Coil for 18 years now so Peter has always been a huge presence in my life. Hardly a few days would go by without me putting on one of their albums. Peter was also one of the designers at Hipgnosis (and worked on sleeve designs for Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and Animals, and Peter Gabriel's early solo LPs), in between TG and Coil, he was a member of Psychic TV, he was an accomplished video director (Erasure's A Little Respect, videos for Rage Against the Machine, Sepultura, Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails' The Broken Movie) and in recent times was still producing brilliant post-Coil music with The Threshold HouseBoys Choir, SoiSong and the reformed Throbbing Gristle. A few years ago we swapped emails - I was bugging him about re-issuing old Coil albums and he was always friendly, accessible and generous with his time. I will miss him dearly.

Reflecting on Peter's work today, I found myself drawn to his photography and those recurring themes - urban landscapes, naked flesh, injured bodies, and the kind of violent, thugish youth that might have stepped from the pages of Burroughs' 1971 novel The Wild Boys. I gathered together some favorites...

John Lydon photographed in 1976. Malcolm McClaren commissioned Peter to take the first publicity photos of the Sex Pistols but deciding that the portraits were too grim the photographs were never used.

Val Denham with Hitler Youth knife photographed in 1979. This image appeared on Volume 1 of Mute's Live TG collection while an alternative shot appeared on Fetish's Discipline 12"

One of Peter's "Casualty Simulation" photographs, date unknown.

Adrenalin/Distant Dreams (Part 2) 7" single. The image of a desolate suburban street is given a sinister flavor by the presence of a singe discarded shoe. The inset picture is more mysterious - some kind of machine, possibly the bellows of an old camera.

An evocative photo of the Golden Gate bridge for the Mission of Dead Souls album, Throbbing Gristle's original final concert in San Francisco in 1981. Photographing the bridge from this particular angle, the vanishing point makes it appear that the bridge goes on forever

Reel to reel tape recorder photographed for the William Burroughs tape experiments collection Nothing Here Now But The Recordings, the original final release on Industrial Records, 1981

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Creepshow 2

Admittedly, issue #2 of Creepshow is nobody's favourite film. Made in 1987 and directed by long-time Romero cameraman Michael Gornick1, it's a distinctly low-key2 affair compared to the original film, paring down Creepshow's five-story framework to three3. In the first story, Old Chief Wood'n Head, a wooden Indian statue comes to life to seek revenge after a kindly shop owner and his wife are slain by some thugs... The middle segment, The Raft has a bunch of teens menaced by the blob-like inhabitant of a lake... The concluding story, The Hitchhiker is about a woman who can't seem to shake off a persistent traveller of the night - even after running him over and leaving him for dead on the highway...

In many ways, Creepshow 2 is best described in terms of other unappreciated sequels like Halloween II and Hellbound: Hellraiser II - they don't hold a candle to their parent films, but in amongst the clutter, there is plenty to enjoy. In the case of Creepshow 2, at least two of the segments are genuine winners. Old Chief Wood'n Head, is a bit of a dud, but The Raft and The Hitchhiker are wonderfully grisly and gory (with FX courtesy of Ed French and two-thirds of KNB, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger).

Old Chief Wood'n Head in the flesh

A sticky end for someone on board The Raft

Roadkill strikes back in The Hitchhiker

Michael Gornick's direction on Creepshow 2 is not especially slick or stylish but at least the film looks good, from the dusty Arizona town of Old Chief Wood'n Head, to the tranquil lake-setting of The Raft, and the chilly woodlands of The Hitchhiker. Veteran Hollywood soldiers George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour add some marquee value but in general the film is weakened by some stiff performances. Constant readers of Stephen King will get a kick out of seeing their hero playing another character from his gallery of rednecks in his short cameo. Incidentally the trailer for The Raft reveals the great sucker punch ending so if you haven't seen the film it's best avoided.

Worth mentioning the animated segments of the film, starring "The Creep" who introduces each story. In addition there's a second animated thread about a young Creepshow reader, and one effective way of dealing with bullies. The animation is rather clunky - think Scooby-Doo, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Anchor Bay have dusted off Creepshow 2 for a very fine release on both sides of the Atlantic. The transfer is pretty good considering the film stock of this era - it's still a soft looking film, but at least the colors look solid and the print itself is clean. Audio is good too, as are the extras - a short featurette on the film and an audio commentary by Michael Gornick who discusses the nuts and bolts of the production.

1. Romero fans will know Michael Gornick as the cinematographer on some of the director's key films - Martin, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and Creepshow. Originally Tom Savini was to make his directorial debut with Creepshow 2 but the task eventually fell to Gornick who had previously directed an episode of TV series Tales From the Darkside. Savini does appear in the film, albeit under heavy makeup as "The Creep" in the live action sequences that bookend the film.

2. Low-key and low-budget... Warners who bankrolled the original Creepshow were less enthused about a sequel, and the film wound up at the more modest New World Pictures. The production had its fair share of difficulties. Delays due to bad weather put the film behind schedule, there was a change of principle crew members at one point, and Barbara Eden who was originally cast as the lead in The Hitchhiker episode was forced to drop out of the film.

3. Creepshow 2's trilogy of stories were penned by Stephen King and George Romero. The Raft was an existing story and came from King's 1985 short story collection Skeleton Crew. It was never intended that George Romero direct the film - at the time, the director was preparing his adaptation of Pet Semetary, which of course never happened and the project went on to be filmed by Mary Harron. And while the Pet Semetary film is no great shakes, neither is Romero's adaptation of Stephen King's The Dark Half...

Monday, 22 November 2010

The legendary Burke-Cocoon scene from Aliens

I must have been dozing when I first read thru the list of goodies that come with the new Alien Anthology Blu-Ray boxset, for in amongst the Aliens bounty of extras (special and not so special) is

Deleted Scene: Burke Cocooned (SD, 1:31): Carter Burke's fate revealed !

This is of course the legendary lost scene from Aliens, where Ripley in her search for Newt discovers Weyland-Yutani company man Carter Burke cocooned and incubating an unborn alien. Burke begs Ripley for help, who in turn hands him a grenade, and then moves on to find Newt...

For a long time, I thought this scene was created on set but not filmed - in terms of continuity the scene doesn't work (Burke simply could not have been inpregnated that fast!), but the presence of the sequence as a Deleted scene on the new BR suggests it was indeed shot.

Stan Winston adds more slime to Paul Reiser, on set of Aliens

I haven't got my hands on the Anthology yet but I'm really looking forward to seeing how this scene plays out. If anyone has seen it, let us know what you think !

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Barn of the Naked Dead

Laaaadies and Gentlemen ! Children of all ages ! The Greatest show on earth is about to begin - we have 3 beautiful showgirls chained up like animals in a circus for the perverse desires of a psychopath in top hat and tails, wielding a whip and nursing a Mommy-fixation. Watch them dismally try to escape only to be captured and face the biting sting of the lash ! Gasp in horror at the severed head in the birdcage ! Shriek in terror at the strange freak of nature locked up in the outhouse ! All these heart-stopping thrills n' spills await you at the Barn of the Naked Dead !

A candidate for Greatest Film Title of the 70's, this early effort by Alan Rudolph (his 2nd film in fact) is propelled along by the sheer strangeness of the story, and plenty of sleaze, despite never quite delivering on the flesh and blood of its outrageous title. Rudolph's direction is far slicker than a lot of low-rent exploitation of this era, and the film has a visual spark when Rudolph takes his camera outside to the desert flatlands where most of the action takes place. Shot around Lancaster, California, the desert scapes are suitably grim - in fact the bizarre events of the film are seemingly caused by the military experiments resulting in a poisoned wilderness1, and the horribly disfigured mutant locked up in the outhouse. The film has little of the quirky stylings of Rudolph's later films, but there is one brilliant sequence late in the film where the action assumes a strange, hallucinatory quality quite at odds with the rest of the film which is more Tourist Trap and Schoolgirls In Chains than Trouble In Mind...

Andrew Prine, proprietor of the barn of the naked dead and all-purpose psychopath

As with the direction, performances are much better than the usual kind of drive-in fare, Andrew Prine2 especially good as the psychotic circus master. Behind his striking handsome looks, Prine's character is sinister and clearly unhinged. Barn of the Naked Dead was released in August 1974, two months before the release of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the timing was perhaps fortunate. Alongside Tobe Hooper's great masterwork, Rudolph's film looks rather quaint. Still, looking at the film today, it has a disquieting, dark undercurrent, considering some recent high profile media stories about young women disappearing only to be found after years of captivity and mistreatment.

Something wicked this way comes...

Barn of the Naked Dead was released on DVD (coded for R1) in 2009 in a joint venture by Shriek Show and Code Red under the more sedate title of Terror Circus. An earlier DVD of the film was released some time back, but this disc is the one to get - featuring a fine, sharp, colourful image using a mostly pristine print. Audio is strong too, showcasing the weird avant-jazz score (listen to those rasping trumpets!) and the disc comes with some very interesting extras - an audio commentary from the film's FX artists, a 24-minute retrospective entitled, “Barn Again: Returning to the Terror Circus” (which doesn't include Rudolph among the participants), the trailer and the alternative title sequence under the Barn of the Naked Dead moniker. If you're a fan of 70's independent Horror, the film is well worth investigating...

1. Wes Craven would re-use the radioactive desert location motif a few years later with his 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes, which has strange mutants picking off travellers that have strayed too far off the path.

2. Andrew Prine is perhaps best recognized as one of the unfriendly "Visitors" in the original series of V, but his filmography has quite a few interesting, and noteworthy films including Simon King of the Witches, The Centrefold Girls, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, Grizzly and Amityville II: The Possession

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Video Nasties - The Definitive Guide

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... UK DVD label Nucleus Films' latest release is their long awaited retrospective of that curious British phenomenon, the "Video Nasties". Spread over 3 discs, the set contains 72 trailers for films which at one point or another made the legendary Director of Public Prosecutions' list of contentious titles, plus the feature length documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape as well as some worthwhile extras to round off the set. But before I dive into the contents of the set, let's have a quick history lesson and rewind the cassette back to the early '80's (please forgive the tracking noise on the tape, its entirely unavoidable).

Fear & Loathing at the local videoshop... The year is 1982 and the shelves of video libraries across the UK are teeming with a bewildering range of horror and exploitation films which, for small independent video labels, are cheap to acquire and cheap to put out.
Lacking, big stars and big titles, video labels like GO Video and VIPCO mount increasingly explicit advertising campaigns, not to mention lurid video sleeves to attract customers. The strategy is working. Sales in horror videos are at an all-time high. And the moral watchdogs are beginning to notice. 1983, and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), alerted to the violent and perverse content of videos like Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit On Your Grave, SS Experiment Camp and The Driller Killer, has drawn up a list of titles which are likely to deprave and corrupt an unsuspecting public. In the months ahead, video shops across the UK are raided by police officers in an attempt to sweep up and destroy videos considered obscene and beyond the limits of acceptability. The terror has begun, the "Video Nasty" era has arrived...

Video Nasties - The Definitive Guide

Disc 1 - Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape

Kicking off Nucleus' superb 3-disc set is the excellent and engrossing documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape. Directed by Jake West, and produced by Nucleus chief (and VHS tape collector extraordinaire) Marc Morris, this documentary gathers together all of the surviving participants on both sides of the Video Nasty argument - the politicians and law enforcement officers who led the prosecutions, and the brave voices who opposed the campaign and the erosion of their civil liberties; plus contributions from film makers (Neil Marshall among others), film professors and those involved in the video business at the time.

"Mutilations to the body, gangrape, cannibalism....that is what a video nasty is..." - MP Graham Bright speaking in 1983. Bright spearheaded the campaign to remove violent and depraved videos from circulation in the UK
Interspersed among the interviews are historical interviews, news footage and press clippings, superbly illustrating the peculiar climate of that era. The video industry was at that time something of an unregulated twilight zone - the BBFC were still some years away from controlling the content of videos, while the seizures and banning of controversial titles was haphazard at best, the DPP list in a constant state of flux, as titles disappeared from shelves only to reappear back in video shops a few months later. The documentary is extremely fair minded, and represents well the views, however ridiculous it seems, of those who believed (and evidently still do) that the greater public were in harms way from a tide of violent and sexually depraved videos.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape is expertly put together, with some gorgeous poster artwork illustrating the advertising of the films in question, and there are some very amusing visual references to the VCR age (and what we had to suffer through before the arrival of laserdisc and DVD!). Absolutely essential viewing for Horror fans.

Disc 2 & 3 - The Trailers

Of the 72 trailers, 39 of these are for films which were successfully prosecuted in the UK. These are contained on Disc 2. Disc 3 collects the remaining 33 trailers, which did at one point appear on the DPP list but were subsequently removed (most famously The Evil Dead)

Many of them have already been made available on previous trailer comps. and individual DVDs, but having them gathered together in one program, is an absolute perfect cystalization of the Nasties list. Simply put, if you're new to the Nasties phenomenon, this is ground zero. The trailers themselves are in very good, if not excellent condition and content-wise, are mostly wonderful and surprisingly explicit - the clip from The Beast In Heat shows the pubic hair eating scene (surely the most ludicrous scene in European Trash Cinema!); the trailer for SF Brownrigg's Don't Look In the Basement factors in some explicit gore shots from Last House on the Left; there's Night of the Demon, with its penis-ripping shot; and the very kinky trailer for the Greek oddity Island of Death (under the German title Die Teuflischen von Mykonos, or the Devils of Mykonosthe). Some rarities too - the trailer for Delirium which opens with the music for BBC quiz show Mastermind!; the trailer for the ultra obscure and ultra weird Frozen Scream; a widescreen trailer for Madhouse, the trailer for Don't Go Near the Woods (not on the Code Red Special Edition) and an Italian trailer for Gestapo's Last Orgy (here as L'ultima orgia del III Reich, or The Last Orgy of the 3rd Reich)

Whatever you do - DON'T ! The Video Nasties list included no less than 4 films that carried a deadly warning
In addition, each trailer is introduced by a film critic and author who offer a short critique of the film with a little trivia thrown in good measure, as well as some amusing personal anecdotes - for the trailer of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Alan Jones remembers meeting with Fulci only for the director to vomit all over him; Kim Newman wonders how Slaughter, the original incarnation of Snuff, is meant to end; Stephen Thrower admits the considerable feat of seeing Franco's Bloody Moon "about 30 times"; Allan Bryce points out some bad acting from a playful dog in Love Camp 7; Brad Steven's identifies some footage in the Driller Killer trailer which didn't make the final cut; film critics Julian Petley and Xavier Mendik strongly argue the merits of Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit on Your Grave; and Dr. Patricia MacCormack (dressed in amazing goth chic) gives a startling reading of The Revenge of the Boogyman, and shows us her wonderful tattoo tribute to The Beyond ! All 72 trailers can be viewed with or without the introductions.

Alan Jones introduces one of his favourites - Inferno - "One of the most lunatic additions to the Video Nasty list..."
If all that wasn't enough, the 3 discs are rounded off with image galleries of original VHS artwork, and for video nostalgists there are 50mins (!) of video company logos from the pre-certificate days of British home video.

Video Nasties - The Definitive Guide comes as as a Region free set and is packaged in a lovely alpha case housing the 3 discs, with the first 5000 copies containing an extra goodie - gorgeous postcard replicas of some of the most notorious of the nasties in their original VHS artwork. On the whole, the set is simply magnificent and quite obviously the best DVD release of 2010.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

aka I Am Legend

Richard Matheson's iconic 1954 novel I Am Legend film was originally meant to be filmed by Hammer* in 1958 but instead was given its first cinematic outing in 1964 as The Last Man On Earth, an American-Italian production starring Vincent Price. Matheson reportedly hated the film but it remains to this day the best adaptation of the book.

The plot of The Last Man on Earth sticks closely to I Am Legend, but for those unfamiliar with the book, the film goes like this - a plague which originated from Europe (Transylvania perhaps?) has spread worldwide carried by the winds and bringing fever, blindness and death to those infected. Inexplicably unburned bodies of the dead are seemingly returning to life and displaying vampire-like characteristics. Robert Morgan, (changed from Neville in the book) once a doctor working on a cure for the plague, remains the only human left alive, and is locked in a perpetual battle with the living dead. However, a chance discovery of another human being may prove to be the deadliest danger of all...

A bleak and downbeat film, The Last Man On Earth sticks closely to the structure of Matheson's novel - the first section of the film sees Gordon going about his business of eradicating the vampires, the second act of the film flashes back to Gordon's previous life, while the third act concludes the film with Gordon's discovery of the woman and the so-called New Society. The film was directed by Sidney Salkow who directed many routine programmers before defecting to TV. Here, his work in not terribly distinguished but the film does look good, with fine black & white 'scope photography by Franco Delli Colli (who shot Django Kill and Strip Nude for Your Killer among others).

The first act of the film is heavy with Vincent Price narration, rather than letting the story flow visually but a wordless opening 25mins would have been perhaps too radical for audiences in the mid-sixties. It's often a deeply melancholic film, with a very fine Vincent Price affecting an aching weariness, unlike the the sardonic smirk of Charlton Heston in The Omega Man) and Gordon's life seems precariously on the brink of collapse, his home alarmingly ramshackle, and his defences make-shift, unlike the got-it-together Will Smith in Warners' 2007 adaptation.

Richard Matheson had his onscreen credit changed to "Logan Swanson", unhappy with the finished film

The film does have its flaws - the film lensed around the suburbs of Rome, although sufficiently depopulated of people doesn't make for a good stand-in for Los Angeles, (The Omega Man was superb in this respect). Also, the post-synced dialogue is often quite poor (although the canned voices of the vampires calling to Gordon do sound somewhat eerie at times).

The importance of Matheson's novel on the Fantasy genre cannot be overstated, and would be a key influence on modern Horror Cinema by way of Night of the Living Dead. The Last Man on Earth must have been in Romero's thoughts when shooting his landmark living dead film - the shots of the vampires laying siege to Gordon's home echo the sequences in Night of the Living Dead when the zombies gather at the farmhouse. Even more so, the final sequences of The Last Man on Earth strongly resonates in Romero's later work - the bitter ending where Gordon formulates a cure for the plague only for it to go ignored would turn up again in the climax of The Crazies, while the shots of armed mutants pursuing Gordon down a smoke-filled staircase are close to the swat-team sequence in the opening of Dawn of the Dead.

MGM's DVD of The Last Man On Earth is a very good effort. The 2.35 transfer looks especially good and sounds good, and there's a short but worthy interview with Richard Matheson. The disc also features on the flipside Ray Milland's interesting 1962 apocalypse film Panic In Year Zero. The film is a public domain title also so beware of inferior releases. The MGM disc is the one to get.

Additional Notes: Admittedly there's isn't much information out there on Hammer's proposed film of Richard Matheson's classic novel. After Hammer's success with the Curse of Frankenstein, the studio invited Matheson to submit a screenplay for I Am Legend. Tentatively entitled Night Creatures by the studio, the film was to be directed by Terence Fisher but when Hammer took the script to John Trevelyn, the head British Censor, Trevelyn insisted that a film made from Matheson's screenplay would be banned outright. And so Hammer were forced to abandon the project. It's intriguing to speculate on how Hammer would have handled I Am Legend. Apparently the studio had requested Matheson to soften some of the more dark and disturbing episodes from the novel, but it's perhaps wishful thinking that Hammer would get away with a contemporary vampire story removed from the period setting of Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Bullet Ballet

There are certain film fans out there (perhaps myself included) who believe that David Lynch never quite made another film to match his debut, Eraserhead. A similar opinion applies to Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto and Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Tsukamoto's first full lenght feature from 1988 still remains the director's greatest film, but his 1998 film, Bullet Ballet certainly gives it a run for its money.

The story concerns Goda, a TV commercials director (played by Tsukamoto himself) whose well-oiled, successful life comes unstuck when his long-term girlfriend shoots herself with a gun she was holding for a friend. Trying to come to terms with her suicide Goda becomes obsessed with obtaining a gun to fulfill a death wish. Descending into the Tokyo underworld Goda gets mixed up with a gang of violent punks, increasingly drawn to the self-destructive lifestyle of the gang's female member...

Best described as an extraordinary fusion of Tsukamoto's earlier films like Tetsuo and Tokyo Fist with the nightmarish city noir of Taxi Driver, Bullet Ballet took some ten years to bring to the screen, as Tsukamoto endlessly re-worked and re-shaped the script, becoming so involved that he was compelled to take the lead role in the film. The long gestation period paid off as Bullet Ballet is one of the director's most independent and fiercely uncompromising works. Appropriate to its whiplash pace, it's a hugely violent film, full of beatings, stabbings and gun carnage, and Tokyo itself is portrayed as a claustrophobic city where salarymen are routinely attacked and robbed for kicks, and vengeful yakuza are out stalking the streets.

Visually it all looks the work of an extremist - shot in inky black and white on grungy 16mm film stock using a hand held camera, the film is often disorientating - a high speed foot chase turns into a blurry, abstract painting, and so intense at times is the film that it appears the celluloid may rip apart in the projector gate at any moment. Tsukamoto's trademark industrial aesthetic adds another layer of texture, and the film is loaded with shots of leaking pipes and various metallic flotsam, with much of the action taking place in run-down back alleys, derelict buildings and deserted wasteland. Fans of Takashi Miike's more radical work (like Dead Or Alive and its frenzied opening 10mins) need to see this film right away.

Artsmagic's DVD of Bullet Ballet is excellent. The transfer, framed around 1.76 looks rough, but this is how the film always looked. The contrast does seem a little high in places - some of the whites tend to blow out but its a minor quibble. This is a solid job all round. The audio is equally good and well mixed - the dialogue is never swamped by the aggressive pounding soundtrack. English subs are easy to read. The disc comes with two very fine extras - an informative commentary track by Tom Mes (author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto) and a 34-min Q&A interview with Tsukamoto about the film and his career (and at one point revealing his desire to make Tetsuo USA!). Highly recommended.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss (BBC)

Just finished watching this 3-part BBC documentary series on the history of Horror Cinema, screened on BBC2 in the run up to Halloween.

Written and presented by League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss (with English Gothic author Jonathan Rigby as script consultant), A History of Horror is a whistle-stop tour through three important epochs of Horror - Episode 1 - Frankenstein Goes to Hollywood explored the early horror films of Universal and RKO, Ep. 2 - Home County Horrors took a look at British Horror: the films of Hammer and Amicus, while Ep. 3 - The American Scream concluded the series with the new wave of American Horror Cinema of the 70's.

Three 1-hour episodes could hardly do justice to Horror Cinema's most important and fruitful eras and Mark Gatiss is immediately up front about this in Episode 1's opening prologue, adding a disclaimer that the program would be his own personal journey through the annals of Horror. And while I could live without mention of important Horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Carnival of Souls and Black Christmas, the series did have some serious omissions, like Murnau's Nosferatu, Last House on the Left and Suspiria. In fact Gatiss finishes the program with Halloween, admitting that he doesn't have much time for the 80's slasher boom, but what of The Evil Dead, the original Nightmare on Elm Street and The Blair Witch Project ?

"Oh my God, what am I doing here ? This is insane !" - Barabara Steele cheerfully recalling her revulsion for Shivers
For seasoned Horror fans, there was little new information to be gleamed, but Gatiss made for an intelligent, passionate and likeable host, interspersing the history lesson with some enjoyable comments about his own love of Horror films. The program did features some excellent interviews - Hammer's Jimmy Sangster's frank appraisal of latter day Hammer and his direction on The Horror of Frankenstein and Lust for a Vampire; Barbara Steele on the genius of Mario Bava and Black Sunday, John Carpenter explaining why Cat People is so overrated, and George Romero deciding that Martin is really not a vampire. The program also featured some fine clips - the Val Lewton segment will send me digging into the Warners' boxset as soon as I can, and some choice moments from Terence Fisher's The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula made me yearn to have for these Hammer classics on Blu-Ray.

At the time of writing this post, A History of Horror is still available online at the BBC website (accessible to UK residents only it seems), but I'm sure the complete series will be freely available to catch on youtube - in any event, it's well worth seeing.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Grapes of Death

My first viewing of Jean Rollin's 1978 film The Grapes Of Death did not go well. I thought it was a dismal film, an obvious commercial venture, lacking the strange, surreal power of Rollin's earlier work. Still I persevered and on subsequent viewings my opinion began to soften, and while the film is no masterpiece like The Nude Vampire, it remains a well-crafted, atmospheric chiller. In the film a young woman travelling by train through a remote part of the French countryside stumbles upon a village where a pesticide has poisoned the wine and turned the residents into depraved murderers with a taste for carnage...

The Grapes of Death's theme of mankind's interference with nature and suffering the consequences is hardly ground-breaking stuff, Jorge Grau mined similar territory, (and had a lot more to say about it) with his 1974 film The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue. But The Grapes of Death is one of Rollin's most accomplished films, working with a strong narrative - aside from one bit of daft plotting to do with Brigitte Lahaie's character who seems to have a supernatural immunity to the infection. Rollin's great skill as a visual director is well to the fore here and the film is often striking looking, as well as eerie - it's certainly one of the bleakest looking rural horror films, as the heroine moves through rugged, boulder strewn landscapes, dilapidated farm houses and ravished grape plantations.

The film does have its fair share of problems - there's the uneven pace, some tacky plague make-up which manages to look both disgusting and phony, and a general air of uncertainty which hangs over the film - Rollin seems to have taken inspiration from George Romero, but doesn't quite know if he's riffing on the zombies of Night of the Living Dead or the homicidal maniacs of The Crazies. Either way, Rollin gets the job done and provides some gory thrills along the way - a pitchfork killing and a nasty decapitation. Interestingly the film has some neat parallels with Cabin Fever, however unlikely it may be that Eli Roth was inspired to write his debut feature after seeing Rollin's film.

Synapse's DVD presents The Grapes of Death in fine form, with a nice sharp, clean 1.66 transfer. Audio is fine and experiencing the film in its original French language does benefit the film more so than a dub track. English subs are optional. As well as the theatrical trailer the disc comes with interviews with Rollin and his muse Brigitte Lahaie. If you are a new comer to the idiosyncratic Cinema of Jean Rollin The Grapes of Death makes for a fine starting point.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Rabid Dogs

Shot in the summer of '75, Rabid Dogs was for a long time considered to be Mario Bava's lost film. After the production wrapped, the film ran aground due to financing difficulties and more or less vanished into thin air. More about that in a moment.

The story, essentially, one long getaway sequence, begins when 4 armed robbers hit a payroll delivery. With the cops in pursuit, their driver is shot dead and the remaining gangmembers kidnap a woman and force a man on the way to hospital with his sick and comatose child, to take them to their remote hideout...

Rabid Dogs may be Mario Bava's roughest looking film, don't expect any pools of surreal lighting in this one, the director goes for a natural, often primitive look that is entirely suited to the proceedings. This is one of the most compressed thrillers you are ever likely to see, the entire film taking place in the space of a few hours, and most of the action set in the cramped confines of a car. Occasionally Bava opens up the action - a crowded gas station stop where help seems tantalizingly close, and a magnificent sequence where the woman makes a desperate escape attempt through a field of crops only to be debased and humiliated for her transgression.

Bava's direction is a masterclass of film making, placing the audience right there in the car. Logistically, it must have been quite difficult to shoot actors speaking dialogue in such tight conditions but the film meshes together so seamlessly, Bava makes it all look effortless. Performances are pitch perfect and each of the actors attend to their roles with utter conviction, not an easy task I'm sure as the dialogue is often extremely nasty, with the two heavies in the gang dishing out sexual slurs and threats of physical abuse to the three hostages. The always great George Eastman, appearing here under his real name Luigi Montefiori is especially menacing and creates a palpable mood of barely contained violence.

Rabid Dogs comes right at the beginning of a new era of Italian Exploitation cinema, films like Night Train Murders, Terror Express and House on the Edge of the Park, which were dark, deeply pessimistic, and featured disturbing sexualized violence. In fact, Bava's film delivers an absolute knockout twist at the climax which is as bitter and cynical as it is ingenious.

After the Italian financier behind the film was killed, the funds required to complete post-production dried up and Rabid Dogs went into freefall. However, Bava's lost film made a surprise comeback almost two decades later when its lead actress Lea Lander acquired the rights to the film and had it reassembled in line with Bava's original intention. Furthermore, Bava's American producer Alfred Leone then purchased the rights a few years later and shot some additional scenes (by Lamberto Bava) to flesh out the story and the film was re-scored and renamed Kidnapped. Viewing the two versions (available on Anchor Bay's Kidnapped DVD), the older Rabid Dogs cut is much superior, the additional scenes in the Kidnapped cut manage to dilute the tension in Bava's taut thriller. Also, Stelvio Cipriani's Rabid Dogs score is far superior to the Kidnapped music.
left, the Lucertola Media release of Rabid Dogs; right, Anchor Bay's Kidnapped

Rabid Dogs was released on DVD in 1997 courtesy of German soundtrack specialist label Lucertola Media. However, the best edition of the film is the Anchor Bay Kidnapped DVD which includes both versions of the film. The image (letterboxed at around 1.66) and sound are very impressive considering the film's ragged history and the disc comes with another essential Tim Lucas commentary and an excellent featurette on the trials and tribulations of this great Mario Bava treasure.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Man From Hong Kong

East meets West in this 1975 Australian/Hong Kong co-production riffing on the megahit Enter the Dragon, and directed by Ozploitation favourite Brian Trenchard Smith. In the film, a Hong Kong police inspector, Fang Sing Leng comes to Sydney to interrogate a Chinese suspect (a early part for Sammo Hung) picked up for trafficking cocaine for local crime kingpin Jack Wilton. After the assassination of the Chinese, Fang resolves to smash Wilton's operation by any means necessary...

The short synopsis above doesn't quite capture the relentless mayhem of bullets, bombs, fights, high speed car chases and causal destruction of Trenchard Smith's deliriously entertaining action caper. Golden Harvest star Jimmy Wang Yu (One-Armed Swordsman) plays the Hong Kong super-cop who shows the Sydney police how its done. Wang Yu doesn't quite have the cool cynical attitude of Bruce Lee, but he still manages to bed down with two babes, as well dishing out some bone-crunching kung fu. His dust up with a contract killer in a Chinese restaurant kitchen is a classic.

Sterling support too from the rest of the cast. One-shot James Bond actor George Lazenby, is suitably slimy as Jack Wilton, while the best lines go to Mad Max villain Hugh Keays-Byrne who plays one of the Australian cops exasperated by Fang's less than delicate methods - at one point he declares "This is Australia mate, not 55 Days of Peking!"

Amazingly this was the director's first full length feature and his work here is absolutely top notch, shot in 'scope (by Picnic at Hanging Rock cameraman Russell Boyd, who captures some striking panoramic shots of Sydney harbour) and directed with incredible verve and considerable skill - check out the spectacular opening sequence where a car explodes perfectly framed against Ayers Rock! The film bounces from one action set piece to another with a manic energy, so much so that a short romantic interlude which could have been turgid in another film, serves as a welcome resting spot for the audience before slamming back into a thrilling car chase and the explosive finale.

Jimmy Wang Yu gets to grips with a burning George Lazenby - just one of the many amazing stunts in The Man From Hong Kong

Madman's Region 4 coded DVD of The Man From Hong Kong sports an excellent anamorphic transfer preserving the film's 2.35 'scope photography. The print used shows a little wear but it's perfectly fine. The stereo audio is strong too, with a rousing score and a catchy theme song that you will sing for days afterwards. Madman have issued The Man From Hong Kong as a lavish double-disc with a bounty of extras on disc 2. As well as trailers for the fim, we get some silent on set footage, and two additional Brian Trenchard Smith films - Kung Fu Killers (1974, 72 minutes) and Hospitals Don't Burn Down (1978, 24 minutes.) Trenchard Smith also provides an excellent commentary for the main feature. Essential viewing.