Sunday, 31 October 2010

An Irish ghost story as told by Orson Welles

Return to Glennascaul is a wonderful 2-reel short from 1951, written and directed by Hilton Edwards of the famous Gate Theatre in Dublin. The film is best remembered for the participation of Orson Welles who became involved with the project during some downtime on the troubled production of Othello (which starred Gate co-founder Micheál Mac Liammóir), and was asked to narrate the film as well as appear in the opening and closing sequences of the film.

In the first scene of the film, Welles is seen taking time away from the Mercury production of Othello to travel to Dublin to see Edwards. On the way, Welles picks up a man whose car has broken down, and passing the time, the man tells Welles a story about two strange women he once gave a lift to. Invited in for a night cap at the stately home of the women, the man leaves a cigarette case behind, but moments later when he returns to the house to retrieve the case, the grounds appear over grown with weeds, the house locked up and in a state of disrepair and seemingly abandoned for years...

A short story straight from the haunted land of Ireland as Welles puts it in opening narration, Return to Glennascaul is an atmospheric little film, with beautiful lighting, (in a style reminiscent of Welles' own films) and an evocative harp music score. It's quite a creepy film too - there's a wonderful sequence where the man walks through the empty house and becomes frightened when he hears ghostly whispering all around him. There's some nice touches of humour too, at one point Welles reacting to his passenger's car trouble, replies "I've had trouble with my distributor too", and a scene where a suitably spooked Welles drives off at speed past two women looking for a lift!

The film has had quite an interesting history since its initial release. After a few screenings in 1951, the film vanished and was largely forgotten about, only to be rescued from obscurity when horror movie producer Richard Gordon (Tower of Evil, Inseminoid) found the film in the archives of Irish television broadcaster RTE. The film was cleaned up by the BFI and Gordon commissioned Peter Bogdanovich to film an introduction to accompany the film. In 1992 the film was re-released in a program entitled A Tribute To Orson Welles

Return to Glennascaul can be found on UK label Second Sight's DVD of Othello, as the complete A Tribute To Orson Welles program. The image quality is very good for an obscure title of this vintage while the dialogue is a bit hissy at times, it's perfectly fine. The DVD is region free.

Saturday, 30 October 2010


Fans of Ken Russell are well accustomed to taking the rough with the smooth when it comes to the director's long career in film making. Whore from 1991 is significant in that it would be Russell's last good film, his filmography from then on is a wasteland of mediocre, uninteresting projects. The film is a day in the life portrait of an LA prostitute trying to make a quick buck under the nose of her former boss, a violent and dangerous pimp who's patrolling the streets looking to recoup his investment...

The film, adapted from the David Hines one-woman play Bondage, which Hines wrote based on conversations the playwright had with a number of prostitutes he regularly drove home whilst working as cab driver in London. Russell's transposing of the play to Los Angeles might seem drastic but the director rarely opens up the film, retaining the tight claustrophobic set ups of the stage play, with most of the film taking place in bathrooms, bedrooms, strip bars, empty sidewalks and anonymous public spaces.

The strength of the film leans heavily on Theresa Russell, her performance as the foul mouthed Liz is very impressive, most of the time speaking directly to the camera about her unhappy life before drifting into the prostitution, the do's and don't's of hooking and the constant dangers she faces - abuse, humiliation, violence and at one point a vicious gang rape. Good turns too from Antonio Fargas as a homeless man and impromptu guardian angel, and Benjamin Mouton playing Blake, Liz's sadistic pimp, grumbling about the price of rubbers and abortions. Look out too for a quick cameo from Eraserhead's Jack Nance and an early appearance by Danny Trejo as a tattoo artist.

Whore is grim stuff to be sure, but the film is not without humour - Liz dishes out hilarious swipes at male sexual sensibilities, and ultimately the film is a realistic and sensitive treatment of the oldest profession and a far more potent film than Hollywood trash like Pretty Woman. And this being a Ken Russell film, expect plenty of sleaze and sex.

As far as I know, Whore has not surfaced on DVD in the UK or North America, (where its US VHS release was sometimes repackaged as If You Can’t Say It, Just See It (?)). I believe there was German DVD at one point but its most likely out of print now. In the meantime, check the comments for a very good, uncut VHS rip.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Messiah of Evil

Now here's something you don't see everyday - a film that opens with director Walter Hill having his throat slashed by a dreamy looking teenage girl ! Messiah of Evil is one of the great secret masterpieces of 70's American Horror. In the film, a woman is drawn to the sleepy coastal town of Point Dune in search of her artist father, whose letters have become increasingly bizarre and worrisome. Arriving at her father's deserted home, the woman gets involved with a strange bohemian aristocrat and his two groupie girlfriends. Stranger still are the townsfolk of Point Dune, who seem to be in a zombie-like trance and keep a vigil of beach fires awaiting the arrival of a mysterious "dark stranger"...

Directed in 1973 by husband and wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, during a hiatus from writing American Graffiti for George Lucas, Messiah of Evil is one of the most unusual zombie films to emerge in the wake of Night of the Living Dead. The film's scope and ambition are only fully revealed in the final act, and for once you wish there was a second installment to continue the story. The film recalls the moodiness of Carnival of Souls, and you'll find shades of Messiah in films like The Fog and Dead And Buried. John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon may have seen the film at some point in the 70's, but it seems unlikely Lucio Fulci would have caught it, yet seasoned fans of Italian Horror might recognize elements of the film in Fulci's City of the Living Dead, both films tapping a rich vein of weird Lovecraftian horror.

Visually, Messiah of Evil looks hugely impressive - shot in Cinemascope (unusual for an independent horror film of this era) with striking Bava-esque lighting, and some quite amazing art direction - the film is full of surreal perspective artworks which dazzle and disorientate the eye. There are excellent set pieces too - a cinema which slowly fills up with sinister patrons, and an eerie sequence where a girl wanders into to a supermarket to find the living dead chewing down on raw meat. Special mention too for Phillan Bishop's wonderfully evocative electronic score.

Code Red's DVD of Messiah of Evil is excellent. The print used for the film exhibits quite a fair degree of dirt and debris but its a minor complaint considering the film can now be seen the correctly framed in all its 2.35 glory. Surprisingly Code Red have managed to dig up some very worthwhile extras - a very enjoyable, engaging commentary track by the film makers, a comprehensive featurette, Remembering Messiah of Evil, and two b/w short films. Messiah of Evil is a film you will want to see again and again so be sure to pick this masterwork up as soon as possible.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Count Dracula (BBC production, 1977)

Among the endless films based on Bram Stoker's iconic creature of the night, this BBC production, originally made for television in 1977, has over the years earned itself quite a considerable fan base. Gerald Savory's screenplay is one of the more faithful adaptations of Stoker's novel (if you haven't read the book, the plot closely resembles Coppola's film), with some minor departures from the text made to streamline the story - Mina and Lucy are now sisters; Arthur Holmwood, one of Lucy's suitors is combined into the character of Quincey Morris; and Dracula himself, is portrayed as an eternally youthful man, and not the aged vampire of the book.

Director Philip Saville brings a strong visual sense to the film, with some fine location work - crumbling castles, nocturnal graveyards, dark haunted woodlands, and the gloomy wind-swept coast of Whitby. Style wise the lacks the garish technicolor of Hammer, or the operatic bombast of the Coppola film, and bears more of a resemblance to Herzog's Nosferatu, both films rich in atmosphere. The film has few special effects shots, perhaps due to budget reasons, but the odd negative image effect strays in from time to time, adding a touch of weirdness to the proceedings.

Louis Jourdan plays Dracula with a quiet, understated power - charming, with impeccable manners and deeply sinister. His Dracula is refreshingly unpretentious, not simply some emissary from Hell, but rather a creature who needs to feed on the blood of humans to further his race. Impressive too is Frank Finlay as the courageous and strangely paternal Van Helsing, and Jack Shepherd as the twitchy and ill-tempered Renfield. Some of the minor players lack certainty, and Richard Barnes' Quincy is quite disastrous, his faltering Texan accent will remind you of the equally inept turn by Keanu Reeves in Coppola's film.

BBC's DVD (coded for R2 and R4) containing the full 152min film is completely barebones as one might suspect. It's a shame some liner notes could not be provided to shed some light on the production (which originally aired a few days before Christmas of '77). The image quality is good, if a little underwhelming. The transfer exhibits some noise not helped by a certain televisual blandness inherent in small screen productions of this vintage (think of BBC sci-fi series Blake's Seven, or the British serial Thriller for a visual reference). Still, the DVD comes highly recommended and for the best results see this one on a cold winter's night to generate the required thrills.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Hour of the Wolf

Watching Hour of the Wolf, Ingmar Bergman's 1968 film, feels like wading through a full blown nightmare. Bergman had played with macabre imagery in his previous films - the character of Death in The Seventh Seal, and two impressively eerie sequences in The Magician and Sawdust and Tinsel, but Hour of the Wolf is one of the Swedish director's darkest, most intense films.

The film takes place on a small, isolated island where Johan, a painter accompanied by his wife Alma, has set up home to work on his art. Johan's fragile mental state, given to bouts of moodiness and plagued by vivid dreams of nightmarish creatures, is weakened further when the couple are courted by the mysterious Baron and his eccentric entourage. These unwelcome guests in the lives of Johan and Alma are not so benevolent as first appears, in fact they may not even be human...

On the face of it, Hour of the Wolf is an abstract and difficult film, but early on in the film, Liv Ullman's character Alma reveals a clue to the audience when she posits a theory that over time, lovers can come to mirror each other, even sharing their very thoughts. And demons. For Bergman, being an artist is a dangerous business, a constant wrestle for control over the spectres of self-doubt, flagging creativity and humiliation. The film shot like a surreal Gothic Horror, is full of strange, hallucinatory images - the corpse of a murdered boy sinking into the depths of the sea, a man walking on a ceiling, and a corridor full of frenzied, flapping pigeons. Bergman's perennial cameraman Sven Nykvist's work here is utterly extraordinary, lighting faces so they resemble the rugged surfaces of the rocky island.

If you're looking to discover the work of Ingmar Bergman, Hour of the Wolf may present an enormous challenge - instead stick with conventional wisdom and see The Seventh Seal first. But if this is a Bergman you've missed in the past, the film is highly recommended. If you bear the weight of such heavy drama, the film makes for a fascinating double-bill with Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, both sharing some interesting parallels with one another.

MGM's DVD of Hour of the Wolf, available as part of their Ingmar Bergman Collection, or on its own, presents the film in its original full-frame ratio. The b/w image is good, grainy at times but sharp nonetheless. It's not up to the standard of Criterion's Bergman discs but it should suffice. The audio is quite standard, but the Swedish dialogue is free from hiss and distortion, and Lars Johan Werle's sparse avant garde score is well represented. Subtitles are offered in English, French and Spanish. The R1 disc (unlike its barbones R2 counterpart) has some interesting extras - a short feature on the film, interviews with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, and a commentary by Bergman scholar, Marc Gervais. The disc is rounded out with the inclusion of two stills galleries

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Phantom of the Paradise - the French Blu-Ray

One of 3 Blu-Rays I picked up in Paris last week, Phantom of the Paradise has been given a very impressive hi-def makeover for its French release (Region-free by the way). Brian de Palma's 1974 film looks absolutely superb, transferred from a clean, spotless print, full of eye-popping detail (you can spot Cheryl Smith of Lemora fame bedding down with Swan in one scene) and gorgeous color - Larry Pizer's gaudy cinematography positively radiates off the screen. Film grain is present but not excessive and there is only one instance where the picture looks anything less than stellar - the scene where Swan gives his press conference at the airport looks a little soft, but I would guess this is how it always looked. The audio is extremely robust - the opening sequence of the Juicy Fruits rockin' out is wonderful. Turn this baby up !

The extras** on the Blu have been carried over from the previous French DVD, the best of which is Paradise Regained, the excellent and meaty 50-min documentary about the film, which gathers together all the principle cast and crew including a very proud Brian De Palma. I won't spoil all the surprises but some interesting factoids gleamed from the doc - the film originally began life as The Phantom of the Fillmore, Taxi Driver's Peter Boyle was originally considered to play Beef, and Led Zeppelin had de Palma optically replace all references to Swan's record label Swan Song, which was Zep's own label !

The film itself can be viewed without the French subtitles, but the French subs are forced for the Paradise Regained documentary. The French subs are discreet enough to ignore although actor Gerrit Graham does one of his interview segments in French !

** Edit Thanks to reader Principal Archivist who left this comment regarding the extras on the French Blu:

It's probably fair to warn your North American readers that although the French BluRay is region free, the extra features can only be played on a PAL-compatible BluRay player; most North American BluRay players aren't.

Phantom fans should check out the Principal Archivist's incredible website The Swan Archives for all thing Phantom related...

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Bullet In the Head

It may not be as revered as A Better Tomorrow or The Killer, but John Woo's 1990 film Bullet In the Head is one of the director's most ambitious films, working out the familiar gangster themes of loyalty, betrayal and revenge against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. Its 1967, and three lifelong friends looking to make a fast buck on the turbulent streets of Hong Kong escape to Saigon after the accidental killing of a small time hood. Initially, sent there to run contraband in and out of the country, the three friends make a hit on a gangster for an ammunition box full of gold, and are inadvertently thrust into the very heart of the Vietnam conflict...

Directed with style and verve by John Woo, Bullet In the Head may not feature the kind of balletic World War III carnage of Hardbolied, but rather the film's violence is harsh and ugly, the central section of the film where the three heroes are captured by the Viet Cong is often harrowing, the director putting a disturbing twist on the Russian roulette sequence from The Deer Hunter, one of the key influences on the film. Thankfully Woo for most of the film, keeps the mawkish sentimentality that spoils a lot of his work in check - no white doves were harmed in the making of this film I can assure you.

The screenplay co-written by John Woo has a pleasing symmetry and the director in an early section of the movie, very bravely smuggles in one extraordinary shot of a student standing before a tank, a sly reference to Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 - no small thing for a Chinese film maker. Performances throughout are strong, with the always dependable Tony Leung delivering another solid turn. Even in this early lead role, he was obviously destined to be a great star. Great support too from Simon Yam, playing an ultra-cool Saigon contract killer.

Bullet In the Head is not without its weaknesses - at two hours the film is perhaps overlong, the synth score is a little flimsy compared to the ferocity of the visuals, and Woo doesn't quite nail the Vietnam sequences, the flat looking Thailand locations looking more like Missing In Action, rather than moody jungle vistas of Apocalypse Now. Minor criticisms aside, this being a pre-Hollywood John Woo film, the action is nothing less than jaw-dropping, demonstrating that the Hong Kong film crews simply were the best in the world at making this kind of movie. Hardly anyone escapes from the film without being ripped apart by machine fire, beaten, stabbed, chopped, burned or blown to bits by grenades and bombs.

The best way to see Bullet In the Head is the R2 two-disc edition courtesy of Hong Kong Legends, which features a good, sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer and strong audio. The film can be watched in the original Cantonese, or with an English dub. A bounty of extras are contained on the second disc, the best of all, a superb commentary by Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan. The disc is officially out-of-print these days, but you can still score a copy from Amazon UK relatively cheap.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

What an excellent day for an exorcism...

I'm re-reading William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist this week before I screen the new Blu-Ray edition. Blatty's novel made the transition from page to screen very well - only a few peripheral characters were excised from the film treatment. The biggest casualty of the original text was the elimination of a very minor subplot involving Chris McNeil's housekeeper Karl and his drug-addicted daughter. My favourite sections of the book are Damien Karras' initial meetings with the demon in possession of Regan. Much of the playful dialogue between demon and priest would end up in the film, but pared down. The following excerpt from the book is from one of Karras's exchanges with the demon, and illustrates the mischievous but deeply malevolent persona of the demon in Regan...

As he approached, it was watching with mocking eyes. Full of cunning. Full of hate. Full of power.

"Hello, Karras."

The priest heard the sound of diarrhetic voiding into plastic pants. He spoke calmly from the foot of the bed.

"Hello, devil. And how are you feeling?"

"At the moment, very happy to see you. Glad."

The tongue lolled out of the mouth while the eyes appraised Karras with insolence.

"Flying your colors, I see. Very good." Another rumbling.

"You don't mind a bit of stink, do you, Karras?"

""Not at all."

"You're a liar!"

"Does that bother you?"


"But the devil likes liars."

"Only good ones, dear Karras, only good ones," it chuckled. "Moreover, who said I'm the devil?"

"Didn't you?"

"Oh, I might have. I might. I'm not well. You believed me?"

"Of course."

"My apologies."

"Are you saying that you aren't the devil?"

"Just a poor struggling demon. A devil. A subtle distinction, but one not entirely lost upon Our Father who is in Hell. Incidentally, you won't mention my slip of the tongue to him, Karras, now will you? Eh? When you see him?"

"See him? Is he here?" asked the priest.

"In the pig? Not at all. Just a poor little family of wandering souls, my friend. Yon don't blame us for being here, do you? After all, we have no place to go. No home."

"And how long are you planning to stay?"

The head jerked up from the pillow, contorted in rage as it roared, "Until the piglet dies!"

And then suddenly, Regan settled back into a thick-lipped, drooling grin.

"Incidentally, what an excellent day for an exorcism, Karras."

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

A trip to Père-Lachaise

Anyone heading to Paris for a vacation should consider paying a visit to Père-Lachaise cemetery. One of the most famous cemeteries in the world, the sprawling but peaceful Père-Lachaise is a wonderful break from the endless hustle and bustle of the city, and is home to some well-known residents, most famously Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, Édith Piaf and Oscar Wilde. Oliver Stone filmed one of the final scenes of The Doors in Père-Lachaise, but Jim Morrison's grave today is a far more subdued scene than that depicted in the film. Over the years, the grave has been vandalized numerous times and bust of Morrison (seen in the screenshot below) was stolen in 1988.

Jim Morrison's grave in Oliver Stone's film The Doors
The Lizard King's final resting place, October 2010

Another resident of Père-Lachaise I wanted to visit was Georges Méliès, the great French film maker who around the turn of the 20th century, pioneered special effects with dissolves, time-lapse photography, split screen, multiple exposures and so on. All film makers past and present owe Georges Méliès a huge debt, and arguably all Fantastic Cinema can be traced back to Méliès' early film experiments like A Trip To The Moon. Next to the bust of Méliès in the picture below, someone had left a handwritten message of gratitude, and rather amusingly someone left a business card for a video copying service !

Monday, 18 October 2010

An expensive Lunch in Paris

If you're in Paris this week, and you're a William Burroughs fan, it might be worth taking a trip down to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, just across the street from the Notre Dame. There you will find a rare copy of the first UK edition of The Naked Lunch, published by John Calder, in association with The Olympia Press, from 1964. I've leafed through this book, and it's in fine, clean condition. As for the price, this Burroughs will set you back a cool €250 (£218/$349) - even though this price is in line with what collector's would expect to pay for this edition, it was far too rich for my blood, so with much regret I left it in the shop. The last word to my wife, Irene who on seeing the price, gasped "Two hundred and fifty ? - it's not worth two Euros fifty!"

Shakespeare and Company bookstore, 37 Rue Bûcherie. Well worth a visit for English books in Paris

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Paris Working

I'm just back from Paris and I thought I'd share some very brief thoughts and impressions about this great city. I have a few bits n' pieces I want to post up about the trip over the next few days, and I'll do my best to keep it all vaguely in line with the spirit of this blog, I promise no Lonely Planet style diversions...

Of all the big world cities I've visited - London, New York, Cape Town, Los Angeles - Paris may be the densest, busiest of all - moving with an incredible tidal force of energy and momentum. Its both astonishing and unnerving.

We stayed in the Latin Quarter district, literally two minutes from the Notre Dame cathedral. On our first day in Paris, we walked from the Notre Dame, along the Seine, past the Orsay museum to the Eiffel Tower, crossed over the Pont d'Lena bridge, to the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Élysées, past the Louvre museum and finally back at the Notre Dame. If you're into walks I'd recommend taking this same route - its an excellent way to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the Left Bank. If all that seems a little intense, a hop-on, hop-off bus will take you around to all the must see tourist-spots, and if you're more inclined to descend into the Parisian Underworld, the Metro will get you to just about anywhere...

The picture above is a shot of one of the many book stalls that sit on the quay walls of the Seine. These stalls sell everything from old and new books, art prints, posters (old ad campaigns, movie posters and movie stars etc) and lots of strange and bewildering knick knacks. I almost snagged a few old issues of Cahiers du Cinéma...

Friday, 8 October 2010

Normal service will resume shortly

Just a quick note to say there won't be any new posts here for a few days - I'm journeying to Alphaville - City of the Future! for a bit of rest and relaxation - god knows I need it !

Bowie In Berlin

I left this book sit on the shelf for almost a year before I picked it up, thinking there was nothing more I could read about David Bowie. But author Thomas Jerome Seabrook's study of Bowie's move to Europe in the final years of the 70's is required reading. Seabrook picks up the story in 1976 around the release of the Station to Station LP and The Man Who Fell To Earth. Inspired by the stories of Christopher Isherwood, a mentally and physically fragile Bowie along with Iggy Pop, both well burned out by the LA drug scene, escape to Europe where Pop makes a Lazarus-like comeback from the dead with The Idiot and Lust For Life, and Bowie records two of his most important works...

The core of the book is devoted to Low and "Heroes", which Seabrook discusses in great detail - the writing and recording, and the involvement of Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti. Refreshingly, Seabrook refuses to indulge in the usual myths that accompany Bowie during this period and makes a strong case for the authorship of Low and "Heroes", which are often lazily written off as being heavily affected by Brian Eno's presence at the recordings. In fact, Eno's contribution to Low is not as significant as most would believe, and Bowie was already modulating his interest in German electronic music through his music, as evident by Bowie's influence over the avant-rock of The Idiot, recorded long before Eno showed up for the final sessions of Low.
The book is also strong on incidental detail from this period of Bowie's life - his abandoned soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth (which Seabrook admits probably wasn't up to scratch), life in Berlin (modest by all accounts), his appearance in the ill-fated David Hemmings film Just a Gigolo, the triumphant world tour of 1978, and the undoing of the Bowie-Eno collaboration during the recording of the patchy Lodger album, often erroneously referred to as the 3rd part of the so-called "Berlin Trilogy"

Most of the time, Seabrook gets it right, but there is the occasional slip, like his dismissal of Moss Garden, a strange and exotic fourth world instrumental on "Heroes", surely one of Bowie's most sublime moments on vinyl; and one howling error referring to the Low track Warsawa, as being named after the capital of the Czech Republic (?). Otherwise, Bowie In Berlin is an excellent, engrossing book and one of the more essential additions to the Bowie library.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Natural Born Blu-Ray

I've just finished watching Warners' Director's Cut Blu-Ray edition of Natural Born Killers, and I must say Olver Stone's masterpiece looks absolutely stunning. If you've only ever seen the film courtesy of Trimark's 2001 DVD, then I highly recommend an upgrade to the high-def version. Watching the film I could have sworn there were slivers of extra footage I had not seen before - more likely its the exact same cut as the Trimark DVD, but so impressively rendered on the Blu-Ray, I was seeing details more clearly thanks to the wonderful sharp image. Colors are eye-popping - especially the eerie lime green filter used during the Drug Store sequence, and the black and white documentary photography looks marvelous, with plenty of natural film grain. As with the superb image, the audio is a powerhouse, and Trent Reznor's extraordinary mix-tape soundtrack sounds better than ever. This Blu-Ray should be played loud ! In addition, some hard-to-hear dialogue lost in the mix of previous editions, is much clearer here.

Incidentally, Quentin Tarantino was very critical about the film on its release in 1994, but Natural Born Killers preemted Tarantino on at least two counts - Stone's idea of mixing animation in with live action, and dirtying the print would be re-used by Tarantino some ten years later for Kill Bill and Grindhouse. Natural Born Killers is a film you will want to see again and again, just make sure you get the Unrated Director's Cut Blu-Ray, and not the R-Rated Blu-Ray.

One last thing... As I was putting together this post, I was reminded of that unlikely moment when John Grisham weighed into the controversy surrounding the picture when he advised a victim of a gun-shot attack (which was said to be influenced by the film) to bring a case of "product liability" against Oliver Stone and Warners. Grisham wrote in a magazine article in April 1996:
"The last hope of imposing some sense on Hollywood will come through another great American tradition, the lawsuit. A case can be made that there exists a direct causal link between Natural Born Killers and the death of Bill Savage. It will take only one large verdict against the likes of Oliver Stone, and then the party will be over."
I'm squarely on the side of the film (and Cinema) here, but I should mention that John Grisham's friend - the Bill Savage who's mentioned in the quote above was murdered by the so-called copycat killers so he did have a personal interest in burying the film... I'm trying to think of a similar case where a major writer (or cultural figure) launches a crusade against a film but Grisham vs Natural Born Killers is the only one that comes to mind... Not quite the same thing but I remember David Mamet was openly hostile towards Schindler's List, calling it an "exploitation film" and "emotional pornography" And for the record I thoroughly disagree !

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Mad Foxes

See what happens when you leave the dustbin opened ? Out pops something like The Mad Foxes. This 1982 Spanish-Swiss atrocity takes its inspiration from Mad Max, as a rich playboy who does a nice line in fast cars and deflowering virgins gets involved in a messy feud with some biker punks. After his said virgin girlfriend is raped, Hal responds by having the punks beaten up by his buddies at the local karate school (naturally). Of course, the punks don’t take this lying down and arming themselves with machine guns and grenades, they come calling on our hero...

The UK VHS sleeve on the Merlin / VCL label

As artless as a blocked toilet, The Mad Foxes is nevertheless an enjoyable piece of Z-grade trash – full of outrageous violence and sleaze, and despite some mindless padding, zips by so fast there’s hardly a minute to consider how inept the film is. The acting here is strictly porno level, the hero is as wooden as it gets, while the punks themselves, too buffoonish to be any way believable look like bargain basement cast-offs of the biker gang in Dawn of the Dead.

While there’s much female nudity on parade, there’s quite an alarming level of full frontal male skin on show, adding to the utter seediness (not to mention ugliness) of the film. Drenched in cheap splatter, no one exits the film without being disemboweled, sprayed with machine gun fire, castrated or stabbed in the head with a garden shares. The shoddiness of the film even extends to the dubbing of the film, which is especially careless here, the actors’ mouths flapping like beached fish, long after the dialogue has run out. Quite possibly the dubbing was entirely improvised with delirious lines like “I’ll cut your neck off”, and "She fell from a horse and became paralytic". Add to the mix, some terrible heavy metal courtesy of Krokus, horribly dated disco dancing, and a bit of clowning around in Nazi bondage gear, The Mad Foxes is truly astonishing. Yeah, I loved it.
An alternative use for garden shares courtesy of the mad foxes

The Mad Foxes was once available on DVD courtesy of ABC DVD with a fabulous transfer but this disc is now long out of print and if you do find a copy, be prepared to lay down some serious cash. Until another edition surfaces, the film shouldn't be too difficult to find online...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Figures In A Landscape

The figures in Joseph Losey’s 1970 film are Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell, on the run in an unnamed country, trying to reach the safety of a mountainous frontier. As well as negotiating a vast expanse of hostile wilderness, suffering exposure from the elements, the men are pursued by a helicopter relentlessly tracking their seemingly futile bid for freedom…

Barry England’s 1968 novel was note worthy for its spare prose and stripped down plot, but for the film adaptation, Losey and screenwriter Robert Shaw cut away even more, to the point of abstraction. We never learn who these men are, and where the film is set – British prisoners of war perhaps, caught behind enemy lines in some Latin American country. Ultimately, it would prove to be the film’s undoing - critics heaped scorn upon the film for its deliberate vagueness, and after a short theatrical run, it was unceremoniously buried and quickly forgotten, even by Losey who was plagued with ill-health from the grueling location shooting and fell out of favour with his producers and financiers during the production of the film.

Watching the film some 40years later, Figures In A landscape seems far less uncompromising than it appeared in 1970 and in fact is now one of the great finds of that era. Dazzlingly shot in ‘scope, the movie looks magnificent, the action played out against a constantly shifting landscape of gullies, ravines, swamps, crumbling villages and military outposts. Losey scholars would no doubt object to my likening the film to Planet of the Apes, but Figures does bear a certain resemblance to the journey Charlton Heston and his fellow marooned astronauts, make through the "alien" landscapes in the early section of Apes - in fact both films feature a dark, atonal score and set pieces in and around a field of tall crops.

Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell attack their roles with astonishing conviction, and bring a tremendous physicality to the film, often scrambling down dangerous, steep hills (with bound hands) and whipped by the furious dust storms of the pursing helicopter. At the beginning of the film, both men, generations apart are at odds with one another, but as their journey goes on, they develop a strangely tender father-son relationship in spite of their increasingly ragged condition.

Paramount had plans for a UK release of Figures In A Landscape in 2006, but the release was mysteriously shelved at the 11th hour. Paramount did release the film as an R2 DVD in Holland (where I got my copy from) but its a decidedly average disc. The non-anamorphic 2.35 image for the most part is good, some of the more densely textured shots do tend to suffer, but overall its not a bad effort. At least the compositions can now be seen as originally intended, and is a huge improvement over butchered TV prints. Audio is hissy at times, so the many subtitles options will come in handy for some of the more hard-to-understand dialogue passages. No extras on the disc, not even a trailer could be found, so in the absence of a stronger release (unlikely it seems), this disc is highly recommended. The DVD can be picked up here.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Horror of Hammer

Horror of Hammer is a excellent collection of Hammer trailers, spanning 53 of the studio’s most famous films with one or two obscurities thrown in for good measure. The trailers are ordered in cycles, with the disc kicking off with a clutch of Frankenstein trailers followed by Hammer’s wave of ‘50’s science fiction, and so on. For the most part the trailers are wonderful, full of outrageous hyperbole ("Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, who crosses swords with Satan in his fight for immortality") and showcasing Hammer’s potent mix of flesh and blood – the trailer for The Satanic Rites of Dracula is an especially heady mix of sex and gore. My personal favourite trailer is Plague of the Zombies, a wonderfully atmospheric preview of John Gilling’s terrific film. The trailer for To the Devil A Daughter is a good one too, and might prompt one to revisit this much maligned Hammer swansong, while the trailer for The Damned, which doesn’t know if its selling a juvenile delinquent drama or a science fiction film, is amusingly incomprehensible.

The trailers themselves were produced for the US market, so there are some interesting re-titles, like the Quatermass films which were all issued with more palatable titles for their American releases. Interestingly, only one trailer, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde actually mentions Hammer in the voice over. In between every 3 or 4 trailers are short spots for local theatres, the kind of ephemera you'd expect on a Something Weird DVD, and showman extraordinaire William Castle shows up to introduce the Hammer-Castle collaboration, The Old Dark House.

A Hammer by any other name
Top left - Quatermass, right - Quatermass and the Pit
Bottom left, - The Satanic Rights of Dracula, right - Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

Horror of Hammer is marvellous stuff, but All Day’s DVD is unfortunately not up to snuff, presentation and production wise. For starters, the trailers are mostly in battered condition. The trailers for Hammer’s Frankenstein and Dracula series are particularly bad, often drained of colour. All the trailers here look decidedly ragged and beat up, riddled with dirt and scratches, and plenty of snap, crackle and pop on the soundtracks. Not helping that is the DVD itself suffers from an overtly digital appearance with heavy edge enhancement and a blocky, pixilated image in the brighter scenes. However the DVD does score points for an excellent knowledgeable commentary track by Hammer experts Ted Newsome, and authors Stuart Galbraith and Gary Smith. The DVD appears to be unavailable at the usual sources, but can still be picked up from All Day’s website

Friday, 1 October 2010

The State of Things

Wim Wenders' 1982 film The State of Things is a wonderful look at the nuts n' bolts of making movies. The story concerns a small European film crew shooting an apocalyptic sci-fi movie on the coast of Portugal. The film, known as The Survivors**runs aground, when the money dries up and the producer goes missing, leaving the cast and crew to sit it out and wait for the production to restart...

The State of Things is essentially Wenders' 8½, made during some downtime on the troubled production of Hammett which Wenders was directing for Coppola's Zoetrope. Shot fast and cheap, and co-written with maverick American director Robert Kramer, Wenders' film is the very antithesis of Hollywood film making, lensed in black and white and for most of its running time, a film with hardly any plot - this is a film about people marooned on a gloomy wave battered coast, hanging around, waiting for something to happen. Only in the final act of the film does Wenders make something of a compromise, when the director of The Survivors goes to LA in search of his producer, and the film shifts gears into the kind of strange enigmatic thriller territory of The American Friend.

The State of Things may be one of Wenders' bleakest films - it is after all, a film about the impossibility of making films, but it's often a very funny film - the film director's deeply pretentious, neurotic wife, or one of The Survivors' actors discussing his catalogue of embarrassing childhood illnesses are particularly witty. Among the fine cast, is a marvellous larger-than-like appearance by Sam Fuller as The Survivor's veteran cameraman, an excellent turn by Allen Garfield as the producer-gone-underground, and a short cameo by Roger Corman as a sinister lawyer.

Sam Fuller, as the cameraman of The Survivors

The State of Things is available as a R2 DVD on the Axiom label, who have released some of Wenders earlier movies and documentaries. Generally, this is a strong effort. The image is nice, a little heavy on grain perhaps but pleasing nonetheless. Audio is fine, doing justice to Jürgen Knieper fine score. Extras include some deleted scenes. It's a real shame Wenders didn't provide a commentary for this fascinating film.

* Notes Wenders devotes the entire first reel of The State of Things to The Survivors, shot entirely in sepia tones, similar in look to Lars Von Trier's 1984 debut feature The Element of Crime. Wenders would return to the sci-fi genre in 1991 with the epic Until The End of The World