Friday, 29 July 2011

Video Nasty #21 - Flesh for Frankenstein

It's not recorded what Andy Warhol thought of the DPP's decision to ban his 1973 film Flesh For Frankenstein on VHS in Britain, but he was probably pleased with the controversy - "Don't pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches", Warhol once quipped. The film (and its companion piece Blood For Dracula, shot back to back) was a milestone in the history of the Factory - Warhol's Cinema had broken free of its New York moorings and gone trans-atlantic, the film shot at Cinecittà in Rome with European money by an Italian film crew. But more significantly, the film would mark the departure from the Factory of Flesh For Frankenstein director Paul Morrissey, Warhol's most valued cinematic collaborator.

In the film, Baron Frankenstein (Udo Kier) has created two zombies from various body parts, and from the spawn of this living dead Adam and Eve intends to raise a superhuman race to do his bidding. Frankenstein is short of a head for his male specimen and duly collects one from the shoulders of a local shepherd boy leaving a whorehouse. However, the shepherd's best friend (Joe Dallesandro) is not about to let this matter slide and has other plans for the Baron. Of course the whole thing ends in tears... and lots of spilled organs.

You’d be forgiven for initially mistaking Flesh for Frankenstein for a latter day Hammer picture – a few early scenes look like they might have strayed from the studio’s Karnstein Trilogy. But Morrissey’s film is a far more demented offering, a deliciously warped concoction of surgical gore, deviant sex and outrageous comedy, quite apart from the usual drive-in fare from this era. Originally the film was shot in 3D (or “Space Vision” as the credits attest) and apparently it looks rather good when projected in three dimensions.1 Thankfully Morrissey avoids much of the showboating seen in the likes of Friday the 13th Part 3D, where the cast are endlessly shoving objects into the camera lens, and the film loses nothing when seen in its flat version, bolstered up by some fine photography and excellent set design – check out the very 70’s flashing electronic console when the Baron re-animates his zombies !

In the US the film secured an X rating thanks in part to Carlo Rambaldi’s riotously gory effects – no bodily appendage is hacked off without geysers of blood erupting from the wounds. But it’s the film’s depiction of sexuality that troubled the ratings board. Morrissey’s own absurd view of sex is even more skewed here. Frankenstein’s children are the result of a union between him and his sister - the sex-crazed Baroness is even partial to some necrophilia. In the film’s most memorable scene Frankenstein fist-fucks the female zombie’s abdominal cavity (“To know death…”),2 while in another scene Otto, the Baron’s assistant is driven crazy by pent up sexual frustration and starts tonguing the female zombie’s stitching. In a sense this kind of eroticism of wounds and surgery pre-dates the obsessions of David Cronenberg, and shares a similar conceit of the narrator of JG Ballard’s novel Crash of “a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology”

Unlike Morrissey’s previous films, the director had to forgo his loose improvisational style as the foreign actors had to wrestle with Morrissey’s English dialogue. Although every line reading seems mangled by thick accents (“I need his brain for my zambie!”), there’s tremendous fun from the cast - Monique van Vooren as the Baron’s snobby nymphomaniac sister/wife, Arno Juerging’s perpetually bug-eyed Otto, Joe Dallesandro playing another one of his pissed-off proto-slackers and of course Udo Kier as Baron Frankenstein, delivering a performance of such hysteria, it's worthy of Klaus Kinski at his most derailed.

Flesh for Frankenstein is available courtesy of Image in the US and Tartan in the UK, in near identical DVDs. Both editions feature a very solid 2.35 anamorphic transfer with vibrant colours and little of the grain and ghosting issues of other 3D films. Audio is also decent for what it is. For extras, both editions feature a very interesting commentary track ported over from the Criterion laserdisc, which stitches together (appropriately enough) contributions from Paul Morrissey and Udo Kier. Morrissey returns for more commentary, this time over a 24-min montage of stills and a short 4-min screen test. The Tartan edition also features an extra supplement - a nice booklet entitled The BBFC, Morrissey and the Horror Genre which gives a fascinating insight into the workings of the British Board of Film Classification in the 70’s…

1. According to Morrissey the idea for shooting the film in 3D came from Roman Polanski who had planned to make his 1973 sex-comedy What ? a 3D feature. Ultimately Polanksi scrapped the idea for his film but Morrissey felt the 3D process perfectly suited his proposed Frankenstein film.

2. The film's famous line "To know death, Otto, you must fuck life in the gall bladder" was Morrissey's parody of similarly ridiculous line from Last Tango In Paris. However, the line has assumed a spooky resonance - in 1987 Andy Warhol died from complications following routine gall bladder surgery.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

First look at Any Gun Can Play (FAB Press)

FAB Press' long awaited book on Spaghetti Westerns arrived at home yesterday. I grabbed a few quick pics of the book and as you can see it looks like another excellent FAB production, packed with a bewildering amount of rare, international posters, stills and ad mats (where do they get them from?) and beautifully laid out text. I started reading the book last night, getting in only a few pages of the Introduction but author Kevin Grant's writing is intelligent, thoughtful and accessible. Overall Any Gun Can Play looks like an essential purchase for fans of the genre...

Inside page autographed by author Kevin Grant and Django himself Franco Nero!. This is limited to the first 500 copies

right page - Spanish poster for A Bullet For the General

Introduction page, left page - Japanese poster for The Good the Bad and the Ugly

a fistful of Fulcis: left page - Italian poster for White Fang, right page - Thai and French posters for Massacre Time, and Italian ad mat for Four of the Apocalypse

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind

Tsui Hark's film from 1980 remains a high water mark of the Hong Kong New Wave, an extraordinary action thriller so unruly and anarchic that Hark was forced by the British Colonial Government to revise the film, diluting some of it's political subtext. For many years this original version was thought lost, but in 2004 the film was remastered for a French DVD release with the censored material imported from a poor quality VHS source - this is the version under review.

Japanese VHS sleeve featuring the international title Don't Play With Fire
In the film, three high school boys with a taste for making mischief using homemade explosives forge an uneasy alliance with a teenage girl who harbours a death wish and gets her kicks from torturing small animals. After catching the boys rigging a bomb in a cinema, she blackmails the amateur terrorists into taking part in increasingly crazed pranks. But trouble looms when the gang of four steal a package of Japanese bank bonds from some US arms dealers - and they mean to get them back...

Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind with its brutal nihilistic violence, teenage angst, caustic political commentary and whiplash action is so volatile a mix, the celluloid itself seems in danger of catching fire as it runs through the projector gate. Hark's vision of Hong Kong is relentlessly grim and unglamourous - an overcrowded society driven by money and inflamed by triad violence. His view of foreigners is especially abrasive and Hong Kong is seemingly infiltrated with them at every level, from the chief of police to the US mercenaries doing business with the Japanese on Chinese soil, and even some Americans spreading the Mormon message.

Feeding off all this are Hong Kong's sociopathic youth. For the 3 high schoolers, their interest in urban guerrilla warfare seems little more than thrill seeking but Pearl, the gang's de facto female leader and self-destructing dark star at the heart of the film, is clearly unhinged, seen torturing mice by sticking pins through their brains for a slow agonizing death, and throwing a cat out of a window to land tangled up on a barbed wire fence. She's a formidable presence in the film, taking on the triads and the mercenaries with ruthless determination. Her awkward relationship with the three boys, the shrinking violets of the story, remains one of the most interesting aspects of the film.

Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind is made with such verve and energy it could fuel a dozen films, and Hark manages to balance the socio-political concerns of the story with a distinct atmosphere of unreality, similar in feel to A Clockwork Orange or Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva. One can imagine the film leaving a deep impression on Takashi Miike. There's also the wonderful hit and run soundtrack, which samples some of Goblin's music from Dawn of the Dead, and featuring entirely unexpected appearances from Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygène, and the opening submarine pings from Pink Floyd's long form epic Echoes.

The French DVD of Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind is available in a 3-film Tsui Hark boxset that sadly contains no English subtitles - luckily the copy I have was tweaked to include some English-language fansubs. The transfer of the film is generally excellent, the 2.35 image looks fresh, vibrant and sharp. The scenes culled from the VHS source - see below, are very tatty - but watchable and not extensive, and worth remembering that this may be the only way to see the film as originally planned...

Friday, 22 July 2011

Visions of Light: the Art of Cinematography

This excellent documentary made in 1993 by the American Film Institute and the Japan Broadcasting Network is the perfect way to restore your faith in Cinema should you find yourself jaded from too many bad movies (a occupational hazard around here lately). Visions of Light serves a dual purpose – it’s a fine introduction to the often hidden art of cinematography while also providing a nice primer on the technical and stylistic evolution of American Cinema – from the early primitives, to the Birth of a Nation, the years of experimentation before the sound era came in, the signature films of the studio years, and the emergence of auteurist Cinema in the late-60’s.

Visions of Light gathers together over 20 directors of photography, among them some of the most important in modern American Cinema, to discuss the art of cinematography, illustrated with almost 100 well chosen film clips. The first section of the documentary concentrates on the great master cameramen of the studio system, who very often defined a particular style of the studio - the glamour of MGM or the hard gritty look of Warners. From the early 40's some outstanding painters of light began to emerge - Gregg Toland (The Long Voyage Home, Citizen Kane), Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter) and James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success, Hud). The spare stylistic look of Film Noir allowed cameramen to widely experiment with light and shade - the extraordinary starkness of John Alton's black and white photography on The Big Combo, the expressionist look of Russell Metty's work on Touch of Evil, and the hard New York street style of films like On the Waterfront, Naked City and later films like The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon

Citizen Kane photographed by Gregg Toland
The best moments are when the cinematographers discuss their own work - Haskell Wexler remembers pleasing James Wong Howe with a second unit shot on the film Picnic, Conrad Hall reveals the famous reflection of rain running down Robert Blake’s face in In Cold Blood was achieved purely by accident, William Fraker explains Roman Polanski's idea for a peculiar shot in Rosemary's Bay, Vilmos Zsigmond discusses his signature soft lighting for McCabe and Mrs Miller, Gordon Willis confesses he might have good too far with his customary dark lighting in a scene from Godfather Part II, and Néstor Almendros describes shooting film at magic hour for Days of Heaven.

Days of Heaven photographed by Néstor Almendros
Cynics might feel that Visions of Light is no more than a show reel for the AFI - the selection of films is decidedly mainstream, and there’s little reference to European Cinema, but the documentary is undoubtedly a fine resource, and you might find yourself revisiting some old classics with a new set of eyes. Visions of Light is available on DVD in the US courtesy of Kino and in the UK on the BFI label. Both discs have similar transfers, the BFI from 2006 is perhaps the better of the two, but still somewhat lacking. The interview segments generally look good, but the film clips are sometimes poor. The b/w films look the best, but the colour films often look ragged, the colours at times blown out and the films are cropped from their original ratios. A shame considering the documentary is all about the images, but perhaps one day Visions of Light will be overhauled and remastered to full strength.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell

Picture the scene - A hotel in London, sometime in the late 70's... A drunk and naked Ken Russell finds himself locked out of his room. Carefully making his way to the reception he hisses at the night porter who's busy dealing with some new arrivals. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" the night porter demands. "I've locked myself out of my room" the beleaguered director replies. "You silly old fart", the night porter sneers, "What's your number?"

Just one of the many stories from Altered States (the 1991 US edition of A British Picture: An Autobiography), a lively, charming and funny account of the life of one of the greatest wildcards of British Cinema. Typically, Russell throws out the conventional structure of the autobiography - there's only a vague sense of narrative, as he jump cuts to various episodes throughout his life and career. Worth mentioning up front for fans of The Devils, that Russell dwells little on his most infamous work, perhaps the film inspired some painful memories - it was during the making of the film that his marriage began to crumble as well as his Catholic faith. There's some good stories from his other films - his early career making artist biopics for the BBC television series Monitor, how he convinced Oliver Reed and Alan Bates to perform the nude wrestling scene in Women In Love, and Kathleen Turner's reluctance to get dirty in Crimes of Passion. The meatiest memories are reserved for his 1980 sci-fi Altered States, Russell describing his battles with the film's writer Paddy Chayefsky, who was obsessed with controlling every aspect of the production leading to a bitter fallout with the director and Chayefsky disowning the film.

One of the strengths of the book is Russell's honesty - the slow and painful dissolution of his marriage to Shirley, the death of family members like his parents and a beloved cousin from childhood, as well as a candid critique of his work. Russell admits that the work dried up after the failure of his 1977 film Valentino - the dismal performance of the film in the US made him a pariah among the major studios, and the director had to cope with increasingly long spells of unemployment. Russell is highly critical of his work on Gothic, a failure due to the "monumental miscasting and hysterical pace" and alleges that he was Warners' 27th choice to direct Altered States (among the previous 26 film makers the film was offered to, was Andrei Tarkovsky!).

Ken Russell directing the 1978 television film Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Another revealing aspect of the book is Russell's near misses - at one stage he spent over a year of pre-production of the musical Evita, before it was abandoned, and Russell was also set to direct a version of Dracula, with Mick Fleetwood as the Count, only for it to be cancelled due to three other rival productions in the works. Russell also discusses his work outside of Cinema - throughout the 80's and early 90's he directed a number of controversial but visually striking operas. His 1982 opera The Rake's Progress saw him collaborating again with Derek Jarman who was the set designer on The Devils and Savage Messiah. Russell also directed the video for Elton John's 1985 hit, Nikita, and confesses that when he wrote the treatment for the video - about a man's crush on a female East German border guard, he assumed Nikita was a woman's name.

In 2008 the book was revised under the British Picture title and brings Russell's life up to date, including recent events like the fire that destroyed his home in April 2006 and his ill-advised appearance on Channel 4's Celebrity Big Brother in 2007. Ken Russell's loyal fans are used to taking the rough with the smooth, but this memoir is a treat and the book is highly recommended.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Video Nasty #20 - Fight For Your Life

I always thought a great intro to an episode of sci-fi TV series Quantum Leap would be if the time-displaced Sam Becket leaped into the body of a white man alone in the middle of a crowd of black people at a screening of Fight for Your Life, and as the enraged crowd were yelling “Kill that honky cracker’s ass”, a confused and dismayed Sam would utter his signature line “Oh boy!”

The film is essentially a rethread of William Wyler’s Desperate Hours, refitted for the 42nd St crowd. Three convicts have escaped during a routine prisoner transfer. Led by Southern white trash Jessie Lee Kane, the convicts hide out at the home of a middle class God-fearing black family and subject them to an ordeal of abuse, violence and rape, that is until the tables are turned… Also known as Getting Even, I Hate Your Guts and in the disco era Stayin' Alive, Fight for Your Life is one of the most incendiary exploitation films ever made. While the power of most horror films is diluted over time, Fight for Your Life looks and sounds even more astonishing nowadays as actor William Sanderson (who went on to play the doomed replicant designer in Blade Runner) lets loose a humiliating tirade of racial slurs upon his hostages. Besides the sickening racism, the film is also critical of organized religion – when the head of the family, a pastor chooses to turn the other cheek in the face of such tyranny, Kane beats him senseless with his bible.

Who could kill a child ? William Sanderson could...
Subtext aside, Fight for Your Life is a shameless button-pusher and gleefully plays the race card to the hilt specifically to infuriate black audiences – at one point Kane makes the pastor do a jig and call him “master”, while in another scene, Kane tries to lynch the wife in the woods. Producer William Mishkin was notorious for his spartan budgets but the film is surprisingly competent and well shot, perhaps making the film a little easier to withstand. Had the film the same raw power of say Last House on the Left, scenes like a little boy having his head smashed with a rock, or the moment when the daughter emerges from a gang rape battered and bruised, would have rendered the film unwatchable. Good work too from the cast – it’s William Sanderson’s show all the way as the spiteful and sneering Kane, and Robert Judd who plays the much abused pastor gives a fine, gutsy performance. Fight For Your Life is a significant moment in the annals of American Exploitation, and perhaps one day it will finally claim the honour of being the final Video Nasty on the DPP’s list to remain banned in Britain.

Blue Underground’s 2004 DVD of Fight For Your Life is marvellous. The transfer framed around 1:77 looks great and does a fine job of reproducing the film’s autumnal look. The image is sometimes soft looking and there are one or two weird motion blurs but this is faithful to the way the film was shot and developed. For extras Bill Lustig joins writer Straw Wiesman, and DP Lloyd Freidus for an engaging commentary track. Sadly director Robert Endleson and William Sanderson are absent, both notoriously reticent to discuss the film. There’s also a gallery of publicity material for the film as well as two trailers, both tailored to white and black audiences.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Video Nasty #19 - Faces of Death

I must admit revisiting Faces of Death last week for this post, reminded me of my teenage years when as soon as the coast was clear I would pop some anonymous looking porno tape into the VCR – not that Faces of Death provides any erotic thrills, far from it, but I felt I could only watch the film in secret - I mean who would want anyone to know that they were watching this kind of junk ?

Faces of Death produced in 1979 feels like a petulant unruly offspring of the Mondo genre. As if the films of Mondo creators Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi were not shocking enough, Faces of Death removes all the extraneous fat of the mondo shockumentary genre with its far flung cultural exotica - here the emphasis is placed solely on death and suffering. Presented like an educational documentary, the film is introduced and narrated by one Dr. Francis B. Gröss, a pathologist conducting an investigation into the various faces of death which amounts to a seemingly endless conveyor belt of death footage organised around a particular theme.

Nowadays Faces of Death seems positively quaint with its earnest and cautionary narration, but back in early 80's the film seemed genuinely groundbreaking ushering in the "Death Film", one of the most despised offshoots on the Mondo genre. Much of the footage in Faces of Death is faked - a monkey having his skull cracked open for some diners to sample his brain is entirely fabricated, so too are scenes where a crocodile devours a game warden, a grizzly bear attacks a hapless tourist, a stuntman is killed on a movie set, a man protesting against nuclear power sets himself alight, and a convict is seen convulsing and foaming at the mouth in an electric chair - "his eyes are taped to prevent them popping out of their sockets", Dr. Gröss reliably informs us...

Another piece of fakery - a man is about to be beheaded in the Middle East
Some 40% of Faces of Death is estimated to be fake but the film's factual footage is often disquieting - a woman is captured on a news team's camera jumping off a building and hitting the ground beneath, paramedics are seen collecting the mangled body parts of a cyclist hit by a truck, there's footage shot inside a morgue showing cadavers in various states of disrepair, including the remains of an infant. In true mondo style, there's some animal atrocities in the film as well - cattle are seen having their throats cut in a slaughterhouse, a herd of seals are clubbed to death, and two pit bull dogs fight to the death - "they have been conditioned by man to wage war on their own kind" the good doctor wryly comments...

"The act of seeing with one's own eyes" - a scene shot at the LA morgue
Despite the film being pure exploitation Faces of Death strives to be a serious discussion on the subject of death but continually comes up short. The musical accompaniment consists of some seriously inappropriate cuts - during the electric chair sequence the soundtrack features a jaunty speakeasy number, as well as a mawkish folk ditty strummed over some footage of environmental neglect ("Jesus doesn't live here anymore"). The faked footage is easily given away, despite the film makers using guerrilla style camerawork, but nevertheless the film was a huge hit on VHS (like porno, home video was probably the best way to see it), and the film became something of an urban legend, in turn fuelling some popular myths - at one point in the film a San Franciscan cult is seen cannibalising the innards of a corpse, and orgying among the bloody viscera - probably confirming the suspicion among viewers that such satanic cults were out there, perhaps making snuff movies of their antics.

Like it or not, Faces of Death is not going away. In 2008 the film made its unlikely high-def debut in the US courtesy of Gorgon Video’s Blu-Ray edition (Region A). Overall, there’s not much to get excited about. The image looks dated, colours are washed out and detail is lacking while audio is merely serviceable. Paradoxically, the transfer might be entirely suitable, part of the film’s success on video was the limitation of the image which gave the faked footage an authentic rough hewn look. As for extras this 30th Anniversary Special Edition fares better with interviews with the crew who worked on the film, as well as an excellent audio commentary with director John Alan Schwartz who spills the beans on much of the film's ballyhoo.

It's been said that the film was made for the Japanese market and a shot in the morgue sequence of film where corpses have their genitalia covered up might confirm this. It's often said that Faces of Death out grossed Star Wars, when shown in Japan, something I personally find hard to believe...

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Video Nasty #18 - Exposé

On the face of it Exposé from 1976, could pass for a typical British New Wave exploitation film, with its heady mix of sex and violence, but director James Kenelm Clarke has fashioned something quite distinct from the work of contemporary film makers like Pete Walker and Norman J Warren, and despite the infamy of being on the DPP's list, the film remains something of an unsung classic.

The Exposé title is rather cheap and tawdry, compared to the far more poetic shooting title of The House on Straw Hill, but it does have some thematic resonance to the plot. Udo Kier plays Paul Martin, a reclusive and paranoid novelist who's on the final stage of his second book. Wishing to dictate the last remaining chapters, Paul hires a beautiful young woman named Linda (Blood on Satan's Claw's Linda Hayden) to handle typing duties at his isolated country house, but Linda is not who she appears and has come to Straw Hill with revenge on her mind... I wonder does Stephen King have days like this ?

Exposé hardly breaks any new ground in terms of story, in fact the plot is predictable right down to the final scene, but the film remains impressive for it's sense of style and mood. Director James Kenelm Clarke invests the film with a surprising visual sophistication, with its skewed camera angles and some abstract editing creating a strange and disorientating atmosphere. In one sequence a shot of Linda's blonde hair dissolves into a golden meadow, and there's also a subversive use of the pastoral setting - in the film's most notorious scene, Linda lays down among the tall grasses to masturbate only to be set upon by two rapists. Most memorable though is the film's fervent association of sex and death. Udo Kier's character has sex wearing surgical gloves, less a latex fetish than a Sadean fantasy, and a lesbian love scene between Linda and Suzanne, Martin's lover is intercut with the novelist's near fatal demise when his car goes out of control.

Fiona Richmond was a popular men's magazine star in the mid-70's, and was added to the cast purely to provide some celebrity skin. Her performance as Suzanne is a little over the top but her actual part in the film is minor. Better work is done by Udo Kier, dubbed to remove his heavy German accent, but effective nonetheless as the neurotic writer hiding a dark secret; and Linda Hayden, who's quite superb as the vengeful black widow, by turns sensual, enigmatic and cold blooded. Hayden nets one of the most provocative scenes in the film when during her violation in the field, she seductively strokes the barrel of the gun aimed at her by one of her attackers. Exposé would mark the directorial debut of James Kenelm Clarke, who had previously produced current affairs programs for BBC Television and composed the score for José Larraz's Vampyres, while producer Brian Smedley-Aston was one of the editors on Performance, and following Exposé handled cutting duties on Jeff Lieberman's Squirm and Blue Sunshine - quite a segue way.

Aside from a French disc which I can't comment on, Exposé is currently unavailable on DVD. In 2002 the Odyssey label issued a version cut by the BBFC and sporting a cheap sleeve - that disc is now out of print and one to avoid. Severin have acquired the rights to the film a few years ago but so far a DVD has not surfaced due to problems locating usable materials.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Video Nasty #17 - Evilspeak

Of the American films on the DPP's list, Evilspeak from 1981 is one of the most accomplished looking, but also one of the more dated, and much of it's appeal will hinge on how nostalgic you feel towards an era when the humble personal computer was considered an all powerful piece of hardware, a myth propagated by the likes of Evilspeak, War Games (1983) and Electric Dreams (1984).

The film set in a military school concerns Cooper-Smith, an awkward and clumsy teenager who regularly falls in for some abuse from the bullies and the scorn of his teachers. After a chance discovery of a book of black magic in the school basement, Cooper-Smith programs a spell into a computer to invoke the spirit of Estaban, an evil 16th century satan worshipping monk, and before you can say pig blood blues, all hell breaks loose...

Evilspeak hit on the novel idea of using new technology to harness some very old spells, but strip that away and the film is mostly derivative of other horror films - Carrie, quite obviously, but you'll find stuff in there from The Omen - the doberman dogs here replaced by wild boars as emissaries of satan, as well as The Exorcist, when actor RG Armstrong (about to show how he can "turn a little boy into a little girl") has his head twisted back to front. That aside, the film is entertaining enough - Cooper-Smith's tormentors are such despicable shits (at point killing his pup in a mock ritual) that their comeuppance is one to savour in the excellent and uncharacteristic gory climax which features some spectacular decapitations and a rather visceral heart-ripping.

Well directed by the undistinguished Eric Weston, Evilspeak gains much from its cast. The doomed Cooper-Smith played by the prolific character actor Clint Howard (brother of Ron) is absolutely great, all nervous and twitchy, and there's sterling work from his supporting actors. The film could have easily played on TV were in not for the splatter in the final act, but perhaps the DPP were worried that teenage boys would be sacrificing small animals to their Commodore 64s, and in a comprehensive roundup, both the original uncut tape and a revised cut version of the film were removed from video shops.

Anchor Bay's 2004 edition of Evilspeak is a decent enough release, containing a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer taken from the longest available print. Mostly the film looks very good, but there are occasional snippets taken from a lesser quality source. An almost subliminal shot of a boar chewing on a woman's intestines looks so washed out it might have been taken from a workprint. Audio is serviceable, and the extras feature a trailer and a group audio commentary including Clint Howard and Eric Weston.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Video Nasty #16 - The Driller Killer

In the hierarchy of the Video Nasties list, The Driller Killer takes one of the top slots. For Britain's moral guardians, that once-in-a-lifetime title and VIPCO's outrageously gruesome VHS sleeve perfectly encapsulated the scourge of Video Horror that was sweeping the nation...

The Driller Killer is usually cited as Abel Ferrara's first film, when in fact it was his second outing behind the camera, following his debut film in 1976, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, a hardcore porn flick. By the time shooting began in 1977, the original idea for The Driller Killer, about a night stalker killing the homeless of New York with a hammer and nails, had mutated into a story about a disturbed oil painting artist named Reno Miller who's solution for dealing with the pressure of artistic frustration, the threat of almost certain poverty and the loud punk rock band next door, involves killing off the city's derelicts with a portable drill...

Director Abel Ferrara as Reno, getting ready to paint another crimson canvas
It's not quite the heir apparent to Repulsion as some would have you believe (although it does make a visual pun on the Polanski film with the inclusion of a skinned rabbit), but seen in the context of the other films on the DPP list, Ferrara's film looks refreshingly out there, occupying its own idiosyncratic space somewhere between grindhouse and arthouse with its schlocky title, splashy gore and surreal dream sequences - all of it shot with a grungy, improvised, hard New York style that gives the film a powerful sense of immediacy. The film has a number of intriguing aspects that further distance itself from the slew of serial killer films from the late 70's, like Maniac and The Toolbox Murders - the film shows no actual violence towards women, an absolute rarity for the genre. Also the cutaways to the film's inhouse punk band The Roosters, with their three-chord garage minimalism, filmed at Max's Kansas City, makes The Driller Killer an important artifact from the punk era, alongside Jubilee, The Blank Generation, Liquid Sky and Smithereens.

Of the many DVD releases of The Driller Killer, Cult Epic's 2004 2-disc edition remains the best edition, with a fine 1.85 anamorphic transfer that correctly frames the film (unlike the disastrous French disc that cropped the lower part of the frame). Audio is a little weak on dialogue but good on music, and as the title card that prefigues the film suggests, "This film should be played loud". Disc 1 also includes Ferrara's now legendary rambling, self-deprecating audio commentary. The second disc of the set is devoted to some of Ferrara's early short films - Could This Be Love (1973), The Hold Up (1972), Nicky's Film (1971), (all with optional director commentary) as well as a trailer for Nine Lives of A Wet Pussy.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Video Nasty #15 - Don't Go In the Woods

Had you gone camping in the Great American Outdoors back in the late 70's, early 80's, chances are you would have bumped into a film crew and a gallon of fake blood. You might have even come across James Bryan and a small band of devoted followers making the twelve thousand dollar epic Don't Go In the Woods, an instantly forgettable little stalk and slash horror film from 1980, now immortalized for all the ages on the Video Nasties list.

The plot of the film is a generic as they come - a maniac is roaming the woods and killing all those who cross his path, but at least director James Bryan had the good sense to include lashings of gore to thrill audiences between the longueurs of people trudging through endless forest. For such a remote area of Utah, one has to wonder what all these people are doing here - the film is positively teeming with campers, hikers, courting couples, painters, fishermen, and most bizarrely, some poor guy who has to negotiate the rugged terrain in a wheelchair, all of whom inevitably end up sliced and diced by a machete wielding, spear chucking cast off from The Hills Have Eyes.

A trash fan's wet dream, Don't Go In the Woods is usually accompanied by a critical savaging wherever the film plays but it's not without its fans, among them author Stephen Thrower who devotes a few pages of his Nightmare USA book to the film. It can't quite escape the shadow cast over it by better films, namely The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the superb Canadian backwoods film Rituals, but if you can acclimatize yourself to the terrible acting, clumsy editing, the decidedly amateurish electronic score and cringe worthy dialogue - all of it post synched, the film gets by on sheer enthusiasm alone. At least Bryan displays the occasional flair for visuals, with some striking shots of moody forest trails and mist enshrouded mountain slopes. Thank heavens for small mercies it was lensed on film stock, had the film arrived later in the decade, it might have been shot on video á la Redneck Zombies or (gulp!) Woodchipper Massacre, such was the weapon of choice for impoverished film makers.

Code Red's 2006 DVD of Don't Go In the Woods, the first release for the indie label really is the definitive edition of James Bryan's film. The fullframe transfer looks just fine, the print used is a little scrappy in places but perfectly keeping with the film's humble origins. The sound is fine, the looped voices still sound canned but overall the audio has a good range of effects. Most surprising of all, Code Red have furnished the DVD with some extensive extras, among them, a 57-min shot-on-VHS documentary about the film, and no less than two audio commentaries - surely the last word on Don't Go In the Woods...

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Video Nasty #14 - The Devil Hunter

Truly one of the worst of the Video Nasties, The Devil Hunter from 1980 was Jess Franco's second and final foray into the then fashionable Cannibal genre of which Franco had little affinity for, and every inch of this piece of celluloid dreck bears this out.

In the film, a beautiful model is kidnapped by some vicious thugs and held for ransom on a remote island. Two Vietnam vets are dispatched to return the girl to safety but unbeknownst to the kidnappers and the rescue team, the island is stalked by a large cannibal creature with ping pong balls for eyes and a taste for platinum blondes...

For anyone who needs to see The Devil Hunter my advice would be to regularly check your pulse during the film - such is the glacial pace, you might find yourself slipping into a coma. If there's any point of interest in the film it's probably how jaw droppingly inept the whole business is. With lighting changing from shot to shot, there's no attempt to make any of the film look consistent. Take one scene for instance when the girl is being exchanged for the ransom. Both parties agree to meet on a beach for the swap but the cutting back and forth suggests it's dusk on one part of the island and daytime in another part, even though the space between is within walking distance. Also, the English dubbing is perhaps the worst ever in European Cult Cinema. Not only do characters speak with their mouths firmly shut but judging by the ridiculous accents it's quite likely the same voice artist was employed to dub all the characters. Perhaps knowing he was onto a loser, Franco fills the film with shots of female crotches and has his leading lady, clad in a torn pink dress molested as often as possible. But somehow it's just not enough...

All this would seem bearable if it was as bloodthirsty as it's Italian counterparts, but the film features almost no cannibalism or gore, besides a very fleeting shot of somebody's intestines. Another point of irritation is the incessant soundtrack, which never seems to pause - at any moment there's likely to be Franco's own musical stylings like a spectral piano refrain, or worse still some tribal drumming or the heavily echoed breathing sounds of the creature, and most annoying of all, a loop of the same damn bird chirping out the same call ad infinitum. Among the cast is Zombie Flesh Eater's Al Cliver, wooden as ever, but there's one hilarious scene where Cliver is supposed to be scaling a cliff wall, but Franco simply turns the camera over on its side and has Cliver scramble on all fours over some rocks. Also, in the cast is Terror Express' Werner Pochath, a fine actor who wisely exits the film at the half way mark.

In the absence of anything more interesting, here's some gratuitous nudity
Severin's UK DVD is much like their US issue - the 1.66 transfer is probably a good effort but the film looks so soft and washed out it's difficult to say. Audio is actually quite good, even if there's little to get excited about. If the English dub is unbearable, a French dub is also on hand, and gives the whole thing a little more respectability. Extras include a trailer and an interview with Franco about the film (from the same interview session as the featurette Bloody Moon) on . You have been warned.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Video Nasty #13 - The Cannibal Man

The title of this 1973 Spanish film is troublesome. Given that there's little flesh-eating1 in the film, it's been dismissed by gorehounds as one of the more marginal of the 39 titles. However, there's a delicious double irony to the title as well. Had the the film been released under its original title La Semana del Asesino (or Week of the Killer), in all probability, the film would have escaped the DPP's Terror. On the other hand had the film not been banned, it might have languished in obscurity, a fate most undeserving of this curious and interesting film.

The story concerns a lowly, introverted slaughterhouse worker named Marcos. One night while out with his girlfriend, Marcos inadvertently kills an irate taxi driver. Increasingly pressured by his nervous girlfriend to go to the police, Marcos strangles her, forcing him into commit more murders to cover up his crimes...

If there's a weak point in The Cannibal Man, it's the ease in which the film's protagonist slides into the act of murder. Even his second victim, Marcos' own brother is afforded little remorse after he's dispatched with a blow to the head. Perhaps director Eloy de la Iglesia simply wanted to load his film with as much contentious imagery as possible - by the beginning of the 1970's, Spain was becoming increasingly liberalized and the loosening bonds of censorship saw Spanish film makers tackle some provocative topics. The violence in the film while not gratuitous is sometimes explicit, but to call the film purely an exploitation picture would be doing it a disservice - it's more Fassbinder than Fulci.

The film as a whole might be best read as a sort of Kafkaesque nightmare and the film is laced with some strange ideas and logic - as the bodies begin mounting up, Marcos is tormented not by some quizzical detectives, but by a pack of stray dogs that gather in increasing numbers at his home, giddy from the smell of putrefaction from the corpses stored in a bedroom. There's also a sense that Marcos' way of life is disintegrating along with the corpses - at one point Marcos sadly concedes that he will be forced to give up his ramshackle cottage to make way for another block of high rise apartments. And there's also the matter of Marcos' confused sexuality and his ambivalent relationship with a predatory homosexual - Marcos makes love to two women in the film but his friendship with Néstor is his most relaxed and rewarding.

Eloy de la Iglesia had made a number of films before he wrote and directed The Cannibal Man, and it shows. There's a certain flair to the visuals, and the combination of clever lighting and some arresting camerawork make the most of the spartan set where much of the film takes place. There's also a strikingly evocative score, accentuating the sense of melancholy felt throughout the film. Vicente Parra's excellent portrayal of the doomed Marcos remains the focal point of the film, and there's sterling support from Eusebio Poncela who handles the tricky role of the homosexual Néstor with poise and sensitivity.

Blue Underground's 2007 DVD, a port of the old Anchor Bay disc features a good 1.85 anamorphic transfer. The image is sharp and colorful but the print used exhibits some flutter every now and then, not a deal breaker but worth noting. The only audio provided in the English dub track, a shame the Spanish track could not be sourced but over all the English dub is really very good. The only extra offered in a trailer. Finally, the Blue Underground sleeve is a doozy, easily the label's goriest design to date! Well worth seeking out.

1. The Cannibal Man title has often been described as a misnomer but there is one scene where Marcos unwittingly eats some meat from the slaughterhouse where he works - the same place where he has been mincing the body parts of his victims. When Marcos discovers where the meat is from he's suitably nauseated...