Monday, 30 May 2011

Helter Skelter

There's a scene in Natural Born Killers, where Robert Downey Jr's TV producer admits to Woody Harrelson that the Charles Manson episode of American Maniacs trumped the Mickey & Mallory Knox episode in the ratings, to which Woody Harrelson shrugs his shoulders and sighs "Well, it's pretty hard to beat the king". Such is the lofty position that Manson has long held in American pop culture. Screened over two nights back in 1976, the made-for-television Helter Skelter was a huge hit with a public still enthralled by the events of August 1969 when Manson ordered four members of his Family to brutally mutilate and murder Sharon Tate, and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca...

Based on Manson-prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's 1 excellent book Helter Skelter, the film skillfully distills the book's considerable assemblage of facts from the case (as well as Manson's acid-fascist philosophy) into a coherent and compelling 3 hours. JP Miller's excellent teleplay is a combination of police procedural and courtroom drama - the first part focuses on the deeply flawed investigations of the so called Tate/LaBianca killings, by the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The film is especially engaging in this section as clues are left unchecked, witness accounts not followed up and for some time no correlation is made between both crimes in spite of some glaring coincidences.

Steve Railsback as Charles Manson
The second section of the film recreates the courtroom trial of Manson and his followers. We see oblique flashbacks to the night of the killings, and Steve Railsback, playing Manson delivers a showstopping monologue to the courtroom ("I'm a reflection of you. I'm what you made me"), full of spite and contempt. Railsback's performance is quite remarkable displaying the many shades of Manson's fractured personality, and in some scenes, Railsback looks eerily like the man he's portraying

Of course there are some omissions from the book - Manson's quite incredible past life, most of it spent behind bars for every imaginable criminal activity is summed up in a few lines of economical voice-over, and it's a pity we didn't get to see Manson's brief flirtation with the LA music scene - at one point, Manson was friends with The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson, who was trying to help Manson kick start a career as a singer-songwriter.2

George DiCenzo as Vincent Bugliosi
Directed by Tom Gries, who made a career in television, Helter Skelter, looks irrevocably dated with its very 70's faces and fashions, and with its flat pedestrian direction, is pitched somewhere between a typical movie-of-the-week and more visceral crime films like The Candy Snatchers. George DiCenzo puts on a good show as Manson's nemesis Vincent Bugliosi, and among the supporting cast is Marilyn Burns in a rare role outside of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive, playing Linda Kasabian, the prosecution's cheif witness. Worth mentioning also the excellent band Silverspoon3 who contributed some key songs from The Beatles' White Album, including a sneering take on Helter Skelter, fine versions of Piggies, Revolution, and an affecting, delicate rendition of Long, Long, Long...

Warners' US DVD of Helter Skelter is a decent enough effort but falls short on being a definitive release. The fullscreen picture is generally very good and far better than the ragged, blown out TV print that I've seen. Crucially though, the Warners edition is the version prepared for television and is missing a few very fleeting instances of bloody violence, nudity and some profanity. These additions were included on theatrical prints that did the rounds in Europe, but were seen Stateside courtesy of the Key Video release (pictured above). It's a shame Warners could not have factored these into their DVD version (which presents the original 2-part show as one 184-min film, minus the end credits of the Part 1). No extras to speak of on the DVD, but considering the wealth of Manson documentaries out there, hopefully Warners will take another pass at this important film.


1. Vincent Bugliosi's surname is actually prnouced with a soft "g" so it's Buliosi. At one point in the film, Bugliosi corrects one of the defense lawyers, such is the level of fidelity in the film to the actual court transcripts of the trial.

2. Manson also had a vague association with underground film maker Kenneth Anger through Family member Bobby Beausoleil. Anger claimed that the negative of his film Lucifer Rising was stolen by Beausoleil and is buried somewhere out in Death Valley. Anger subsequently made the film a second time and after mending their feud, asked Beausoleil to score the film after rejecting Jimmy Page's soundtrack.

3. Silverspoon were not just another LA session band, they were in fact connected to The Beatles by a handshake, with Beatles' road manager Mal Evans. Silverspoon member Steve Gries was the son of Helter Skelter director Tom Gries and plays one of the Manson Family members. Incidentally, Silverspoon's drummer was none other than Miguel Ferrer.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Exterminator

James Glickenhaus' 1980 film, The Exterminator, a bastard son of Taxi Driver and Death Wish, has over the years carved out quite a following among fans of gritty urban exploitation, with a solid mix of action, gore, sleaze and some righteous kills. In the film, John Eastland, a Vietnam vet wages war on the criminal scum of New York after his friend is attacked by a street gang and left paralysed and confined to a life support machine. With the city under siege, Eastland assumes full combat mode, dubs himself the Exterminator and takes to the streets to administer some rough justice. Determined to catch him is detective James Dalton, as well as some CIA agents who have a more permanent solution in mind...

It must have been quite an experience to catch a late show of The Exterminator and William Lustig's Maniac at a Manhattan theatre back in 1980 and then navigate your way home through the urban malaise. New York No Wave singer Lydia Lunch sang the garbage screams at my feet about her hometown in 1978, and Glickenhaus, a New Yorker himself, must have felt likewise when he wrote the screenplay - it's difficult not to see the film as a scream of rage against a city of hustlers, thieves, perverts, rapists and murderers, all going about their business in plain view of ineffectual law enforcement and indifferent politicians

Subtext aside, The Exterminator is a rip-roaringly good exploitation film. Glickenhaus directs with vigour and the film looks good for its meagre means. There's a car chase that ends with a wallop, and the 'Nam-on-a-budget prologue set in a Viet Cong POW camp is impressively staged. In the wake of The Deer Hunter, this sequence is suitably gruelling, with a spectacular decapitation effect courtesy of Stan Winston. The film doesn't soft pedal on the sleaze either, with a scene involving a prostitute who's tortured with a soldering iron for the amusement of a senator with a taste for young boys - quite an uncharteristic bit of grisly violence for this era, amongst the more palatable techno-splatter of Dawn of the Dead and the emerging slasher genre.

Robert Ginty as John Eastland aka The Exterminator

Robert Ginty's performance as the exterminating angel creaks like an old wooden floorboard at times, but he's good enough as a low-rent Christopher Walken. Sterling support too from Christopher George, fresh from City of the Living Dead, playing the world-weary cop on the trail of the Exterminator. Rounding out the lead players is Samantha Eggar, who was so good in The Brood the previous year, but here is simply wasted with nothing more to do than throw lines at George.

Christopher George samples some beside reading of the Exterminator
The Exterminator is a tight, confident film, and Glickenhaus scores big on scuzzy ambiance, but the film feels underwritten, especially Eastland's character which lacks the psychological complexities of Paul Schrader's sociopathic taxi driver. The film has some awkward moments too - a scene where the Exterminator lies in wait of a mafia boss by hiding out in a large wastebasket bin in a mensroom is frankly ridiculous, and there are some variable performances from the minor cast members. The cynical subplot involving the CIA seems rather superfluous to the proceedings but thankfully winds the film down on a neat conclusion.

The Exterminator was first released on DVD in the US way back in 1998 by Anchor Bay, uncut, with a decent 1:85 transfer. The print used looked a little ragged in places but it was revelation compared to my old Intervision VHS copy. A few years later, the film changed hands, and is currently available on the Tango label, a port of the Anchor Bay disc but dressed up like a cheap budget quickie. The film fared worse in the UK where it was issued by Synergy, in a version cut by 22 seconds. It's a surprise that such a minor classic has not been given the love and respect it deserves on DVD but perhaps we're close to a definitive release - last year, Synapse boss Don May Jr. told Fangoria that his label would put out The Exterminator on Blu-Ray sometime in 2011. If you're lying Don...

Travis Bickle may have got his kicks from watching cheap porn loops, but the Exterminator is far more cultured - in one scene you can spot a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's 1962 play The Condemned of Altona, a work that Sartre intended as a critique of the French war in Algeria, and in turn perhaps a sly comment by the director about US invovlement in Vietnam.

My good friend Jeremy over at the excellent Silverferox blog has posted some great pics of the Japanese Exterminator program. Well worth checking out, and while you're there, make sure you sample Jeremy's amazing film poster designs for some of his favourite Exploitation and Horror films, as well as some promo designs for new independant films...

Japanese program for The Exterminator

Monday, 23 May 2011

Enter the Void - the German Blu-Ray

At the end of Gaspar Noé's Irreversible, there's a glimpse of the poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had the famous tagline The Ultimate Trip. In Enter the Void, one of the characters declares death to be the ultimate trip, and that idea is essentially the essence of Noé's 3 year in-the-making psychedelic wonderland. The story concerns Oscar, a young American living in Tokyo, who sells drugs and shares a tight (perhaps incestuous) bond with his go-go dancing stripper sister. Oscar is summoned to the Void nightclub to deliver some tabs but the deal goes wrong and Oscar is shot by cops. Lying dead in a toilet, Oscar's consciousness separates from his lifeless body and floats upwards and onward, observing the events that led to his death and the lives of his sister and friends as the continue without him...

Much has been written about Enter the Void, some commentators even announced the film as nothing less than of a re-invention of Cinema. I don't agree, but the film is clearly a masterpiece of pure sensation cinema, with its drug-induced visions of galaxies of muli-colored nebulae, its depiction of Tokyo bathed in perpetual hallucinogenic neon and its dense sound design of overlapping dialogue and the soundtrack music, a veritable sonic sculpture of experimental electronica. The visual aesthetic is so fully integrated into the story that we see much of the events of the film through Oscar's eyes, (or sometimes from behind his head). Even when Oscar blinks his eyes, the image also subliminally flicks - it sounds gimmicky but Noé carries it off with considerable skill. 1. The framework of the story also allows Noé render the space and time limitless and the film includes flashbacks and memories, and memories within memories.

Besides the final section of the film which has some explicit sex, Enter the Void has little of the contentious imagery like the skull-crushing and the rape scene from Irreversible. Noé took inspiration for the story from the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which is not required reading before you see the film), and unlike the climax of the director's previous film where the catastrophic fates of the two lovers were irreversible, Enter the Void ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note. However you are duly warned about the swirling anchorless camerawork which caused fits of nausea at theatrical screenings, as Oscar's spirit glides across rooftops, swoops down on streets and melts through walls.

If there is a fault line running through the film, it's in the performances, which tend to be weak in spots. Also, the film in its full director's cut is a weighty 163mins, and the pacing is leisurely to say the least. Admittedly the film has almost no characters one can sympathize with and if you care little about young people taking excessive amounts of LSD, the film might leave you out in cold. So investigate with caution, but please do investigate and see where Noé's voyage au bout de la nuit takes you.

German label Capelight's Region B Blu-Ray is an excellent presentation, but must be stressed is hardly a demo disc. First up, the Blu-Ray is packaged in a nifty book style case (with a German text interview with Noé inside), and also contains 2 DVDs - the 1st DVD containing the 156min cut of the film and the 2nd DVD holding the extras.

The 2:35 image has a certain softness which is inherent in the original film, no doubt due to the heavy digital manipulation and extensive layering of computer generated textures. It actually works well as it takes the edge off the CGI making the visuals seem more organic. Soundwise, the Blu-Ray is a powerhouse, and the film is best played loud, with the dense soundtrack making for an incredible immersive experience. Audio is offered in two languages - German and English, each of which have optional removable German and English subtitles (worth nothing that there is almost no Japanese dialogue in the film, perhaps a throwaway line or two). Extras for the film are on the 3rd DVD within the set and include all the material from the US disc - deleted scenes, a piece deconstructing the special effects, some extended trippy visuals, and international trailers.

The German edition does however have two exclusive extras. The first, a 5 minute experimental stroboscopic film called ENERGIE! (created by Thorsten Fleisch, who does an optional German only commentary for this short piece). The second German only extra is the jewel in the set - a 52min film called Into the Night with Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noé (in English with optional German subs). Directed by Bruce La Bruce, the film is basically a day trip Gaspar Noe made with Harmony Korine around Korine's hometown of Nashville. In the film we see both directors visit a theatre showing Korine's weird 2009 VHS experiment Trash Humpers, fire some guns at a target range, explore the flotsam and jetsam of a junkyard, (which reminds Noé of Street Trash) as well as encounters with Korine's reassuringly oddball and eccentric friends. It's an excellent little film, but some may be disappointed that Gaspar Noé is not the enfant terrible that his reputation suggests, in fact he's cheerful, relaxed and funny, and refreshingly down to earth.

Gaspar Noé (left) and Harmony Korine sample some local Nashville color
The limited edition 3-disc Capelight DVD is still available at Amazon Germany. Not sure how limited this edition is, but its well worth a purchase.

1. The idea of seeing the film through the eyes of its protagonist is hardly a new concept - Orson Welles had planned to shoot Heart of Darkness with a subjective camera as far back as 1939 (the film was scrapped and Welles made Citizen Kane instead) and actor/director Robert Montgomery shot his 1947 noir Lady In the Lake so the action unfolds through the eyes of private detective Philip Marlowe.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A Touch of Zen

In 1966 Shaw Brothers director King Hu left Hong Kong for Taiwan, after falling out with his former employers during the production of Come Drink With Me. In Taiwan Hu went to work for Union Film Company, a distribution outfit eager to get into production. After the success of their first collaboration, Dragon Gate Inn, Union gave Hu a free hand to produce his next film, A Touch of Zen which would end up being one of the most elaborate and expensive Chinese productions up to that point. Three years in the making, the film would become King Hu's great masterpiece.

In the film, Ku Shen-chai, a humble calligrapher falls for Miss Yang, a mysterious young woman who has moved in to the neighbouring house. When Ku Shen-chai is commissioned by local officials to draw a wanted poster for the woman, he discovers her true identity - she was the daughter of the slain head of the Yang clan and is being hunted down by the villainous East Chamber clan. Ku vows to help Miss Yang and her two allies to defeat the East Chamber, a fight which will take courage, skill, strategy and a touch of zen courtesy of a Buddhist monk...

A Touch of Zen is a feast for the senses. The film is a wonderful mix of different textures and flavours - a wuxia film with elements of the supernatural, with some added romantic drama and political intrigue. King Hu's direction is superb throughout, equal parts poetic and powerful, his camera movements infused with tremendous elegance befitting such a regal film. It's a visually extraordinary film too, full of natural beauty with the much of the second half of the film set amongst forests, waterfalls and river gorges, all of it in glorious Cinemascope. Hu himself designed and oversaw the construction of the sets, recreating an entire town as if it was plucked right out of the Ming Dynasty era 1. The climax of the film sees Hu pushing the visuals into the realm of pure surrealism with a character who bleeds gold and the startling use of lens flare and negative photography.

The famous battle sequence in the bamboo forest where the two clans somersault and swoop through the air may not scale the fanciful heights of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon but it may well be all the better for it, as it feels far more organic. The sequence itself is a dazzling melding of clever camera angles, balletic choreography and tour de force editing, and is lit using a technique similar to what Kurosawa used on Rashomon, whereby the sunlight streaming through the dense trees lends a strange and eerie diffused light.

Nowadays A Touch of Zen is widely regarded as one of the great masterworks of Chinese Cinema, but the film would prove a disappointment with audiences when released in Hong Kong in November 1971. Unlike the Taiwan release which broke the film into two parts (arriving a year apart from each other), the version prepared for Hong Kong was a single film, but had lost some 30mins from the original 180min cut. The reaction to the film was indifferent, perhaps the film was too strange and esoteric compared to Bruce Lee's debut film The Big Boss which was doing huge business around the same time. Hu's film had all been buried and forgotten, when in 1975 the film was included in the Cannes film festival to much success. Following its appearance at Cannes, the film became something of an arthouse hit with Western audiences lapping up the film's unconventionality and its Eastern exotica.

A Touch of Zen has had DVD releases in France, Germany and South Korea, all of which carry no English subtitles. There's a mediocre cropped R2 UK disc courtesy of Optimum, but if you can seek it out, the 2002 US disc from Tai Seng is the best of a bad bunch. Picture wise, the slightly windowboxed 2:40 transfer is a mixed bag. Detail is good in close up shots but tends to get lost in the digital fuzz of long shots. Contrast is weak too - the post-credits shot of a dragonfly ensnared in a spider's web is difficult to make out, and problematic too during the nighttime battle at Ching Lu fort. The print used for the transfer is quite ragged with the appearance of nicks, tears, and change-over cues throughout. The audio is not terribly great either, the Mandarin dialogue and music sound rather thin and hissy. The sole extra is a text essay about King Hu. It it all doesn't add up to much, considering such an important, landmark film deserves nothing less than the Criterion or Masters of Cinema treatment (preferably with a commentary from Bey Logan). Still, whatever way you see the film, it remains absolutely required viewing.

1. The sets for A Touch of Zen would be an integral aspect of the film. Hu had the sets built as he was writing the film, drawing inspiration from them for the story. Hu had the sets weathered to achieve an authentic look and in the film they look quite spectacular, the Ching Lu fort especially so, with its tall unruly grasses and great tendrils of fog and dust that waft around it. All this expensive production detail would almost bankrupt the Union Film Company and after the initial failure of the film King Hu would again part ways with another studio.

Saturday, 14 May 2011


The opening shot of this 1994 Hungarian film - an unbroken black & white 8-minute take of cattle wandering through a farm, should act as a sufficient disclaimer for anyone who might be expecting some thrills and bellyaches for their buck. Sátántangó, Béla Tarr's magnum opus runs just a little over 7 hours and is said to contain something in the region of just 150 shots. The plot, which is slowly teased out over the course of the film's epic running time concerns a small community living on a rain-lashed isolated collectivised farm in rural Hungary. The drab lifestyle of the community is shattered with the death of a child, an event which heralds the arrival of a one-time member of the commune who has mysterious plans for his fellow neighbours...

There is little in modern Cinema to compare with Sátántangó but signposts along the way include Edgar Reitz's long-form work Heimat, and Michael Haneke's recent film The White Ribbon. Béla Tarr's direction is mesmerizing, the long takes full of beautiful, elegant camera moves, and even amid the muck and the misery, and the drink-sodden characters, the film has an incredible sensuality. That the film is so compelling right up to its strange and surreal conclusion is something of a miracle considering the length of the film and the many wordless stretches (including one entire reel where the cast drunkenly dance in real time like demented marionettes).

As with his previous film, Damnation and his 2000 film Werckmeister Harmonies, Tarr remains one of contemporary Cinema's great visualists. In collaboration with his cameraman Gábor Medvigy, the film contains an astonishing array of b/w imagery, including the now famous shot of the the men walking along the street as a gale whips up a torrent of rubbish around them. 1 The film has some stand-out sequences - an oafish man's epic journey to the local pub to replenish his supply of brandy, and a very powerful sequence where a scorned little girl poisons her cat and warmly embraces the concept of death. The film is beautifully constructed as well, with sequences repeated from different perspectives, seemingly disparate events briefly intersecting before dividing again, resulting in a rather wonderful chronological disorientation for the viewer.

Currently the best version of Sátántangó on home video is Artificial Eye's R2 set, the film spread across 3 discs. The 1.66 transfer is very pleasing, with a strong b/w image which doesn't suffer from the image float anomaly that appeared in AE's Stalker disc (where a white section of the image would appear to dislodge itself from the rest of the image). The print used for the transfer in in good shape, with some minor vertical lines present in some scenes and the appearance of reel cues. Audio is very decent too and the removable English subtitles are well done. Hopefully, this tremendous work will be given the Blu-Ray treatment some day but until then the AE package is highly recommended.

1. The shot of the men walking on the street full of swirling rubbish was hommaged in Gus Van Sant's 2002 film Gerry, with the rubbish replaced by desert tumbleweed.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Alejandro Jodorowsky's Tusk

Such were the strange fortunes of Alejandro Jodorowsky in the 70's that he went from the mind bending Holy Mountain to the abandoned multi-million dollar production of Dune to directing Tusk, his 1980 film adapted from a children's book about a girl and an elephant born on the same day on a plantation in British controlled India. In the film, the elephant, known as Tusk grows up to be a powerful and intelligent beast of some renown. Elise who has matured into a head strong and determined young woman secures Tusk's freedom from the plantation but with their fates entwined, danger looms for both of them from hunters and poachers...

Tusk is a difficult film to approach. The film has little of the transgressive imagery of El Topo, Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre and has inevitably been dismissed as a minor footnote in Jodorowsky's career. Even the director himself disowned the film due to producer interference. All this has done a great disservice to a film which is actually a very fine piece of work and in many ways a very worthy Jodorowsky film. In terms of pure visual technique, Tusk is one the director's best looking films - Jodorowsky soakes up the Indian landscapes, and his camera steals some remarkable shots - the opening 3 minute tracking shot which rises and swoops over an elephant corral is one of the director's most visually arresting sequences.

While the film may not be a pure auteurist work, it does has some resonance within the context of Jodorowsky's more personal films - there's some slapstick comedy courtesy of two boozed up poachers (somewhat similar to the bandits from El Topo), an Indian mystic who magically transforms himself into a chicken (a simple but startling effect), and a strange, surreal dream sequence where Tusk battles another elephant in defense of Elise. And of course elephants would feature strongly in Jodorowsky's next film Santa Sangre. As well as the lush visuals there's an excellent eclectic soundtrack which fuses traditional Indian music, Shades of Joy style jazz and some wild prog rock.

It's been said that the film was aimed at children and while most of the film is kid friendly (there is however one sequence where Tusk is pierced and his blood collected and drunk from a glass, which sensitive children may balk at!), the film can be enjoyed as a simple allegory, with Tusk representing the very soul of India rebelling against the authority of its colonial masters. Difficult to judge the performances watching the French dub 1, but the cast includes Anton Diffring (who was in Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451) playing Elise's kind father, and Christopher Mitchum (son of Robert, and probably best known to Euro Cult fans for his appearance in Jess Franco's Faceless), playing a benevolent hunter.

Tusk has had an unfortunate history - it was rarely seen on it release and briefly appeared on French home video in the early 80's - which is where the current (fullscreen) bootleg of the film is sourced from. Be warned the quality of this version is rough (see the screenshots), but watchable considering the film is so elusive nowadays. For serious Alejandro Jodorowsky scholars the film is required viewing and well worth tracking down.

1. The French dub is interesting in itself. The film was shot in English, but one of the characters, the wicked wife of a powerful Indian who drinks Tusk's blood, is dubbed by a man, lending her a strange and sinister presence, and well suited to Jodorowsky's usual oddball characters.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Terror Express - the Camera Obscura DVD

This Italian quickie from 1979 was dashed off by its writer Luigi Montefiori (aka George Eastman) when a train carriage set became available at a film studio. The result was La Ragazza del Vagone Letto, or under its more succulent English export tile, Terror Express. In the film a sleeper train bound for Switzerland is boarded by 3 thugs looking for some cheap thrills. At first, their behavior is irritating but after raping a female passenger, the situation gets out of control, and the men effectively take over one of the carriages, terrorizing the passengers with abuse, intimidation and a gun snatched from a cop on board...

Terror Express is something of a curiosity. Comparisons with Night Train Murders are inevitable, but whereas Aldo Lado's film has just the right mixture of sex and shocks (giving Last House on the Left a good run for its money), Terror Express is a curiously muted affair in terms of bloody violence - strange considering Montefiori was devouring an unborn foetus the following year in Joe D'Amato's anti-classic Antropophagus. But if its sleaze you want, the film will more than satisfy - when the male cast is not slobbering over their frequently nude actresses, there's plenty of softcore grappling and forcible sex. If the 3 thugs are broadly obnoxious, their long suffering passengers are not without their own flaws - a slimey businessman with a taste for pornography and prostitutes, an in-house hooker who plies her trade on the train, a sluttish wife into brief encounters in the toilet, and a father with a less than healthy interest in his beautiful teenage daughter (a shameless bit of plotting which sets up a jaw-dropping sequence later on in the film that will have sleazehounds writhing in spasms of ecstasy)

Journeyman director Ferdinando Baldi's turn behind the camera is pedestrian at best - his direction doesn't quite wring out the tension required, but at least the film looks suitably claustrophobic taking full advantage of the cramped set. And there's enormous fun from the cast which reads like a who's who of Italian exploitation - Zora Kerova (Cannibal Ferox, The New York Ripper), Silvia Dionisio (Waves of Lust), Carlo de Mejo (City of the Living Dead), Gianluigi Chirizzi (Burial Ground), and Fausto Lombardi (Hanna D: The Girl from Vondel Park). Special mention too for the excellent Austrian actor Werner Pochath as the leader of the thugs. With his striking looks he certainly has a face for villianry. Pochath also turned up in another memorably sleazy film, the 1977 Swiss/German production Bloodlust (aka Mosquito the Rapist).

Werner Pochath - would you sell this man a train ticket ?

Terror Express made its arrival on DVD in 2009 courtesy of German label Camera Obscura, and the results are very impressive. The disc coded for R2 is housed in a stylish digipak slipcase complete with English and German film notes. The 1.66 anamorphic transfer is very strong, sharp with good color. The print used for the transfer shows some minor wear and tear, and there are some fleeting instances of shots imported from an inferior source, but overall this is a very strong effort. Audio is Italian only with optional easy to read English and German subtitles. Extras include the English and Italian trailers, a gallery of still of promo art, and best of all, a superb 24min making-of entitled Tales From the Rails (in Italian with optional English or German subtitles), featuring cast members Zora Kerowa and Carlo De Mejo reminiscing about the shoot. Also interviewed is Luigi Montefiori who offers a very frank opinion on his work and Italian Exploitation Cinema in general. No self respecting fan of European Cult Cinema should be without this one in their collection and the disc can be ordered from Diabolik DVD from the US, or D & T Mailorder from Europe.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Nightmare before Elm Street

You want to know who Freddy Krueger was ? He was a filthy child murderer who killed at least 20 kids in the neighborhood, kids we all knew...but somebody forgot to sign the search warrant in the right place and Krueger was free, just like that... A bunch of us parents tracked him down after they let him out. We found him in an old abandoned boiler room where he used to take his kids. We took gasoline, we poured it all around the place and made a trail out the door. Then lit the whole thing up and watched it burn, but he can't get you now, he's dead honey because mommy killed him... from A Nightmare on Elm Street
It's 1988 and New Line Cinema have an enormous cash cow on their hands with the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The fourth film, The Dream Master is the highest grossing horror film of the year, and a tidal wave of Freddy Krueger mania and merchandise 1 is sweeping the nation. In October of that year, Wes Craven's iconic creation was granted his own syndicated TV series, Freddy's Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series. The format of the show was essentially like that of Tales from the Crypt, an anthology show with Freddy appearing only in wraparound segments at the beginning and the end of each episode throwing out the kind of quips that ultimately ruined what was in it's original incarnation, a fabulously sinister character.

By and large Freddy's Nightmares was an exercise in barrel-scraping. Even New Line grew indifferent to the show after the first 5 or 6 episodes with budgets became increasingly threadbare. However, the pilot episode No More Mr. Nice Guy remains an interesting addition to the Elm Street legend as it takes place before the events of the original 1984 film, beginning with the botched trial of child murderer Fred Krueger, his subsequent torching by the residents of Elm Street's mythical town Springwood, and his rebirth as the killer dream demon...

Watching No More Mr. Nice Guy, you can't help but wonder how much Robert Englund actually participated in the episode. He's present for sure in his Krueger make-up but for much of the show, his human face is never shown - perhaps New Line were worried audiences would confuse him with the benevolent alien he played on the sci-fi series V. If it indeed was a stand-in who was prowling around in the red and green sweater, it's somewhat appropriate given the quality of the episode, which suffers from a poverty of decent performances from the cast. Worse still, calling the shots was none other than Tobe Hooper but even a Hooper groupie like me can't get excited about the lacklustre direction.

But for all its faults No More Mr. Nice Guy has some positives - there's some terrific production design - Krueger's boiler room hideout is wonderfully macabre, full of various sharp objects and rather ghoulishly the discarded toys of his young victims. Plus there's a spirited ending when Freddy performs some dental work on an anesthetized patient, the razor fingers of his glove appearing as scalpels and drills. It's all nonsense of course but enjoyably so.

Robert Englund had hoped Freddy's Nightmares would be a "dark violent Twilight Zone" (it wasn't) and ran for 2 seasons until its demise in March 1990, marking something of a closing chapter on this type of TV series - the far more sophisticated Twin Peaks would follow a month later and The X Files was launched in September 1993.

Freddy's Nightmares was released in the UK in 2003 courtesy of Warners. The single R2 DVD collecting the pilot and 2 other episodes was labeled as Volume 1, but since this initial collection no further DVDs of the series have surfaced. The video quality is typical of fellow anthology shows like Tales from the Crypt and Friday the 13th The Series, the cinematography is murky with colors tending to smear and details rubbed out on long shots. And this is perhaps the best it may ever look. Extras consist of a text essay called The Legacy of Freddy Krueger and 2 throwaway stills galleries. If you're a Nightmare on Elm Street completist you might want this disc, otherwise I'd recommend casually sampling the series should it come your way.

1. Easily my most favourite piece of Elm Street ephemera is the 1988 single "Are You ready for Freddy?" by The Fat Boys with additional raps by Robert Englund himself. In the video one of the Boys has inherited a haunted house previously owned by his Under Fredrick. The one stipulation is that the Boys have to stay in the house for one night to get full ownership. Soon after Krueger turns up to chase the Boys around the house. The track also features some dialogue samples from the original film (Fred Krueger mom, Fred Krueger!)

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Heaven's Gate

The saga of Heaven's Gate is well documented so I'll skip over its unhappy history and instead concentrate on the many virtues of this much maligned and misunderstood masterpiece. The film began production in 1979 but Michael Cimino's script for the film, then called The Johnson County War had been around since the early 70's and was shown little interest. After seeing an advance print of The Deer Hunter, a new management team at United Artists were keen to produce a film with the soon-to-be-hot Cimino and the result, released in November 1980 would become a by-word for runaway budgets and box office bombs...

The story set in 1890 concerns a brutal war waged by the rich cattle owners of Wyoming on poor European immigrants who have turned to cattle rustling to feed their families. Federal marshall Jim Averill (played by Kris Kristofferson) discovers that an association of cattle barons have compiled a list of 125 names for extermination, an action that has been all but sanctioned by the US government. Averill means to put a stop to this massacre but standing in his way is Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), and old friend who works for the association. Complicating matters further, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), a brothel madam whom both men are in love with is one of the 125 names selected for execution...

If the plot sounds dense, the film is even more so. At least in it's 219min entirety, Heaven's Gate is one of the most magnificently detailed westerns since Once Upon A Time In The West. As a recreation of Wyoming in the late 19th century the film is big, bold and immersive. United Artists sank some 44 million dollars into the film and much of it is up there on the screen with its huge elaborate sets and one thousand strong extras. Cimino's direction is masterful, the film shows the influence of Griffith, Ford and Lean, fused with the operatic style of Leone and Visconti. A film that is at once beautiful to look at, with its stunning Montana locations, and ugly in its depiction of the American state forged in the fire of casual brutality and savage violence.

Vilmos Zsigmond, Cimino's cameraman from The Deer Hunter, returned for Heaven's Gate and lends the film an extraordinary look, working with heavy filters and filling almost every scene with dust and smoke to diffuse the light. There are stories about Cimino waiting whole days for the right weather conditions before stealing a few seconds of footage, but in terms of the picture alone, his meticulousness proved correct. The film features a large cast and besides the principle actors, there's Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Joseph Cotton, musician Ronnie Hawkins, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Geoffrey Lewis, Terry O'Quinn, and Tom Noonan. Willem Dafoe had a minor role in the film (his first) but was fired and his scenes were discarded.

Admittedly Heaven's Gate does have its flaws, even in its longer 219min version, the film can be incoherent and difficult to follow, not surprising considering this Cimino-approved cut was a distillation of the 5 hour 25 minute version the director first presented to United Artists. Another problem is the muddy sound mix of the film which often has dialogue lose its clarity amid the clamour of background action. Over the years I've seen the film perhaps 5 or 6 times and I still find myself wrestling with some of the plot points. The performance of Heaven's Gate at the box office was famously dismal and Michael Cimino and United Artists in a desperate effort to save the film, recalled and released it at various lengths, even at one point adding narration to explain whole sequences that were excised. Whatever about the audience reaction to the film (which took in just a million and a half at the box office), the critical demolition job on the film had begun well in advance of the film's disastrous New York premiere 1, and Cimino's great epic was effectively doomed before audiences had made up their mind.

Today Heaven's Gate is mostly seen in its long 219min version. The film is available on DVD in the US (and Australia) and features a decent 2.35 transfer with the odd instances of light print damage. Sound wise, the audio is strong - David Mansfield's music sounds very good but dialogue still tends to loose its clarity at some points. Luckily there are optional English subtitles. The sole extra 2 is a trailer. I can't confirm if the film has had a UK DVD release, if it has it may be cut, as the film when classified for home video ran foul of the BBFC for its cockfighting sequence and some obvious horse trip-falls.

Whether you care for the film or not, Heaven's Gate is required viewing, marking the end of the "Director's Decade" of 70's American Cinema, when art briefly transcended the concerns of commerce, a state of affairs which was swiftly reversed by the failure of the film.

1." It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect" wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times. Canby's appraisal of the film was considerably harsh, but more damaging still were some articles reported in the press by a journalist who worked on the film as an extra, describing the huge wastefulness of the budget caused by Cimino's extravagance and his endless takes, plus more sinister stories about the mistreatment of the animals on set.

2. Heaven's Gate remains top of my wish list of future Blu-Ray releases. Hopefully such a release could include the excellent documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate, which premiered on the Trio cable network in the US in 2004. Based on Stephen Bach's book, this 78min film gathers together much of the principles who worked on the film including Jeff Bridges, Kris Kristofferson, Brad Dourif, Stephen Bach, Vilmos Zsigmond, and David Mansfield. Cimino himself is absent but appears in some archive interviews. Narrated by Willem Dafoe the film chronicles Cimino's film making style, the enormous production delays as well as the fallout at United Artists after the film was released. The film can be seen here. Highly recommended.