Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Blood, Boobs and Beast

Documentaries about film makers are a dime a dozen these days but few are as enjoyable and as affecting as this 2007 portrait of Don Dohler, a Baltimore director and producer who specialized in ultra cheap Sci-fi and Horror pictures. Dohler may not be a household name but chances are you've come across one of his films at some point. His debut feature from 1978, The Alien Factor was a staple of late night TV (and still shows to this day on TV in the UK and Ireland), while his subsequent films Fiend (1980) and Night Beast (1982) were two of the more memorable films from the early VHS era, if only for their striking sleeves which commanded attention from the shelves of the video store. Blood, Boobs and Beast begins in conventional enough fashion when director John Kinhart caught up with Dohler during the production of 2007's Dead Hunt, and found Dohler at an impasse in his career - to continue working in the stressful world of no-budget film making or to focus on family commitments. Ultimately, Dohler had to abandon film production entirely when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Kinhart's documentary assumed a much higher calling, as an epitaph for an unsung but much loved film maker.

Don Dohler interviewed in 2007

In some respects Don Dohler could be compared with Andy Milligan - despite making films at the low end of the exploitation market, both were talented artists in their own right and lived rich and fascinating lives. Unlike Andy Milligan, Dohler was not a psychotic prima donna, but a quiet, soft spoken family man who made films out of sheer love for the craft. Kinhart's film picks up Dohler's story in the 60's when Dohler began publishing Wild! a comic fanzine that would later mutate into underground comic Pro-Junior (securing Dohler's lofty position in the world of underground comics). In the 70's Dohler shifted gears and published Cinemagic Magazine, an influential journal for aspiring special effects artists. Dohler's first film The Alien Factor from 1977 rode the coattails of the Star Wars craze, and was a schlocky sci-fi-monster movie hybrid which became a favourite on local TV networks. Dohler made sporadic films throughout the '80's including 1991's Blood Massacre, said to be Dohler's best film, but the film went unseen for four years when the film's backers high-tailed it with Dohler's workprint only to be recovered by chance some years later. Exacerbate by the whole business, Dohler took an extended leave from film making not returning until 2001 for a belated sequel to The Alien Factor

Blood, Boobs and Beast includes many clips from Dohler's films and it must be said that most of them look terrible. Dohler would later branch into video production (with collaborator Joe Ripple handling directing duties) and these are especially gruelling. In discussing his career Dohler makes no claim that his films are great art, and seems genuinely amazed that fans would seek him out at conventions to autograph DVDs, let alone that he would be the subject of a documentary. Unlike say American Movie, Kinhart maintains a great respect for Dohler throughout the film especially in the sequences chronicling the weekend shoots of Dead Hunt, a blue collar production plagued by misfortunes that would otherwise be ripe for a Spinal Tap-style parody (the unexpected departure from the film of the leading man when his wife goes into labour, or the film crew routinely triggering an alarm at the warehouse where the film was shot, much to the security company and owner's annoyance). To his credit, Kinhard maintained a respectful distance from Dohler as his illness took over and the film includes just one very poignant scene where a visibly frail Dohler hands over his personal film archive to Joe Ripple.

The documentary gathers together a number of Dohler friends and family, many of whom were at the centre of his film world, like Dohler's kids who pop up in various bit parts, and Dohler often shot his films in and around the homes of friends and neighbours. Also featured are two Dohler fans who offer an amusing Greek chorus style commentary on their hero but interestingly cast an uncertain light on Joe Ripple suggesting that Dohler's films took a sharp decline when Ripple came on board, citing the shot-on-video silicone pole dancer antics of 2004's Vampire Sisters as ample proof. In fact Dohler cringed at the idea of sex in his films and included it only when a distributor demanded (the title of the documentary is supposedly the three essential ingredients for a profitable horror picture). Also featured in the film are Tom Savini and Tom Sullivan who discuss Dohler' Cinemagic magazine with some fondness, (Sullivan recalls bringing issues of Cinemagic to Tennessee when he was designing the special effects for The Evil Dead) as well as J.J. Abrams who composed the score for Night Beast when he was still in his teens.

Don Dohler poses with a fan

As much as it pains me to recommend a Troma DVD, Blood, Boobs and Beast is required viewing for fans of independent Cinema, and amateur film makers. Aside from the usual Troma junk, this DVD is a fine package, with a very welcome second disc containing Night Beast. The documentary itself looks excellent, with a crisp fullscreen image (a sharp contrast to the scuzzy clips from Dohler's films). The main extra on Blood, Boobs and Beast disc is an informative commentary from director John Kinhart.

Night Beast

Night Beast, Dohler’s second feature from 1982 can be approached in two ways – as an affectionate tip of the hat to '50's monster movies, or a documentary about a bunch of non-actors struggling with a screenplay they may not have read. In the film, an alien from the far side of the galaxy crash lands in a rural American town, and promptly begins disemboweling and vaporising the inhabitants. The only thing standing in it's way are the town sheriff and some brave locals...

Night Beast is quite frankly a terrible film, and after some 87 collossal minutes, it's a relief when the film comes to a close. Whatever suspicion one might have about Dohler's film making skills, a large part of the problem is the film's ultra low budget which has Dohler cutting corners throughout, like a scene where the creature is breaking down a basement door, but rather than seeing the beast destroy the door, Dohler simply tosses bits of wooden debris before the camera. Optical effects are embarrassingly crude as well, like the alien's laser blasts turning its victims into glowing silhouttes (much like the starkicker logo seen on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test). Fortunately the alien soon loses its gun (prohibitively expensive to run no doubt) and is reduced to ripping his victims apart, at one point resulting in one of the worst severed head effects I've ever seen.

Of the cast, only Jamie Zemarel delivers anything approaching a performance and proves far more resilient than leading man Tom Griffith who plays the utterly ineffectual sheriff who sports quite an extraordinary hairdo. Griffith also gets to bed his leading lady in a truly unflattering and protracted love scene that will have viewers pressing the fast-forward button in a desperate frenzy. It would be unfair to rest all the blame for Night Beast at Don Dohler's feet. In fact Dohler shows some occasional talent, and is well capable of framing a shot and putting together an action set piece, and there is at least one inspired moment in the film when the alien is electrocuted, the scene illuminated only by subliminal blue slivers of light given off by the discharge. By far the most successful element of the film is the excellent electronic score partly attributed to a 16 year old Jeffrey Abrams.

To put it delicately, Night Beast is like all of Don Dohler's films, an aquired taste, but if you're a fan of Without Warning and The Deadly Spawn you might not want to pass this one up. Troma's DVD of Night Beast is decent enough. The fullscreen image looks suitably lo-fi with grain by the truckload and colors that lack vitality - but still a strangely agreeable transfer considering the film's poverty row budget. Audio is fine, if limited. Extras include a 6min collection of outakes and bloopers, some behind the scenes footage and a director's commentary.

The Devil Rides Out

Hammer's 1968 film The Devil Rides Out based on Dennis Wheatley's hugely popular 1934 novel was the first of the studio's three Wheatley's adaptations, soon followed by The Lost Continent and some years later by To the Devil A Daughter. In 1963, three of Wheatley's novels, The Devil Rides Out, To The Devil A Daughter and The Satanist were publicly optioned and acting on the advice of Christopher Lee (who knew Wheatley personally, both sharing an interest in black magic and the occult), Hammer bought the rights to all three properties. In 1964 the studio set to work on The Devil Rides Out. Producer Tony Hinds commissioned John Hunter to write a screenplay (having previously written Hammer's 1960 child molestation drama Never Take Sweets From A Stranger) but Hunter's adaptation proved unsatisfactory, and Hammer next approached Richard Matheson, who delivered a faithful rendering of Wheatley's novel whilst sidestepping some of the more kinkier, censor-baiting aspects of the book. Terence Fisher was appointed directing duties and in the summer of 1967 The Devil Rides Out finally began shooting.

In the film Duc de Richleau and his friend Rex discover their friend Simon has become involved in a satanic cult, and he and a young woman are about to be baptized into the world of black magic. After rescuing both from the initiation ceremony, de Richleau and his friends come under attack from cult leader Mocata, a powerful and dangerous sorcerer determined to get back his young recruits... Worth admitting upfront that I find The Devil Rides Out one of Hammer's most disappointing films, and there was much trepidation on my part approaching this review, such is the high esteem Horror fans hold the film in. Even the usual Hammer naysayers are conspicuously absent when the film comes up for discussion. First, the good stuff - Fisher's stylish relaxed direction, those beautiful elliptical dolly shots around the protective circle, complimented by Arthur Grant’s atmospheric lighting; the striking set pieces (the spectral genie in the observatory, the appearance of the horned Satan); some memorable dialogue (at one point Mocata warns “I shall not be back... but something will. Tonight, something will come for Simon and the girl”), and of course a majestic and towering Christopher Lee in one of his best roles for Hammer.

The reputation of The Devil Rides Out may well be secure as one of the great Hammer classics, but the film is deeply flawed in many respects. Technically, the film has not aged well, there's some atrocious back projection during a car chase sequence, and the big special effects set piece where de Richleau and his band of defenders are menaced by a monstrous tarantula and the Angel of Death appearing on horseback, is poorly realized and badly edited. Matheson's screenplay has its problems too. It tips the balance of power too much in de Richleau’s favor and badly undercuts the dramatic tension, the question of good conquering evil never quite seems in doubt considering de Richleau can counteract black magic with a simple spell, and the devil can be banished with little more than a crucifix. Also, the support cast are too thinly sketched - Charles Gray’s Mocata feels underwritten and de Richleau’s right-hand man, Rex is a thankless role for actor Leon Greene, playing a character who seemingly botches any task assigned to him.

More frustrating though is the film's lack of daring in its presentation of Satanism and witchcraft. These were of course delicate subjects for Hammer to be toying with, but the film does feel unnecessarily chaste - even the studio's 1966 film The Witches hinted at something more perverse during the climactic orgy, and tellingly the BBFC signed off on the film without so much as a cut, head censor John Trevelyan even citing the film as one of the studio's best pictures. Worse still The Devil Rides Out feels decidedly quaint when compared to the powerful and disturbing Rosemary's Baby released in close succession, and one might argue that the writing was on the wall for Hammer Horror at this point with the arrival of Polanski's film and 1968's other major Horror, Night of the Living Dead.

Optimum's DVD of The Devil Rides Out features a very impressive 1.66 anamorphic transfer, taken from a excellent quality print, exhibiting only a little grain during some special effects shots. The mono audio sounds robust and dialogue is sharp. For extras only the theatrical trailer is included, a shame Christopher Lee's commentary track from the US Anchor Bay edition could not be included. The Anchor Bay disc also featured a World of Hammer episode (simply entitled "Hammer") but sadly this and the later edition which included Rasputin the Mad Monk are now well out print.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Andrei Tarkovsky: A Photographic Chronicle of The Making of The Sacrifice

This latest addition to the Tarkovsky library takes an intimate look at the making of the Russian film maker's final masterpiece The Sacrifice, shot during the summer of 1985 on the Swedish island of Gotland.

Author Layla Alexander-Garrett who worked as Tarkovsky's interpreter and liaison between the director and the film's Swedish crew, took over two hundred photographs whilst on set recording the process of making the film as well as Tarkovsky's life in Sweden. The Sacrifice has already been the subject of the 1988 documentary Directed By Andrei Tarkovsky but Alexander-Garrett's book offers a different take on the film's production - rather than showing Tarkovsky as the serious artist (as portrayed in the documentary, intensely focused, framing shots with his hands), these photos show the director, and cast and crew relaxed, upbeat and friendly. Each of the photos are accompanied by scene-setting English text (side by side with Russian text) and are often fascinating - Tarkovsky having an entire field plucked of yellow flowers before shooting, actor Erland Josephson snoozing between takes or Tarkovsky and cameraman Sven Nykvist waiting to play a game of tennis. I've taken my own pics of the book to offer a flavor of what's inside...

Andrei Tarkovsky: A Photographic Chronicle of The Making of The Sacrifice published by Cygnnet Books is currently available direct from Cygnnet's website, or can be ordered from the publisher via Amazon UK Marketplace. The book retails for £32.95, which may seem steep but no doubt will command high prices when the print run has been exhausted. For Tarkovsky fans, the book is an essential purchase.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Vengeance of She

If Hammer's 1965 film She was a enjoyable distraction on a rainy Saturday afternoon, the studio's 1968 sequel The Vengeance of She is a bit of a bore, essentially a retread of the earlier film but employing a gender reversal - in She it was Ursula Andress who summoned her male lover across the desert, while in The Vengeance of She, Czech model Olinka Bérová does all the running. In the film, Bérová plays Carol a young woman who is lured to the secret city of Kuma in Africa under the spell of sorcerer Men-Hari who has tricked Kuma's ruler Kallikrates into thinking Carol is the reincarnation of his lover Ayesha. In return Men-Hari has been promised the gift of immortal life which he intends to devote to spreading evil throughout the world.

With its combination of exotic adventure and the shapely curves of Ursula Andress, She Hammer's first foray into pure Fantasy Cinema was one of the studio's most profitable pictures of the sixties. Originally the sequel was to be called Ayesha, Daughter of She, but rather than seek inspiration from the pages of H. Rider Haggard's own series of She novels, Hammer stuck closely to the formula of the first film. In a very early draft of the screenplay Peter Cushing's character from the first film was to make an appearance lending a sense of continuity, but the idea was scrapped and the finished film emerges as little more than a remake, just three years after the original She. Worse still, Andress declined to appear in the film and despite a change of title to the thunderous Vengeance of She, the film limped all the way to the box office and soon retreated behind the shadow of the original.

Principle photography began in June 1967 during a particularly busy period for Hammer, with a number of films in production. Much of the studio's most experienced crew members were working on three major productions - Bette Davis' second Hammer outingThe Anniversary; the special effects extravaganza, The Lost Continent and the Terence Fisher, Richard Matheson film The Devil Rides Out. As a consequence, The Vengeance of She features many one-time Hammer personnel with little affinity for Fantasy Cinema - director Cliff Owen had one previous film to his name (starring comedy duo Morcambe & Wise), while screenwriter Peter O'Donnell had penned Joseph Losey's 1966 comic caper Modesty Blaise. This perhaps explains much of the film's sense of anonymity, despite the the presence of André Morell and John Richardson, both returning from the first film, albeit as different characters. Sadly, the film would be Morell's final Hammer film and for an actor who had enriched so many Hammer productions, the film was hardly a befitting swansong.

The film's biggest stumbling block however is O'Donnell's screenplay which manages to be banal and convoluted at the same time, the film burdened with far too many longueurs and overwrought plotting, so much so that the the film may leave you perplexed on first viewing. Cliff Owen's direction remains pedestrian at best and renders the would-be explosive climax when the cast is brained by Les Bowie's crashing matt effects, dull and uninspired. Even the work of camerman Wolfgang Suschitzky, is utterly undistinguished, a shame considering he was responsible for the luminous b/w cinematography of Ulysses the previous year. Critics of the film tend to heap scorn on Olinka Bérová's wooden performance, unfairly so considering she's one of the best things in the film, at least to look at, and by the time she strips down to some skimpy white lingerie, you'll be ready to forgive the dreadfully corny theme song.

Optimum's DVD of The Vengeance of She is another decent looking addition to the Hammer boxset. The 1.66 anamorphic transfer generally looks fine, with good detail and strong colors. Audio is adequate and dialogue sounds fine. The sole extra is the theatrical trailer. The Anchor Bay disc from 2000 featured a similarly strong picture but added another episode of the World of Hammer, Lands Before Time which focused on Hammer's Fantasy films with clips from She, One Million Years B.C., Creatures The World Forgot, Viking Queen, Slave Girls, The Lost Continent and Slave Girls.