Saturday, 14 December 2013


Last night I grabbed a screening of Robert Altman's 1979 film Quintet, which may well be the least seen and most misunderstood film in the director's eclectic cannon of work. The story set during a severe ice age, concerns a seal trapper named Essex (Paul Newman) who along with his wife travels to a dilapidated frozen city to find Essex's long lost brother. Whilst there, Essex unwittingly becomes involved with a community engaged with a mysterious board game know as "quintet", for which the stakes for the players are literally life and death...

One of the bleakest films of the 70's, if not the entire sci-fi genre, Quintet's failure to connect with audiences is hardly surprising given the film's slow pace and doggedly anti-commercial concerns which seem intent on alienating viewers from the outset. Even the conventions of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre - radiation-scarred mutants, urban ruins, the emergence of a hero, are mostly swept aside as Altman and his 3 writers tease out a sort of strange cerebral detective story which must have left audiences confused and frustrated. Although not known as a director of speculative science fiction, Altman suggested the film might well be taking place not just in some future time, but on another planet. Rather than have his cast speak in an alien language, Altman cleverly cast some well known European actors, among them, Fernando Ray, Vittorio Gassman, Bibi Andersson and Nina van Pallandt (in her 3rd of 4 films she made for the director), and each of their own distinct accents bring a certain otherworldliness to the dialogue. Even Paul Newman turns in what is perhaps the most low-key performance of his long career, his character has few dramatic moments and his dialogue is pared down to a minimum.

But patience (and perhaps second or third screening of the film) are rewarded by the director's absolute mastery of mood and atmosphere. The film was shot during a particularly cold winter, in and around the abandoned buildings constructed for Montreal's Expo '67, which by 1979 had sufficiently deteriorated to resemble a destroyed city, here augmented by a thick frosting of ice which covers every surface. Cinematographer Jean Boffety (who had previously shot Altman's Thieves Like Us) gives the film a unique visual texture by fogging the edges of the frame, a strange but effective device to convey the sub-zero temperatures, while Altman's innovative use of sound design extends to the film's soundtrack which employs ominous deep thunderous rumblings regularly heard throughout the film as the doomed city is encroached upon by glaciers churning up what's left of civilisation. Interestingly, the Quintet game, played on a pentagonal board with dice and various trinkets was developed by Kenner but due to the film's unpoparlity, the plan the shelved. As for the film, Quintet has slowly carved out a very minor cult following over the years and fans of contemplative science fiction and admirers of Andrzej Żuławski's The Silver Globe, and Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey would do well to seek the film out.

Friday, 6 December 2013

"Look for the name of the rescue station nearest you..."

Last week as part of the TV coverage of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death, I watched a fine documentary (narrated by George Clooney) entitled JFK: News of a Shooting, which focused on the reporting of the assassination, the unprecedented challenges for reporters to get the unfolding story out, culminating in that famous moment when Walter Cronkite announced the American president's death on air, ("We just have a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas, that he has confirmed President Kennedy is dead"), the CBS anchorman visibly trying to maintain his composure (and fidgeting indecisively with his spectacles) while delivering the shocking news.

Watching this footage strongly reminded me of the news bulletins in Night of the Living Dead, which feature an anchorman dryly intoning the extraordinary news of bodies of the dead returning to life to prey on the living. These sequences are key component to the film's much celebrated documentary feel, director George Romero stages them with the raw unpolished look of a breaking news flash, in the background of the newsroom, news personnel can be seen manning teletype machines, taking rushed phone calls adding to the improvised feel of the broadcast.

The final bulletin delivered by a reporter tagging along with a search and destroy militia is perhaps the most incredible, a slyly subversive commentary on the violence encroaching upon American life - the clashes between police and civil rights activists, violent student protests, and the increasingly bitter (and televised) war in Vietnam. In one of the film's most memorable lines of dialogue, the slightly self-congratulatory sheriff co-ordinating the militia, offers some advice in fending off ghouls, with "Beat 'em or burn 'em, they go up pretty easy", which must have had enlightened audiences reflecting on newsreel footage of US infantry torching villages in South East Asia...

For more on Night of the Living Dead and other subversive Horror films, look out for Jon Towlson's forthcoming book Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages in Films from Frankenstein to the Present, a study of the "subversive" strain of horror films produced in Britain and America from 1931 to the present day, to be published in early 2014 by McFarland

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tobe Hooper's Early Works (The Heisters & Eggshells)

Arrow's magnificent 3-disc edition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 contains the finest supplements of 2013, with the second disc in the set devoted to Tobe Hooper early films, The Heisters and the director's debut feature Eggshells.

The Heisters, made in 1965 is a 10min absurdist slapstick comedy set in medieval times and concerns three thieves in flight from the law, hiding out in a dilapidated cobwebbed castle. Two of the men squabble over the loot they have just stolen and find increasingly ridiculous tortures for each other (an oversized custard pie, a lethal flying girdle) while the other thief more concerned with scientific matters, performs weird experiments on a beetle... Like many short, personal films of the era, The Heisters feels like a series of sketches, the movie is entirely dialogue-free (the three cast members compensate with some wonderful comic performances), and it's all the more remarkable that it looks like it could have been lifted from one of Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, the film shot in Cinemascope and strongly influenced by Floyd Crosby's lighting for Pit and the Pendulum, explicitly referenced in one particular scene. The film also employs an exaggerated use of sound - at one point, a jawbone falling to the floor registers with a loud metallic crash. The film also contains two elements which would characteristic of Hooper's later work - striking expressionistic editing and camerawork and an imaginative use of props, in particular a bizarre, moldering music box which could have been part of the grotesque bric-à-brac decorating the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All told The Heisters is a brisk, fascinating and enjoyable curio.

Following a few screenings when it first emerged in 1971, Tobe Hooper's debut feature film Eggshells was lost for almost four decades. Rarely mentioned even by the director himself the film became little more than an untidy loose end in Hooper's filmography until Stefan Jaworzyn's 2003 book The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion, an oral history of the series, revealed some tantalizing details about the production and its untimely demise. Miraculously, a faded print of the film was unearthed in 2009 and following an extensive restoration and some eagerly anticipated screenings at select film festivals in Austin, Texas and London's Frightfest, Eggshells finally makes its long-awaited debut on home video.

In the film, two hippie couples have moved into an old rambling house, both on different journeys. One couple are preparing to be married while the other couple are just starting out in their relationship. Meanwhile, a fifth occupant of the house who nobody seems to be aware of, has made contact with a strange unearthly presence which has moved into the basement... Once described not inaccurately by Tobe Hooper as a cross between Paul Morrissey's Trash and Fantasia, Eggshells is an incredible document of the counterculture of the late 60's, of peace marches against the Vietnam war and the growing interest in politics, spirituality, alternative lifestyles and philosophies, much of it reflected in the charged semi-improvised dialogue spoken the young twenty-somethings in the film. In this regard the film is very much a companion piece to Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni's sad-eyed look at post-60's America, the two films sharing some interesting parallels - the use of documentary footage of student protests, characters searching for their path in life, and an anti-materialist sentiment which leads to scenes in both films where something is spectacularly blown apart. In contrast to Antonioni's film, Eggshell's is a joyous, exuberant celebration of youth and the energy of the times, reflected in the film's dazzling, free-wheeling experimental style, and audacious invention.

Early in the film, the audience is taken on a breathless hyper-speed journey through the house by the mysterious entity, very much like the breakneck trips around the suburbs of Tokyo in Tetsuo The Iron Man. Two people make love and are transformed into abstract blobs of dripping melted wax (a scene reminiscent of Saul Bass' distorted credit sequence for Seconds), there's some Stan Brakhage-like color animation, a 2001 style star-gate sequence through the cosmic avenues of Austin, and in the most extraordinary sequence of all, a man has a swordfight with himself, an effect achieved with some ingenious jump-cutting. Tobe Hooper devotees will look of comparisons between Eggshells and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while there are some interesting if superficial similarities (Eggshells begins with a shot of a girl in the back of a pickup, Texas Chainsaw Massacre ends with one), the film would be better placed with the likes of the Roger Corman's The Trip, John Carpenter's hippie space oddity Dark Star, and Richard Linklater's experimental 8mm film It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, another film featuring a cast of Austin odd-balls and eccentrics

Arrow's Blu-Ray of Tobe Hooper's Early Works presents The Heisters & Eggshells in fine form. The Heisters looks the better of the two, with eye-popping colors and clarity. Eggshells looks far more grungier, however the Blu-Ray edition looks extremely good considering the rarity of the film (the screenshots above are ripped from the DVD edition). Both Blu-Ray and DVD discs also come with a director's commentary on Eggshells, a 25min interview with Tobe Hooper, and a whistle stop tour through the ups and downs of Hooper's career with trailers for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre through to 2006's Mortuary

Sunday, 1 December 2013

A Taste of Blood

Herschell Gordon Lewis was evidently feeling confident enough in his film making abilities when he set to work on his 1967 picture A Taste of Blood, a straight Horror film without the bankable nudity and splatter that had made his earlier movies so successful. In A Taste of Blood, John Stone, a mild-mannered businessman is transformed into a cantankerous vampire after unwittingly drinking a brandy laced with the blood of his ancestor, Dracula no less, long since dead but still exacting revenge on his enemies by having Stone kill their descendants. Donald Stanford's original screenplay The Secret of Dr. Alucard which relocated the vampire mythos to contemporary America was hardly a novel idea, despite predating Stephen King's novel 'Salem's Lot by several years, Dracula had already stalked 50's California in The Return of Dracula (1958) while the Count was transplanted to more wackier surroundings in William One Shot Beaudine's 1966 Wild West/Horror hybrid Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Still, the idea of a proxy war fought by the modern day relatives of Dracula and Van Helsing is a genuinely intriguing notion but Lewis almost completely ruins it with the gargantuan slog that is A Taste of Blood.

Running an unrelenting 117mins, A Taste of Blood is a dour, humourless and endlessly talky film. Worse still, the film features only a token amount of bloodshed with the odd stab wound or gashed throat to savour between oceans of dialogue scenes shot in well-furnished living rooms. At least Blood Feast had between bouts of carnage, inept direction and dreadful dialogue to enjoy, A Taste of Blood however has no such pleasant diversions - on this picture, Lewis' directing skills are improved (comparatively speaking) and the screenplay has very few howlers. Fortunately the sequences where the vampire stalks his prey are well-handled - rather than have his vampire skulk around in a cape, flashing a set of fangs, Lewis lights his monster in a blue glow, which makes actor Bill Rogers' pasty crumbling makeup all the more eerie, a cheap but surprisingly effective idea. Also, worthwhile are some subtle nods to classic vampire films, like a scene where a ship's captain is snooping around a coffin Stone has collected in London recalls a similar moment in Nosferatu, while in the film's final act, Stone's wife Helene draped in a billowing nightdress, is summoned trance-like to her husband, echoing a scene from Dracula. Incidentally, lookout for Lewis doubling as the aforementioned ship's captain, complete with cockney accent ("Alrite Guv'nor!") and students of Trash Cinema should keep their eyes peeled for an early screen credit for J.G Patterson, listed here as an associate producer, but better known as the director of the deadly dull Dr. Gore (1973), and the marginally better Electric Chair (1976).