The 2021 List: November

I think it’s time we blow this scene, Get everybody and the stuff together
OK, 3, 2, 1, let’s jam!

ahem. Sorry about that, I think my head has been rewired from watching all of that tv show over just four days. Here’s what was the good, the bad and the ugly of November-

Television

155) Cowboy Bebop (2021)

Film

135) The Village in the Woods (2019)

136) The Brothers Rico (1957)

137) The Contract (2006)

Sneakers (1992)

138) Major Dundee (1965)

139) Crossfire (1947)

140) Red Notice (2021)

141) Scandal Sheet (1952)

152) Carmilla (2019)

In The Mouth of Madness (1994)

153) Reminiscence (2021)

154) Born to Be Bad (1950)

Spider-Man (2002)

156) House of Bamboo (1955)

157) Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

One television show. Its funny, there’s quite a few television shows out right now that I haven’t gotten around to yet, and worse still, plenty I’ve missed over the past several months, but my focus of late still seems to be predominantly movies, and hey, films on disc even! Six of the above, in fact were on Blu-ray or 4K disc.  

Sadly, the worst of the bunch was the more recent ones- The Village in the Woods, Carmilla, Reminiscence and Red Notice… no, nothing much to see amongst that bunch (I think Reminiscence the best of a bad selection), and instead I was better rewarded by old films on catalogue releases (some more from that last Columbia Noir box, and Arrow’s Major Dundee, Masters of Cinema’s House of Bamboo) and a few noir dug up from obscure corners of cable channel scheduling and Amazon Prime. Amazon seems a surprisingly good source of old films, albeit they can be a little hard to dig up: I imagine most of them have monthly streaming figures lower than the fingers on my right hand, or the hits on my posts. 

Curiously, I did also manage to re-watch a few films I haven’t seen in awhile: I finally bought John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness on a German Blu-ray (so that’s the UK 4K release announcement due any day now), and I also bought Film Stories’ Blu-ray edition of Sneakers, a film I hadn’t seen since back in the cinema, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which I noticed last weekend had just three days left on a 4K presentation on Amazon Prime, intended to just watch the start and then two hours later wondered where the time had gone. One of the rare unplanned viewings that just happen: right film, right time… I was surprised how well it still held up. And of course horrified that the film is nigh on twenty years old already. That kind of thing is happening all the time now, I notice films I watched at the cinema or had on DVD and they feel quite recent initially, but when you dare look at release dates… well its true; ignorance is bliss, I’d be better off not looking. 

 

Carmilla (2019)

carmillaThe only thing worse than a bad horror film is possibly an arthouse horror film. This new Carmilla, a modern, revisionist take on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 vampire novella, drops the sexy, exploitation/ titillation of the Hammer cycle of films that it ‘inspired’ in the 1970s (The Vampire Lovers, Lust For a Vampire and Twins of Evil) and replaces it with a more intimate tale of sexual repression. This is less a tale of resisting the temptations of vampirism and more one of the temptations of lesbianism. Which is fine, and this is certainly graced with great performances from a genuinely very good cast, but in losing the vampirism, its rather missing the point and clearly dropping all the horror for something much more intellectual. I’ve been here before with this kind of ‘modern’ horror film- its as if the film-makers are embarrassed by being associated with something as potentially puerile and embarrassing as a horror flick and try to make something else instead. But surely that’s missing the point? 

Certainly, for the first half of this film -pacing issues aside, something I’ll return to later- the film works pretty well and promises much. Lara (Hannah Rae) is a sensitive teenager on the brink of womanhood, living a comfortable, almost idyllic life in the English countryside under the tutelage of her governess, Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine). Here are women of their time, behaving in a world that expects them to behave in a certain way, a formal code of conduct which Miss Fontaine seeks to instil upon her sometimes struggling, wayward pupil. There is a tension running through the film, between Lara’s suppressed emotions and Miss Fontaine’s own buried passions (she seems to enjoy punishing Lara with a caning a little TOO much?). 

Into this awkward status quo is thrust the enigmatic Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau), the sole survivor of a nearby carriage crash who is brought to the house and given shelter and rest. Carmilla says she cannot remember who she is or where she is from, but is clearly a more, ahem, confident and liberated girl than she pretends to be, raising Miss Fontaine’s suspicions while covertly pursuing Lara with furtive glances, suggestions of a Sapphic passion which Lara clearly finds exciting. We hear second-hand testimony of local girls mysteriously falling ill and wasting away, and indeed Lara herself becomes pale and weak as she spends more time with Carmilla. It appears that this film’s vampirism is less blood-letting and more a draining of life energy from proximity (a little like Lifeforce then, but minus that far superior film’s wildly Hammer-like sense of fun).

The film has two problems here- the pace is glacial, and the grace viewers may give it to enable the film to solidify its sense of time and place soon turns to frustration once Carmilla arrives and the viewer is still left waiting for SOMETHING to happen. Indeed, when something does happen, that’s the film’s second problem- it doesn’t know what should happen, or the conviction of its own genre for it to happen, graphically or with a sense of horror. Again, that’s the arthouse movie either forgetting its based on a horror tale or too embarrassed by it. The erotic charge between Lara and Carmilla isn’t fulfilled or realised. Instead, the strict Miss Fontaine enjoys an impromptu tryst with local doctor Renquist (a terribly wasted Tobias Menzies who could/should have been a great Van Helsing-type adversary of Carmilla), which oddly seems to transplant the audience-awaited explosion of Lara/Carmilla’s passions to the supporting cast; a baffling decision. 

I suppose what the film may have been getting at, was telling a tale of two girls finding a forbidden love together, and that being so ‘horrific’ to the ‘normal’ members of the more unenlightened society of the time that it was then turned into some demonic, vampiric legend – so the film shows us the ‘true’ story later bastardised into a camp vampiric horror tall-tale. If that’s the case, its a pity that it had to be so, well, toothless and boring.

Carmilla is currently streaming on Amazon Prime here in the UK

Devil’s work…

devils men bluI have the distinct, and very strange feeling, that I’m being trolled by a boutique label- the fine folks at Indicator have announced that in February next year they are releasing on Blu-ray disc The Devil’s Men, a film which regular readers here (or anyone clicking the link in the title) may recall I saw last month and deemed it the worst film featuring Peter Cushing that I have ever had the misfortune to see. When I saw this announcement in my inbox I did such a double-take, I couldn’t believe my eyes: its is such a strange world sometimes.

As usual, Indicator is being generous with attention and quality- a 2K remaster from the original negative, two versions of the film (the ‘uncut’ version I watched and the edited-down American cut carrying the alternate Land of the Minotaur title) and plenty of extras including a commentary track and an archival interview/lecture with Peter Cushing at the National Film Theatre in 1973. Now, their release a few months ago of another horror film, Corruption featuring Cushing  compelled me into a blind-buy because it had an audio recording of a Cushing lecture from 1986 at the NFT (shamefully, I haven’t heard it yet- damn all these distracting noir). Certainly compared to The Devil’s MenCorruption is a far better film no matter Cushing’s own distaste for it, so was a worthy blind-buy and a lovely package with rigid slipbox and substantial softcover book with essays etc. but the idea that Indicator deem The Devil’s Men even worthy of any release at all, never mind one of their bells-and-whistles numbers…

As a Cushing fan, these archival audio pieces are tremendously tempting to me for obvious reasons. the actor unfortunately passed away before any enterprising laserdisc or DVD producer could enlist him into commentaries for some of his films, so any material of him discussing his work at length is priceless. But this time, its like Indicator are just daring me. The Devil’s Men is a horrible film, clumsily directed and poorly scripted, bizarrely carrying a Brian Eno score and also starring fellow horror-movie legend Donald Pleasance. I can read Indicator’s announcement imagining them stifling a guffaw as they write “this offbeat horror film… an eccentric, bloody cult shocker” as if the words ‘offbeat’ and ‘eccentric’ are euphemisms for ‘shite’ and ‘diabolical.’ Ha ha, its like they watched a different movie or are just testing me with some ghastly jest: they know, they KNOW that I’ve credit enough at their shop from past purchases to cash it in and get this film for ‘free’ but really, I’ve got more self-respect than that, haven’t I? Extraordinary move, Indicator- you are the Devil’s Men indeed.

Clearly the decent thing to do if ever someone from Indicator reads this is to respond by sending me a copy gratis..

The Village in the Woods (2019)

village1I’m not sure what it is regards horror films, but as a genre, their general quality seems really poor: I actually think this is often because they can be fairly cheap to make and therefore attractive to studios, producers and directors who can’t get access to the more expensive cinematic toys. Maybe its just too easy to make a bad one, or maybe audiences are too forgiving as long there’s plenty of diverting scares, titillation or gore: its certainly not a genre predisposed for deeper meaning regards the human condition. Of course there are very good horror films, and yes there are horror films with all sorts of subtext, informative and challenging, but I’d contend there are not very many of them. Generally, horror films just seem to get by with a little mood, tension and a few scares… alas, The Village in the Woods doesn’t even have that, even though one could argue its all mood and nothing else.

A young couple, Jason (Robert Vernon)and Rebecca (Beth Park) are driving through deserted back-roads in a remote landscape at night, their destination the village of Cooper’s Cross and its pub that they want to sell and profit from (Rebecca having inherited it, or something, its not at all clear and in any case its all a set-up). The film throws in the usual horror tropes with immediate abandon: the car breaks down, having run out of petrol (no clear method of escape, then) and when Jason tries to call for assistance there is no mobile phone signal (cut off from rescue then). After spending a night in the car, amongst spooky foggy woods lit up like there’s an alien mothership over the hill, the two walk down the road and reach the village. Here’s where the non-existent budget proves most evident: the village consists, as far as we can tell, of three buildings and five people (two middle-aged couples and a crazy old man). That’s it. For some unfathomable reason the couple don’t ask the villagers if they have a phone they can use to get help or call a taxi. They don’t question how three buildings constitutes a village, or walk around it or ask where the other villagers are, or wonder what worth a pub has when it has fallen largely to ruin and is located in the middle of nowhere with no likely customers.  

These locals are not normal- kooks and weirdoes and clearly shady with an ulterior motive. Maddy (Therese Bradley) has hair so frazzled its like a living thing and Charles (Richard Hope) has trademarked the Creepy Stare, indeed all of them have mad smiles better suited to a padded cell. Especially the guy who Claire recognised from a recent episode of Doctors. But Jason and Rebecca don’t seem too concerned, not even when it turns out there’s a crazy old man squatting in the flat above the pub whose warnings of danger etc (“They’re going to do something terrible! And you walked straight into it!”) are simply ignored. It really is that stupid. The whole place is something of a madhouse, and any sane or reasoning individual would be straight out of there, car or no car. If I had to sum the film up it’d be Emmerdale meets The Wicker Man, (albeit without Emmerdale‘s production values or acting talent) so no doubt you can intuit from that what is going on and what happens. There’s a core idea buried deep within containing some Lovecraftian elements from which a decent film might be made, but this really isn’t it.

To be fair to the cast and crew, it was probably made over a few days with a budget just this side of non-existent, so getting something made at all was possibly an accomplishment in itself. But even this is frustrating; having no money is no reason something has to be so bad, it just requires a bit more ingenuity in the script. The basic premise is fine and it could actually have become a very disturbing and effective horror. I gather the film was intended by its director/writer/composer Raine McCormack to be a love-letter to 1970s British horror, but I think he missed the point that those films were often gaudy and fun, not just foggy and boring. To be brutally honest, I’ve noticed that McCormack had no formal training (no nonsense like film school for instance) and I think this film sums up the current situation wherein everybody thinks they can make a movie if they’ve watched enough DVDs. One only has to look at the standard of screenwriting in Hollywood as evidence of how low standards are slipping just about everywhere, accentuated by how thin the talent pool is being spread over the traditional old studios and all the independents satiating the relentless hunger of streaming platforms for content. Maybe when a few of these streamers go bump and/or amalgamate the average quality of content will curve upwards. Maybe I should cut McCormack some slack, but I’ve seen far too many terrible horror films of late: even The Devil’s Men was more enjoyable than this (well, prettier at any rate). 

The Village in the Woods is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (my excuse, it was October/Halloween etc) and is also available on DVD and (more ignominy piled upon The Abyss) Blu-Ray.

The Devil’s Men (1976)

Could this possibly be the worst film I have ever seen featuring Peter Cushing? Indeed I think it is. While Cushing himself disowned Corruption, which I saw just a few weeks back, I think that film is far better than this terrifyingly horrible effort (Cushing’s view was apparently more to to do with the graphic nature of Corruption, part of a new wave of tougher, nastier horror quite removed from the more gentle horrors he was used to making, than regards the actual quality of film-making). While The Devil’s Men is clearly more akin to Hammer horrors of old it is appallingly executed, doubly disappointing because it features genre greats Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance onscreen together and for added trivia value, features a score by Brian Eno, no less, and that woman from one of the better Fawlty Towers episodes/gags, Luan Peters. Its a cheap and nasty European effort filmed in Greece with atrocious dubbing, extremely wooden acting (even Cushing and Pleasance being guilty, clearly signing-up for a nice ‘seventies Greek hol rather than actual thespian work), a quite nonsensical script enlivened only by a little gore and surprisingly frequent nudity (possibly just to ensure male viewers stay awake after the women in the audience have all left in despair). About the only thing that enlivens the film is Father Ted starring as the particularly useless male hero. Well, okay its not actually Father Ted, its New York-based Private Eye Milo Kaye (Kostas Karagiorgis) but the likeness is so remarkable its distracting throughout, albeit it just makes things even more funny and bearable.

Its actually a struggle to nail what this film is about, the clue’s in the title but even that’s misleading because the Devil turns out to be a big plastic Minotaur (the American edition of the film sporting the alternate title The Land of the Minotaur which is possibly more apt). Cushing plays Baron Corofax, an exile from Carpathia slumming in Greece having bought a castle near the ruins of an ancient Temple which is a bit of an unlikely tourist hotspot in the remote backwoods area. The Baron and his Menacing Chauffeur, Max are leading a Devil-worshipping cult that have been killing the tourists at the behest of the giant Minotaur statue in the temple. A local priest, Father Roche (Donald Pleasance sporting a particularly odd Irish accent) frustrated at the police being ineffective at working out why the tourists seem to be disappearing contacts his old friend Milo Kaye in New York. Milo seems to spend all his time in bed with a young beauty so is reticent to heed the call, but eventually (after a few more tourists go missing) catches a flight over. Also flying over is Laurie Gordon (Luan Peters), fiancé of recently-missing Tom from the latest tourist group to go AWOL. Roche, Milo and Laurie join up to get to the bottom of the mystery and discover that the entire village seems to be in on the Devil-worship gig (yep, even the police, wouldn’t you know it).

Its a pretty lamentable effort with some quite bizarre moments; unintentionally funny ones like Laurie being pursued by villagers wearing hysterical devil-worship togs and a finale in which Father Roche wields a crucifix and explodes the devil worshippers heads (its not as interesting as it sounds and is typically poorly executed, but one has to wonder if Roche’s God-given powers are so kickass, why did he recruit a particularly inept Milo who muddles his way through the film achieving nothing?).

The only thing that kept me going was the delightfully amusing sight of Father Ted fudging everything he did and wondering where I’d seen that woman before (that’s Luan Peters and the Fawlty Towers connection). Oh, and marvelling at the terribly 1970’s analogue synth-doodlings/cliche horror-movie stings by Eno, a rather poor-man’s Goblin I guess. I’m used to Cushing appearing in bad b-movies, and Pleasance was just a few years away from Halloween and Escape From New York so better genre offerings awaited him, but seeing the two of them in such a bad film made me realise both were at career low points at the time. Its very 1970s, which might add a bit of curio Euro appeal if that rocks your boat, but frankly its such inept late-night cable TV-fodder its really only for Cushing-completists such as me (and even we’d sooner watch once and forget).

No One Gets Out Alive (2021)

noonegetsoutGood lord. Well the title rather gives the game away, but its dubious (does she? doesn’t she?) finale only exacerbates a thoroughly reprehensible and pointless film. Maybe its a trendsetter of some new horror genre called the Horror Panto, because about the only fun watching this film is giggling “its behind you!” every time a ghostly apparition appears behind the witless and unknowing heroine. 

This is one of those horrors that proves the genre is well past its sell-by date but like every undead corpse its a genre that just doesn’t know that its done. A title sequence throws visual clues in the background- several decades ago some excavations in Southern America unearth remains of an ancient city and artefacts are unearthed, in particular an odd-looking box. That’s about the only explanation/excuse that we’re going to get for everything that then occurs.

A young Mexican immigrant, a pretty young woman named Ambar (Cristina Rodlo, much better than the film really deserves), who has smuggled herself across the border and is trying in vain to buy papers with which she can get a ‘proper’ job and place to live, is forced to work in a sweatshop and take lodging in a terribly run-down boarding house, where the shady owners turn a blind eye to legality and take anyone in in order to get some cash. Well, its not just cash they’re after, because it transpires that their clientele don’t usually get to leave while still breathing. Its a thirty-minute plot stretched to just shy of ninety so as you might imagine, there’s plenty of padding by way of moody atmospheres and sly jumps and pointless b-plots. 

And most of those moody atmospheres are of those “its behind you!” moments where we can see spooky apparitions which our heroine is quite oblivious to. My wife Claire laps this stuff up, hiding behind her  fingers thoroughly creeped out, so who knows, maybe there is an audience indeed for such low-rent horror trash as this. But really, its pretty dire and further evidence that the Netflix quality-bar is set pretty low. Like some damn fool who should know better (but never learns) I was expecting some explanation or narrative twist to explain exactly what was going on and why, but the film seemed more concerned with busting the majority of its budget and effort in realising some patently CGI monster in the basement which, again, is not explained or anything. The film was based on a book (by Adam Nevil, who’s no Stephen King on this evidence), so I expect there is some internal logic that explains things in the book that the screenplay couldn’t quite wrangle- probably the producers assumed the title sequence would be enough. Well, lets be honest, they probably didn’t really care. Its really not very good and deserves to be absolutely forgotten, which I’m sure it will be.

 

The Asphyx (1972)

asp2Probably more one of those fairly obscure film coincidences rather than one of those film connections that leaves me scratching my head at the sometimes arcane synchronicity of movie-watching, but it turned out that The Asphyx was directed by Peter Newbrook, who was the director of photography on Corruption, which I watched just a few days earlier. While the two films are both of the horror genre, they couldn’t be more different- Corruption was a present-day horror calculated to shock, reflecting the growing trend at the time for nastier horror thrills for audiences jaded by the more traditional horror films that Hammer had been making for over a decade, and The Asphyx was much more restrained, a period piece that deliberately avoided being graphic or gory, and wouldn’t have seemed out of place had it indeed been from Hammer.

Barring an ill-judged present-day opening and close which bookends the story proper, the film takes place entirely in Victorian England, and the peculiar obsession of Sir Hugo Cunning (Robert Stephens) a scientist who notices grim shadowy artefacts in his photographs of the recently, or imminently, dead. He deduces that his unique photographic chemical solutions are capturing the image of the Asphyx,  the spirit of the dead of Greek mythology, and proposes a way of trapping the creature in a device of his own devising, thus granting immortality to the subject of the creatures attention (the Asphyx unable to take possession of a dying person, that person would then be unable to die). While Stephen’s experiments prove successful with a family pet and then later upon himself, things start to go awry when he attempts to immortalise his daughter…

It is to the cast’s credit that the preposterous plot is taken absolutely seriously, in the best tradition of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee in any of their own Hammer yarns, and Robert Stephens certainly lends some weight to it all. A well-respected actor who was at one time tipped to be the successor to Laurence Olivier for his theatre work, he was very much a theatrical actor, very intense. I recall him appearing in Ridley Scott’s first film, The Duellists, and voicing the part of Aragorn in the BBC’s marvellous radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve always struggled with him, personally, but oddly enough he works well here as the typically slightly manic, deranged scientist whose personal tragedy during a family boating accident drives him to ever greater extremes. The central premise of the film is daft but its treatment is actually quite disturbing, especially with someone like Stephens as the star: for once I’m not going to suggest its a horror film that would have been better with my old favourite Cushing in the starring role.

Indeed, I have to wonder if Stephen King was at all familiar with this film, because it shares some striking similarities to his story The Green Mile, and the film directed by Frank Darabont: maybe its a stretch, but an immortal character accompanied by his immortal guinea pig through the decades seems rather akin to The Green Mile‘s immortal Paul Edgecomb and his similarly immortal pet mouse, Mr .Jingles, and both tales share grisly scenes of an Electric Chair doing its ‘thing’. One of those film coincidences maybe.

Corruption (1968)

corrupt4I came to Corruption rather blind- indeed until a few months ago when Indicator put it’s new Blu-ray edition up for pre-order I didn’t even know it existed (this is its first release on home video in the UK), but as its a horror film starring Peter Cushing, one of my all-time favourite actors, it was an inevitable purchase, particularly when I learned that Peter Cushing pretty much disowned the film, embarrassed by it and refusing to ever talk about it afterwards. Like the same years The Blood Beast Terror, the film was a means to an end- Cushing needed the work to pay his beloved wife Helen’s medical bills, and while, as ever, he gave everything to the film (he lived by the credo that his audience always deserved at the very least that he make every effort in every project, refusing to phone-in a performance (Bruce Willis take note)), its clear Corruption wasn’t a very pleasant experience. The Blood Beast Terror is far inferior film, and far less interesting to watch now, but it was clearly a more positive, fun experience for the actor. 

Both films came about as horror films were changing- the days of the traditional Hammer gothic horror were waning, and horror films were becoming more explicit, with more violence, gore and nudity. Even though Hammer had often troubled the censor with its films, the boundaries were moving and leaving Hammer behind (Hammer would soon react in the 1970s with films like The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil and Hands of the Ripper but the studio would always be behind the curve). Corruption reflected those changes, indeed, embraced them, and its really quite shocking to witness dear old Peter Cushing in the starring role in a film as thoroughly nasty and exploitive as this one. 

Corruption is not a very good film, but its is an absolutely fascinating one, and rather disturbing too, if only for the fact of seeing Peter Cushing in it. For my first viewing, I threw caution to the wind and watched the continental version, which was more graphic than the more restrained UK edit (the Indicator disc contains three presentations, the UK, US and continental, which was retitled Laser Killer but retains the original Corruption title here). It proved rather a shock, seeing Peter Cushing wrestling with a topless woman, stabbing her to death and wiping his bloodied hand on her breast before graphically cutting her head off. It doesn’t make the film any better, but it does make it more notorious and unpleasant (the UK version has a different actress playing the victim, and she keeps her top on). 

Peter Cushing plays a gifted surgeon, Sir John Rowan, whose unlikely, younger girlfriend, Lynn (Sue Lloyd) is a successful model who is scarred by an accident partly caused by Rowan when he is caught in a jealous fight with Lynn’s photographer, Mike (Anthony Booth channelling Andy Warhol). Rowan’s guilt over Lynn’s disfigurement drives him to drastic measures to restore her face and beauty. Initially this finds him visiting the morgue and interfering with the corpse of a beautiful woman, cutting out the bodies pituitary gland for its fluids, but the subsequent operation on Lynn, while a success, is only a temporary one. It becomes clear to Rowan that for longer results he needs to use the female pituitary gland of living subjects, and therefore is forced to go on something of a killing spree, his first victim being a prostitute in what is perhaps a grim nod to Jack the Ripper. Rowan’s horror at what he is doing brings him to a halt but Lynn become manic about maintaining her beauty and drives Rowan on.

corrup2Cushing, as ever, is quite brilliant. His repugnance at his own actions, as his initial guilt pushes him into increasingly despicable acts, is palpable; possibly a reflection of the actors own distaste for the project. I’d actually suggest its one of his better performances, but part of that may be the shudder one feels at the  bizarre sight of him in something so… exploitive, at least in the continental version I saw. Sue Lloyd is the real surprise- she’s absolutely superb. I only remember her from her role in the TV soap Crossroads when I was growing up- this film suggests that she was capable of far more, and her character’s madness and evil is quite convincing as she manipulates and ultimately betrays Rowan. The rest of the supporting cast is also very good- Kate O’Mara, Noel Trevarthen, Vanessa Howard and  Wendy Varnals give very good performances (I wasn’t so enamoured by Anthony Booth). The colourful 1960s fashions are delirious madness, although the attempt to depict the swinging sixties flounders terribly – its obvious the middle-aged film-makers didn’t have a clue regards youth culture, in just the same way as Hammer blundered in films like Dracula  AD 1972.

Its hard to qualify Corruption as a good film- frankly, it isn’t, but it is something of a morbid fascination. It is just so bizarre and strange and unpleasant. The film takes a very odd turn towards the end, when Rowan and Lynn are accosted by criminals who are clearly burgling the wrong summer house, and concludes in a frankly astonishing climax of mass murder enacted by a wildly out of control surgical laser, which censors would never allowed just a few years before. Its a crazy finale which is followed by a curious coda that is either a total cop-out or possibly an apologetic reaction to the films previous excess. 

corrIndicator’s Blu-ray is possibly far more than such a film deserves: a genuine special edition, with an 80-page book and replica production skills accompanying the disc inside a handsome slip-box. The book is excellent, with really informative essays that I found thoroughly engrossing after having watched the film. Its a lovely package which feels like total overkill for a film of such dubious quality (although the very fact that a film such as this can get such treatment is an almost endearingly lovely thing, even if Peter Cushing would be aghast, no doubt). The disc itself, alongside the three versions of the film, contains a commentary track, numerous interviews and featurettes and a 72-minute audio interview from 1986 with Peter Cushing himself which I can’t wait to settle down with. Its a typical Indicator triumph. Bravo.

 

Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984)

bloodbth2This really isn’t the film the title suggests that it might be, and the oddest thing about it is that I had absolutely no idea that this film even existed until I stumbled upon it watching Netflix a few nights back. Some films slip into an obscurity so total its like they were never even made, and to be brutally honest, some of them deserve that too. Which is the case with this one.

Released way back in 1984 this British comedy-horror film stars a bunch of British television actors/comedians of the time and is thus something of a time capsule for those of us who lived through the 1970s/1980s. Kenny Everett, Pamela Stephenson, Gareth Hunt, Don Warrington, Cleo Rocos, Sheila Steafel… you might not know their names but if you were watching television here in the UK back then you’d remember their faces, possibly with nostalgic affection. The film even features a minor role (albeit important to whatever constitutes a plot role for horror favourite Vincent Price who, like Peter Cushing, had a peculiar penchant for appearing in any old rubbish as long as there was a pay check. 

But strike from your mind any thought that this might be some long-lost classic, because this film is terrible. It isn’t funny, it isn’t scary, its just appallingly bad. Most of the cast listed above are playing a bunch of scientists investigating alleged paranormal goings-on at Headstone Manor, a creepy old building with a history of death and violence, and none of them convince as actors never mind scientists: the acting wooden to the point of being inferior to a Gerry Anderson puppet show, and the direction woefully perfunctory and lame. Its a chore to get through and I winced most of the way through -partly out of embarrassment for those onscreen, partly through the jokes landing with repeated thuds. Its a cringe-worthy ordeal to sit through during which one frequently wonders, “what were they thinking?” 

The film was written by Barry Cryer, something of a legend in British television comedy, who worked on several comedy shows of that era like The Two Ronnies, Morecombe and Wise and many others, but most notably The Kenny Everett Video Cassette, which was Everett’s hugely popular comedy series airing between 1978-1981 that I loved growing up, and likely landed him this gig which proved to be Everett’s one ill-fated foray into movies. Lampooning horror tropes of the time, this could have been quite fun, but it fails to hit the mark of aping the style of the 1960s Hammer horrors that its supposedly making fun of. It feels more like a television comedy sketch stretched too far, too much a thing of the early 1980s when it should have been more of the gothic horror of two decades before with an affectionate comedy bent. This film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be- at least the infamous Carry On films knew what they were, and Carry On Screaming is some kind of golden classic compared to this and far more successfully nails its horror-comedy balance.

bloodbthIt probably doesn’t help that the budget must have been pretty dire;  there’s indications that much of it was shot under considerable time-pressure, resulting in blatant continuity errors and a disjointed story that really makes no sense whatsoever. Vincent Price for instance, nominally playing the major villain evidently filmed his scenes quite apart from everyone else. It has the effect that his scenes seem from some other movie just edited in-between scenes featuring Everett and company exploring the manor (which Price never enters, and with whom Price never shares any screen-time). Worse, Price is written out suddenly as if they literally ran out of time (was he available for just three days or something?) so he just seems to disappear midway through. I accept that in a horror-comedy lampooning horror tropes the last thing one should expect is a sensical storyline or anything approaching genuine horror, but all the same, when you have a guy as canonical as Vincent Price in a film, you should use him as such. Price was always so larger-than-life that part of the pleasure of any of his horror films was his tendency to play things big, almost parodying the very horrors he was starring in (whereas Peter Cushing would underplay roles, not drawing attention to himself). Mind, there is some pleasure in seeing that Price was clearly enjoying himself as usual, so at lest some good came from the film.

Maybe they just couldn’t afford him to be around sufficiently enough to use him to the films advantage. In defence of the film, one cannot appreciate the pressures when making a film, the money and time constraints at the time. Which sounds like I’m making excuses for a film being woeful, but its obvious that a British film such as this is an entirely different enterprise to a $200 million Hollywood blockbuster that turns out appalling. Some scenes such as a flashback of Everett’s character messing up a surgery is a blatant one-camera piece of schtick that looks like something direct from his television sketch show. I can imagine in some film projects a director shooting retakes until he can say “that’s perfect!” whereas I imagine director Ray Cameron here would just say “that’ll do!” and then move on to the next (likely unprepared) scene. Its just the reality of low-budget film-making, particularly back in the early 1980s here in Britain, when we hardly had any film industry at all.

So really one to avoid then, unless the sheer curiosity of this strange oddity overwhelms you, as it did me. Its really something of a time capsule for those of us who grew up back then, albeit perhaps one that shouldn’t have been dug up yet. I wonder how on Earth Netflix got a hold of it? I suppose its just further proof that Netflix will stream anything and everything.

Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

memoryI enjoyed this documentary far more than I had expected to, believing that it was largely redundant at this point, after all the documentaries made about Alien featured on various DVD and Blu-ray releases over the past few decades, and of course all the books written about the film- most recently the late J W Rinzler’s magnificent The Making of Alien volume. An additional handicap is that some primary interviewees are no longer with us (Dan O’Bannon, H R Giger) and Ridley Scott was presumably not available/not interested, therefore forcing the film-makers to use video interviews from those old Blu-ray documentaries with the now so-familiar soundbites. The film’s editor Terry Rawling was a pleasant surprise appearance; he died in 2019 so I suspect this was one of the final interviews that Rawlings attended, if not the last.

And yes to some extent Memory is indeed redundant because there is little here that’s really new regards Alien lore for fans of the film. In some respects its largely a Readers Digest of all the factoids that Alien fans have learned over the years, but I did enjoy some of the points about mythology and symbolism, and how Alien really represents where society and its audiences were back in 1979 – it was clearly the right film at the right time, capturing the cultural zeitgeist and resonating through all these years since. I think there are some very valid points made and some views quite illuminating, particularly regards universal archetypes and myth.

Maybe the films argument that Dan O’Bannon was some kind of genius is a bit of a reach, but its no accident that O’Bannon was connected to some of the most important or memorable film projects that I have seen over the years- Dark Star, Alien, Total Recall, The Return of the Living Dead and Lifeforce. Some of them are great and the others are at the very least great fun (and I REALLY want to catch up with his last directorial effort, the Lovecraftian horror The Resurrected, which has escaped me for years, frustratingly). You don’t get a resume like that in Hollywood without having some talent, and he’s surely qualified as a genre great. Yes, Alien was very derivative of other, earlier movies and the genius of Alien is mostly that of Ridley Scott’s approach of elevating schlock b-movie fodder into serious, top-list quality motion picture, but one can’t deny that what made Alien unique was Giger, and it was O’Bannon who knew the artist (from the aborted Dune project) and championed his work for the film.

On the whole though I really enjoyed this documentary: the title is ironic considering so much of it was like a stroll down memory lane of Alien factoids and familiar faces. But yeah, this is Alien, and I don’t mind being reminded why the film is so bloody great, so this was certainly a very pleasant watch.

Memory: The Origins of Alien is currently available on Channel Four’s On Demand service up to late September, and is also available on DVD and digital download/rental.