The Terror of the Tongs (1961)

terror2I’ve finally gotten around to what is, as expected, the weakest link in an otherwise surprisingly high-quality set of movies in Indicator’s third Hammer collection, Blood & Terror (the three other entries being The Camp on Blood Island, Yesterday’s Enemy and The Stranglers of Bombay). While the film is at heart an old-fashioned potboiler of hidden menace in the Far East in the vein of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu yarns, it’s a pretty mediocre and predictable story, further tarnished by the unfortunate casting of a mostly English cast of Hammer thespians playing Chinese characters, wearing dodgy ‘slitty-eyed’ makeup that looks decidedly un-PC in our enlightened age and also limits the actor’s attempts to emote, instead making them look like wooden actors playing aliens in ‘sixties-era Doctor Who. That being said, Christopher Lee chews up the scenery in his role as the leader of the Red Dragon Tong, as if he’s auditioning for Macbeth or something. I guess he was doing something right, as he’d later be promoted to the role of Fu Manchu in some genuine Sax Rohmer-based flicks later on.

Its also a sign of the times in which it was made, that even though the film seems pretty tame nowadays, it was pretty brutally trimmed by the censors of the time and the cuts, which are really jarring, have never been restored. One death is not so much blink and you’d miss it as much as, well, the character is alive one moment and dead the next- it’s almost quite bewildering and almost breaks the scene its in entirely (surprised they never bothered to try reshoot a censor-acceptable version, but that’s possibly just an indication of how casual the Hammer chiefs were rushing these flicks out as cheaply and efficiently as possible).

terrorPositives, few as they are, are the colourful cinematography and the beautiful Yvonne Monlaur in one of her two Hammer roles, probably the highlight of the film for me- she’s a much better actress than this hokey script, and Hammer in general, deserves, and I think it’s rather odd she didn’t have a more successful career in film. Even in a poor film with a poorly written character, she has a connection with the camera and a presence that really resonates. If ever I decide to rewatch this film again, it’ll be largely just to see her performance (and that of Christopher Lee, of course, chewing up the scenery as only he could- like Peter Cushing, he had a way of elevating Hammer to some kind of Shakespearean tragedy, as if he’s making a film no-one else can see).

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Halloween (2018)

hall1.jpgHalloween 2018 starts out really well. Its central conceit is that none of the myriad Halloween sequels/remakes/spin-offs or reboots ever happened, and that, 40 years later, this is the Part Two to the 1978 original’s Part One. A little like how the aborted Alien 5 would have pretended that Alien 3 & Alien: Resurrection never existed. In a similar way to films like Creed and BR2049, it treats the original material and mythology with some reverence and sincerity. It also allows, as the other films did, for the intervening years in the real world to be reflected by the passage of time in the movie world, adding some weight of pathos to the proceedings, allowing that sense of the weight of time for the characters to be shared by viewers. Maybe it just makes the nostalgia and recollection of the original feel more intense, and maybe it transfers those feelings to the new incarnation.

Of course, the central issue for Halloween 2018 is that its taking something that’s inherently very simple (the 1978 film is basically just a b-movie slasher/exploitation horror flick that has been endlessly copied ever since) and treating it very, very seriously. I’m a big fan of the original- John Carpenter was (is?) a consummate horror director with a keen eye for composition and skill in the editing room at maintaining tension and jumps and scares, but really, Halloween 1978 is not High Art, although it’s surely a classic of a genre not particularly renowned for high quality. Its simplicity is likely the key to its effectiveness and how well it has stood the test of time- and of course there is the brooding, relentless electronic score.

That score returns (and John Carpenter, on scoring duties here, with it), and it really helps Halloween 2018 feel authentic, in just the same way as BR2049 felt like a Blade Runner movie.  Something’s a little off though, with Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) not quite ringing true as she goes all Sarah Connor from T2, ready and waiting for Michael Myers to inevitably escape from his incarceration and run amok on another killing spree. This time she’s spent decades survivalist training and building Fortress Strode out in the woods into a safehouse for when Myers comes knocking. And of course, he does, complete with his iconic Captain Kirk mask, conveniently brought along by dim-witted journalists looking for a great story and getting undone by it, the mask apparently the trigger for The Shape to do what he does best on another Halloween night. There’s lots of graphic deaths and grisly gore here, a marked difference to the surprising restraint and suggestion which Carpenter crafted in the original- perhaps the most disturbing sign of just how much times have changed.

It seems churlish of me, really, to criticise this film as it was surprisingly sincere and effective in approach and how it was made, and the cast are great, the jumps are pretty great and the violence certainly made me wince- it works so well in so many ways. But I just didn’t buy Laurie going all Sarah Connor. It just makes it feel like a different, ‘wrong’ movie, like when James Cameron spun his Rambo-in-space yarn from Alien‘s ‘ten little indians’ horror film. Suddenly the tables are turned and the hunter becomes the hunted, and a crazy woman having an arsenal in her basement something to be applauded. Infact, thank God for that, because the doctors are crazier than Myers (I so sorely missed the great Donald Pleasence, whose presence seems to haunt the film like a vacant void) and the cops are more stupid and ineffective than ever. I suppose there’s a kind of movie myth that the world needs heroes like Sarah Connor rather than the original 1978 films nice girl next door; gun-toting heroines rather than terrified babysitters just trying to survive. I quite liked the post-traumatic, dysfunctional and rather unhinged Laurie that we first see in the film, but got rather bored by the killing machine survivalist she turns out to really be. Maybe the film is some kind of commentary on violence breeding violence and Myer’s bloody violence transforming 1978s nice girl next door babysitter into, well, another killer.  Maybe I’m just missing something.

Black Summer- Season One (2019)

blacksummrBlack Summer is a prequel/spin-off from Z Nation, a zombie horror series I’m not familiar with which airs on the SyFy channel (in the States, I presume, although it’s available here on Netflix?). At any rate, after suffering through another season of The Walking Dead, this thing is a breath of fresh (albeit decaying) air. Where The Walking Dead spreads interminably slow storylines over sixteen-episode seasons which are themselves split in two chunks of eight, Black Summer is just eight episodes and the whole thing lasts less than five hours- most episodes last under 40 minutes and the last two just 25 and 20 minutes. This brisk running time keeps the pace up and noticeably serves the story- the finale has every reason to be just 20 minutes long, and isn’t saddled with 20 minutes of padding for the sake of maintaining the traditional run-time (most of the time it seems entire episodes of The Walking Dead are padding just to maintain the sixteen-episode format of each season).

But enough about The Walking Dead– that show is made utterly irrelevant having watched Black Summer. This thing is like some high-octane zombie horror that maybe John Carpenter might have fashioned in the early ‘eighties. Set some six weeks into a zombie apocalypse in which the world is teetering on collapse, its as desperate and scary and tense as you could hope as chaos reigns and civilization disintegrates. To strain one last comparison, it’s the End of the World to The Walking Dead‘s soap opera of surviving the Apocalypse and bringing America back.

We are thrown right into the nightmare without any character backgrounds or introductions. There doesn’t seem to be any right or wrong as long as you survive another day, and the threats are as much other desperate humans as the wildly rabid-like undead. Everything is stripped back to the tense life-or-death moments of fight or flight or the confusion of who can be trusted. Its a little like a zombie Game of Thrones, funnily enough, in which every decision has consequences and any character can suffer a sudden death out of nowhere.

There’s just sufficient character moments -and the cast are all pretty much great- to ensure that we care what happens. Even the utterly incompetent Lance (Kelsey Flower) who at one point tries to pretend the apocalypse isn’t happening by burying himself in a random book while the sounds of death draws near, and seems to stumble from crisis to crisis in spite of himself doing everything to get himself killed, fosters some grudging empathy. He often seems to be a waste of air but I’m often reminded that there is a strange reality to his ineptitude, he’s some kind of Everyman offering the reality of what we would be like in the apocalypse. While we’d like to pretend we’d be more like Spears (Justin Chu Cary) or Rose (Jaime King) in the blind horror moments, we really know we’d be rabbits in the headlights like Lance.

This a great show and its format is perfect for Netflix- it’s an easy binge watch over a weekend and I hope it proves to be successful enough to warrant another season.

Alien 4K UHD

alienAh, Alien– just thinking about the film throws me back to summer 1979, reading Fantastic Films magazine  absolutely goggle-eyed at the imagery- you have to remember, absolutely nothing that looked quite like it had ever appeared on film before (except, curiously, for the Victorian-bent tech of First Men in the Moon in 1964). Alien really was something new, a trend-setter and showstopper, one of those cultural pivot points that rarely happen now in these more jaded times- and of course a neat adult response to Star Wars. It wasn’t the technology of Alien‘s film-making that changed things (as opposed to how technology-driven modern film-making has since become, it was using all the old tricks and methods of so many films before and after), but rather the sophistication with which Ridley Scott approached its otherwise derivative b-movie plot (essentially a haunted house/monster on the loose story in space). The coverage of those issues of Fantastic Films really opened my eyes to the craft and art in genre films- its interviews with Ridley Scott in those issues (particularly the extensive examination of the Alien storyboards Scott drew) really fascinated me, and sealed my interest in Scott’s films forever after.

ff2I wasn’t really familiar with Heavy Metal at the time, but Alien was definitely the very first Heavy Metal movie in approach and artistic worth. It was adult and dark and gritty and quite overloaded with visual information. Even today some forty years later it’s amazing not just how well Alien holds up, but also how it surpasses much of what we see now. The Nostromo bridge, the messroom, the corridors, it’s incredibly convincing, a work of art. That’s quite seperate to the impact of Giger’s nightmarish creations: never was a films title so apt. Alien really was alien, its Lovecraftian pseudo-sexual horrors as disturbing now as they ever were. I almost wish it stood alone, that there were never any sequels or any prequels, that Alien could just stand there, a one-off classic.

Its certainly the best way to watch it today. Just soak up and savour the mystery of that derelict craft and the alien space jockey, and the glimpses of the creature itself as it preys on the Nostromo crew. Try to forget the mythology that followed after with all its contradictory noise.

So that summer of 1979- like some kind of fool, I was of course madly anticipating actually watching the film, but as the September release date of the film neared here in the UK I learned that it was rated ‘X’ by the BBFC, partly no doubt for the films intensity but more for the use of language- swear-words were a big no-no in the old days of Blighty (actually things might not have changed so much in the years since). So having read all the film magazines, as we used to do in those pre-internet days, the film became this forbidden object, a tantalising mystery- and of course this was in those dark pre-VHS days when films came to the cinema and then went, lost for years before even a glimmer of hope of a possible tv screening. I didn’t actually see the film until it turned up on television*, on a Sunday night following the 1982 World Cup final on ITV. In pan and scan, nevermind the dreaded ad breaks (didn’t have a video recorder back then, so recorded the film onto audio cassette to listen to after- only hardcore/older geeks possibly understand what that was all about).

So perhaps it was fitting that last night, another Sunday almost thirty-seven years later, slowly slipping towards the fortieth anniversary of the films 6th September UK release date, I watched the film again, only this time in yet another format- 4K UHD.  I have to say, the film looked gorgeous, the best I’ve yet seen it, one of the best catalogue films I have seen on 4K disc. The HDR isn’t distracting, instead tastefully managed to increase the sense of depth to the picture and really improving some of the miniature shots (such as the Nostromo touching down on the planetoid with its lights blazing in the stormy murk). The colour balance and saturation of the film seemed improved, and the 4K image certainly allowed more appreciation of the films many visual details. I’d say this presentation seemed pretty much definitive to me, and I really enjoyed the film again.

Rewatching films can always be a curious experience, as you can take different things from them with every viewing- this time around, I seemed to appreciate some of the acting quality. Ian Holm was brilliant, as was Veronica Cartwright too- both are superb character actors with a sense of understated reality. They seem natural and effortless performances and convincingly ‘down to Earth’ (albeit that might seem strange considering the film’s setting). As a whole I’d say the films casting was a masterstroke in general- the characters are quite underwritten by the script but each actor brings something to each part. Compare the trucking Nostromo crew to any of the characters in Prometheus or Alien Covenant, say, and you’ll get what I mean (damn- I intended not to refer to those prequels at all and I’ve gone and bust it). The casting grounds the film in a sense of blue-collar reality, and while the smoking may seem a little incongruous these days, it’s certainly another layer of reality that carried weight back in 1979. The world has changed but Alien won’t, it’s a part of film history locked in time and thank goodness for that.

A curious thought though, that forty years ago I would be reading all those magazines, Fantastic Films, Starburst etc) and getting photographic glimpses of the film, and I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and the film would be frustratingly yet held back for another three years. And here I was some forty years later rewatching the film again. If I was around forty years from now, no doubt I’d still be rewatching it. Films, afterall, can be forever- well, the best of them, certainly. But maybe I’ve just bought Alien one last time in one last format.

* prior to the network premiere, indeed some time before as I recall. maybe in 1981, I was looking at records in my local HMV when I noticed that they were playing Alien on a television sitting on the shelf near the till (it must have been a sell-through VHS tape, which were wildly expensive at the time, before rentals took off and the idea of actually owning a film became rich fantasy). It was near the chestburster scene, and needless to say I stuck around awhile to see it in the corner of my eye while pretending to examine vinyl copies of albums. Vinyl, VHS, record stores… it’s a long time ago indeed, and I was so nervous that this was an ‘X’ -certificate film that they were surreptitiously screening that everyone in the shop of any age could see. Was I ever that young/naive? 

Malevolent (2018)

mal1An American brother-sister team of ghostbusting scam artists who swindle gullible bereaved people, have repatriated to Scotland, home of their late mother who used to hear voices/see ‘things’ before cutting out her own eyes and killing herself some years ago.  Angela (Florence Pugh) is growing tired of the scams/developing a conscience/starting to ‘see’ things herself, but elder brother Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) owes money to some vague mob and one last job that promises to pay double is his way out of trouble. Unfortunately for the siblings and their two friends who assist them, this last case involves a sadistic multiple torture/ murder in a children’s foster home and there’s more than just ghosts they need to deal with- the original torturer/killer is on the loose…

Well, if anything that seems even remotely realistic and reasonable to you, then, well, I’m sure this film is for you. Me? I nearly choked on my cup of tea several times as the twists and coincidences piled up. In the films defence, its a low-budget horror film in an already busy market place, so I guess there’s a tendency to pile on the dumb horror as quickly as you can. Not that there’s really much horror- a few jump scares, lots of low dark synth mood music and the usual torture porn that passes for creepiness/tension these days.  Considering its set in 1989. it doesn’t really feel like it’s set in that decade at all, and if I were a cynic I’d suggest it’s just a plot device to maroon our heroes in a desolate old building having no mobile phones to call for help. Oh go on then. Its absolutely just a lazy/simple contrivance to keep mobile phones off the menu.

Florence Pugh, who was so good in Lady Macbeth awhile ago, looks utterly bored here.  Maybe she’s too pretty? It seems unfair to blame her for being pretty, but her character is basically a blank slate/porcelain doll that’s devoid of any interest, so her coolly detached looks are all she’s got. When you’ve got no empathy for the lead actress, you know a film is in trouble, and the supporting characters are even more cardboard/unremarkable. When the bad stuff starts to happen and the bodycount starts to climb, it’s hard to even care or feel any interest at all, so certainly tension is lacking.

Ultimately it’s all very predictable, so much so it’s hard to shake the feeling you’ve seen it all before, maybe in an old 1970s movie you’ve otherwise forgotten. I think they let anyone make movies these days- maybe that’s the problem with much of this Netflix Originals stuff; Netflix just wants something to fill the airtime and are a bit too generous with the money, so anyone with a script and a camera can make a quick buck.

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

laz1Oh dear. Flatliners meets Brainstorm and it ain’t gonna be pretty. Its funny really, watching this so soon after rewatching 1989’s Pet Sematary, another film in which fools embark gladly on playing Frankenstein and things go very badly. It’s as if movies are made in some alternate universe in which no scientist has ever read Mary Shelley or watched any horror film about bringing back the dead. I suppose it gets points for resurrecting a dog first instead of a cat, but still, when the inevitable accident happens and our heroes are ‘forced’ by cruel circumstance to use their new science breakthrough on a human subject, it’s clearly not going to end well. One of the scientists teases us with the old adage that humans only use 10% of their brains, but only people paying the film 10% of their attention could be surprised how things turn out, it’s so routine and poorly telegraphed throughout.

Which is something of a shame, because the cast is pretty good -Mark Duplass (so good the other night in Paddleton), Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger, these are pretty impressive names, and the film even features Twin Peaks fave Ray Wise as a corporate bad guy to add some geek appeal, but its all for naught. They are stuck with a script that is Dead on Arrival, and no miraculous Lazarus Serum is going to resurrect this one.

It is so frustrating, because although the premise is inherently daft (scientists develop a serum that when injected into a corpses brain and activated by an electrical shock brings them back from the dead) it offers all sorts of possibilities but doesn’t even try other than suggesting that sometimes dead is better. No wait, wrong movie….

Lets try again- let’s say they do bring someone back, lets not saddle them with esp/telekinetic superpowers straight away, lets show her demonstrate her acting chops by dealing with being pulled back from Heaven (or Hell, it seems in this case) and returning to the living and all that psychological and religious baggage that entails. But no, I suppose that risks upsetting someone in the audience for ridiculing their belief system or actually making an empirical statement about Life, Death and the Beyond, so instead… lets make her eyes go spooky black and have her bump everyone off one by one. The irony is, even as a horror film this film fails, it simply cannot carry of any level of tension or scares.

Not so much a case of sometimes dead is better, then, but maybe that 1989s Pet Sematary (and Brainstorm and Flatliners before it) is better than previously thought. All things are relative, I suppose, and it does seem that you can count on new bad films showing old ‘bad’ films in a new, kinder light…

Party like it’s 1989: Pet Sematary

pet1I saw Pet Sematary back in 1989 at the cinema, and while I enjoyed it the thing I took most from it was the films gorgeous, ghostly score by a then-new rising star among film composers, Elliot Goldenthal: the score was part-Poltergeist, part something else entirely, and was a big part of the film’s success for me. Strangely enough, I’ve never seen the film again since… which raises the question-  just how well does it hold up today?

Well, I must say it’s really rather mixed. Biggest issue for me (but possibly a bonus for others) is the fact that the screenplay was written by the books author, Stephen King. Now, what makes for a great, engrossing horror book is quite different to what makes a great, engrossing film- books and film are entirely different media and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other, in just the same way as some things that work in a Marvel comic just don’t in a Marvel movie. The Pet Sematary film would be just perfectly fine without Victor Pascow’s ghost, persistent ghoul that he is, dropping in with regular ghostly warnings, or daughter Ellie’s own warning nightmares- it’s all quite unnecessary and threatens to tip the film into parody (it’s just a pity Ellie didn’t warn daddy not to buy the house in the first place). In the book I’m sure it’s all harmless and part of the creepy fun (it’s been a long, long time since I read the novel- well before I saw the film*) but in the film it’s just a little too much on the nose, more subtlety would have been preferable to me and helped avoid the film tipping into the fantastic. Also, does Rachel really need the hokey subplot about her deformed sister Zelda and the guilt over her death complicating things even further? Fans of King likely differ from my opinion, feeling that the film is more authentic as a King film, but it reminds me of King’s disdain for Kubrick’s The Shining, which works brilliantly as a horror film in its own right but differs from King’s source novel. Kubrick knew what worked in film, and must have struggled with some of King’s material- the film has a life all its own, as it stands, but is not by any means Stephen King’s The Shining- its really Kubricks, and that’s how it should be.

Coming back to this film after near thirty years and being older (maybe wiser) I must say, I was surprised just how thoroughly nasty and unnerving Pet Sematary is. The central premise- childhood experience of death, mortality and the overwhelming parents grief from losing a child and the almost blasphemous, Frankenstein-like horror of bringing loved ones back from the dead- it’s quite heady stuff and genuinely unsettling. King’s excess in having scary dead sisters, friendly ghosts offering dire warnings and chummy old men with dark secrets they just can’t keep to themselves just threatens to overload what should be a chilling and very personal horror. Its a relentlessly morbid film, for all its faults, and as far as horror films go, I find that oddly rewarding.

What really doesn’t help the film is some of the casting- both Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, pretty as they are, are pretty dire, hopelessly wooden and not helped by sharing a shocking lack of chemistry while they try to carry off some of King’s dialogue and plot twists. Its almost hilarious how they are completely out-acted by then-two year old child actor Miko Hughes as their unfortunate son, Cage. He’s cute, charming and natural in ways that Midkiff and Crosby simply aren’t. To be fair to them, they would likely have benefitted without the film’s insistence of them having ghostly visitors and guilty childhood baggage.

Pet Sematary reminds me that Stephen King’s work exists in a world all of its own- hugely popular as his books may be, most of the time the situations and characters have no similarities to how real people would behave. I guess he can get away with it in books but in film, I really think he’s pushing it, and that’s where this film suffers for me. Sure, have a young family suffer a terrible tragedy and yes, let the grief and terror push them into trying to beat death and nature to a horrible end, but don’t chuck in the horror equivalents of the kitchen sink regards ghosts and nightmares and deformed sisters etc. In just the same ways as dead is sometimes better, so less is often more.

*I was a huge fan of King’s books back in the day, but over the years his prolific nature (and lack of a decent editor) meant I simply couldn’t keep up, and haven’t read much of his work for some years.