The 2021 List: July

There goes July- the past few weeks have been rough at work due to sickness and leave, both within the office and nationally as a business ‘out in the field’ so I’ve been neglecting my blog somewhat (what do you mean, you didn’t notice?). Must try and fix that, and I’m wary of a backlog of reviews piling up, even if I’m struggling to find time/energy to actually watch anything.

So what have I been watching? Well, other than what is on the list below, I have been re-watching some old discs/films, some connected to films on the list below. Watching Herbert Lom in Hammer’s version of The Phantom of the Opera got me watching the Indicator disc of Mysterious Island that I’d bought a few months back (in which Lom plays a very impressive Captain Nemo), and seeing the lovely Barbara Shelley in The Shadow of the Cat resulted in me bringing down Indicator’s first Hammer box from a few years ago and watching The Gorgon again. There’s something both familiar, comforting and sometimes revelatory about returning to films having not seen them in awhile, and I’m kicking myself for not at least dropping a paragraph or two here regards those two in  particular. I’ve also been trying to watch Arrows 4K disc of True Romance that came out a few weeks back but the time never feels right or I’m just too damn tired to give it the attention it deserves. I was one of the few that saw it back during its first theatrical run and have always loved it, so watching it in 4K is something I’m really looking forward to.

While there were a few clunkers in July, I did watch some particularly fine films, notably The Killers and Criss Cross, two astonishingly fine film noir. The first led me to the second, and I love that about films, how one can lead to another, some being fresh discoveries of films I’d never heard of before. Amazingly, I’m of a mind that Criss Cross may actually be a better film than The Killers, even though the former clearly had more impressive visual ‘noir’ flourishes, there seemed something more complete and efficient regards Criss Cross, a film that quite took my breath away, it seemed so perfectly formed. I really must work on a review of that film.

Lately I’ve been watching the German epic series Babylon Berlin, which has been on my watchlist for a long time now and will get a review in August when I’ve completed the first sixteen episodes (confusingly, they were ‘sold’ to foreign markets as two seasons of eight episodes each but I understand that in Germany it was one run of sixteen). Its astonishingly good, up there with the very best shows I’ve seen like The Wire etc (yep its THAT good). Its depiction of 1929 Berlin, during the last years of the Weimer Republic is so vivid, there’s a tactile feel to it which is almost quite horrifying. I’ve often said here that good period dramas are almost like science fiction, positing worlds as alien to us as anything envisaged for the future. I think that’s quite true of something like Babylon Berlin, which is not just depicting a world of a century ago, but one quite foreign as regards culture and politics (its really quite mystifying, but fascinatingly so).

Television

79) Superstore Season Four

86) Ratched Season One

Films

77) The Tomorrow War (2021)

78) The Killers (1946)

80) The Shadow of the Cat (1961)

81) The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

82) Nightmare (1964)

83) Synchronic (2019)

84) Saint Maud (2019)

85) Fast & the Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

87) The Sting (1973)

88) Between Midnight and Dawn (1950)

89) Chernobyl 1986 (2021)

90) Blood Red Sky (2021)

91) Criss Cross (1949)

The Shadow of the Cat (1961)

shadowindicatorThe Shadow of the Cat (part of Indicator’s recent Hammer Vol.6 set) is certainly low-rank Hammer- indeed there seems to have been much debate over the years regards whether it really qualifies as a Hammer film at all, as the film is billed as a BHP Production in the credits, and the project originated in a script from a seperate production company before Hammer came in. Regards the former point and its credits, that seems to have been due to a deal with Columbia Pictures at the time, a deal which, as The Shadow of the Cat was a second film with Universal that year (the other being The Curse of the Werewolf), was likely infringed and which Hammer chose to disguise posing it as a BHP Picture. In any case, its true enough that The Shadow of the Cat doesn’t entirely feel a genuine Hammer horror picture, certainly of the time- when Hammer’s films were lurid gothic horrors this one was a tamer affair, filmed in black and white and less, well, rock and roll. 

With a certain nod to Poe thrown in, even in 1961 The Shadow of the Cat would have seemed an old-fashioned gothic yarn with a silly premise (a cat witnesses the murder of her mistress and sets out on feline revenge). Barbara Shelley herself seemed to dismiss the film as something of a failure, citing revisions to the original script when Hammer took over the production ruining what made it special. Originally it was a more of an intellectual, atmospheric tale, with the vengeful cat largely unseen (hence the ‘Shadow’ of the title) and possibly more the guilty consciences of the murderers driving them mad and to ill ends than literally a pissed-off tabby doing them in.

Certainly its another one of those films in which you feel Shelley is largely wasted and rather slumming in a sub-par horror. I don’t know what it was about Shelley; a strikingly beautiful and elegant actress at the time, most of the Hammer films she was in seemed beneath her, and the scripts largely wasted her talent, but then again, I guess this was symptomatic of the sexual politics in films at the time, not just those of Hammer. Actresses had it rough back then. There was a tendency for the women to defer to the male characters, be subservient to them and just be sexy window-dressing. Mind, Shelley was hardly the kind of lady to go all Ripley on the cads who murdered her aunt.

Running at a brisk 79 minutes, this hardly outstays its welcome- there is after all a certain charm in its gothic old-house sensibilities, what with the moody shadows and décor and adults shrieking at the sight of a cat. Its a nice, old-fashioned black & white horror film that surely never scared anybody, but is plenty of fun with its superior cast (all this is really missing is Peter Cushing chewing up the scenery). That’s the weird thing about film- there’s al kinds; daft, serious, gritty, noir, slapstick, romantic, tragic, happy… it takes all kinds of film to make the world turn.

Some connections:

Barbara Shelley also starred in Deadly Record, Blood of the Vampire, The Camp on Blood Island, and Dracula Prince of Darkness

Andre Morell also appeared in Cash on Demand, Quatermass & the Pit (BBC serial) and The Camp on Blood Island

Director John Gilling also directed The Pirates of Blood River and The Scarlet Blade.

 

Remembering Two Hammer Stars

inham6I received Indicator’s sixth Hammer volume yesterday- as usual its a lovingly-crafted set, this time with a novelty: a nice piece of humour inside regards it utilising dual-disc cases because single-disc cases were in short supply during production – a disc-shaped card sits in the spare hub with a spiralling text of explanation… brought a smile to my face anyway.

Reviews of the actual films will come later but I just wanted to comment here about two featurettes on the discs. On Captain Clegg there is a featurette about Peter Cushing which obviously caught my attention and got a play as soon as spare time arose. Yeah, if nothing else qualifies me as a film geek, its having my attention drawn to featurettes/extras over and above the films themselves. In any case, its a lovely half-hour documentary, mostly appreciations from some actors/backroom staff who worked with him and accompanied by a few words from Cushing himself sourced from a lengthy 1986 audio interview. It transpires that this audio interview forms the basis of a seperate documentary film about Peter Cushing (Peter Cushing: In HIs Own Voice, by Richard Edwards) that was released last year, and which I’d never heard of, which has me scurrying off to a digital purchase on Amazon Prime.

The second featurette I wanted to mention was on the The Shadow of The Cat disc, which was an interview with the wonderful actress Barbara Shelley, possibly the most famous/popular Hammer actress who featured in eight Hammer films (and some of their best) and alongside Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee she is one of my favourite Hammer thespians. Sadly Shelley passed away in January this year, having caught the Covid virus during an hospital stay in December: I remember being especially saddened reading of her passing at the time because of the horrible Covid factor; they were dark times indeed. Shelley was 88, and this interview filmed in 2020 shows her very fragile physically: alarmingly so, really, and I was initially quite shocked both by her appearance and that the film-makers troubled her for an interview when she was clearly so frail. My concerns were alleviated somewhat by noting how sharp and alert she was mentally- she had her wits even if she looks very ill, and I gather from what she said that she appreciated the interest in her work at Hammer and beyond. There are many actors who retire and would no doubt prefer to be remembered as they were during their heyday, and that’s understandable and their right- indeed nothing can be quite so concerning as seeing a film hero of old looking so aged and worn and… human, I guess. Some actors of course turn to cosmetic surgery to alleviate the natural ravages of time (and often this can actually work against the original intent when a 80-year old has the plastic face of a thirty-year old).

But Barbara Shelly certainly had her wits, bless her, and that sultry, earthy voice still lingered in her speech, albeit weakened by time. Its a lovely interview summing up her career and something of a final testament, but it is a rather harrowing experience and I’m still in two minds about it. But she no doubt agreed to it and relished the opportunity, so who am I to argue?

Both featurettes do brilliantly stand as examples of why physical releases of films remain so important and so valid. Streaming services don’t really have much interest in such old films as these and even if they did, they certainly wouldn’t have any compunction to add supporting documentaries or commentaries as these discs do. Without releases such as this we would not see these appreciations of Cushing or see one final interview with the legendary Shelley: in my mind, this is already one of those cases where the extras are worth the price of admission alone.

Deadly Record (1959)

deadly1Deadly Record is absolutely a supporting feature- back when films were distributed as double-features, the secondary film would be a less-popular, lower budget b-movie usually made cheaply simply for the purpose of being the lesser half of the double-bill, and Deadly Record is absolutely that kind of movie. Indeed, its difficult to really describe it as a movie at all -although it undoubtedly is-  as the film runs barely 58 mins long and in the US actually wound up as an episode of a television anthology show titled Kraft Mystery Theatre

Canadian actor Lee Patterson plays airline pilot Trevor Hamilton who is accused of the murder of his wife and sets out to clear his name by finding out who actually did it. The films only notable feature is that it co-stars the great Barbara Shelley as a family friend/work colleague who helps Hamilton to unravel the mystery. The shortness of the film really cuts out any character beats or time to really raise any dramatic stakes, its all very quick and pulpish, really. A longer film might have worked up some film noir tropes but Deadly Record really doesn’t have the running time or resources. Which is a little odd, because the film does have an imaginative and rather successful title sequence, in which the main credits are the handwritten entries on the  pages of a diary being turned by hand in-front of the camera. It suggests a better film is about to follow but, er, it really doesn’t. Patterson is fairly wooden and Shelley has little to do but fawn over him. A pretty forgettable effort, really, but one suspects there really wasn’t much ambition for it to be anything else, and at least at just 58 minutes long it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Blood of the Vampire (1958)

blood2This is really something of a curio- it has the look and feel of Hammer, featuring a Jimmy Sangster script and Barbara Shelley in the cast, but it isn’t a Hammer at all. I can only imagine it was a quick cash-in, maybe, following the success of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein the year before, with Hammer imminently bringing its own Vampire horror to the screen in 1958’s Dracula (since both films came out in 1958, I can’t imagine that Blood of the Vampire was a cash-in on Dracula‘s huge success, but you never know, films got made fast and cheap in those days).

Indeed, now that I think about it, the title is rather misleading, because the villain of the film is a scientist in the vein (sic) of Frankenstein rather than a blood-sucking vampire -there’s certainly no fangs on offer here, which suggests it was indeed based upon The Curse of Frankenstein‘s success with just a canny allusion in the title to a certain vampire movie. Its actually something that proves rather disorientating, and pleasantly so, as it leads the film to subvert expectations. Donald Wolfit,  a kind of ‘Bela Lugosi that can act’,  is great as the mad scientist Callistratus whose experiments have caused him to become a sort of living vampire, his character a peculiar combination of very polite and ruthless in his quest for a cure (hints there of The Invisible Man, too). The film is done few favours with Callistratus’ henchman hunchback Carl (Victor Maddern buried under poor make-up), a character that threatens to plunge the film into farce although I suppose it suggests Sangster was perhaps affectionately nodding towards Universal’s b&w horrors past. I suppose considering that the film is caught between Universals old b&w classic horrors of a then-few decades before and the hugely ‘modern’ rock-and-roll horrors about to come from Hammer, it strikes an oddly cute kind of horror atmosphere.

blood1On the whole its a pretty good film, making a great Friday Night Fright flick- the cast are much better than the script or film really deserves (Shelley in particular is clearly above this sort of nonsense, but both Wolfit and Vincent Ball who plays John Pierre, the nominal protagonist of the film, are very good). It does a very fine job of mimicking Hammer’s gothic horrors (one could be forgiven for thinking it was indeed a Hammer), with pretty solid production qualities suggesting the film had some ambitions- minus one unintentionally hilarious miniature shot that seems to have been taken at a tourist model village (certainly the matte painting shots are no worse than Hammer’s were at the time, and some interior matte’s interestingly extend some sets). I gather the print I watched on Talking Pictures was a UK copy, as the film was subjected to considerable BBFC cuts on its release that never seem to have been restored over here (the US has a slightly stronger cut, which itself apparently lacks some shots still deemed too shocking), but even so the film is pretty strong in places considering how old it is and the draconian censorship codes of the time. A film such as this is never going to get a restoration and I’m sure any cut sequences/shots are long since destroyed, but the film was kind of fun in a lazy, undemanding old-fashioned shocks kind of way, and any Hammer fans unfamiliar with it, like myself, might get a kick out of it.

The Camp on Blood Island (1958)

camp1The third and latest boxset of Hammer films from the superlative label Indicator has arrived- subtitled ‘Blood and Terror’ it comprises of four racially-charged war and horror films. I haven’t seen any of these films before and will kick things off with the first title in the set – The Camp on Blood Island.

I found it difficult to watch The Camp on Blood Island without considering how politically-correct the world is now- this film just could not get made today, and even back in 1958 critics were appalled by this films depiction of Japanese soldiers as monsters and sadists, and the casting of mostly white actors in rather odd make-up as these Japanese fiends only compounded the sense of exploitation and unfairness. From the perspective of sixty years later, however, it is so unlike anything else it actually almost seems refreshingly bad taste and rather unique. Japanese POW films today (The Railway Man or Unbroken spring to mind) can be unrelentingly brutal and indeed more graphic than their 1958 predecessor, but they also have to be balanced and respectful to both sides of the war with a fair account. Not so this Hammer film, and its so unapologetic that its quite astonishing.

camp2I suppose as its a Hammer film it could actually be considered as much a horror film as a war film. There is no Geneva Convention being observed by the Japanese devils of Blood Island- Colditz and Stalag 17 are like holiday camps compared to the horrors inflicted upon the British POWS here. The film opens with a prisoner digging his own grave and being summarily executed by  gleeful Japanese in front of the assembled prisoners. Their mail is burnt in front of them and hostages taken and beheaded as punishment for subsequent escape attempts. One emaciated escapee makes a break to the women’s camp to see his wife one last time, and is killed by machine-gun fire before her very eyes, the Japanese soldier laughing as he shoots, the wife (played with customary style by the great Barbara Shelley) reacting in total horror.

What makes the film so watchable is a twist that is quite fascinating. The prisoners on Blood Island are led by Colonel Lambert (Andre Morell, excellent as ever as he somehow makes even the most implausible seem ordinary), who knows from a radio that the prisoners have rigged up, that the war is actually over. Unfortunately for them, the prison commander, Yamamitsu (Ronald Radd), has a history of war-crimes to his name with nothing to lose, and has already boasted to Lambert that if/when the Japanese lose the war, he will slaughter all the prisoners in the camp, and also all the women prisoners held in the other camp across the island. Keeping the secret of the wars end to just his closest officers, Lambert has instigated a series of escape attempts to try get word of their plight to the outside world, and repeated sabotaging of the Japanese radio equipment to keep Yamamitsu in the dark – but these efforts have resulted in bloody reprisals on the prisoners who have become wary of Lambert’s actions.

camp3Considering the boys-own adventure war films of its era, such as those that starred John Wayne, The Camp on Blood Island is surprisingly dark, brutal and indeed nihilistic. When all seems lost at the films finale, Lambert leads a violent last-ditch escape that results in himself blowing up one of his own officers by mistake, and the wasted deaths of many of his men during the battle, just prior to Allied forces arriving to save them having been contacted by one of the successful escapees. Its a dark and rather sober conclusion to a film of much misery and suffering and, yes, extreme sadism by monstrous Japanese. The whole thing is utterly fascinating and so utterly non-politically correct that it is remarkable indeed and the opportunity to actually see the film (it hasn’t been screened on British television since 1979, for perhaps obvious reasons) is something to savour. While there are obvious issues with the films approach and its sensibilities I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it surprisingly challenging and well-made considering its era and low-budget. There was clearly much more to Hammer than the gothic horrors it became so famous for and I can only commend Indicator for this excellent release.