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 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).

Five lessons from Deep Impact

deepLesson One: Someone should take Hollywood to task for its depictions of Presidents. They keep putting the likes of Harrison Ford or (in this case) Morgan Freeman up as idealistic Presidents and its as far from cynical corrupt politicians, liars and Orange Men as its possible to get. Freeman comes across as so earnestly honourable in this, its excruciating. Imagine what 2020 would have been like with a President like this in charge. But yeah, Hollywood needs to get Real, this kind of unrealistic portrayal of what a President could and should be does nobody any favours. Donald Pleasance still remains my favourite and most realistic President in any movie, I don’t think anybody comes close (but if you can think of one, enlighten me in the comments).

Lesson Two: You never appreciate what you’ve got until its gone, and yeah, hearing a James Horner score in a film these days is just really sad. Sure, this wasn’t one of his best scores, although its certainly no slouch (which reminds me, I have it on a CD somewhere). Its just perhaps too sentimental and overpowering, as if Horner knew the film was lacking some level of energy that he thought his score could provide, but instead teeters on the brink of melodrama. That said, I repeat its just so sad to hear a Horner score in a film – its just a bitter reminder of what we’ve lost. While so many Horner scores sounded so alike at times (and yeah, with Deep Impact you hear the routine Horner-isms that haunted his later career), now that he’s gone, even those familiar motifs and sounds suddenly seem all the rarer. I felt just the same way about Jerry Goldsmiths score for Gremlins when I watched it in 4K a week or so ago (Gremlins is a GREAT Christmas movie)- movies aren’t what they used to be now that we’ve lost such great film composers.

Lesson Three: Well its definitely Christmas, because with this I’ve watched a film on commercial television, and wow, its so Old School. Its like I’ve flashed back twenty- thirty years. It seems every 15 – 20 mins the film just stops (and at the oddest places, too) for a commercial break, just killing any involvement in the film. What a bizarre way to watch movies, but yeah, thirty years or more (okay, its more, I’m older than I like to think) ago this was the way we used to watch movies, unless we were lucky enough to catch it on the Beeb. Mind, back then everything was pan and scan, at least these days they broadcast films in widescreen, even if they are ripped to pieces by deodorant, car, washing powder and perfume commercials.

Lesson Four: For about twenty minutes I thought it was Dr Zhivago playing Tea Leoni’s father until it dawned on me that it was that crazy scientist from The Black Hole. Sometimes I’m some kind of idiot.

Lesson Five: Deep Impact‘s credentials as an Apocalypse movie are utterly undermined by the fact that it at no point portrays scumbags hoarding toilet rolls. 2020 has taught us a lot about how Joe Public behaves facing the End of the World and all these Apocalypse movies have been totally found wanting. I look forward to the next Apocalypse Movie coming out (well just as soon as any Studio has the nerve) and putting it to the 2020 Covid test of authenticity.

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.

Prince of Darkness 4K UHD

pdark1.jpgI’m always a little wary revisiting old favourites. I’m pleased to say that John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which I haven’t actually seen since back in the DVD days, holds up very well today. I thoroughly enjoyed the film from start to finish- harking back to Hammer’s classic Quatermass & The Pit this is a thought-provoking, intelligent horror film full of ideas. Okay, as a horror film, it may suffer a little from lack of genuine scares and perhaps a budget a little too short for its lofty ideas (this is a film, after all, that was made for a paltry $3 million), but it really does feel fresh and interesting. As with They Live a few days ago, its such a pleasure watching a great John Carpenter movie.

And it does look lovely in 4K- better than I ever saw it before infact, although admittedly the last time I saw it was on DVD, as we never got a Blu-ray release over here. Honestly its been so many years since I saw this at the cinema back in 1987 there is no way I can compare this to its theatrical presentation, but I can’t imagine it was any better than this. Detail is excellent, really impressive, the colours are vibrant and even the night scenes hold up well- when they do suffer from crushed blacks its obviously inherent in the source and the original photography.  It really looks gorgeous and I am thrilled to have this film in 4K.

One of the chief pleasures watching this film again, was of course its great cast of b-movie actors- and I say that with some affection. These thespians (other than the great Donald Pleasence) were never destined to be superstars of the screen but several have links to some of Carpenter’s other films- familiar faces from other favourite films are always endearing and a pleasure to see. As well as seeing Pleasence again (Halloween & Escape From New York),  there are Victor Wong and Dennis Dun (both from Big Trouble in Little China), and Peter Jason (They Live, Village of the Damned and other Carpenter flicks).

However, I was struck again by the great performance of Lisa Blount as the female lead (and ultimate hero of the film albeit with a terrible fate- that last shot of her always fills me with horror) and I wondered at how she never became a bigger star. Looking her up on IMDB I sadly learned that she had passed away back in 2010 at the age of just 53. Not for the first time I am struck by sobering reality when looking up someone from an older film on IMDB to see they have passed, a life summarized by a brief bio and filmography. Its a perspective I don’t really like and it makes me increasingly reticent to look people up on IMDB.  It left a bit of a shade upon my experience of rewatching this great movie.

I would not suggest that Prince of Darkness is a perfect film- far from it. It never really lives up to the promise inferred by its great nine-minute title sequence and it does noticeably sag towards the end as the characters sort of do nothing at all while the film waits for night to fall again. The ending doesn’t really have the impact it should but the coda  with its cheeky scare has a truly chilling final shot that infers all sorts of grim horror to follow in the viewers imagination- a great thing for a horror movie to do. Indeed, this film has always been a favourite of mine chiefly from all the ideas behind it, all the concepts going on that linger in the mind afterwards, rather than anything particularly in the film, strangely. Not all films do this.

The film has an absolutely perfect score that has always been a favourite of mine (I originally had the soundtrack on audio cassette that says everything about the age of the film, funnily enough) and I really do rate the film as being one of Carpenter’s very best. In my book, there’s The Thing, Escape From New York, They Live and Prince of Darkness.. but then again, Big Trouble in Little China is no slouch, and I love In the Mouth of Madness‘ Lovecraft vibe and The Fog is a lovely old-fashioned ghost story and.. yeah, well, this is why lists are so useless- Carpenter may have made a few duds late on but he made some great films.

Anyway, this film with They Live really has me hoping for the best with the release of Escape From New York on 4K UHD later this month.

 

John Carpenter October film..?

hall2Halloween (1978) – Blu-ray.

Well, October’s a fairly topical month to be watching horror films, and if you are going to watch a John Carpenter film in October, then odds are it’s going to be Halloween. Fortunately I had a copy of the blu-ray 35th anniversary steelbook sitting on my shelf in the unwatched pile, so not only did it tick off another October horror movie but it also got that infamous pile down by one.

There’s not much to be said about Halloween, its surely all been said already. Separated from its iconic status over the years and its franchise of endless sequels and reboots (which beyond Halloween 3 I have never watched), the 1978 film remains a great little horror movie. Its a small, lovingly-crafted, nicely acted, wonderfully scored horror film. Like Alien and Jaws, it’s a great film that begat many (often inferior) sequels but remains perfect all in itself. Its a lesson in tension and the implied threat of violence- indeed, in gore/violence terms it’s a very restrained film, and its also a masterclass in using the widescreen frame in its shots. Carpenters films -particularly his early ones- are beautifully composed, he really knew how to use the widescreen frame.

hall1Donald Pleasence- isn’t he wonderful in this? He was always a great talent that graced genre films like THX 1138 and Escape From New York, and channeled all sorts of Peter Cushing vibes in this, perhaps his most famous role as Dr Sam Loomis. He was the kind of actor we seldom see these days, but his twitchy, nervous bald Everyman convinced he’s hunting the Devil Incarnate (and who’s to say he isn’t?) is a joy here as he is in most everything, really. I miss him, and as with Peter Cushing, with his passing we as film-fans suffered a major loss that grows more pressing as the years pass.

One thing I will note regards this 35th Anniversary disc -and I don’t know if this appears on the films many other home editions- is a great little documentary, The Night She Came Home, which features Jamie Lee Curtis attending a Halloween/horror convention and spending a weekend meeting and greeting fans, the proceeds going to a hospital charity.  Apparently she distanced herself from horror fans and the Halloween fanbase for some years so her attendance here is a rare event and warranted this video record. Its a nice doc. I quite like this kind of thing, related to the film on the disc but not restricted to being a making-of talking heads piece, rather it’s a fly-on-the-wall look at the event, the actress, the fans who share their stories regards love of the film etc, and we see other actors and behind the camera staff from the film series. Its not often I really bother with extra features on discs these days (much to my shame) but this was a nice one that sucked me in immediately after watching the film.

 

 

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