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This 20th Century Fox DVD can be bought for about £4 on amazon.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was an unexpected hit for director Robert Aldrich and stars Bette David and Joan Crawford. It sparked a run of horrific melodramas in which ageing Hollywood divas went mad in films they would once have turned their noses up at. Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964; got to love a film title with too much punctuation) was the first follow-up to Baby Jane, and aimed to reunite its cast and director. Unfortunately, something went wrong, and Crawford left the film after only a week or so. Olivia de Havilland was hastily drafted in to replace her.
It's all set in Louisiana, on the estate of Sam Hollis, a larger-than-life Southern landowner (it's not clear exactly what he did to earn his great wealth). His daughter, Charlotte, has an affair with a married man, John Jewel. John is murdered on the night he and Charlotte were to elope. Forty-odd years later, Charlotte still lives in the decaying mansion, the subject of fevered local gossip. Her house is scheduled for demolition to make way for a bridge, and her cousin Miriam arrives to support her. But all is not as it seems, and there are plenty of plot twists along the way.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fragile spinster in possession of a good fortune must be in danger of being driven mad by her grasping relatives. But while the basic plot is easy enough to guess at, the way it takes to get to its conclusion is surprising and clever and contains some genuine surprises. This is a satisfying slice of Southern Gothic, which is acted to the hilt by its excellent cast.
It is dominated by Bette Davis's frankly astounding performance as Charlotte. She goes brilliantly crazy, and is the main reason to want to see the film. I'm not a huge fan of Davis generally, but here she delivers a masterclass in camp overacting that it's impossible not to enjoy. She's a petulant teenager in a 60-year-old's body, with grotesque makeup and crazy hair. It's kind of sad to see her reduced to this sort of overacting - she'd been a major star in her day, and had fought long and hard to gain control of her own career - but she gives it her all. Occasionally she's a bit annoying; there's a great bit where someone slaps her repeatedly to stop her being so hysterical, with which I suspect most of the audience will be able to sympathise. But even iof we can't necessarily identify with the character, we can surely enjoy the acting.
Not that she's by herself. Olivia de Havilland is good as the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing cousin. Crawford would have been better, though; she and Davis seriously disliked each other, which is probably what gives Baby Jane such a frisson. Joseph Cotton offers good support as a local doctor, although he's having a little too much fun with his accent.
Agnes Moorhead, probably best known these days for playing Citizen Kane's mother, is great as the cantankerous servant Velma. She's overacting too, but in a good way, and was Oscar nominated for her trouble. Mary Astor, from the Maltese Falcon among other things, is also on hand. Cecil Kellaway has the potentially thankless part of the guy who has to sort it out - more of a plot function than a character - but brings immense charm to it.
Even the small parts are well filled. Victor Buono - a huge actor - plays Bette's dad in the lengthy pre-credits 1920s sequence. Buono was also in Baby Jane. Bruce Dern plays the doomed lover in the same sequence (he also played a doomed lover in a neurotic woman's flashback in Hitchcock's Marnie the same year). And a young-looking George Kennedy appears briefly.
It's really gothic melodrama, but a few touches are obviously intended to make it marketable as a horror film. The fact that poor old Bruce Dern is decapitated and his hand cut off allow for some macabre urban myths and the film's one real gore moment (which I assume is what earns it its 15 certificate). There are a few other horrific elements, including one shot probably nicked from Les Diaboliques.
It's also quite suspenseful. Early on we see a local kid invade Charlotte's mansion on a dare in a genuinely nerve-racking sequence (with a great make-you-jump moment). Later there are some tense moments as Velma tries to rescue her endangered employer. The film is well directed by Aldrich, a master of Hollywood genre films that were just well made and expensive enough to avoid the exploitation tag. It was a surprise that the film was in black and white (the DVD cover has colour photos of the main character), but that gives it an appropriate atmosphere.
The music is perhaps a bit overwrought. There's one main melody that is played over and over, a song that John Jewel wrote for Charlotte that he had made into a music box for her. (Was that a normal part of courting in the 1920s?) It has lyrics, too - the version played over the closing credits is sung by Al Martino (who had the first ever UK number one, fact fans). It never really sounds like it was written in the 20s, but I guess that doesn't matter too much.
The music is a bit irritating, but probably the main problem with the film is that it's too long. It's just over two hours, and it doesn't quite manage to sustain itself for that length. The last few minutes, where characters explain what we've already been shown, could certainly have been trimmed, and there are other bits, where it hammers home things we've already picked up on, that weaken the film generally.
But overall, this is top notch trash cinema. The story is tacky and tricky, the acting is over the top, and it's all held together well by the director. If it were shorter, it would be a minor masterpiece. The DVD has decent enough picture quality. The only extra is a trailer that focuses on the film's cast - and why wouldn't you? But it's so cheap I don't see how it can not be worth a look.
A film-only review. This can be imported ion DVD from amazon for less than a fiver.
When one film is a big success in Hollywood, a lot of other films that are just like it are rushed into production, usually by the likes of exploitation producer Roger Corman. When Jaws proved to be the biggest hit ever, it naturally sent rival film studios into a feeding frenzy (ha ha, do you see what I did there?) and plenty of less effective aquatic adventures followed. Perhaps the most reviled of all of them is Orca The Killer Whale (1977), the fishy stench of which hangs over the careers of all involved.
A boisterous Irish fisherman, Nolan, is out hunting sharks one day when he encounters some killer whales - he was apparently unaware of the existence of such animals before this incident. He hooks up with lady whale-ologist Charlotte Rampling, who warns him of dire consequences if he messes with forces he doesn't understand. Nolan doesn't listen, and his attempts to capture a male killer whale end in the accidental death of the whale's pregnant mate. Killer whales mate for life, we're told, and now there's one super-angry male whale out for revenge.
So it's Jaws meets the 70s revenge of nature subgenre. I guess that could work, under some circumstances. It doesn't, though. The beauty of Jaws is its economy. It's just a big old fish that goes around eating people because it's hungry. There are no stupid attempts to paint the shark as the victim of man (the most dangerous animal, let's not forget) nor to give it a spurious personality. Orca, on the other hand, tries to make us have sympathy for its fishy protagonist (yeah yeah, whales aren't fish, like I care) while still being scared of him.
He is one smart cookie, it must be said. As well as smashing boats like nobody's business, and occasionally eating people, Orca manages to start a fire that blows up quite an impressive building; tear a house down; and mobilise the local fishing union against Nolan (I'm not kidding; Orca's innate understanding of the rough edge of Union politics makes Len McCluskey look like an idiot. Oh, wait...) Charlotte Rampling gives a great lecture on killer whales at the start of the film. They're much smarter than humans, it turns out. She claims that 'computers' have calculated that their song contains '15 million pieces of information'. The Bible, she says, only contains 4 million. This is obviously bollocks of the highest order. She also says that killer whales have an innate sense of vengeance to rival man's, thus setting up the idiotic central plot.
Nolan is played by Richard Harris, giving a dreadful, dreadful performance. Nolan is Irish; that's about all the personality he gets, and Harris wastes no opportunity to wheel out the jaysus chroist mannerisms. He's apparently barely literate, but I guess is supposed to have a kind of fractured nobility about him. Enough, anyway, to get Charlotte Rampling interested. The film gives us plenty of close-ups of Harris's face looking windswept, which are bad enough. His costumes are even worse. He mostly wears a tatty old cardigan and a shabby Donovan cap. His performance is ridiculous, but it's difficult to see how any actor could do well with the part, and Harris was notoriously down on his luck at the time. The attempts at making him and orca two sides of the same coin are misconceived in the extreme. And the Captain Ahab shtick the film tries to lay on towards the end falls flat for all the reasons you'd expect (basically, a lack of epic scope, an anti-hero you can't care about, and the fact killer whales are actually quite cute).
There are other characters, but it's impossible to remember their names. Charlotte Rampling is the whale expert. She didn't have much luck with films either, I guess. The Night Porter's not bad if you like that kind of thing, but she's also in Zardoz, and it takes a lot to make a chap forget that. Will Sampson (the native American from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) turns up offering Native American wisdom about killer whales (although it's odd that at no point do either he or Rampling make the obvious suggestion to Nolan: 'move somewhere away from the sea, you big idiot!')
One of the Carradine brothers is in it, and Keenan Wynn plays a sailor who looks a bit like Mick Fleetwood. Bo Derek is also present, a few years before she became a sex symbol. She makes very little impact, sadly. The film itself is a PG, so neither Derek nor Rampling are required to strip off, and most of the killings are fairly bloodless.
Except for the death of orca's mate, which is bloody and quite nasty. They've obviously not killed any real whales in the making of the film (well, I say obviously. I assume they haven't). There are some stunningly poor special effects in which killer whales are seen leaping out of the water which were obviously filmed in somewhere like Seaworld and superimposed badly onto footage of the sea. So if the documentary Blackfin is to be believed, it's possible that whales were mistreated in some respect in the making of the film. There are much better reasons not to see it, though.
There are other terrible special effects, such as the very obvious model shots whenever anything substantial (like houses) get destroyed, but at least they're kind of fun. There's also a lot of tedious footage of killer whales swimming around happily together, like some kind of utopian sea hippies. The film really tries to sell the idea that they're noble and essentially benevolent (er, hello? You think they're called 'killer whales' for nothing?) I guess this is meant to make the film seem different to Jaws (the first thing we see a killer whale do is kill a shark - pointless one-upmanship that just goes to remind us how much better Jaws is). The close-ups of Orca's sad eyes are particularly stupid.
The music, but the legendary Ennio Moricone, is a rancid mess. It's mawkish, which kind of goes with the film I guess. The only good bit in the soundtrack is a rather nice organ piece that plays for a few seconds as Nolan is sailing out for his final confrontation with the whale. That sounds like it could have been composed for one of Morricone's classic giallo soundtracks.
There really isn't a lot going for this. I guess there's some quite nice underwater footage, but it's all of killer whales not killing things, so is a bit of a waste of time. There are better ways to spend an hour and a half.
A film-only review. A European DVD can be imported through amazon for more than £10 (but it's cheaper if you buy direct from German amazon). There was a UK release, but it's out of print now and was probably cut.
This is quite a late film for one of the old Italian horror directors to have made. Italian horror had its day in the 60s and 70s, effectively burning out by about 1983. Of course the directors didn't all die or retire; but the films that appeared after the early 80s were generally not towering genre classics. Slasher films were very much the order of the day - they were cheap and fairly easy to make - and Body Count was made by Ruggero Deodato (the director of the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, a director capable of seriously repulsing audiences).
Director: Ruggero Deodato
More information at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090788/
IMDB user rating: 4.2
In a pre-credits sequence, two snogging teens are murdered in the woods, allegedly by an 'Indian shaman'. Years later, two groups of (I assume) students decide to stay at the campsite where the earlier crime happened. The adult son of the campsite owners is friendly, but his parents don't seem so keen on having the kids staying on their property. And of course the killings start again.
The kids, it must be said, are awful. They do all the things that kids in slasher movies are supposed to do - play stupid practical jokes, get naked, make out, wander off by themselves, and get killed. But they still irritated me intensely. There's a stupid assumption among slasher film directors that boneheaded 'fun-loving' teens will somehow make relatable protagonists for these films. The characters in Body Count are so interchangeable I genuinely couldn't remember the names of any of them ten minutes after the film ended. The only one who sticks in the mind is the irritating fat guy, who is obviously meant to remind us of John Belushi, but is barely of Jim Belushi standard (and the fact that he does a full frontal nude scene really doesn't help matters). The hero looks like a weird cross between Shane Warne, Kenny Dalglish and Seve Ballesteros, and is happy to muck around on a dirt bike and seduce one of the girls even after his best friend has been murdered - I don't know about the rest of you, but that's the kind of thing that would cast a pall over a holiday.
Apart from the kids, though, the cast is full of familiar faces from both Italian and American exploitation. The yanks are represented by Charles Napier, a huge-jawed Russ Meyer veteran, playing the adulterous sheriff; and by David Hess, the repulsive chief rapist in Last House on the Left. Hess has to age 20-odd years in the film (he's in the pre-credits prologue). Delightfully, he does so by having a few dyed grey tufts stuck onto his hair, in a very Marvel comics version of ageing. Both men are quite restrained by their usual standards.
I was happier to see the Italian stars. Mimsy Farmer (an American who worked in Italy) is Hess's wife. It's not one of her more committed performances, but it's nice to see her anyway. Brit John Steiner (camp star of such spaghetti exploitation films as Caligula, Sinbad of the Seven Seas and Deported Women of the SS Special Section) is cast in rather unlikely fashion as a rough-and-tumble country doctor. And once-dashing Ivan Rassimov, alumnus of a variety of cannibal and Black Emanuelle films, is old and puffy-faced as an extraneous cop. All three of these Italian horror veterans retired shortly afterwards, and there's a sense that they're having one last runaround before they hang up their acting shoes once and for all. This school reunion aspect is emphasised by the fact that Claudio Simonetti (formerly of Goblin) does the (pretty good) music.
The plot is incoherent rubbish. It's fundamentally a simple enough stalk-and-slash effort, but the nature of the baddie is confusing and the final reveal barely explained. The whole campsite is built on an Indian burial ground, which was a monumental cliché by this time. The film has some adult characters with soap opera style problems, rather than just the disposable carefree kids. This at least sets it apart slightly from other slasher films. But it's probably just aping Nightmare on Elm Street, which had a similar (but better) 'sins of the parents coming back to haunt the kids' vibe.
You'll guess the twist ending anyway, but you probably won't care. There are lots of stupid plot holes. The kids find an abandoned shower block, which has running hot water after having been abandoned for a decade, which struck me as probably the most unlikely thing in the film. Although there's a lot of nudity (mostly the girls, obviously), this is fairly restrained on the gore front (surprisingly for a director like Deodato). There's a disappointing lack of variety in the deaths.
Other sins include a very obvious use of a stunt double (whose hair is a completely different colour to that of the person he's meant to be); and a scene where we are promised that helicopters will be used to search the mountains, which is never even alluded to again. I like helicopters in films. After midgets, dinosaurs and lesbian vampires, they're one of my favourite things. I don't like a film that promises helicopters but doesn't deliver them.
John Steiner and Ivan Rassimov's characters never appear with any of the rest of the principle cast, and are obviously just being used for exposition purposes - they sit and discuss events in an office in what's meant to be a hospital but is clearly really a swimming pool. The worst thing about the film, though, is the editing. It's incoherent in the all-important stalk-and-slash scenes. At times it looks like the film is trying to fool us into thinking there are several killers, because it's so badly edited, and with such poor grasp of internal logic, that it seems like two separate murderers are stalking the same person.
Apart from the familiar exploitation cast members (none of whom is even remotely at their best), the only good thing here is the location. It was filmed in Colorado, and it looks lovely. It's a good, isolated slasher film location, but it's also a nice-looking place that would probably be quite cool to visit.
Slasher films aren't really my thing anyway, and the later films made by the Italian horror directors are almost always disappointing. This is, at least, better than Umberto Lenzi's US-based slasher film Nightmare Beach, and light years beyond Lucio Fulci's late work. But it's a fairly indifferent example of a subgenre that was all about conformity anyway. Not worth going out of your way for.
A film-only review. There was a British DVD of this, but it's out of print and now sells for £40. A German DVD, under the name Die Hexe des Grafen Dracula (odd name, as Dracula doesn't appear) can be had for about £10 on UK amazon, but much cheaper if you buy from German amazon.
This is a largely forgotten British horror movie from the era when British horror was reaching its zenith. It has a pretty decent pedigree, but is ultimately a rather drab affair livened up by a few moments of highly entertaining silliness.
Director: Vernon Sewell
Stars: Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee
More information at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062833/
IMDB user rating: 5.4
Antique dealer Robert Manning is disturbed by his brother's disappearance. He goes to visit the mansion his brother was last seen at, but the owner, Morley, claims never to have heard of Manning's brother. Manning becomes involved with Morley's sexy niece, and meets the suspicious Professor Marsh. And his dreams are soon haunted by a green-skinned witch called Lavinia.
This film has no right being as boring as it is, really. It was made by Tigon, the most varied and interesting of Hammer's rivals. And it has an amazing cast packed full of top horror talent: Boris Karloff (in his last British film), Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough are all in it. Unfortunately, Steele doesn't even appear with the other stars. Most multi-star horrors tend to be disappointing, and this is no exception.
The film's plot is confusing, not helped by the fact that an awful lot of crucial exposition is only introduced about a minute before the film ends. It was written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, a writing partnership who were also working on Dr Who at about the same time (they invented the Great Intelligence). The flaws in this script suggest that they should perhaps have stuck to kids' science fiction. (Lincoln later went on to co-author The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, and thus is responsible for an awful lot of conspiracy silliness).
The director, Vernon Sewell, made dozens of B-movies, including a few poor horror films (The Blood Beast Terror and Burke and Hare stand out as particularly vexatious). His direction isn't terrible, and he at least manages to find interesting ways to frame what we're seeing sometimes. The problem is that so much of what we see is crushingly banal. The decadent, crazy-youth party that Manning stumbles across at the beginning is an embarrassment, and doesn't have any of the silly humour of similar scenes in Dracula AD 1972. A woman pouring champagne over herself and two other woman daubing each other with paint do not an orgy make, I'm afraid, and everyone remains clothed throughout.
Where the film does briefly come alive is in the witchy dream sequences. Not because they're any good, but because they're so hilarious that they bring a certain amount of goodwill with them. Lavinia herself looks amazing - green skinned, with a golden ram's horn headdress (an image of her in this bizarre get-up was used as the basis of one of the old horror top trumps, although it toned down her cleavage). And her acolytes are wonderfully silly. There's the Guy in the Hood, the Guy with the Goat, the Woman with Big Boobs, Antler Guy, and the Woman with a Cock. (I meant poultry; get your mind out of the gutter.) Antler Guy is my favourite. He wears tiny leather pants and, well, antlers, like he's the world's silliest bondage enthusiast. I assume between them Lavinia's chums are supposed to be surreal and horrific, but they look like they'd be quite fun to have at a party.
Someone who most emphatically would not be fun to have at a party is Christopher Lee (in this film, anyway. I'm sure he's more fun in real life). Here he deploys his standard 'grumpy boots' style of acting - the way he behaved in most of his late 60s/early 70s horrors, since he was sick of the genre and felt it rather beneath him. He wears the same tweed jacket throughout and has a very nasty little moustache. The problem really is that his character is dull.
The same can be said for Professor Marsh, played with a bit more animation by Boris Karloff. The veteran star is confined to a wheelchair for most of the film (his mute attendant, Basil, is pretty funny). When he does stand up at one point it's obvious how frail he was. He caught pneumonia working on this film and didn't live much longer afterwards. It's always great to see him, but it feels a bit exploitative, wheeling him out to deliver some silly plot-heavy dialogue in a film so inferior to his best work.
Barbara Steele, British star of some of the best Italian horror of the 1960s, looks terrific as Lavinia, but only has a handful of scenes. The best performance comes from Michael Gough as the stammering, simple-minded butler. Gough was a good actor who generally went so far over the top in his horror roles that he left the audience under no illusions about what he thought of the films. Here he gives the one much-needed hammy performance among a bunch of actors who are unaccountably all playing it straight. I wouldn't say he gives a good performance, but at least he brings a bit of energy to proceedings.
Manning, the hero, is played by Mark Eden, a good actor but not a terribly compelling leading man. He doesn't have the kind of man-about-town handsomeness that the script needs - he looks like a spiv, and it's weird that he seems to be so irresistible to women. The niece is played by Virginia Wetherell, who is probably most famous now for being the topless woman Malcolm McDowell tries to grope after his conditioning in A Clockwork Orange. She gives the film it's only nude scene, and I guess isn't too bad an actor. The only other cast member I recognised was Rupert Davies, playing a vicar rather apathetically.
The plot is a bit silly (it actually resembles the kind of plot Italian horror films used - the return of a witch who was executed in the middle ages to wreak vengeance on the descendants of her persecutors was a staple of Italian horror). The dialogue doesn't do it many favours - there's a lot of talk about bodkins, and I've still no idea why Gough kept telling Manning to go and look at the local graveyard.
The worst thing about it is the music, which tries to chivvy up some interest in what's happening onscreen by being shriekingly unsubtle and occasionally completely inappropriate (one passage sounded like it belonged in a cheap Arabian Nights adventure movie). It's an object lesson in how to undermine a film with poor music.
Not that the film itself is all that good, and it's probably right that it's so obscure. It was more enjoyable than it deserved to be, mainly because of the few scenes featuring Antler Guy and pals. Otherwise it just wastes a great cast.
This game is less than £20 on amazon already, and cheaper if you get it secondhand.
So Batman's back. This is the prequel to the hugely popular Arkham series. Arkham Asylum was an instant classic, and still the only really satisfying superhero game. Arkham City threw in a whole lot more stuff without really adding to the first game, but without weakening it either. How does this new one shape up?
It's difficult to be objective about it because of the infuriating issues around its release. It was rushed out to make sure that it wasn't overshadowed by the launch of the next generation consoles - it appeared about three weeks before the launch of the PS4. And it was in no sense fit to be released at that time. It was full of bugs that ranged from the small and irksome to the massive and game-breaking.
This wasn't made by Rocksteady, who made the previous two games. It was instead made by WB Montreal, using the same game engine. So it was always likely to be a poor relation. But the level of cynicism that allowed a company to release a game that was effectively unfinished is staggering. I sent my copy back unopened. It was only about two months later, when I saw that enough patches had been released to probably make it safe, that I bought a new copy. I bought it secondhand so as not to profit the bozos who made it. (And lest you think I'm being overly harsh, they started releasing paid-for DLC before they started working on the patches that would fix the game. That's like stopping a heart operation halfway through to try and sell T-shirts to the patient's family.)
Anyway. The game itself.
This is the meat of the game. You are Bruce Wayne, a rich orphan who deals with his personal issues by dressing as a bat and beating people up. This is set some years before the previous two games, and Batman is fairly new to Gotham City. The police don't trust him (most of them are corrupt anyway) and he hasn't yet encountered many of his most famous foes. This game features his first meeting with The Joker, and the likes of Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Two-Face are entirely absent.
The story is that a crime lord called Black Mask has hired eight assassins to hunt down and kill Batman, who's been interfering with his illegal operations. I was initially disappointed, as these guys are strictly C-list. Killer Croc is there, but he's not the fearsome bogeyman of Arkham Asylum. And Bane is there, probably inevitably. He's a crushingly dull character, but he's in the most recent movie, so he has a larger part to play than in previous games. The rest of the assassins are painfully obscure.
As the game progresses, though, it becomes obvious that the story is going in some bolder directions (well, bold in the context). The Joker inevitably grows in importance as things develop. You also get to fight the Mad Hatter (he gives the game its obligatory surreal fantasy sequence) and the Penguin. The Riddler (known as 'Enigma' in this earlier continuity) has once again scattered a variety of collectables all around the city. And some doofus called Anarky has planted some bombs (I've no idea who Anarky is, or why he can't spell).
So the story isn't bad at all. The promise of an edgier, less controlled Batman doesn't really seem to be fulfilled (he has a couple of mild arguments with his butler, and needs a shave, but that's about all the difference). The voice actors mostly do well, although I found myself wishing Mark Hamill hadn't retired as The Joker. The exception is The Penguin, still voiced I think by whoever did him in Arkham City. He has the worst cod-cockney accent I've ever heard (since when was the Penguin a cockney anyway?). Hilariously, he has a cockney barmaid called Tracey as his assistant, which is an idiotic mis-step (her dialogue and accent are dismal). But otherwise the acting is good.
But while the plot itself is pretty good, the game is treading water. Too much of it feels like a joyless reiteration of what we had more fun doing in the previous games. The Riddler's collectibles aren't quite as satisfying this time round (they don't have the variety of earlier games). While Arkham City had us racing round the city trying to free Zsasz's hostages, this one has us racing round trying to find Anarky's bombs. The Mad Hatter's dream world isn't as creepy or fun as Scarecrow's. And there are loads of 'find things and destroy them' missions, just like the Bane one in Arkham City. You will frequently be diverted to go and fight thugs, and while it's fun the first few times (the fight mechanic is more or less intact, I think, although seems easier this time round) it quickly becomes tedious.
The main difference is in the detective sections, which have been beefed up a bit. Before you'd just use crime scene investigations to find trails of blood to follow to the perpetrator. Here you have to look around for clues and can recreate the crime as a little animation. It's like a sort of minigame based around LA Noire, and isn't terrible.
Probably the most annoying single aspect is the Dark Knight challenges. There are four categories, and completing challenges gives you XP (used for levelling up) and unlocks gadget upgrades. While three of the four categories are easy enough (but with escalating difficulty), one is based around stealth combat, and is almost impossibly difficult. Unlike regular fights with groups of thugs who respawn every time you leave an area, the stealth fights are part of the story, and only happen once - you can't go back and re-try them. It's pretty much impossible to complete all these challenges in one story mode playthrough. This feels like ill-thought-out game design, although I suppose it might be a misconceived attempt to make players keep playing the game over and over again.
The city is double the size of the last game - the top half is pretty much as I remembered it from Arkham City, and then there's a second half across a disproportionately long bridge. It captures the same look and feel as the earlier game, and setting it on Christmas eve is a nice touch as the decoration and snatches of Christmas muzak make a nice backdrop to the violence of the story. It is nastier than earlier efforts, with more murders (including a few completely innocent characters). This is ill-advised when Batman rescues a traumatised woman who has almost certainly been raped by her kidnapper - I don't think such things really belong in a superhero adventure - and it's a little disappointing that there aren't any last minute Christmas shoppers to get in the way.
I guess the main problem plotwise is that Batman has exactly the same gadgets as he does in later games (which are probably set at least ten years later, given that Commissioner Gordon's daughter is 15 in this one). I'm sure the turbo-charged grapnel thingie was described as a prototype in Arkham City, but here it is ten years earlier working in exactly the same way. And at least one new gadget, the electric shock gloves, are better than anything you get to use in the other games. Did Batman lose them between this game and the later ones?
Probably the biggest criticism of Arkham Asylum was that the boss fights were all exactly the same, so once you'd mastered the basic principle of one you'd be able to do them all just by applying the same method. Origins at least avoids this - the boss fights are by and large very different. But in each case you just need to figure out the weakness in the villain's behaviour and exploit it over and over again until you win. A couple of the villains change their attack method halfway through the battle, but there's none of the pleasure that came in Arkham City when you had to fight Mr Freeze and couldn't use the same takedown method against him twice.
As in the last two games, there are also combat training levels - very basic little things where you have to fight a bunch of thugs, or utilise your stealth moves, or whatever, and are then scored on how well you've done. They still don't feel very exciting; after you've beaten story mode there just doesn't feel like there's any incentive to plod through all of them.
It was largely bug free, but it crashed once or twice, and there were a few annoying glitches here and there. Nothing game-breaking, but there was no reason for them to be there.
***Muliplayer (or not)***
The other big innovation Arkham Origins was supposed to introduce was multliplayer. While the Batman games were hardly crying out for a multiplayer option, it sounded quite fun from the previews - you'd either play as thugs trying to kill other thugs, or as Batman and Robin trying to take down all the thugs.
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get into an online match. It seems that no one is actually playing it. Multiplayer was just as broken as single player when the game was released, so I guess everyone had just given up and gone to play Call of Duty: Ghosts instead by the time I tried to play.
There's a lesson there for games companies: *don't release games before they're ready!* I guess any future Batman games will be for the next generation consoles, and hopefully will be made by the original developer again.
While Arkham Origins isn't bad, it's hardly an essential next step in the franchise. It feels like it's treading water waiting for the technology upgrade that will allow a bigger better game next year. It's bigger, but it's not better. This wouldn't be a problem in itself - it's still a reasonably fun playthrough. But it weakens what was a very strong videogame brand and the cynicism involved in releasing it too early leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The likelihood of my ever pre-ordering a game again is minimal; and I will certainly never buy anything that WB Montreal were involved with.
Buy it secondhand if you're going to.
This DVD from Odeon Entertainment is around £7 on amazon.
This is a mildly smutty review of a very smutty 1979 movie (actually, three smutty movies for the price of one). If smuttiness upsets or offends you, go no further.
I don't know why I do this to myself. This film is not just 'bad'. It's an atrocity. The fact that it exists at all brings shame upon every last one of us.
So. David Sullivan was a porn baron (probably still is). In the 1970s he decided to branch out from magazines and sex shops into films. His first film, Come Play With Me, was terrible, but it made a lot of money. He followed it up with The Playbirds, which had a bigger part for his then-girlfriend, porn star Mary Millington. And then came this, the third film in what could be called the 'cheap smut trilogy'.
Mary Millington's in it again, although she's only got a supporting part this time. Millington was a British porn star - hardcore stag loops, that kind of thing. Repeatedly in trouble with the police (she also ran a sex shop) she eventually took her own life in the year this movie was released. This alone makes it a difficult film to like.
And then there's the leading man, Alan Lake, an alcoholic who ruined a promising career through booze. His wife, Diana Dors, is also in the film. Dors died from cancer in 1983; Lake shot himself a year later (he also had cancer). So with two of the lead performers having committed suicide, it's a bit difficult to get onboard with this as a wacky 'slap and tickle' sex comedy. Truth be told, by this point in the 70s the British film industry was dead on its feet. Even the softcore sex films had gone into abeyance. This film has a uniquely depressing atmosphere to it. Even Come Play With Me has a certain historic ambience, offering a mondo glimpse into a Britain long since departed. David Galaxy doesn't even give us that.
David Galaxy is a successful astrologer. He's also a ladies' man and a minor league criminal responsible for various low level scams. Unfortunately the police are convinced that he participated in an armed robbery that resulted in a man's death. Galaxy scrabbles around for an alibi. He also sleeps around a lot. (The 'Confessions From...' prefix was added at the insistence of the distributor hoping to fool punters into thinking it was a continuation of the Robin Askwith Confessions films. It would actually have been better if it had been, and it's not often you can say that with honesty.)
This is a weird excuse for a comedy. For all the supposed funny business, the police subplot is played pretty much completely straight, and there are other aspects that don't seem funny at all. But alongside that are a pastiche film noir segment and Lake's increasingly desperate comic mugging. Presumably we're also supposed to be titillated at some of the love scenes, which are a bit more full-blooded than anything you'd see in a regular Confessions film. There are also aspects that seem oddly neutral - not really comedy, not really drama, certainly not erotica - such as having Lake wander around Soho at night, or watching him at the races. It's as if the film is mapping David Sullivan's London, showing us all what a great life he leads. (This is the second film in a row that has a character played by Alan Lake who is probably a Sullivan surrogate whose perfect life is marred by police suspicion.)
Lake is the film's main problem. He's on screen for almost the entire thing. He gives one of the worst, most self-indulgent performances I've ever seen. He puts on silly voices, tells excruciating jokes (most of which are only recognisable as jokes because of his tone of voice) and does awful, awful impressions (including a Groucho Marx that sounds distressingly like Jimmy Savile; profoundly offensive racist West Indian and Pakistani accents; and a genuinely vile, horribly unfunny limp-wristed Larry Grayson style gay man). He is infuriating, and while he wears some hilariously distasteful costumes, it's impossible to like him at all. He was a heavy drinker, and I suspect this contributes to the eccentricity of his performance. It's hard not to feel a bit sorry for him, mugging away, believing he's funny. It's like when they used to get Olly Reed on chatshows and get him drunk so he'd make a fool of himself.
He's backed up by a collection of well-known faces in dire supporting parts. Most prominent are Diana Dors, as Galaxy's landlady (she underplays, and ends up as a rather pointless character; she also sings the surprisingly catchy theme song); and the vile, vile Tony Booth as Galaxy's nightclub-owner friend. Booth and Lake are two of the most unlikeable actors in 70s British and to have them together in a number of scenes feels like punishment for a crime I didn't even know I'd committed. Bernie Winters has a really pointless cameo, and Glyn Edwards (later in Minder) appears as the detective (he played a policeman in The Playbirds, too). His sidekick is played by John Moulder-Brown, who was endearing as the hero of Deep End a few years earlier, but hardly seems to be acting in this. Kenny Lynch and hulking bald wrestler Milton Reid (a Brit exploitation perennial) also crop up.
And then there are the ladies, almost all of whom get naked. At least one, Sally Faulkner, is a proper actress, and is very good in a few choice horror roles in the 70s. The rest are wooden. Mary Millington plays a woman who has never had an orgasm despite sleeping with more than 1,700 men. Instead of sending her off for urgent psychiatric assistance, her so-called friends bet on whether Galaxy will be able to make her climax. Poor Mary still can't act, and has a surprisingly explicit sex scene with Lake.
This film contains what I think might be the lowest point I've reached in my film odyssey. During one sex scene, Galaxy lets out a loud fart. I almost hope it was an unscripted accident (certainly the actress he's in bed with seems genuinely angry); otherwise we have to face up to the idea that someone thought it would be funny. I've never seen a sex scene where someone farts before. Now I'll never be able to see another one without wondering if it's going to happen. Thanks a bunch, David Galaxy.
It's such a peculiarly bad film. The ending is rather downbeat, but we've no real reason to care about what happens. Lake doesn't give us enough clues about how we're supposed to regard Galaxy. Is he meant to be as annoying as he is? The tone is very odd. At one point he phones his mother, who is rapidly reduced to tears by her selfish, unfeeling son - how is that meant to make the audience feel? The first girl we see him sleep with gives him gonorrhoea. But he still happily sleeps with her again later (and I think we can assume that David Galaxy is not the kind of man who uses a condom). Are we meant to have any kind of fellow-feeling for a man who behaves like that?
The film is a terrible mess, in short. The tone is all over the place, most of the actors are repulsive, and the comedy is unbelievably irritating. And a man farts during a sex scene. Just watching it make me feel like I've contracted VD. Avoid avoid avoid.
The main extra is a second feature, Queen of the Blues. It was made the same year as Galaxy, by the same people. It's a showcase for striptease artistes, in what I imagine was probably a club owned by David Sullivan. The flimsy plot involves a protection racket trying to muscle in on the stripclub, but the film is mostly there to let us watch women undress to music.
And that shouldn't be too difficult to get right. The film, however, is tedious. The editing is all over the place, the performances - which go on forever - are filmed for the most part in long shot, and the exact same people are in the audience night after night, wearing the same clothes. This suggests the whole thing was shot in about an afternoon. The dubbed-on applause and laughter obviously come from a much larger audience than the one we see onscreen. The comic who comes on between the acts is beyond dreadful (and weirdly doubles as the film's leading man).
Mary Millington gets top billing as one of the strippers (the 'Queen of the Blues') but her performances on the stage aren't terribly enthusiastic. The heavies are played by hulking Milton Reid and the guy who played the jockey in Hi-De-Hi. The Major from Fawlty Towers is also involved. Thankfully Alan Lake and Tony Booth are absent.
The only good thing about it is the music the strippers perform to, which is charming synth-heavy library music. I'd love to get a soundtrack album, but fear there's little hope of that.
There's another short film on the disk, Arabian Nights, this one only seven minutes long. It's the first half of a short porno that George Harrison Marks filmed in 1979. (Marks was a pioneering British director of nudist camp movies who was a boozy wreck by the late 70s. He directed and starred in the wretched Come Play With Me). It apparently turns into a hardcore film halfway through, so they only show us the first half here (couldn't they have blurred out the naughty bits or something?). The picture quality is bad; it looks like it was taken from a third generation VHS copy.
The excerpt we see has a two men talking business. One of them is a sheik, and several of his naked 'wives' then enter. Milton Reid is also in it (I really hope he didn't do hardcore!), although one guy seems to be doing the dubbing for all three male performers. Sample dialogue includes "That one over there... massive tits!", "I like big tits" and "Those are really nice firm tits!" It is an uncomplicated film.
There are also trailers for some other smutty films released by the same company (I've seen most of them, to my shame). The image gallery has some stuff relating to the film, and also a lot of scans of porn mags featuring Millington and others. There's also a good leaflet by Simon Sheridan, who wrote a book about British sex films.
But all the nice leaflets and trailers in the world can't make this anything other than three very bad films on one DVD. Don't touch with a bargepole.
A review of the BFI DVD, available for somewhere around £15.
This is a spooky BBC series from 1977, in which tales of the supernatural are presented for our delectation. The series' conceit is that all these stories are being told to members of a private club. If the story convinces, the teller is admitted to the club. If it does not, he is killed. This strikes me as a rather silly framing device - it would be better without the threat of death. If every member of the club has already had a supernatural experience themselves in order to be admitted, why ever would they not believe the stories of new applicants?
It's kind of like the framing devices Amicus films used for its horror anthologies, and features several similarly daft and predictable 'surprise endings'. "Wait... you mean... *you* were the ghost all along?" That kind of thing. The club scenes only take up a few minutes at the start and end of each episode, and give an excuse for some voice-over narration; they're silly, but not enough to ruin the episodes.
The stories are very talky. They lovingly pastiche Victorian horror fiction, so they're wordy (verbose, even) and the scares, sadly, are few and far between. They're also rather too genteel to be effective. It becomes impossible to empathise with any of the characters or care about their various plights.
***Ghosts of Venice***
The first episode sets the scene. The members of the club meet Adrian Gall, an actor with a tale to tell. He's retired, but when he was playing Macbeth in Venice, he believes someone stole his purse. Upon his return to Venice he confronts the chief of police, seems to be unable to remember his wife having a serious accident, and meets a girl - his former lover - who has been dead for 20 years.
Although the plot is mildly intriguing - why can't Gall remember what really happened? - the execution isn't very interesting. The main problem is Robert Hardy playing the lead. He gives a performance that you'd have to describe as 'rather broad'. He's playing a hammy old actor, so there's an excuse for him to go completely over the top, but it has to be said, he's not the most restrained thesp at the best of times. It's hard to tell if he's deliberately overacting or just delivering a typical Robert Hardy performance. (He also looks quite uncannily like David Cameron, which would make him impossible to like even if he were delivering a performance of astonishing subtlety.)
The rest of the cast do alright, more or less. Sinead Cusack is mildly affecting as the ghost, but never sinister (and she needs to be, at least at certain points). I think that's the main problem with this - it isn't scary.
The shot-on-video aspect is also problematic - the presentation of Venice, using a lot of back projection and glaringly obvious video effects, is lame. Video was the default BBC studio filming medium at the time; series like I, Claudius manage pretty well in spite of it. But here it looks cheap and old, and not in a good way. There's also a glaringly obvious boom mike in one shot, and a supposedly stone bannister wobbles dramatically when Hardy leans on it. (The boom mike is a recurring problem. Pretty much every episode has either a microphone wobbling into shot or the visible shadow of one. This is surprisingly shoddy for BBC costume drama of the era.)
***Countess Ilona / The Werewolf Reunion***
This is the only two-episode story, and it unfolds at a leisurely pace. Countess Ilona is an ex-courtesan made good, having married an unspeakable eastern European count who died shortly afterwards. Ten years on, she invites four of her ex-lovers to a party at her castle. But a werewolf is also lurking, and the men begin to die.
This is more like a play than a TV programme, and would probably work quite well on stage. It benefits from having exteriors shot on film and none of the silly video effects that other episodes are lumbered with. Above all, because it takes its time, each of the potential victims are well characterised. One of them is only in the second episode, by which point one of the others has died, so everyone has plenty of space to develop and time to flex their acting muscles. All are very well acted, with the florid Ian Hendry and the supercilious Charles Kay making the most impact. The countess herself is played by Billie Whitelaw, a great actress, but not really used to her full potential.
But sadly, this one is also not scary in the slightest. Perhaps it's the unlikeable characters, perhaps it's the easy-to-guess plot twist (if it can even be called a twist), or perhaps it's just the fact that you can't do a monster story without showing the monster. It's a decent piece of drama, but as a horror story it fails.
This one has the benefit of Jeremy Brett giving a typically idiosyncratic performance. He plays Mr Nightingale, an old man (with surprisingly good old-man makeup). He tells the terrible story of how, when he was younger, he was staying with a German family in Hamburg, was overcome by his own evil doppleganger, and went on a rampant orgy of seduction and bad manners until things ended badly.
This is a surprisingly unpleasant story, with the family Brett decides to terrorise being really quite pitiable by the end (because they are so likeable at the start). It's uncomfortable to watch Brett destroy their illusions and ruin their lives, and is consequently one of the two episodes that feels like a real horror story. There's something at stake here, and for once we're able to like the characters enough to feel bad for them.
It isn't scary, though, mainly because the special effects are much too obvious. The two Mr Nightingales, the good one and the evil one, never feel like they're both really present at the same time, and the heavy reliance on video effects makes this difficult to take seriously. Even Dr Who in the Jon Pertwee era wouldn't have tried to get away with some of the stuff we see here.
On the plus side, it has some good spooky noises, including distorted seagull shrieks. And Lesley Anne Downey is great as the sexy daughter, indulging in fish-related innuendo with Brett at the breakfast table.
This one has two waspish, middle-aged sons living with their elderly mother. She's convinced an intruder breaks into their mansion every night to try and kill her; but could it be the ghost of her late husband, who drowned himself 20 years earlier?
This one is very talky, and perhaps the most obscure in its meaning. There's a lot for the audience to piece together, and I'm not sure it's entirely worth the effort of trying to do so. Still, there's a cute chameleon in it, and it's well acted. Cathleen Nesbitt is good as the mother, but John Osborne and Denholm Elliott steal it as the two ghastly sons (Osborne, one of the most celebrated British playwrights of the twentieth century, is particularly good).
There are some quite spooky sound effects, although they quickly degenerate into silliness. The finale walks the line between clever and stupid, and does so with such panache that I'm just about persuaded. But this is one of the weaker episodes altogether.
This is a good one. The British consul in Hungary returns to England after the death of his crippled wife, having re-married. He brings with him a young daughter who is obsessed with her doll, a butch governess, and a whole lot of emotional baggage.
This is the old 'dead wife takes revenge from beyond the grave' story, and the main plot, with mildly spooky dolls and whatnot, runs its predictable course. Where it wins out is the in the character relationships, with some genuinely surprising twists and turns right up until the end. It's also very well acted. Catherine Schell is the right kind of brittle as the new wife, and Lewis Fiander suitably boorish as the husband with a secret.
This one was directed by Peter Sasdy, one of Hammer's better directors, which might account for its being generally higher quality than most of the series. Again, not quite scary, but more entertaining than most of what's on offer.
***Night of the Marionettes***
This is the strongest of all the episodes. A scholar, Mr Lawrence, is travelling in Switzerland with his alcoholic wife and their adult daughter. He's trying to trace the journey made by Percy and Mary Shelley on their way to visit Byron and (in Mary's case) write Frankenstein.
The inn they stop at turns out to be a little on the mysterious side, and Lawrence becomes very excited when he realises that the Shelleys must have stayed there. And then, following a boisterous and scary marionette show, it becomes obvious that there's more to the place than meets the eye. Lawrence begins to suspect that Frankenstein was perhaps not entirely fictional...
There's an awful lot going on in this. The daughter seems to be becoming possessed by the ghost of Mary Shelley, and there are some disturbing, quasi-incestuous undertones to her relationship with her father. It's an ingenious variant on the Frankenstein story with a dash of perversity that brings it to life. There are some uncanny sound effects and a couple of really good, genuinely scary moments. The cast are also splendid, especially Gordon Jackon as Lawrence and Pauline Moran as the daughter.
The final episode is disappointing. Two gentlemen travelling through Europe encounter a young woman; one man becomes obsessed with her to a dangerous extent, even though she's never seen by daylight and a string of mysterious deaths follows in her wake.
I guess that having done werewolves and Frankenstein, the series had to do a vampire story as well. The problem is that the vampire element seems to be held back as a kind of plot twist, when it's blindingly obvious to anyone what's going on pretty much from the beginning. The final reveal, if reveal it's meant to be, is underwhelming. The main fright moments also fall a bit flat.
It is the most gruesome episode, which is in its favour, and has the most location filming, so at least looks a bit better than the others. The acting is decent enough, although Jeremy Clyde (also in Schalcken the Painter) and David Robb (also in I, Claudius) as the two heroes both slip a bit too easily into default costume drama acting mode. Dorabella herself isn't nearly scary enough. It's a weak episode to end the series on, but then the series rarely hit the heights anyway.
The only extra included is a booklet explaining a little about the series. While it's lovely that the BFI releases things like this (and deplorable that the BBC doesn't make them available otherwise) it feels like there are worthier things that could be brought back into print first (Ken Russell's 60s BBC films, for instance, or Pete Watkins' Culloden and the War Game). They obviously released any old BBC horror stuff they could get their hands on in 2013, to tie in with their gothic season on the South Bank, and to try to repeat the huge success of the Ghost Stories for Christmas box set from 2012. Sadly Supernatural, while interesting, isn't really terribly good. For completists only.
A film-only review. This can be bought on DVD from America via amazon for about £11.
The Italian exploitation film industry is the gift that keeps on giving. Having worked my way through much of the sleazier end of the spectrum, I now find my attention drawn to what are basically rip-offs of popular American child-friendly action movies. There are a surprising number of low-budget Conan and Star Wars imitators from Italy, but this one, made in 1983, is to my knowledge the only Italian rip-off of Flash Gordon set in stone age times.
Yor is a buff blond hunter who roams the stone aged landscape (his body and blond wig make him look like He-Man, but his face is a sort of cross between Simon McCorkindale and Julian Sands). He encounters a young woman and an older man being attacked by a triceratops, which he kills for them. Yor is welcomed into their tribe, but unfortunately a rival tribe of ape-like men comes and carries off all the women. Yor comes to the rescue, but perhaps with one eye on the budget of the film he's in, only escapes with the young woman (Ka-Laa) and the older man (Pag). The three of them set out to seek their destiny and discover Yor's secrets. Yor, you see, doesn't know who he is. All he knows is that he has a mysterious metal amulet...
Of course, the film being called 'Yor, Hunter from the Future' rather spoils the big reveal of his secret origin, and the lyrics to the film's theme tune, though hard to decipher, also give the game away. This was originally a four-part TV series, which has been condensed into a film, and that becomes increasingly obvious as it plays out. The first time we see Yor he's running happily through some rocks and stopping to look into the distance, just as he would in a TV show's opening credits. And the movie is very obviously divided into four episodes which we might call 'Yor vs the ape-men', 'Yor vs the desert leper people', 'Yor on the beach' and 'Yor fights some robots'. Outside of our three main characters, supporting cast members tend to only appear in one segment, as presumably they were only paid for one episode.
There is immense pleasure to be had in this film if you approach it in the right frame of mind. I knew it was going to be special when a lizard was very obviously being played by a piglet in a green costume. The bigger monsters are actually not that bad (well, apart from the giant bat, which is an insult to all the real giant bats that lived in the stone age). The triceratops isn't terrible at all, although it doesn't move terribly convincingly (that's hidden pretty well by nifty editing). Yes, it's a large badly animated model being jumped over by actors, but still, it's much better than I expected. Later there's a dimetrodon that is similarly impressive (and I was more annoyed at dimetrodon and triceratops being featured in the same film than I was at humans being around to fight them. The two dinosaurs lived millions of years apart.)
Yor spreads immense destruction wherever he goes. I'm wary of spoilers, but any society that either tries to help or hinder him ends up properly smote. Which is odd, because he wanders through most of the film with an amiable, slightly bemused smile on his face. Actually, he's a complete idiot. Half the time his friend Pag has to rescue him with his trusty bow and arrows. Pag is played by grizzled Italian exploitation veteran Luciano Pigozzi. Pag is a genius - he's even a brilliantly skilled trapeze artist, in an era before trapezes had been invented. He sort-of fits the 'wise older man who teaches the hero' character (think Ben Kenobi or Gandalf or someone), except that he's obviously much better than Yor at everything, and really ought to be the star of the show.
The film's costuming policy doesn't do him any favours: his saggy moobs are hard to ignore. Everyone wears skins and very short loin cloths. There's no real nudity in the film, but everyone - male and female - is wearing very sheer thongs under their leather miniskirts, and there are plenty of buttocks on display. Also a little side-boob.
It's kind of a shame there's no other nudity, as this is crying out for it. Ka-Laa is Yor's girlfriend, although I'm not sure they even kiss. But later Yor rescues a woman of his own tribe, Roa, and a chaste love triangle develops (there is even an unimpressive catfight). Later they meet what you might call the Jailbait Tribe and Yor wanders off with a number of them for what I can only assume was going to be one hot prehistoric orgy (they're interrupted by an evil spaceship, although the budget doesn't stretch to actually showing us the spaceship. We hear it, and see some explosions.) Because this is essentially kiddie matinee stuff, we don't get to see humankind's first threesome or any similar delights.
The best thing about the film is the theme tune by Guido and Maurizio de Angelis, who did the music for a lot of Italian crime films. It's a corking tune, synth driven, epic, and with lyrics that don't quite work, probably because the people writing them didn't speak English very well ("Misty illusions hiding his famous destiny"). They don't do the music for the whole film, there are some blander orchestral parts too - just like the way Flash Gordon weaves Queen's amazing soundtrack with the more conventional work of composer Howard Shore.
Because when Yor and his friends arrive at their final destination, the film turns into a cheap science fiction movie. Yor and his friends team up with the local resistance movement (who look like boring new romantics - think ABC or someone) to fight the fearsome Overlord and his robot minions. The robots are bog standard stormtrooper knock-offs, but Overlord is definitely Ming the Merciless on a budget. He's played by exploitation perennial John Steiner, but the voice they've dubbed him with is very obviously trying to impersonate Max von Sydow.
After the film takes its odd sidestep into science fiction it becomes even more enjoyable - there's only so much stone-age shenanigans a man can take, whereas cheap Flash Gordon antics are endlessly entertaining. The sound effects are especially fun, with Overlord's cute little teleportation noise being particularly endearing. Our caveman hero and his pals very quickly come to understand concepts that should be beyond their comprehension, including recognising themselves on TV screens, understanding what mirrors are, and being able to fire guns.
Mind you, they seem pretty well informed for cavemen living alongside dinosaurs, understanding how sailing boats work and throwing around words like 'explosion' and 'substance'. That somehow sums the film up; it has wild ambitions far beyond its ability to realise, a common failing of Italian exploitation films. It has spaceships we rarely see, dinosaurs that are very basic special effects indeed (although as noted, better than expected) and the smallest hall of mirrors I've ever seen.
Yor is more fun than it has any right to be. Trying to rip off Flash Gordon is a pretty worthy ambition (more so than most Italian sci-fi movies of the era), and it captures some of Flash's self-aware mix of camp humour and silly action scenes. It doesn't have the budget to be much more than a few cheap laughs, but that's not a terrible thing in a film of this type.
A review of the Optimum DVD, currently £7 on amazon.
Sean Connery left the Bond series after You Only Live Twice (1967). He was replaced by George Lazenby, but he only made one Bond film before quitting the series. The producers lured Connery back for the dire Diamonds Are Forever with a huge salary and the promise to let him make two 'personal projects'. The Offence, released in 1972, was one of those personal projects (the other was never made).
Det. Sgt Johnson is part of a team hunting a child rapist who has already struck three times. On the day of the fourth crime, a man is found behaving strangely, covered in blood and mud, and with scratches on his face. He's brought in for questioning, but Johnson goes too far in the interview, and the man is rushed to hospital. Johnson feels the years of horrifying experiences he's had as a copper crowding in on him as his world starts to fall apart...
Child abuse is always an emotive topic, and one which the British exploitation film industry visited quite often in the 70s in films like Assault, Revenge and I Start Counting. The Offence is a cut above them in terms of budget and talent, but admirable though it undoubtedly is in many ways, it's not quite as good as it thinks it is.
The main problem with it is that it's very obviously based on a play. There are some exposition scenes, but really it boils down to three long two-hander scenes: Johnson and the suspect; Johnson and his wife; Johnson and his superior officer. Although the director tries to liven these up with camera angles and some slightly disorientating editing, it's impossible to ignore the fact that we're watching two people in small rooms talking. And a lot of the dialogue is very, very stagey. The film's visual style and location are aiming for gritty realism, but the dialogue scenes go on too long and are slightly too stylised to be realistic.
The main point of interest, I guess, is Connery. An actor whose career was defined by unchallenging, light-hearted movies (usually in the action and thriller genres), Johnson is certainly a much darker role than any other I've seen him play. Connery was a good actor, although he was very rarely required to show it. Here, though, with a part designed to stretch almost any actor, he doesn't quite pull it off. He's got immense physical presence, and there's a real sense of danger about him - he's an enormous man, monolithic even, and the violence in him is barely kept in check. But his dialogue scenes don't completely work; he's trying that bit too hard, and occasionally he flirts with hamminess. (I don't know if it was ever performed on stage, but imagining it with Michael Gambon in his prime as Johnson is rather more alluring than what we get on film.)
Second billing goes to Trevor Howard (from Brief Encounter and the Third Man, among many other things) as the superior officer brought in to investigate Connery. He's decent enough, but seems both slightly too posh and slightly too old to be doing the job he's in. He faintly resembles Michael Heseltine. Vivien Merchant plays Johnson's browbeaten wife, and has to endure lines like "Why aren't you beautiful? You're not even pretty" from her oh-so-close-to-being-abusive husband. (One of his lines to her, where he complains of her "endless bloody bleating like a sheep with a six-inch spike stuck up it", reduced me to helpless giggles, probably not the intended effect).
The film is completely stolen by Ian Bannen as the suspect. Bannen was a great actor, and one who never seemed to become as well-known as he deserved. He's always worth watching in films like Fright and TV series like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Here he is pathetic, unsettling and enigmatic - the film never quite commits itself as to whether he's guilty or not. It's a brilliant performance, and brings out the best in Connery's acting too. Their scene together is easily the best thing in the film and the main reason to want to see it. The film plays fast and loose with chronology - it begins with Connery found over the prone suspect and works backwards from there - so by the time we actually see their confrontation in full we already know how it ends. This has the paradoxical effect of making it all-the-more tense.
There aren't many other characters (again, this betrays its stage play origin), but those there are tend to have crumpled English 70s faces: Derek Newark, John Hallam. Even usually dapper Peter Bowles looks like the weight of Britain in the 1970s is dragging his face downwards. These are tough men, and there's a lot of swearing in the film. It's not proper swearing, though, it's all 'bloody bastard bugger' swearing - no doubt shocking back then but faintly comical now.
The film's greatest strength is probably its unrelentingly grim new town location (Bracknell, I think). The drab, concrete-breezeblock locations are enough to drive anyone bonkers over a long enough period of time. The shopping centre, police station and residential flats all look much the same. 'Brutalist' is probably too generous a description. It never seems to stop raining, either. I'm not sure we ever see a pavement that isn't wet. This is possibly the least glamorous film Connery made, but it suffers in comparison to other grim 'n' gritty genre films of the era (Get Carter, most obviously).
The background noise is near constant, and sometimes takes on an almost Lynchian feel - the perpetual grind of the road drill, and other odd-sounding, exaggerated industrial noises clearly prefiguring Eraserhead. The sparse, discordant incidental music (by Harrison Birtwhistle) seems to grow in and out of the sound effects in an effectively alienating way, and the opening scene, especially, with its expressionistic use of light and sound, clearly marks this film out as trying something different.
The problem is, due to the rather overwrought script, it does feel that the film is trying a little too hard. The sudden flashes of Nic Roeg-style editing as Johnson has flashbacks to horrid crime scenes he has known feel a little bit pretentious. The 'message' of the film - that exposure to brutality can make men brutal - doesn't feel like it needs quite this level of artistic overkill. It's like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
It's a 15, which is probably because of the violence (there isn't much, but it's quite nasty). The subject matter might also bump the rating up a bit. Obviously we don't see any sexual assaults on children (even in the Jimmy Savile Seventies that would have been too much) but Johnson's attempts to calm a hysterical victim he finds in the woods are uncomfortable. The way he pins the child down while trying to soothe and comfort her is obviously meant to look dodgy, and it's a very effective, nasty moment, driving home how indistinguishable Johnson has become from the men he hunts. Sadly this element is a bit overdone later on in flashbacks.
That perhaps sums the film up, generally. It's got some very strong moments, but feels like it adds up to slightly less than the sum of its parts. The DVD is cheap (the picture quality could perhaps be slightly better, and there are no extras - not even subtitles), and it might be worth a look for Connery fans. It's almost but not quite a good film, but at least it tries.
A film-only review. You can get a DVD for comfortably less than £5 online. There's also a region A US blu-ray edition, although that will set you back more like £15.
In the few years after Star Wars an awful lot of science fiction films were produced. A large number of them are as family friendly as George Lucas's Jedi saga, and most of those are rubbish (Flash Gordon being the honourable exception). A few braver souls decided to try to make adult-oriented sci-fi, which usually meant Roger Corman's fun but exploitative offerings, but occasionally resulted in something a bit more prestigious, with better casts and bigger budgets. Unfortunately, with the obvious exception of Alien, most of these are also rubbish.
Which brings us to Saturn 3...
It is a dystopian future. Adam and Alex are lovers living in an isolated laboratory complex on Saturn's third moon. Captain Benson arrives with a new robot that is intended to help them improve productivity. Unfortunately, Benson is a psychopath who has murdered the guy who was supposed to come and install the robot. Benson takes an immediate shine to Alex, and the robot, Hector, ends up with Benson's personality imprinted on it. Which means the robot also fancies Alex, resulting in it inevitably turning on its human masters and trying to kill everyone.
The film is a mess, sadly. The original director walked off the set after a few weeks, possibly because of clashes with the actors, He was replaced by Stanley Donen, who had previously made Singin' in the Rain, one of the best-loved films in history, but not the kind of person you expect to be directing sci-fi schlock, even with a big budget. The script is ponderous and disjointed; it was written by self-serious oaf Martin Amis, but in all probability was rewritten by various other people. There's the occasional glimmer of a nice idea that feels like it could have come from Amis, but the plot is a mess. It was made in the UK, financed by Lew Grade.
One thing it gets right is the sets. They don't look as good as the sets in Star Wars or Alien, but they're impressive and better than most other sci fi films of the era. A lot of money was clearly spent on them, and the base does at least feel big enough to be convincing. The music, by Elmer Bernstein, is also good, apart from a rather dismal opening theme. A lot of it sounds almost like Kraftwerk, and an early 80s film about a malfunctioning robot really needs a bit of that vibe.
Hector itself is quite impressive. I like its big clunking feet and spiky hands. It's huge, buff breastplate seems disproportionate, though, and its dinky little head is far from sinister. It ultimately looks like what might happen if the stupid little robot from Short Circuit did a whole lot of bodybuilding to try to impress Ally Sheedy, who sadly isn't even in this film.
The spaceships are lame, though thankfully we don't see much of them. Stars are clearly visible through supposedly solid items, and the shots of planets wouldn't have passed muster in 2001: A Space Odyssey ten years earlier. The big spaceship that Benson leaves from has some dismal split screen stuff to show half the crew standing upside down (because there's no gravity, yeah?). This is a very obvious attempt to rip-off one of 2001's more famous effects. Similarly, the film starts with a huge spaceship flying into shot from above the camera (just like Star Wars) with a theme tune which pastiches the bit of (Richard) Strauss that was used in 2001. It also rips off Alien by having characters in an isolated space environment hunted by a hostile, unstoppable presence. Where the crew in Alien had a cat, these characters have a small dog.
But while Alien has an all-round pretty amazing cast, Saturn 3 has Farrah Fawcett and Kirk Douglas. The 70s were not kind to Douglas; the only other of his films from the era that I've seen is Holocaust 2000, a similarly misconceived effort. The main problem with him here is that he gets naked. Properly naked (although unlike in Holocaust 2000, we are at least spared the sight of his penis). Otherwise he's Kirk Douglas by numbers.
He's paired with Farrah Fawcett, who at the time was a major sex symbol due to being one of Charlie's Angels on TV. She does a topless scene (which was apparently at Kirk's insistence). She isn't very good, nor even terribly attractive (I guess fashions change). There's something inherently off about that kind of May to December romance, which can really only flatter the man. (Mind you, at time of writing, Kirk is still alive, while Farrah passed away a few years ago.) She's not terribly good as Alex, being far too passive a character (and however flustered or harried she gets, her lipgloss is never less than perfect).
Benson is played by Harvey Keitel. I guess this was just after he'd been fired from Apocalypse Now, and seen Robert De Niro supplant him as Scorsese's leading man of choice. Saturn 3 can't have helped his mood. Quite aside from looking rather silly with a dinky little ponytail, they've dubbed him with a slightly less American sounding voice (done by English actor Roy Dotrice). This doesn't help sell the character to us; the lip-synching is fine, but it never quite feels like it can really be his voice. The only other actor we see is the guy Keitel murders at the beginning. He looks a lot like Michael Gove, the cretin who is currently Education Minister in the UK. The thought of Harvey Keitel murdering Michael Gove is wonderful. I guess it'll never happen. (And what kind of idiot designs a spaceship without airlocks?)
Apart from the fleeting glimpses of nudity, there's a bit of bloody violence, but not much. With only three characters to menace, Hector isn't in the same league as the Alien, which had seven people to munch its way through. This is a major problem - not so much the lack of violence, but the lack of other people. The film isn't nearly claustrophobic enough to work with so few characters, and this feels like Kirk should have had a comedy sidekick, at the very least; a cheery, trusting buffoon to be the robot's first victim. "Gee, Hector, what are you doing in the comms room, ya big dumb robot? Hector? Hector?! Aieeee!" See? Already I've written a better film than Martin Amis.
There's something kind of endearing about the splurge of lame space operas that trailed in Star Wars's wake. Although it's rubbish, I can't find it in me to seriously dislike Saturn 3. It's a big-budget folly, but is still just about watchable, and while the mismatched cast are dreadful, I can't hate them for it. It's certainly better than Lifeforce. Probably not worth importing the expensive US blu-ray, but worth a look if it turns up on telly any time soon.
Every so often I like to listen to every UK number one single in order, right from the early 50s. I stop with I Think We're Alone Now by Tiffany, as that's about the time when I started to have proper opinions about music, and also because the chart afterwards was dominated by rubbish. It's a really good way to sample pop history, and lets you understand (as well as is possible at this distance) why Rock Around the Clock, Beatlemania and punk had such a huge effect on culture.
This book tries to do much the same thing, except that it's a lot more comprehensive. Bob Stanley is a music writer of long standing, and also a member of the band Saint Etienne (a name I vaguely recall, but I couldn't name any of their songs). He calls it a history of pop, and it goes from the first British singles chart in 1952 to a rather arbitrary endpoint about 50 years later, when the author decides that downloads have replaced physical media (true enough) which, for some reason, means that pop is over. Which is fine, I guess, you have to stop somewhere.
He covers a vast amount of musical history without claiming to be comprehensive. Although it's a very British focused book, it inevitably talks at least as much about America, where most of the pop trends came from. He uses the term 'pop' to mean all (or almost all) the various popular music genres, rather than just as a bubbly airheaded little brother to 'serious' rock or soul music.
Chapters are more or less chronological, but each chapter takes the entire career of an artist, or the complete lifecycle of a trend (so the Elvis chapter appears early on, but goes right the way to his fat Vegas days). It starts (very well) with a description of the pre-rock n roll era, which is an odd lost world of schmaltz and light orchestral pieces. It's notable that the kinds of crooners people still listen to - Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra - weren't all that successful in the British charts. While it feels that some of the judgements being made are the kinds of things music writers come up with to make themselves sound clever, mostly it's very good, and shines a light on an era that tends to be ignored.
He also makes a solid attempt to rehabilitate Bill Haley's reputation, seeing him as more than a middle-aged bandleader who got lucky. He's very good on early rock n roll (he really nails how weirdly unlikable Chuck Berry is as a person, despite recording such great tunes). As it goes on, it is just as good at laying out, step by step, how certain movements and trends started and ended, and which labels and artists were important. He's also got a knack for summing up the essence of a musical style - he gets glam more right than most, and demystifies punk, quite rightly seeing the early 80s 'new pop' scene as far more interesting.
The potential problem with all this is that he includes a great deal of personal opinion. This isn't bad per se, but there's a tension between fact and opinion that doesn't quite feel right. The book is billed as 'The Story of Modern Pop', which implies a kind of definitive status, but a lot of what ends up on the page is rather questionable. I probably agree with more of his opinions than I disagree with, but his dutiful gushing over The Smiths (worst band ever: fact!) and his description of Simon and Garfunkel as "horribly aloof and humourless", to give just two examples, are opinions, not facts. ("Aloof and humourless" would be fine, I think. It's the "horribly" that's questionable.)
Pointing out that everyone hates Mike Love (the evil Beach Boy) is fine - that's a fact. Slagging off U2 or Bob Geldof, although I agree wholeheartedly, isn't fact, it's opinion. It's not that it isn't entertaining. Some of his scathing criticisms are hilarious. Calling Madonna "as good as Kim Wilde" is so beautifully insulting that it lets me forgive him for describing Dark Side of the Moon as "hard work" or Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn as "numbing muzak".
There are some odd omissions, even bearing in mind that he says it isn't intended to be definitive. I guess I can just about live with Frank Zappa and Dr John being dismissed in footnotes, but Boney M surely deserve a bit more respect - they were huge. Shakin' Stevens, vile oaf though he may be, must rate a sentence, at least? While it's very funny that he doesn't see fit to mention Simply Red, not finding room for PJ Harvey is unforgiveable.
After a while you start to wonder how much of this is personal. He's been a music journalist for a long time, and was in a pop band. Are some of his sweeping dismissals of beloved artists, and his pointed ignoring of others, an exercise in score settling? Did George Martin piss him off to the extent that he doesn't rate a single mention in the Beatles chapter? Is his obvious dislike of Brian Eno based on some Groucho Club argument? The chapter on Britpop is entertainingly bitchy, spending as much time on Brett Anderson's feud with Damon Allbarn as on either Suede or Blur's music. While this is all entertaining stuff (and to be fair he does nail the total pointlessness of Britpop) it does undermine the book's claim to be anything other than a personal history of pop, which isn't quite what I thought I was getting.
The general rule is that Bob Stanley loves melodic pop and dislikes macho rock. He seems to write the chapter on heavy metal with a clothes peg on his nose (and includes bands like Queen and Status Quo in the metal chapter, presumably because he couldn't be bothered to think of a better place for them). And by his own admission he only writes reluctantly about country and western. This is a shame, and perhaps a book like this needs to be a series of essays with a strong editor, rather than one man's idiosyncratic view, if it's going to be history.
Most disappointing is the way he ignores easy listening. He decides that Sinatra aimed for a more adult audience than rock n roll, and therefore doesn't need to talk about him for some reason (despite My Way being as ubiquitous as Rod Stewart's Sailing on late 70s radio). Tom Jones gets a few grudging mentions, Englebert maybe one fleeting reference. This is not on! There's also not much attention paid to novelty records which, OK, were never going to set trends. But anyone who doesn't love Disco Duck or Seven Tears is missing a major focus of the British charts back in the day. They were prone to weird spasms of sentimental irrationality (Clive Dunn's Grandad, Cliff's Mistletoe and Wine) or to being won over by resolutely lowbrow humour (Benny Hill's Ernie, The Wurzels).
He obviously likes the idea that in the olden days pop music used to unite the nation, and talks about boys taping songs from Radio 1 and other such nostalgia show staples. It's odd, then, that he devotes so little time to Top of the Pops, surely one of the main ways in which a widely disparate audience experienced pop in Britain. He only goes into detail about it when it was in its late-90s decline. Is it nervousness about what the presenters were up to? He mentions Gary Glitter and the Bay City Rollers, so isn't squeamish otherwise. None of the pop acts he omits are that big a deal, but neglecting Top of the Pops seems very strange.
Thankfully he resists the temptation to talk much about Saint Etienne, and there are only a few personal anecdotes in there. The book tells me everything I wanted it to tell me, with the exception of the various omissions noted above, but it's too personal to give me what I really wanted. It's given me a huge list of songs to track down, though, which is probably more important - listening to music is better than reading about it, after all.
The writing style is generally agreeable, although there's an inevitable blokeyness about it. Why do male non-fiction writers so often want to act like they're your best friend? There are a lot of in-jokey references in the text, Spinal Tap jokes and quoted lyrics. These aren't always particularly smoothly integrated, as if he's made himself laugh with an idea but not been able to figure out how to incorporate it smoothly into the flow of things (saying that Rod Stewart "found himself a band that needed a helping hand" doesn't scan, for instance. Perhaps the awkwardness is intentional, I don't know).
There are usually black and white photos at the starts of chapters, but it's not terribly well illustrated. The index is pretty bad, missing out plenty of references. Maybe they ran out of time with it.
This is worth a read if you're into the history of pop, and is entertaining for the most part. As long as you're expecting plenty of opinion, you should like this fine. I'd give it 3.5 stars if the format here allowed it, so I've rounded it up to 4.
It's a big book, and will set you back £20.
A review of Arrow's limited edition blu-ray set, which is about £25 on amazon at the moment (but will presumably increase in price when the print run sells out.)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is up there with the very best horror films ever made. There really isn't a lot wrong with it. Director Tobe Hooper should have gone on to - at the very least - the kind of fan-acclaimed horror career as George Romero and Wes Craven. Unfortunately it didn't work out that way. While his slasher movie The Funhouse is pretty good, most everything else he did is distinctly mediocre.
In the mid-80s he found himself working for Golan-Globus, an Israeli production company for whom he directed the overlong, shambolic Lifeforce. By 1986, he'd obviously decided that the time was right for a Texas Chainsaw sequel, with backing from Golan-Globus. Unfortunately, whatever mojo had animated the original had long since slipped from his grasp.
Lefty Enright is a god-fearing Texan looking to avenge the death of his nephew (one of the victims in the first film). He's been tracking the fiendish family of cannibals through Texas in the decade since Texas Chainsaw 1. The cannibals, meanwhile, have set up their own chili business (presumably using human flesh). They murder two annoying fratboys, but the murder is recorded by a local radio DJ they were telephoning at the time. Lefty persuades her to play the tape of the killing on air, thus luring the cannibals into his trap.
This is a very gory film, with good, inventive effects from splatter maestro Tom Savini. But making it very gory automatically makes it difficult to take seriously, as Savini's slightly cartoony style of makeup is designed to be at least partly comedic. Texas Chainsaw 1 was funny, certainly, but by largely eschewing gore (probably for budgetary reasons) it still manages to be one intense, gruelling experience. Texas Chainsaw 2, on the other hand, ramps up the gore and the comedy at the expense of most of the horror.
Overly jokey horror films, often featuring deliberately over-the-top splatter, became an increasingly tiresome feature of 80s horror, with low-budget f***wit studio Troma leading the way. While TCM 2 isn't as bad as that, it's certainly closer in tone to nonsense like Bloodsucking Freaks than to the original. It's what was popular at the time, so one can't blame Hooper for going down that route, but it still feels like a pity that the potential of the first film is squandered.
Dennis Hopper headlines as Lefty, and doesn't really seem that engaged. He walks like he's got a stick up his bottom, for some reason, and doesn't bring much of his famed intensity to the role - he made Blue Velvet the same year. It's also hilariously obvious that they use a stunt double for most of his dangerous looking chainsaw scenes - the guy looks nothing like Hopper at all. Second billing goes to Caroline Williams as the DJ, called Stretch (is that even a name)? She does all the things a horror heroine needs to do - screams, fights back when pushed too far, and wears short shorts.
The cannibal family is much the same as before, but with one or two crucial differences. The cook is still played by Jim Siedow, overacting with grotesque relish. The Hitchhiker has been replaced by 'Chop-Top', a Vietnam vet brother absent from the first film. He's played by Bill Mosely, later in Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses. He's very good, but the problem is the character is incredibly irritating. Acting a very irritating person very well isn't terribly endearing. Siedow and Moseley's excessive mugging is meant to be funny, I assume, but quickly becomes tiresome.
And then there's Leatherface, the franchise's chief monster. There's a different guy behind the mask this time, which you wouldn't think would matter, but somehow it does. The original was a genuinely nightmarish creation, a hunched giant who communicated in bizarre pig squeals and provided the film with much of its queasy mix of laughter and horror. The new version is just a bog standard slasher film boogeyman. He falls in love with Stretch, too, which is disappointing. The original is asexual. Some of the victims are girls, but there's no sense the family wants anything but their meat. Making Leatherface's interest in Stretch more conventional weakens the premise, and allows for some tasteless scenes where the huge phallic chainsaw is positioned suggestively between the woman's spread legs.
There's no nudity in the film, which sets it apart from most 80s slashers, but it's conventional where the original was boldly innovative. The opening music suggests a fairground ride (Hooper's Funhouse is a decent fairground themed horror), but from then on we get dreadful 80s soft rock. The film opens with two exaggeratedly awful frat boys straight out of a hundred teen slashers. Victims in the first film were pretty ordinary, therefore allowing us to identify with them. These gurning buffoons are impossible to relate to, and we're clearly meant to hope they'll die quickly.
The film is trying to make a satirical point about Reagan's America by having the cook constantly grumbling about the pressures facing the small businessman. There's a lot of unsubtle stuff equating consumerism with cannibalism, but it's not really explored enough to be worthwhile. There was a political subtext in Texas Chainsaw 1 as well, but it was buried so deep in the mix that it wasn't obtrusive. Here it is, and sadly it doesn't bear comparison with Dawn of the Dead, which does the same thing with considerably more verve.
The worst thing, though, is that it's just not that well made. The scenes towards the end ought to have an escalating sense of hysteria, as the first one did. I'm not sure whether it's the editing, the script or the over-broad acting that's at fault. But it feels faintly shambolic and has none of the momentum of the first film. It repeats one great gag from the original, as the senile grandpa tries to kill a woman with a hammer (trust me, in the context it was funny) but then removes any humour or suspense by stringing it out for so long it becomes boring. Also, the voiceover at the beginning of the film is one of the most amateurish I've ever head. Only the crazy décor of the cannibal family approaches the genius of Texas Chainsaw 1, and that's not shown in enough detail and is too scattered to really work in the same way.
Not a film to go out of your way for, then. It's not terrible, but nor is it good, and I can't really recommend it.
If you're going to do something, I suppose it's worth doing it well. Arrow have thrown a massively impressive array of extras at this film - so many that it feels overburdened. This limited edition contains not just the film with the expected extras, but an extra disk with some early films by Hooper, and a 100-page booklet, all in a reasonably nice cardboard slipcase.
The blu-ray picture quality is very good. Levels of detail are great, the colours are all pretty stable and consistent, and there's no obvious damage to the print used. Although it's not sharp and pristine, it's unlikely to have looked much better than this on original release. It has that slight softness that a lot of 80s films have in HD, but all in all, it's an impressive transfer.
The extras accompanying the film are much what you'd expect, but the sheer length of them is rather off-putting. The making of documentary is more than 90 minutes in length - only about three minutes shorter than the actual film. There are plenty of contributions from the surviving cast members, Tom Savini, and the guy who wrote it among other backstage crew (oddly, Hooper himself is conspicuous by his absence). It's thorough, but it's much too much for a film this slight.
Then there are two commentaries, one from Hooper, and one from Savini and various cast members. And a 25-minute appreciation of the film by horror expert Stephen Thrower. And a short interview with the stuntman. And probably some other stuff too. All of this is simply overwhelming, and I'd say that it isn't really essential.
The book (a limited edition exclusive) is decent enough - essays about the film and the Texas Chainsaw series by various luminaries. It didn't take long to read, but it's nice that it's there.
**Tobe Hooper's Early Works**
This is the extra disk (actually two disks, it's offered as both Blu-ray and DVD. The main feature is just on blu-ray, and it's difficult to imagine anyone buying this at the price just for this DVD). There's a short film, a feature film and a couple of extras.
The Heisters (1965) is a ten-minute silent slapstick film about three shady characters playing cards and generally being disagreeable. It has a certain amount of charm, but it's difficult to remember much about it.
Eggshells (1970) is Hooper's first feature-length movie. It is interminable. A bunch of hippies live in a house that they think is haunted. They spend most of the film sitting round talking, occasionally take baths together, and then talk some more. There's some kind of weirdness going on in the basement, but I found this incredibly difficult to sit through. The essay in the book tries to compare it to Medium Cool (because it has some verité-style footage of an anti-war rally at the beginning, buit that is desperately wishful thinking.
The picture quality on the extras leaves a bit to be desired (The Heisters looks slightly better than Eggshells), but they've probably been sitting in Tobe Hooper's loft for decades, so it's not surprising they don't look perfect.
There's also a trailer reel for all Hooper's horror films. Sadly, this just goes to show what an underwhelming career he's had, as most of them are lousy.
I liked Texas Chainsaw 2 when I was younger, and there are still a few decent things in it. But it's representative of a style of jokey horror from the 80s that irritates me, and however good the blu-ray and extras are, I can't really recommend it. Definitely wait for a cheaper edition, unless you're a Tobe Hooper completest (and there can't be many of those).
A review of the Studio Canal dual-format Blu-ray and DVD release, currently £13ish online.
What on earth made them release this? Blu-rays of old Hammer horrors have been trickling out over the last few years, and as you'd expect, they've tended to prioritise the more famous and popular films. With a large number of highly regarded movies still unreleased, though, they've decided to release one that nobody remembers. There are question marks about how many more Hammer blu-rays there will be - sales haven't been as strong as hoped, apparently - but if this is the kind of film they're going to prioritise, what do they expect?
Gwen is a spinster who teaches in Africa. Unfortunately, as the film begins, we see her being attacked by local witchdoctors and losing her mind. Back in blighty she's offered a job as headmistress of a village school. But although everyone's terribly nice at first, Gwen soon starts to suspect that there may be witchery afoot nearby. It all seems to focus on one of the girls in her class, Linda, whom Gwen believes is in danger of being sacrificed...
This is a boring film. After quite a promising (if rather racist) opening in 'Africa' (clearly a few model huts constructed in Bray Studios), it settles down to be one of the most tedious horror films I've ever seen. There's about half an hour of Gwen settling into the village, going shopping, teaching kids and chatting to dullards. It's OK, you might think. They're just setting things up. The problem is, it never feels like they're quite ready to stop setting things up.
Anyone who's ever seen a horror film will automatically assume that pretty much the whole village is secretly part of a coven and that Gwen is their unwitting dupe. And there are no surprises on that front (even though it looks like it's going to all Wicker Man at one point; it doesn't, alas). You will have guessed who is in the coven pretty early on. You'll guess the supposed big plot twist. And you'll even guess exactly how the denouement will play out - the film does that thing that Hammer's Dracula films always do, of laboriously spelling out in advance exactly how the big bad can be foiled, so that when it happens it's no kind of surprise at all.
The film is a vehicle for the late Joan Fontaine. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane had made it fashionable for ageing Hollywood divas to appear in horror movies, and Hammer had previously cast Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead in starring roles. Fontaine's best known films today are probably the ones she did for Hitchcock, Suspicion and Rebecca, and she plays pretty much the same victim part here. It's difficult to feel much sympathy for Gwen, who is frightfully uninspiring as a heroine. She seems to be on the verge of panic throughout, which makes you wonder why on earth she went into teaching. The hysteria thing does kind of have a plot function, but it still makes her thoroughly tiresome. Fontaine herself apparently brought the film to Hammer, and she at least treats the material with respect.
The supporting cast is full of familiar Hammer faces. There are plenty of good supporting performances (perhaps they were hoping to impress their glamorous leading lady). Alec McGowan is decent as the tormented local squire who seems to think he's a clergyman of some kind (that's a character touch that makes no sense at all). Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies is excellent as a local witch, as is Duncan Lamont as a jovially sinister butcher. Future sitcom stars Leonard Rossiter and Michele Dotrice are also in it.
The only minor character mis-step is the schoolgirl victim. She's played well enough, I guess, but although she's 14, she seems to be a bit simple, playing with dolls and generally doing stock 'vacant' acting. But she's in a relationship with a local boy that everyone thinks is about to become sexual at any minute. This all feels a bit uncomfortable.
Any character miss-steps are completely blotted out by the major plotting mis-steps, though. The film is dull, as I've said. Astoundingly, in the final third it packs Gwen off to a completely new location. Rather than instilling extra suspense (presumably the intention) this instead drains what little energy the film had completely. It was scripted by Nigel Kneale, adapting a novel, but it just doesn't work. The main problem is that there isn't any horror. The pre-credits African scene manages to generate some decent tension, and later on there's one rather creepy shot of members of the coven skulking towards their meeting place late at night. But the climactic satanic ritual is among the most hilarious I've ever seen (everyone dances like they're in West Side Story!) and the moment where Gwen is attacked by a terrifying herd of sheep is... um... well, unique, I suppose. The nastiest thing in this is probably the butcher skinning a dead rabbit (or hare possibly, I'm no expert).
It's the usual low-budget Hammer offering, although being set in the present day helps it look a bit more authentic than usual. It's directed reasonably well, though Fontaine is always rather overlit, in the way an actor playing Jesus might be - she seems to have an extra brightness to her, which combined with her generally saintly look, makes her appear religious, and not in a good way.
This is one of the least essential Hammer films, and might be my least favourite of their films that I've seen. Releasing it on Blu-ray seems to be almost wilfully eccentric.
At least it looks good in HD. The colours stand out and there's a lot of detail on display. It's crisp without looking over-sharpened (although it does go noticeably fuzzier in fades, where one scene changes to the next).
There are none of the usual Hammer extras - no making of documentary, no experts' commentaries, not even a trailer. So presumably no one can find anything to say about this.
The one extra is a 45-minute documentary called Hammer Glamour, about Hammer's sexpot leading ladies. It begins with a lengthy clip from Frankenstein Created Woman, so was probably made for that release (I seem to recall that film was slated for release at some point but then removed from the schedule). It has nothing at all to do with The Witches, but does feature clips from lots of other Hammer films. While it mostly just reels off the names of actresses who were in various Hammer films, there are interviews with some of the ladies. Caroline Munro, Valerie Leon, Madeleine Smith, (the rather tiresome) Martine Beswick and others all talk with good humour about their work for Hammer. The documentary does contain a few glimpses of nudity in stills and clips, which again makes it feel out of place next to The Witches, which was made before Hammer embraced the gratuitous boob shot.
Alhough the film looks great, it still doesn't feel like something that needed to be released ahead of more worthwhile films. I hope there will be more Hammer releases, but I hope they'll be of better quality films than this one.
This blu-ray and DVD release from the BFI is about £12.50 on amazon at the moment.
This is an old BBC TV show, which (presumably as it was shot on film) has been released by the BFI as part of their Flipside range, which is dedicated to re-releasing obscure British films which deserve wider exposure. I guess if the BBC won't release it themselves, the BFI might as well.
Schalcken the Painter was originally broadcast at Christmas in 1979 on the BBC. It was part of its arts series Omnibus, although it also fit into the tradition of showing spooky stories at Christmas (the BBC's last Ghost Story at Christmas had aired the previous year). It's based on a short story by J Sheridan LeFanu, an Irish 19 century writer responsible for some very fine ghost stories. When the BFI released its Ghost Stories box set last year, a lot of people grumbled that this had been left out. It's actually quite different, though, being an odd mix of art documentary and horror story that I don't think anyone apart from the BBC would ever have attempted.
Gottfried Schalcken (a real 17th century Dutch artist) is apprenticed to Gerrit Dou (another real painter). Schalcken loves Dou's niece, Rose. But a tall, cadaverous looking and immensely rich older man, Vanderhausen, arrives one night and demands Rose's hand in marriage. He being fantastically wealthy, and Schalcken having nothing, Rose is duly married off. She reappears twice in Schalcken's later life, with disturbing consequences.
The story is narrated by an unseen LeFanu (played with gravelly voiced authority by Charles Gray). As well as filling in the gaps in the narrative, he also acts as an art critic, and we see examples of Schalcken's real art (although the crucial painting illustrating the story's climax is fake). The whole story is kept at quite a distance from the viewer, and Gray's often slightly ironic narration helps with this immensely. The camera pans away from what should be a scene of high emotion, and Gray informs us that he's not interested in showing us that kind of thing. A lot of the distance comes from LeFanu's own laconic narration style.
The most obvious thing to note about Schalcken is that is looks stunning in a way that old TV shows don't tend to. Although filmed on the same 16mm film as most everything else the BBC did in those days, and in old square TV aspect ratio, this sets out to imitate the visual style of the art that is its subject. Vermeer and Rembrandt seem to have been the most obvious inspirations, and this feels a bit like Barry Lyndon in the way it recreates the art of its setting through lighting and frame composition. The act of painting is at the heart of the story, and the depictions of artists at work are realistic and amusing (especially the temptation of St Anthony scene).
The performances are all sound without anyone showboating. Jeremey Clyde is good as the awkward but increasingly haughty Schalcken, moving casually from bumbling shyness around Rose to casually feeling up his maidservant and frequenting brothels. Maurice Denham is great as the old miserly Dou. Cheryl Kennedy as Rose is vulnerable but not a totally passive victim, and John Justin as Vanderhausen is impressively ugly, although perhaps not as freaky as the story would have you expect.
The actual horror content is fairly light - it's not one of LeFanu's scarier stories, and it aims more to unsettle than to frighten. The climax does have a perversely creepy feel to it, but doesn't quite last long enough or go far enough to make the kind of impression it could have. We're always kept at a distance from what we're seeing, the undramatic harpsichord music adding an extra layer of ironic coldness.
The film is 70 minutes long, and there's nowhere near enough story to fill that amount if time. It moves at a decidedly leisurely pace, taking in discussions on art and furtive trips to the brothel alongside its main plot. This might be a problem for some viewers, but I found its pace very effective - I like a film that feels it can take its time.
There's a surprising amount of nudity, most of it artists' models. There's a lot of stuff about money - Rose is a commodity to be bought and sold just like Dou's art. Painters sell their talent in the same way prostitutes sell their bodies (well, not absolutely the same way, but the film asks us to draw a comparison). It's called Schalcken the Painter, not Schalcken the Artist, and seems to be making some point about how money corrupts everything. Not that it's dry or pompous. It's very well made, and as ever, one is left with a lingering regret that stuff like this doesn't get made for TV anymore.
It's probably right that they didn't include it in the Ghost Stories for Christmas set, as it's got a very different feel to that series, placing far less emphasis on spooks and fright. It won't scare you,I shouldn't think, but it is very good, and there's not much else available like it.
This looks pretty great on blu-ray, considering it was made by the BBC in 1979. I think the HD presentation adds a bit of depth and texture to the image, which doesn't show any particular signs of print damage. It's quite grainy and shadowy, and sharpening the image would have looked fake and ruined the atmosphere. As ever, a pointless DVD is also included. It looks fine, but I'd stick with the blu-ray.
The longest extra is a making of, which is essentially just a long chat with the producer/director of Schalcken (the director of photography appears too). This is interesting - he's an engaging guy and is able to go into plenty of detail about the film. Interesting to learn that Peter Cushing turned down the narrator's role apparently in disgust, even though there isn't anything *that* strong here.
Two short films round things off. Pit and the Pendulum (1962) is a version of the famous Poe story. It's black and white, and experimental. It's mainly just a guy running round in a dungeon before his encounter with the famous pendulum. It's low-budget but not terrible, and has some of the feel of the earliest Coffin Joe films, albeit without the same level of hysteria. The cheapness is perhaps a bit of a problem when it comes to the pendulum itself, which doesn't quite look right, but otherwise this is an interesting oddity.
The Pledge (1982) is also good, a 22-minute story of a group of robbers who are resolved to cut down the remains of one of their fellows from a gibbet and bury it in a grander tomb. This is part of what critics nowadays call the British 'folk horror' tradition, which seems to mean rural horror movies set in the past. Although only short, it's well made, although the print quality is a bit rough and ready. The first few minutes form a kaleidoscopic impression of the memories of the man about to be hanged, and are non-linear without being annoying. After that it becomes a conventional narrative of the rogue's similarly thuggish friends. It's quite gruesome, with the desiccated remains of the hanged man looking almost convincing. There's a lack of threat that makes it rather toothless as a horror, but it's macabre enough to keep the interest. It has music by Michael Nyman, but it's got a very early 80s feel, mainly because it's a bit synth heavy.
Both the short films are nice complements to the main feature, which isn't quite long enough to justify a release all by itself. But it's Schalcken we're really in this for, and happily it doesn't disappoint. As long as you go in expecting a slightly creepy dramatized art documentary, you will be well pleased.
This dual-format Blu-ray and DVD release from Icon is about £15 on amazon.
This was one of the earliest Hammer horrors (1959), and one they had a big success with. After reviving Frankenstein and Dracula, it made sense to keep working through Universal's monster back catalogue, and the mummy was next up.
In the late 19 century, English archaeologist John Banning, along with his father and uncle, are excavating a tomb in Egypt. In spite of the dire warnings of a local Egyptian, they open the tomb, and predictably enough unleash an ancient mummy devoted to hunting them down in order to gain revenge for the desecration of his mistress's resting place. The mummy, along with the Egyptian naysayer, track the Bannings back to England where, also predictably, John's wife turns out to be a dead ringer for the mummy's lost love.
Of all the early Hammers, I've always liked this one the least. It's famous enough to make it a sensible enough choice for a high definition release, but I've always felt it lacked punch. It very often feels more like a Saturday matinee adventure film with a few mildly horrific scenes than a full-blown gothic horror in the style of Dracula or Curse of Frankenstein. One of the main features that contributes to this is the incidental music by Frank Reizenstein - it lacks the hysterical shrieking that the best Hammer scores have, and wouldn't sound out of place on a cheap Biblical epic.
It starts off in a rather unlikely looking version of Egypt, and the tomb itself doesn't quite look impressive enough. Happily when the film relocates to England, Hammer's usual expertise in set design reasserts itself. It all looks very impressive, too, being nicely shot using the usual slightly-too-lush colours.
The cast is fairly classy, although there aren't many speaking parts. Peter Cushing gets top billing as Banning, and is his usual reliable self. The character has a limp, which has no real plot function, and is presumably meant to symbolically cast him as impotent or something, but that's not really explored. Still, he's fine in a less dynamic role than usual. Christopher Lee as the mummy is probably the best performer, bringing the character to life using just his eyes and posture (he gets some dialogue in a lengthy flashback scene). His imposing height is put to excellent use, and his filthy bandages (stained when he's dropped into a swamp by some drunken Irishmen) give him a quite scary look. His thin little mouth occasionally makes him look sulky rather than malevolent, but that's only a problem in close-ups.
Banning's wife is played by French actress Yvonne Furneaux, who doesn't really get a lot to do. The best actor aside from Lee is George Pastell as Mehemet Bey, the evil Egyptian. He was a Cypriot actor based in England, and often played shady foreign types in sinister roles. His fez-wearing swarthy Egyptian is straight out of the big book of offensive colonial stereotypes, but Pastell plays it very well. An odd feature is that, although a caption tells us we're in England, all the local working class characters seem to be Irish (and they're all drunkards). The one possible exception is the poacher (Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper), who starts out as generic mummerset English rustic but seems to have become Irish by the time he's hauled in by the police for questioning. Even the inspector sent from London is played by an Irish actor, Eddie Byrne.
The film is directed by Hammer regular Terence Fisher, in his usual functional but rather listless fashion. The moments where the mummy itself bursts in on the characters are effective, but everything else feels quite flat. Shots are never framed in a terribly exciting way, and the lighting seems a bit off occasionally. (I think it's a symptom of watching films on blu-ray so much, but I'm becoming obsessed with the ways in which actors' faces are lit on film. I fly into a fair old rage if I believe an actor's face is being kept in shadow without a damn good reason.)
Not that the fault is all Fisher's. To be fair, the story is boring when the mummy isn't attacking anyone, and has structural problems, the most obvious being that one lengthy flashback is followed almost immediately by another lengthy flashback (and the second one includes a lot of stuff we've already seen). The first flashback does at least give Christopher Lee some dialogue as we learn his backstory, and he gets to wear some pretty great Ancient Egyptian costumes.
That flashback contains the film's nastiest moment, although it takes place just off camera. This film's claim to be horror is a little shaky. The Egyptian scenes feel more like adventure films Hammer would make a bit later (like She, or the racially dubious Stranglers of Bombay) than horror. It's only in the moments (of which there are precisely four) where the mummy attacks that the film comes alive. There is something authentically nightmarish about Lee's fast-moving, huge mummy, full of hatred, as it tears the bars from a window or smashes through a door, implacably advancing on its prey.
But good though those moments are, they aren't enough to make me want to see this film again. Although Hammer did make a couple more mummy films, they didn't try to follow this one directly, as they did with their Dracula and Frankenstein movies.
This looks pretty good on Blu-ray. It's a little soft in places (especially long shots and during scene transitions), but that's probably how it's always looked. The colours are strong and stable and there's plenty of detail visible. This looks pretty good, and doesn't seem to have any of the various problems that have marred earlier Hammer releases. The main feature is also presented in a choice of aspect ratios.
There are various documentaries. A 'making of' follows the format of most Hammer making of features, with historians describing the film's genesis, a bit about the music, and contributions from a few surviving crew members. Interesting if you like that kind of thing. There's a good commentary from Hammer experts Jonathan Rigby and Marcus Hearn.
Other features include a nice 15-minute piece by Rigby about Hammer's regular supporting actors. There's also a longer, slightly dull documentary about Bray Studios, where Hammer filmed most of their classic films. And there's an episode of The World of Hammer, about Peter Cushing - this has poor picture quality and is narrated by a weary-sounding Oliver Reed. I don't know whether this series was ever shown on TV or just made for DVD extras, but episodes crop up on most Hammer releases. They're just a string a clips without any real interest beyond that.
The most impressive special feature is a second film. Stolen Face is a Hammer B-movie from 1952. Before they began to specialise in horror, Hammer made plenty of mostly forgotten films. This one is directed by Terence Fisher.
A plastic surgeon, Philip, falls in love with a concert pianist, Alice, who he meets while they're both on holiday. Alas, she turns out to be engaged, but after she dumps him he moulds the face of a deformed habitual criminal, Lily, so she looks just like his pianist lover, and marries her. Predictably enough, this doesn't work out so well, but the pianist also dumps her fiancé, and the stage is set for an unlikely and melodramatic climax.
This could have been fascinating, the plot being almost a dry run for Hitchcock's Vertigo. Instead it is dull and silly. Philip's attempts to mould Lily to his needs just come across as a boring variation on Pygmalion. It offensively suggests that Lily is a criminal because she's ugly (because women can't cope with being ugly, obviously). But then, when she's made pretty and married to a rich surgeon, she returns to a life of crime and adultery, seemingly because she can't change her criminal ways. It seems that in the film's world, if you're ugly, there's no hope for you.
The rather offensive plot might be more palatable if the film wasn't so dull, but it is, even though it only runs for just over an hour. Philip and Alice are played by fading Hollywood almost-stars Paul Henreid (best known as Laszlo in Casablanca) and Lizabeth Scott (best known these days for unsuccessfully suing a scandal magazine that suggested she might be a lesbian).
Henreid is pretty dismal, but there's no way we can possibly like a character whose immediate reaction on being dumped is to make another woman look just like his ex and marry her. Scott looks kind of tired as Alice. She's more fun as the cockney harridan Lily (post operation) although her lines are very clearly being dubbed by an English actress. Andre Morell, who's in several later Hammer horrors, has the thankless role of Alice's fiancé. He looks a bit like Anthony Eden. There's also a small role for Private Godfrey from Dad's Army.
It's nice that they included an extra movie, and I doubt it would ever have seen a release otherwise. Although it isn't very good, it's interesting to see the kinds of forgotten films that were released back then, even if it doesn't bear much resemblance to what Hammer became famous for.
There are also two DVDs - one with The Mummy, the other with the special features. Picture quality on the DVD is good, but I still don't really want to own it. The Blu-ray by itself would be fine.
All in all, then, a rather impressive release (enough to bump it up to three stars), but I still don't quite like the main feature enough to be able to recommend it unreservedly.