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This is one of the iconic graphic novels of the 1980s, when a new, more adult-oriented approach crept into American comics. As it happened, it was a bit of a false dawn, but the great comics from the era are still worth reading.
Writer-artist Frank Miller rose to prominence on Marvel's comic Daredevil, where his tough, streetwise plotting and manga-influenced artwork had made a superhero no one had really liked into a best-seller. Miller was poached by rival company DC, for whom he created this epic about Batman's twilight years.
The ageing Bruce Wayne is retired. But increasing levels of crime in Gotham City lead him to don his bat costume again to try to bring peace to the streets. Batman's return also inspires his arch-enemy the Joker out of retirement. Batman's friend and protector, Commissioner Gordon, is himself retiring, with his replacement far less bat-sympethetic. Meanwhile Superman, now a government stooge, is instructed to put a stop to Wayne's bat shenanigans…
It doesn't sound very promising, and in anyone else's hands it probably wold have been rubbish. But Miller gives the hoary old characters and situations a genuinely epic feel - up to and including having nuclear war break out. The tension builds and builds and for once when it's released it doesn't feel anticlimactic. Famously, he uses small panels along the tops and bottoms of pages to add humorous talking-head comments on the action, creating a rich and varied tone. Batman’s own snarling dialogue is film noir parody – Miller later created Sin City, which took that to self-defeating extremes.
While the other famous comic of the era, Watchmen, brutally deconstructs the whole notion of superheroes, Miller's Batman doesn't. Sure, it plays little tricks with our expectations - Robin is now a girl, Two-Face has had plastic surgery - but you never get the feeling that we’re being asked to question whether a bodybuilder dressed as a bat kicking people's heads in is a good idea.
Still, it works, and it's something that any comic fan should read. A lot of the machismo is so over-the-top that it's funny. This is a black comedy above everything else. The artwork is amazing - the Japanese influence is heavy (the Joker looks like the mask out of Onibaba) and this is very stylised for a superhero comic. Most people probably know enough about Batman's supporting cast (Alfred the Butler, Gordon, the Joker etc) from the old TV show that the references are easy to pick up. The nuclear paranoia and roving street gangs are very 80s, but much of it feels timeless. The moment where Batman and his followers swarm into Gotham on horseback is one of the most stirring in any comic.
A lot of Frank Miller’s subsequent work has been disappointing (the sequel to Dark Knight is terrible). But this is essential reading, and even works if you think that superheroes are a bit silly. They are, but done properly, anything can work.
This is an exemplary piece of popular history which details – as you’d expect – the conquest of England by the Normans. It’s probably the defining event in English history.
But it doesn’t just provide an account of the fateful year 1066. There’s a lot of backstory to absorb. We get a lot about Edward the Confessor, the king before 1066, and his own trials and tribulations – he was only able to claim the throne after the death of the fearsome Viking Cnut and his sons. And about Earl Godwine, the over-powerful lord who may have effectively ruled England in Edward’s name, whose son Harold was briefly king. Poor old Harold is mainly known for losing the most famous English battle of all time.
The book continues after the Battle of Hastings and ends in 1086 with William’s death. The whole country wasn’t defeated in just one battle, and William the Conqueror was fighting rebellions of varying degrees of seriousness for the first part of his reign. He was also Duke of Normandy, and the story frequently takes us back there, where William had yet further problems. Being a medieval king doesn’t seem to have been much fun.
But it was better than being a peasant, who had next to no rights. Although the English seem to have resented their subjugation, the Normans seem to have been the better rulers on the whole – the English were prone to murdering their enemies and enslaving vast numbers of people. The Normans, apparently more committed to Christian values, didn’t do those things. Not so much, anyway.
In spite of having two of the most famous pieces of historical evidence survive – the Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday Book – there are still huge gaps in what we know about the era. Marc Morris is very upfront about this, and admits when the evidence doesn’t allow him to be certain about what occurred, or why. This is occasionally frustrating – why did William lock up his powerful brother Odo? What was the Domesday Book actually for? But it still manages to bring the characters to life in ways that seem more or less convincing, but without treating them like characters in a novel.
Morris also keeps things from getting confusing, which is something books like this sometimes forget. Not everyone has a ready familiarity with, say, Norman land measurements, but the book never gets weighed down in esoteric detail. It provides a lively, well-written account of probably the most important event in English history.
It’s about 350 pages, plus notes, and has several photos, mostly of extant buildings and sections of the Bayeux Tapestry. At time of writing it’s about £6.50 on amazon, with the Kindle edition priced at about £4.
This takes place in England, presumably in 1966 when the film was made, in and around the mansion of one Dr Norberg. He’s a Nazi who has frozen a number of ‘elite’ Nazis and is trying to revivify them so that they can carry on with the war. There are said to be 1,500 Nazis ready to be revived which doesn’t seem like very many.
In spite of the film being called ‘The Frozen Dead’, the frozen Nazis have very little involvement in the plot. Norberg’s niece Jean comes to visit, along with her friend Elsa. Norberg’s dodgy assistant Karl murders poor Elsa, and he and Norberg keep her severed head alive for some reason. There are other Nazis, and a dishy doctor is on hand for Jean to fall in love with. Oh, and there’s a wall of disembodied arms, because why wouldn’t there be?
It’s a mess, but more entertaining than I expected. The frozen Nazis are clearly in their 20s, which mkakes you wonder how elite they really were. They are also all visibly moving, even when they’re meant to be in deep cryogenic freeze.
Elsa is very obviously breathing after her death too. But she gets turned into one of the better severed heads I’ve seen. She sits there in a box, painted blue and grimacing at the camera. She’s better than the severed head in The Brain that Wouldn’t Die. She looks as grumpy as I’d probably be under similar circumstances.
Dr Norberg is played by Dana Andrews, a Hollywood star whose career didn’t quite go to plan. How he ended up in this drivel is anyone’s guess. He doesn’t give a particularly interesting performance, and his attempts at a German accent are not the best.
Jean’s main feature is her impressive bosom; there isn’t enough to distinguish her character from any other horror heroine otherwise. Her love interest, Dr Ted Roberts, is monstrously tall. The character’s morals are all over the place (he seems happy to collaborate with all Norberg’s schemes until he realises he’s a Nazi). There’s one hilarious moment when the actor is visibly staring at Jean’s cleavage while he’s talking to her. It doesn’t really look like he’s meant to be.
This is a crazy and very silly movie which mixes mad science and Nazism for no reason at all. The most charmingly daft detail is that it’s set in a small English village, but somehow no one notices the limping, heavily scarred, German woman who goes around doing evil things for her Nazi masters.
I was expecting this to be dull, and was pleasantly surprised. It’s fun, but don’t expect much from it (like, for instance, a coherent plot, convincing character motivation, or any thrills, scares or intentional laughs). It all ends exactly as you’d expect (wasn’t it Chekhov who said that if you see a wall of disembodied arms in act one, by the end of act five it will have strangled someone?)
This Arrow Blu-ray is £20 on amazon at the moment.
This was made for TV in 1964, but ended up in cinemas because it was too violent. It’s a remake of a 1946 film noir based on a Hemingway short story.
Two hitmen kill a man named Johnny North. The older killer is bothered by the victim’s passivity. There’s also a rumour he was involved in a million-dollar heist, with the money still missing. So the two hitmen start visiting Johnny’s associates, trying to track the money down. They uncover an ugly story of double-cross, with the inevitable femme fatale at the centre of it.
The killers are played by Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager. Marvin is still and steely; Gulager twitchy and sadistic.
The victim is played by the reptilian John Cassavetes, an actor who always feels like he deserves to get gutshot by hitmen. The woman is Angie Dickinson. I like her in other films but I don’t find her nearly as compelling here was everyone else seems to. Her performance is a bit too realistic; a femme fatale needs to be unreachably glamorous. She’s the kept woman of a mobster played by a rather miscast Ronald Reagan. This was the Gipper’s last acting job before he went into politics. Sadly he’s a bit seems too nice; even when he slaps Dickinson there’s never really any sense of danger.
Don Siegel, the director, keeps things moving pretty well. But the film is often very slow, and the plots twists are a bit obvious. There are great moments, and Marvin and Gulager are impressively scary. The ending is fantastic, if a little predictable. But it’s not quite the iconic thriller it wants to be. The 18 rating seems over-the-top.
The blu-ray image looks pretty good. There are a few scratches, but the colours are vibrant and the level of detail good. There are two aspect ratios to choose from, the original TV ratio and the widescreen used for the theatrical release. I thought the TV one looked better.
There are three extras. There’s a 30-minute piece about Marvin, a 20-minute piece about Regan and a 10-minute interview with Siegel from an old French TV show. The Marvin and (especially) Reagan ones are really good – they’re basically both filmed interviews with people who have written biographies about their subjects. There’s also a chunky booklet with various interviews and reviews.
This is a great release of the film, and shows how far Arrow have come in only a couple of years – gone are the sniggering fanboy documentaries and dreadful cover art, and the films they release range from the hilariously lowbrow (Hell Comes to Frogtown, of all things) to the highest of the high (Bicycle Thieves, of all things). Whether The Killers quite warrants this level of care and attention is open to debate, but if you’re a fan of the film, this is a required purchase.
This Studio Canal Blu-ray is about £13 at the moment.
Dead of Night is really the first notable British horror film. It was the first anthology horror in English, telling several short stories. It was made in 1945, when a wartime ban on horror had just ended.
An architect goes to a country house for the weekend. He realises he’s been there before in his dreams, and fears that if he stays bad things will happen. The other guests at the house telling their own encounters with the supernatural.
This is better than later anthology horrors, because the framing narrative is just as scary as the short tales. The conclusion of the film is chilling, with a genuinely freaky montage of weirdness. It’s a rather predictable ending, but it still works.
The first two stories are slight but decent enough – a premonition of doom and a ghostly child. The third is subtly scary – a man is possessed by a haunted mirror and develops murderous designs on his wife as a result. This is followed by an incongruous funny story in which golfing buddies fall out over a woman – one ends up haunting the other. It’s quite funny but feels very out of place. The final story, the most famous and scariest, involves a ventriloquist apparently possessed by his own dummy.
The film wisely eschews special effects for the most part, so in that respect it holds up very well. It’s more a film that summons up an enduringly creepy mood than one which aims to make us jump. It does so very well, and the shadowy sets filmed in black and white suit the subject matter perfectly. There were four directors, and between them they craft something a lot more coherent than it has any right to be.
The thing that perhaps dates it a little is the acting. The likes of Mervyn Johns and Googie Withers all play their parts entirely competently. But they’re all playing to type rather than creating new characters. You could drop the actors in any film of any genre and you feel they’d be exactly the same. (This is especially true of the golfers, a comedy double act inherited from Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.) The exception is Michael Redgrave as the ventriloquist, who gives a very modern performance as a man succumbing to desperation.
The picture quality on the blu-ray is good. It’s a huge improvement on earlier versions, and if the picture seems a little soft at times, there’s still a lot of fine detail visible, and good contrast. There’s one extra, a lengthy documentary in which various talking heads (Kim Newman, Matthew Sweet etc) discuss the film. It’s worth watching, as most contributions are interesting.
Any vintage horror fan needs to see the film, and this Blu-ray is the best option at the moment.
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.