Dirty Pillows & Devil’s Dumplings … CARRIE Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18.

There was a time (and such a fine time it was) when Brian De Palma and Dario Argento  were bracketed together as whizz-kid master thriller technicians, heirs apparent to the Hitchcock crown, et al, but both careers have declined since then… hardly surprising for directors who have been plying and polishing their trade since the 1960s. Their respective declines, though, have been relative… for De Palma it means that a higher proportion of his regular output has become more Hollywood formulaic / less auteurial and no doubt he cries all the way to the bank, clutching his big pay check, on account of this… for Argento it means trading on past glories with Mother Of Tears, cranking out such banalities as Giallo and Dracula 3-D and struggling to crowd fund a film starring Iggy Pop. Having just had the memory of Dario’s recent screen misadventures knocked right out of our heads by the restored Suspiria, here’s a timely reminder for all of us that De Palma was once a bit special, too.

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I’m assuming that the viewer is already familiar with the plot of Carrie… ugly duckling turns beautiful swan and is doused with pig blood… which really sets the telekinetic cat among the pigeons… topped off with the mother of all shock endings. The film also marked De Palma’s own transformation from vaguely lefty underground film maker to Hollywood player, ready to flex the dazzling technical chops he’d built up on the innovative but obscure likes of Dionysus In ’69 (1970) before a mainstream audience… and didn’t he do well? Dazzlingly deploying every tool in his armoury – virtuoso tracking, crane and “figure of eight” shots, slow motion, multi-focus lenses, split screen, you name it – De Palma, for my money, out-Hitches Hitchcock here, with sequences of sensuously strung-out suspense that will still perch you, agonised, on the edge of your set, no matter how many times you’ve seen them before. Coincidentally of course, the success of De Palma’s movie put a rocket under the career of the guy who wrote its source novel, a certain Stephen King.

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Piper at the Gates of Hell…

To add to the strength of his material and his own cinematic virtuosity, BDP could call upon the contributions of a team of stalwart collaborators, just about all of whom are acknowledged and celebrated and get to have their say somewhere in the mind-bogglingly generous supplementary material with which Arrow have stuffed this set. Here, I’ll just mention his cast. De Palma held a joint casting session for the film with George Lucas, who was looking to fill the roles for Star Wars. Seems like Brian got George’s cast-offs but can you imagine anybody topping the ensemble playing that he got in Carrie? The Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek in the title role and Piper Laurie as her religiously fanatical mother were almost unprecedented for a “mere” horror film. Amazingly, the director considered swapping Spacek and Amy Irving in their respective roles (has Irving spent a single second in her life looking dowdy?) and took a lot of convincing to have Nancy Allen in the film at all (thereby nearly depriving us of the most mouth-watering Bad Girl in screen history… never mind Carrie White burning in Hell, I wanna know what mischief Chris Hargensen is getting up to down there!) De Palma did insist on Betty Buckley slapping Allen (his soon-to-be wife) repeatedly and for real during the PE detention scene. Armchair psychologists may make of this what they will… and no doubt they will.

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The 4K restoration looks a tad grainy to these eyes but they’ve been a bit spoiled recently… it was probably a bad idea to watch Carrie (or anything, for that matter) right after CultFilms’ staggering release of Suspiria. The good news is that the film sounds great in 5.1 surround sound and as previously mentioned, Arrow have really gone to town on the extras, here… De Palma, writer Lawrence D. Cohen, DP Mario Tosi, composer Pino Donaggio (for whom Carrie was also the Hollywood breakthrough… he talks about George Lucas jumping out of his seat at the end of his first exposure to the finished film), editor Paul Hirsch (who had his work cut out for him, assembling the split screen footage), casting director Harriet B. Helberg and art director Jack Fisk (Spacek’s real life husband) talk at length about their participation in putting Carrie together (much is said, for instance, about the aborted “raining stones” prologue). All of the major thespian participants (with the exception of John Travolta, whom everyone agrees was a sweetheart) speak about the film in documentaries made at various times over the years… it’s interesting to see how they’ve aged.

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Homecoming Queen… the return of The Repressed

As well as the expected galleries, trailers, TV and radio spots, you get a brand-new visual essay, courtesy of Jonathan Bygraves, comparing the various screen adaptations of Carrie over the years. There’s an “alternate” (should be “alternative”, right?) title sequence created for network television screenings to obliterate any sightings of lady bits or direct references to menstruation (to put this in perspective, it’s only in recent months that UK TV has allowed commercials for sanitary products to feature red rather than blue blood!) Betty Buckley, who plays Miss Collins in the film, talks about her stint as Carrie’s mom in the riotously received theatrical flop Carrie – The Musical and in an episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, some refugee from Green Day takes us on a present day tour of the movie’s iconic locations. He’s kind of irritating but I occasionally cracked a smile on account of his gonzoid presentational style.

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I haven’t had time to check the commentary track by Lee Gambin and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, nor the opportunity to peruse the 60-page booklet, which features a new appraisal by Neil Mitchell, who wrote the Devil’s Advocates entry on Carrie, a reprint of a 40th anniversary fanzine, and an archive interview with De Palma. I’m unlikely to see that now, given that last time I checked this limited edition set was selling out all over the place.

If you do manage to get your hands on a copy… well, we can burn it together and pray for forgiveness!

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Sorry, couldn’t resist another shot of Satan’s favourite cheer leader…

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Stop Making Sense… TLE’s 4K Restoration Of SUSPIRIA on CultFilms Blu-ray, Reviewed (No “Green Puke”… Guaranteed)

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Cultfilms. 18.

Synapse have been trailering their Suspiria restoration for something like four years but TLE’s rendition kind of crept up on the rails to emerge in a dead heat with it. Before most people have enjoyed the opportunity to watch even one of these efforts (let alone both) there has already been a lot of online argy-bargy, involving screen grab comparisons, about the relative merits of each, not all of which has been politely conducted. Indeed, more heat has been generated than light, along with a certain amount of alleged “green puke”. I’ve already blogged about TLE’s version on the big screen. Suffice to say, I detected no green puke whatsoever and I’m speaking as one who’s intimately acquainted with the sight, smell and yes, the taste of verdant vomit, given that we’re still cleaning up the Doc’s basement here after last year’s House Of Freudstein office party. Now’s our chance to evaluate how well TLE’s big screen triumph has translated to little silver discs, courtesy of CultFilms…

… but first, a warning from the director himself: “I am Dario Argento. Welcome! You are about to see Suspiria, a film in full Dario Argento style. It’s full of emotions, fright and fear. I hope you are ready to receive all of this”. Bring it on, my sinister-looking, half-Brazilian pal…

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… and a hundred or so minutes later, to nobody’s great surprise, we’ve watched the release of the year, beating off such strong competition as Arrow’s own Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Phenomena and Don’t Torture A Duckling sets, a series of Sergio Martino gialli on BD from Shameless and any amount of tawdry Severin treasures. Suspiria will light up your TV to truly gob-smacking effect and sounds even better than it did at the Mayhem Festival back in October… if you’ve invested in a 5.1 set up you’ll be able to join Suzy (Jessica Harper) and Sarah (Stefania Casini) in following the footsteps of Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and co as they clunk around the hidden recesses of the Tanz Akademie, doing God knows what.

A few random thoughts that occurred while my senses were being battered “in full Argento style”. Doesn’t Pat Hingle (Eva Axén) have an… er, unusual walking / running style? Why does everyone make such a big deal out of her being so spectacularly murdered during the film’s most celebrated set piece without ever mentioning her friend, who was simultaneously bisected by falling glass and masonry? And does Madam Blanc (Joan Bennett) really believe that such grotesque carnage can be attributed to “questionable friendships”?

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“Nothing to see here, move along…”

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Joan Bennett in her Holywwod pomp.

Although people often moan about the alleged plotting implausibilities of Argento’s subsequent Phenomena, does the plot of Suspiria actually sustain serious scrutiny? The notion that a coven of witches could operate under God-fearing society’s radar by operating a dance school where they kill and possibly also (it is strongly suggested) eat the students makes about as much sense as Anton Diffring’s fugitive plastic surgeon opening a circus then shagging and killing all of his glamorous female performers in Circus Of Horrors (1960). Fortunately, the oneiric impact of Horror cinema has never turned on the dictates of logic or the banalities of “common sense”. Stop trying to make sense of it and just celebrate the arrival of Argento’s masterpiece in a format that befits its status as arguably The Greatest Horror Film Ever Made. At the same time, we are served a saddening reminder of how very far the director’s stock has slipped in the meantime. One very much doubts that, forty years after their original releases, fans are going to be buzzing over the prospect of e.g. Phantom Of The Opera, Giallo, Dracula in 3-D or, more pointedly, Mother Of Tears being revived and restored.

One question continues to nag at me, though… if it ever came to a knock-down, drag-out scrap, who would emerge victorious from a playground showdown between Suspiria’s knickerbockered Little Albert and Bob Boyle from House by The Cemetery? Readers views are welcomed…

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You calling my pint a puff, like?

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Is one talking to me or chewing a brick?

Extras wise, we get a couple of Cine-Excess featurettes that you’ll already be familiar with if you bought Nouveaux’s previous UK Blu-ray release of Suspiria, ditto the Jones / Newman commentary track. The original bonus materials comprise a 27 minute interview with the director and a fascinating hour(ish) long featurette on the actual restoration process.

In the interview, Argento sticks steadfastly to one of the taller tales he’s ever spun, the one about the uncredited actress playing Helena Markos requiring no make-up because she actually looked like that in the first place (sure thing, Dario!) While we can dismiss this as a mischievous bit of whimsy, it’s harder to forgive the way that Daria Nicolodi has, once again, been written out of history vis-a-vis the writing of Suspiria, reversing the trend in previous editions (notably Anchor Bay’s 25th Anniversary 3 disc DVD set) to increasingly acknowledge her input.

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“… she even came with that skewer through her neck!”

In the riveting restoration featurette, TLE’s Torsten Kaiser talks us through “before”, “during” and “after” samples from key (in the technical rather than narrative sense) scenes from the movie, giving us the merest glimpse of what a Herculean labour it was to render such cinematic beauty from what was a pretty ropey bunch of elements. Throughout Herr Kaiser talks about what was done without giving too much away about how it was actually done. Maybe’s he overestimating the degree of technical savvy  at which the average viewer (certainly I) is (am) operating. Perhaps he calculates (correctly, in my case) that the average viewer is incapable of getting his head around such technical stuff. There could also be an understandable desire to keep the more sophisticated tricks of his trade to himself…

… whatever, for further invaluable insights from Torsten, check out the upcoming interview with him in Dark Side magazine. One of the things we discuss there, of which there is no mention in this featurette, is the magic moment at about 1:17:24 of Suspiria (in this presentation) where Professor Milius (Rudolf Schündler) tells Suzy that you can destroy a coven by severing its head, cue the spectacle of Dario Argento’s face, popping up in a window reflection as he directs the scene. Very noticeable in the previous Nouveaux Blu-ray, its been significantly “dialled down” this time around… and I kinda miss it!

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The Greatest Show On Earth, Part 3: Ooh, My Brain Hurts… MALATESTA’S CARNIVAL OF BLOOD Reviewed

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BD. Region Free. Arrow. 18.

Hived off from Arrow’s earlier American Horror Project Volume 1 set, here’s a stand alone release of the only feature release from documentarian Christopher Speeth. For many years this 1973 effort was considered a lost film and no doubt there will be many who wish it had stayed that way. In his introduction to the film, Nightmare USA  author Stephen Thrower advises that the best way to approach Malatesta’s Carnival Of Carnival Blood is to suspend one’s expectations of any sort of linear narrative. Better still, one could hoist them up into the rafters and beat them energetically with sticks, like some kind of piñata of preconceptions.

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Nice legs. Just saying…

The film does kick off with suggestions of a plot of sorts, albeit a very weird and weedy one. A couple of families have started living and working at the eponymous down-at-heel fairground but when not manning the coconut shy and hook-a-duck stands they are surreptitiously searching for their relatives, who disappeared while visiting it. Nobody thinks about calling in the police, it’s just business as usual, even when (and in this respect MCOB reminds me of nothing so much as Umberto Lenzi’s totally out-of-wack giallo, Eyeball) further people are gorily bumped off, e.g. in a roller coaster decapitation. Mr Malatesta is nowhere to be seen (probably dodging Health & Safety inspectors) until the end of the picture and his underling (below) Mr Blood’s attempts at reassurance fall

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predictably flat. Seems that these guys are running a cult whose members believe that drinking human blood and eating human flesh will prolong their lifespans… not exactly a novel idea here at The House Of Freudstein, though it has to be said that most of the cultists aren’t looking too great on this diet…

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…. and don’t start me on that fucking midget from Fantasy Island as “Bobo”!

Scriptwriter Werner Liepolt reveals, in a bonus interview here, that he was trying to say something about the Eucharist and the pagan festivals it superceded by updating the true story of Sawney Bean and his cannibal clan. Keep on taking the tablets, Werner. He complains that director Speeth (also interviewed herein) departed from his screenplay early on to mount the increasingly episodic, psychedelic and surrealistic spectacle that has been passed down to us as Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood.

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“We’ve had a lot of accidents…”

You could argue that the dilapidated fun fair, with its broken down attractions themed around pioneers and prospectors, suggests the American dream going to seed (MCOB’s Pennsylvania setting looks like “The Rust Belt” decades before that term came into vogue) and the savage realities behind both the frontier myths and the increasingly moribund capitalism which feeds on them… but if you don’t, we needn’t fall out about it, OK?

There are moments where Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood plays like a run-of-the-mill Romero re-run… other times, it suggests a time-travelling sequel to Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse which Alejandro Jodorowsky scripted but was then obliged, by previous commitments, to hand over to Ed Wood and Jean Rollin, who directed alternate scenes.

Own up… you want to watch it now, don’t you?

P.S. At the time of posting this review I hadn’t yet had the chance to check out the disc’s commentary track by film historian Richard Harland Smith, which no less a pundit than Darrell Buxton advises me is “the very best (he has) ever heard”. Will be rectifying this omission as a matter of urgency.

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Back In Black… Arrow Academy’s FOUR FILM NOIR CLASSICS Box Set Reviewed

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Cornel Wilde endures the Siren’s song in Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo…

BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow Academy. PG.

Labels make things easier. Sometimes too easy. Especially when applied retrospectively. In his seminal 1973 tome A Heritage Of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972, David Pirie labelled three films that had been released almost a decade-and-a-half earlier (Horrors Of The Black Museum, Circus Of Horrors and Peeping Tom) as “Anglo-Amalgamated’s Sadean Trilogy”. While effectively differentiating these films from the Gothic Horrors of Hammer and their imitators, this appellation managed to misleadingly elide the simple-minded (albeit inventive) gory thrills of the first two with Michael Powell’s masterly analysis of scopophilia. Donning my music hack head here for a moment, nor have I ever been entirely convinced that such a thing as “the UK Freakbeat Scene” (diagnosed by Phil Smee almost twenty years after the alleged event) ever actually existed.

And so it is with film noir… although coined by Nino Frank as early as 1946, this term for b/w Hollywood crime epics of the ’40s and 50’s (that were more commonly known, in their day, as “melodramas”) didn’t really catch on in critical circles until the 1970s and again, the nomenclature covers a bewilderingly disparate collection of titles and scenarios, from stirring tales of two-fisted dicks (though never, sadly, the converse) tangling with The Syndicate and assorted femmes fatales to more sophisticated efforts that presented their proverbially pulpy, Chandler, Hammett and Woolrich-patented anti-heroes in Expressionist compositions and confronted them with Freudian conundrums… in a further refinement, the films gris took it upon themselves to critique The American Way itself.

Arrow Academy’s box set is a useful sampler of this cinematic phenomenon (it would really be pushing it to describe film noir as a “movement”), comprising four pictures that illustrate its length (the earliest was made just after the end of WWII, the latest mid-way through the ‘ 50s) and breadth (in stylistic and thematic terms).

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Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror was made in 1946, the year in which its director also managed The Spiral Staircase and The Killers…. boy, they used to knock ’em out in those days! Olivia de Havilland turns in a tour de force performance or two in this one, starring as the identical Collins twins Terry and Ruth, one of whom has murdered a former lover and one of whom is covering up for her sibling. Without the latter’s co-operation, Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) can’t pin the kill on either of them and in exasperation he calls in Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), renowned psychiatrist and expert on twins, to see if he can distinguish the psycho from her over-loyal counterpart. The doc falls in love with Ruth (or is it Terry?) and both of them take a shine to him. Given that it was precisely this triangular arrangement which aroused the emotions that led to the original murder (of another eligible doctor), the closer Elliott gets to the truth the shorter his life expectancy starts looking…

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Psychiatrist Scott Elliott gets in over his head with Ruth (or is it Terry?) in The Dark Mirror.

With the aid of some nifty process shots, Siodmak and screen writer Nunnally Johnson adeptly keep the viewer guessing as to who’s who in the sisterly configuration and what each of them is up to. Engaging stuff, for which you’ll have to keep your wits about you… and a clear influence on the subsequent likes of Basic Instinct (1992).

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If Siodmak’s picture dabbles a toe in the waters of aberrant psychology, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond The Door (1947) jumps straight in there, right up to its impeccable Expressionist arse. While Lang exerted an undeniable influence over much of Hitchcock’s output, SBTD is a pretty blatant rip of Sir Alfred’s Rebecca (1940) albeit with hysteria levels ramped up to (at least) 11.

Slumming it in Mexico, bored heiress Celia (Joan Bennett) undergoes a whirlwind wooing at the hands of charismatic chancer Mark Lamphere (the perennially troubled and troubling Michael Redgrave) and before you can say “spot the loony” she’s married him. Talk about “marry in haste, repent at leisure:… on arriving chez Lamphere, Celia finds it inhabited by the intense Lamphere Jr, her snotty new sister-in-law and a jealous governess who’s pretending to be facially scarred (as you do). The joint is also (metaphorically) haunted by the spectre of Mark’s deceased first wife. Just to put the tin hat on her newfound domestic bliss, Mark (whose moods swing more energetically than Hugh Hefner) has taken the “man cave” thing to extremes, turning six rooms in the place over to commemorations of infamous wife-killings. A seventh room is locked against all comers and of course instead of legging it, Celia resolves to stick around and find out to whose upcoming murder it is has been consecrated… well, duh!

Although Celia laughingly slights psychoanalysis at one point, this film ultimately puts more faith in the instantaneous curative power of catharsis than Freud himself ever did.. Certainly Celia does, confident that the truth about a childhood trauma will stop Mark in his murderous tracks…

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“Calm down, calm down…”

… though the suggestion that something as trivial as said incident, when revealed in all its banality, could have driven Mark to the brink of murderous madness makes you doubt that the film’s happy ending is going to stick. This is psychoanalytical schtick pitched scarcely higher than in any run-of-the-mill giallo (e.g. the guy in Lamberto Bava’s Blade In The Dark who develops a pathological fear of hearing ping-pong balls bouncing in the night, or whatever it is). *

Predating Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus and its imitators, there has been an honourable (well, sometimes) tradition of couching the proverbial battle of the sexes in violently metaphorical terms that can be traced back through the likes of Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), Piero Schivazapa’s The Frightened Woman (1969), … even unto The Taming Of The Shrew (1590-92). Crossing the line that delineates finely-wrought from overwrought, The Secret Beyond The Door rapidly drifts way out of its psychological depth but is consistently difficult to tear your eyes off, pitched, as it is, camper than a row of tents.

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A theme that emerges at several points in the supplementary materials on this box is that many of the seminal noir directors were dissenting refugees from Nazi Germany and that this background lent the films much of their dark edge. Abraham Polonsky, whose  family escaped earlier Russian pogroms, emerged in his as turn as a stalwart of left-wing intellectual New York Jewry. His first significant venture into film noir was writing Robert Rossen’s Body And Soul (1947), in which an ambitious but principled up-and-coming boxer (played by John Garfield, “the Jewish Brando”) faces his toughest fight outside the ring, struggling to maintain his integrity in the face of professional pugilism’s shadier side. That film’s influence over Raging Bull (1980) is signified here by a Martin Scorsese introduction to the third film in this collection, Polonsky’s directorial debut Force Of Evil (1948).

Garfield stars again as Joe Morse, an ambitious mob lawyer attempting to square his conscience by looking out for his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), whose small time numbers racket is being swallowed up by The Syndicate, his efforts only serving to open up a further succession of ethical worm cans. The temptation to cite these moral complexities and Garfield’s anguished weighing of them as “Shakespearian” is only intensified by Polonsky and cowriter Ira Wolfert’s decision to render their dialogue as blank verse. The “my brother’s keeper” theme serves as another pre-echo of Raging Bull and admirers of The Godfather might also detect shades of Force Of Evil in Coppola’s 1972 biggie. Nor are the film’s closing shots from under the Brooklyn bridge entirely dissimilar from ones featuring the Golden Gate bridge in Hitchcock’s masterful Vertigo, made ten years after Force Of Evil.

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View from the bridge… John Garfield’s moment of moral awakening in Force Of Evil.

By having Joe turn his back on his former life and prepare (we are led to believe) to spill the beans to the The Law, Polonsky satisfied the Hays Office’s Motion Picture Production Code while slipping through a sly screen parable in which Capitalism is explicitly identified with gangsterism, as the small time numbers runner grind out a living in the shadow of Wall Street. No prizes for guessing that he would fall foul of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 after being ratted out by Sterling Hayden. Resolutely refusing (as did Garfield) to follow suit and point the finger at others (earning himself the description of “a very dangerous citizen” by Illinois Congressman Harold Velde), Polonsky was blacklisted for decades, writing subsequent pictures (e..g. Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959) only with the aid of a “front” and directing a mere handful of further films after HUAC had itself fallen into disrepute.

film-noir-the-big-combo-poster1.jpgBy the mid-fifties artists of the calibre of Lang, Siodmak and Polonsky had, for their various reasons, vacated (or been obliged to vacate) the noir stage, leaving it to more, er, workmanlike types such as Joseph H. Lewis. Although he’d directed The Bowery Boys, Bela Lugosi during the fallen Horror Great’s Monogram period and some other real dross, Lewis clearly picked up a bit of technique along the way (even if much of it could be considered “idiosyncratic” to say the least… his habit of breaking up the foreground of shots in his formulaic Westerns earned him the moniker “Wagon Wheel Joe”) and his Gun Crazy (1950) attained a brief vogue, a few years ago. His best film, though, is probably the one that rounds out this box, 1955’s The Big Combo.

Cornel Wilde’s intense Police Lt. Leonard Diamond (rough Diamond, right?) obsessively pursues Richard Conte’s stone-cold psycho hoodlum Mr Brown (Hm, wonder if Quentin Tarantino ever saw this one?), his moral mission complicated by his equally driven desire for the bad guy’s girl Susan (Jean Wallace). But is this infatuation itself driven by an unconscious desire to have what Brown has… to be what he is? The Big Combo could easily have turned into formulaic stuff but Wilde’s undercharismatised performance and Wallace’s wet Nelly screen non-presence are amply made up for by the brilliance of the bad guys.

Conte proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that once your character has been established as a dangerous psycho, there’s no need for you to chew the scenery (a lesson Anthony Hopkins could have learned from him, if not from Brian Cox). What does Susan see in this guy? Well, as Helena Stanton’s Rita, her showgirl rival for Diamond’s affections, puts it: “A woman doesn’t care how her man makes his money… just how he makes love” and there’s a scene in this film during which we can only infer that Mr Brown is performing cunnilingus on Susan. As if Lewis hadn’t already steered sufficiently close to the wind with that, there are other Production Code-testing scenes in which the dialogue and body language between Mr Brown’s favoured hit men Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) strongly suggest that they are in a committed homosexual relationship. Mingo seems to address Fante as “Fanny” and is told by him at one point that “the cops will be looking for us in every closet”. When not perpetrating such mischief, Lewis can be found – in cahoots with influential noir cinematographer John Alton – subverting the climax of Casablanca (1942)…

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… or supplementing his visual tricks with such audio devices as the final “favour” that Brown does for turncoat henchman Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy, in the same year as he debuted as Hammer’s Quatermass). The Big Combo benefits further from a sleazy big band jazz OST, courtesy of David Rasksin.

Arrow have stuffed this set with attractive extras. Each of the main features gets the commentary track treatment from an interested expert and is accompanied by featurettes, trailers and image galleries. Best of all, three of them are accompanied by contemporary radio productions… an audio rendering of The Dark Mirror, in which John Dehner stars alongside Olivia De Havilland… in honour of its folk tale inspiration, Secret Beyond The Door is paired with a moralistic adaptation of Bluebeard, geared towards a juvenile audience… for Force Of Evil, Arrow wheel out a radio version of Body And Soul (in which Garfield plays opposite the original Mrs Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman) and Hollywood Fights Back, in which Charles Boyer hosts 40 plus tinsel town titans, denouncing the poison of McCarthyism.

This is an excellent primer / incitement to further studies in the field of film noir, a vibe which has continued to resonate on screens as recently as this year’s Blade Runner 2049. Other noir box sets are available and hopefully Arrow have got a few more up their sleeve, too.

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Buy the box or Fante and Mingo will be having a word with you…

* Much has been made of the influence Lang exerted over the look of Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971) but for his far from run-of-the-mill giallo (sic) Suspiria (1977) Argento pinched Joan Bennett, flowers with a secret significance, hidden levels in an imposing building and a fiery climactic conflagration from Secret Beyond The Door.

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Billy, Don’t Be A Weirdo… BLACK CHRISTMAS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. 101 Films. 18.

God, Christmas arrives earlier every year, doesn’t it? Still, if you’re the kind of ghoul whose yuletide wish is to sit the family down in front of Bob Clark’s classic 1974 Canucksploiter (as, apparently, was standard procedure for the Presleys every December 25th at Graceland) then you’re gonna need five weeks or so to drop heavy hints to your nearest and dearest about slipping this one into your Xmas stocking. Maybe they won’t take your hints but never mind, worse things happen during the festive season…

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… for instance, to the occupants of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, allegedly somewhere in the USA (actually, Toronto). Initially assailed by obscene, ranting phone calls from some sex-case identifying himself as “Billy”, members of the feisty sisterhood (which includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and Lynne Griffin among its number) are soon being killed and their bodies arranged in the attic, where young William seems to be putting together some kind of black Nativity scene. Clark and writer Roy Moore pull every trick in the book to divert your attention towards Hussey’s intense concert pianist, abortion-resenting boyfriend as prime suspect, which probably tells you all you need to know about whether it’s him or not. John Saxon’s Police Lt and his (somewhat clueless) underlings take an eternity to work out that those phone-calls are actually coming from within the sorority house (difficult to believe, actually, that the ungodly racket Billy makes during his calls wouldn’t have already pinpointed his whereabouts), setting up a rattling false ending and memorably ambiguous creepy  coda…

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Horror and thriller buffs of a certain vintage and of a certain theoretical persuasion have had a lot of fun (haven’t we?) trying to nail the influence of Italian gialli on the lucrative American stalk’n’slash cycle. Of course there were other antecedents (as, indeed the giallo had its own roots in e.g. Germany’s Edgar Wallace adaptations) and we’re looking at one of them right here. It has even been suggested (a suggestion which gets repeated in the bonus materials on this disc) that John Carpenter conceived (or “borrowed” the concept for) his massively-influential-in-its-own-right Halloween (1978) as a sequel to Black Christmas…

Clark (whose earlier genre credits included Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, 1972 and Dead Of Night, 1974) might or might not have been aware of Bava and Argento’s contemporary stylish efforts… there are shots in Black Christmas which strongly suggest that he was (I won’t insult the reader by spelling out precisely which ones I’m talking about… they’re clear enough) although it’s possible that he and Argento were just cribbing stuff from the same Fritz Lang movies. Whether as a result of studying Argento or not, Clark introduced… always a contentious claim… well, he certainly put considerable impetus behind the use of sinuous P.O.V. shots in subsequent North American slasher movies. To this end he and his camera crew improvised a primitive Steadicam before Steadicam was even invented. Cinematic influences are seldom a one way street and it’s difficult to watch the establishing glimpses of Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery, wherein an external shot of a face at a window lap dissolves into a similar but not identical one, without concluding that Fulci has watched Black Christmas, or at least its closing moments.

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Clark incidentally inaugurated the trend (considerably less significant artistically than in marketing terms) here of tying these kill-by-numbers films into holiday set ups and special occasions (Halloween, Friday the 13th, St Valentine’s Day, et al… not to mention such inferior, albeit sometimes entertaining Xmas slay-rides as Carles E. Sellier Jr’s 1984 effort Silent Night, Deadly Night), also spawning a fertile filone of Sorority House Massacres while he was at it.

Horror and comedy (to invoke an adage so often restated that it’s become tantamount to cliché) are two sides of the same coin and it’s not hard to detect foreshadowings of Clark’s subsequent comic success with the likes of the Porky’s films in Black Christmas. Kidder’s drunken, potty-mouthed provocateur (who kids the dumbest cop in the picture that “fellatio” is a new telephone exchange) gives particularly good value for money but all of the major cast members (well, apart from the barely glimpsed Billy) contribute believable, believably imperfect and generally likeable characters. The female principals, in particular are strong-willed free spirits, polar opposites of their sketchy cinematic descendants in so many dreary “have sex and die” epics. The fact that you care for these people makes Black Christmas so much more than the bravura display of cinematic technique that it undoubtedly is. Clark is handsomely served throughout by his collaborators in front of and behind the camera, several of whom remember him with affection and admiration in the bonus materials assembled on this disc.

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Clark died with his son Ariel on 04/04/07, reportedly at the hands of an inebriated, uninsured driver, which just goes to prove the aforementioned Signor Fulci’s point that nothing a horror director can put on the screen is remotely as horrifying as the stuff that happens every day in real life.

101’s BD transfer of Clark’s finest hour is a bit grainy but that shouldn’t put you off this seminal and seriously chilling thriller. Like it says in the trailer: “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… IT’S ON TOO TIGHT!”

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The Greatest Show On Earth, Part 2: Drastic Plastic… CIRCUS OF HORRORS Reviewed

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Circus Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Sidney HayersProduced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Leslie Parkyn, Norman Prigen and Julian Wintle. Written by George Baxt. Cinematography by Douglas SlocombeEdited by Reginald Mills and Sidney Hayers (uncredited). Art direction by Jack Shampan. Musiby Muir Mathieson and Franz Reizenstein. Makeup Artist: Trevor Crole-Rees. Stunts by Peter Diamond (uncredited). Starring: Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Conrad Phillips, Jack Gwillim, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, Colette Wilde.

If the plot of Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959) seems a tad fanciful to you (and let’s face it, the thing is bloody unhinged), it comes across like one of those gritty kitchen sink-dramas that were being churned out round about this time when you compare it with Anglo-Amalgamated’s next Horror offering, Sydney Hayers gloriously deranged Circus Of Horrors (1960). The terminally unlikely scenario of this one was dreamed up by writer George Baxt, who contributed uncredited dialogue to the script of Hammer’s Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958) and collaborated with Milton Subotsky in writing City Of The Dead / Horror Hotel (also 1960) which was effectively the first Amicus (though officially Vulcan) production. He was back at Hammer for John Gilling’s shadow Of The Cat (1961). I962’s Burn, Witch, Burn aka Night Of The Eagle, also directed by Hayers) was an uncharacteristically restrained exercise in psychological horror on the parts of both writer and director. Baxt was back doing uncredited dialogue duties for Hammer (and indulging his obvious big-top fetish) in Robert Young’s Vampire Circus (1972.) The final feature he scripted (in collaboration with its director, Jim O’Connolly) was Tower Of Evil aka Horror Of Snape Island (1972.) The point of this little digression is to establish Baxt’s credentials as a churner out of quality trash, a happy knack which reached its undoubted high water mark in Circus Of Horrors…

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… which kicks off in “England, 1947”, where two stiff upper lipped-dudes are driving like twats out of hell to the assistance of society lady Evelyn Morley (Colette Wilde), speculating whether she’s been talked into going under the knife of controversial plastic surgeon Dr Rossiter, despite being warned by other doctors that the proposed procedure is “hopeless… even dangerous!” They get their answer when they roll up at the Morley place to find her smashing the joint up, laughing hysterically and sporting a face like a well-smacked baboon’s arse.

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Apparently, back in the 1940s, it was Scotland Yard rather than the General Medical Council who dealt with surgical malpractice. Dodging one of their roadblocks, on-the-lam Doctor Rossiter (Anton Diffring) drives a blazing dinky car down a hillside and is badly burned while escaping from it. His devoted assistants Angela (who’s madly in love with him) and her brother Martin (fuck knows what his motivation is) operate to heal his scars and simultaneously disguise his identity (though actually the only discernible difference in his appearance, pre and post-car crash, is that he’s shaved his beard off).

Adopting the guise of Dr Schuler, Diffring tells his sidekicks (played by Jane Hulton and Kenneth Griffith, respectively) that they can lie low in France until all this silly bit of bother has blown over. Tooling around en francais, they happen upon a young girl by a rural roadside, whose face was scarred by a left-over bomb from WWII. When they ask Nicole to be directed to her papa, she points out the circus on the other side of the road… good job too, they nearly missed that! “Schuler” restores Nicole’s pretty face. “I am beautiful… I am beautiful… I am beautiful…” she repeats, over and over again, while skipping among the assorted clowns, freaks and strong men, to the point where you’re rather hoping that one of them will grab the little brat and give her a good slapping. Meanwhile her dad (Donald Pleasance) is signing the failing circus over to Schuler, who promptly gets him drunk and stands by, without any attempt to intervene, while he is mauled to death by an extra in a flea-bitten furry suit… er, I mean, by one of his performing bears.

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Censured by Angela and Martin for his callousness, Schuler advises them that they will turn the circus into the greatest attraction on Earth by populating it with desperate criminals whose appearance he has changed to allow them to evade justice. They’ll be variously coached to ride horses through flaming hoops, train lions and elephants, fly through the air on flying trapezes and so on… and they’ll be deterred from breaking ranks by the “before and after” dossiers that they know Schuler has compiled on them. What could possibly go wrong? Well, when the deterrent effect of those dossiers proves somewhat less than compelling, an ever-increasing number of would-be grasses encounter unfortunate accidents during their performances. It doesn’t exactly help that Schuler is an insatiable fanny hound and that the beauties he creates with his surgical skills are promoted and demoted on the bill according to where they currently rank among the notches on his bed-post. Professional and sexual jealousies further stoke the tension and increase the number of malcontents for whom spectacular demises must be devised. Adding significantly to the sinister ambience, each one is accompanied by Garry Mills crooning “Look For A Star”, a gloopy hook line in search of a song that’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Joe Meek at his most murderously mongy.

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Now, absolutely none of this makes a lick of sense. If Rossiter / Schuler is such an ace cosmetic surgeon, how did he botch the Morley girl’s op so spectacularly as to necessitate such a drastic career change? What were the odds on him finding a facially damaged young girl whose father needed help turning his circus around? How does the endless succession of grisly deaths among his employees square with Rossiter / Schuler’s avowed attempt to keep a low profile? Where did he pick up the skill set with which to train circus performers and the business acumen that enables him, over the course of a decade,  to turn the lamest show on Earth into – as he promised – “the greatest attraction in Europe” (we see him chiding the ring master over the timing of the clown’s entrance: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a dozen times!”)? By now, his little operation has also become known as “the jinxed circus” (“riding to glory on a trail blood”) due to the amount of its performers who’ve publicly pegged it (all chalked down to misadventure by the credulous authorities). As a suspicious police detective observes when the show hits Blighty, this ghoulish aspect has promoted ticket sales among the more jaded elements of the thrill seeking public. The roar of the grease paint, the smell of the crowd, eh?

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“Death takes a lot of defying around here”, quips Inspector Arthur Ames (Conrad Phillips), posing as “Arthur Desmond, freelance crime reporter” and romancing Nicole, now grown up in the comely shape of Yvonne Monlaur. Meanwhile the bitch-off between Elisa the stiletto-wielding prostitute turned high-wire queen (Joan Colins-lookalike Erika Remburg) and horse back acrobat Maga (Vanda Hudson) is reaching critical mass. Magda’s leaving the circus and Schuler to marry a besotted old rich dude…. how foolish of her to agree to working a final shift in the knife throwing act. Ditto Elisa (who’s already survived the introduction of a snake into her bathroom) and her flying noose routine, which inevitably concludes with her becoming  the 12th “accidental death” in this circus. “Quick, get a doctor… and send in the clowns!” barks Schuler. It’s just like David Cameron said… namby-pamby “Health & Safety culture” is a millstone around the neck of thrusting young entrepreneurs! Meanwhile exhumations of previous circus employees / victims have established that they’d all undergone plastic surgery and the police are (very slowly) putting two and two together (“Plastic surgery is the key!” “But what lock does it fit?”) Just to up the ante, the cops invite Evelyn Morley and her smacked baboon’s arse of a face to the circus’s big London opening…

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Getting careless, Schuler is mauled by a man in a gorilla suit. He authorises Martin and Angela to operate on his face but unwisely taunts the latter about his engagement to his latest protegé Melina (Yvonne Romain) before going under the anaesthetic. There’s a fantastic ultra close up of Angela mugging furiously to convey her delight when Schuler rips his bandages off to reveal a face like a festering walrus scrotum. His long serving, long-suffering sidekicks have clearly had enough… they also stint on the daily PCP rations so that the lions end up mauling Melina while she’s attempting to “tame” them! As the man in the gorilla suit chases Schuler into the path of Evelyn Morley’s limo, there’s another great mugging close up as the former society beauty (who recognised Schuler as Rossiter by dint of the snot green scarab ring he unwisely wore in both guises) runs over the doc, whose consequent injuries are beyond the remit of plastic or any other kind of surgery. Bastard had it coming…

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It was smart indeed for Billy Smart’s Circus to participate in the promotion of a film which perpetuates the myths that a) circuses are entertaining and b) clowns are funny, though I don’t imagine it ended up recruiting a lot of staff for them, given the estimate it offers of an average circus performer’s life expectancy!

Schlocky as they undoubtedly are, both Horrors Of The Black Museum and Circus Of Horrors tell us a lot about British society on the cusp of the ’50s and ’60s. The shadow of WWII still looms large and there’s clear dissatisfaction with austerity but misgivings about the consumerism that might replace it. Where would it all end if the rabble’s tastes are relentlessly indulged? Spend a couple of hours watching ITV (not exactly a plastic surgery-free zone) for the chilling answer… Perhaps the most apposite auguries of this brave new world are the medical atrocities of Mengele et al, which seem to have somehow “inspired” the surgical practices of Rossiter / Schuler (ironic that the gay actor Diffring, who fled persecution in Hitler’s Germany, was so often called upon to play characters who, explicitly or otherwise, amounted to “nasty Nazis”). Perhaps the dread apprehension of what Hitchcock and others had filmed in the death camps in some way influenced Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the film that completed Anglo-Amalgamated’s so-called “Sadean trilogy” in the following year.

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“Camp? Moi?”

And never forget…

 

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The Greatest Show On Earth, Part 1: Arma Virumque Cano… SANTA SANGRE on Severin Blu-ray, Reviewed

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BD. Regions A/B/C. Severin. Unrated.

I saw in the ’90s (which would prove to be an exceptionally eventful decade for me) with a New Year’s Day preview screening of four upcoming Horror biggies at The Scala (for which the decade would, regrettably, prove a decisive one). Through the fog of time and encroaching senility I recall that the bill included Argento’s Opera (which took a few years to get a proper release over here) and concluded with the latest entry in the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise (I guess it would have been Part 5: The Dream Child, though I think I skipped all or part of that screening to stand a chance of getting home at a reasonable hour)… the third film was Society (or was it Two Evil Eyes?)… but I remember quite clearly that the bill was completed by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989).

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Most of the audience would, like myself, already have seen most of the films on this bill, if not on the big screen. There was a fair old buzz building up over Santa Sangre, though. Was the man who had electrified the counter-culture (amazing / confusing many of us in the process) with El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) a spent force? Since the latter title his projected film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi saga Dune had foundered on Hollywood incomprehension of his epic vision (and intolerance of the expense it would entail). His one completed feature Tusk (1980) was allegedly a big disappointment, though we had to take that on trust because it was about as easy to see as his reportedly lost feature debut, Fando And Lis (1968). Needless to say, I emerged from the gloom of The Scala into the brittle Winter brightness of King’s Cross and the new decade, raving about one of the most stunningly original films I had ever seen. Darrell Buxton subsequently pointed out that despite its on-the-nose allusions to James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) and nods to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920), the film that Jodorowsky had actually pinched rather a lot from here was Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927)…

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… no matter, there are only so many stories (especially ones as twisted as this) in the world and everybody is, to a more or less conscious degree, influenced by what has gone before them. Santa Sangre still stands as potent cinematic assault on the senses and the very soul… or so I assumed. I’m not actually sure that I’ve watched it all the way through since that screening at the Scala almost three decades ago (despite owning several editions of it) so Severin’s characteristically lush Blu-ray release comes as a welcome opportunity to take another dip in The Holy Blood and re-acquaint myself with this particularly florid manifestation of Jodrophrenia…

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The first thing which struck me was that certain pieces of dialogue make much more sense on a subsequent viewing (for instance Blanca Guerra admonishing Axel J for the banality of his hallucinations, which initially seems like a throwaway moment of surreal whimsy is, with hindsight, obviously pointing towards the film’s denouement). Much of the dialogue is actually somewhat clunkier than I remembered, though that hardly matters for a film maker who cut his teeth in Marcel Marceau’s mime troupe and has always insisted that he makes films with his balls rather than his brains. Santa Sangre is hardly a kitchen sink drama, even if El Jodo packs just about everything bar the kitchen sink into this 123 minute three-ring circus. Who else but Jodorowsky could mount an epic allegory of self realisation and spiritual independence via the Mother Of All Primal Scenes and subsequent misadventures of a compulsive slayer of women (played by his son Axel), a story based on the director’s encounter with a fan who turned out to be the notorious / celebrated Mexican serial killer Goyo Cárdenas? I won’t bother trotting out too much of the plot, which might well look ridiculous on paper… on screen Santa Sangre remains a magnificent mind fuck of a movie, whatever its cinematic antecedents.

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As if all that weren’t quite enough for you, those Severin gringos have loaded this disc with … great googly-moogly… more than five hours of exclusive extras! Dave Gregory’s feature-length appreciation, Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen, is exhaustive to the extent of featuring Santa Sangre’s oft-neglected co-writer Roberto Leoni, though elsewhere on this edition Jodorowsky insists that Signor L’s participation was minimal and talked up to satisfy Italian quota requirements. There are various interviews with the director in which he fully justifies his eccentric reputation. I’ll leave you to discover most of these treasures for your selves, suffice to say that at one point he retracts his comment about making films with his balls and announces that he’s now making them with his anus(?) Any other director making that claim would be laying themselves open to a pretty obvious put down, but coming from Jodorowsky it makes  you wonder if some of his more pedestrian contemporaries shouldn’t consider making their films with more, er, niche body parts…

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You also get a commentary track, on which Alan Jones struggles manfully against AJ’s imperfect English and mercurial mind to come up with something coherent (when your interviewee introduces himself with the words “I hope that I am here”, you know that you’re going to have to earn your money) and deleted scenes on which Jodorowsky also comments. Those with found memories of Jonathan Ross’s For One Week Only series on Channel 4 will be happy to find an amended version of the episode that marked Santa Sangre’s British release here, alongside the expected trailers and a short film by Adan, another of Jodorowsky’s sons, which confirms that the apple never falls far from the tree. There are a couple of Simon Boswell shorts in which Jodorowsky seems to be supporting the OST composer for this film in a fledgling film-making career of his own. Most chilling of all is Goyo Cárdenas – Spree Killer, a documentary on the film’s real life , rehabilitated inspiration.

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Among Jodorowsky’s many memorable pronouncements in the supplementary materials assembled here is the one in which he declares Santa Sangre “a gift to the people”. Unsettling as it is, this is one gift for which (besieged as we are, on all sides, by banal cultural popcorn) we should remain eternally grateful.

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Fade Away And Radiate… THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN Vs THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN

1) “I shrink therefore I am”: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

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BD. Region B. Arrow Academy. PG.

“I was still continuing to shrink… to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the Man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite… but suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept… the infinitely small and the infinitely vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if I would somehow grasp The Heavens. The Universe… worlds beyond number… God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of Man’s limited dimension. I had presumed upon Nature… that its existence begins and ends is Man’s concept, not Nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance… all this vast majesty of Creation. It had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes  smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God there is no Zero. I still exist!”

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This stirring soliloquy (pisses all over Rutger Hauer’s “tears in the rain”, don’t it?) closes the peak achievement in the C.V. of Jack Arnold, that peak achiever in the milieu of ’50s Cold War Sci-Fi cinema (hm, is it too late to consider slipping in a “spoiler alert” there?) By the time he commenced shooting The Incredible Shrinking Man, Arnold already had It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge Of The Creature (1955) – those first three shot in then-voguish 3-D – and Tarantula (also 1955) under his belt, as well as anonymously heading up the second unit that rendered the climactic destruction of the planet Metaluna in Joseph M. Newman’s This Island Earth (closing out a particularly busy 1955).

Arnold is primarily interesting as one of those directors who, within the confines of the studio system (alongside his SF credits he was also churning out westerns, thrillers, melodramas and even juvie delinquent epics to fulfil the terms of his Universal contract) brought enough of a personal stamp and smuggled in enough of his ongoing personal preoccupations to merit consideration as an auteur. It’s difficult to ignore the suggestion that Arnold’s own background as the scion of Russian immigrant stock predisposed him towards sympathy for the outsider (which translated readily enough, in his science fiction work, into sympathy for the alien) and his pre-Universal involvement in such union-boosting efforts as Our Union (1949) and With These Hands (1950) meant that he was never going to fall in line with the paranoid “Reds under every bed” McCarthyite hysteria that informed so much contemporary American screen Sci-fi.

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In a stroke of good fortune, Universal gifted him, as producer, Bill Alland, a protegé of Orson Welles who had participated in the notorious 1938 Mercury Theatre radio production of H G Wells’ War Of The Worlds, which convinced a significant chunk of the American public that they were actually being invaded by Martians. In another, Alland  enlisted Ray Bradbury, then emerging as a giant of SF literature and somebody else who could be relied upon to imagine alien visitations in a more optimistic light than such near contemporaries as  1951 efforts, Christian Nyby and Howard Hawkes’ The Thing From Another World and Robert Wise’s more sophisticated The Day The Earth Stood Still (in which authoritarian aliens offered the human race peace…. or else!) or William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (also 1953). Together they initiated a tradition of sympathetic screen aliens that would reach its tragic apogee in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), though they lost the battle with studio suits which resulted in the otherworldly visitors being portrayed as cyclopean jellies, rather than left to the viewer’s imagination. Another fantasy film great, Jacques Tourneur, lost similar battles several times but Arnold was in a strong enough position to resist studio demands to compromise his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man, with a “happy ending” just four years later.

By then Arnold had a new producer, Albert  Zugsmith, a figure often derided as devoid of taste (worth pointing out though, that he did produce Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil in 1958). What he did have was the rights to Richard Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man, so once again Arnold was well served in the writing department… even more so, given that Matheson had contractual dibs on writing any film adaptation of his book. After the protagonist’s affair with a circus dwarf had duly been downgraded to a supportive friendship, Matheson’s story evolved, in the hands of Arnold, beyond its story of male status anxiety in a changing world (reflecting the insecurity of its writer’s own chosen profession… tell me about it!) into the defining screen myth of atom age existential angst. Just how do you live an authentic, meaningful life in the face of the daily threat of nuclear annihilation?

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Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is enjoying a boating holiday with his dutiful wife Louise (Randy Stuart) when she goes below deck to grab him a beer, just as the boat passes through a mysterious mist (of nuclear fall out, we are led to believe) that adheres to his skin. Later, as he tells his doctor (we have to take it on trust), he is accidentally sprayed with insecticide and the cumulative effect of these two unfortunate incidents is his ever accelerating decline in stature, beautifully paced and convincingly rendered via oversized sets and props plus inspired split-screen work and other in-camera effects. In a marvellously impactful scene, Louise reassures Scott that as long as he’s got a wedding on his finger, she’ll be there for him… only for said ring to slip off of his rapidly diminishing digit!

As his condition relentlessly progresses and rubber-necking neighbours and news crews assemble on his lawn, he rants: “So I became famous… I’m a big man!” at his long-suffering wife, who’s struggling to do her best for him under impossible conditions. When she accidentally lets the family cat in before a shopping expedition, Carey finds himself besieged by it in the doll’s house which he’s been reduced to occupying. Extricating himself from that particular peril, he falls into the cellar which is by now an intimidating alien (or possibly post-Apocalyptic) terrain where leaky boilers generate tsunamis and scraps of food must be contested with common house animals. After his climactic victory over a spider that’s now about three times as big as he is, our diminutive Everyman makes it through a grate into the jungle that was formerly his garden and as he fuses with the cosmos, delivers that marvellously moving valediction.

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To accompany this extraordinary cosmic collision of Sci-Fi schlock, philosophy and visual poetry, Arrow have assembled an impressive array of extras including the Arnold doc Auteur On The Campus, a Tim Lucas commentary track, and an interview with Richard Christian Matheson about his father’s creation, plus the Super 8 digest version of Arnold’s film, which is almost as drastically reduced as its hero. As well as the expected trailers and reversible sleeve, first pressings of this release will include a fully-illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kim Newman, on which I’m currently not in a position to comment.

So that was how the sensitive way Hollywood dealt with radiation anxiety in 1957. Fast forward 20 years, and…

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1) “Don’t sit next to a garbage can!” The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Regions B / 2. Arrow. 18.

“Magnificent… you’ve never seen anything till you’ve seen the Sun through the Rings of Saturn!”

“Oh my God… it’s his ear!”

“Have we got crackers?”

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Steve West (Alex Rebar) is the only survivor of a NASA space probe that orbited Saturn. He found the view of Sun flares through its rings “Magnificent!” but it killed his colleagues and caused blood to gush from his nostrils onto his ’70s porn star moustache. Back on Earth, NASA installs him in a state of the art secure hospital that’s apparently been constructed in somebody’s garage, where he is guarded by a bored-looking doctor and a fat nurse (played by – I kid you not – Bonnie Inch). When he wakes up he’s not best pleased to find his hands and face resembling those of Michael Gambon in The Singing detective. The fat nurse takes this discovery even less philosophically and – apropos of nothing in particular – she runs down a corridor in slow motion then through a glass door, screaming all the way. Possibly miffed that they didn’t assign him somebody who looked more like Joanne Whalley, scabby Steve chases her down and rips half her face off.

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With me so far?

General Mike Perry (Myron Healey) details Steve’s friend Dr Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning) to locate the rapidly suppurating Steve as a matter of priority before these top-secret developments come to the attention of the press. To this end he is issued with a Geiger counter, with which he wanders around the woods shouting: “Steve, it’s Ted… I want to help you.” You may scoff, but the discovery of Steve’s ear (resembling a bubbling pizza slice) on a bush shows that Ted is on the right track. Steve apparently needs human cells to stay alive and after he’s decapitated an angler played by a certain Sam Gelfman (one of this film’s producers… the other was Amicus legend Max J. Rosenberg) and we’ve suffered endless slow motion footage of the severed noggin bobbing around in a stream and going down a waterfall, the General arrives in town to bring a new level of urgency to the manhunt, i.e. they spend a lot of time planning dinner. Ted is forbidden to tell anyone about the unfolding crisis, but spins the beans to his wife after admonishing her for the absence of crackers from their kitchen cupboard. No doubt this would  have spoiled the evening for his in-laws but luckily they don’t arrive because they’ve been killed by Steve. Miscellaneous other victims include Jonathan Demme, who’s wandering around in the woods for some obscure reason… and TIMM also alarms Rainbeaux Smith during a totally gratuitous topless location shoot.

“The more he melts, the stronger he gets!” we are unreliably informed… and the more he kills, the more Ted and The General eat. There’s an interminable scene in which the latter fixes himself a cold turkey leg salad, only to have his face bitten off by Steve, who subsequently loses his own arm after attempting to attack a girl in her kitchen. Finally, in an epic foreshadowing of the climax to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Ted and some cops track Steve down to a deserted industrial plant. He kills all of them then suffers his final meltdown. Discovered by a janitor, he is shovelled into a nearby bin as a radio report trailers the next space probe to Saturn…

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Is there any discernible moral that we can draw from The Incredible Melting Man? Most certainly… as stated by director Sachs in an accompanying 20 minute featurette: “The real moral would be… if you’re melting, don’t sit next to a garbage can!” Crackers indeed!

FX legend Rick Baker also appears in the featurette, reflecting on this early outlet for his prodigious talents and taking the piss out of Rebar’s thespian pretensions. He also reflects that with Rob Bottin, Craig Reardon and Greg Cannom on his crew “it’s funny that (TIMM ) wasn’t better than it was!”

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Cannom gets his own say in another featurette. Sachs contributes a very droll commentary track (“It’s a gloop movie, basically!”) in which he laments the attitude of the film’s producers, who didn’t “get” his ironic, kitschy, comic book vision (though Baker contends that this orientation was less a matter of irony and more about making a virtue of necessity).

As with it’s incredible shrinking antecedent, this release also includes the film’s Super 8 digest version and there’s a piece on the whole Super 8 digest phenom by Douglas Weir in the inlay booklet, alongside Mike White’s essay on TIMM. I did get that one and jolly good it is, too.

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An Ideal Place To Kill… OASIS OF FEAR Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Shameless. 18.

The sad news of Ray Lovelock’s death, following so fast on the passing of Umberto Lenzi, has prompted us to dust off the HOF archives and take a retrospective look at one of their collaborations, the 1971 giallo Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere (“An Ideal Place To Kill”) aka Dirty Pictures… can’t help thinking that Shameless missed a trick there by releasing the “rebuild edition” under consideration here (which reinstates footage previously believed to be lost) under the title Oasis Of Fear.

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Umberto Lenzi… what can I say that you couldn’t possibly work out for yourself by reading the interview with him elsewhere on this Blog? Although several of my questions seemed to irritate him to distraction (which was far from my intention), he did seem genuinely pleased at my suggestion that his early gialli with Carroll Baker had exerted an influence over such subsequent Hollywood bonkbusters as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.

Lenzi wanted Baker to star in Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere too, but other commitments obliged him to substitute Irene Papas for her in the role of patrician swinger Barbara Slater. Personally, I find Papas better suited than Baker to this kind of film (delivering a performance here that is studded with subtleties) and Lucio Fulci, for one, seems to have agreed with me, casting her as the priest’s mother who nurses a deadly secret in the following year’s miraculous Don’t Torture A Duckling (and yes, we’ll finally get round to reviewing the Arrow Blu-ray of that when we get a breather from all the other stuff that’s currently clogging up our in-tray).

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Another, er, somewhat less obvious bit of casting in Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere has Latin lovely Ornella Muti playing the decadent Dane Ingrid Sjoman. She and her ostentatiously British (check out that Union Jack-et!) hippy boyfriend Dick Butler (Lovelock, who was indeed half-English) have been financing a heady slice of la dolce vita for themselves by flogging those “dirty pictures” to sex-starved, red-blooded Italian dudes. These loose-livin’ free-loveniks are understandably dismayed to find their smut supply running out, jeopardising their selfless mission to “spread the gospel of sexual freedom to darkest Italy”. Ingrid’s a game girl though, and more than happy to pose for some home-made porn. Not long after they hit on this expedient, however, our anti-heroes are busted by kill-joy cops and ordered to leave the country.

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While they’re attempting to do so they run out of gas and try to siphon some off in a plush villa on the edge of town. Attractive but older and uptight owner Barbara is naturally pissed off on discovering these uninvited guests in her garage but something about the free-wheeling kids seems to pique her interest and she unexpectedly invites them to stay the night. This being the swinging ’70s, after all concerned have necked enough booze and gotten to know each other, various sexual permutations play out (Muti, in only her second or possibly third screen credit, delegated her nude scenes to a suitably sumptuous body double). Dirty Dick is suitably tickled by this outcome and teases Barbara that she’s risking some kind of Manson massacre by inviting footloose hippies into her home and bed. As it happens, somebody is getting into deep shit but things are not entirely what they seem and the pay off will play out with predictable giallo unpredictability (well, the resolution might have surprised contemporary viewers, though seasoned pasta paura fanciers probably won’t have too much trouble, at this remove, working out what’s going on).

The commercial imperative to try to cop a bit of the Easy Rider action dictates a conclusion which doesn’t amount to very much but there is plenty of period kitsch to cherish and Lenzi effectively embroiders that staple theme of Italian exploitation cinema which indicts the respectable bourgeoisie as more morally reprehensible than the social dregs whom they despise and exploit.

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The late, great Ray Lovelock built a screen career on ambiguity… he’s sexually ambiguous as Evan in his screen debut, Giulio Questi’s startling Django Kill! (Se Sei Vivo, Spara, 1967)… in Jorge Grau’s legendary zombie-stomper Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974) he’s a cynical hustler turned archetypal English hero (right down to being named “George”)…  he’s a lily-livered kidnapper with qualms, who just might save the ransomed girl in Lenzi’s Almost Human (1974, a busy year for our Ray)… he’s not quite the man we thought he was in the following year’s Autopsy, that most macabre of gialli from Armando Crispino… there’s more sexual ambiguity from him as the only heterosexual man on the planet who couldn’t manage an erection for Edwige Fenech in Marino Girolami‘s The Virgin Wife (“La Moglie Vergine”, 1975)… in Ruggero Deodato’s Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man (“Uomini Si Nasce Poliziotti Si Muore”,  1976) he and Marc Porel play cops whose disregard for the rule-book makes them virtually indistinguishable from the criminals against whom they’re supposed to be protecting society… in Franco Prosperi’s Meet This Man And Die from the same year, Ray’s a cop going deep, deep undercover.. and in Prosperi’s 1978 effort La Settima Donna (“The Seventh Woman”) aka Terror and Last House On The Beach (no question for guessing which Wes Craven film supplies the “inspiration” for that one) he poses as “the voice of reason” in a gang of bank-robbers brutalising the young women among whom they’re hiding out, although he’s obviously orchestrating and relishing the various outrages. The mystery in Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984) turns on Lovelock’s character, who he is and what he might or might not have done…

This ambiguous, chameleon-like aspect made Lovelock an ideal actor for giallo and it’s regrettable that he only essayed a handful of roles in that genre. Still, the C.V. he left behind (and he was working in features and TV as late as last year) is impressive enough as it stands.

Rest in peace, Ray. Adios, Umberto…

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Bad Day At Red Stone… THE DEVIL’S RAIN Reviewed

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BD. Regions A/B/C. Severin. Unrated.

Publicity for the US release of Dario Argento’s super-stylish Suspiria (1977) made prominent use of the line: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 80”, from which prospective viewers could only have drawn the perverse and erroneous conclusion that Argento’s Horror tour-de-force ended on a note of anti-climax. The publicity campaign for the seventh feature outing by another noted stylist, Robert Fuest’s The Devil’s Rain (1975), made no such error, insisting that it packed “absolutely the most incredible ending of any motion picture ever!” For their characteristically lush BD revisit, Severin take a scarcely less rabid tack, promising “the most eye-popping, flesh-melting finale in grindhouse history”. So, does the ending of The Devil’s Rain live up to those billings? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves… Fuest things first…

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After a Bosch backed title sequence, TDT throws us abruptly, in the best Shakespearian tradition, into the thick of its action and leaves us struggling to work out what the Hell is going on. In a remote desert dwelling, Mrs Preston (legendary film noir actress / director Ida Lupino) and her son Mark (William Shatner, filling in time before the Star Trek revival and putting in his customary… broad… performance) open their door to find an agitated daddy Preston insisting that somebody named Corbis wants his book back, before rapidly disintegrating into a rancid pool of goo on the porch.

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At this point I was expecting a quick cut to Diana Rigg receiving a message that reads: “Mrs Peel, we’re needed”… too clever dick by half on my part, as although Bob Fuest production designed very early (pre-Honor Blackman) episodes of The Avengers and directed several in the final series, when Linda Thorson had replaced Diana Rigg, he never worked on any in the Emma Peel era… more’s the pity.

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Anyway, back in the desert Shatner hot foots it over to Red Stone for a confrontation with Corbis, in the Saturnine form of a brilliantly cast Ernest Borgnine (it couldn’t have taken too many hours of make-up to turn him into a randy old goat). Under a glowering sky they enact Fuest’s little tribute to John Sturges’ Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) before repairing inside a clapped out, boarded up wooden church whose interior reveals a groovy stained glass window, various Satanic paraphernalia and pew-loads of hooded, chanting acolytes with empty black eye sockets. Borgnine swaps his cowboy threads for a crimson robe and their battle of faiths begins in earnest. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a one-sided battle and Mark is soon himself reduced to the status of empty eyed Satan fodder.

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It’s Captain Kirk… but not as we know him.

Meanwhile his brother-in-law Tom (Tom Skerritt) is attending a scientific demonstration of his wife Julie (Joan Prather’s) psychic powers, presided over by Dr Sam Richards (Eddie Albert). In the course of this she experiences visions of what’s going on at Red Stone so everybody heads over there in an attempt to save Mark and Mrs Preston, setting up the climactic battle between Good and Evil and the Burman’s much touted goo spouting, Play-Do vomiting finale…

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Fuest felt himself to be on a mission to “smuggle Art into Product” and although The Devil’s Rain affords him nothing like as many opportunities to do this as his Phibes brace or  The Final Programme (1973) there are some startling moments herein, e.g. when Julie stares into the empty sockets of a devil worshipping drone and finds herself in the midst of a sepia-tinted flashback to Puritan times which explains (or purports to explain) what’s going on with that book of bloody signatures, the cauldron of souls and all manner of other bewildering stuff. In retrospect, it occurs to me that this sequence exerted a big influence over the opening one to Lucio Fulci’s gothic gore mini-masterpiece The Beyond (1981).

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That the above-mentioned devil worshipping drone is played by unrecognisable movie debutant John Travolta (whose then room-mate Prather got him this role and also converted him to the cause of Scientology) is just one of the esoteric footnotes to The Devil’s Rain, the authenticity of whose Satanic ceremonies was ensured by the participation, in a consultancy role, of Anton LaVey, founder and high priest of The Church Of Satan. You also see him, golden-masked, at Borgnine’s elbow during significant ritual moments.

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Much is made of LaVey’s participation in this disc’s extensive bonus materials (apparently “approved by Lucifer himself!”), including interviews with his biographer Blanche Barton, also Peter H. Gilmore and Peggy Nadramia, the Church’s current high priest / priestess. The consensus which emerges is that LaVey had a ball making The Devil’s Rain and got on famously with everybody while doing so, but wasn’t crazy about the finished film and would probably have been prouder of appearing in one of Lupino’s noir efforts. Further interviews follow with Skerritt, FX technician Tom Burman, pundit Daniel Roebuck and a short, contemporary one with Shatner. As well as her reminiscences, we get to see the on set Polaroids taken by script supervisor Ana Maria Quintana and of course the expected trailers, TV and radio spots are present and correct.b3-24-78.jpgThere’s also an invaluable 2005 audio commentary with Fuest (who passed away in 2012), mediated by Marcus Hearn. The director is every bit as distractedly eccentric as I remember from my own brief meeting with him. He frequently seems to tune out of the conversation, only to admit to Hearn that he’s getting wrapped up in watching his film. They still manage to cover his career in reasonable depth and it’s interesting to learn that after doing the Phibes movies, he turned down the chance to direct Vincent Price again in the thematically similar Theater Of Blood, though he makes a point of praising the job Douglas Hickox did on that in 1973. He declares his philosophy of production design to be “anything to disturb the eye” and refutes, in passing, the claim (originating in Cinefantastique magazine) that he suffered a nervous breakdown while making the picture under consideration here. Fuest reveals that much of the “most incredible ending of any motion picture ever” was shot by a second unit and that he finds it “like some sort of wake… it goes on and on… you could take about 20 minutes of that stuff out!” His keenness to make what is already a pretty pacey movie into something even pacier (perhaps it was Fuest’s extensive TV experience that influenced his apparent desire to constrain things within something like an hour’s running time) is evident when he attributes TDR’s “unrelenting” momentum to an apprehension that “if you stop to think about it too much, you get into trouble”.

 

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Fuest’s Faustian folly is indeed a gloriously senseless, massively entertaining mess of a movie. What a cast! What a visionary director! What a fantastic release by Messrs Daft &  Gregory, doing what they do best… rescuing cinematic oddities that have fallen into disregard or indifference from late night screenings on obscure standard definition channels and affording them definitive HD restorations, with a crop of boss extras to boot. Hail Severin!

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When Bobs collide… Freudstein & Fuest at Manchester’s third annual Festival Of Fantastic Films in October 1992.

 

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