Hate Island… Bruno Mattei’s ISLAND OF THE LIVING DEAD Reviewed.

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DVD. Region 1. Intervision (Severin). Unrated.

Former crud film cohort Claudio Fragasso having struck out for relative respectability with the likes of the Palermo-Milano movies, the indefatigable Bruno Mattei hitched his star to those of producer Gianni Paolucci and writer Antonio Tentori (a duo which would resurface to discouraging effect in 2012 on Argento’s Dracula In 3-D). The first fruits of their partnership, 2006’s  The Jail: A Women’s Hell is a predictably wild and thoroughly non-PC WIP effort, but things took a quantum leap into the cinematic trashosphere with a brace of zombie flicks that Mattei would shoot back-to-back (possibly simultaneously) in 2006… Island Of The Living Dead and Zombies: The Beginning, fitting titles to close out the illustrious CV and indeed, life of the last pasta splatter man standing.

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IOTLD (which borrows its name from the working title of what would become Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters) kicks off with an 18th Century prologue, in which conquistadores and priests are attempting to bury plague victims in a cave (or is it a church?) on a Caribbean island, hindered by the fact that native voodoo rites are returning many of them from the dead as flesh-eating zombies, which necessitates the pre-titles sequence of Fulci’s seminal flick being replayed no less than three times. While the zombies are tucking into those priests, the conquistadores emerge only to discover that their town has been torched (conspicuously rendered by stock footage) and adding insult to injury, they are attacked by (what were the odds on this?) a passing band of vampire pirates (just in case you can’t spot where that idea came from, IOTLD is a “La Perla Nera Production”)…. some days you just wish you hadn’t bothered getting out of bed, right?

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In “the present day”, a down-on-their-luck team of treasure hunters happen upon this unchartered island, which just appears out of the fog. Lucky for them, the pirates’ treasure is still stashed here. Not so luckily, the place is still crawling with zombies (possibly also vampires and / or pirates, though things now move along at such an incomprehensible lick, it’s difficult to tell). Captain Kirk (!) played by Ronald Russo, refuses his crew’s pleas to radio for help (you keep thinking that he’s going to be outed as some kind of zombie sympathiser in a boffo plot twist, but it never happens… he just made a stupid decision for no apparent reason) and when most of the crew leave for a reccy of the island, zombies invade the boat and the engineer blows it up by pushing the red button apparently installed to do precisely that (like the levers in an old Universal flicks that could always be relied on to level Baron Frankenstein’s castle, when required.)

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Mark (played by astonishing George Galloway looky-likey Gary King Roberts), an obvious Night Of The Living Dead enthusiast, teases Sharon (Yvette Yson) that the first zombie they see (in a jungle graveyard) is “coming to get her” and of course it is. Tao (Miguel Franco) piles into the deadster with his best kung fu moves but the result is a predictable Shaolin 0, Voodoo 1. Sprinkled amid the regular anthropophagous attacks via which our happy treasure hunters are gradually whittled down, there’s the discovery of treasure chests and dusty grimoires which add to the ever proliferating theories competing with each other to explain wtf happened on the island, the novel spectacle of a zombie’s arm being regenerated after it’s been shot off, a throwaway reference to Olga Karlatos’ eye popping demise in Zombie Flesh Eaters, casks of wine which contains maggots and which makes those foolish enough to drink it hallucinate vividly (e.g. a reworking of the bar tender scene from The Shining)… there’s the Dawn Of The Dead-patented conceit, already recycled in Zombie Creeping Flesh, whereby reckless showboating when surrounded by ravenous zombies only gets you eaten and, in lieu of ZCF’s “soft shoe shuffle in a tutu” non-sequitur, treasure hunting Snoopy (Jim Gaines) is waylaid by a seductive flamenco dancing zombie… or is she a vampire? Dunno, give up… throw in a spot of The Fog, a reminder of Mrs Bates in her swivel chair and there you have it.

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After the remaining hallucinating crew members have all killed each other, sole survivor Sharon puts out to sea in a home-made raft but is declared DOA by the helicopter medics who recover her… only she isn’t, the final shot revealing her to be a zombie or a vampire pirate or fuck-knows-what. Of course all of that (plus any remaining scraps of sanity) fly out of the window as the story picks up in Mattei’s perversely titled Zombies: The Beginning. Those seeking further enlightenment (but destined for deeper confusion) should click here… and may God have mercy on your soul!

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Severin’s Carl Daft assures me that Island Of The Living Dead and Zombies: The Beginning have been gutted and recut by producer Paolucci into an “all new” motion picture experience. The mind fair boggles…

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One Brief Shining Moment… WINTER KILLS Reviewed

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BD. Indicator. Region B. 18.

Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), footloose scion of America’s most powerful political dynasty, is called out to one of his father’s offshore oil rigs to hear the dying confession of one Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell), who admits to being the man who assassinated Nick’s big brother, President Tim Kegan, in Philadelphia in 1960. Fletcher expires before he can reveal whose orders he was acting on but his  account of where he hid the rifle checks out. The cops who accompany Nick to locate it are shot and when he contacts his father (John Huston), he learns that both the men who witnessed Fletcher’s confession have also died. Plenty more fatalities follow as Nick pains-takingly unravels the mystery en route to the unbelievable, quite shattering truth…

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“It’s a conundrum… riddles within riddles”, Nick is told by his father’s lieutenant Keifitz (Richard Boone): “They will run you dizzy, they will pile falsehood on top of falsehoods until you can’t tell a lie from the truth and you won’t want to. That’s how the powerful keep their power”. The fact that this advice is delivered by a character who’s already officially dead indicates the depths of labyrinthine intrigue goin on here…

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You don’t have to be involved in film making to obsess about Kennedy conspiracy theories, but ever since Abe Zapruder found himself unwittingly filming the scoop of the Twentieth Century on the afternoon of 22nd November 1963 in Dallas, it has certainly helped, with offerings varying from Oliver Stone’s pedantically literal JFK (1991) to Tonino Valerii’s The Price Of Power (1969, below) which restaged the assassination and the speculations swirling around it as a Spaghetti Western. Brian De Palma has, of course, always been obsessed with the assassination and with those who obsess about it.

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The difficulties that former documentarian William Richert encountered in completing Winter Kills and the film’s sporadic unavailability since it was released in 1969 have prompted some of these obsessives to suggest (suggestions amplified in much of the bonus materials on this release) that it’s been suppressed for somehow getting “too near to the truth”, whatever that is. Truth is, there’s nothing in Winter Kills (engrossing as it is) that’s not been mooted in countless and increasing (in this internet age) alternative forums. I think it’s fairer to say that while American audiences could just about cope with the dream of Camelot turning into a tragedy, they weren’t ready for the spectacle of it presented, in this adaptation of Richard (The Manchurian Candidate) Condon’s novel, as rollicking, amoral farce.

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Throughout the bonus materials it’s confirmed what a gent John Huston was, which makes it all the more remarkable that he could play such convincing scumbags in the likes of this, Michael Sarne’s Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Winter Kills benefits from an amazing cast, though many of them (e.g. Elizabeth Taylor, Eli Wallach) are seriously underused… the throwaway appearance of Toshirô Mifune as somebody’s butler is especially mystifying.

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Anthony Perkins gets his twitchy teeth into the role of sinister Intelligence nabob John Cerruti but blink and you’ll miss Tomas Milian (who also appeared in Stone’s JFK). It seems particularly perverse of Richert to cast an actor as facially memorable as Joe Spinell in the Fletcher role then swathe his head in bandages. Another firm HOF favourite Tisa Farrow, who had already appeared in Alberto De Martino’s Blazing Magnum (1976) is briefly glimpsed here as a sexy nurse, before her Italian odyssey (Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Last Hunter, Anthropophagous, et al) kicked off in earnest.

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Indicator’s handsome, limited (to 3,000 units) edition 4K restoration, a UK blu-ray premiere, comes with the expected glut of extras. There are two alternative cuts of the film, one with Richert’s optional audio commentary. The 2003 featurette Who Killed ‘Winter Kills’? includes many of the film’s principals and repeats many of the commentary track’s revelations about certain “colourful” aspects of the film’s production. There are shorter featurettes in which Richert talks about Winter Kills’ starry cast and is reunited with Jeff Bridges. In the new, half hour Things Happening in Secret critic Glenn Kenny contributes a useful overview of the history and legacy of conspiracy thrillers. Plus trailer, radio spot, image gallery… and a 36 page accompanying booklet, which I haven’t seen.

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The Witch Who Came From The Sea… Curtis Harrington’s Beguiling NIGHT TIDE Rewiewed.

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Virgil Finlay illustrates J G Ballard’s The Crystal World, 1966

BD. Indicator. Region Free. PG.

When asked to identify the greatest auteur in the field of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone would sidestep any potential offence to such friends as his fellow Sergios Corbucci and Sollima by identifying… Homer. The Blind Bard also dreamed up (or borrowed from earlier, nonextant epic tradition) a shedload of iconic monsters including, alongside the likes of Polyphemus, Scylla and Charybdis, one whose potential to convey the fascinating / forbidding duality of women (or of men’s desire for them) via the medium of Film has gone sadly (and rather mysteriously) underdeveloped… The Siren… The murderous Mermaid.

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The Siren, J W Waterhouse. 1900.

Sexy sirens have appeared in innumerable RomComs, ranging from Ken Annakin’s Miranda and Irving Pichel’s Mr Peabody And The Mermaid (both from the annus mirabilis of 1948) to Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero (1983) and of course Ron Howard’s Splash (1984). As recently as 2016, in Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, such a creature is detailed with killing a playboy businessman but ends up falling in love with him. There have been conversely few cinematic weird tales featuring bona-fide weremaids… off the top of my head I could only come up with Amando De Ossorio’s determinedly shclocky The Loreley’s Grasp (1973), which boasted Helga Liné (below) as its eponymous fishy femme fatale.

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Well here’s another, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961) revived and restored in magnificent 4K by the good graces of Nicolas Winding Refn. I’ve touched, elsewhere in this blog, on my mixed feelings about great marginal cinema (as variously defined) being in thrall to the patronage of today’s hipster taste makers, who inevitably cop for themselves, in the process, some of the kudos for which their predecessors worked so hard.

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Under whatever auspices, we can only be grateful for the reemergence of Night Tide. Harrington (pictured below in a rather tasty shirt) was an extraordinary film maker, one who made the journey from low budget experimental Cinema to low budget commercial Cinema (and back), bringing his philosophical, sexual and occult preoccupations along with him.

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Born 17/09/26 in LA, the precocious Harrington made his first film at 14, a zero budgeted adaptation of Poe’s Fall Of The House Of Usher, in which he essayed two thirds of the roles. He subsequently attended UCLA and worked his way up through menial studio jobs which funded further experimental shorts through the ’40s and ’50s. Harrington shot Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment (1949) and acted in Anger’s Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome (1954) and served as a production assistant on big budget pictures like the Mark Robson brace The Harder They Fall (1956) and Peyton Place (1957), also Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer (1958). After the impressive artifact under consideration here, Harrington pressed on with such Freudsteinian fare as Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet (1965), Queen of Blood (1966… pictured below and one of the many films cited as a precursor to Alien), the self-consciously postmodern Games (1967) and two decidedly camp thriller vehicles for Shelley Winters,  Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971).

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Subsequent efforts ranged from the disturbing The Killing Kind (1973) to the possession hokum of 1977’s Ruby (briefly the most profitable indie film of all time, until knocked off its perch by John Carpenter’s Halloween the following year). Even Harrington’s “hired gun” TV movies, e.g. 1975’s The Dead Don’t Die (below) frequently contain truly startling imagery.

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Harrington also directed episodes of such TV staples as The Twilight Zone, Dynasty, The Colbys and Wonder Woman.  His two Charlie’s Angels episodes came in Season 2, after Charlie’s contemporary configuration of Kate Jackson (who’d appeared in Harrington’s The Killer Bees, 1974), Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd  decreed that they would only work with female or gay directors. Harrington is often cited as one of the heralds of “The New Queer Cinema”, if indeed such a thing existed.

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Adapted from Harrington’s own short story, The Secrets Of The Sea, Night Tide follows AWOL sailor Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper), bumming around Venice Beach, LA. A couple of years later he might well have encountered Jim Morrison, mooching around Venice and mistaking himself for A Poet. As it happens, he goes into a beatnik bar, finds Mora (Linda Lawson) and is instantly smitten. Well, why wouldn’t he be?

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Locals warn him that Mora’s last two boyfriends drowned under mysterious circumstances. Well, she earns a living by putting on mermaid drag for an end-of-the-pier show but nobody can seriously believe that she’s a shape shifter who kills off her bed mates in phase with the cycle of the Moon… can they? But who’s the mystery woman played by (Marjorie) Cameron and what’s the nature of the hold she seems to exert over Mora? Or are her problems rooted in a rather more banal source, her questionable relationship with father figure Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), who took on Mora when he discovered her as an abandoned child on Mykonos (which will have its own resonance for anyone who’s ever seen Island Of Death)? The only way for Johnny to find out is to pursue his infatuation to whatever conclusion awaits…

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If all that sounds a bit Cat People (1942), Harrington did nothing to dispel the shades of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur with his 1973 TV Movie The Cat Creature. Night Tide is an atmospheric enigma, eminently fit to be mentioned in such august company. For all its obvious bugetary limitations, Harrington charmed everybody in his cast and crew into making great contributions. Hopper, at this point still seriously playing roles rather than the ongoing role of Dennis Hopper, is genuinely endearing. OST composer David Raksin rises to the occasion alongside DPs Vilis Lapenieks and the uncredited Floyd (father of David) Crosby. The lure of  Night Tide is irresistible. At the risk of repeating myself, Harrington was an extraordinary film maker, whose autobiography is well worth seeking out.

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Aside from the expected trailer and image gallery, disc 1 on this set includes two illuminating audio commentaries, one from Harrington and Hopper (1998), the second courtesy of writer and film programmer Tony Rayns (2020). Harrington and Raynes are in agreement that the film’s conclusion is clear cut, but I’m with Hopper, who didn’t quite get it (and I wouldn’t attribute that entirely to his epic drug consumption in the meantime). Ah well, there’s my excuse to watch and enjoy Night Tide all over again. You also get no less than three career-spanning interviews with the director, two of them being episodes from David Del Valle’s Sinister Image public access TV series. All good…

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… and there are plenty more bonus goodies on Disc 2, comprising a generous sampling of Harrington’s indie shorts. The 1942 Fall of the House of Usher is technically crude but give the guy a break, he was 14! Fragment of Seeking (1946) mixes surrealist and expressionist tropes in an exploration of sexual unease. Picnic (1948) treads similar thematic ground while On the Edge (1949) and The Assignation (shot in the other Venice during 1953) are fraught with intimations of mortality. In The Wormwood Star (another colour effort from 1956) the aforementioned Cameron seems to achieve an elevated state of consciousness via working on her paintings and ritual. Harrison even manages to work his magickal concerns into The Four Elements, a 13 minute industrial film from 1966 ostensibly extolling the virtues of American capitalism and its capacity to deliver eternal economic expansion from finite resources (not among Greta Thunberg’s favourite flicks, this one, I would imagine). Bringing things full circle, Harrington (increasingly frustrated by the lack of opportunities to mount the kind of Artistic statements that he wanted) sold a signed edition of Aleister Crowley to finance his 37 minute rendering of Usher, completed in 2002 (five years before his death in Hollywood). As in the version from 60 years earlier, the director plays both Roderick and Madeleine Usher. Auteurists and their obsessions, eh?

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JD Sports… COSH BOY Reviewed.

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“Boys like you are bad, through and through…”

BD / DVD Dual Format. Regions B / 2. BFI. 12.

Starting Big School is a challenge at the best of times, but I remember my first few weeks of Secondary Education (circa 1970) being haunted by spectres considerably more troubling than such run-of-the-mill anxieties as making new friends and keeping on the right side of teachers given to doling out beatings as readily as snarky put downs. Playground gossip played up the constant threat we were under from… The Green Jackets! The desperadoes in question were a gang of disaffected black youths (though I imagine they were referred to by a more politically incorrect collective noun back in those days) who would swoop on random unsuspecting schools (especially those considered a bit posh) and form a double line outside the gates at kicking out time. One by one, hapless school kids were forced to run a gauntlet of blows and insults from green jacketed assailants until they reached the end of the line, where a leading proponent of verdant violence would ask them… if their Mum could sew. When a kid replied in the affirmative he’d be dismissed, his face carved with a Stanley knife, to ask her to “sew that up, then!” Those who denied any such needle and thread expertise on the part of their maternal relatives fared no better… they too got slashed up a treat and advised to “get her to practise on that, then!” History doesn’t record whether those who professed ignorance of their Mum’s tailoring skills escaped, or what fate befell anyone sassy enough to question The Green Jackets’ right to pry into their family’s domestic arrangements. Probably just as well…

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You’d better believe we were paralysed by fear of them Green Jackets, despite the complete absence of any corroborative reportage in local TV, radio or print news. Nor did we stop to ask ourselves why no staff members at any of these educational establishments had ever intervened or why the police were so tardy in arriving to break up the alleged gauntlets and subsequent Q&A sessions, allowing the culprits to repair back to whatever urban sink hole they hailed from and plot new outrages. Clearly The Green Jackets were a particularly colourful urban legend, an especially f*cked up figment of somebody’s fevered imagination and you’re probably thinking my peers and I were dopes to fall for it. C’mon, we were 11 years old! Furthermore successive, allegedly more savvy generations have continued to fall for this kind of baloney and social media, in supplanting playground chit-chat, has only made matters worse. It’s not so long, I seem to recall, since we endured a mass panic about killer clowns planning school yard massacres… The extent to which such grass roots memes influence or are influenced by mass media is an argument that will go on long after we’re all dead (slashed to ribbons by Green Jackets or massacred by Killer Clowns, only time will tell). Suffice to say, cinematic exploitation of juvenile delinquency (the JD genre) has never let any sense of perspective hamper the depiction of yoof running wild as box office bait.

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Groovy Juvies have regularly wrecked havoc in Hollywood, ever since the first zoot-suited reefer addict flipped out, daddyo. Marlin Brando rebelled against anything you got, James Dean tore himself apart and bikers rioted on Sunset Strip, anticipating more recent offenders such as the perpetrators of the Purge phenom.

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Here in Blighty, ill informed moral panic over youth cults has been reflected and indeed festered in, e.g. the bizarre depiction of Teddy Boys in Joe Losey’s (These Are) The Damned (1962) and Nicky Henson‘s plastic Angels, dabbling with the occult in Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1973, above). The depiction of edgy youth in Michael Reeves’ (otherwise excellent) The Sorcerers (1967) has to be seen to be believed. Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979) celebrated the spiritually uplifitng aspect of Mods and Rockers kicking the shit out of each other on Brighton beach. More recently, the prospect of machete mayhem at screenings of Andrew Onwubolu’s gang saga Blue Story have had tabloid editors drooling, while the intolerable TV twaddle of Peaky Blinders continues to exercise its mystifying grip on the nation’s imagination.

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Occasioning even more outrage and unease among the habitually concerned than John Clowes’ universally reviled No Orchids For Miss Blandish (1948), Lewis Gilbert’s Cosh Boy (1953)  was one of the first British productions deemed worthy an ‘X’ Certificate, a device first introduced something like two years previously. Adapted from Bruce Walker’s orginal stage play Master Crook (which had enjoyed a successful run in the West End), Gilbert’s film reaped the bonus publicity / censorship hassles attendant on its release coinciding with the notorious real life Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley murder case. In response and underlining the film’s moralistic (and arguably cop out conclusion), producer Daniel M.Angel appended a rolling prologue caption deploring  “the post war tragedy of juvenile delinquency”, expressing the pious hope that Cosh Boy could do its little bit to help stamp out “this social evil”. Unimpressed, several local authorities ignored the BBFC’s ‘X’ and banned screenings of the film in their bailiwicks.

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“Roy Walsh” and “Alfie Collins” (played respectively by James Kenney and Ian Whittaker, the only cast holdovers from the story’s stage incarnation) do indeed present eerie parallels with (respectively) Craig and the doomed Bentley. The latter in each coupling is a mentally underdeveloped loser, easily manipulated by his sawn-off psychopathic “mate”. The film opens with Walshy slipping a cosh to Alfie and sending him to beat some money out of an unfortunate old biddy, staggering home, blind drunk from the pub.

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Anticipating the way Malcolm McDowell controls his “droogs” in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971), this guy likes to load the bullets for others to fire (literally, by the time his petty crime spree has escalated to armed robbery). It’s easy to see how he could control the half-witted Alfie, but what about the rest of his gang (at least one of whom seems conspicuously too old for this JD lark)? Walshy’s about as charismatic as a piece of plasticine, nevertheless he manages to lure the succulent Rene (Joan Collins, on loan from Rank) away from her goody two shoes boyfriend, knock her up and abandon her. Will she go for a risky back street abortion or is she doomed to continue the cycle of delinquent degeneracy with yet another latch key kid?

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Throughout the film, authority figures are presented as powerless to curb Roy’s amoral roving, relying on the improving effects of youth clubs and credulously swallowing his vows to mend his ways. The police struggle to pin anything on him and when he is nabbed, magistrates hand out laughable sanctions. HIs weak, well-meaning mother Elsie (Betty Ann Davies) buries her head in the sand and there’s no moderating paternal influence (perhaps Dad was lost in the War). When the rozzers finally finally arrive to collar Walsh for murder, his new stepfather Bob Stevens (Robert Ayres) pleads for time out to whip off his belt and give the kid a good leathering (a gag revived in Robert A. Endelson’s 1977 “video nasty”, Fight For Your Life)… and no matter how Woke you consider yourself, it’s hard to begrudge Roy this long postponed reckoning.

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“Beat him step-daddy, eight to the bar!”

The expected compliment of interesting extras on this BFI Flipside release includes Johnny On The Run, a 68 minute Children’s Film Foundation production that Gilbert directed in the same year as Cosh Boy. In this charming effort, orphaned Polish refugee Janek (Eugeniusz Chylek) gets up to all sorts of adventures in the Scottish Highlands after finding himself not welcome in Edinburgh. Speaking of which, I wonder if – in the absence of those ludicrous Brexit bongs – the Tories will dig up Gilbert’s Harmony Lane (also on this set) for their sad assed Festival Of Brexit. Originally filmed in 3D and screened at the Festival Of Britain in 1951, this 24 minutes (it seems longer) collision of variety acts includes the Beverley Sisters, assorted hoofers, trick skaters, fire-eaters and a performing dog, alongside the comedy stylings of Max Bygraves (don’t worry, Deck Of Cards is conspicuous by its absence). Anybody mourning the death of Variety should be forced to sit down and actually watch this thing. Gilbert’s illustrious career kicked off even earlier and more obscurely than this, with the likes of The Ten Year Plan (1945), a Public Information Film announcing postwar plans to end homelessness, which are even less convincing than ace reporter Charles Hawtrey’s asides about trying to get some lovin’ out of his girlfriend. Sure thing, Charlie! Stranger in the City (1961) is Robert Hartford-Davis’s 22 minute guided tour through the tawdry glamour of 1960s Soho… could that be a young Paul Gadd (= “Gary Glitter”) caught loitering at one point? Looks horribly like him… Teddy Boys is a short excerpt from a 1956 episode of ITV’s current affairs strand This Week (from a time when ITV involved itself with more elevated material than glorified talent shows and relentless ropey “reality” programming) that actually manages to elicits a little pathos from its gormless subject. Speaking of gormless, There’s a brief 2019 interview with Ian “Alfie” Whittaker, reflecting on his participation in the film (no mention of his subsequent success as a set-dresser on films as varied Alien and Under A Cherry Moon… four times Oscar-nominated, he actually won one for Howard’s End in 1992). You also get the US opening sequence (as “The Slasher”), with a more explicit rendering of the baboochka’s coshing and, in the first pressing only, a fully illustrated glossy booklet stuffed with new writing about the film, its troubled time at the BBFC, Teddy Boy fashion, the contemporary Soho jazz scene and full film credits.

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Dunno about you, but I’m bricking it…

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A Warning To The Pure Of Heart… AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON On Arrow BD.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

Just a couple of weeks or so into 2020 and I’m happy as a pig in shit (Mrs F just suggested that I also look and smell rather like one… thanks, I love you too Darling!) Following hot on the heels of the beautiful new Shameless edition of Fulci’s The Beyond, Arrow’s 4K restoration of An American Werewolf In London (1981) revives further vivid memories of a time, something like 40 years ago, when life wasn’t running too smoothly for Yours Truly but, guided by Starburst magazine (the fantasy film fanatic’s bible in those days) I was able to take regular solace down at our local fleapit, catching the original theatrical runs of such classics as The Evil Dead, The Thing, Tenebrae, Phantasm, Blade Runner and Paul Schrader’s Cat People remake, not to mention any amount of seminal slasher flicks, an unstoppable flood of ferocious Fulci fare and… last but by no means least… the item under consideration here.

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John Landis was on a proper roll at this point (for a while there, my interest in his work rivalled my obsession with Dario Argento’s), AAWIL coming after Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). Having attained pre-eminence as a director of Comedies, Landis now leavened the mix by indulging his fondness for the Horror genre, with such impressive results that countless subsequent British films (American Werewolf is sort of a British film… the final beneficiary of the Eady Levy, no less) have mixed the two genres… to generally woeful effect (though every so often there’s a welcome exception to the rule). Despite Horror and Comedy being proverbially two sides of the same coin, spinning them into a coherent movie is no mean feat. Landis not only managed the right blend of scary and funny, he also balanced elements of eroticism and yep, romance plus high octane action set pieces to supremely satisfying effect. Brilliant stuff…

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… and yet, in the absence of a review copy, I’ve been studiously avoiding Arrow’s recent Blu-ray edition, following my adverse reactions to previous Universal DVD and Blu-ray releases of this film. For all the past promotional puff of Universal’s contemporary featurettes (included among the plentiful extras here), how could they possibly think they were doing justice to one of my cherished movie memories with those grainy travesties? And was there any realistic hope of the Arrow job looking any better? Doesn’t 4K just automatically exacerbate any such pixillated imperfections? (City Of The Living Dead, I’m looking at you!) Well, Santa having slipped a copy into my stocking while I wasn’t looking (what, you think I’ve got nothing better to do all day than sit around looking at stockings? Depends who’s wearing them…) its gratifying to be able to report that this new restoration from the original camera negative, supervised by Landis himself, finally looks and sounds (in blood-curdling 5.1) every bit as splendid as it always should have. To think I hesitated… (what a schmuck!)

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Here’s why Griffin Dunne didn’t get the red puffa jacket…

2fed2fa912e1355ab1ccf4b7be5802cc.jpgMuch of the cocky genius of Rick Baker’s masterful FX work (so good they invented an Oscar for him to win and never bettered… many have tried, but only Baker’s protege Rob Bottin came remotely close) was that it stood up to brightly lit scrutiny and now you can watch it unfold under optimal conditions in the comfort of your own lair… ditto the sublime spectacle of Jenny Agutter, at her career loveliest, as the nurse (Alex Price) for whom doomed protagonist David Kessler (David Naughton) takes an understandable turn.

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From a sexy nurse in American Werewolf to a nun in Call The Midwife… pah!

… and of course there’s a woodshedload of extras for you to wallow in, some of them familiar from previous editions. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne’s audio commentary is a treasure trove of amusing anecdotes and reminiscences while Paul Davis, who authored the comprehensive guide Beware The Moon takes an appropriately “soup to nuts” approach. Davis beats Naughton and Dunne hands down for Landis impersonations and also contributes the feature length doc version of his book. Further documentaries, cast and crew interviews and featurettes (several of them dating back to the film’s release) reinforce each other in a compelling narrative of AAWIL’s Universal antecedents, its genesis in Landis’s encounter of supernatural beliefs while working as a runner on Kelly’s Heroes (1970) in Yugoslavia, his struggle to get it green lit, the simultaneous, synergetic emergence of The Howling by Joe Dante (one of the many luminaries interviewed here), its brilliant realisation, cult kudos / critical mauling and subsequent rehabilitation.

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It would have been nice to see wider acknowledgment of cinematic lycanthropy outside of the mainstream tradition (e.g. the Iberian exploits of Mr Naschy, above) though of course the werewolf is the only member of  the classic Monster pantheon whose rulebook is copped neither from some literary source (like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy et al) nor, contrary to popular belief, from ethnic folklore, rather from an earlier (Universal) film, George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941), whose Jewish writer Curt Siodmak fled Nazi Germany and had harrowing personal experience of reasonable looking people transforming into wild beasts overnight.

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In the video essay I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret, Jon Spira labours a point that even the dimmest viewer must surely have got after the “nightmare within a nightmare” home invasion sequence, if not long before, i.e. that this film is an allegory of precarious Jewish consciousness in the second half of the 20th Century. Indeed it is, but Spira lays it on a bit too thick when he interprets Anne-Marie Davies’s line “I think he’s a Jew” as signifying her character’s barely concealed anti-semitism. By Spiro’s contention, Agutter’s Alex should have responded: “Why does it matter?”, but in the context of the nurses’ attempts to establish the origins of the mysterious patient, it’s by no means an inadmissible observation. And if Nurse Gallagher does have an ulterior motivation, is it really beyond the realms of possibility, in a film directed by the man previously responsible for Animal House, that it was the lascivious one to sneak a peek at a fit young guy’s dick? I would also suggest that if somebody as obviously smart as Landis wanted to personify privileged WASP bigotry, he’d have chosen a more appropriate avatar for it than a red haired nurse named Gallagher! Familiar with the expression “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish”, Jon?

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There’s  much discussion of the pre-CGI miracles wrought by Baker, of course (with fascinating “making of” and unused footage, plus SFX artist Dan Martin and Tim Lawes of The Prop Store drooling over precious props and costumes from the film. Out takes include the amusing (unfortunately soundless) encounter between Landis and the See You Next Wednesday cast (Linzi Drew and co). You get the original (and now somewhat cack handed looking) theatrical trailer plus teaser and TV spots, also a gallery of over 200 images and the option to display this one on your shelf sporting either original or new Graham Humphreys art work.

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It was great to see our old mucker Pete Atkins waxing eloquent about werewolf lore in one of the docs (I quoted one of his best lines earlier, for those of you paying attention), whereas David Naughton seems to have undergone an even scarier transformation that the one suffered by his character in the film, now bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to David Cameron! In a sadly ironic sidebar, during one of the contemporary promotional featurettes, while talking about running the three ring Piccadilly Circus climax to the film, Landis comments that “no movie is worth hurting somebody for”. Now there’s a line that came back to haunt him.

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“The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect”… FEAR, The Autobiography Of DARIO ARGENTO, Reviewed.

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FAB PRESS. H/B. 279 Pages. ISBN: 978-1-913051-05-1
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Picture the scene… Winter, 1976 and Dario Argento is stopping at the Hotel Flora on Via Veneto. Having proved the industry doubters wrong by scoring an international hit with his debut feature The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (transforming the giallo genre into box office gold in the process) and earning comparisons with Hitchcock on account of that and his follow up thrillers, Argento is putting the final touches to his masterpiece, Suspiria (1977). You might think he’d be feeling upbeat, but no… wounded by the recent defection of Daria Nicolodi with their infant daughter Asia, he’s seriously considering throwing himself out of the window.

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Must be the grit in life’s oyster that yields these pasta paura pearls. Lucio Fulci, of course, had a biblically miserable time of it and Mario Bava, despite his witty, urbane facade, was reportedly an unhappy and deeply neurotic man… quite the Pollyanna, though, when compared to Dario Argento, who confesses in his long-awaited autobiography to anorexia, gluten / lactose intolerance, paranoia, pharmaceutical and sexual excesses, drug busts, bankruptcy and a plethora of phobias including a fear of other people touching his hair, for which reason he’s always cut it himself (who’d have thunk it?) “The foreigner theme to me is fundamental…” sez DA: “I know what it means to be different to others because I’ve lived it”. Growing up, he was taunted by other kids due to his skinniness and no doubt his exotic physiognomy, traceable to his Brazilian mother, the noted fashion photographer Elsa Luxardo.

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Argento’s precocious discovery of Edgar Allan Poe (“In the blink of an eye, without interruption, I went from masturbation to the cult of horror and mystery”) afforded him both a refuge and a pointer to future glories. Despite his family’s film biz lineage, Argento’s was no easy passage to success in the Italian industry. Bird With The Crystal Plumage, now an acknowledged game changer, was made in the face of opposition from hostile executives (“Is it a giallo?” asked the horrified Titanus boss, Goffredo Lombardo) and a cast / crew who were initially unsympathetic to Argento’s technical orientation. His solution? To treat them like the Scout troop he had led in his boyhood. Then began the ceaseless skirmishes with censorship…

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Argento’s unusual life and remarkable Art have always reflected each other, sometimes in ways not immediately apparent to the director himself… he relates that he was mortified when friends pointed out how closely the destructive relationship between Michael Brandon and Mimsy Farmer’s characters in Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971) paralleled that between himself and his wife Marisa Casale, to whom Farmer allegedly bears a close physical relationship. We learn precious little about Marisa but Argento is more candid about e.g. his torrid affair with Marilù Tolo. More importantly, he finally gives something like proper credit to Daria Nicolodi for the influence she has exerted over his life and career. He obviously makes much of their daughter Asia’s successful acting career, nor are we left in any doubt how much he dotes on his first daughter Fiore.

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Most readers will probably be more interested in the inside information and anecdotes from the making of Argento’s films and Fear delivers all that in spades, also taking in side projects, non realised (including opera) productions and such career missteps as 1973’s The Five Days Of Milan (just think, if that had one been a success, this book might well have been titled Historical Drama – The Autobiography). Dario admits towards the end of Fear that his more recent efforts are nowhere near as highly regarded by fans and critics, a fact that he’s already acknowledged by condensing coverage of the sequence from Trauma (1993) to Dracula In 3D (2012) into 35 of the book’s 279 pages. We’ve all speculated on the reasons for this drop off, but anyone searching for a clue might care to ponder Dario’s observation that he made The Card Player (2004) in accordance with the Dogme principle that “special lighting is not acceptable”? Just imagine if he’d taken that principle on board before shooting Suspiria, eh?

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Dogme, my arse…

Ah well, this is a time to praise Argento for his incomparable heyday rather than quibble about his career coda. Given that this is a FAB Press publication, it goes without saying that the production values and presentation are, er, fab and the text is accompanied by personally selected photos from il maestro’s private archive. Fear is a fascinating and disarmingly frank memoir which I concluded in one avid sitting. One minor grouch, I would have liked to hear a lot more about his working relationships with Sergio Leone, Mario Bava and lucio fulci. Maybe in an expanded second edition?

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Plus Ca Change, Plus Ca Meme Chose… The FOURTH HOUSE OF FREUDSTEIN ANNUAL REPORT

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Four years, already? Ah well, as advised by the weasel words that flash up subliminally at the end of those gambling ads, when the fun stops, we’ll stop. No prospect of that just yet, at the end of a very enjoyable and busy year which saw 69 postings (“69, dudes!”), three more than 2018. Annual traffic was similarly steady. We kicked off 2019 with a month of “all giallo” reviews (which seemed to go down OK so it’s an experiment we might repeat) and rounded it off remembering two fallen heroes, Nicky Henson and Rutger Hauer (the latter in a particularly welcome revival of Paul Verhoeven’s Spetters). We seemed to spend a significant chunk of the year watching and writing about José Larraz films, which was just fine by us. By its very nature, blogging tends to involve writing about stuff you like, though this year we were obliged to review Gaspar Noé’s insufferable Climax. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich took the laurels for most tasteless film we’ve ever reviewed (and it’s a pretty crowded field). At one point in the year we trailered heavy coverage of a certain artist’s work, which never materialised… for which, there were reasons. The annual Mayhem Festival was a predictable highlight, then again we don’t get out much, our only other cinema visits in 2019 being Stan & Ollie (loved it), Godzilla: Kingfisher’s Of The Monsters (what a jaw dropping piece of crap), the Miles Davis documentary Birth Of The Cool (in the company of fellow greying beatniks and their patient partners), Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood (which I enjoyed a lot more than I was expecting) and a screening of Sexy Beast (in the presence of its producer, Jeremy Thomas), the latter two in the company of Severin co-curator Carl Daft.

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Suits you, Sir…

Sev’s All The Colors Of The Dark / All The Colors Of Giallo box set secured the much sought after Disc Of The Year accolade, with honourable mentions for Mondo Macabro’s complete and fine looking edition of lucio fulci’s Perversion Story and (just sneaking in under the wire), a beautiful Shameless rendition of Fulci’s evergreen metaphysical gorefest, The Beyond. We also loved the new Arrow edition of William Friedkin’s Cruising. Meanwhile back in Severinville, David Gregory’s Al Adamson documentary impressed mightily online. This year we cast our net further than ever before but by closing our annual account with another look at one of Fulci’s splatter classics we signalled where our heart really lies (in a jar in the Freudstein basement laboratory) and our first posting proper in the 2020 campaign will only underline that point.

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Speaking of The Beyond, it’ll come as no surprise to regular readers that our David Warbeck interview was once again the most visited posting of the year, nor that for the fourth straight year, the Top 3 remained unchanged. Our Irene Miracle interview is still runner up and the review of Naomi Holwill’s Me Me Lay documentary retained third place. Some of the stuff people put into search engines to arrive at the Me Me posting made for very interesting reading and we suspect that similar motivations lay behind the army of readers who steered our Howling 2 review (along with that gif) to fourth place.

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Shameless click bait…

Presumably the presence of Ms Lay in its cast was not entirely unconnected to Severin’s BD of Eaten Alive placing fifth in our annual survey (High Rising’s Umberto Lenzi doc dropped out of the Top Ten this year, but grumpy ol’ Umberto always makes it onto the listings, one way or another). A perennial fixture, my account of lunch with lucio fulciheld up well in 6th spot, ditto breakfast with Joe D’Amato at #9. New entries include our interview with Françoise Pascal (posted late in 2018) at number 7, our review of the aforementioned Severin giallo box in ninth place and another vintage review closing out this year’s listings, that of Pupi Avati’s The House With Laughing Windows. Other drop outs this year include our interviews with Barbara Bouchet and Dardano Sacchetti. Narrowly missing the ten in both 2019 and All Time terms was our enticingly entitled (“Edwin Fenech Gives Mutant Nazi Sex Midget The Boner Of The Year”) review of Sergio Martino’s Sex With A Smile.

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On, then, to those All Time standings, with Warbeck, Miracle and Lay stubbornly occupying the medal positions. Despite dropping out of the Top Ten in 2019, our appraisal of TLE’s epic and controversial Suspiria restoration digs in at #4. Howling 2’s fifth, closely followed by lunch with Lucio and breakfast con D’Amato. The final three places go to Italian Exorcist knock offs, my interview encounter with an extremely prickly Umberto Lenzi and that Severin edition of his Eaten Alive.

Is all that set to change in 2020? Completely up to you. Viddy well, oh brothers and sisters…

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Into The Spiderverse…… lucio fulci’s THE BEYOND In A Spanking New Shameless Edition.

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BD. Shameless. Region B. 18.

It’s highly likely that if you’re reading a Blog entitled “House Of Freudstein”, you won’t need me to regale you with the plot of lucio fulci‘s The Beyond (1981). Just in case, though… a woman inherits a New Orleans hotel that’s apparently been built over one of The Seven Gates of Hell (d’oh, what were the odds on that?) and everyone around her starts dying. Very messily indeed. Lots of other mysterious shit happens and eventually she and her potential love interest find themselves in Hell. Literally. That’s all, folks…

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Not much of a plot, is it? The enduring appeal of Fulci’s Horror masterpiece resides elsewhere than its highly disjointed narrative… in its regular, relentless outbreaks of mortifying violence and the sheer eldritch atmosphere with which it drips, thanks largely to the spellbinding score of Fabio Frizzi and exquisite, delicate / doomy photography of Sergio Salvati. Salvati buffs will have much to ponder in this handsome new 2k scan from Shameless, during the preparation of which the original colour elements of the film’s unforgettable prologue (in which an occult-inspired artist is chain-whipped, burned with quicklime and crucified by a posse of outraged rednecks) were discovered and for the first time ever, remastered.

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Usually screened in a sepia-tinted variation (that must have cost them a few squid… see what I did there?), this sequence has also been released in various territories in full colour and black and white variations. In this edition you’ve got  the choice of kicking the film off in any of those, plus the wholly new option of a golden “sepia on colour” (or the digital equivalent thereof) rendering. You can even, should you wish to, view all four versions simultaneously though I wouldn’t advise imbibing psychotropic drugs before doing so, unless you’re planning on spending the next few months in a rubber room.

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These new perspectives on the prologue are at the forefront of Shameless’s attempt to convince you to cough up for yet another edition of The Beyond, but as an added inducement there’s a supporting compliment of tasty bonus materials, some of which you might or might not have already encountered in earlier releases. The audio commentary from stars Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck is a bittersweet affair in which a desperately feeble-sounding Warbeck maintains his customary wit and charm in the face of his own impending death. In an alternative commentary track, DP Salvati discusses many aspects of the film, over and above his lighting of it in collaboration with a trusty crew of fellow Fulci regulars (particularly interesting to hear from him that Al Cliver’s role was originally intended for Ivan Rassimov). Interviewees Giorgio Mariuzzo (who co-wrote the film with Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti), Fulci’s close personal friend Michele Mirabella (“He fed me to the tarantulas but it helped to pay the mortgage”) and beautiful Cinzia Monreale are not, of course, short on stories of Fulci’s legendary eccentricities and contrariness, indeed a clip of him taking time out from the shooting of Demonia (1990), which has been floating around since bootleg VHS days, captures the great man in particularly florid form.

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Apparently Mariuzzo’s wife, the widow of Elio Petri, told him how highly Petri regarded lucio fulci as a technician. Taste makers, particularly in his own country, never afforded Fulci the same level of acclaim as Petri and co, but fuck ’em… nearly 40 years after the event, The Beyond (and many of his other films) are still being avidly consumed, analysed and cherished.

The soul that pines for eternity shall, indeed, outspan death.

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The Man Who Shot Mathew Hopkins… NICKY HENSON Interviewed In 2016.

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“Nicky Henson has died after a long disagreement with cancer”. There’s been no shortage of bad news to close out 2019 but this latest saddener was announced by the Henson family earlier today in a wryly humorous style redolent of the man himself. Nick was a funny bloke, indeed probably best known for his role as the loutish lothario Johnson in Fawlty Towers, though it was the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1973) which led to me interviewing him in 2016. The following excerpts comprise our discussions of his appearance in that cult effort and alongside his good friend Ian Ogilvy in Michael Reeves’ classic Witchfinder General (1968)…

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You’ve been pretty scathing about Psychomania over the years. I wondered if you’ve warmed to it at all over the various re-releases and promotional campaigns…

They showed it at NFT 1 the other night and believe it or not, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen it at the cinema. I didn’t see it when it came out because I was always working in the theatre, then I would see it on television. They always screened it when I was playing in something really smart at the RSC or The National Theatre, playing opposite the Cusaks in Three Sisters or something like that. There must have been somebody at the BBC who, whenever I was playing in something smart like that, would always whack Psychomania on at one o’clock in the morning, so all the other actors could see it when they got home from work. They’ve done an extremely good job of restoring it…

The Blu-ray looks great.

Absolutely… and I really enjoyed some of the extras, too.

Some of them are quite bizarre, I mean, the thing about the Christian bikers?!?

Yeah! At the NFT they showed a motorcycling film by Dreyer from the 1940s, an extraordinary piece of work.

I wonder if you’re finally seeing some money for Psychomania because you’ve said that you were stiffed for a lot of these pictures…

British Equity never quite got it together as far as movies were concerned. It was like you made it then that’s it, done. You never got a penny whether it was on television, video, DVD, Blu-ray or whatever in fact it used to be on TV so often and the next night I’d go into the pub and everybody would say: “The drinks are on you” but I didn’t make anything out of it… not a penny!

Psychomania really was a staple of late night TV for a long time, there.

Absolutely, yeah, which is why, I suppose, there are generations of people who know the blimmin’ thing. I have people quoting lines from it to me in lifts, it’s really bizarre. Maybe I should start going to a few of these conventions, I’ve never been to one…

Oh you must, I think you’d enjoy it very much, maybe bump into a few old colleagues and and hopefully make a few bob in the process.

Maybe I should…

What does it say about the state of the British film industry at the time that such an odd movie could be made with such an unlikely cast?

Well, I suppose the last British film industry boom was back in the ’60s when the Americans all came over with money to make “Swinging London” movies… and we got greedy, people were making crappy movies along with the really good ones. Then that money went away and we’d never really looked after our own industry so we ended up going back to making ‘B-movies’ in a way, they were halves of double features. I did Psychomania because I was earning £35 a week during the first or second season of Frank Dunlop’s Young Vic company, of which I was a founder member. The film unions were still very strong at that time so you had to wrap at 5.30 and I could get back to the theatre and do a show in the evening. Instead of doing bad telly, which everybody sees, I chose to do bad films, in the belief that nobody would see them, not realising that they’d still be turning up on the telly, 20-30 years later. I was involved… you’ve got Beryl Reid who was going through a low-ish point in her carer… then you’ve got George Sanders…which was very sad.

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Was he masking his sadness with this debonair sort of facade or is it easier for you, as an actor, see through all that stuff?

I have to say that we had a very, very good time, we were just corpsing, laughing our way through the picture because it was so silly. He would turn to me and say: “You’re not actually going to say that are you?” and I’d say: “I have to! It’s in the script!” and we’d just get hysterical.

I suppose we have to discuss the chair…

Oh God, yes. The first day on the picture, a memo came down from the production department saying that to save money, nobody was going to get a chair with their name on the back so Beryl didn’t get one, I didn’t get one… fair enough. But ten days later George Sanders arrived. They’d squashed all his stuff into a few days because obviously he came more expensive than the rest of us. Chatham Bobby, the famous prop man down at Shepperton was so ashamed that he brought out this chair and written on the back – in BIRO – was “George Saunders”. (Laughs)

Did the debonair mask not crack at that point?

Well I only heard about it, because it was quickly smuggled away… very sad. It might just be an urban myth but allegedly he saw an answer print of the film, went back to his hotel room in Madrid and killed himself! I’m surprised he held out that long after the chair incident…

He’d had a wonderful life, anyway…

He’d had relationships with some of the most beautiful women in the world and been in so many wonderful movies…and underrated himself as an actor, was a much better actor than he thought he was.

Somebody asked him about all the women and he’s supposed to have said something like: “Dear boy, I’m fast approaching the stage of life where a satisfactory bowel movement is far preferable to a good fuck!”

Ha, he was still a very witty man.

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How do you remember Ann Michelle? Apparently she won’t talk about Psychomania now…

Really?

So I was led to believe.

She’s Vicky Michelle’s sister, isn’t she? Well again, we had a ball on it, laughed and giggled and played cards incessantly, an awful game which Don Sharp eventually put into the picture, they’re playing it in the cell. I don’t know, I haven’t seen them much since…. most of the cast who were still alive did get together a few years ago actually, when it was re-released on DVD and some of that appears in the extras on the new Blu-ray.

Yeah, there’s some nice footage on there of you meeting Mary Larkin again after all those years…

Yeah and there was Rocky Taylor, who injured himself quite badly later… and Vince Taylor of course, his dad.

The stunts in the movie are actually quite impressive, aren’t they?

They were very good and very dangerous. British stuntmen couldn’t and probably still can’t specialise. In America you can make a living just rolling cars or doing horse falls or jumps off skyscrapers or whatever but there’s so little industry here that British stuntmen have to be able to do everything, you know: “Yeah, I can do that, Guv!” Cliff Diggins, was my stunt double on Psychomania… I would never go and see someone doing a stunt for me, I just thought it was bad luck and Cliff did three stunts for me and ended up in hospital after each one! When you see me driving the bike off the motorway bridge… it was the M3, still being built.. he managed to hit the water before the bike and was dragged off to hospital. Then, when I drive through the wall, to prove whether Abby is dead or not… thus one of my great lines in the movie, “You’re not dead!”… the wall was made of polystyrene bricks which kept fading in the sun and rain so they kept repainting them and the paint must have been a third of an inch thick by the time he drove through it. The bike went through and he was left hanging on the wall like a character in a cartoon! (laughs)

How did you find Don Sharp as a director?

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Don was an amazingly patient man (laughs) because he had a couple of grumpy old actors plus a bunch of really indisciplined young actors… we were all messing about like mad, having the complete giggles because we thought the whole thing was a scream. He was also having to deal with eight bikes that never worked, they all kept breaking down. We had three mechanics working 24 hours a day to keep those things working. I mean, the reason I’d agreed to do the film in the first place was that I opened the script and it said: “8 chopped hog Harley Davidsons crest the brow of a hill.” I rang my agent immediately and said: “Yeah, I’ll have some of that!” When I got there, of course, there were all these clapped out BSAs and Triumphs, 350s and they were all falling to bits and I said: “Where are the Harleys?” and they said: “Oh no, we couldn’t afford them!” (Laughs)

Are you still biking today or have you hung up your leathers?

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I hung up my leathers five days after my fortieth birthday… I was doing a season down in Stratford, playing In The Merry Wives Of Windsor and As You Like it. I was staying in digs in Chipping Camden and I came off at a corner, in the middle of the night, on the way back from work. I went into a ditch, knocked myself out and the bike was on top of me, it burned through my Lewis leathers and I got very badly burned. My kids said: “Dad, no more!” so I had to stop it. But I’d been riding bikes right up till then.

They were some pretty substantial leathers you had on… you were wearing your own in Psychomania, weren’t you?

I was indeed, yes. I didn’t know that Lewis Leathers still existed, but they do…

… something else we learned from the extras on the Psychomania Blu-ray.

That’s right and a lot of the people who work there were at the NFT, the other night. I had two sets of their gear actually, black and brown ones to go with my black and brown bikes…

Psychomania is undoubtedly daft but its an intriguing snap shot of the British film industry and British society in general at a certain, not-too remote point in time…

Now it’s very interesting that magazines like Time Out call it one of the best British horror comedies ever because we really didn’t make it as a comedy! When I was watching it the other night at NFT 1, with a packed house, the film began and I started laughing, my wife was shushing me and saying: “You mustn’t laugh!” but then everybody else started laughing. People look at it through different eyes, now…

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I remember saying to the producer: “How did you get the money to put this crap together?” and he said: “Well, I’ve got a desk full of wonderful scripts but when I rang my backers and mentioned the one about a biker gang who come back from the dead and terrorise the neighbourhood, they said: ‘How much do you need? Let’s go!’ ”

Five years previous to this you were in a movie that’s usually cited as the best British horror film ever made and often mentioned when people are talking about the best British film, period… Witchfinder General.

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The BFI does this list of the best movies of all time, one for each year and yes, that was the 1968 one. It’s extraordinary that I’ve been in these two major cult films, one of which is very, very good and the other one… on which the jury’s still out! (Laughs) And now… I’ve done five films in the last year and these young guys coming out of film school making their first feature, so many of them want me doing a few days on their picture. It’s like I’m a lucky mascot, like a little bit of the “cult” thing is going to rub off on them… I mustn’t grumble about Psychomania because it’s still getting me work!

We’ve referred to George Sanders’ depression and suicide, did you form any opinion as to Michael Reeves’ state of mind when he died? Was it suicide or just that people had a very cavalier attitude towards the use of barbiturates in those days?

Well I knew Michael very well, through my friend Ian Ogilvy. Ian is my oldest and best mate, in fact we were at Rada together and he was the drummer in my band. I’ve known him forever and we are still mates. We’ve just made two movies together, actually.

We Still Kill The Old Way…

… and We Still Steal The Old Way, which hasn’t come out yet. The first one did so well that there’s been this follow up. No, I knew Michael Reeves vey well. It was a misadventure with Michael. It was the ’60s, he was a very nervous sort of young man and he had doctors who were looking after him. They were giving him stuff… barbiturates… uppers and downers, to get him to work and to stop working, We did have a “throwing away party” one night where we got rid of all the drugs he’d been prescribed but he obviously got more. I think what happened was that he got a prescription, got up one night and took some pills because he couldn’t sleep and then forgot and took some more. It was death by misadventure, definitely, he didn’t mean to kill himself.

He had so much to live for…

He was slated, I think, to shoot Bloody Mama next…

Yeah, he had so many projects lined up.

Absolutely.

Did you witness any of the famous friction that was going on between him and Vincent Price?

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Oh yeah. We were having a wonderful time with Vincent in the hotel every night…

All the other actors always say what fun he was…

Yeah, we were having a great time but Michael would be in his room, studying and getting stuff ready for the next day. Vincent knew that Michael hadn’t wanted him in the role, that was the problem. I was there that night they were shouting at each other, the last night of all night shooting at Orford Castle. I remember him shouting at Michael: “This is not how we do it in Hollywood! This is my 94th picture… how many pictures have you made?” and Michael replied: “ Three good ones!” We finished the shoot that night, Vincent walked off the set without saying anything to anyone and I think it was about a year later that Michael got this lovely, lovely letter from him saying basically: “I’ve never been so wrong… that’s the best performance I’ve given for years… of course you’ll never want to work with me again… anything I can ever do for you in Hollywood, anyone you need introducing to, just let me know.” When Michael died they had a retrospective of his work at the National Film Theatre, as it was then, including second unit work on other pictures… but Vincent flew from America at his own expense to introduce the evening and tell that very story, which was pretty good of him.

It must have been an amazing shoot to work on…

We knew that we were onto something special. All the unit did, they were just old fashioned British film guys, talking about our movie all the time and really working incredibly hard… we just knew that we had something good on our hands. Mike was a genius, he would have gone on to do extraordinary things. I’m sure of it… and Ian’s career and my career would then have been completely different!

Well thanks, Nick, it’s been a pleasure to talk to someone who’s been involved in such iconic film and TV moments… I feel I can’t wind this up without shouting: “You took him from me! You took him from me!” at you…

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Ha. You know the story behind that? It was a very long night, the last night of the movie, shooting all those scenes in Orford Castle and in the script I was supposed to shoot Vincent Price to put him out of his misery, in response to which Ian was going to come at me with the axe and I was gong to shoot him, too. We got down to that scene and I realised and pointed out that I had two flintlock pistols and I’d already shot a guard on the stairs so I could shoot either Vincent or Ian but not both. Mike said: “OK, I’ll rethink that… I’ll have to freeze-frame on Hilary screaming and cut to her screams echoing around the castle.” So that iconic ending was absolutely brought on at the spur of the moment, was about having to wing it at that moment.

That’s a lovely bit of happenstance because it works so beautifully…

Yeah, Time Out said it had more to say about the nature of violence than The Straw Dogs and what have you put together…

I don’t know how many times you’ve watched the ending or how closely, but there’s a shot where you get an almost subliminal movement of somebody on the stairway…

They put that together in the edit afterwards, maybe Mike sent a cameraman out to get a few more shots and they didn’t notice that.

I like it, it just puts another creepy twist on the whole thing, like there’s some kind of malevolent presence left lurking in the darkness…

(Laughs) There you are, that’s how these things start!

Well, we’ve dispelled a few myths today so maybe it’s incumbent upon us to start a new one…

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Categories: Interviews | Leave a comment

Directing By Numbers… QT8: THE FIRST EIGHT, Reviewed.

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BD. Signature Entertainment. Region B. Certificate TBC.

“Why are boys so obsessed with numbers?”, Clare Grogan asks the smitten John Gordon Sinclair in Gregory’s Girl (1980). “Why all this overkill about Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood being Quentin Tarantino’s Ninth Film?” I found myself wondering while watching it (and enjoying it rather more than I thought I would). Well, Quentin Tarantino is (kind of) a boy, isn’t he? “Boys” might, one imagines, feature prominently among his marketing people… then again, Tara Wood, the writer / producer / director of QT8: The First Eight is clearly a girl (or she’ll “be a woman… soon”) and numbers have already featured prominently in her C.V. In 2015 she executive produced Julian Beltran’s 3 Days and the year before that, she shared the writing, production and direction of the documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater.

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So why the big deal about 8 Tarantino pictures? I mean, Fellini made 8 1/2 (above)… and then some. It was only by watching this documentary, which collates the enthusiastic reminiscences and observations of some of QT’s key collaborators, plus selected sympathetic pundits, that I learned about Tarantino’s declaration that he will only make 10 feature films. Tim Roth seems particularly devastated by this pronouncement but I think you’d be wiser to take it with a sackful of salt, Tim. Why would he stop at 10? Maybe because that’s the amount of toes with which women are generally equipped, though the whole foot thing is, er, soft-pedalled, during this romp through many of Tarantino’s other signature obsessions. Another theme that doesn’t get much of a look in is his ongoing love affair with Eurotrash Cinema, though I’ve always wondered why he never uses any actors from that milieu, especially in view of Robert Foster’s comment herein that Tarantino boasts of being able to cast whoever he wants.

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While we’re crunching numbers, there’s always been something about Tarantino’s international status that hasn’t quite added up for me. Why, in 1991 (when QT had directed precisely one feature) was it seen as some kind of career boost for the likes of John Woo (who’d already made over 20 films, including A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Bullet In The Head in Hong Kong) to be endorsed by him? Ditto Ringo Lam, whose City On Fire (1987, above) was relentlessly pillaged for Reservoir Dogs. Samuel L. Jackson and Jamie Foxx absolve the director from the charges of racism that are sometimes levelled at him but cultural imperialism remains a worry… there’s a point in Wood’s doc, during its discussion of Kill Bill, where Hong Kong and Japan are casually conflated. Not a good look.

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Speaking of which, throughout this film there’s a lumbering, grumbling presence trying to make itself heard on the sidelines, finally making its unpalatable entrance with all the subtlety of Eli Roth’s character in Inglorious Basterds… Tarantino is credited with making a clean break with Harvey Weinstein after all the #metoo stuff broke (is that another reason for drawing a line under “the first eight”?) but Wood also reminds us of his admission that he always knew but never said anything. Viewers will have to make their own minds up but the intercutting of Weinstein reportage with Kurt Russell’s cartoony murderous exploits in Death Proof (2007) is heavy handed stuff and I don’t know what to make of the apparent attempt to shift responsibility for Uma Thurman’s car crash injuries to Weinstein.

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Such are the grouches of a QT sceptic. Devotees will enjoy and possibly (depending on how buffed up on Tarantino’s self-referential universe they already are) learn something from Wood’s hyperactive treatment of her subject, leaning heavily on hip animated recreations of many of the anecdotes delivered herein and charting Tarantino’s meteoric rise from hopeful fan boy sleeping on Scott Spiegel’s sofa and picking up a few dollars from Elvis impersonating on The Golden Girls to the toast of Cannes and (in the words of one contributor) “our Nouvelle Vague”.

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We await #10 … and whatever follows… with bated breath.

Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Leave a comment

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