Thrilling To Gilling … Swashbuckling Matinee Madness On INDICATOR’S FIFTH HAMMER BD BOX SET

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Hammer Volume 5: Death & Deceit.
BD. Indicator. Region B. 12.

VISA TO CANTON (Michael Carreras, 1961) World BD premiere.
THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (John Gilling, 1962) UK BD premiere.
THE SCARLET BLADE (John Gilling, 1963) World BD premiere.
THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR (John Gilling, 1965) World BD premiere.

Although he’s better remembered for his Hammer Horror credits (notably the superior 1966 brace The Reptile and Plague Of The Zombies, less notably for the following year’s lack-lustre The Mummy’s Shroud or 1961’s The Shadow Of The Cat… though the latter is regarded as something of an underrated gem by Hammer aficionados) John Gilling directed a similar amount of Hammer’s swashbuckling adventure yarns (stirring tales of derring-do for boys of all ages), including the lion’s share of this latest limited edition Hammer box from Indicator, which easily maintains the high standards set by its predecessors.

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… and we’ll just gloss gently over Gilling’s Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1952)

It’s received wisdom, in certain quarters, that Hammer kept the UK film industry afloat during the 1960s with its “lavish productions”, but anything more rigorous than a cursory squint at these films themselves  (never mind the cheese-paring anecdotes related in the supplementary materials here) reveals a modus operandi not too far removed from that of Jess Franco himself, with stock footage of crowd and battle scenes cheerfully filched from other pictures.

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Notoriously, the sea dogs in Gilling’s The Pirates Of Blood River (and I guess the clue was right there in that title) don’t even have a ship from which to fly their Jolly Roger, unless you count the stock footage galleon floating around under the film’s titles or a conspicuous model thereof, briefly glimpsed later in the picture. Instead, the dubiously accented Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee, fresh off of Bava’s Hercules In The Haunted World but, four years after Dracula, still billed beneath Kerwin Mathews and TV actor Glenn Corbett) leads his posse of pretty and not so pretty boys through waterways populated by ravenous piranhas (for the purposes of the story) and (in real life) raw human sewage! Tall, dark and gruesome, Lee managed to keep his head above the scum line but if you study the relevant sequences diligently, you might be able to work out the precise moment at which Oliver Reed (as LaRoche’s sidekick Brocaire) contracted an eye infection.

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The Pirates of Poo Pond…

By all accounts Gilling was a martinet with little interest in endearing himself to his actors and about as much regard for Health & Safety as the people who put that cladding on Grenfell Tower. In The Scarlet (Crimson, States-side) Blade, we learn, only the threat of a walk out by the crew dissuaded him from staging a hanging stunt in such a way that the actor involved was in very real peril of asphyxiation. It’s interesting to see Michael Ripper (generously basted in Bisto as gypsy Pablo) in that film, “riding a horse” (but quite clearly not) against a blatant back projection, having witnessed another thespian coming an equestrian cropper under Gilling’s direction. Ripper, incidentally, gets much meatier roles in many of these adventure yarns than he could ever have hoped for in Hammer’s more celebrated Gothic Horrors… he’s also great as knife throwing Pirate Mack (get it?) in Blood River.

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While he was never going to be voted humanitarian of the year by his collaborators, Gilling was that rarest of commodities in early ’60s British Cinema, a writer / director and one with a real knack for moral ambivalence and character development. In POBR Mathews’ Jonathan Standing finds his good standing in an island community of stuffy Huguenots seriously undermined when his affair with another man’s wife is discovered. She tries to elude her shame by running into a piranha infested river (with predictable results) while he’s sentenced by a jury of elders (chaired by his emotionally torn father) to a spell in a particularly brutish labour camp. Liberated from this hell hole by those pirates, Standing throws his lot in with them, on condition that they treat the rest of the islanders (including a pre-pubescent Dennis Waterman) with clemency. When they laughingly renege on this undertaking, Standing has to reconsider his position all over again…

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Hammer never saddled up for any ostensible oaters but Pirates and its companion pieces are clearly crypto-Westerns. The obvious literary model, meanwhile, is the story of Coriolanus, as evoked by Shakespeare via Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s The Lives Of The Noble Grecians And Romans. Gilling continues to plunder this palimpsest with further not so simple minded thrills and spills in the aforementioned Scarlet Blade, wherein Olly Reed’s Roundhead Capt. Tom Sylvester oscillates between careerism (masquerading as the call of duty and devotion to Lionel Jeffries’ Col. Judd) and lust (masquerading as love) for Judd’s Royalist sympathising daughter Clare (June Thorburn) who secretly supports the fifth column activities of the Zorro-like title character, Edward Beverley, played by Jack Hedley. Maybe if I’d opened my pitch for a Hedley interview with this one rather than the scarlet blades he encountered in lucio fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982), I might have got somewhere…

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The film is simple-mindedly pro-Cavalier and freighted with anachronisms and inaccuracies but Gilling is clearly less interested in such stuff than he is in individual conscience and its attendant dilemmas. In distinct contrast to Reed’s character’s death in Pirates (“Ooh mama”, indeed!) Sylvester’s character contradictions ultimately explode in one of the the most scenery-chewing death scenes ever committed to celluloid.

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There’s more of the same in The Brigand Of Kandahar, with half-caste (as he would have been referred to in those days) British officer Case (Ronald Lewis) again falling from grace on account of an illicit affair (his peers disapproval here compounded by considerations of class and the taboo of miscegenation). He takes up arms against the British Empire with the dreaded Eli Khan (Reed getting to wear the boot blacking on his face this time) before the latter’s duplicity and casual cruelty make for second thoughts… further complicated bt the erotic attentions of Yvonne Romain’s “Ratina” (!?) Stay tuned for a “lust in the dust” styled denoument and plenty of other stuff subsequently lampooned in Carry On Up The Khyber (1968).

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Gilling went on to direct episodes of such iconic ITC television series as The Saint, The Champions and Department S and… after relocating to Spain (where he died in 1984), Cross Of The Devil, (1975)… a semi-canonical entry in the Blind Dead / Templars cycle.

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Michael Carreras’s Visa To Canton (“Passport To China” for the American market) is a significantly less sophisticated proposition than any of the above, in fact you could comfortably dismiss it as a pale Bond knock off… until you check your dates! Ian Fleming’s greatest creation first saw the light of the silver screen in Terence Young’s Dr. No, two years after Richard Basehart’s Don Benton used his Far East travel agency as a front to foil some fiendish Oriental insurgency (Hammer’s track record in this area doesn’t hold up well to PC scrutiny… Anthony Bushell’s Terror Of The Tongs was made back to back with Visa To Canton but Red Communism was clearly supplanting inscrutable supervillains as the “Yellow Peril”), wooing the dangerously glamorous Lisa Gastoni while doing so. It would be overstepping the mark to claim 007 as a Benton clone (Visa To Canton looks like it’s striving to set up a few sequels but presumably those were deemed surplus to requirement after international audiences had bonded with Bond) but the music’s another matter and it’s here that David Huckvale’s diverting bonus discourses on the OSTs to the films in this box proves most telling, pointing out the influence on Monty Norman’s 007 theme from the ostinatos that Edwin Astley (Pete Townshend’s father-in-law, BTW) fashioned for Visa To Canton.

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As on Indicator’s previous Hammer sets, this one is stuffed with extras. Horror author Stephen Laws provides well informed but pleasantly fannish introductions to each film, female critics profile their leading actresses (here it’s Josephine Botting on June Thornburn, Melanie Williams on Yvonne Romain and Virginie Sélavy on Lisa Gastoni, while Kat Ellinger handles  Marla Landi (great to learn that she became Lady Dashwood after marrying Sir Francis, whose namesake ancestor founded the Hellfire Club!) Audio commentaries come courtesy of Vic Pratt, Kevin Lyons and (for Pirates) screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. You get the expected trailers, image galleries all and the “Collectors Booklet” stuff I never set eyes on.

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Strewn among the remaining extras, we find such treats as Stephen Laws interviewing Andrew Keir (who found Quatermass And The Pit director Roy Ward Baker about as likeable as everybody else here found John Gilling) at Manchester’s Festival Of Fantastic Films in 1993; Jonathan Rigby’s extensive personal reminiscences of top Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster; appraisals of Gilling from Kim Newman and Neil Sinyard,  the latter likening him to Val Lewton, no less. Yes, We Have No Piranhas is an exhaustive video essay on Pirates of Blood River’s censorship travails, with split screen comparisons detailing every excised piranha bite. We also learn that the BBFC (whose John Trevelyan remembered TPOBR as the only film he ever busted down from an ‘X’ certificate to a ‘U’) insisted on the volume of whip cracks being reduced!

The Gilling stuff has been beautifully remastered and Visa To Canton looks OK. This is another cracking box set limited to 6,000 numbered units, so what are you waiting for? Grab yourself a piece of the action, right now…

 

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Murder Cadabra… THE MAD MAGICIAN Reviewed.

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BD. Region Free. Indicator. 12.

“I don’t want to miss your opening”, Police Lt Alan Bruce (Patrick O’Neal) tells cute Karen Lee (Mary Murphy) before her debut in a new stage production… and that’s a bit forward of him, if you ask me. And exactly what kind of a show is this, anyway? Actually it’s a magic show in which she’s the glamorous assistant to Gallico The Great (Don Gallico to his Mum), as played by Vincent Price. The show will climax with “The Lady And The Buzzsaw”, a variation on the old “sawing a woman in half” routine that GTG confidently expects to be his launchpad to a glittering Broadway run. Never mind the buzzsaw, Ross Ormond (Donald Randolph), Gallico’s killjoy boss in his day job at Illusions, Inc arrives with an injunction to stop this magical milestone being performed. Turns out that he’s got contractual dibs on anything his employees create and he’s saving the buzzsaw extravaganza for The Great Rinaldi (John Emery), a rival magician who’s been taking the plaudits for Don’s creations for years.

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The next time Gallico encounters his boss, the latter adds insult to injury by reminding him how he stole his wife. Mad? This magician’s bloody furious and responds by turning a radical revamp of that buzzsaw gag on his tormentor, then stashing the severed head in a Gladstone bag. He disposes of Ormond’s body on a bonfire but when an unfortunate bag mix up leads to that severed noggin being delivered to the cops he masks up, assumes his victim’s identity and goes on the lam. He rents a room but as luck (and Crane Wilbur’s delightfully barmy screenplay) would have it, his busy body landlady, Alice Prentiss (Lenita Lane) is a  crime novelist whose most recent best seller, Murder Is A Must, turns on the notion that once somebody’s carried out their first murder, they’ll be obliged to commit more and more of them to cover their tracks. Sticking her nose in where it’s not wanted, she engineers a reunion between “Ormond” (and Gallico)’s duplicitous former wife Claire (Eva Gabor), setting off a chain of events which neatly confirms the thesis of her novel, as Don is obliged to bump off more people, don more masks and adopt more identities, with exponentially compounding complications. Think “The Talented Mr Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” meets Man Of A Thousand Faces.

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If Vincent Price’s career move from suave smoothy to Horror Icon (with those Corman collaborations, Phibes, Witchfinder General, et al to come) began in André De Toth’s House Of Wax (1953) it was sealed by this one, directed by John Brahm the following year … in fact Columbia were so keen to jump on Warner’s 3D bandwagon that they started shooting The Mad Magician before De Toth’s film was released. The stereoscopic gimmick isn’t even particularly well deployed. Instead of showcasing the shock / action / murder set pieces, it’s mostly frittered away on throwaway shots of playing cards, squirts of water and yo-yos being thrust in your face. Price, in stark contrast with all of these shenanigans, plays it admirably straight, though one might well speculate that he picked up his renowned subsequent hamming habit from John Emery’s ripe overperformance here as The Great Rinaldi.

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This is great goofball fun, for maximum enjoyment of which I would recommend that you screen The Mad Magician in a double bill with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s completely crazed The Wizard Of Gore (1970)… you won’t believe your eyes!

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Limited, as usual to 3,000 copies, Indicator’s The Mad Magician has been restored in 2K for its UK BD premiere and is presented in both two and three dimensional options. There’s a Jonathan Rigby commentary track as well as a featurette on ’50s cinematic 3D from archivist Tim Vincent and cinematographer Frank (Kubo and the Two Strings) Passingham for you to enjoy. As well as the expected trailer, image gallery and collector’s booklet (which I haven’t seen yet), you get not one but two cut-down Super 8 presentations of the film… and to put the tin hat on it, justifying the purchase price by themselves, a couple of stereoscopic shorts from the mighty Three Stooges, Spooks! and Pardon My Backfire (both 1953). Whaddya mean, you don’t dig The Stooges?!? College Boy, huh? If the spectacle of Mo, Larry and Shemp poking each other in the eye, sticking forks up each other’s noses, setting fire to each other’s pants, springing mouse traps on each other’s tongues and being attacked by a vampire bat that looks suspiciously like Curly Howard – all in glorious 3D – doesn’t significantly elevate your mood, then you’re already dead…

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Dog Eat Dog… Social Mobility / Social Cleansing In PARASITE & BACURAU.

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Parasite  (South Korea, 2019) Directed by Bong Joon Ho.

Bacurau (Brazil / France, 2019) Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho.

Spoiler Alert. Be alert for spoilers. You’re welcome.

I imagine many of our readers will have seen (and probably loved) Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite… and it’s not often that I get to say that, with any degree of confidence, about an Academy Award winning film. If you did, then allow me to recommend, for your serious consideration, Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau (2019), which handles the same theme of struggling to get by on the sharp end of globalising neo-liberalism in a similarly devastating but contrastingly balls-to-the-wall style and which I recently caught due to the good offices of those splendid folks at Nottingham’s ever-wonderful Mayhem Festival.

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Bong’s brilliant social satire jarringly juxtaposes two cliché takes on life in South Korea… the dispossessed dog eaters and the shiny happy people from the K-Pop videos (a third, that of staring down the barrel of nuclear annihilation, is briefly alluded to in the unlikely event that the viewer starts feeling too comfortable). Cracking performances from all concerned (what a missed opportunity, not to have nominated any of the cast for their own Oscars) and Bong’s assured direction and (with Jin Won Han) skilful screen-writing gloss over a couple of glaring plot improbabilities in the service of a beautiful narrative edifice which keeps us guessing as it shifts seamlessly back and forth between social comment, comedy, suspense, high farce, pathos, romance, eroticism and all-out Horror. Parasite also takes its time introducing us to and stoking our sympathy for the characters, ensuring that it really registers with us when the shit finally does hit that fan. Asian filmmakers have always seemed to grasp this principle more readily than their Anglo counterparts (I’m still recovering from what happened to that palpably nice guy in Takashi Miike’s Audition, 1999…)

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Likewise, Bacurau takes its own sweet time familiaring us with the the odd conventions and even odder characters of its eponymous, isolated Brazilian village community. Initially disorientated, we come to feel at home with these incorrigible salts of the Earth, determinedly individualistic but inextricably bound by custom and community. Slimy mayoral candidate Tony Jr (Thardelly Lima) can’t buy their votes with his shoddy largesse or intimidate them by messing with their water supply… so what’s a corrupt politician to do? Simps. He deploys sophisticated satellite technolgy to wipe Bacurau off the face of the map before selling it and its inhabitants to insane white hunters who move in to do the job for real.

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In contrast to the constant genre switch-hitting of Parasite, this is a prolonged, intense riff on Richard Connell’s oft-filmed yarn Hounds Of Zaroff / The Most Dangerous Game, factoring in a splash of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) when Pacote (Thomas Aquino) reconnects with and seeks the protection of his exiled gang banger mates, led by the fearsome Lunga (played by Silvero Pereira as a man on a dual mission to humble the aggressors and single-handedly drag the mullet back into fashion).

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You can bet your bottom sheet of bog roll that Pasolini (the prophet of this whole consumer fascist groove thang), were he still alive, would want to have been cast in this epic of unalienated, authentic folk culture vs elitist savagery (he was great in Carlo Lizzani’s Kill And Pray, 1967). As it stands, the film benefits greatly from the charismatic contributions of Sonia Braga (on the side of the angels) and as Michael, leader of the killers, Udo Kier (now on the cusp of his eighth decade appearing in out there movies and still giving great face).

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The hunters profess varying motivations… there’s the American prison guard who thinks he’s stamping out criminality, the white supremacist couple who think they’re defusing a demographic time-bomb, then there are unabashed thrill killers, like the guy who admits that he’s only come for the body count and Julia (Julia Marie Peterson) who just wants to shoot anything that moves (and looks insanely sexy while doing so).

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Michael’s motivation is harder to figure and he’s ultimately buried beneath the weight of his own contradictions, not to mention the healing soil of Bacurau. By definition, it is suggested, the Sadean operating principle of “sworn to fun, loyal to none” cannot prevail against the inderdependant human values of community, though Michael sounds a stark warning just before he is interred forever in his bunker… “This is only the beginning!”

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The gap between the two philosophies is so pronounced that the drone the hunters use to locate their victims and keep score (reducing the common people to disposable cyber sprites in some perverse video game) might as well be a flying saucer – which is exactly what it looks like – and in this particular clash of cultures, it’s not too hard for the viewer to pick sides. Michael and co are so outright atrocious that we have no qualms whatsoever cheering the villagers on as they righteously extract their brutal communal justice (Lunga’s line: “Did I go too far?” brought the house down when I saw the film). Time to check our own levels of bloodlust. Maybe if you dig deep enough, we’re not that far removed from Michael and co…

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Giving Jess Enough Rope… Ennui & Ecstasy In Franco’s CRIES OF PLEASURE.

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“Martina’s getting out of the insane asylum. She’s a schizophrenic… a nymphomaniac… you’ll like her!”

Since the boy Freudstein’s Zine debut, various critical consensuses have mutated in a way that nobody could possibly have predicted. Terence Fisher, for example, has been unceremoniously dumped from the pantheon of Great Horror Directors, while lavish box sets and coffee table tomes are now devoted to the formerly despised likes of Andy Milligan, Al Adamson and Jess Franco. In fact the inexorable rise of Franco from pariah to fanzine favourite to filmmaker worthy of serious critical attention probably encapsulates this change (slide?) in popular and academic taste more neatly than anything else I’ve witnessed in the 35 years or so that I’ve been writing about this stuff.

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Severin continue their stalwart contributions to this alarming cultural phenomenon with a spanky new BD edition of JF’s 1982 effort Cries Of Pleasure (“Gemidos De Placer”), beautifully scanned in 4k from the original negative. Plot wise, there’s nothing much new going on here (stop me if you’ve heard this before but Antonio Mayans, Lina Romay and another couple of uninhibited floozies, plus an idiot savant flamenco guitarist, repair to an architectural folly on the Costa Del Sol for an interminable bonkathon, involving but not restricted to the inevitable Emmanuelle-patented wicker furniture) but the real novelty is in this one Franco attempts to emulate (sort of) Hitchcock’s experiment in Rope (1948) by constructing his picture as a collage of a very few long, long takes.

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While this has the upside of eliminating some of the noodling passages and messier edits that disfigure certain other Franco productions, long passages of people having it off present their own challenges to the viewer’s attention span… especially when the sex is so palpably faked. The one brief glimpse we get of Mayans’ stauner (thanks to Rachael Dunnett for that one) is decidedly more Limp Bizkit than Led Zeppelin. Portrait_de_Sade.jpgTo ward off impending ennui, Franco manages to introduce significant plot twists at just about the right moments. Although the film’s titles suggest that this is an adaptation of De Sade (just for a change, eh Jess?) and there are nods throughout to the passionate philosophy of Donatien Alphonse François (“We belong to the chosen ones, to whom everything is allowed” … “Isn’t that wonderful, Julia? The throbbing and trembling pussy of somebody who’s about to die!”), Cries Of Pleasure is actually something more of a kinked-up take on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s überinfluential Les Diaboliques (1955). Although Mayans intrigues with various permutations of the lady libertines against each other… let’s just say that things might not work out exactly how he planned.

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Franco’s frequently favoured DP Juan Soler doubles up here as a retarded handyman / guitarist who wanders in and out of the unfolding orgies, to which he often supplies a musical accompaniment (reminding me of certain scenes from Oshima’s Ai No Corrida… now there’s a truly Sadean film). This guy probably never ever learned to read or write so well, but he can play his guitar just like ringing a bell… remind you of anybody? The elitist, murderous swingers treat him with the contempt they consider appropriate, but we are privy to his internal monologues, including his memories of previous unspeakable atrocities, which makes for an interesting narrative device. An unreliable witness, he is abandoned by the surviving characters (“They’re strange people”, he ventures) as they head off in search of “unlimited debauchery”. Well, I ask you… are there any high profile precedents for a corpse (bearing signs of sexual trauma) turning up in somebody’s swimming pool without the owner of said pool facing serious legal consequences? Actually, now you mention it…

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A tasty array of special features includes Stephen Thrower visiting various exotic Franco Locations in Portugal (and clearly having the time of his life), Donald Farmer’s 1993 video interview with Lina and (mostly) Jess, plus Thrower’s characteristically engaging discourse on the director’s time with Golden Films and Cries Of Pleasure in particular. All of these run over as continuing featurettes on Severin’s companion release, Franco’s Night Of Open Sex (1983, below).

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Blood & Brown Fur… WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY Reviewed.

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

The question is not “Who is the murderer?”… but “Who is the werewolf?” (The challenge thrown down to viewers during the legendary “Werewolf break” in Paul Annett’s The Beast Must Die,  1974).

Before it found a particularly convivial setting in the early-mid ’70s thrillers of Sergio Martino, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi’s obsession with the Whodunnit plotting of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) was expressed via some unlikely outlets, none more unlikely than Lycanthropus, directed by Paolo (The Day The Sky Exploded) Heusch (as “Richard Benson”) in 1961.

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Despite a dodgy discharge from his previous employers, Doctor Julian Olcott (Carl Schell) takes up a new position at a reform school for bad girls, supposedly located somewhere in England (though the locations are conspicuously Italian). Fortuitously (for the real culprit) his arrival coincides with a spate of slayings in which various residents and staff members are messily bumped off, for which Dr Jules naturally becomes the prime suspect, ahead even of philandering pedagogue and blackmail victim Sir Alfred Whiteman (Maurice Marsac) and general dogsbody Walter (“Allan Collins” / Luciano Pigozzi, whose resemblance to Peter Lorre always puts him in the frame). Striking up an alliance (not to mention a romantic entanglement) with boot camp babe Priscilla (Barabara Lass, who was nearing the end of her marriage to Roman Polanski during the making of this picture), the doc sets about the task of unearthing the actual killer’s identity (and their shaggy dog back story, into the bargain…)

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While the transformation scenes are handled with simple efficiency, they’re not the main point of interest here. Lycanthropus is clearly cut from the same cloth in which the incipient giallo genre was being fashioned. The milieu of intriguing young minxes and their corrupt custodians in a claustrophobic setting rings a bell or two with Mario Bava’s seminal 1964 effort Blood And Black Lace (and is it just me, or does Barbara Lass bear an incidental resemblance to Leticia Roman from Bava’s earlier The Girl Who Knew Too Much?)

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Antonio Margheriti’s The Miniskirt Murders (1968) also rehashes several elements from Heusch’s films, not least the presence of “Collins” / Pigozzi and Lycanthropus’s giallo legacy stretches far further than that… tracking shots of night time chases through the woods and compositions of female victims reclining in stretches of water had me wondering if this is one of the films screened by Argento before he got cracking on Phenomena (1985).

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Renato Del Frate’s crisp b/w cinematography is well served throughout in this new 2k scan from archival elements. Special features include an interview with the great Gastaldi, a David Del Valle-moderated commentary track from Curt Lowens (who plays Director Swift in the movie), trailers, and the alternative US titles… commercially inspired by any amount of contemporary werewolf flicks, Lycanthropus went out as Werewolf In A Girls’ Dormitory States-side, with a terrible tacked-on opening song (“The Ghoul In School”) that is clearly attempting to invoke the spirit of AIP’s I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957). My early bird copy contained a mini-repro of the original promotional photo-comic and a bonus CD of Armando Trovajoli’s OST. Nice!

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He’s Coming To Get You, Barbara… BYLETH Reviewed

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Don’t remember seeing Udo Kier in this one, but there you go…

BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

When the Duke Lionello (Mark Damon) and his sister Barbara (Claudia Gravy, who appeared in some Jess Franco pictures but, as far as I know, never in any adaptations of the works of Robert Browning) were growing up on their family’s ancestral Lazio pile, they were such loving siblings that they play-acted getting married when they were older. Ah, cute. Barbara, as you would expect, grew out of this whimsical little fantasy… Lionello never quite managed to do so. When Barbara returns from a spell in Venice, her brother is overjoyed but she harshes Lionello’s mellow big time by announcing that she’s now hitched to Giordano (Aldo Bufo Landi). A big girl’s blouse in a frilly shirt, Lionello goes into angsting overdrive, moping around his castle, spying on the bonking couples with which it seems to be littered and enjoying his own odd assignations with prostitutes (very odd… he can’t seem to rise to the occasion with any woman who isn’t Barbara). He even hides in Barbara’s wardrobe, caressing her petticoats while he watches her and Giordano gittin’ it on through the keyhole,

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Unfortunately a series of the women Lionello spies on and / or fails to satisfy start turning up dead, somebody having stabbed them in their throats with a three pronged knife. But who is that somebody? A handy dandy priest (Antonio Anelli) turns up to advise the police that such a weapon is traditionally handled by Byleth, the Demon of Incest, throwing in bonus biographical information about Byleth’s demonic cohorts , Astorath, Baphomet, Belphegor and so on…

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In the rare moments that the screen isn’t filled with copulating couples, director Leopoldo Savona (better known for such endearingly titled Spaghetti Westerns as God Will Forgive My Pistol, Apocalypse Joe and Pistol Packin’ Preacher… also as the original director of what emerged as Mario Bava’s The Vikings knock-off, Knives Of The Avenger) and one shot co-writer Norbert Blake (anyone smell a pseudonym?) attempt to mix giallo elements into an already overcrowded supernatural-gothic-costume-melodrama-romance mish-mash and fail to pull it off because apart from the obvious suspect, no plausible red herring is even offered. Barbara finally (and a tad arbitrarily) succunbs to Lionello’s advances. We don’t actually see her doing so or him killing her, but it seems both of these things happened, ushering in a misfiring demonic wrap up.

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The demon Byleth, apparently.

Of the two films that most readily occur to me, right off the top of my head, as comparators, I like this one a whole lot better than Alfredo Rizzo’s The Bloodsucker Leads The Dance (1975) but it’s not a patch on Joe D’Amato’s Death Smiles On A Murderer (1973). Byleth is a rather minor effort, but the spaghetti exploitation cognoscenti will want to check out this interesting rarity from 1972. Severin’s 2K restoration has been sourced from an uncut (but somewhat damaged) German negative (as “Trio Der Lust”) with optional German or Italian sound and English subs. No extras.

Next!

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Women Seem Wicked, When You’re Unwanted… Dennis Potter’s SECRET FRIENDS Reviewed

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BD. Region Free. Indicator. 15.

Dennis Potter (1935-1994) was a prolific, idiosyncratic TV writer from 1960 onwards and a gratifyingly ongoing irritant to the Daily Mail tendency. The BBC production of his Brimstone And Treacle (directed by Barry Davis and broadcast in 1976) raised hackles by suggesting the therapeutic benefits of rape (by The Devil, no less). Despite bearing the unmistakable, er, influence of two 1968 films (Pasolini’s Theorem and a certain Roman Polanski effort), Brimstone was cited by supporters as definitive proof of Potter’s ferocious originality though one imagines that, in the post #MeToo era, it (and Richard Loncraine’s 1982 feature remake, in which the execrable Sting replaced Michael Kitchen as the demon lover) would invoke more hostility than ever.

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Potter peaked in 1978 with Piers Haggard’s six part BBC adaptation of his Pennies From Heaven, a narrative tour de force in which song and dance numbers are mimed at apposite points. It didn’t exactly hurt that a perfectly cast (as a romantically inclined but ill-fated sheet music salesman) Bob Hoskins was on superb form (when was he ever not on superb form?) throughout.

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13p?!? Pennies indeed…

“Ferociously original” as he may have been, Potter was never above recycling good ideas that had previously seemed to go over OK. His Blue Remembered Hills (directed by Brian Gibson as part of the Beeb’s Play For Today strand in 1979) revived the “children played by adult actors” gag he first tentatively deployed for Keith Barron’s character in Stand Up, Nigel Barton (a Wednesday Play, directed in 1965 by Gareth Davis). Sometimes, though, the revival of such devices was to distinctly diminishing returns…

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The Singing Detective (1986) shoe-horned Pennies From Heaven’s brilliant narrative conceit into a (rather dull, self-pitying) story where it didn’t really belong. The best thing about this one is that Mary Whitehouse proposed an ingenious, totally baseless theory about Potter’s inspiration for such “dirty” material, a proposal which resulted in her being successfully sued for libel by Dennis’s Mum… oh, how we laughed! Despite Mary’s moral and my aesthetic objections, The Singing Detective became a substantial success. Potter put his first foot seriously wrong, though, with the 1989 four parter Blackeyes, another racy BBC serial for which he insisted on directing his own script.

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Casting my mind back half a life time ago, I can’t pretend (not very convincingly, anyway) that I didn’t enjoy the spectacle of Gina Bellman (who had supplanted Joanne Whalley in the pantheon of Potter’s sexual obsessions) mincing around in various states of undress, but DP’s direction proved embarassingly ham-fisted and (for a writer who habitually took an oblique, allusive tack) sometimes shockingly on the nose.

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Monkeys about to be spanked on a pedestal in Dennis Potter’s Pantheon (caveat emptor, this is NOT a scene from any of the films discussed here)…

Potter’s sophomore and final stab at directing was Secret Friends (1991), a feature adaptation of his 1986 novel Ticket To Ride. Much of its action is set on a train (because it’s a journey of self realisation, right?), bringing to mind (“ferocious originality” notwithstanding) Return To Waterloo (1984), in which similarly over reaching director Ray Davies blotted his brilliant career escutcheon and its brightest adornment.

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Half way through dining on fish in First class, illustrator John (Alan Bates) finds himself in the throes of a profound amnesia attack. “As memories, fantasies and psychotic visions collide” (to quote the blurb), two straight edge businessmen sitting opposite John are drawn into his attempts to get a grip on his shifting “reality”, which notably involves them excitedly goggling at his assignation with an eye-scorchingly glamorous prostitute (Bellman) who, we eventually discover, is John’s wife (nudge, nudge) Helen. John can only, er, “function” in the context of this role-playing scenario but the fantasy is taking over and gradually killing their marriage. John’s whore / Madonna complex seems to stem from his father’s contempt for his mother. It’s also suggested that Dad might have sexually abused young John. Make of all this what you will…

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Limited, like most of the Indicator releases I get to see, to 3,000 copies, Secret Friends is looking good for its UK BD premiere in this HD remaster. Bonus materials include an appreciation of the film by Graham Fuller, the editor of Potter On Potter and a short interview with Ian McNeice, who plays one of those bewildered businessmen. You get the expected trailer and image gallery, plus a 36-page booklet (which I haven’t seen) including interviews with Potter, a new essay by Jeff Billington, full film credits and contemporary reviews. Gina Bellman, who (despite not reciprocating her director’s openly declared erotic fixation on her) has always previously spoken positively about her working relationship with Potter, is not interviewed here. Whether, in the fulness of time and the current climate, she decides that she was exploited, objectified or whatever by him, remains to be seen.

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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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Games

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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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