Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Singular Vision Of Identical Twins… INNER SANCTUMS – QUAY BROTHERS: THE COLLECTED ANIMATED FILMS 1979 – 2013 Reviewed.

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“To enter the impossible, haunted night of a Quay Brothers film is to become complicit in one of the most perverse and obsessive acts of cinema.” Michael Atkinson, Film Comment.

“As an American, I always wanted to be seduced into this strange decadent, rotting idea of Europe, and the Quays have created that world in a manner which hypnotizes me, but which I don’t fully understand.” Terry Gilliam.

Me neither. This splendid double disc set has been in heavy rotation here at The House of Freudstein for some weeks now but the prospect of reviewing it has been a daunting one, not only by dint of the sheer volume of stuff packed into it (Inner Sanctums does pretty much what its subtitle says on the tin, clocking up 305 spell-binding minutes of screen time) but also due to the sheer ineffability of much of its subjects’ phantasmagorical vision…

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The identical Quay (pronounced not “Key” but to rhyme with “Kray”) Twins, Stephen and Timothy, having considered and discounted possible careers in gymnastics, studied illustration (Timothy) and film (Stephen) at the Philadelphia College of Art before relocating to London in the late ’60s to further their studies (and start making films, now lost) at The Royal College Of Art. Falling under the spell of Polish artists Walerian Borowczyk (yes, that Walerian Borowczyk) and Jan Lenica, they followed their heroes from poster collage into stop motion animation. The East European connection continues and is reflected in the co-production status of much of their filmography and more overtly in such titles as The Cabinet Of Jan Svankmajer (1984.) The Quays most high-profile work was contributed to Peter Gabriel’s celebrated Sledgehammer video, though they subsequently disowned their involvement in it. What they will own up to is on these discs…

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… and include such firm family favourites as Nocturnia Artificialia (1979), Street Of Crocodiles (1986), Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1988), In Absentia (2000), Songs For Dead Children (2003), Eurydice, She So Beloved and Alice In Not So Wonderland (both 2007)… the very titles clueing you in to the kind of austere spiritual terrain they traverse.

The Phantom Museum (2003) effectively anticipates the far frothier (and of course infinitely more lucrative) Night At The Museum franchise and the Quays returned to mine this rich psychical vein again in 2009’s Inventorium Of Traces (a salutary true tale and warning that not even the liveliest mind is proof against melancholia) and Through The Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum) (2011), a potent portmanteau of pathos, dread and devotion beyond death.

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Harry Eastlack Jr (1933-73), fibrosyspladia ossificans progressiva sufferer who donated his mortal remains to the Mutter Museum, College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia

I didn’t get the booklet (apparently containing Michael Brooke’s updated “Quays Dictionary” and the 2013 dialogue “On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets”) but elsewhere among the generous compliment of extras there are some fascinating “behind the scenes at the College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia” stuff… indeed, quite enough glimpses of The Twins at work to dispel any lazy depiction of them as “reclusive artists.” The Quays are hiding in plain sight, sufficient unto each other (perhaps interested, in a way only identical twins can be, in how spirit populates and animates flesh)… and anyway, does it really matter or not if we understand? Rather like the narrator of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, it’s easier for them to make us feel than make us think. The Quays’ Inner Sanctums remain obdurately impenetrable…

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Admitting defeat, like Terry Gilliam before me, I’m going to resort to an expedient to which I’ve usually loath to indulge, demoting myself to the role of puppet (or at least ventriloquist’s dummy) in quoting you a chunk from the BFI blurb that accompanied my screener discs…

“Filtering arcane visual, literary, musical, cinematic and philosophical influences through their own utterly distinctive sensibility, each Quay film rivets the attention through hypnotic control of decor, camera, lighting, music and movement, evoking half remembered dreams, fascinating and yet deeply unsettling in turn.”

Still not convinced? Put it this way, you’ve probably already seen the Quays’ style frequently and clumsily plagiarised on MTV and elsewhere, so here’s a chance to immerse yourself in the real thing and take from it what you will. I found a day pole-axed and febrile on the sofa with the proverbial “flu-like symptoms” particularly conducive to getting my head around their lovingly crafted, wistfully melancholic oneiric mind scapes… against which, regrettably, there is no effective inoculation.

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Mystic Pizza…DOCTOR STRANGE Reviewed

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Doctor Strange. 2016. USA. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt. Production Design by Charles Wood.  Art direction by Ray Chan. Costume Design by Alexandra Byrne. Special and Visual FX by… how long have you got? DP: Ben Davis. Edited by Sabrina Plisco, Wyatt Smith. Music by Michael Giacchino. Written by Scott Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill… after the Steve Ditko comic character. Produced by Kevin Feige, etc. Directed by Scott Derrickson.

I haven’t gone to the cinema regularly for yonks… decades, in fact. Antiseptic “wheel ’em in, kick ’em out” multiplexes, uninspiring franchise fodder, seat kickers and sweet bag rustlers, exorbitant ticket prices and the fact that I’ve got all my favourite films on a shelf and a fuck off telly / sound system on which to experience them right here in the HOF… all of these factors have contributed to my poor cinema attendance record since the last Lucio Fulci double bill played out at the old Odeon on London Road in Liverpool (now yuppie apartments, I’m told.)

When the little Freudette started toddling around and seeking screen entertainment, Mrs F and I briefly ventured back into our local picture palaces to treat her to the likes of Wallace And Grommit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, Curious George (“Curious Gudge” as she insisted on having it) and any amount of Disney / Pixar offerings. Now she has put such childish things behind her, the adolescent hormones are raging and it’s that guy from Sherlock who’s stoking the flames… yep, me daughter’s a total Cumberbitch!

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When she broached the subject of going to check him out in the latest Marvel Smasheroo, she wasn’t exactly pushing at a locked door, given my own fond boyhood memories of following the Doc’s astral escapades, as rendered by Jack Kirby and co, in the pages of Dez Skinn reprint comics such as Fantastic and Terrific.

So it was that I donned the cloak of levitation and we wafted over to that jewel in Nottingham’s cinema crown, the Savoy on Derby Road… by the jap’s eye of Agamotto and the thrice-dread dog poop scoop of Dormammu… wahay, we’re going to the pictures again for two 12a hours of “moderate fantasy violence” and “injury detail”!

The Savoy is a wonderful Old School cinema (and approximately 50% cheaper than an evening out at one of the big chains!) which continues to run current biggies and also hosts regular cult screenings by The Loft Movie Theatre. No seat kickers, thank fuck, though the World Sweet Packet Rustling Championship seemed to be taking place in the auditorium. The Freudette proved less impressed by this glimpse into the lost cinema going world of her mum and dad (who, after all, copped off during a screening of the awful Rutger Hauer picture Salute Of The Jugger) than by the prospect of Benedict besporting himself in mystic robes.

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And so to the film itself… Doctor Strange is a diverting big budget bash which won’t engage too many of your brain cells but certainly doesn’t dishonour my childhood memories of Steve Ditko’s creation. As played by Benedict C, he’s a skilled but arrogant surgeon who performs his operations to the sublime, silky funk accompaniment of Earth, Wind And Fire (hardly pikers themselves when it comes to pop culture mysticism.) Full marks for that, but scores of credibility points deducted when he crashes his car after using his mobile phone when driving (as only the scum of the Earth would do.) Seeking to repair his shattered hands, he makes for Tibet and is inducted into The Mystic Arts by The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton in a performance that seemed, for some reason, to set Mrs F’s teeth on edge (and she was in no way mollified when I pointed out that the baldy woman’s complete appellation in real life is apparently: “Katherine Matilda – Tilda – Swinton of Kimmerghame, a British actress, performance artist, model, and fashion muse.”)

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In place of the ectoplasm slinging duels to which I thrilled as a lad, you get loads of the CGI reality-scaping that’s been de rigeur since The Matrix, scads of Marvel in-jokes including the mandatory Stan Lee cameo, undeniably impressive outbreaks of big screen, Dolby-enhanced psychedelia (it’s impossible for me to come down too hard on any film which features The Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive in its soundtrack) and a climactic cosmic shoot out with Dormammu from The Dark Dimension that’s startlingly reminiscent of the conclusion to Lugi Cozzi’s completely bonkers and resolutely low budget The Black Cat / De Profondis (1989.)

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You bet there are going to be sequels and Avengers tie-ins, ad infinitum…

Befuddled by free-flowing hormones, ma fille scored this one 10/10. Despite my lingering suspicion that when it comes to Tibetan mystic proteges, Sharron Macready from The Champions would have kicked this Dr Strange’s ass from one end of the astral plane to another, plus reservations about BC’s variable accent (he’s more believable as a trans-dimensional trouble-shooter than he is as an American), I score it as a rare and reasonably enjoyable trip to the flicks…

… and I’ve honoured my pledge to Mrs F that, to avoid winding up our offspring, I would steadfastly refrain from referring to her screen heart-throb, at any point in this review, as Bendydick Cucumberpatch… oh, hang on… d’oh!

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Peter Hooten in the 1978 pilot for an abortive Doctor Strange TV series… wonder why that didn’t catch on?

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Brain Drain On The Train… HORROR EXPRESS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions A/1. Severin. Unrated.

If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and just try stopping me!), Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express (Pánico En El Transiberiano, 1972) was – along with the likes of Witchfinder General, Tales From The Crypt, et al – a regular fixture on the Friday late night horror slot with which Granada TV used to enliven my humdrum adolescence. In those days of course (sit up and pay attention, Junior, this is for your own good!) we didn’t have the benefit of VCRs (never mind digital recording) and, given that the gaps between transmission of individual films might be as long as two years, it was a catastrophe of global proportions if you succumbed to sleep half way through this or some or other horror gem, usually waking up during the credits with a stiff neck and another significant wait in prospect.

Flash forward past the VHS era and into incipient middle age, at the dawn of DVD, where Horror Express became one of the most widely released titles on the nascent format, mostly in scuzzy looking and not necessarily authorised editions on fly-by-night labels, apparently because of a misconception that it had entered the public domain. Indeed, if memory serves me well, this is the first title I ever saw on DVD, round at David Flint’s gaff. Image Entertainment’s managed a decent R1 version that has been deleted for some time now and was followed  by a R2 incarnation from Cinema Club’s Horror Classics imprint, very welcome despite its absence of extras, full screen presentation and rather tired, solarised-looking print, which seemed identical to the one that subsequently got screened by the BBC (Cinema Club seems to have been acquired at some point as an arm of BBC enterprises.) Trust Severin to do it right, with the best looking release in ages…

Born in 1925 and now (if indeed he’s still alive) long retired, Eugenio Martin was an able journeyman director of adventure yarns until the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (shot in Spain) initiated a vogue for Paella Westerns in which he enthusiastically participated with the likes of El Precio De Un Hombre (aka Bounty Killer, 1966) , Requiem Para El Gringo aks Duel In The Eclipse (1968) and as late as 1971’s El Hombre De Rio Malo (“Bad Man’s River” aka Hunt The Man down)

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By this point Martin had already started dabbling in the horror genre, his 1969 offering Una Vela Para El Diablo (“A Candle For The Devil”) showing a preoccupation with hidebound social mores that conceal psychotic deviance which would be amplified in later efforts up to and including the early ’80s brace Sobrenatural and Aquella Casa En Las Afueras (“That House On The Outskirts”). The latter turns on a memorable, Sheila Keith type turn from the venerable Alida Valli and features abortion as a plot point in a way that would have been impossible scant years earlier, under Franco’s regime.

There’s a similar faith vs secularism motif in the Spanish / British co-production Horror Express (1972), easily the best of Martin’s fear flicks… how could it fail to be, combining as it does a truly stellar cast (including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in their strongest non-Hammer outing) with some totally wacked out plotting. Said action commences with Sir Alexander Saxton (your basic Professor Challenger type, as essayed by Lee) unearthing some kind of deep frozen yeti in scenic Szechuan (actually all the impressive locations in this picture are Spanish) at the turn of the Century. Later he runs into old scientific adversary Dr Wells (Cushing) at Shanghai railway station, as both are about to board
the Transiberian Express. The prickly professional rivalry between these two leads to Wells bribing a porter to take a peek at the contents of Saxon’s crate. Oh, mister Porter… what he finds is a thawed out troglodyte whose glowing red medusa stare leads to prolific bleeding from the victims’ own eyes (which rapidly cloud over with cataracts), followed in pretty short order by death. Cushing’s autopsy (pretty graphic stuff for its day) reveals that the victim’s brain is smooth as a baby’s bum, every wrinkle (and piece of information that is potentially useful to a space Yeti) sucked right out of it.

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“Book him, Crocker!”

Having bailed out of his crate, Trog now mooches around the train, disturbing the genteel travellers with further eye-bleeding, brain-sucking antics. His victims’ ordeals, effectively conveyed via dissolves and quick cuts, still pack a horrific punch and really shook me up as a kid. I’m convinced that they also made a big impression on Lucio Fulci who, it became apparent to me after meeting and interviewing him, was a bit of a Spanish horror buff. The mistreatment to which various characters’ eyes are subjected in his 1980 schlock opera City Of The Living Dead are unmistakably reminiscent of these scenes, ditto the ping-pong eyeballs which pop up at the conclusion of his masterpiece The Beyond (1981.)

Back on that train, as if all of the above weren’t entertaining enough, Martin chucks in Eurobabe Helga Line as the beautiful Polish Countess Natasha and her Rasputin-like personal chaplain Father Pujardov, played by Alberto de Mendoza in a performance possibly patterned on that of Patrick Troughton as Lee’s sidekick Klove in Roy Ward Baker’s Scars Of Dracula (1970). The Argentinean Mendoza was a busy actor (right up  till his death in 2011) whose notable Eurotrash credits include Bitto Albertini’s Nairobi-based giallo oddity L’Uomo Piu Velenoso Del Cobra (“Human Cobras”, 1971), Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1970) and Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale (1971) plus the Fulci brace One On Top Of Another / Perversion Story (1969) and Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971.)

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This mad monk maintains that the Troglodyte is Satan incarnate (”There’s the stink of hell on this train… even [Line’s] dog knows it”) and Saxton’s attempts at rational explanations (“Hypnosis! Yoga!”) are somewhat less than compelling. When the train’s resident detective manages to shoot Trog, Mills performs an autopsy that presents some startling results. This missing link’s retina has retained images of dinosaurs and even a view of The Earth seen from Outer Space (Martino taking his cue here from a pinch of the pseudo-science that informed Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet, made the previous year.) The conclusion is that the evil entity comprises pure energy that must inhabit a host body to make its way around terra firma. The train dick’s hairy hand (hope I got that the right way round) indicates that he is the new host, and a fresh cycle of brain sucking and The Thing-type paranoia kicks in when he sets out to absorb the engineering expertise that will allow the construction of a spaceship with which to check out of planet Earth. Ultimately Pujardov volunteers to host the elemental and, as if the passengers hadn’t already suffered more than their fair share of commuting misery, he now raises the bodies of all the previous hosts and victims as a horde of marauding zombies!

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By this point the express has been boarded by a macho bunch of cossacks, under the command of Captain Kazan, played by Telly Savalas. Ah yes, Telly Savalas… never the subtlest of actors, the future Kojak star raises the bar here for all subsequent outbreaks of scenery-chewing thespianism… but how else was he going to steal the show from the legendary Lee / Cushing axis? Obviously labouring under the delusion that he’s performing in a Spag Western (an impression enhanced by frequent, tuneless whistling on the soundtrack) Savalas swaggers around gargling with vodka, smashing glasses, ranting xenophobic invective and delivering such impenetrable aphorism as: “A horse has four legs, a murderer has two arms and The Devil must be afraid of one honest Cossack.” “What’s he raving about?” demands Mills, reasonably enough, only to be punched out by Kazan of this trouble. “Everybody’s under arrest!” howls the Captain before handing out a few lumps to Saxton, a propose of nothing in particular and horse whippng Pujardov into the bargain… Oh, those Russians! Savalas’ overripe performance had such an impact on my impressionable mind that I long misremembered him as dominating the entire picture, and it’s quite a shock now to realise that his character doesn’t make his entry until well into its final third.

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Thankfully, Saxton and Mills manage to de-couple the zombie-infested carriages and send them down the line that sends them careering over a cliff. Great miniature work throughout, but which bright engineering spark decided to lay down a line that would send trains careering over a cliff? Even Southern Rail commuters expect better than this… and speaking of stiff upper lips, Cushing gets to utter the best line in the film –  “Monsters? We’re British, you know!”, one that still resonates loudly in the wake of Brexit…

Bonus materials include an interview with director Martin in which he reveals that the film’s motivating “high concept” was producer Philip Yordan’s desire to get his money’s worth out of the train that he had purchased for the same year’s Pancho Villa, in which Martin had directed Savalas earlier in 1972. He also describes how Lee coaxed the recently widowed and deeply depressed Cushing back into a working mood. There’s a wide-ranging 1973 audio interview with Cushing that can be played as an accompaniment to the film. In the featurette Notes From The Blacklist producer Bernard Gordon talks about his run-in  with everybody’s favourite Commie-baiter, Senator Joe McCarthy. Telly And Me comprises an interview with composer John Cacavas, who acknowledges how his scoring career flourished under the patronage of Savalas. There’s a characteristically enthusiastic intro piece from erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander and of course you get a trailer.

Mind the gap!

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“Who loves ya, baby?”

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Back To The House Of Pain: A Second Look At David Gregory’s LOST SOUL Documentary…

… albeit a very short one.

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

No, the Severin release of Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr Moreau (2014) hasn’t given me cause to reconsider the enthusiastic endorsement I gave it elsewhere on this blog, it’s just that I’ve now had the opportunity to view the bonus features common to both this and the Nucleus releases and thought that, while possibly interested in hearing about them, you might be more likely to read this than go back to the original review in hope of an update.

Plenty of extras here to keep you out of mischief, kicking off with lengthy interview out takes from Richard Stanley and other contributors that give you the chance to second guess Gregory’s edit. Then Stanley talks us through a gallery of Graham Humphrey’s original conceptual art, providing plentiful further hints as to the film that might have been. In the audio featurette Barbara Steele Recalls Moreau, Barbara Steele er, recalls her brief stint on the still-Stanley directed Dr Moreau and sharing fags with a “Rangatang.” In Boar Man Diary manimal extra Neil Young goes all Jackanory on the patio, reading from his on set-diaries. Most interesting revelation? Rob Morrow was acting up “… because he’s a cunt!” (on a set where there was, by all accounts, no shortage of lady parts.) David hunts for Moreau’s compound in Cairns, Australia with the aid of eminent botanists in The hunt For The Compound and, of course, you get a trailer.

There’s an archive interview with John Frankenheimer, in which he claims that H G Wells would have liked his picture better than Erle Kenton’ celebrated 1932 version of Dr Moreau (hmmm…) and, while attempting to pour oil on the troubled waters of his working relationship with Brando and Kilmer, takes time out for a verbal swipe at Stanley. Stanley returns the compliment (and expresses himself freely on the subject of Val Kilmer, too) in the featurette The Beast Of Morbido (a 2014 festival in Puebla, Mexico 2014 where Stan Winston protegé Bruce Spaulding Fuller made the renegade director up as a beast man.) Stanley’s verdict on Marlon Brando is more nuanced… apparently Marlon had been in The Business and suffered its obnoxiousness so long that he developed a rosy-tinted view of the world outside it whereas Stanley insists (before leading the festival attendees in a spirited recitation of The Law) that the world is populated with hyenas and you’re better off living in seclusion on top of The Cathars’ mountain. Amen to that…

There are further Severin editions of this film available, the most covetable of all, I guess, being the Special 3-disc House Of Pain Edition, which also features Die Insel Der Verschollenen (Island of the Lost), a recently discovered 1921 German adaptation of Wells’ classic yarn…  the “H.G. Wells On Film” featurette, featuring expert Sylvia Hardy… Richard Stanley on Wells and a bonus audio CD in which Stanley Reads “The Island Of Dr. Moreau”… maybe I’ll be reviewing that one for you, one of these days.

Am I not a man?

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Sex Dwarf, Isn’t It Nice? BURIAL GROUND Reviewed

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

Not content with their blockbusting Doctor Butcher / Zombi Holocaust double disc set, Severin immediately plunge back even further into the delirious depths of zucchini zombie territory with this notorious 1980 offering from cut-price sleaze specialist Andrea Bianchi. “Is Burial Ground as bad as it’s cracked up to be?” David (Reprobate) Flint was moved to ask, when reviewing this release. My answer would have to be in the affirmative, though I’d follow it up with another question, namely: “But is that necessarily a bad thing?”

Also known as Zombie 3, Zombi Horror and Nights Of Terror, this one attempts to take a leaf from the occult tomes of Lucio Fulci, substituting for the Books of Eibon and Enoch another slice or arcane lore, “The Profecy (sic) Of The Black Spider.” Never heard of it? Then allow me to quote a particularly chilling passage: “The Earth shall tremble. Graves shall open. They shall come among the living as messengers of death and there shall be the nigths of terror…” You heard me. Nigths!

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A nigth of terror… last nigth in Frascati.

Now I hate to be nigth-picking, but in the light of all these ridiculous spelling errors, it’s difficult to put too much faith in this here “profecy”. Nevertheless, as the film opens, it’s being pored over by one Professor Ayer. Surely that’s not the noted logical positivist, A. J. Ayer? Well no, in fact this guy’s hirsute appearance suggests he’s about to pack in his studies of ancient Etruscan ritual magic and join Z Z Top.

Before strapping on a furry pink guitar, however, he nips out to the ancient Etruscan amphitheatre and catacombs that conveniently seem to comprise the back garden of his villa, muttering: “It’s incredible… I’m the only one who knows!” (don’t worry viewers, you’ll soon be in on the whole risible secret, too.) Chipping away with a hammer down in the vaults, he disturbs several dough-faced undead who rise from their coffins to surround him. “No… I’m your friend!” he blubbers, before the hungry deadsters get stuck into him. Nice try, Rasputin, but no coconut. zombies have been known to responds unfavourably to fire and a shot in the head is almost invariably efficacious… but an appeal to their finer fraternal feelings? Forget it!

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No sooner have his innards slid down their throats than a bunch of the Prof’s swinging pals turn up at the villa for a soapy weekend of bickering, making out (“You’re getting a rise from me… but it’s nothing to do with money!”) and knocking back the ol’ J&B (cue the mother of all product placement shots.) Prominent among them are Maria Angela Giordano (a refrigerated torso in Mario Landi’s Giallo In Venice, victim of a flying snot-rag attack in Michele Soavi’s The Sect and violated by a psychokinetically-guided poker in Mario Landi’s Patrick’s Still Alive, though undoubtedly her finest hour of scuzzy  outrage occurs in this one), Gianluigi Chirizzi and Roberto Caporali (who teamed up again in Ferdinando Baldi’s Night Train Murders knock-off, Terror Express), Simone Mattioli (on whom more later) and, keeping up the cheesecake quotient, Karen Well and Antonella Antinori.

Special mention, of course, must be made to Peter Bark, who plays Giordano’s son Michael. Although many have characterised Giovanni Frezza (“Bob” from Fulci’s House By The Cemetery) as the weirdest looking kid ever set loose in a zombie film (European Trash Cinema’s Craig Ledbetter memorably designated him “the pig faced lad”), anyone who’s ever witnessed Bianchi’s film will beg to differ. Film scholars debated this unique individual’s exact status long and hard before the “middle aged dwarf” theory was conclusively confirmed. What’s indisputable is that his mutated appearance is frankly more frightening than any of Gino de Rossi’s misfiring zombie make-ups in this filmic fiasco.

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He’s a perceptive little bugger, though: “Mama… this rag smells of death!” he whines at one point. “I’ve always been terrified of the dead” chips in one of his fellow house mates, who’s predictably mortified when scores of deceased folks start ambling around the grounds (to the accompaniment of those obligatory whooping and farting synthesiser sounds, which alternate on Burial Ground’s OST with sub Popol Vuh ambient atmospherics and, over the titles, a passable  knock off of Herbie Hancock’s main Blow Up theme) , rudely interrupting various heavy petting couples in the garden (“You look just like a whore… but I like that in a girl!”)

Besieged inside the villa by ravenous zombies who’ve tooled up with various household and gardening implements, our heroes naturally scorn any idea of sticking together, wandering off instead to suffer their miscellaneous fates (one clumsily cribbed from Zombie Flesh Eaters’ most notorious moment, a pane of glass substituting for that wooden splinter.) Meanwhile mutated Mike, whose Oedipal resentment of Giordano’s new boyfriend has already been made clear, responds a little over enthusiastically when comforted and cuddled by his mom… he starts touching her up (!) so she has to slap him down.  “What’s wrong? I’m your son!” wails the brat, running away to his well-deserved dinner date with the undead (Giordano’s hysterical reaction to the discovery of Michael’s chewed-up cadaver is absolutely priceless.)

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Like Professor Ayer before them, characters continually and misguidedly attempt to mount a constructive dialogue with the shambling corpses instead of just reaching for the nearest Uzi, consequently placing themselves in continuous peril. Now, a certain measure of suspense-generating recklessness is a prerequisite in most horror movies, but get this for sheer biscuit-taking stupidity: “”They move so slowly we can easily avoid them…” announces one dunce as he unboards the windows, “… so we might as well let them in!” Incredibly, the others go along with this suggestion, resulting in the inevitable maggot-faced mayhem as the Etruscan dead dudes duly run riot.

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Even the zombified Prof returns to join in the intestinal barbecue. Offended by this brazen violation of the rules of hospitality, the remaining three survivors finally vacate the villa and, after an interlude with a chapter of zombie monks, finally come to grief in a cellar workshop. As her friends are gored and buzz-sawed, Giordano is confronted by Zombie MIchael, whom she encourages to suckle at her breast. There can’t be too many people reading this review who don’t already know what happens next… and even if you’ve already seen it, you could be forgiven for not believing it.

Severin’s presentation of the main feature looks sharper and richer than 88’s equivalent UK release and although it lacks the boy genius commentary track that distinguished the latter, there’s ample compensation to be found in the raft of bonus materials on offer. Along with the inevitable trailer, you get interviews with Giordano and her love interest / producer of this and countless other sleaze epics, Gabriele Crisanti…  Simone Mattioli talks about the film, his attitude towards which is neatly encapsulated by the title of his featurette (“Just For The Money”) … in “Villa Parisi – Legacy Of Terror” a scholarly Andrew Marr lookey-likey gives us a guided tour around the Frascati villa, once occupied by Napoleon’s sister, where Burial Ground was shot… as, it turns out, were a host of other notable Italian genre efforts, including Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (1965), Mino Guerrini’s The Third Eye (1966), Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1970) and Twitch Of The Death Nerve (1971), the Morrissey / Margheriti Blood For Dracula (1974) and another Crisanti production, Mario Landi’s characteristically crackpot Patrick’s Still Alive (1980)… the villa is still used today to film Downton Abbey-type productions for Italian TV. On many discs this would be the stand out extra, but here it’s trumped by “Peter Still Lives”, in which the near-mythical Mr Bark answers questions from his adoring fans after a recent Roman screening of Burial Ground, somewhat creepily offering to bite the breasts of girls in the audience and plugging his upcoming autobiography… now whatever happened to that?

Adding a further weird twist to a cinematic saga that didn’t really need one is a story that’s mentioned in a couple of the bonus features… if you thought that gore FX Hall Of Famer Gino De Rossi had a bad day (or several) on Burial Ground, consider that his assistant Mauro Gavazzi, shortly after his stint on this film, was jailed for the fatal and apparently random stabbing of a passer-by.

Severin’s Burial Ground comes with reversible sleeve options and a slip-case boasting impressive, specially commissioned new art work. Their Nights Of Terror Bundle further comprises a T-shirt, badge and poster, together with a shot glass boasting Mr Bark’s distinctive image… essential accessories for the next time you throw a sex party in a historic Italian villa!

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Somebody… anybody… please… stop this madness now!

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At The Mountains Of MAYHEM (aka Dreams In The Art House / The Doom That Came To Broadway)… Nottingham’s 2016 Horror Fest Reviewed

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The 12th annual Mayhem Film Fest at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema (13th-16th October), as curated by Their Dark Lordships Chris Cooke and Steven Sheil, was a total triumph, tenebrously topped-and-tailed with spicy squirts of HP (Lovecraft) sauce. The gentlemen of The Duke St Workshop (a noted “Spooktronica Outfit”, Mr Cooke informs me) opened the proceedings in grand style, weaving a mesmerising electro web as Laurence R Harvey declaimed selections  from the “Tales Of H. P. Lovecraft” to a projected backdrop of unsettling imagery. Festival closer The Void (directed by festival guests Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski) plundered a grab bag of gory imagery from the glory days of Lucio Fulci and Stuart Gordon in the service of a crowd pleasing concoction that I can best characterise as “Assault On Cthulhu Hospital.”

Interstitial treats included Julia Ducournau’s much-hyped Raw (in which the cannibalism that’s allegedly had previous audience members carried out on stretchers was considerably less appalling to me than the conformity brutally enforced by the anti-heroine’s moronic fellow students) and a UK premiere for The Mo Brothers’ Indonesian actioner Headshot (“The film that puts The Raid In The Shade!”, doncha know.) I’m calling bullshit on Emiliano Rocha Minter’s We Are The Flesh, which aspires to avant-garde outrage but melts down into a sub-Jodorowsky mess… after which Steven Barker’s The Rezort got things back on track via its winning “Westworld with zombies” formula (Barker introduced the film and later fielded questions from the audience, none of whom had the nerve to point out that his film’s boffo climactic plot revelation had been pinched from Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh!) And so to Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler, about which I would simply like to say… !!!!!!!??!

Gabriele Mainetti’s They Call Me Jeeg Robot garlands its familiar Italian cop film narrative with tropes imported from Japanese anime as its lowly-criminal-turned-accidental-superhero protagonist struggles to reconnect with the human race that he’d given up on… a similar tale, differently handled, in Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not A Serial Killer, your basic everyday story of a sociopathic slacker (Max Records… you heard what I said, Max Records!) and his up-and-down relationship with a superannuated serial killer (Christopher Lloyd, no less) that also boasts the most out-of-left-field plot twist in recent memory. O’Brien and writer Christopher Hyde did the Q&A thing, post screening. Carles Torrens’ Pet rang the changes on its basic The Collector storyline with a female captive who’s not what she initially seems… brief outbreaks of torture porn notwithstanding, this one was ultimately undone by the unbelievability of its lead characters (still not sure whether this was attributable to how they were performed or how they were written… possibly all of the above.)

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In the face of much ironic / post modern festival content, Sean (The Loved Ones) Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy played things straight, its classic take on demonic possession going down very well indeed with the assembled Mayhem revellers. Don’t Kill It is a sub-Sam Raimi offering from Michael Mendez, whose fiendishly simple plot conceit keeps the violent thrills coming thick and fast. It also boasts a wonderfully self mocking performance from Dolph Lundgren as demon hunter Jebediah Woodley. The narrative of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s much-anticipated return to the J-Horror field, Creepy, unfolds at a leisurely pace as its protagonist drifts gradually and inexorably into the (frankly unfeasible) trap set by his, er, creepy neighbour. I missed much of The Ghoul, so apologies to director Gareth Tunley, yet another of the festival’s star guests.

Mayhem began as a short films festival and honours its roots every year with a collection of the same. This year’s two-hour strand of promising cinematic sketches ranged from Tristan Ofield’s bonsai Sci-fi epic White Lily to the black comedy of Conor McMahon’s Stranger In The Night (not to mention the brown comedy of The Procedure!)

We were further treated to two late night retro screenings, Mario Bava’s Alien-inspiring mini masterpiece Planet Of The Vampires (remastered under the supervision of flavour-of-the-month Nicolas Winding Refn and – lest it be forgot – Lamberto Bava) and a timely, touching projection of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s epochal Blood Feast with a special filmed introduction by The Godfather of Gore himself, so recently lost to us.

Incidental festival delights included the film introductions and knockabout musical-themed goody bag giveaways conducted by the redoubtable Sheil / Cooke double act and the chance to meet some social media friends in the flesh (great to spend a cozy hour or two with @CosiPerversa), coin a few new friendships and renew fond old acquaintances with the likes of David and Eva Reprobate, Carl Severin, the very FAB Harvey Fenton, the hot-rockin’ Morrows, Ewan and Mike from Arrow… big hello to the Shudder crew, too.

‘Twas particularly sweet to be in the team that won the traditional pre-closer quiz (nay, “Flinterrogation”) along with Carl, Eva, charming chanteuse Robyn Taylor and the agreeable dude whose name currently eludes me (sorry!) If I’ve forgotten anything or anybody else… well, I’m getting on a bit now! Still hopefully sprightly enough to make it to Mayhem 2017… see you there?

(Look out for my extended Festival report in an upcoming issue of Dark Side magazine…)

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The House Of Pains In The Arse… LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (2014) Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Nucleus. 15

“For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” Mark 8:36

On 10.11.(18)71, on the shores of  Lake Tanganyika, the Welsh journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley locates the missing missionary  David Livingstone, (allegedly) addressing him with the celebrated words: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Stanley is almost as well remembered for his efforts to discover the source of the Nile but a discreet veil is often drawn over his collaboration in the “development” of the Congo Basin (i.e. ruthless genocide of countless Congolese) under the auspices of King Leopold II of the Belgians. Stanley becomes a Knight of The British Empire in 1899.

Published in 1896, The Island of Doctor Moreau is H. G. Wells’ dark tale of accelerated evolution, a stark warning about naked science untrammeld by human scruple or social responsibility and uncomfortable pre-echo of what eugenic science would “achieve” in the 1930s.

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In 1899 Wells falls out with his friend Joseph Conrad, believing that Heart Of Darkness, the latter’s novella of imperialist excess, had been ripped off of The Island of Doctor Moreau with ivory trader Kurtz standing in for Moreau. Others have identified Belgian soldier Leon Rom and his brutal modus operandi in The Congo as “inspiration” for the character of Kurtz.

In 1924, Creationist B. H. Shadduck ridicules the idea of human evolution in a tract entitled Jocko-Homo Heavenbound.

Erle C. Kenton’s original (and still greatest) adaptation of Wells’ cautionary tale, Island Of Lost Souls (1932), features chilling performances from Charles Laughton as the Doc and Bela Lugosi as “Sayer of The Law” (not to mention the Panther Woman, Kathleen Burke’s unforgettable incarnation of forbidden allure.)

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In 1938, at the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, Josef Mengele’s genetics research earns him a cum laude doctorate in medicine in 1938. Five years later he is appointed “Chief Physician” to the Romany population of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Dieter Laser’s move from separating conjoined twins to sewing separate people together in The Human Centipede (2009) reflects just one of Mengele’s unwelcome “contributions” to medical science.

In 1977 Don Taylor’s Island Of Dr. Moreau features a predictably solid performance from Burt Lancaster in the Moreau role but is otherwise a reasonably engaging action yarn with little philosophical substance. In the same year, on the flip side of their Mongoloid single on Stiff Records, Devo issue Jocko Homo in support of their “de-evolution” schtick. Lugosi’s most memorable line from Erle Kenton’s film – “Are we not Men?”-  is repeated throughout the track.

Francis Ford Coppola’s overblown Apocalypse Now (1979) filters Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness through the dark lens of the Vietnam War. Kurtz, now a renegade U.S. Colonel, is played by Marlon Brando.
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In 1996, Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s great grandson, up-and-coming horror director Richard Stanley, begins shooting his dream project for New Line, a vision of Dr Moreau intended to more accurately reflect his own take on the Wells novel than was managed in Don Taylor’s version or such schlocky variants as Eddie Romero’s Twilight People (1972) or Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (1980.) In an example of de-evolution that would gladden the hearts of Devo, Doctor Moreau is to be played… Marlon Brando.

Kenton’s Island Of Lost Souls, which preceded by a short head actual Nazi atrocities more awful than anything he or Wells could ever have imagined, is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, in fact – to paraphrase Brian Clough – it might just possibly be “in The Top One.” How to top that? By putting a visionary but unproven maverick talent (still living down a plagiarism charge relating to his debut feature Hardware) in to bat against monstrously massive star egos, ever changing production demands from a studio in the throes of an identity crisis and, just to make things interesting, extreme (bordering on Biblical) weather?  It was always likely that Richard Stanley’s stint directing The Island Of Dr Moreau wouldn’t end well, but how very badly it ended has become the stuff of legend…

… and now the subject of a fascinating documentary. David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr Moreau (2014) rehearses the already well-known facts (Stanley was sacked after something like three days, failed to take the plane ride home that New Line booked for him and went native, subsequently turning up on set, mischief in mind, under cover of an extra’s bestial costume) but piles on the detail in compiling its post mortem report of an impossible cinematic hybrid running out of control then expiring via the gonzo surgical slices of movie executives (“Monkey Men all, in business suits.”)

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As with Wells’ source material itself, of course, alternative versions of the truth are possible and it has to be said that Gregory gives most of his screen time over to Stanley himself and those sympathetic to his cause, notably conceptual artist Graham Humphreys, actress Fairuza Balk and fangirl journo Kier-La Janisse… it’s also patently clear that Gregory himself is very much in Stanley’s camp, though he’s careful to present as balanced a picture as possible. The suggestion is acknowledged, for example, that Stanley just wasn’t temperamentally up to handling such a unit and although John Frankenheimer (Stanley’s martinet replacement) and Brando are dead (who could possibly claim to know what the latter really thought, anyway?) and Val Kilmer presumably unapproachable, Gregory doesn’t shy away from presenting hostile witnesses. Of the two New Line execs ultimately responsible for TIODM, Stanley’s champion Mike De Luca is conspicuously and eloquently absent while his opposite number Bob Shaye is given free rein to vent the misgivings he entertained about Stanley from day one. Having interviewed Richard Stanley (though regrettably he failed to greet me with the words “Bob Freudstein, I presume!”) and found him to be every bit as otherworldly as reputed, I’m tickled that Shaye chose to seize, as irrefutable evidence of his irredeemable oddball status, upon the guy’s four sugar coffees … God knows what Shaye would make of the diabetes-inducing brews favoured here at The House Of Freudstein!

After nearly losing his pet project to Roman Polanski on the eve of shooting, Stanley made a personal pitch to Brando, backed up with ritual magick performed by a sympathetic adept. When his magus fell ill, though, Stanley’s felt his grip on the production beginning to wane and the eyes of the hyenas on his hotel wallpaper staring at him… more prosaically, male lead Kilmer was, by all accounts, conducting himself on the set like a complete prick.

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Having granted us story board glimpses of the film that might have been, Gregory details the debacle that ultimately unfolded, depicting a Hollywood location shoot (this one in Cairns, Australia) as something scarcely less hubristic than a mad scientist’s lab or some white supremacist’s twisted imperial wet dream… nobody is killed but more than one career is dealt a mortal blow. Whatever onset mischief Stanley might have surreptitiously wrought to undermine Frankenheimer becomes a moot point in the face of the film’s stars’ antics… Kilmer strutting around like an insufferable self-perceived ubermensch, the Zen-like Brando puncturing the production’s pretensions and, via his promotion of court jester Nelson (Ratman) de La Rosa, inventing Mini-Me into the bargain!

Frankenheimer duly delivered his compromised sack of cinematic goods to the suits, who expressed themselves relieved that it was (by their calculations) going to lose them less money than if Stanley had continued at its helm… and the critics commenced to rave, their brickbats ranging from “train wreck” to “worst film ever made.” Perhaps “Twilight Of The Idols” would have been a more apposite jibe…

Meanwhile Stanley dwells on in splendid, Moreau like isolation atop Mount  Montségur in the Ariège department of southwestern France, where the Cathars (who had their own very definite ideas about the integral status of the human body) took their crackpot, heroic final stand in 1244. It’s possible that Stanley is more comfortable anyway as a cult foot note than he could ever be operating among the bland conformity of low-fat latte Hollywood… who knows, had the dice been loaded differently or the runes cast more assiduously in his favour, he could have become as big a player as that other misfit maverick, Tarantino… could have been a contender (now who said that?) Gregory, who has distributed Stanley’s earlier films, collaborated with him on 2011 portmanteau effort The Theatre Bizarre and seems to have conceived this doc at least partly as a comeback launcher, might well believe that such a move is still potentially on and again… who knows?

The once and future horror Hotshot’s thematic concerns certainly aren’t showing any signs of receding into irrelevance. This year alone, the US National Institute of Health announced that it was considering the funding of “chimera” research projects intended to generate organs from human / animal hybrids and it was recently announced that a human baby has been conceived with genetic material from three parents.

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“The Horror! The Horror!”

Note: The DVD screener I was sent for the purposes of this review comprised only the main feature. When Lost Soul hits the shelves (approximately the same time as I type these words) it will boast a raft of attractive extras, making this winning Nucleus release an even more essential purchase.

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Shear Inconsistency… THE BURNING Reviewed

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

Though billed as “The most frightening of the maniac films”, Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981) is an identikit example of the “teen body count” sub-genre spawned by the respective successes of Halloween (1978) then Friday The 13th (1980)… a sub-genre on account of which I spent what felt like half of the early ’80s in darkened rooms, surrounded by enthusiastically squealing females (a feat which, sadly, I’ve never since managed to replicate.) Indeed, The Burning is so similar to the early Friday The 13th films that it could be considered the Never Say Never Again of that interminable franchise, where it not for the fact that Miramax founders the Weinstein brothers maintain they had the property in development even before Sean Cunningham’s original F13 (they must have been watching Mario Bava’s Twitch of The Death Nerve, too!)

Tom Savini, who masterminded the gory splatter FX in Cunningham’s film, took on the Burning gig in preference to working on Steve Miner’s Friday The 13th Part 2 because, he says, the latter film’s out-of-wack storyline and continuity put him off : “Especially the idea that Jason was alive in some lake for all that time.” Other jobs whose standards of kitchen sink realism Tom has deemed stringent enough for him to work on range from Dawn Of The Dead (1978) to the promised / threatened Nightmare City remake we’re all waiting for (with varying degrees of unenthusiasm.) On one of the bonuses materials for this release he goes so far as to call anyone who watches a Friday The 13th instalment from Part 2 onwards “stupid”, though what his participation in 1984’s F13: The Final Chapter (ha ha) says about his own IQ is a moot point. Suffice to say, I suspect that the paycheck he was offered for The Burning significantly exceeded that attached to F12 Part 2… which is fair enough.

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Back in the dark old days of “video nasty” bashing, though, the DPP also seems to have discerned some significant non-monetary differences between The Burning and Jason’s summer camp slaughterfests, Parts 1 and 2 of which only made his “Section 3” list (of titles considered fit for confiscation but with no confidence that they could be guaranteed an obscenity conviction in court) while The Burning earned the unwelcome accolade of fully fledged “nasty”. The BBFC had cut it for cinema release but for their video edition Thorn-EMI inadvertently restored several excised seconds, including the shots of finger-snippin’ goodness for which The Burning is best remembered. Caught red-handed, they recalled as many copies as possible and get out their own shears, re-stating the BBFC version but – horror of horrors – then managed to return many of the offending copies to shops by accident, obliging them to issue yet another recall notice. In the aftermath of all this. Thorn-EMI got serious jitters and started censoring their product left, right and centre, including Suspiria, a particularly brutal carve-up of Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch… and even Emmanuelle 2!

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The film’s remedial plot is best summarised with one of its early advertising shout lines:”A brutal horrific act made him kill and kill and kill!” Indeed. In the mandatory pre-titles sequence the waggish campers of Camp Blackfoot set out to scare obnoxious caretaker Cropsy (Lou David) with a worm-ridden skull containing a candle (readily available at all good stores). Unfortunately the gag results in Cropsy’s bed catching fire and he becomes a human torch, leaping hot-foot into Lake Blackfoot (where presumably he met Jason and picked up some tips on coming back to life and jumping out of lakes when everyone thinks the picture is over). Cropsy winds up in hospital, described by a sensitive orderly as “a fucking Big Mac, overdone.”

To no-one’s great surprise, “five years later” Cropsy is discharged with some sound advice: “I know you resent those kids, but try not to blame anyone”. After five years cooped up in intensive care a young Cropy monster’s thoughts turn to what you’d expect them to turn to, so he nips off to the local red light area for a quickie. Even a blowzy old whore gets a headache when she checks out Cropsy’s charred visage, and when he presses his suit she succumbs to a fit of bad acting, is stabbed with scissors by the enraged Cropsy and pushed out of her window. Realising his true murderous vocation, our boy relocates to the nearest Summer Camp, Camp Stonewater.

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There’s a veritable shoal of red herrings as we are introduced to the stereotypical campers… the girls agonise over the state of their relationships while porno mags and condoms are delivered to the boy’s hut; buttocks are peppered with buck-shot, and amid much masturbation wit the girls are referred to as “prime meat” (how true, how true); then there’s the camp wimp Alfred (Brian Backer), spying on girls in the shower, which is possibly intended as a Hitchcock hommage. Next up is the campfire sequence you’ll know off by heart if you ever saw Friday The 13th Part 2. Todd, the hunky camp counsellor (Brian Mathews) scares the new kids with the story of Cropsy, stalking the woods with a pair of shears (turns out to be a good guess!) “He’s out there watching… waiting. So don’t look… he’ll see you. Don’t breathe… he’ll hear you. Don’t move … YOU’RE DEAD!”

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… at which point some eejit jumps out of the bushes wearing a fright mask in a feeble attempt to scare the living daylights out of everybody. It’s not till the kids go on a canoe trip though that the brown stuff really starts hitting the fan. Cropsy interprets the “Have-sex-and-die” rule somewhat broadly, for the first victim backs out of sex in the creek before undergoing a DIY tracheotomy as she searches for her knickers, blood gurgling out over her breasts. The kids wake next morning to find that all the canoes are missing, so they improvise a raft and set off back to camp. One of the missing canoes drifts into view, but when they paddle over to it, up jumps Cropsy, brandishing shears. With a dazzling display of dexterous hand-speed he stabs heads, slashes throats, pierces breasts and (aptly enough) crops the fingers off a guy who raises his hands in a protective gesture. Yes, the bit that caused all the fuss… (see the charming little gif at the head of this review.)

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Back at Camp Stonewater the discovery of the wrecked raft – not to mention a floating arm and fingerless corpses popping up in people’s faces – leads to another outburst of hysterical over-acting and before you can say “Viva Vorhees”, copulating teens are slaughtered in their sleeping-bags and pinned to trees with shears through their throats. Surprising Cropsy in mid-slash, wimpy Alfred is pursued in P.O.V. Cropsy-vision through the woods to the hut where the socko-boffo climax will unfold. Todd charges to the rescue and is revealed via flashback to be one of the merry pranksters who set off this whole unlikely chain of events in the first place… well slap my face! Cropsy decides a spot of poetic justice is in order and goes after Todd with an oxy-acetylene burner, leaving the viewer to ponder certain questions, e.g, while in hospital, how had Cropsy kept tabs on Todd’s movements? Even more perplexing, how did Todd get a job as a camp counsellor when a mere five years earlier he had been responsible for broiling a camp caretaker? Stonewater’s HR policies could clearly do with a bit of tightening up…

Things are looking bad for Todd, but Alfred proves himself a man at the crucial moment, burying the shears in Cropsy’s back. He falls so readily that you lose several credibility points if you don’t guess that, as Alfred and Todd leave arm-in-arm, Cropsy will gamely rise for another go. An axe in the face makes his comeback a short one, and the boys set fire to him again for good measure. The film closes with a reprise of the fireside Jackanory scene… well clean my pants!

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One significant way in which The Burning does differ from the ongoing Friday The 13th saga is that it never spawned a Burning 2, 3, 4, 5, etc ad nauseum. I have no idea why this is, especially in view of the film’s blockbusting box office success in Japan. Maybe the Weinsteins just had bigger fish to fry…

When I first reviewed this film for my Seduction Of The Gullible tome I mentioned that two of its alumni went on to greater things, editor-turned-director Jack Sholder and actress Holly Hunter. Subsequently, having gotten hooked on Seinfeld, I would have added the wonderful Jason Alexander, who had a fine head of hair when he appeared as “Dave” in The Burning (he has one now, too, but it’s an obvious toupee.)

Because I’ve only received the DVD disc so far, I’m in no position to tell you how good The Burning will look on Blu-ray when Arrow’s combi release hits the shelves on December 19th, just in time to adorn your loved one’s Xmas stockings (and assuming you’re not a total Scrooge, why not shell out for the steelbox edition?) I haven’t seen the accompanying booklet, either, but the DVD obviously looks way better than that Thorn-EMI video and is crammed with extras. Amid the expected trailers and galleries there are interviews with Savini and Sholder, who concur that the producers pretty much froze Maylam out of the editing of his picture. Savini observes that The Burning endured censorship travails in the US, too and Sholder reveals that it was while working on this picture that he discovered the joy of eating Buffalo Wings. Lou David relives his finest thespian hour. There are no less than three commentary tracks (which I’ve yet to start wading through), with a) Maylam and Alan Jones, b) cast members Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski and c) The Hysteria Continues (your guess is as good as mine…)

Rick Wakeman is also interviewed about composing the film’s OST. He had already scored Maylam’s White Rock documentary (1977) and Maylam himself had previous Prog form, directing The Genesis Concert Movie in the same year (wonder what that was about?) If you’re into this kind of music and haven’t already done so, I would urge you to check out our sister blog at http://www.theozymandiasprogject.wordpress.com where a superannuated hippy named Ozzy Mandias will be found ruminating incessantly over The Music Of The Gods. It’s guaranteed to be more fun that having your fingers chopped off…

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Cramming Bricks Up The Viewer’s Arse… Bruno Mattei’s audacious swan song ZOMBIES THE BEGINNING Reviewed

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Call The Midwife!

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

I’m not going to be dredging up, here, all the facts in the case of Bruno Mattei… how the already astonishing cinematic career of “Vincent Dawn” continued to prosper as the Italian film industry collapsed all around him (perhaps precisely because many his pictures already resembled home movies) and flowered during his twilight years into an improbable final splatter stand, reviving the cannibal and zombie genres on which his contemporaries had long given up on account of disappearing audiences, dried up investment or, indeed, death. I’m not going to be dredging them up here, chiefly because I’ll be doing that in a major Mattei retrospective coming up (assuming Brycie’s assent) in a future issue of Dark Side.

For the moment you’ll have to be satisfied with this look at Bruno’s swan song, completed (if you’ll be generous and stretch a point) in 2007, the year of his death… and what a highly satisfying picture it is, for any trash movie addict worth their salt. Rendered (like everything he’d directed in the previous five years) on high-end video, Zombies The Beginning is the companion piece to Island Of The Living Dead, in close proximity to which (if not simultaneously with) it was shot. Discerning the exact relationship between the narrative of the two pictures, however, could give you a nasty headache. So don’t try too hard.

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If Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) initiated the zucchini zombie gold-rush by pitching itself as an unsolicited cheeky prequel to George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (1978) then Island Of The Living Dead (which was, incidentally, the working title of Fulci’s celebrated effort) attempts to go one better (aeons after the event!) by tracing Dr Menard’s unfortunate Caribbean incident back to a little known episode in 18th Century colonial history, during which conquistadores discovered to their cost that when vampire pirates encounter plague victims, the inevitable result is an island full of flesh-eating zombies… yep, that’ll do it. Having been shipwrecked on that very island three Centuries later, feisty treasure hunter Sharon (Yvette Yzon) discovered the living dead to be very much alive… er, undead and kicking, still hungering for human flesh. Despite being rescued from the open sea by helicopter, she is revealed in that film’s closing shots as a zombie / vampire / pirate / plague victim / fuck-knows-what.

The opening of Zombies The Beginning reveals, in turn, that this downbeat ending was all a dream. Sharon is fully alive and well, bristling with determination to go back to that island, stomp some zombie butt and, by so doing, lay to rest the ongoing nightmares by which she is haunted. While the hackneyed “dream” device has become enough of a cliché for us to swallow it, however resentfully, it’s difficult to see how the events of this film can follow on from those in IOTLD and still be construed as any sort of “beginning.”

Blame for this dereliction of logic (and believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet!) cannot be laid exclusively at the door of Mattei, and certainly not that of his long-term writing / directing collaborator Claudio Fragasso (who had taken a powder on Mattei productions by this point)… much of the blame (or indeed praise) for the lunacy that is about to unfold must be apportioned to new script writer Antonio Tentori, who had single-handedly proven with Fulci’s Nightmare Concert (1990) that the auteur behind The Beyond, Don’t Torture A Duckling, et al (who’d survived his 1987 collaboration with Mattei, Zombi 3, with his reputation more or less intact by the simple expedient of bailing on the production) could be reduced to Zombie Creeping Flesh-type cut-and-paste travesties when gifted the (in)correct collaborators. Tentori’s participation in the dire Argento Dracula (2012) represents a stark ill omen to those hoping against hope for a revival in the artistic fortunes of the divine Dario. An amiable enough bloke, Tentori gets to defend his, er, artistic vision in the short featurette Zombies Genysis (in which he claims the “credit” for persuading Fulci to play himself in Nightmare Concert.) The other extra you get here is a trailer.

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Emboldened by Tentori’s participation (not that he was exactly pushing against a locked door), Mattei throws just about everything bar the kitchen sink into what passes for ZTB’s plot. So Sharon, whom we left recovering from her fever dream, is now plunged into a new one as she accompanies a crack team of grunts to zombie island in her official capacity as “biological consultant”, though nothing in the previous film even hinted at her alleged expertise in this area. In the interim she’s also become a dab hand with an Uzi (was this part of the Buddhist training alluded to at the start of the picture?) … Renaissance woman, or what?

She doesn’t need a cutlass, garlic or holy water because the vampire pirates are conspicuous by their unexplained absence, this time out. Instead we get those grunts, whose motion sensors regularly tell them that they’re surrounded in all directions by unseen zombies, whose eventual appearance obliges them to shoot their way out… and if they can’t escape they clench hands in grenade suicide… the mission commander is sinister “Barker” (Paul Holmes) from the shady Tyrell…  sorry, Tyler Corporation… who seems more concerned with preserving the real estate and taking “samples” back home than with the welfare of his team (he’s not a secret cyborg but that’s the only thing you could probably say in his favour)… sounds familiar? “All the references to James Cameron’s film were intended” admits Tentori in the bonus interview (no shit, Sherlock!) and so as to leave you in no doubt, he regurgitates choice dialogue from Aliens (1986), verbatim (must save time when you’re penning a screenplay, right?)

The  over familar narrative actually takes an unexpected turn for the interesting as Sharon’s exploration of  the out-of-control facility continues, revealing all manner of hellish procedures whereby unfortunate woman are being farmed for zombie babies… shades of Tony Randel’s Hellbound (1988) in some of these scenes, though the xenomorphs-gone-apeshit stuff is also five years in advance of similar material from Ridley Scott’s mega-budgeted Prometheus (a film which I sometimes seem to be the only person on the planet who will own up to liking.)

It becomes clear (well, as clear as anything is ever made in this insane film) that the main aim of the Tyler Corporation’s sinister secret program was to churn out  (Christ knows why!) sawn-off junior cone-headed deadfucks… and my God, what a treat for the eyes of trash flick aficionados they turn out to be!

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In terms of military applications, they look about as useful as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking contest. Mattei does give them a little dance routine but uncharacteristically misses a trick by failing to dub the Oompa Loompa song from Willy Wonka over their repulsive terpsichorean efforts. If he could afford to pay for submarine footage from Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide, 1995 (well, I assume he paid) he could surely have stretched his budget to meet to meet that expense? Never mind, I’m sure readers will be perfectly able to synch up this audio-visual extravaganza at home and if they do it will enhance their enjoyment of Zombies The Beginning no end.

Sharon ultimately discovers that the Corporation is itself a front and that the whole grisly xenomorphic show is actually being run by a disembodied alien brain in a bell jar… I’ll wager three quatloos that this random plot development was inspired by Tentori’s love for the Star Trek episode Gamesters Of Triskelion (and possibly even Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination.) Braniac rallies the oompa loompas and urges Sharon to “join the master race” but her facial response is so disdainful that it apparently causes the bell jar and its contents to spontaneously explode… and that’s the bell end of the alien zombie meister.

As the facility burns down, our heroine scarpers with the remaining zombies hot on her heels. There’s a submarine waiting for her in the harbour, but it’s on out takes from Crimson Tide… how is Mattei going to match up these conflicting bits of footage convincingly? Anyone who’s ever gawped, slack-jawed at his Zombie Creeping Flesh (1981) will be only too well aware of his ability to conflate nature documentaries, bits of old mondo movies and threadbare am-dram read-throughs into seamless sequences (well… sequences, anyway) but here he does something that I believe is UNPRECEDENTED IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF MOTION PICTURES!!!

He cuts to footage of himself, trying to cut the footage together.

And that’s how the picture ends.

I’ll just leave you to ponder that for a moment (it’s worth remembering, while you do, that at the time Mattei was suffering from the brain tumour which was shortly to claim his life)…

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Now, many people whose opinions I respect are (unlike me) big fans of David Lynch. They seem particularly chuffed with the moment in his unwatchable Mulholland Drive (2001) where Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, having embarked upon a torrid, minge-munching affair, discover that they’re actually microbes on a tuna sandwich discarded in a dumpster somewhere  (or something like that… sorry, I kept falling asleep.) If  Mulholland Drive is truly (as attested in many polls) the greatest movie of our times then, with apologies to my Lynch-loving friends, we must be living in pretty desperate times… and anyway, Bruno “despised hack” Mattei effortlessly outflanks his more feted fellow director’s Post Modern credentials with that astonishing “editor ex machina” appearance at the conclusion of Zombies The Beginning, a development that doesn’t so much shatter the fourth wall as dismantle it, brick by brick, then cram them up the gob-smacked viewer’s arse! Sideways!

Having recently OD’d on late-period Mattei (thanks to a clutch of excellent DVD releases on the mighty Severin label) I’m beginning to suspect… to fear, actually… that Bruno is fast becoming one of my favourite directors. And that is really fucking scary.

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