Monthly Archives: October 2017

Do Movie Executives Dream Of Electrifying Film Franchises? (*) BLADE RUNNER 2049 Reviewed

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Directed by Denis VilleneuveProduced by Ridley Scott, Bud Yorkin, et al. Written by Hampton Fancher, Michael Green and Philip K. Dick (i.e. based on his novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) Cinematography by Roger DeakinsEdited by Joe Walker. Production Design by Dennis Gassner. Art direction by Paul Inglis, et al. Visual FX by… how long have you got? Musiby Benjamin Wallfisch and Hanz Zimmer. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Dave Bautista, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos.

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“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine / What did you dream? / It’s alright, we told you what to dream” Pink Floyd, 1975.

Have you ever seen a miracle? I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. I’ve seen Mrs Freudstein, first thing in the morning, minus any slap… and just very occasionally, I’ve sat down and watched a sequel to a great movie that was worth making and worth watching…

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) had to struggle through development hell, studio interference (all well documented elsewhere… I would point the interested reader in the direction of Paul M. Sammon’s Future Noir tome) and (how many?) variant edits, not to mention box office indifference, to emerge over a period of decades as one of the undisputed Top 5 (easy) greatest Sci-Fi films of all time. Apprehensions about a sequel were understandable but the news that Scott would be executive producing settled a few nerves. Subsequent teaser material that actually looked rather good, followed by the approbation of friends whose opinions I had every reason to trust, ultimately convinced me that I was going to have to go and check out Blade Runner 2049…

The sequel doesn’t, as might have been expected, dip into the huge tranches of material from Philip Dick’s source novel that never made it to the screen first time out, though the opening scene (in which Gosling’s Blade Runner, a Nexus 8 model factory set to obey its human creators, retires a replicant hiding out on a remote farm) is virtually identical to one that kicked off an early draft screenplay of Scott’s original. Thereafter Blade Runner 2049 spins a consistently engrossing (despite its whopping two-and-three-quarter hours running time) yarn by the simple expedient of inverting the action of its predecessor.

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In the original, Ford’s Rick Deckard was on the trail of a bunch of “skin jobs” and an unwitting voyage of self-discovery, with shattering implications for his own perception of who and what he was. This time Gosling’s “skinner” K (or should we call him “Joe”?) is searching for Deckard and the game-changing baby he is said to have conceived with the late Nexus 6 Rachael. He too seems to be on the verge of a radical shift in self understanding but not quite in the way that the viewer is being led to believe (well, it’s not an easy thing to meet your maker…) The way this film undercuts our expectations in this regard reminds me of what the late William Hjortsberg did in Falling Angel (here at THOF we prefer to cite the sublime occult noir novel rather than the mess Alan Parker made of it in his 1987 screen adaptation, Angel Heart), for which Ridley Scott, of course, penned a foreword (in thanks for Hjortsberg’s scripting efforts on his Legend, 1985).

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It’s obvious from the off that Villeneuve and his massive crew (the credits sequence deserves a credit sequence of its own!) were intent on capturing the look and the spirit of the original, their mission supported by a Vangelisalike OST and cast returnees Ford, Edward James Olmos (as the pensioned off, reminiscing Gaff) and Sean Young as a rotoscoped Rachael. The visual splendours of Blade Runner 2049 would be more capably chronicled by another Rachael of my acquaintance (how about it, @hypnoticcrescendos?) and even if its dialogue does lacks that bit of noir snap, Villeneuve adheres to the canon closely enough to satisfy the first film’s most ardent devotees and, by implication, the most demanding Dick heads…

Philip K. Dick always maintained that his voluminous pulp outpourings boiled down to a search for the answer to two questions, namely: “What does it mean to be real?” and “What does it mean to be human?” Put ’em together and the implied question is: “What does it take to live a good… or an authentic… life?” Villeneuve and co have done a man’s job of framing this question (if not necessarily coming up with anything like a definitive answer to it) although of course as men they remain obdurately fascinated and baffled by women, the old familiar Madonna / whore dichotomy represented here by, on one hand, the martyred matriarch Rachael, Ana de Armas’s ministering cyber sprite Joi (hope home entertainment systems catch up with Fancher and Green’s imaginings in my life time… the possibilities depicted here certainly trump an evening in with my 5.1 surround set-up) plus, let’s say, a.n.other… and on the other hand, Sylvia Hoeks’ cold-blooded killer bitch Luv. It seems like a matter of mere days since I complimented Double Date‘s Kelly Wenham on wrestling the “sexiest fight scene” laurel from Joanna Cassidy’s 1982 pasting of Harrison Ford, but Hoeks reclaims it for the Blade Runner franchise with several eye-watering scraps in this one. Whew, between her and  Famke Janssen in  GoldenEye (1995)…. what is it about violent Dutch women that so strangely stirs my soul? (**)

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Joi… ministering cyber-sprite?

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… and the commercial reality.

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The genius pulp Art of Virgil Finlay. Inspiration?

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Sylvia Hoeks as “Luv”. Infatuation.

Ford contributes an interesting take on where the Deckard character would be after all he’s gone through in the last thirty years. As for the new corporate villain, Niander Wallace… well, he’s played by Jared Leto and I’m factory set to say nothing bad about anybody who looks so much like Jennifer Connelly (though admittedly BR2049’s stylists have gone out of their way to mask the likeness). I’d like to have seen some sort of resolution / retribution for his character but I guess we’ll have to wait for that (and word on the looming replicant insurrection) until a third instalment. Unfortunately, rather than tailgating its predecessor’s long incubated stellar status, Villeneuve’s film seems to have emulated its achievement of tanking at the box office, which means that we probably won’t see another sequel until at least 2052… by which point Harrison Ford and indeed I will be definitively “retired”. Hm, time to start thinking seriously about that android replacement I’ve been pondering… “More Freudstein than Freudstein” is our motto here at The HOF.

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Tim Anderson’s fabulous pulp paperback vision of Blade Runner…

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… and the “real” thing.

(*) Sure they do.

(**) Sorry if things took a slightly lubricious turn for a minute, there. I’m only human, you know…

… pending the results of my recent Voight-Kampff resit I am, anyway!

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Songs In The Key Of G-Spot… Lucio Fulci’s THE DEVIL’S HONEY Reviewed

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

I remember reading a great review of this film in an obscure Dutch fanzine. I was hooked as soon as I read the opening lines: “Dr Wendell Simpson (Brett Halsey) has a bad marriage. He goes often to the whores”. Indeed he often does and when he gets there, it’s in search of very niche erotic gratification, i.e. watching the working girls paint the crotch of their pantyhose with nail varnish. You might have thought they’d regard this as easy money but one complains that: “It’s worse than fucking a monster… you’re a freak!” Back home, Wendell’s wife (the luscious Corinne Clery) is writhing around in heat, seeking a good seeing-to but he can’t seem to raise any interest, or indeed anything else, in response to this spectacle. Fucking weirdo…

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The sexual arrangement between Johnny (Stefano Madia) and Jessica (Blanca Marsillach) seems scarcely more conventional. He’s a saxophone playing rock superstar (first time for everything, I guess) who only seems capable of playing one phrase (which is distinctly reminiscent of the Phil Lynott / Gary Moore chewn Parisienne Walkways) and when he can’t even get that right, takes time out from an unproductive recording session to blow his horn up Jessica’s tuppence (such a crowd pleasing moment that the original U.S. video release, as Dangerous Obsession, bumped it forward to the film’s opening minutes, as demonstrated on one of the many bonus materials here). “Don’t you ever think of anything else?” she chides him. “Is there anything else?” he responds. Later Johnny persuades Jessica to give him a hand-job while she rides pillion on his speeding motor-bike…. cor baby, that’s really free!

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It’s a pity The Jeremy Kyle show wasn’t airing in 1986… Graham The Genius would have had his work cut out with these guys! In the absence of that, what does bring all the sex cases together is the arrival of Johnny on Wendell’s operating table, in critical condition after a motorbike crash. Christ only knows what he’d been up to on that speeding bike this time… felching a chicken while inserting crack rocks up his own arse? Probably best not to think about it…

Anyway, Dr Simpson is so stressed out, flashing back to his wife’s demand for a divorce, that he totally screws up the operation and Johnny shuffles off his mortal coil… no more  speed limit-defying wanks for you, mate! Jessica, devastated, sits around at home cuddling Johnny’s pullover and watching videos of herself being shagged by him. Then she resolves to act. She harasses Dr. Simpson with phone calls, then kidnaps him at gunpoint and chains him up in her and Johnny’s beach-house.

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Now, call me old-fashioned, but I’d be rather more inclined to attribute the demise of  this clown to his own tiresome antics than to the surgeon who attempted to save him. Nevertheless, Jessica spends the next couple of days beating, kicking, nearly drowning and feeding dog food to the doc, not to mention spattering him with hot candle wax. My name is Jessica…”  she tells him: ” … but you can call me fear!” “You’re an amazing girl!” he gasps.

When not abusing poor old Wendell (who, one strongly suspects, is having the time of his life), Jessica flashes back to her affair with Johnny, including a memorable scene in which he sodomises her on a staircase. Just in case anyone in the audience isn’t sure what’s going on, Fulci intercuts the action with shots of Jessica’s dog (whom I’d love to believe is some kind of relative of Dicky from The Beyond) jumping against a back door… subtle symbolism or what? Gradually her flashbacks reveal that life with Johnny wasn’t so great after all – he smashed her favourite doll, he liked her vagina to double as a holster for his pistol, and – best of all – at one point we see Jessica necking with him in a cinema, only to recoil in horror as she realizes that bitchy sound engineer Nick (Bernard Seray) is simultaneously playing some hot licks on Johnny’s horn, mugging furiously while doing so.

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When Wendell repairs her doll, Jessica unties him and they consummate the mutual passion that has been building up between them. Incredibly, as a post-script to their love-making, the doc declaims the following lines…

“When you’ve spent your life like a fortune you believed would never end / a second chance will come to you, like a long-lost friend / A great joy will fill you and flush you hot / no more will you ever be cool / for she is the Devil’s honey-pot / and you will drown in her… you fool!”

If only room could have been found, among all the other mildly kinky goings-on here, for Halsey to undergo a golden shower… anyone who can deliver poetry like that with a straight face really deserves to have it pissed on!

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Fulci, visibly ravaged by his recent run in with hepatitis, makes his customary cameo as a street-trader who sells Jessica and Johnny two “mystical bracelets”, which will allegedly guarantee them happiness until discarded. Would you buy a charm bracelet from the man above… or a reheated, overheated script? The Devil’s Honey bears an uncanny resemblance to Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s The Trap, directed the previous year from a Fulci screenplay and starring (alongside Tony Musante and Laura Antonelli) Blanca Marsillach and her kid sister Cristina (shortly to star in Argento’s Opera).

Blanca seems to have wound up just about everybody on the set of The Devil’s Honey, as is amply testified to in the generous supplementary materials on this handsome Severin BD presentation. “I don’t want to talk badly about a fellow performer…” offers the admirable Halsey: “… my problem was that she had no discipline and no talent”. He loved being directed by Fulci, though (“If you dig him up, I’d work for him again!”) and also directing him, as he claims to have done during Fulci’s protracted cameo role in 1990’s Demonia, a film about which Halsey has some hair-raising anecdotes. He also regrets the misunderstanding about the same year’s Nightmare Concert / A Cat In The Brain which curtailed their professional and personal relationship.

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Corinne Clery remembers Fulci as “kind”, then again by her account she’s always prided herself on not being “a prima donna”… it was to exactly that kind of actress that Fulci famously gave shortest shrift. Producer Vincenzo Salviani poo-poos any suggestion that Fulci was “difficult” to work with but admits: “He wasn’t the lion he once was”. In an audio essay Troy Howarth talks up Fulci’s “knack” for the erotic and Stephen Thrower, who’s always got something interesting to say about this director, speculates that Fulci’s career could have been salvaged at this point by jumping the glossy soft core bandwagon that was currently gaining momentum. Instead, he remained pigeon holed in an increasingly ghetto-ised Horror milieu, with geometrically diminishing returns. No more would he ever be cool…

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Gender Wars And Dinosaurs… Misogyny, Paleontology & The Mother Of All Horror Films at MAYHEM 2017

Mayhem 13 (12-15th October), held as usual at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema, proved to be unlucky only for those horror aficionados who had recklessly neglected to secure a ticket… timely, too, in that much of its bill could have been compiled specifically to coincide with the breaking scandal over a certain Hollywood executive’s alleged carnal misdeeds, with a heavy emphasis on feisty females fighting back against patriarchal oppression.

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I’ve already described the Festival opener, Benjamin Barfoot’s home-grown Double Date as “the best Horror Comedy since An American Werewolf In London”… probably should have mentioned The Evil Dead or Re-animator, but there you go. Barfoot’s take on the battle of the sexes contrasts the “on the pull” ritual of two unlikely lads, the worldly wise Alex (Michael Socha) trying to get his clueless ginge mate Jim (Danny Morgan, who actually wrote this picture) laid, with the altogether more arcane and darker rituals of two oddball sisters, Kitty and Lulu (Kelly Wenham and Georgia Groome), the former keen to initiate her sibling in murder as a prerequisite of raising their occultist father from the dead. The film’s most profound statement on the vexed issue of sexual politics is left to a cameoing Dexter Fletcher, to wit: “Women… you can’t live with them, you can’t have a wank without  a photo of one of them!”

David Flint and I agreed that this one is essentially “José Larraz’s Vampyres on E” (it’s a toss-up between Jim’s family birthday party and the numerous clubbing scenes as to which is the more wince inducing) with a spot of Texas Chainsaw Massacre thrown in at the death. I shall reserve comment on my yen for Wenham until reporting on this festival in Dark Side magazine, where I’ll have a word allocation to meet… unless Wenham’s restraining order has been filed by then. Barfoot, Morgan, Groome and Socha (that well-known team of solicitors) introduced the film and fielded questions afterwards. No Kelly W, unfortunately… or perhaps fortunately.

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A rather more sobre treatment of intergender conflict was provided by Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. (above), in which art student Noelle is casually raped at a campus party and – after getting over the inappropriate self-blame – confronts her attacker, who falls over a bannister to his death after they scuffle. Feeling empowered, Noelle goes after an appalling clique of jocks who streamed their gang rape of another student live on the internet. The college authorities (even its rape counsellor) are intent that a little bit of horseplay shouldn’t ruin the promising academic and sporting careers of these guys but Noelle’s attitude is an implacable “I Spit On Your Grades” and, intensely played by one Francesca Eastwood (yep, it’s Clint’s daughter), she’s impeccably qualified to dispense a little vigilante justice. Kudos to Leite, Eastwood and writer Leah McKendrick for the development of Noelle’s character from victim (she really does look like a piece of dead meat during the unpleasantly realistic rape scene) to confident avenger… as an added bonus, her art work improves with every murder! She’s delivering the valedictory address at her academic year’s passing out ceremony when M.F.A. reaches its conclusion. It’s the wrong ending for this film, but I can’t honestly say what the right one would have been. M.F.A. is not a Harvey Weinstein production…

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Trent Haaga’s 68 Kill (2017), as the above still suggests, takes a ruder and rather more exploitive approach to its subject matter. Touted as a “punk rock answer to After Hours”, this one puts the gender oppression boot firmly on the other foot, with the appropriately named “Chip” (Mathew Gray Gubler) undergoing an unlikely descent into a garden of unearthly delights and depravities at the behest of the various Sadean women through whose hands he passes. Is his batshit crazy girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord, above) some kind of icon of feminist emancipation? If so, she’s got some funny ways of showing it, e.g. selling women to her brother, an ogre-like recluse and snuff movie auteur. In fact Chip only gains any measure of self-respect after all the controlling women around him have been killed off. I’m sure Francesca Eastwood would have something to say about that ….

There are plenty of shocks and nervous laughs to be had from 68 Kill (I’m surprised that the Daily Heil hasn’t started belly-aching about it yet) but the abiding impression of this Tarantino / Rob Zombie wannabe (with a smidgen of Russ Meyer thrown in for good measure) is of a film trying just that bit too hard. Most notably, the director’s desire for the “Pop Music” bit to be regarded as “a classic scene” is more painfully palpable than any of the misadventures that befall his characters.

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Ana Asensio, cheek-bones set to stun, in Most Beautiful Island

Most Beautiful Island, directed by and starring Ana Asensio, is best understood as an allegory of how migrants – and in this case women, in particular – are chewed up and spat out by globalisation and the prevailing neoliberal political order. After much of the film has been spent establishing the hard time Asensio’s protagonist (Luciana) has, keeping her head above water in the Big Apple, you’re just beginning to wonder where all this is heading when a “friend” informs her of an intriguing job opportunity. Donning her shop-lifted glad rags, Luciana joins other needy hopefuls in a cellar where they are inspected by a bunch of jet-setting high rollers and await their call to enter a room where, it quickly becomes apparent, something very dodgy is going on. When we finally learn exactly what that is, it turns out to be something… a bit silly, frankly, but the suspenseful section of the film leading up this revelation is effectively nerve-wracking, marking debutant director Asensio as one to watch,

Times are similarly tough on the dole in Manchester, according to Simeon Halligan’s Habit, though everyone in it still gets to go out and the lash and have a good time (“the Wham Rap fallacy”, as it is known here at THOF). Hailed (chiefly by its director) as the harbinger of a “Northern Horror Renaissance”, Habit goes so far as to feature Emmerdale’s resident raving Iranian beauty Roxanne Pallet as one of its massage parlour cannibals. Sorry, I just didn’t buy into the netherworld that Habit was trying to establish and on the evidence of this one, the Northern Horror Renaissance is still on hold. Halligan, star Elliot Langridge and producer Rachel Richardson-Jones subsequently did the Q&A thing.

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Friday and Saturday’s late night screenings each contributed to the “misogynism in Horror” debate, after their respective fashions… Friday The 13th Part 3 (a 35th Anniversary screening!) continued along the “have sex and die” plot line of its predecessors, but most viewers were less concerned with that than with the assorted viscera dumped into their laps by Mr Vorhees via the miracle of stereoscopic screening and the eyestrain / headaches attendant upon that process. In contrast, the classic Suspiria (1977) was presented in a spanky new 4K restoration and features Dario Argento’s favoured cast of victims, i.e. predominantly attractive young women… but the killers are also women and the last character left standing is another of those feisty females, so go figure. Mayhem’s landmark screening of this restoration is covered elsewhere on this site in a posting wherein we consider the contentious claim that Suspiria is actually a giallo (clue: it is!)

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Dick Maas’s Amsterdamned (1988) was a Dutch variation on the giallo theme and Mayhem’s other big Saturday night title, a UK premiere to  boot, was Prey (2016), an effective remake of that film in which the Dutch director replaces his skin-diving assassin with a huge man-eating lion, munching its way through Holland’s capital city. As in its predecessor, the kill spree serves as a back-drop to the problematic romance of its central characters (here played by Julian Looman and Sophie van Vinden) but rattles along like gangbusters in its own right, with satisfyingly suspenseful sequences and action set pieces along the way and a constant comic undercurrent. Mark Frost steals the show as a clapped-out big game hunter. Prey seems to have been somewhat sniffily received by the internet commentariat but the Mayhem crowd gobbled it up with glee and so should you. Lucio Fulci, no less, once told me that Maas was one of his favourite directors… ’nuff said. The Dutchman was in attendance and proved to be a most agreeable and amusing guy.

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The Festival closed on Sunday 15th with an unfeasibly packed program of goodies (I should think so, too… skipped Antiques Road Show for this, you know!) Having contrived to miss the J-Horror and K-Horror components of this year’s Festival (in the shape of Sion Sono’s 2015 effort Tag and Sun-Ho Cho’s A Day, the latter a UK premiere) I was delighted to catch Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce’s Top Knot Detective, a hilarious mockumentary examination of the real life scandal (well, not that real, actually) surrounding a legendary (as in mythical) Japanese swordplay TV series and its troubled star Takeshi Takamoto. Think “Spinal Tap meets Shogun Assassin” and you’re halfway there. Preserving its poker face throughout, this one left some punters debating its status as fact or farce long after it had finished… mission accomplished.

Erlingur Thoroddsen’s The Rift was a little too enigmatic for its own good…. a little too enigmatic for me, anyway. Was the unfolding sequence of spooky events attributable to its gay protagonist’s sexual unease and abused teenage years… the violent predator on the farm next door… a childhood imaginary friend-turned-flesh… all or none of the above? Beats me. Still, due to John Wakayama’s ravishing cinematography, you get to enjoy the awe-inspiring beauty of Greenland from the comfort of your warm cinema seat.

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Bemused by feminist fightbacks? Befuddled by gender fluidity? Alarmed by loose-living libertines? There was a simpler time, when manly men did what manly men had to do and Professor Challenger types took to dirigibles to clear the skies of pesky Pterosaurs… halcyon days, effortlessly evoked by Zeppelin V Pterodactyls, a live stage reading of a script developed by Steve Sheil from a scenario written for Hammer by David Allen back in 1970, subsequently re-emerging in the extensive Hammer archives of DMU’s Cinema And Television History department. As performed by an impressive cast of thesps under the direction of Messrs Sheil and Cooke, ZVP afforded us a welcome opportunity to close our eyes and project a movie in our minds… even if the show’s title was a little misleading (a zeppelin briefly tangles with pterodactyls early on in the proceedings but the narrative’s principle focus is on a saga of undiscovered noble savages under threat from a rather less noble and more savage race of animal men generated by the Dr Moreau-like experiments of invading extraterrestrials… and I’m sure the kitchen sink was in there somewhere). The performance was scored by noted soundscaper Gavin Morrow and Gerallt Ruggiero of the mighty Madeline Rust.

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Joe Lynch’s Mayhem turns on the promising central conceit of a corporate HQ under lockdown because of a viral outbreak that robs people of their moral and social inhibitions. Amid the sexual and violent anarchy unfolding all around them, disgruntled salary man Derek Cho (Steven Yuen) and pissed off client Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving) battle their way up to the executive zone (whose occupants seemed pretty psychotic already) to settle a few scores, content in the knowledge that they won’t be held legally responsible for anything they do before the outbreak subsides.

As a piece of social satire, Mayhem is about as subtle as a flying chainsaw and was arguably the perfect send off for those festival goers contemplating the return to gainful employment the following morning, but Cooke and Sheil had one more trick up their collective sleeve, in the comically horrific shape of Peter Ricq’s Dead Shack.

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This one has been hyped as “The Evil Dead meets The Goonies” but maybe it could be better summarised as “a remake of The People Under The Stairs as directed by Peter Jackson… if he reverted to his directorial style of about 25 years ago” (hm, needs a bit of work, that one…) While I’d rather appreciated that the occult back story of Double Date was hinted at rather than spelled out, in the case of Dead Shack I really would like to have known more about exactly what that woman was doing with all those zombies under her floorboards. Then again, I did doze off a couple of times so perhaps I missed some crucial piece of exposition here or there…. which isn’t to deny that this film is good brainless fun, merely to admit that the closer I get to 60, the harder I find it to keep my eyes open for four straight days of Horror films…

I missed Marianna Palka’s Bitch (another foray into sexual politics, apparently) also this year’s Flinterrogation, thereby preserving my proud 100% record of being on the winning team every time I’ve entered fandom’s toughest quiz (i.e. precisely once). I did manage to sit through this year’s Short Film Showcase, a particularly strong selection which I’ll be covering in more detail for Dark Side.

It was nice, indeed it’s always nice to see Mr Flint (thanks for issue #2 of The Reprobate and the Cannibal Ferox mug), Carl Daft (thanks for the Severin goodies and the Earl Grey lager), Ollie Morris (who introduced me to that indispensable critical tool, The Wrong-O-Meter) and fragrant spice bomb / Madeline Rust front gal Lucy Morrow among countless others, many of whose names I didn’t quite catch.

All hail Creepy Cooke, Shady Sheil and their monstrous bastard offspring, the ever-mortifying Mayhem Film Festival. Who dares imagine what eye-popping delights they’ll be unveiling round about this time next year?

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I’ll be there to find out. How about you?

 

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SUSPIRIA At Mayhem 2017. It’s In 4K… On A Big Screen… And It’s A F**king Giallo, Alright?!?

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Suspiria, 1977. Directed by Dario ArgentoProduced by Claudio Argento and Salvatore Argento. Story by Daria NicoldiScreenplay by Dario Argento and Daria NicolodiCinematography by Luciano TovoliEdited by Franco Fraticelli. Production Design by Giuseppe Bassan. Musiby Goblin. SFX by Germano Natali. Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén, Rudolf Schündler, Udo Kier, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett.

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… you wait forty years for a 4k restoration of Suspiria then two turn up at the same time! Over in The States, Synapse’s Don May has been struggling manfully with his for something like a tenth of that period but CultFilms have stealthily beaten him to the punch with their European release of TLE’s take on the most visually beautiful of all Horror Films. Before either of them had aired in public there was much internet discussion and comparing of screen grabs with the intention of establishing which version would prove most successful in correcting the technical errors (too fiendishly complicated to go into here) that have marred previous releases. May’s strongest hand all along has been that Luciano Tovoli, the film’s cinematographer, has supervised his Suspiria… then again the CultFilms / TLE rendering was overseen by Dario Argento himself, who’s presumably entitled to a view on how the film should look and sound.

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Ultimately we’ll all have to pay our money / take our choice and as long as each version is only viewable in its own territory, one of the first things we Europeans (semi-detached and otherwise) will have to go on is this October and November’s Cultfilms UK mini-tour.  After its premiere at the BFI during the London Film Festival on 06/10/17, the TLE Suspiria rolled into Nottingham on the 14th October for a centrepiece Saturday late night screening at the Broadway Cinema’s peerless Mayhem Film Fest (full Festival report now active on this Blog).

Kudos to Festival co-curators Chris Cooke (who had previously told me that presenting such a restoration was a personal dream come true) and Steve Sheil, who introduced “Argento’s masterpiece” by asking how many audience members had never seen the film before. As it happened, a significant proportion of the audience admitted to being “Suspiria virgins”…

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… and what a way to lose their cherries! If the Synapse version is going to look any better than this, we’ve surely got to be talking infinitesimal degrees of cinematic lusciousness. Miraculously, considering the extent of the repairs that were reportedly needed, not a hair nor a scratch now sullies the candy coloured phantasmagoria of Argento’s vision. As for those much called-for corrections to the film’s pallet… suffice to say, you’ll feel an overpowering urge to lean into the screen and lick the marzipan walls of the Tanz Akademie, hopefully grabbing a kiss from Jessica Harper before returning to your seat and getting beaten up by the ushers.

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Soundwise, the film (not least Goblin’s celebrated score) is every bit as loud and frantic as you knew it was going to be… if a little flat. Was there something up with The Broadway’s speakers? Nope, various films of varying quality (none better than Suspiria) made effective use of the venue’s surround sound speakers throughout the Festival. Is it just that Suspiria was conceived, reasonably enough, without reference to the state of audio technology 40 year’s hence? Was there a problem with the relevant elements? With the sonic aspect of this restoration? With my ears? Will the Synapse jobby sound a little punchier? Watch (or should I say listen to?) this space…

Don’t get me wrong… it doesn’t sound crappy, it’s just not quite the outright audio assault for which Suspiria is famed. No matter, I didn’t begrudge one iota of the expense required to get me home after leaving this particular late, late show with those virgins’ applause ringing in my ears. They now knew what they’d been missing and I was reminded, after years of video / DVD / BD over-familiarity, that Suspiria is quite possibly The Greatest Horror Film Ever Made. I don’t imagine too many visitors of this Blog are going to give me to much of an argument on that one.

Now for the contentious bit…

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What constitutes a giallo?  Various definitions have been offered. From the get-go we’ll dismiss the philistine broad stroke one that encompasses virtually any Italian exploitation picture. We’re talking here about those thrillers, descended in equal parts from the yellow (“giallo”) covered paper backs published by Mondadori and co, German krimis and Hitchcock, whose rule book was developed by Mario Bava during the ’60s and upgraded by Argento throughout the following decade.

So if we were to have a, er, stab, at definition, it would look something like this. A  killer is at large (usually in an urban Italian setting) and the viewer is challenged to work out his / her identity. His / her motivation can be madness, sexual sadism, an inheritance… it scarcely matters (and the motives revealed, even in some of the genre’s classier entries, are frequently risible nonsense) because the style and severity with which the crimes are perpetrated and filmed are more important than who is killing whom and why. Subjective shots from the killer’s point of view will keep you guessing, anyway, as flashy visuals continue to be prioritised over narrative coherence. The cops generally take a powder in these films, leaving the sleuthing to some obsessive amateur who, more often than not, has half-glimpsed an all important clue but is struggling to make sense of it. Just in case this recipe isn’t already sufficiently un-PC, among the bloodily dispatched victims we will typically find a disproportionate compliment of attractive young women.

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You don’t have to honour every one of these rules to qualify as a giallo. Michele Soavi’s Stagefright (1987) throws the whodunnit element right out of the window (we’re aware of the killer’s identity even before he inaugurates the movie’s sequence of killings) yet is frequently cited as one of the genre’s last great entries. Some gialli do admit cops, e.g.  Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done To Your Daughters (tellingly also known as The Police Require Assistance, 1974), Sergio Martino’s Suspicious Death Of A Minor (1975) and Alberto De Martino’s Strange Shadows In An Empty Room / Blazing Magnum (1976). Some of the grubbier gialli substitute smut for style (most notoriously in Mario Landi’s unpalatable Giallo In Venice, 1979) and setting their events outside of the Italian urban milieu has not discounted Lucio Fulci’s Lizard In A Womans Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972), Umberto Lenzi’s totally barmy Eyeball (1975) or just about all of Sergio Martino’s powerful entries in the genre… so why should its Bavarian setting disqualify Suspiria, a film which in every other way adheres to the genre’s golden rules?!?

So it’s not contentious at all, actually… It’s a no-brainer. It makes no difference that the question “Who’s the killer?” is answered with a shrieked “Witch!” I always get slagged off for arguing this and no doubt will be again, but if it looks like a giallo, struts like a giallo and cuts its way through its victims like a giallo, then it’s probably a giallo… and Suspiria is a giallo. Yes, it’s a turbo charged giallo with heavy Horror overtones, supernatural schtick and cinematic style to burn. But hey, let’s try not to hold that against it, eh?

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You have been reading “SUSPIRIA At Mayhem 2017. It’s In 4K… On A Big Screen… And It’s A F**king Giallo, Alright?!?”

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Diamonds Are Forever… The Timely Return Of Steve De Jarnatt’s MIRACLE MILE

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“Have a nice day!”

BD/DVD Combi. Region B/2. Arrow. 15.

“Forthwith Rumour runs through Libya’s great cities / Rumour, of all Evils the most swift / Speed lends her strength and she wins vigour as she goes / small at first through fear, soon she mounts up to Heaven / and walks the ground with head hidden in the clouds”

… Virgil: The Aeneid, Book IV.

***** Spoiler Alert *****

We normally take a pretty lax attitude around here towards spoilers. There’s a warning in our Mission Statement about proceeding with caution at all times when you visit The House Of Freudstein. Beyond that… read ’em and weep!

Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile really is a special case, though. If you go into this one with absolutely no idea of what’s going to happen, it might just rock your world… but there’s no real way of explaining why that might be without giving the game away. Mrs F and I were fortunate enough to catch the film, totally ignorant of its contents, at one of Dave Bryan and Malcolm Daglish’s fondly remembered Black Sunday film festivals in Manchester during the early ’90s and that was really the perfect way to experience it.

Suffice to say that if you’re not aware of this film’s chilling premise and are planning to see it – which I would urge you to do – please don’t read the following until you’ve done so. Then tell me why I’m talking shit…

*****  Spoiler Alert Ends *****

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Timing is everything. Especially when you’re invoking End Times. Miracle Mile, written by the genial Steve De Jarnatt (above) kicked around Hollywood for several years, garnering a reputation as the successor to Bruce Joel Rubin’s Jacob’s Ladder as “the best unfilmed script” in La La Land. The reason nobody would film it was that De Jarnatt steadfastly refused to compromise by succumbing to studio demands that a happy ending be tacked onto it. Tired of banging his head against a brick wall, he ultimately put together the deal that allowed him to direct the film himself, according to his own vision. Unfortunately, by the time Miracle Mile (officially released in 1988) had received any substantial distribution, the Berlin Wall had come down and the world began to kid itself that the threat of nuclear annihilation was no longer something to worry about …

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The film kicks off engagingly enough, with unfulfilled doofus Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) and misift Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) discovering each other and – at long last – true love in LA. Circumstances conspire to make Harry significantly late for their make-or-break date on Wilshire Blvd (the Miracle Mile of the title). So far, so screwball comedy. After he’s tried to phone Julie with his apologies, though, Harry picks up a misdirected phone call from a soldier trying to warn his father that World War III has broken out and the Continental USA is going to be nuked within 75 minutes. The grunts babbling’s are interrupted by a gunshot and an authoritarian voice advises Harry to forget everything he has just heard and “go back to sleep…”

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Is this an elaborate prank or good grounds to get the hell out of LA, ASAP? Harry struggles to convince himself and the late night occupants of Johnie’s Diner but ultimately resolves to find Julie and get her out, just to be on the safe side, while all around him civilised society rapidly breaks down in the wake of his careless whisper…

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Even after the “apocalypse now… or maybe not” issue has been resolved, what shines through on subsequent viewings is De Jarnatt’s assured direction and convincing rendition of Armageddon-on-a-budget (God knows what it took to have Wilshire Boulevard blocked off for a day’s shooting), the impressive ensemble playing of his cast and in particular the touching performances of his leads.

Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation looks and sounds every bit as good as you’d expect and is bedecked with a host of supplementary goodies. De Jarnatt is interviewed (great to hear about and see Joe Turkel’s Dantesque improvisation, which the director reluctantly cut), and supplies two commentary tracks, one of them in conjunction with cinematographer Theo van de Sande and production designer Chris Horner. An emotional reunion at Johnie’s Diner features most of the cast though Edwards and Winningham couldn’t attend. They get their own interview spot and it’s nice to learn that some years after co-starring in Miracle Mile, they became a real life item.

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Tangerine Dream fans (among whom I number myself) will enjoy the extra in which that band’s Paul Haslinger talks about scoring this film and others. You get deleted scenes and outtakes but I can’t comment on the booklet essay by Tim Lucas, which I haven’t seen (nor will you if you fail to pick up the first pressing of this release).

Powerful stuff…. so why was De Jarnatt confined to TV directing and writing short stories (one of which he reads  in another bonus feature) after Miracle Mile? It seems like a lot of people would rather just go back to sleep.

To paraphrase (though this is disputed) Victor Hugo… “Nothing is as powerful as a film whose time has come”. Let’s hope and pray that this is not it…

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Tracey Beaker Meets The Exorcist: SUFFER LITTLE CHILDREN Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Intervision (Severin). 18.

“This picture is a reconstruction of events which took place at 45 Kingston Road, New Malden in August 1984…” we are informed by the portentous introductory voice over to Alan Briggs’ notorious meisterwerk Suffer Little Children: “These events were never reported in the press. The house is now derelict and scheduled for demolition.” The events in question, as shakily reconstructed on state-of-the-art (in 1983 terms, anyway) VHS camcorder, are initiated by the arrival of a young mute girl named Elizabeth (Nicola Diana), at the Sullivan Children’s Home. No sooner has she arrived than various nasty accidents start befalling the other residents. “First things first… Basil’s in intensive care!” emotes their custodian Jenny (Ginny Rose)… poor Basil, he fell down the stairs. Another child has a door telekinetically slammed in her face. To the further consternation of Jenny and her sidekick Maurice (Colin Chamberlain), household objects begin levitating unconvincingly and there’s soon more wobbly furniture in motion than at an MFI clearance sale. Nobody seems to notice that these events coincide with Elizabeth getting pissed off with people.

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Matters escalate further when former resident, now pop star Mick Philips (Jon Holland) visits and starts romancing Jenny (by taking her to Cloudbursts, an appalling night club packed with plastic punks and nerdy New Romantics). Lovelorn Maurice takes this very badly but not nearly as badly as Elizabeth, who seems to have conceived some kind of Satanic schoolgirl crush on the guy (improbably so, Mick resembling nothing more than a refugee from a bad Kajagoogoo tribute band.) By arranging for some poorly made-up living deadsters to erupt from an allotment (on account of which scene I suffered a particularly unpleasant flashback to Zombies Lake… or was it Oasis Of The Zombies?), Elizabeth manages to recruit two female lieutenants to her burgeoning cult.

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The situation at Sullivan’s continues to degenerate. A jolly party descends into an unseemly punch-up, then 12 of the home’s kids nearly drown simultaneously during a visit to their local swimming baths (we have to take this on trust as SLC’s budget didn’t stretch to an actual depiction of this traumatic moment.) Elizabeth and her minions throw some kind of candle lit ritual in the cellar, chanting “Come Devil Come!” and Elizabeth orders them (in her best Mercedes McCambridge tones) to take out “the Christ worshippers!” Several enthusiastic but unconvincing stabbings ensue. This outbreak of Grand Guignol (accompanied by inept heavy metal music and sufficient strobing to induce an epileptic episode in an elephant) is only nipped in the bud when Christ himself, in full crown of thorns (I’m not making this up, honest) intercedes personally to zap Elizabeth with disappointingly under-rendered  bolts of righteous Godly fury. Jenny gets a final screaming freeze frame, reminiscent of  Hilary Dwyer’s in Witchfinder General and Daria Nicolodi’s in Tenebrae.

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Speaking of  Argento, SLC’s mix of paranormal schoolgirl shenanigans and inappropriate heavy metal accompaniment could conceivably be cited as a precursor to his Phenomena (though a lot of people probably wouldn’t thank it for that, either.) “Suffer you bastards, suffer!” we are advised during the interminable racket of (whatever happened to?) Jlaada’s playout music  before puzzling random shot repeats bring the shambolic proceedings to a welcome close.

The house where this sub-Italia Conti take on “Tracey Beaker meets The Exorcist” was filmed did indeed get demolished (by a fire, apparently, though I’ve been unable to establish whether this was on account of an angry god fearing mob… or even an angry God himself) and allegedly a car park now stands in the place it once occupied. As for “Never reported in the press”, though… they wish! Nothing in this am-dram Horror epic could have prepared its creators for the sham dram that unfolded in the nation’s tabloids, once they had picked up the first sniff of a scandal from that redoubtable local organ, The Surrey Comet.  “This movie was made by the students of Meg Shanks Drama School” one of its poorly generated credits tells us: “They had no experience and no money, just determination and guts”… and boy, the intestinal fortitude of all concerned would be sorely tested over the coming months!

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Said kerfuffle is masterfully related by a strikingly handsome, witty and charismatic “video nasty”  historian in the bonus featurette Seducing The Gullible. This boy should go far. In his interview, director Alan Briggs reveals his past as a rock music promoter / huckster, which must have stood him in good stead for a stab at the success de scandale that Suffer Little Children unfortunately never quite attained. In contradiction to wild claims (typifying the atmosphere of moral panic back in the early ’80s) that he had somehow “corrupted” his juvenile cast, Briggs insists that he gave free rein to their enthusiastic creativity and that’s what you see on the screen. He talks less about SLC’s censorship tribulations than the difficulties of small film production (he’d clearly relish the opportunity to make another one with today’s technology) and distribution (in particular the difficulties of dealing with Films Galore’s rather “colourful” sounding George Goodey) back in 1983.

More than three decades after this harrowing sequence of events unfolded, the mighty men of Severin (via their “shot on video” Intervision imprint) afford us an opportunity to relive a particularly troubling bit of recent social history and see what, if anything, all the fuss was about with an uncut and now BBFC sanctioned release of Suffer Little Children. Perhaps House Of Freudstein  visitors represent precisely that special sort of cineaste who can look beyond this film’s technical and artistic shortcomings to engage with the philosophical, ethical, semiological and indeed eschatological issues it embodies. Perhaps not. In which case… “Suffer, you bastards, suffer!”

 

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How To Carve A Turkey… Herschell Gordon Lewis’s BLOOD FEAST / SCUM OF THE EARTH Reviewed

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That’s it, we read about her

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

About a year ago, Arrow’s monumental, long-gestated “Feast” box set was released in the immediate aftermath of the death of the cinema maverick whose work it celebrated so lavishly – Herschell Gordon Lewis. Earlier this year, the announcement of an Arrow collection of George Romero’s non-zombie films coincided with that iconic director’s demise. John Carpenter could be forgiven for anticipating the label’s upcoming Blu-ray release of The Thing with a certain amount of trepidation and David Cronenberg might well be anxiously checking their re-release plans for a whole raft of his titles…

Now that Arrow have started dismembering that Feast box for discrete releases of selected HGL epics that will better suit the pockets of more penurious punters, where better to start than with Blood Feast (1963), the oldest film to make it onto the dreaded “video nasties” listings and widely acclaimed as “the first splatter movie”? Widely, but not universally acknowledged… other contenders have been put forward for this laurel, notably Mario Bava’s Black Sunday but while Bava’s film has plenty of other things going for it (cinematography, atmosphere, Barbara Steele, for example) Blood Feast remains an unrepentently one trick, plasma-drenched pony… it’s all about the Gore.

It’s certainly not about the plot…

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The film opens (to the accompaniment of “tragic kettle drums”!) with a blonde lady (Sandra Sinclair) being attacked in her bath tub by crazed Egyptian exotic caterer Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold)… don’t you just hate it when that happens? The Daily Chronicle’s infamous headline acknowledges one small step for Fuad in his quest to invoke the Goddess Ishtar but a giant leap for screen gore (not to mention a faltering hop for Ms Sinclair). Striking again while the iron is hot, Ramses goes beach-combing and beats out the brains of some cutie out spooning under the stars with her boyfriend. When questioned by the police, this guy really starts chewing the scenery, pulling faces and wailing “She wanted to go home! She wanted to go home!” over and over again as he meditates on the wages of sin.

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Ramses’ third victim has her tongue (actually that of a sheep) pulled right out of her head. Lewis says of Playmate Astrid Olsen: “She was quite adequate for the role – her mouth was big enough to hold this sheep’s tongue and several others!” Connie Mason (another ex-Playmate, who was cast because of producer Friedman’s infatuation with her toothy smile) is a member of the same book-club as the amputee in the bath and also attends lectures on Ancient Egyptian cults. “You know I’ve always been interested in Egyptology”, this obviously empty-headed girl tells her boyfriend Pete Thornton (Bill Kerwin), who just happens to be a detective, in fact one of the extremely slow-witted cops on the case of the demolished girls.

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Another (un)fortuitous “plot”-twist has Connie’s status-seeking mother (Lyn Bolton) hire Fuad Ramses to provide something really exotic for Connie’s birthday party. Little does she know that this is to be the “Blood Feast’ of the title. With a tongue, a brain and a leg, Fuad obviously has the makings of a serviceable Goddess already, though precisely which bits of Connie’s anatomy he plans to filch are left to our imagination. Although an ace Egyptology student, Connie just doesn’t realise what peril she’s in as the machete-wielding exotic caterer persuades her to lie on the kitchen table with her eyes closed. Just as he is about to deliver the coup-de-grace, the cops, for whom the penny has finally dropped, burst in and save Connie. Ramses is pursued across the city dump and expires in a garbage crusher. “He died a fitting death for the garbage he was” intones Detective Thornton, neglecting to add that his fate also provides a perfectly appropriate ending to cinematic garbage such as this.

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Lewis himself always conceded that Blood Feast wasn’t very good. “We don’t want it good, we want it Thursday” was the philosophy of producer Dave Friedman (above), but HGL did insist on its historical importance as the first of its kind… like Walt Whitman’s poetry, argued the former English lecturer at the University of Mississippi. Although this claim to primacy is, as we have seen, debatable, Blood Feast’s massive influence over subsequent graphic horror product (just think of how many films have reprised the tongue-yanking gag) and indeed the monied cinematic mainstream is undeniable.

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In the supplementary featurette Blood Perspectives, filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher argue that with Blood Feast, Lewis and Friedman broke down the walls between mainstream cinema and exploitation (“Off the byways and onto the highways of America”, as Friedman has it) and (rather convincingly) for its status as a bona fide slice of crypto social history. HGL himself is brusquely dismissive of any such auteurist theorising in a couple of other featurettes herein, insisting that the aim all along was purely to entertain, gob-smack and sell tickets. Friedman backs him up on this in an archival interview from 1987 and on the main feature’s commentary track.

The gruesome twosome reiterate the oft-aired account of how they embarked on the splatter trail in an attempt to fashion a new USP and keep themselves ahead of the pack after competitors felt emboldened to emulate their exploits in the “nudie-cutie” field. 1963 turned out to be the annus mirabilis in this regard, the year in which Lewis shot Bell, Bare And Beautiful virtually simultaneously with Blood Feast, also finding time to contribute Goldilocks And The Three Bares and Boin-n-g. “I felt the nudie cycle was going in the wrong direction…” he recalled: “There are only a certain number of ways you can show girls playing basketball!” (indeed, Boin-n-g probably remains the definitive statement on this aspect of the human condition). In the very same hyperactive year, Lewis and Friedman inaugurated the “roughie” with Scum Of The Earth, which is (you lucky people!) crammed onto this disc as yet another extra.

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Lewis’s final monochrome film (with the exception of one hand painted frame at its suicidal climax), Scum Of The Earth tells the tawdry tale of innocent young ladies being drawn into a world of pornography and blackmail by the lure of easy money. Sinister porno king-pin Lang (Lawrence Wood), sadistic Ajax (Craig Maudslay, the guy who trash compacted Fuad Ramses) and sleazy snapper Larry (played by Mal Arnold, though described as “a minor”… in what possible parallel universe?) are out-and-out misogynistic bastards, whereas photographer Harmon (Bill Kerwin) and model / procuress Sandy (Sandra Sinclair, whose bath time routine was so rudely interrupted in Blood Feast) wring their hands about the racket they’re in but carry on regardless, getting – much like the viewer – to have their cheesecake and eat it. After the correct moralistic ending to this perversely enjoyable melodrama, a stern voiceover warns us that: “For every girl who escapes the trap, another falls into it. Only an alert society can save us from those who prey on human weakness… the scum of the Earth!” What kind of low-life, indeed, could draw a sweet lil’ thing like Allison Louise Downe into a net of fleshy depravity? Ask her then husband… Herschell Gordon Lewis (he describes her on the Blood Feast commentary track as “a crew member” so draw your own conclusions as to how the marriage worked out).

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Bill Kerwin lures the lovely Allison Louise Downe into a life of vice…

Additional extras include outtakes, trailers (also for Lucky Pierre, Goldilocks & The Three Bares and Bell, Bare And Beautiful) plus a hysterically sincere theatre announcement / warning to the faint hearted. Bill Kerwin fans are also treated to the promotional short Carving Magic (1959), in which Martha Logan (the Nigella Lawson of her day) coaches Kerwin in how to tackle the Sunday joint. You might learn something about meat carving here but don’t expect too many laughs from this allegedly humorous effort…. Sgt Bilko it ain’t!

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Bill Kerwin (left) demonstrates a bit of Carving Magic to Harvey Korman.

I’ve often babbled on in these and other pages about the swings-and-roundabouts aspect of Blu-ray upgrades. If you’re the kind that habitually regards his or her tumbler of J&B half full, you’ll appreciate the hitherto unguessed at cinematographic subtleties that are revealed to you thereby. If you’re of the “half empty” persuasion, then you’re gonna rue the consequent increase in grain. It hardly matters, anyway… if you keep on drinking J&B, at some point you’re going to be stabbed to death by a loony in a leather trench coat, right? So what’s the diff? As it happens – and against all my expectations – Blood Feast, for all its 54 years, looks just fab on Blu-ray, a medium that could have been conceived specifically to showcase its lurid comic strip aesthetic. If you still harbour memories of discovering Lewis’s magnum opus on some nth generation video dub, you’ll certainly appreciate the job Arrow have done here. Splendid stuff.

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