Monthly Archives: February 2019

2 Ripping BD Yarns From Severin… Monty Berman’s JACK THE RIPPER and Ivan Nagy’s SKINNER, Reviewed.

SAUCY JACK, YOU’RE A NAUGHTY ONE…

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Jack The Ripper (1959). BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

For readers of a certain vintage, the name of producer Monty Berman will evoke such ’60s / early ’70s gimmicky TV action staples as The Saint, The Baron, The Champions, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) and the camp escapades of Jason King, both in and out of Department S. All of these seemed to boast iconic title sequences / music and as an added bonus, The Champions arrived just in time to stimulate our developing libidos with the spectacle of the icily beautiful Alexandra Bastedo, the erstwhile Bond girl who would subsequently appear in such Euro Horror epics as Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride.

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It’s my blog so we’re having a gratuitous pic of the glorious Alexandra Bastedo here, OK?

Less well documented (even within the recent slew of books about British Horror flicks) are Berman’s attempts (in cahoots with Robert S. Baker) to ride Hammer’s coat tails with the likes of Henry Cass’s Blood Of The Vampire (1958), John Gilling’s Burke and Hare biopic The Flesh And The Fiends (1960), The Hellfire Club (1961) and the item under consideration here, which (like The Hellfire Club) was directed as well as produced by Baker and Berman (the latter, interestingly enough, born in Whitechapel, a quarter of a Century after Saucy Jack littered its streets with his prostitute victims).

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In furtherance of those Hammeresque aspirations, Jimmy Sangster was poached to script the film and came up with a thoughtful effort taking in the iniquities of social deprivation, gender and disability discrimination, rough street justice, et al, while adroitly shifting suspicion between various characters. John Le Mesurier’s snotty surgeon is looking like the likeliest candidate until another posh doc is revealed, at the eleventh hour, to be the killer, motivated (in a persistent pet theory of Ripperologists) by his son’s death from syphilis, contracted from a Whitechapel working girl. Pursued by Inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne) and his men, “Jack” unwisely attempts to conceal himself in a hospital lift shaft and is promptly squashed to a pulp.

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Although an interesting historical footnote, Berman and Baker’s variation on the Ripper saga failed to elevate its makers, as intended, into the Premier League alongside Hammer. Crucially, that company’s lurid use of colour seems to have been completely lost on them. I suppose the b/w cinematography (which again, they divided between them) made it easier to convey a pea soupy East End on their threadbare studio sets, but this film is one of those which you suspect already looked dated when it came out. There is a sore thumb colour insert at the climax of the American release version (which also adds a portentous voice over intro and replaces Stanley Black’s score with one by Jimmy McHugh and Pete Rugolo, among other bits of fiddling) as JTR’s blood bubbles through the floorboards of the lift, this scene and several others excised from UK prints by the BBFC. Both versions are included here and you also get an audio commentary from Baker, Sangster and AD Peter Manley, moderated by Marcus Hearn, plus a selection of alternative “Continental takes”, shot for markets with a greater toleration of female nudity. On top of the expected poster and still gallery and (scuzzy looking) trailer, you get interviews with the ubiquitous Denis Meikle and Whitechapel murder tour guide Richard Jones, allowing you to evaluate their conflicting theories about who the Ripper or possibly even Rippers might or might not have been… an argument that isn’t going to be settled by this release or by anybody, any time soon.

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B&B possibly figured (wrongly) that despite the absence of colour, they could sell this one in The States on the strength of second string yankee hunk Lee Patterson in the role of holidaying New York cop Sam Lowry. Why, you may well ask, would a NYC cop want to spend his vacation helping out Scotland Yard? Well, as Lowry tells Inspector O’Neill: “We don’t have Rippers in New York!” Watch this space, pal… quack, quack, quack!

THE SHAPE OF WATER…

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Skinner (1993) BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“He wants a vest with tits on it”.

My first encounter with Carl Daft and David Gregory was in 1991 (so obviously pre-Severin, pre-Blue Underground… this was even pre-Exploited) when I found myself sitting adjacent to them at a midnight movie preview screening of Silence Of The Lambs and we exchanged off the cuff critiques. Nearly thirty (yikes!) years later, Severin have released a film that could all too easily be dismissed as a poor man’s take on the Jonathan Demme hit, though as we’ll see, there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye…

Dennis Skinner (the name a gag that might have been lost on non-British viewers, though presumably American audiences got the “Bob and Earl” reference), played by Ted Raimi, is a nerdishly likeable misfit who rents a room in what looks suspiciously like Norman Bates’ house (shades of Ed Gein, already). His landlady Kerry Tate (Ricki Lake) is having a hard time with her often absent husband Geoff (David Warshofsky) and romance begins to blossom between her and Dennis. He longs to show her his “real self”, but there’s a clue as to what exactly that might be in the mutilated shape of Heidi, a former flame who’s tracking him down with vengeance in mind…

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Suits you, Sir…

When he’s not romancing Kerry or working as a janitor, Dennis likes to kill prostitutes and skin them to construct lady suits for himself. Not the most endearing of hobbies but skilful scripting and direction from (respectively) Paul Hart-Wilden and Ivan Nagy (e.g. in the revelation of the childhood trauma that drove Dennis off the rails) keep us rooting for him and hoping that he can find redemption in the arms of Kerry… but Heidi has other plans for him…

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An obvious STV job, Skinner transcends its evident low-budget by dint of such deft touches as its ant-hero’s obsession with water and it’s ability to fill any vessel into which it is poured. The film’s casting could hardly have been bettered in this regard, with Lake having undergone a massive physical transformation in real life and Lords effecting a no less startling metamorphosis into the cinematic mainstream. Director Nagy was quite the Protean figure himself and it’s clear, from David Gregory’s fascinating bonus interview with him here and from other extras on this disc, that before his involvement in “other business” defined him forever in the public eye, Nagy was a film maker intent on making good films. With Skinner, he succeeded (even if that ambitiously quirky ending does come off as something of a misfire).

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Other bonus materials (apart from the obvious trailer) include interviews with Raimi, writer Paul Hart-Wilden and editor (actually the last in a long line of editors) Jeremy Kasten, plus the unexpurgated depiction of Skinner’s gruesome tailoring. All the surviving contributors agree that this would be far less problematic today than the ill-advised scene (Hart-Wilden insists that he didn’t write it) in which Skinner wraps himself in the skin of a black co-worker and goes into a cringe-inducing Amos’n’Andy routine. Hart-Wilden is wryly amusing on the troubled pre-production history of a film he was hawking around for several years before Silence Of The Lambs. Hammer rejected it on the grounds that it was too horrific (!), British Screen because he wasn’t Peter Greenaway. The success of Silence Of The Lambs finally got Skinner green lit in The States, only for it to be shelved when funds dried up. Nagy’s involvement in the Heidi Fleiss scandal having reignited interest in the property, Hart-Wilden and Kasten offer their respective insights on the struggle to get it finished and released. Skinner’s no Magnificent Ambersons but its behind-the-scenes saga is as compelling and salutary a tale as any of the perils and pitfalls that lurk behind Tinsel Town’s glittering facade.

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Fast Times At Westworld High… CLASS OF 1999 Reviewed

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Look Mom, no CGI!

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BD. Vestron Video / Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Region B. 15.

Did you miss the recent Channel 4 documentary Teachers Training To Kill (in which teachers in Ohio were training to take down school spree shooters)? No worries, this timely re-issue of Mark E. Lester’s 1990 edusploitation epic will being you right up to speed. What we have here is a post-Terminator reboot (from a time before our screens were littered with bloody reboots) of the director’s own Class Of 1984 (1982), a film that was inexplicably dragged into the “video nasties” shit fight (not that any of that fiasco made any sense whatsoever). In CO84, the staff and student body of Lincoln High School (including a pudgy Michael J. Fox in one of his earliest non-TV appearances) were terrorised by the lamest collection of juvenile delinquents outside of Next Stop, Nowhere (more widely and notoriously known as “the Punk Rock episode of Quincy”).

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“I’ve never been more serious in my life, Sam…”

By 1999, Lester “predicts”, things will have deteriorated to the point where many schools have become “free fire zones”…. what’s worse, many of the shanty neighbourhoods in which the school kids reside and the ridiculous fashions sported by the gang members (even more ludicrous than those in CO84) suggest that Lester had been ODing on Enzo Castellari post-apocalyptic flicks while dreaming up this one.

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Dr Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell), the idealistic Principal of Kennedy High School, is empowered by The Board Of Educational Defence to call in the shadowy MegaTech Corporation who, for a reasonable fee, are happy to supply their new line in android teachers. Gym master Mr Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick), Chemistry specialist Ms Connors (the legend that is Pam Grier) and History teacher Mr Hardin (John P. Ryan) take a hard-line, old… er… school attitude towards discipline and have the bionic ability to back it up. Turns out that they were prototype kill droids rejected by the US military on the grounds that they were too violent and flaky. Now reprogrammed for pedagogic purposes, they revert all too readily to battlefield ethics when encountering resistance. “Students are being beaten for minor infractions… two of them are already dead!” Dr Miles whines to MegaTech honcho Dr Bob Forrest (Stacy Keach, looking significantly more scary than any of his renegade replicants, below). “Education at its finest!”, insists Dr Bob.

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While the Principal wrings his hands, one Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg, above, as the most miscast gang banger ever) is dating his daughter Christian (Traci Lin) and uniting the fractious factions of the student body against their oppressors with the memorable rallying cry: “I’m going to go waste some teachers… who’s with me?” As The Kidz fight back, the school goes up in flames and the teachers shed their synthetic skin to reveal the full extent of their android armoury… it’s a nightmare scenario but given some of the loopy stuff that Trump has been recommending on behalf of the NRA, I guess we’re going to have to get used to it.

No action fan is going to feel short-changed by this mindlessly brilliant bit of blackboard jungle brouhaha, which in all probability exerted an influence over Kinji Fukasaku’s cracking Battle Royale (2000). Blink and you’ll miss Rose McGowan in her fleeting feature debut… yep, #hertoo.

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A generous compliment of bonus features includes Lester’s commentary track and interviews with him and co-producer Eugene Mazzola, enthusing about the great times they had blowing up a derelict high school in Seattle. Lester says he was hoping that some of Malcolm McDowell’s charisma would rub off on Bradley Gregg (yeah, good luck with that!) Mazzola remembers how Stacy Keach talked him into stumping up for a $6,000 albino wig, before reminding us that Vestron went out of business shortly afterwards. Good to know that Keach was such a stickler for method acting, portraying here the only albino ever to sport bushy black eyebrows and moustache.

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C. Courtney Joyner talks about writing the flick, we also hear from legendary DP Mark Irwin and there’s a joint interview with Special FX men Eric Allard and Rick Stratton (who worked pre-CGI wonders), during which we learn that Pam Grier (who nobody has a bad word for) had to wear prosthetic legs cast from the actual pins of Michael Jackson. There’s a contemporary video promo, theatrical trailer, TV spots and stills gallery. That’ll learn ya…

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A sequel to this sequel was made (by Spiro Razatos) in 1994, entitled Class Of 1999 II: The Substitute, though its action is actually set in 2001. So go figure… I haven’t seen it but I’m not losing any sleep over that.

As companion pieces from the Vestron archive, Lionsgate are simultaneously releasing Bob Balaban’s Parents (1989, below) and Camilo Vila’s The Unholy  (1988, even lower).

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My Brain Hurts… Siberian Khatru On Board Eugenio Martin’s HORROR EXPRESS.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and why wouldn’t you?), 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 yet have the benefit of VCRs and given that the gaps between transmissions of certain 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.

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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 place. 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. In 2011 Severin managed a predictably pristine BD / DVD combo edition chock full of impressive extras that you’re going to get another chance to catch on the new Arrow release under consideration here.

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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 aka Duel In The Eclipse (1968) and as late as 1971 with 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 concealing psychotic deviance that 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.

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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 (in fact all the impressive locations in this picture are actually 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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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 Fulci’s 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).

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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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His 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 off 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 propos of nothing in particular and horse whipping 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 came as quite a shock on my first adult rewatching of Horror Express to realise that this character doesn’t make his entry until well into the film’s 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…

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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 Pancho Villa, in which Martin had already directed Savalas earlier in 1972. He also describes how Lee coaxed the recently widowed and deeply depressed Cushing back into a working mood. 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 an enthusiastic intro piece from erstwhile Fango editor Chris Alexander and of course you get a trailer.

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All of these were on Severin’s BD, which also included an audio interview with Peter Cushing that you could listen to while watching the film. Arrow replace that with a useful Kim Newman / Stephen Jones commentary track. The main feature here looks marginally grainier but more a tad more nuanced, colour wise, than the now out of print Sev disc, for which this disc constitutes the perfect replacement.

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Death Disco… Hipster Hoofers Fail The Electric Vino Acid Test, Big Time, In Gaspar Noé’s CLIMAX.

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Gaspar Noé… shaman or shammin’?

BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

“Quousque tandem abutere, Gaspar, patientia nostra?” (After Cicero in “Against Catiline”).

Cumming soon to a screen near you… actually the spuming cocks that decorate several of Gaspar Noé’s previous cinematic outrages are ironically conspicuous by their absence from his latest, though the ugliest of all human organs can be found doing its inimitable thing in some of this disc’s supporting featurettes. Whatever, Climax (2018) still packs enough sex, drugs and violence to outrage the Daily Heil and excite vacuous thrill seekers everywhere on account of its daring, taboo-busting blah, blah, blah

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Described on its poster as being “like Fame directed by the Marquis de Sade with a steadicam”, Climax has also been likened by its director to Irwin Allen’s disaster movies from the ’70s, a description which did, I must admit, raise a chuckle with me. Beyond that, though, there’s precious little to smile about here.

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Yowza, yowza, yowza…

The proceedings open with a troupe of painfully cool dancers celebrating the end of strenuous rehearsal sessions for their upcoming US tour. Naturally, they decide to celebrate the cessation of all this physical exertion by staying up all night for even more frantic dancing in some remote hall, to the accompaniment of some seriously shit music. Little do they know that some malcontent has slipped a lysergic kicker into the communal sangria bowl. The acid seems to take an eternity coming on, allowing Noé the opportunity to introduce us to his cast of characters and their signature insecurities (“Irwin Allen disaster movies”, indeed) plus their scarcely concealed racist and sexist prejudices. As soon as the assembled dancin’ fools are all tripping off their tits, mob rule sets in… lots of fucking, fighting and self-mutilation… a child freaks out when locked in a room with cockroaches and a girl who’s stingy with her coke supply has her hair set on fire… there’s a spot of incest and a pregnant woman is savagely beaten… well, it seemed to go over OK in Irreversible (2002) and the slight return of that film’s reverse chronology gimmick reeks of an attempt to turn the clock back to a time when Noé could actually be mistaken for a director with something to say, rather than just another bozo competing with Lars Van Trier and Tom Six in the vapid “self promotion via pointless shocks” stakes.

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Tried it. It didn’t agree with me.

Climax has been dragged into the trendy and detestable nouveau giallo category on the grounds that it ends with the revelation of who actually perpetrated the 2018 equivalent of putting the benzedrine in Mrs Murphy’s ovaltine (*). Unfortunately the only possible response to the revelation that one of these unbearable characters (rather than any of the others) was the culprit is a bemused shrug of the shoulders… BFD! As well as Argento, Noé and his supporters have invoked the likes of Zulawksi (there’s an am-dram recreation of Isabelle Adjani’s epic Possession mong-out at one point) and Kenneth Anger in an attempt to boost his credentials. The director gets to blow his own trumpet on a commentary track and in a “bonus” interview. In another featurette entitled Shaman Of The Screen, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas assesses Noé’s career so far (plenty of XXX-rated career highlights in this one). Elsewhere, Alan Jones dissects the film’s soundtrack and suggests that it constitutes a concise history of late 20th Century Dance Music, for those that want one. Fine for those who do. I don’t, personally. There are obvious areas where Mr Jones’ artistic tastes coincide with my own but equally obviously, music is not one of them. Another bonus bit comprises interviews with thespians Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic and Souhelia Yacoub. Trailer, reversible sleeve, limited edition booklet, etc…

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“You got Hi, Ho Silver Lining, mate?” Gaspar Noé hits the decks…

Climax is allegedly based on a real life incident, but one has one’s doubts… I mean, how many of those warehouse parties and Hacienda nights, insufferable as they undoubtedly must have been, ended with a significant proportion of participating revellers being carried out in body bags? At least Noé records the whole sorry spectacle with cold, detached objectivity, resisting the temptation to render everything in cheesy POV tripovision, but ultimately this comes as small comfort.

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In case you haven’t already picked up on this, I really didn’t like Climax. In fact I’m really anti-Climax. That said, the sex, drugs and violence on display here, together with the inevitable tabloid hand wringing it will provoke, should ensure that enough units are shifted to contribute towards keeping  HMV ticking over for another month or two.

It’s no Murder-Rock, though…

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(*) The Harry “The Hipster” Gibson tune recorded by Slim And Slam, among others… now that’s what I call dance music.

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Truth With A Capital “T”? Luigi Bazzoni’s THE LADY OF THE LAKE, Released On Arrow Blu-ray As THE POSSESSED.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 12.

Successful novelist Bernardo Giovanni (Peter Baldwin from Freda’s The Spectre Of Dr Hichcock and Michele Lupo’s The Weekend Murders) winds up an unsatisfactory relationship and returns, out of season, to a hotel in the Alpine village where he grew up. Keen to rekindle an involvement with Tilde (Virna Lisi), a maid he encountered on his previous visit, he is shocked to learn that she has committed suicide and withdraws into obsessive musings about what happened to her, fuelled by gossip he picks up from local photographer Francesco (Pier Giovanni Anchisi) and his own observations of the outwardly respectable but seriously dysfunctional family who own and run the hotel… Enrico (Salvo Randone), his son Mario (Philippe Leroy), daughter Irma (Valentina Cortese) and clinically depressed daughter-in-law Adriana (Pia Lindström). Fuelled by a flu bug he picks up, Bernard’s memories, dreams, speculations and fantasies fuse in a fashion that causes the viewer to constantly question what they’re seeing. Just as you’re beginning to think that Bernard’s suspicions might be the product of an overheated imagination, Adriana drowns under mysterious circumstances… meanwhile, who is the mysterious lady whose presence haunts the lake?

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Made in 1965, a year after Mario Bava’s Sei Donne Per L’Assassino / Blood And Black Lace, La Donna Del Lago / The Possessed is as much ghost story as giallo (in the wide definition offered by Tim Lucas during his commentary track) or even proto-giallo (as suggested in Arrow’s publicity blurb), Luigi Bazzoni’s psychological thriller having more in common with Bergman or Borges than Bava. Although it’s generally accepted that he contributed very little to the film’s actual direction, Franco Rossellini (nephew to the great Roberto and future producer of several Pasolini efforts, also Caligula) is officially credited as co-director, the film is scored by his father Renzo and Pia Lindström, as Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, was of course related to the Rossellini family by marriage… things behind the camera on this one were nearly as incestuous as the familial relationships portrayed in it, inspired by Giovanni Comisso’s book documenting the notorious “Alleghe killings”. Giulio Questi (later the director of Django, Kill! and Death Laid An Egg) collaborated with Bazzoni and Rossellini on the screenplay, which can’t exactly have detracted from the overall quirkiness of the proceedings, then again Bazzoni rendered similarly surreal psychological malaise without Questi’s collaboration in Footprints On The Moon (1975) and even his straight(ish) giallo The Fifth Cord (1971) plays out as an existential crisis suffered by its protagonist / chief murder suspect Franco Nero.

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The Lady Of The Lake occupies the crucially important but critically under-explored hinterland between Italian Arthouse Cinema and the B Movie tradition that underwrote it. Bazzoni and his closest circle of collaborators never made it into the august company of erstwhile associates Pasolini, Bertolucci, Antonioni et al, nor did they ever descend to the lowest common denominators of Italian genre cinema. The dynamic between these cinematic demi-mondes is incarnated here by the presence of Francesco Barilli, reminiscing about his friends and collaborators the Bazzoni brothers, Luigi and Camillo, throwing in random bits of tittle-tattle as he goes (“Steve Reeves was rumoured to have a very small cock”). Having played the protagonist of Bertolucci’s Before The Revolution in 1964, Barilli went on to write Aldo Lado’s memorable giallo Who Saw Her Die and Umberto Lenzi’s seminal Deep River Savages (both 1972) before directing his own unforgettable, indefinable oddity Perfume Of The Lady In Black (1974).

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Arrow’s 2K restoration from the original b/w camera negative does ample justice to the beautiful b/w cinematography of Leonida Barboni (Enzo’s big brother), whose camera team included the up and coming Sergio Salvati (subsequently to pull off so many lighting miracles for Lucio Fulci). Bonus materials include a video appreciation by cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer, who identifies the film’s central thesis as “the monstrosity of The Family in Italian life”. Interviews with assistant art director Dante Ferretti and make-up FX ace  Giannetto De Rossi are highly watchable but neither of them touches upon The Lady In The Lake to any great extent. De Rossi’s is particularly entertaining. During it he identifies the personal attributes that smoothed his career trajectory (“My deep voice, my big eyebrows and my assassin look! That’s why people feared me. Everyone behaved when I was around”), recalls a run in with Anne Parillaud and confirms that it was his hand pushing Olga Karlatos’s head towards its celebrated intersection with a splinter in Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. You also get some trailers and then there’s the stuff I never get to see, including a reversible sleeve that features original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips and – in this edition’s first pressing only – an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich and Roberto Curti, plus reproductions of contemporary reviews.

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Lucas’s commentary track is every bit as informative and insightful as you’d expect. Bonus points for twice referring to Pasolini’s Jesus biopic by its correct title, The Gospel According To Mathew. Deduct one point for subsequently misidentifying it as “The Gospel According To Saint Mathew”. TL makes much of TLOTL’s sliding perspectives and the difficulty of arriving at Truth with a Capital “T”, a point nicely underlined by the fact that his interpretation of the story’s resolution deviates markedly from my own. I think he watched it with Italian dialogue and English subtitles (as you might well care to, this option reducing as it does the on-the-nose portentousness of Bernardo’s introspective musings) while I oped for the English dubbing. Try running the English language version with English subtitles, which also throws up some significant discrepancies. An already substantial plot thickens…

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Figures like Questi, Barilli and the Bazzoni brothers represent a significant but long concealed stratum of Italian Cinema, further illumination of which is long overdue. Arrow’s new edition of La Donna Del Lago constitutes a solid step in that direction.

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Here Comes The Mirror Man… Cocteau’s ORPHÉE On BFI Blu-ray.

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BD. BFI. Region B. PG.

Despite (or perhaps on account of) his celebrity status (really?) as a feted poet, Orphée (Jean Marais) is fated to a discontented and moody existence, devoting more time to his poetry than to his devoted wife Eurydice (Marie Déa). His eye is taken, though, by another young poet, the dissolute Jacques Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe) who has barely enough time to register his degenerate credentials before he’s run over by black clad bikers (archetypal emissaries of Death who will recur in films as diverse as those of Kenneth Anger, Freddie Francis’s Tales From The Crypt, Anthony Balch’s Horror Hospital, 1973 and Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, among others).

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Orphée is roped into a phoney attempt to save Cégeste by the black presence of Death herself (Maria Casares) with whom, as a moody artist, he naturally develops an obsession (a mutually felt one, as it happens). Increasingly preoccupied with deciphering cryptic radio messages that are apparently broadcast from The Beyond, he neglects Eurydice even further, until she is felled by those bikers and carried off to Hades. Under the guidance of Death’s ambiguous chauffeur / PA Heurtebise (François Périer), Orpée passes through the looking-glass into The Underword (cue can-can music…)

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Stating his case to a tribunal of judges who appear to be Death’s employers, Orphée reclaims his bride, with the proviso that if he ever looks at her, he will lose her again. After some comic bits concerning the convoluted domestic arrangements entailed by this, the inevitable happens, but Heurtebise puts an additional spin on the original Greek legend (which might well have influenced Mario Puzo when coming up with the climax of Superman II, 1980). Heurtebise  and Death (compliant in this reversal of the ordained order of things) are led off to their punishment by the bikers and Orphée is permanently reunited and reconciled with Eurydice in marital bliss…

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Jean Cocteau was, among other things (many, many other things) a gay film maker. Having taken the opportunity afforded, by this characteristically lush BFI restoration, to re-watch his spell-binding Orphee (1950), I was left wondering about the distinction between a gay man directing a film and a man directing (if indeed there is such a thing) a gay film. In one of the supporting extras on this disc, John Maybury director of Love is the Devil and The Edge of Love argues that as homosexuals don’t have children (not necessarily true, these days), the works of artists such as Cocteau constitute part of the “Queer Family Tree”.  Cocteau, however, was working in an era whose prevailing mores obliged him to be more reticent about revealing his orientation than might be the case in present day France and as such the choice of Orpheus, a figure of multifarious mythic manifestations, was a particularly useful one from which to take an oblique tack…

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Orpheus doesn’t appear in Hesiod’s seminal Theogony but in Virgil’s classic telling of the tale, his poetic mastery of the lyre and the beauty of his singing voice wins over animals, plants and yes, inanimate objects. Simonides adds that he even managed to charm Charon, Cerberus and Pluto into surrendering Eurydice, back to the land of the living, though his regard for her does not extend to complying with the instructions that will prolong her revival. In Cocteau’s film, moreover, Orphée makes a similar journey through The Zone in search of the handsome young poet Jacques. Apollonius of Rhodes tells us that Orpheus played his lyre for Jason to neutralise the feminine lure of the Sirens’ song and one version of his death, as recounted by Ovid, is that he was torn apart by female celebrants of the Dionysian rites, enraged by his renunciation of the love of  women for that of young men. In Cocteau’s film Juliet Greco (below, with the director) plays Aglaonice (a name associated with witchcraft in Greek mythology), who stirs up the local rabble against Orphée under suspicion that he has plagiarised the work of Cégeste and might have something to do with his disappearance. Perhaps the implication is that he has in some other way “outraged” Cégeste?

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Developing the theme of his 1932 short Le Sang D’un Poète, Cocteau presents the otherness of The Poet / “Artistic Type” as virtually interchangeable with that of the homosexual, to the point where “poetical” becomes as much of a euphemism as “earnest” or, indeed, “gay”. As for that happy hetero ending… well, I’m not old enough to have any way of knowing how that went over at initial screenings of Orphée, but I do remember reports of riots breaking out in cinemas during screenings of Nancy Walker’s Can’t Stop The Music (1980) when allusions were made in it to The Village People having girlfriends!

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Apart from the aforementioned extra, you get an audio commentary, courtesy of Roland-François Lack and interviews with such Cocteau associates and collaborators as Jean Pierre Mocky, Pierre Bergé and Dominique Marny. Cocteau’s AD Claude Pinoteau discusses the director’s many ingenious, in-camera effects in the featurette Jean Cocteau And His Tricks, which deploys many of those itself. La Villa Santo-Sospir is a 1951 short directed by Cocteau, revealing the walls he “tattooed” for a friend’s villa on the Côte d’Azur. Plus original and re-release trailer, reversible sleeve with new artwork by Edward Kinsella and fully illustrated booklet containing an essay by Ginette Vincendeau, an interview with Jean Cocteau from 1950 and much else.

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Despite Cocteau’s up and down relationship with Andre Breton and co, this is sheer Surrealism (no doubt informed by the copious amounts of opium that JC was imbibing at the time) of the kind that David Lynch could never begin to approach with his meretricious wannabe outpourings (Peter Gabriel came considerably closer with his whole Lamb Lies Down On Broadway concept).

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As for that distinction between “film made by gay man” Vs “Gay Film”… well,  check out the rumble at the Café des Poètes, just before Cégeste gets run over and note the pale youth who keeps withdrawing from the fray to arrange his lank locks. Orphée is A Gay Film and gloriously so.

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