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Old geezer, learning to embrace and enjoy oldgeezerhood. "... and I looked and I saw... that it was GOOD!"

Lift To The Scaffold… HITCH HIKE TO HELL Reviewed.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

Once again, Arrow take us on a thumb-tripping detour down the dangerous backroads of indie American scuzz Cinema with a cautionary tale torn from contemporary (*) headlines which moralises mealey-mouthedly while wasting no opportunity to cash in on the dishonourable ’70s tradition of serial killing.
(* Nobody seems too confident about pinning a date on this one).

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Howard (Robert Gribbin) is a total schmendrick who lives with his Mom and works as a dry cleaning delivery man. The edgiest thing he ever seems to do is drinking root beer (have any of our readers ever actually tried that stuff? Yeuch!) while working on his hobby, putting together model cars. Nobody knows about his other hobby, though… raping and strangling hitch hiking runaways. It’s strongly suggested in John Buckley’s screenplay that Howie himself is not too aware of this regrettable sideline, going into some kind of spazzed-out fugue state as soon as his victims start expressing dissatisfaction with their home life or dissing their own Moms (contented homebodies just get a free ride to wherever they’re going). Apparently Howie’s domineering mother was upset when his sister Judy hitch hiked out of their lives. “I’m going to do Mama a favour, you tramp” he rails as he rapes the hapless hikers and throttles them with wire coat hangers: “You ran away from Mama… I’m going to do something to you, Judy… punish you for all you did to Mama” he continues, over their limp protests that they’re not bloody Judy! One victim was even amenable (to the sex, if not the strangling) on the time honoured principle of “a ride for a ride” (despite observing, harshly but fairly, that Howie’s “no Burt Reynolds”). The little trollop had it coming, just like Mom says.

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Whaddya mean, I put too much starch in it?!?

Bit careless though, to use the coat hangers with which his delivery van is littered…. that’s the bright red “Baldwin Cleaners” van, which must be so inconspicuous when picking up the girls. Careless also of Howie to leave his milk bottle glasses at one of the crime scenes. Then again, he doesn’t even know he’s doing this, does he? And anyway, the investigating officer Captain Shaw (Russell Johnson… yes, “The Professor” from Gilligan’s Island) is completely clueless, so Howie’s reign of terror continues. He extends his murderous attentions to a young guy who’s left home due to his parents’ disapproval of his sexual preferences and a cute little girl (though it’s not made clear whether either of those are sexually assaulted) before finally winding up confined to a booby hatch (looks like the good folks of Crescent City will to find somebody else to clean their baldwins). “Spazzed-out fugue state”, my ass… somebody strap this guy into the nearest electric chair!

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The final shots of Howie wearing a strait jacket in a rubber room, babbling about his Mom, are obviously intended to underscore the purported Norman Bates parallels, as is so often the case in these things, though Robert Gribbin’s Howard reminded me of nobody so much as Dan Grimaldi’s disco-dancing pyromaniac  in Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go In The House (1979). While we’re admonishing people not to do stuff, Gribbin’s other notable credit (under the highly apposite nom de screen “Crackers Phinn”) was Gar aka Mark, the time travelling cannibal caveman in Lawrence D. Foldes’ truly jaw dropping “video nasty” Don’t Go Near The Park (1979). No doubt if HHTH had been released on VHS back in the day, it would have joined that one on the DPP’s proscribed list. Whatever, it was picked up for US distribution by Harry Novak, so you should know pretty much  what to expect…

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The main feature and its trailer are presented in two optional screen ratios (1.33 and 1.78). Extras wise, Stephen Thrower does a characteristically engaging job profiling the prolific, promiscuous career of director Irvin Berwick, whose stint with Sci-fi legend Jack Arnold inspired one of the most memorable Creature From The Black Lagoon knock-offs, his The Monster Of Piedras Blancas in 1959. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas narrates a new visual essay on the darker aspects of hitch-hiking culture on the screen and in real life.

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This never happened to Jack Kerouac…

Country singer Nancy Adams talks about recording the title song for a film which is clearly not her cup of tea (“I don’t want that sort of thing in our house”) and we are treated to an incongruous mash-up of the picture’s opening visuals and the original version of that number, then entitled “Lovin’ On My Mind”. Adams gives one of the name droppiest interviews ever but, to be fair, she has had a long and interesting career.

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If you’ve got a BD capable PC or Mac you’ll be able to access the original press book and the reversible sleeve will feature original and newly commissioned artwork by those Twins of Evil guys. The first pressing only will contain a collector’s booklet featuring Heather Drain’s appraisal of this torrid trash effort. Enjoy.

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When Italian FX Aces Turn Director… WAX MASK / KILLER CROCODILE 1 & 2 Reviewed.

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Wax Mask. BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.
Killer Crocodile / Killer Crocodile 2. BD. Severin. Region A. Unrated.

By the early 1980s Italy ruled the ‘B’ movie waves, churning out over three hundred titles per year to fuel an insatiable international appetite for horror, action and exploitation all’Italiana… a Roman empire the extent of which Trajan himself could scarcely have dreamed. By the end of that decade, however, the Italian film landscape was as bleak as any depicted in the post-Apocalyptic epics that constituted its final filone

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It doesn’t take an Edward Gibbon to trace the causes of this spectacular fall from grace. Tightening censorship in key European markets meant that enevelope-pushing outrages like Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper (1982) were now out of the question. Along with the consequent blanding out of Italian genre efforts, there was increased leisure buck competition from the deregulation of domestic TV under Silvio Berlusconi and increasing incursions into exploitive subject matter by the US Majors whose budgets Spaghetti exploitation mavens could never hope to match.  Dardano Sacchetti, who wrote more films than anybody else during the industry’s most lucrative years, identifies the short-term thinking and profit-taking priorities of Italian producers as a crucially detrimental factor. If they’d invested instead of constantly cutting budgets, by this account, pasta paura could have become as big a deal as the spaghetti western… and Sacchetti didn’t shy away from identifying the poster boy for this myopic modus operandi as Fabrizio De Angelis, for whom he and Lucio Fulci collaborated on several low budget classics in the late ’70s, early ’80s. “De Angelis was an amiable man but a terrible producer, always ready to sacrifice even the best things about a movie just to save a few bucks”, Sacchetti told me. “He’s a cheap-skate…” chipped in Fred Williamson, alluding to FDA’s later tactic of ditching seasoned pro directors like Fulci and Enzo Castellari to direct his own pictures (as “Larry Ludman”):  “…. it has nothing to do with creativity. He doesn’t want to pay people to do something he thinks he can do, but that doesn’t mean he can do it well“. When I interviewed De Angelis, he defended himself from such charges as follows: “I’ve always given other directors bigger budgets than I give myself. I pay as much as anybody else and many of the people who complained came back to work for me again, so I can’t be that bad”.

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Sure enough, Sacchetti was back on board (as “David Parker Jr”) to co-write Killer Crocodile (1989)… not that it took much writing, emerging as a transposition of a certain Stephen Spielberg film (and ultimately Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, if you want to get pedantic about it) from Amity Island to the swamps of the Dominican Republic. Just in case anybody missed the Jaws allusions (or the fact that this whole film is one big Jaws allusion), Riz Ortolani’s score reverberates with all the obvious John Williams pinches.

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Environmentalist Kevin (Anthony… son of Richard… Crenna) and his crew discover that the Dominican waterways are clogged with something way worse than plastic bags and bottles. Irresponsible radioactive dumping, facilitated by a corrupt local Judge (Hollywood heavyweight Van Johnson in one of his final screen credits) has produced the eponymous super-sized saurian, impressively rendered (when you consider the likely budget) by Italy’s FX supremo Giannetto De Rossi, despite his words to the contrary (“It’s a laughing stock!”) in one of the bonus featurettes on this set. Editor Vincenzo Tomassi completes a quartet of holdovers from the gory, glory days of Lucio Fulci.

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With all that talent on hand and everything De Angelis had osmosed from his proximity to the likes of Fulci and Castellari (whose brother Enio Girolami steals the show as Captain Ahab-like crocodile hunter Joe), it’s no surprise that Killer Crocodile emerges as an efficient, satisfying piece of throwaway entertainment, smoothly shot by Federico Del Zoppo in the American TV movie style that was becoming increasingly prevalent at this time. If all that sounds a bit too blandly slick for your tastes, rest assured (and here comes the SPOILER ALERT!) that De Angelis winds things up (things notably including the title creature’s leathery ol’ head) with a revival of the classic “outboard motor” gag from Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (1980), another picture he produced back in the golden age… but what kind of egg is that hatching on the banks of the bayou?

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Laser focussed on the bottom line, FDA arranged the simultaneous shooting of Killer Crocodile 2 (1990) and detailed its direction to Giannetto De Rossi. History doesn’t record whether he was instructed to “make it snappy” but presumably De Rossi got the job on the grounds that he could be paid even less than the producer would pay “Larry Ludman”! Otherwise the crew’s pretty much the same (Giovanni Bergamini replaces Del Zoppo as DP) and so is the story. Corrupt corporate types are still dumping radioactive waste in that river, still with the connivance of scumbag politicians, one of whom is planning to open a leisure complex on a particularly hideously polluted stretch. Investigative journalist Liza (“Debra Karr”, would you believe?) is on the case but it’s not a particularly compelling one. Looks like they didn’t shoot enough footage of the crocodile to fall back on before it was definitively destroyed at the end of Part 1. There’s a great bit where it crashes through the side of a hut to snack on some low level bad dudes but such moments are few and far between. De Rossi is obliged to pad things out with a bunch of flashbacks to the original’s “greatest hits” and mucho over-baked exposition, though admittedly Ms Karr does look distractingly good, wandering around the jungle in a wet sports bra after her guide tried to rape her and was promptly eaten by the croc. Kevin and Joe arrive halfway through the picture to try and rescue her but blink and you’ll miss Joe. Having delivered the brazen line: “We’ve got to get a bigger boat”, Kevin is left to contrive the coup de gras, in the absence of any handy outboard motors, via a fistful of dynamite.

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Killer Crocodile 2 doesn’t really live up to its predecessor (how many sequels do?) but I was glad to be reacquainted with this brace, my VHS copies of which (sourced from German satellite channels) disappeared many moons ago down the ravenous collecting maw of leathery old Darrell Buxton. Severin present the films with their customary panache and  a slew of of tasty extras, notably Naomi Holwill’s fine feature length De Rossi doc The Prince Of Plasma, featuring contributions from the man himself, plus collaborators Luigi Cozzi, Massimo Vanni and Zombi 2 poster boy Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, also pundits Allan Bryce, Calum Waddell, Rachael Nisbet and Russ Hunter. In his standalone interview featurette, De Rossi is engagingly self deprecating regarding his work on these films. DP Federico Del Zoppo also has his say. The recollections of Anthony Crenna (now identifying as Richard Anthony Crenna) chime with those of many a non-Italian actor regarding his bemusement at being required to act sans direct sound and the virtually non-existent Health & Safety culture. Pietro Genuardi develops this theme further, claiming that a local drowned when operating the croc maquette underwater before detailing his own colourful experiences on location and attempting to return to Rome from it. You also get trailers and a few deleted sequences from the sequel. Nice.

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Wax Mask (1997), although it evolved into another (and rather more effective) FX-man-turned-director effort, was originally conceived as an attempt to revive the flagging Italian Horror tradition via another means, i.e. by assembling the dream team of Dario Argento (producing), Lucio Fulci (directing) and that man Sacchetti, writing (the latter has some very interesting things to say about the genesis of this project and the motivations behind it in our interview elsewhere on this blog). Of course Sacchetti was subsequently sacked (and replaced by Daniele Stroppa) when his proposed Mummy vehicle failed to find favour with Argento, whose enthusiasm for all things Gaston Leroux (below, left) at this point (which would attain its abysmal fruition in DA’s Phantom Of The Opera, 1997) re-routed the project in the direction of Leroux’s Waxwork Museum Mystery and its various cinematic offshoots. Tragically, after putting much work into that, Fulci died shortly before shooting was due to commence. Having been turned down by Fulci’s preferred successor, Claudio Fragasso (who collaborated with Lucio on the certifiably insane Zombi 3, 1988), Argento promoted long time FX man Sergio Stivaletti to make his directorial debut, resulting in the artefact under consideration here.

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Reflecting its convoluted origins, Wax Mask incorporates various strands of the Italian Horror / Thriller tradition, notably Gothic and Giallo, emerging as an attempt (no doubt Argento’s) to propel the two geriatric genres over the line into the 21st Century. Its action commences in Paris at the beginning of the 20th (“31st. December 1900” says the caption, but surely that’s a mistake?) where a little girl witnesses her parents being butchered by a masked figure with a robotic hand. Years later, two bravos partying in a Roman brothel strike a bet about whether one of them is brave enough to spend a night in a spooky wax museum (shades of Antonio Margheriti’s Danse Macabra). The designated dude duly dies of fright when confronted with a Medusa tableau. Was he the world’s biggest girl’s blouse or did something altogether more sinister occur? While we’re pondering that one, Sonia Lafont (Romina Mondello) turns up at the wax museum looking for a job and becomes obsessed with the contents of proprietor Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein)’s gloves. Turns out she was the little girl who survived the film’s brutal prologue… how sensitive of Volkoff, after taking her on, to open a new display which recreates that crime in suspiciously accurate detail. And why do the new wax figures always look so much like people who’ve recently disappeared from the streets?

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Wax Mask looks quite ravishing due in no small part, one imagines, to the participation of Fulci stalwarts Sergio Salvati (DP) and Massimo Antonello Geleng (production design). Maurizio Abeni’s lush music vindicates the decision to go with an orchestral score rather than Simonetti-style synth rock and the surround sound option on this disc will give your home cinema setup quite a workout. As you’d expect from a Stivaletti film (and with the sterling support of the ill-fated Benoit Lestang) the FX are pretty impressive and the director continues to explore the possibilities of CGI, which he’d first tackled in Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), not least with the startling eruption of a Terminator-like animated death’s head figure during the film’s denouement.

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The question inevitably arises (as it previously did with the likes of Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi) as to how much of the film Stivaletti actually directed, considering that Argento spent so much time on set (and apparently Hossein, a director in his own right, wasn’t exactly backwards in coming forward with advice). It’s a question that’s thoroughly addressed in this edition’s plentiful bonus materials, interviews with several of the creative principals throwing much light on Wax Mask’s protean progress from the drawing board to the screen and providing fascinating insights into the proverbial “personal and professional differences” with which the Italian film scene is freighted. Argento talks of how his attitude towards Fulci developed from mistrust into “love” and opines that if he had lived, Wax Mask secondo Fulci would have been “wild”.  Anyone who was puzzled by Alan Jones’s critical volte face on Fulci after the early ’80s will find Jones’s comments here interesting. We also get some clues as to what a Fulci-directed Wax Mask might have looked like and Stivaletti rues the stick he got from the ol’ Goremeister’s fans (and allegedly his daughter Antonella) for coming up with something different. Not, perhaps, the most reasonable of criticisms. There’s also a trio of “behind the scenes” featurettes that you might have seen on previous DVD editions. If not, all the better.

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Two interesting facts about Robert Hossein (above) emerge from the supplementary materials assembled here. Firstly, that he actually appeared in productions of Pigalle’s legendary Theatre Du Grand Guignol and also that he is (at least by Argento’s reckoning) a total fanny magnet! David Gregory moderates a commentary track from Stivaletti and his son Michelangelo, who’s there to help Dad out with his English and point out his own, intra-uterine film debut.

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I’d dispute Severin’s billing of Wax Mask as “the last great Italian gore film of the 20th Century” but it’s a consistently watchable and entertaining one and the compelling extras on this disc, constituting a revelatory delight for the cognoscenti of pasta paura, turn it into an indispensible purchase. My copy came with a bonus CD of Abeni’s OST.

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The two FX men-turned-directors are pictured below during their triumphant recent appearances at Manchester’s ever wonderful Festival Of Fantastic Films.

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Uh Oh, Chongo! It’s THE BANANA SPLITS MOVIE Next…

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DVD. Warner. Region 2. 18.

Now there’s a title that will baffle all but the most fossilised of our readers… as for the rest of you, try and imagine, if you can, a time without wall-to-wall children’s TV, when the biggest thing on your mind coming home from school was the new episode of Scooby Doo. Saturday mornings, meanwhile, offered the dubious delights of The Banana Splits…

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One day in 1967, Hanna-Barbera executives brainstormed a new kids show to be based loosely around the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In format. So far so good, but this was 1967 after all… who can guess what psychoactive substances had been slipped into the water cooler and what havoc they wrought on the neural networks of the participants as they fleshed out this promising premise to encompass a pop group comprising guys in furry mutant animal suits, apparently living in a basement that is besieged by little girls playing mariachi music and malevolent pre-teen go-go dancers? All sounds well dodgy now, but perhaps the tripping executives reasoned that such outré ingredients would distract from the utter lameness of the episodic cartoon series buried in the mix, the stiffest stuff ever to emerge under the esteemed H-B banner… I’m talking The Arabian Knights, The Three Musketeers and the justifiably short lived Micro Ventures (honourable mention though for the live action cliff-hanging effort Danger Island, starring a young Jean-Michael Vincent and featuring Kim Kahana as Chongo)… this  whole mess served up to the accompaniment of moronic bubble gum pop, corny sound effects and incessant canned laughter. Like it says in the song… lots of fun for everyone! So how come Scooby Doo remains an institution (regularly repeated / rebooted and now celebrating its first half Century) while The Banana Splits have ridden a Banana Bluggy to oblivion since the final episodes were shot in 1970? Perhaps Danishka Esterhazy’s 2019 feature can throw some light on what happened…

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… perhaps not. The Banana Splits Movie unfolds in a parallel universe where, according to writers Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas (who quite possibly  imbibed from that same water cooler), The Banana Splits Adventure Hour (to give the show its full original title) continued its run successfully into the present day. Of course this has necessitated a few tweaks along the way. The program is now shot in South Africa (no reason why not, I guess) and the cartoons, Chongo and co, those mariachi moppets and The Sour Grapes Bunch (who at least get a name check) have been expunged from the format in favour of an audience participation game show. Most radically, The Splits themselves (joined here by a human co-presenter named Stevie) are now animatronic creations rather than guys in flea bitten furry costumes, hard wired to fulfil their primary directive “the show must go on”.

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When spiteful Stevie breaks it to the ‘Nanas that an obnoxious new executive is cancelling the show, they go totally Westworld on his ass and those of all the other adults in the studio audience. The kids are chained to their seats and obliged to watch a procession of grown ups whom we’ve been egged on to dislike (of whom there are no shortage) being dispatched in inventive, Grand Guignol fashion. One guy has a lollipop rammed down his throat, another’s face is burned off with an improvised flamethrower, yet another is torn limb from limb on a wheel of fortune and the ol’ “saw the dude in half” routine takes a distinctly literal turn… fun for everyone, indeed!

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Needless to say, some partypooping do gooders ultimately put a stop to the Splits’ splatterfest but they’re murderous cyborgs so maybe, you know, they’ll be back. In the bonus featurette The Banana Splits: Behind The Horror various cast and crew members recall what a great laugh they had making the picture. Director Esterhazy does her best to convince us that it only expands on the inherent creepiness of the original characters. Really? Never mind, TBSM helped 90 minutes or so to pass in undemandingly enjoyable style and now that I’ve watched it I’ll put it right there on the shelf next to Zombeavers, so I’ll know where to find it in the extremely unlikely event that I’ll ever want to watch it again.

Whatever next? The Phantom Flan Flinger turns to serial killing? Or maybe…

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No Lon, No Lucio… MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES Reviewed

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“A man only shows his true face when he is on the lavatory or on his deathbed”… Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

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BD. Arrow Academy. Region B. PG.

I know, I know, that title is a gross oversimplification… but there’s a lot of gross stuff on this blog and we’ve never knowingly let factual niceties get in the way of a snappy headline. Suffice to say, although Lucio Fulci had already compiled an impressive CV by 1979, the director would be remembered very differently today had he not been called upon to outdo Tom Savini’s gory handiwork in George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (1978), which he did (with the sterling assistance of Giannetto de Rossi) in Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)… and Savini, by his own admission, would never have embarked upon his illustrious career in make up FX  (the same is allegedly true for Dick Smith and Rick Baker) but for a youthful viewing of the picture under consideration here, directed by Joseph Pevney in 1957.

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In “Hollywood’s Jubilee Year”, Universal deemed it fitting to make a biopic of one of the silent era’s greatest stars (in one of the bonus featurettes on this disc, Kim Newman reminds us that Lon Chaney was right up there with Charlie Chaplin), casting the scarcely less stellar and virtually as versatile James Cagney to play him. It goes without saying that Cagney gives a characteristically committed and nuanced performance, but much has been made of the difficulties posed for the film’s principal writers, Ralph Wheelwright and R. Wright Campbell, by Chaney’s supposed secretiveness (publicists had dubbed him “the Man of Mystery” before the “Thousand Faces” gag stuck). The received wisdom is that this obliged them to fabricate much of the film’s narrative  but in fact the salient details of Cheney’s biography were well known (and in at least one respect, notorious) and apart from one contentious passage, the film takes only minor liberties for dramatic impact. Nor does it skirt around the notorious bits.

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The invention of movie make up.

Leonidas Frank Chaney was born on April Fool’s Day 1883, to deaf parents. Obliged to converse with them via sign language, he developed pantomime skills that he successfully parlayed into a Vaudeville career that lasted from 1902 to 1913. On April  30th that year, backstage (not on stage, as depicted in Pevney’s picture) at the Majestic Theatre, LA, his estranged wife, the former Francis Cleveland Creighton (aka “Cleva”), drank a bottle of mercuric chloride in an apparent suicide attempt that only succeeded in wrecking her vocal chords and ending her singing career. Lon’s own theatre run was terminated by the scandal over this incident and the subsequent divorce, prompting him to try his luck in Hollywood’s nascent motion picture industry, where his work ethic, versatility and mastery of screen make up (a discipline he effectively invented) rapidly propelled him to stardom, notably for our purposes in such genre milestones as Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923), Rupert Julian’s The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) and such Todd Browning classics as The Unholy Three (1925) and his 1927 brace, The Unknown (the obvious template for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre, 1989) and the now lost London After Midnight.

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Pevney, subsequently a prolific TV director, convincingly ascribes Chaney’s driven and seemingly masochistic (in terms of the prosthetic discomforts he was prepared to endure) approach to his career to a desire for financial security that would enable him to take custody of his son Creighton, the future Lon Chaney Jr. of Wolf Man fame. His success in this endeavour was assisted by his subsequent marriage to Hazel Hastings. Chaney completed his first talky, Jack Conway’s remake of The Unholy Three, before succumbing to throat cancer in 1930. Hollywood legend has it that had Lon lived, he rather than Bela Lugosi, would have played The Count  in Tod Browning’s Dracula the following year…

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… it’s a life story rich in pathos and irony, of which Pevney and his screen writers take full advantage. It seems reasonable to connect Chaney’s sympathetic portrayal of monstrous outsiders with the prejudice he and his parents faced. The film’s one jarring misstep (useful in terms of melodrama but unforgivable in a biopic) is the truly cringe-inducing (and completely fictitious) scene in which Cleva (Dorothy Malone) is presented to her in-laws and disgustedly rejects them. A more accurate account of the breakdown in the Chaneys’ marriage would include her youth, insecurity and incipient alcoholism. Malone’s Cleva fears that her son Creighton will be born a deaf mute but the real life Lon Jr’s most disadvantageous inheritance from his parents turned out to be his mother’s drink problem.

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The other significant bone I’d pick with this picture is that Chaney’s principal collaborator (and fellow former vaudevillian) Tod Browning remains conspicuous by his absence throughout, while we see rather too much of Universal / MGM nabob Irving Thalberg, as portrayed by former sports wear executive / future movie mogul Robert Evans. If you’re unaware of the bizarre circumstances surrounding Evans’ acting debut, Tim “Man Of A Hundred Commentary Tracks” Lucas will put you wise. Characteristically erudite stuff from Mr Watchdog but hey, Tim… maybe less of the vocal impressions next time, huh?

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Mary Philbin, Lon Chaney in Phantom Of The Opera, 1925.

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Nancy Kilgas, James Cagney in Man Of A Thousand Faces, 1957.

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Lon Chaney, 1883-1930

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When Dow Chemicals Steered The Stars … Milos Forman’s HAIR Reviewed.

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Dance, you fucking hippies, dance!

BD / DVD Dual Format. Regions B / 2. BFI. 15.

Naive Okie Claude (John Savage) is invited to Vietnam by Uncle Sam and before reporting to his draft board in NYC (maybe I’m… er, nit-picking but didn’t they have any draft boards in Oklahoma?) he decides to take in a few of The Big Apple’s sights. In Central Park he is confronted by various designer hippies doing elaborate dance routines, drawn into the picaresque antics of Berger (Treat Williams) and his drop out mates, but most distracted of all by rebellious deb Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo)’s impressive booty as it bounces imperiously up and down on horseback. An acid-fuelled, production number enhanced odyssey through late ’60s America’s class / racial / sexual / political / cultural divides ensues, en route to a bittersweet, allegedly uplifting and highly improbable conclusion…

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Combing through this 40th Anniversary edition of Milos Forman’s 1979 film adaptation of “The American Tribal Love Rock Musical” unfolds a kaleidoscope of interrelated  questions, over and above its own intrinsic worth as a piece of entertainment or Art. Notably, how faithful (in the era of My Sharona and Reaganomics) was it to the original stage vision of Gerome Ragni / James Rado (book and lyrics, pictured above) and Galt MacDermot (music), as brought to the New York stage 12 years earlier? How well did that original reflect the turbulent times on which it aspired to comment? And how much progress has subsequently been made in the social issues addressed by Hair?

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Ragni and Ragno themselves decried the film’s radical narrative departures but something had to give in the transposition of their freewheeling storyline from stage to screen, somebody had to do it and  screenwriter Michael Weller manages an acceptable job of it. Czech emigré Forman (directing his cast in Central Park, above) had established his countercultural credentials with his landmark 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and would continue to embellish them in the likes of The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996). He’s comfortable here (with significant assists from choreographer Twyla Tharp) extracting an eminently watchable movie from a musical that’s always gotten by on one sublime number (you know the one I mean), a couple of OK tunes and several disposable duds. Personally, I’d always continue to hold Milos Forman in high esteem if the only stuff he’d ever committed to celluloid had been Elizabeth McGovern’s nude scenes in Ragtime (1981)…

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… I know, how very sexist of me, but completely in keeping with this cinematic incarnation of Hair. D’Angelo’s character is subjected to various unsolicited fumblings and sexual humiliations throughout the course of the film, all of which she accepts without protest. This is by no means the full extent of the political incorrectness here. Apparent attempts at Civil Rights statements invariably degenerate into wince-inducing racial stereotypes (I mean: “Black boys are delicious… chocolate flavoured love”? Puleeze!) Most jarringly of all, there’s a line in one song earnestly enquiring why “pederasty” is considered “nasty”! They don’t write ’em like that in 2019 and it’s probably just as well. What of the stage play’s commentary on the industrial degradation of our environment (a subject which now seem more pertinent than ever)? Well, all of that has gone conspicuously AWOL from the film, in which Dow Chemicals was allegedly a prominent investor. You don’t need a degree in Chemistry to work out that equation…

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The BFI’s characteristically generous compliment of bonus materials include a brace of psychedelic amalgamations of animation and music, reminiscent of the stuff that used to appear on early ’70s editions of The Old Grey Whistle Test, Anthony Stern’s award-winning 1968 impressionistic documentary short San Francisco (whose seizure-inducing visuals are accompanied by a very early version of The Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive which makes explicit the debt owed by Barrett and co to Love’s reading of the Bacharach – David standard My Little Red Book) and an NFT audio interview with legendary director Nicholas Ray, who appears as a General in Forman’s film. If you shell out for the first pressing of this release you’ll also be getting a fully illustrated booklet with new essays on the film and its director and an interview with screenwriter Michael Weller. My favourite extra on this set though has to be Oscar Riesel’s 1979 short (i.e. 24 minute) Disco mania, a succession of disco footage in (vain) search of a plot, showcasing the terpsichorean and thespian talents of the dynamic former world disco dancing champion Grant Santino. Hope you enjoy Grant’s performance of disco classic Dance Reaction (below) as much as I do…

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The Poughkeepsie Shuffle, Reshuffled. BADGE 373 Reviewed.

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Sonny Grosso (l), Eddie Egan (r).

BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

In 1962, New York cops Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan masterminded a massive drugs bust, seizing a (then) record haul of 112lbs of heroin. How they got it was chronicled in a 1969 book by Robin Moore, entitled The French Connection. William Friedkin read the book and was very impressed, especially with the maverick figure cut by Egan, reimagined as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and played by Gene Hackman in the subsequent Academy Award winning film of the same title (1971). Egan himself played “Doyle”s superior officer and there was also a small role for Grosso. Both were credited as technical advisors and, obviously feeling that films about cops walking the mean streets of NYC were a cushier career option than actually walking them, proceeded to advise on / appear in several subsequent movies. Grosso took a small part in the following year’s Ocar winner, The Godfather, as one of the guys who assassinates Sonny Corleone (alongside Randy Jürgensen, another former cop who followed a similar career trajectory, clocking up roles in The French Connection, Friedkin’s Cruising with Grosso again,  Philip D’Antoni’s The Seven-Ups and the film under consideration here).

158_BADGE_373_BD_2D_packshot_72dpi_1000px_transp_720x.pngHoward W. Koch’s Badge 373 is another highly fictionalised account of Eddie Egan’s “exploits” (as they are styled in his writing credit). This time Robert Duvall plays the Egan character (“Eddie Ryan“) and Egan himself plays his boss Scanlon, who spends most of his time trying, in vain, to get Ryan to toe the line. Ooh, the irony…

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We first make Ryan’s acquaintance during an attempted sting at a Puerto Rican night spot, where he pursues a runaway suspect to the roof, only for the latter to fall to his death. Ryan is is handed a disciplinary suspension but when his partner is bumped off while continuing their investigations into hispanic crime lord Sweet William (Henry Darrow), Ryan disregards Scanlon’s order to stay on the sidelines and goes after his man. Among many other scrapes, this involves him in an epic vehicular chase that is clearly intended to invoke the one in The French Connection but with the twist of Ryan driving a commandeered bus. At the end of this sequence the bad guys make a point of smashing his gun hand after which he pushes himself, Django-style, in preparation for the ultimate showdown with Sweet William (who’s shipping guns to a projected armed uprising in Puerto Rico), a showdown given added urgency after Ryan’s girlfriend Maureen (Verna Bloom) has also been offed.

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Pete Hamill’s screenplay doesn’t do Egan any favours, making no bones about his casual racism. At the same time, the hispanic characters and their daily struggles are sympathetically presented and although Sweet William (below) is a palpable bastard, he gets a final soliloquy in which he rails about the white “justice” system that turned him into one, making some valid points that Ryan can only answer with bullets. J. J. Jackson’s smoky salza score compliments DP Arthur Ornitz’s sweeping Manhattan vistas beautifully.

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Indicators limited (to 3,000 copies) edition UK Blu-ray Premiere comes with a 36 page collectors’ booklet, trailers, TV and radio spots and image galleries. In the featurette Welcome to Fear City, Randy Jürgensen remembers the life and career of Eddie Egan and discusses their experiences in the film industry. In Lethal Enforcers, film critic Glenn Kenny contributes a useful guide to the American maverick cop genre of the ’70s, which I found particularly enjoyable when combined in a double bill with Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime! documentary.

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Close Encounters Of The Lethal Kind… BLOOD AND FLESH: THE REEL LIFE AND GHASTLY DEATH OF AL ADAMSON Reviewed.

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“We never set out to make a bad film…” Al Adamson, 1929-1995.

Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death Of Al Adamson (USA, 2019). Directed by David Gregory.

The Severin gang have been making film documentaries since Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth in 2000 and will have clocked up well over 200 of them by the end of their second decade. You’d think they’d be getting good at it by now… and you’d be right. Widely acknowledged as the finest Sev offering yet, this feature length effort has also been touted as the Al Adamson documentary for people that don’t like Al Adamson movies”. Which only begs the question: “What kind of humourless git wouldn’t like an Al Adamson movie?!?”

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“What other director worked with Colonel Sanders, Charles Manson, bikers… and porn people?” asks Michael “Psychotronic” Weldon in the course of this loving tribute to the late, great Al. He neglected to mention Al’s DPs Vilmos Zsigmond (who took the Oscar for Close Encounters in 1977), László Kovács (who never lifted one but shot Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Ghostbusters) and Gary Graver (below, right, with Al and Angelo Rossitto) who at one point was working simultaneosly for Adamson and Orson Welles and allegedly later handled the second unit work on Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).

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“You could be sure there were gonna be midgets, lots of breasts, blood and gore, all sorts of fun people and strange things going on”, attests actor / stuntman Gary Kent and if that hasn’t piqued your interest, you’re probably reading the wrong blog. The sheer craziness of Adamson’s films, which include ersatz Spaghetti Westerns, faux Filipino Horrors, bogus Blacksploitation epics, brawling bikers, maniacal monster mash-ups, sexy stewardesses and UFO exposés (all delivered in accordance with Al’s keynote philosophy: “We’re not aiming for academy awards when we shoot pictures, we’re aiming to entertain the audience”), was only matched and ultimately eclipsed by the bizzare facts of the director’s life (and desperately sad death), all told here via archive interviews with the man himself, police footage, film clips, some seriously slick, smart ass graphics and the testimonials of his surviving closest collaborators, family members, friends and fans.

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Al’s father Victor was a for real Antipodean cowboy who made an Ozzie Western (Stockman Joe) in 1910 before emigrating to the States and continuing to ply his trade as actor, director and producer under his favoured “Denver Dixon” alias. He turned down an approach from Universal to pursue a true auteurist path, even handling the distribution of his own pictures. It is said that Al Adamson was conceived during the shooting of one such, The Old Oregon Trail.  Al didn’t want to be a cowboy. Or a director. He wanted to be a song and dance man. When his two left feet put paid to that, “Denver” financed and directed Al’s first starring vehicle Halfway To Hell, only for Adamson Jr to kick him of the picture and complete it himself. It would seem that these two had a bit of a Brian / Murray Wilson relationship going on.

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After Halfway To Hell registered zero interest at the box office, Al was was running a night club in the San Fernando valley and managing singer Tacey Robbins, one of the many muses who motivated most of his career moves. Encouraged by Sam Sherman, ultimately his partner in Independent-International Pictures (“They were like the dream team of tits and terror movie” offers one associate), Al gave it another shot with heist saga Echoes Of Terror. When that one tanked too, Al recut it with go-go dancing footage to come up with Psycho A Go-Go which, in its turn, tanked. Another bunch of radical reshoots ensued and – as Blood Of Ghastly Horror  – the picture enjoyed a modicum of success in 1967.

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The convoluted evolution of this picture holds many clues to the Adamson method, e.g. the casting of women with which he was romantically involved or with whom he was at least infatuated (Regina Carrol, above right, his greatest muse and first wife enters the Adamsonian universe at this time)… the constant recutting and / or remarketing of films that audiences had (at least partly) seen before… and the participation of such Hollywood has beens (John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr, J. Carrol Naish, Broderick Crawford… he even briefly resuscitated the career of the remaining Ritz Brothers) and misfits (Russ Tamblyn, interviewed herein) which owed at least as much to Al’s cheapness as any nostalgia for or loyalty to the stars of some notional cinematic Golden Age. His boast that “we put more on the screen per amount of money spent than any body else did” was vindicated via such stunts as giving Colonel Sanders a walk on part and prominent product placement in the 1970 biker flick Hell’s Bloody Devils, in return for which the cast and crew ate KFC for every meal during its shoot (maybe Al transferred his catering budget to the OST department, as this one was scored by Nelson Riddle, no less!) It would be the extension of this cheap attitude towards his domestic help that would prove to be Adamson’s undoing…

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After a run of immortal classics including Blood Of Dracula’s Castle, Satan’s Sadists and Five Bloody Graves (all 1969), Horror Of The Blood Monsters (1970), Dracula Vs. Frankenstein (“Zandor Vorkov” aka Roger Engel, above with Al, who took a brief sabbatical from stockbroking to become the silver screen’s most panned Count Dracula, has his say here), Brain Of Blood and The Female Bunch (all 1971), Angels’ Wild Women (1972), The Naughty Stewardesses (1974) and Black Samurai (1976) , to name but a few, Al’s career prospects (in common with those of his indie auteur contemporaries) were seriously compromised when the major studios started muscling in on traditional drive in / grind house turf (Spielberg’s Jaws, 1975, being an obvious milestone in this regard). Carnival Magic (1981) was an ill advised crack at family entertainment but the biggest blow to Adamson was the death of his wife Regina towards the end of 1992. He turned his attention to various other business ventures, travelling the globe and accumulating property until two things revived his love of film-making, namely a relationship with (and subsequent marriage to) aspiring actress Stevee Ashlock and the flowering of an interest in UFOs and associated conspiracy theories.

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Ashlock (interviewed here and proving to be quite the kooky character) talks about meetings with extra terrestrials, but Al’s fortunes were about to take a depressingly Earthbound turn. Discovering that contractor Fred Fulford was stealing from him while renovating his ranch retreat in Indio, California, Al decided (against Stevee’s advice) to let him work off the debt. Alerted by the director’s subsequent disappearance and the suspicions of his housekeeper Lupe Garcia, police excavated the foundations of a disused jacuzzi room and discovered human remains. Fulford was subsequently convicted of the murder of Al Adamson, though Ashlock and Sherman hint at some “Men In Black” type motivation for the director’s murder. Sherman wonders if Fulford could have been dumb enough to commit such an obviously discoverable crime but as one of the cops who worked the case tells David Gregory: “If  people who  commit crimes were smart, we’d have a hard time catching them” and the very real possibility exists that Fulford was just a very untalented Mr Ripley type.

910hG2FJPyL._SL1500_ copy.jpgIt’s the switch into true crime reportage during its final third that lifts BAF: TRLAGDOFAA a notch or two above even the standard level of Sev excellence. I’m wondering if some sympathetic director (Tim Burton springs to mind, for obvious reasons) might feel inspired by it to mount an Al Adamson biopic. Before that, one imagines we’ll see a bunch of the films celebrated here coming out on the Severin label. Ready when you are, boys.

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The Very Essence Of MAYHEM… 2019 Festival Report.

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Oh sweet mystery of Mayhem… how does the grooviest Horror Film Fest in Heaven, Hell or Hockley manage to outdo itself, year after year? Never formulaic, it must nevertheless be compiled with some sort of formula in mind. So what’s the secret? Well, I’m just back from four mind boggling, bum numbing (less so now that plush new seats – not to mention a state of the art 7.1 sound system – have been installed in Theatre 1 of Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema) days of Mayhem 2019 (10-13th October) and I was taking notes. Pay attention now, ‘coz here’s what I’ve managed to divine about the method in Mayhem’s madness…

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Some Horror Film Festivals are just more equal than others…

1) The “lure ’em in and settle ’em down with a Horror Comedy” film. Mike Ahern & Enda Loughman’s Extra Ordinary (2019) stars likeable stand up Maeve Higgins as Rose Dooley, a driving instructor in a sleepy Irish town, living in denial of her “talents” since the death of her father, who became a minor celebrity by popularising the paranormal. The werewolf she’s called on to investigate turns out to be a fox and although Rose gets to exorcise the odd wheely bin, she wants nothing more than to lead an ordinary life… all of which goes right out the window when one hit wonder Christian Winter (a hysterically foppy Will Forte) attempts to revive his flagging pop career by ritually sacrificing virgin schoolgirl Sarah Martin (Emma Coleman) and her widowed father Martin (Barry Ward) seeks Rose’s assistance. Romance blossoms, but the intermittently intruding shade of Martin’s jealous wife (herself apparently channeling Lily Savage) considerably complicates an already complicated situation. When Winter summons a demon to claim it’s virginal prize, there are awkward revelations about just who is and isn’t virgo intacto… with hilarious consequences (no really, it’s a hoot!)

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Co-director Mike Ahern introduced the film, subsequently discussed it with Chris Cooke and fielded audience questions, explaining how some genuinely impressive effects sequences (for such a low budget effort) were achieved and insisting more than once that the character of Christian Winter was absolutely NOT based on Chris de Burgh, OK? He and Loughman are currently writing stuff for Aardman Animations and hoping to develop Rose Dooley’s extra ordinary adventures into a TV spin off. Fingers crossed for that… or knock on wood… whatever superstition takes your fancy.

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2) The “is it all in the disturbed protagonist’s mind or is there really a monster?” film. Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real (2019) invokes the perennial Horror Film concern (think Dead Of Night, 1945… Psycho, 1960) about how to integrate (and usually the failure to integrate) undesirable / antisocial personality traits. Young Luke attributes his childhood attempt to poison his schizophrenic mother to an imaginary friend named Daniel, whom he locked up on a dollhouse after that regrettable little incident. The post pubertal and clueless in love Luke (Miles Robbins) releases Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) to act as his wingman but after initial successes as a lady killer he starts looking and acting increasingly like… well, a lady killer! Is Luke succumbing to hereditary mental illness or are his “demons” the manifestation of an actual demon? Mortimer plays his cards craftily until the denouement, when things get a bit too “David Lynch” (with “good” Luke confronting a nightmarish figure from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delights) for my liking. No prizes for guessing Patrick Schwarzenegger’s parentage (I’m still trying to work out if he gave a good performance or whether playing a sneering son-of-a-bitch just comes naturally to such a Hollywood Prince) but Miles Robbins is Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s son… how cool must it be to have Susan Sarandon as your Mum?

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3) The disinterred Eurohorror Classic. What better way to kick start a rainy Friday afternoon in Nottingham than with Konstantin Ershov & Georgi Kropachyov’s 1967 adaptation of the Russian witchy classic Viy? Mario Bava’s seminal Black Sunday / Mask Of The Demon (1960) was, of course,  nominally an adaptation of the same Gogol story but really an opportunity for Bava to indulge his exquisite monochrome visual sense and explore the disturbing dichotomy of beautiful and evil potentials in the incredible face of Barbara Steele. Viy retains the satirical bent of its literary inspiration. Its ethnic sense of humour and pacing take a bit of getting used to but neither its colour palette nor the visual effects work during its pandemoniacal climax would have disgraced Bava himself. Watch out for this one on Severin Blu-ray.

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4) “It’s not exactly Horror, but it’s pretty intense stuff, all the same”. The programme lingered East of the ol’ Iron Curtain for the UK Premiere of Polish director Bartosz Konopka’s Sword Of God (2019, formerly known as The Mute). Christian missionaries Willibrord (Krzysztof Pieczynski) and his unnamed companion (Karol Bernacki) arrive on a small island to convert its pagan population before the arrival of their liege lord and his all-conquering army. Willibrord sets about his mission with personal bravery but inflexibility that ultimately crosses the border into fanaticism. The other guy goes native and becomes a saintly martyr figure, then the king arrives and (SPOLER ALERT!) kills everybody anyway! It’s a powerful portrayal of religious hypocrisy, man’s inhumanity to man and the betrayal of idealism. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear that the issue of historical intolerance still casts a long shadow over Poland…

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5) The Haunted House flick. Girl On The Third Floor (2019) plays out as though the ghost of Brooke Shields’ character in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978) is causing problems on the set of Tim Allen’s old sit com Home Improvement. Travis Stevens is clearly attempting to make some kind of statement about toxic masculinity but like the unquiet spirits in the house / former bordello that CM Punk (you heard me) is renovating, there’s an effective, affecting film struggling to get out of this one but never quite making it and in lieu of any dramatic resolution, matters are concluded with a tiresome torrent of gimmicky special effects. It didn’t exactly help that Mr Punk and his silly tattoos really irritated me. This kind of stuff must be the reason why I keep accumulating rejection slips from Les Cahiers Du Cinéma…

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6) “The Friday Night Psychedelic Apocalypse, preferably featuring Nic Cage going batshit crazy”… SpectreVision (also the company behind Daniel Isn’t Real) stole the show last time round with Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy so another film from them offering the opportunity to watch Nic Cage go barking mad in pulsating purple obviously made Color Out Of Space (2019) one of the most eagerly anticipated items in this year’s lineup. It’s other main selling point, of course, was the return of Richard Stanley, directing his first completed feature in 27(!) years. Stanley’s loose (aren’t they always?) adaptation of the hoary H.P. Lovecraft yarn examines the effect on an ordinary family of a meteorite hit that releases alien entities keen to make Earth over in the image of their home planet. Well, when I say “ordinary family”, I mean llama-farming Daddy Gardner (Cage), his stockbroker wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), his sexy daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) who spends much of her time getting witchy in the woods, stoner older son Benny (Brendan Meyer) and youngest sibling Jack (Julian Hilliard), a Milky Bar Kid type whose main plot purpose is to work on the maternal feelings of female audience members before they’re hit with the seriously bad shit that befalls him. I found the film overlong and questionably paced. The reality warp and Cage’s personal psychotic embolism (surely no spoiler, there) kick in too early and there’s nothing for the narrative to do after that than accumulate ever more rococo refinements of weirdness. COOS ultimately emerges as rather less than the sum of its parts, though many of those parts (e.g. Lavinia’s climactic trippy rhapsody) are very impressive indeed. I’m glad I saw it and hey, if you crave Andean mammal satisfaction, this one is packed with enough alpaca action to put your ass in traction (we thought it would be a good idea to ask the guy who wrote the voice overs for all those Dolemite trailers to contribute a guest sentence to this posting… obviously we were wrong!)

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7) The Creature Feature. Ping Lumpraploeng’s The Pool (2019… another Mayhem UK Premiere) is nicely shot and scored, with great visual FX, its mechanical suspense unfolds with admirable efficiency and all the actors do a good job but 99% of the work on this one obviously went into writing it. Having hit on a boldly minimalist premise (Theeradej Wongpuapan and his girlfriend Ratnamon Ratchiratham are trapped for seven days in an empty deep sided swimming pool with a pregnant, pissed-off crocodile), Lumpraploeng then adorned it with a succession of fiendish embellishments such that every time you think things couldn’t possibly get any worse for the protagonists, they promptly do. Endlessly involving and inventive (I’ll leave it to you to discover how a Dulux dog’s suicide fits into the mix), The Pool could be taken as a metaphor for the unremitting toughness of life in Thailand and it was nice to see the characters taking time out between crocodile attacks to debate the ethics of abortion. One of the investors in this one was Pizza Hut and you don’t have to wait long for the expected product placement, though the delivery dude arrives too late to render any significant assistance. Perhaps they should have told him to make it snappy…

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8) The “the protagonist is a monster but the guys she’s fighting are even worse!” film… Audrey Cummings Canadian effort She Never Died (2019) is apparently some sort of sequel to Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died, a Henry Rollins Vehicle from 2015. I haven’t see that one but you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that protagonist Lacey (Olunike Adeliyi) is some kind of dewinged angel / demon figure, cursed with immortality and an insatiable appetite for human flesh and blood. Luckily she tends to dine on humanity’s worst elements. In this film that’s a seriously dodgy brother / sister team running a leisure empire whose business model is equal parts Hostel (2005) and Videodrome (1983), so you get to cheer Lacey on through all the splattery kill scenes and still believe yourself to be on the side of the angels. Or demons.

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9) The “is it all in the disturbed protagonist’s mind or is there really a monster?” film… slight return. The first real surprise package of this year’s festival, Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella’s Something Else (2019, previously known as After Midnight) was this year’s equivalent of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut Of The Dead from the previous Fest, a slowburn of a movie patiently received by an audience whose patience reaped rich rewards. Gardner stars as Hank, holed up in a one horse town wondering why his girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant) left him (well, she’s fed up living in a one horse town, mate), drinking beer with his goony friend Wade (an endearing performance from Henry Zebrowski) and becoming increasingly convinced that some kind of malevolent nocturnal presence is lurking around , looking to effect entrance. This is Thirtysomething for soulful rednecks, with a little something else thrown in… effectively a film in the service of a looming punchline, en route to which the viewer is similarly well served and entertained.

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10) The Short Film Showcase Interlude (the beating heart of the festival, as Chris and Steve characterise it) proved, as ever, to be a pretty mixed bag of fare, much of it receiving its UK / European / World Premiere. Sheil’s own Unmade, in which a  scorned woman deploys black arts to take the ultimate revenge on her dead ex was among the better entries. Victor Català’s A Little Taste (Spain) turned out to be a nicely twisted (if not exactly unpredictable) vignette, sharing its woodland setting with Sekander Sharifi’s neatly executed little gag Limbus (Germany) and the multi-director French animation Wild Love, which plays out as a Disney Pixar effort gone bad. Canadian Calvin Lee Reeder’s The Procedure 2 proceeded, for all of its 3 minutes, along the frankly flatulent lines laid out in its predecessor, a big crowd pleaser here three years ago. “Brown comedy”, indeed… and  Kate McCoid’s It’s Not Custard (UK) did for acne what Reeder seems determined to do for farts.

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11) The Kick Ass Oriental Actioner (and another UK Premiere). In Lee Won-tae’s South Korean effort The Gangster, The Kop, The Devil (2019), ruthless crime lord Dong-Seok Ma (from Train To Busan, 2016) is so amazed that a serial killer known as ‘K’ (Kim Sungkyu) has had the temerity to try and off him that he teams up with reluctant cop Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo Yul) to catch the guy. Predictable buddy bonding and violent spectacle ensue. I’ve seen better in this genre but y’know, Ringo Lam is no longer with us and John Woo is otherwise occupied so what you gonna do? Sylvester Stallone is credited as one of the producers and is apparently going to remake this one, Hollywood style. Hm….

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12) The “What The Fuck?!?” film…  indeed, introduced by Steve Sheil as “the what-the-fuckiest-what-the-fuck film ever”, Valeri Milev’s Bullets Of Justice (2019) emerged from nowhere (well, from Russia / Kazakhstan / Argentina, actually) to become one of this festivals’s most gob-smacking talking points. In a post-Apocalyptic scenario, the last remnants of humanity wage a life-and-death struggle with man-eating mutant pigs. An endless succession of ultraviolent action scenes? Check. Bizarre, self-consciously mannered directorial flourishes? Present and correct. Some of the most perfectly formed backsides ever captured on film? Affirmative. A cameo appearance by Cristiano Ronaldo? Yep. An ending which suggests that either a) macho post-Apocalyptic guerrillas harbour secret gay fantasies, or b) gay fashion models on acid fantasise about post-Apocalyptic guerrilla wars? You get that, too. Like the man said… what the fuck?!?

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13) The Suspenseful Tale Of Urban Paranoia. Yet another UK Premiere, Kwon Lee’s Door Lock (2018) pits its serial killer (South Korea must be crawling with them) against vulnerable office worker Kyung-min (Kong Hyo-jin) rather than a brutal crime baron. The flesh creeping extent of his night crawling activities are revealed to us but she only has the vaguest, increasingly worrying sense that something weird is going on. The police don’t take her complaints seriously and Lee relentlessly turns the suspenseful screws en route to a nail-biting finale. Seasoned viewers of these things (in fact most viewers) will have little trouble sorting the red herrings from the real murderous McCoy but this one is still worthier of a Hollywood remake (if, indeed, that would be doing it any favours) than The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil.

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Oh, those Russians

14) The Post-Tarantino Hipster Bloodbath. There’s definitely something going on in Russia, genre film wise. Chris Cooke introduced Kirill Sokolov’s Why Don’t You Just Die! (2019) as “a Spaghetti Western that takes place in one room” and yeah, he’s pretty much nailed it (Morricone fans will find all sorts of interesting things going on throughout this one’s OST). A boy named Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) visits his girlfriend’s father (tough former copper Andrey, played by Vitaliy Khaev), intending to kill him with a concealed (but not for long) hammer. After a gruelling physical confrontation, Andrey calls in his former cop colleague Yevgenich (Mikhail Gorevoy) to dispose of the intruder. But what’s the secret he’s trying to conceal from Yevgenich? And why was daughter Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde) putting Matvey up to murder in the first place? The back stories are separately introduced and intertwined in Tarantino-esque fashion, that is to say in the fashion that Tarantino pinched from Akira Kurosawa. It’s possible to construe the whole thing as an arch comment on post-Soviet Russian mores but a lot of people are going to enjoy WDYJD! purely on the strength of its black comedy and relentlessly brutal imagery.

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15) The Brilliantly Bleak Allegory Whose Co-Writer Insists It’s Not An Allegory. In Lorcan Finnegan’s rivetting Vivarium (UK / US 2019), a couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots) move into a house in the suburbs and bring up a baby, whose demands gradually take over their lives. Mum resents never getting any time to herself, Dad throws himself into his work. The kid (played by Senan Jennings then Eanna Hardwicke) won’t go to bed and spends all his time watching TV. Dad comes to resent the alliance Mum and the kid seem to be forming against him. Dad works himself to death. Mum follows. The kid buries them and blithely gets on with his own pointless life. Hey, I thought this was supposed to be a fantasy move?!? It is, of course and one that resonates troublingly thanks to the respective contributions of director Finnegan, production designer Philip Murphy and co-writer Garret Shanley. The latter introduced the film, subsequently chatting with Chris Cooke and fielding audience questions… hey Garret, of course it’s a fucking allegory!

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16) The “blissfully complacent character obliged to undergo a blackly comic odyssey through unguessed at low life vistas” film. Two years ago it was 68 Kill. This time it’s Ant Timpson’s New Zealand effort Come To Daddy (2019). Former kiwi fanzine editor Timpson produced The Greasy Strangler, which rocked and shocked Mayhem attendees back in 2016 (just the words “hootie tootie disco cutie” still bring me out in a cold sweat). This significantly more “realistic” effort sees Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) attempting to reconnect with the dad who abandoned him in infancy, an intrinsically delicate exercise which turns into something infinitely more challenging for our boy when the big plot twist kicks in and turns his world upside down. I don’t feel like I should say too much more than that but believe me, this one is well worth catching.

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So these are just some of the ingredients that, when combined in exactly the right proportions and sprinkled with secret Mayhem spices, bring Festival ecstasy to The Broadway on an annual basis. Only Chris Cooke, Steve Sheil (above) and Meli Gueneau know the exact recipe. And they’re not saying anything.

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You probably also wanted to hear about those legendary inter-film quizzes and “mystery poster” giveaways, about the pulse pounding, nerve wracking test of man and mettle that is The Flinterrogation, about the general hobbing and indeed nobbing (OK, we’ll restrict it to the hobbing) with old friends, new friends and cyberfriends suddenly made flesh… all of this will be duly revealed in another, Darker place. Patience, my pretties.

(For the record I skipped the Friday and Saturday night revivals of – respectively – The Hidden and Vampire’s Kiss. We old codgers have got to sleep sometime, you know…)

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Sympathy For The Devil? 3 FROM HELL Reviewed.

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BD. Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Region B. 18.

The contemporary controversy (or at least one of the contemporary controversies) concerning Todd Phillips’ Joker rehashes a long running argument about genre films which allegedly invite the viewer to identify with a protagonist who’s a violent psychopath… remember how Meir Zarchi’s rape / revenge (with the emphasis very much on revenge) epic I Spit On Your Grave (1978) was castigated as a glorification of violence against women? One outraged pundit condemned Zarchi’s film as: “Impossible to defend”, further opining that: “The Vice Squad ought to watch every person who actually buys a copy of this tape”. Bonus points if you can identify that outraged pundit (answer below *) The best genre films have always been aware of the thin line between the critique and endorsement of the “killer as pop culture icon” phenomenon and any list of those which navigated that particular moral tightrope most nimbly would have to include the likes of John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986) and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), films to which the item under consideration here owes much.

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Completing a (so far) trilogy initiated by Rob Zombie’s House Of 1000 Corpses (2003) and continued in his The Devil’s Rejects (2005), 3 From Hell was supposed to reunite redneck maniacs Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) with killer clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). Unfortunately Haig’s rapidly declining health reduced his participation here to fleeting stock footage, which means one of the as yet unreleased productions which he completed before his death on 21/09/19 will have to stand as the capper to a truly amazing career.

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RZ quickly rewrote 3FH to include the Fireflys’ previously unseen half brother “Foxy” Coltrane (Richard Brake from Zombie’s 2016 effort 31… he also played Seneca in Bettany Hughes’s TV series 8 Days That Made Rome!), much as Moseley’s Chop-Top character was parachuted into Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986. Foxy arrives to rescue Otis from a chain gang, in the process slaughtering everyone else he encounters, including Mexican crime Lord Rondo (Danny Trejo). They then hold nasty warden Virgil Dallas Harper (Jeff Daniel Phillips)’s family and friends hostage until he collaborates in springing Baby from his penitentiary (and she’s A Wild One, alright).

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Here’s where the problems really start… the warden is a certified scum bag but several perfectly nice and as far as we know blameless characters are brutally done in for the viewer’s lip-smacking delectation. You could argue that the nudge nudge intercutting of these murders with Three Stooges footage constitutes an all-too on the nose declaration of cartoony intent (not too difficult to swallow when you’ve already accepted the introductory premise that Otis, Baby and Spaulding survived something like 100 hundred bullets apiece, administered to them at the conclusion of The Devil’s Rejects) but the fact that Mr Zombie went out of his way (as we learn from the feature length “making of” doc on this disc) to shoot stuff in the cell where Susan Atkins confessed her part in the Tate killings is really kinda questionable.

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After spending the first half of this picture’s near-two hour running time settling accounts with the forces of law and order, the gang decamp South of the border but their desire to lay low for a while and enjoy a bit of Roderiguezesque R’n’R is foiled by the appearance of Rondo’s vengeful son Aquarius (Emilio Rivera) and his luchadores masked minions, The Black Satans, cue predictable quasi Spagwest carnage a la Tarantino…

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There are things I actually rather liked about this movie. Sheri Moon Zombie impresses as a genuine screen presence rather than the trophy wife vanity casting you might have feared and Moseley continues to consolidate his status as a contemporary Horror icon. It’s always great to see Dee Wallace and nice to know that Clint “Coopershit” Howard is still working. Mr Zombie is good with action, less so with the dialogue / expositional stuff. That “making of” and the director’s commentary track eloquently testify to just how much love and hard work he put into pulling off what was clearly a mammoth undertaking. But if you’re gonna use Iron Butterfly’s In A Gadda Davida to compliment a climactic moment, you’re going to have to top what Michael Mann did with it in Manhunter (1986) and he doesn’t. Similarly, if you’re consciously invoking such august company as Hooper, Carpenter, Stone and even Sergio Leone, let alone Tarantino, you’re stepping into giant shoes and on the evidence of 3 From Hell, that still feels like a bit of a slippery fit for RZ.

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Ooh, thanks for all that (James Gang era) Tommy Bolin on the soundtrack.

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(*) It was John Waters.

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Copping A Third Eyeful… LEGEND OF THE WITCHES & SECRET RITES, Reviewed.

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BD/DVD. Regions B/2. BFI. 18.

The disclosure of that which is occult (i.e. “hidden”) is an undertaking that’s always been contrary to mainstream culture and values (Mathew Hopkins, you’ll remember, held very definite views on such things during the Seventeenth Century) but the films under review here and their supporting extras examine that undertaking in the specific context of late ’60s / early ’70s counterculture (“Just a dream some of us had”, in the words of Joni Mitchell)… even more specifically, centred within the geographical parameters of pre-Julia Roberts Notting Hill. As such, these are quintessential titles within the remit of the BFI’s Flipside imprint.

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As the Age of Aquarius dawned over W11, the pretensions of significance claimed by films like Malcolm Leigh’s black and white Mondo effort Legend Of The Witches (1970) were indulged by the BBFC (give or take 2 minutes, 53 seconds of excised footage, thankfully restored in this release). Ostensibly an attempt to deepen understanding of The Craft, it’s not hard to work out the demographic at which this doc was actually aimed…

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“We saw naked people… huh huh huh huh huh”

Over moody nature shots, earnest narrator Guy Standeven relates the sustaining myths of Wicca and the influence that The Old Religion has continued to exert over British life and customs, in spite of relentless Christian attempts to expunge it. Along the way we learn that William The Conqueror was an adherent of Lucifer, that Robin Hood’s Merry Men constituted a coven (with Maid Marion as Hight Priestess) and what a chicken looks like after its been sliced open for the purposes of divination (put me right off my KFC, I can tell you).

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All of this serves, of course, as the hors d’oeuvre to the main course of nekkid sorcery, presided over by The King Of The Witches (nor was he any slouch in the self-promotion stakes) himself, Alex Sanders and his wife Maxine. There are diversions such as a visit to Boscastle’s impressive Museum Of Witchcraft And Magic (still going strong!) but the dirty mac brigade knew what they were coming for and no doubt, back in their local Jacey circa 1970, were reasonably satisfied with what they got. There’s an alarming lurch into “a scientific investigation” of “a haunted house” during the last third of the picture which one can only conclude was included to supply a bit more tit, bum and fluff justifying context and / or to pad the running time (which was already plodding) out to feature length, but director Leigh (who subsequently veered off into softcore sex comedy with, e.g. 1971’s Lady Chatterly Vs Fanny Hill before returning to documentaries of a rather more “respectable” bent) just about gets away with it.

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Derek Ford had no such qualms about his 1971 effort Secret Rites (a self destructing title, if ever there was one) which barely racks up 45 minutes (though in blushing colour, this time) while laying bare further rituals and rudeness, once again under the supervision of the never knowingly under-publicised Alex Sanders aka Orrell Alexander Carter aka Verbius. Various rumours concern heavy BBFC cuts or that there’s a  longer, stronger version of Secret Rites that was prepared for export markets but there has been much confusion with an identically entitled American Mondo effort and Ford was quite happy at the time to slot this short effort in as a supporting feature for the theatrical release of his Suburban Housewives (Italian Fotobusta below). The BBFC were cool with all of this, though curiously in the same year they refused certification to the palpably daft, decidedly entertaining but distinctly tame Virgin Witch (at least the Greater London Council got the joke and awarded Ray Austin’s sexploiter an ‘X’ for theatrical screenings in the capital).

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Secret Rites actually comes with the semblance of a plot, in which contemporary TV glamour puss Penny Beeching plays a hairdresser (though of course all of this is supposed to be fly-on-the-wall Reality) who decides that her life will be more meaningful if she gets into ritual magic (shades of Edwige Fenech in Sergio Martino’s All The Colours Of The Dark, 1972). We see her taking the tube to Notting Hill (passing a tasty Daughters Of Darkness poster on the way) for a drink in Alex and his acolytes’ local, where she convinces him of the seriousness of her intent (despite repeatedly mispronouncing his surname). Needless to say, plenty of naked rituals ensue (with a breathless, sportscasting like commentary ), notably an Ancient Egyptian one in a cellar decorated with multi-coloured tinfoil. Watch out for one of the celebrants trying to contain her giggles. Groovy sitar music from The Spindle… wall-to-wall early ’70s fashion statements… under and unclad chicks who all look like Stacia out of Hawkwind… and it’s over a lot earlier than you might have wished, with a “don’t try this at home, kids” sign off from Sanders.

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BFI releases always come packed with attractive supplementary stuff and here you get an audio commentary from Flipside curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler for Secret Rites… the 1924 short (i.e. 7 minute) The Witch’s Fiddle (it’s fair to say that film technology has advanced somewhat since 1924)… 26 minutes of visual collage cut to William Blake’s poetry in The Judgement Of Albion, directed in 1968 by Robert Wynne-Simmons, the writer of Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)… Out Of Step: Witchcraft (1957), 14 minutes of Rediffusion TV filler in which roving reporter Dan Farson interviews “father of Wicca” Gerald Gardner, some old witch expert biddy and Aleister Crowley’s executor before winding things up with a spot of jitterbugging… and Getting It Straight In Notting Hill Gate, a 25 minute baby doc which delivers a time capsule portrait of NW11 when it must have seemed to alarmed Daily Mail readers that it was on the verge of mutating into Haight Ashbury. We get to see rather too much of house band local heroes Quintessence rehearsing, sashay past Oz’s editorial office and enter those of Release for a brief chat  with Caroline Coon. “We weren’t going to cut our hair just because The Fuzz were treating us like shit” she tells interviewer “Felix Scorpio” (is that Felix Dennis? Does anybody give a toss these days?) No director credited, probably because that would have been subscribing to hierarchical / patriarchal hegemony. Can you dig it? There’s an evocative image gallery, too.

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Let’s leave the last word to Quintessence…
“Things are great in Notting Hill Gate,
We like to sit and meditate.
But only you can know the reason why
They hide behind their own Third Eye”.

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“There goes the neighbourhood…”

… and if anybody out there does actually know why They are hiding behind their own Third Eye, or even what that means, I think we should all be told.

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