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About progcroc

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

Billy, Don’t Be A Weirdo… BLACK CHRISTMAS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. 101 Films. 18.

God, Christmas arrives earlier every year, doesn’t it? Still, if you’re the kind of ghoul whose yuletide wish is to sit the family down in front of Bob Clark’s classic 1974 Canucksploiter (as, apparently, was standard procedure for the Presleys every December 25th at Graceland) then you’re gonna need five weeks or so to drop heavy hints to your nearest and dearest about slipping this one into your Xmas stocking. Maybe they won’t take your hints but never mind, worse things happen during the festive season…

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… for instance, to the occupants of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, allegedly somewhere in the USA (actually, Toronto). Initially assailed by obscene, ranting phone calls from some sex-case identifying himself as “Billy”, members of the feisty sisterhood (which includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and Lynne Griffin among its number) are soon being killed and their bodies arranged in the attic, where young William seems to be putting together some kind of black Nativity scene. Clark and writer Roy Moore pull every trick in the book to divert your attention towards Hussey’s intense concert pianist, abortion-resenting boyfriend as prime suspect, which probably tells you all you need to know about whether it’s him or not. John Saxon’s Police Lt and his (somewhat clueless) underlings take an eternity to work out that those phone-calls are actually coming from within the sorority house (difficult to believe, actually, that the ungodly racket Billy makes during his calls wouldn’t have already pinpointed his whereabouts), setting up a rattling false ending and memorably ambiguous creepy  coda…

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Horror and thriller buffs of a certain vintage and of a certain theoretical persuasion have had a lot of fun (haven’t we?) trying to nail the influence of Italian gialli on the lucrative American stalk’n’slash cycle. Of course there were other antecedents (as, indeed the giallo had its own roots in e.g. Germany’s Edgar Wallace adaptations) and we’re looking at one of them right here. It has even been suggested (a suggestion which gets repeated in the bonus materials on this disc) that John Carpenter conceived (or “borrowed” the concept for) his massively-influential-in-its-own-right Halloween (1978) as a sequel to Black Christmas…

Clark (whose earlier genre credits included Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, 1972 and Dead Of Night, 1974) might or might not have been aware of Bava and Argento’s contemporary stylish efforts… there are shots in Black Christmas which strongly suggest that he was (I won’t insult the reader by spelling out precisely which ones I’m talking about… they’re clear enough) although it’s possible that he and Argento were just cribbing stuff from the same Fritz Lang movies. Whether as a result of studying Argento or not, Clark introduced… always a contentious claim… well, he certainly put considerable impetus behind the use of sinuous P.O.V. shots in subsequent North American slasher movies. To this end he and his camera crew improvised a primitive Steadicam before Steadicam was even invented. Cinematic influences are seldom a one way street and it’s difficult to watch the establishing glimpses of Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery, wherein an external shot of a face at a window lap dissolves into a similar but not identical one, without concluding that Fulci has watched Black Christmas, or at least its closing moments.

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Clark incidentally inaugurated the trend (considerably less significant artistically than in marketing terms) here of tying these kill-by-numbers films into holiday set ups and special occasions (Halloween, Friday the 13th, St Valentine’s Day, et al… not to mention such inferior, albeit sometimes entertaining Xmas slay-rides as Carles E. Sellier Jr’s 1984 effort Silent Night, Deadly Night), also spawning a fertile filone of Sorority House Massacres while he was at it.

Horror and comedy (to invoke an adage so often restated that it’s become tantamount to cliché) are two sides of the same coin and it’s not hard to detect foreshadowings of Clark’s subsequent comic success with the likes of the Porky’s films in Black Christmas. Kidder’s drunken, potty-mouthed provocateur (who kids the dumbest cop in the picture that “fellatio” is a new telephone exchange) gives particularly good value for money but all of the major cast members (well, apart from the barely glimpsed Billy) contribute believable, believably imperfect and generally likeable characters. The female principals, in particular are strong-willed free spirits, polar opposites of their sketchy cinematic descendants in so many dreary “have sex and die” epics. The fact that you care for these people makes Black Christmas so much more than the bravura display of cinematic technique that it undoubtedly is. Clark is handsomely served throughout by his collaborators in front of and behind the camera, several of whom remember him with affection and admiration in the bonus materials assembled on this disc.

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Clark died with his son Ariel on 04/04/07, reportedly at the hands of an inebriated, uninsured driver, which just goes to prove the aforementioned Signor Fulci’s point that nothing a horror director can put on the screen is remotely as horrifying as the stuff that happens every day in real life.

101’s BD transfer of Clark’s finest hour is a bit grainy but that shouldn’t put you off this seminal and seriously chilling thriller. Like it says in the trailer: “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… IT’S ON TOO TIGHT!”

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The Greatest Show On Earth, Part 2: Drastic Plastic… CIRCUS OF HORRORS Reviewed

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Circus Of Horrors (1960). Directed by Sidney HayersProduced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Leslie Parkyn, Norman Prigen and Julian Wintle. Written by George Baxt. Cinematography by Douglas SlocombeEdited by Reginald Mills and Sidney Hayers (uncredited). Art direction by Jack Shampan. Musiby Muir Mathieson and Franz Reizenstein. Makeup Artist: Trevor Crole-Rees. Stunts by Peter Diamond (uncredited). Starring: Anton Diffring, Erika Remberg, Yvonne Monlaur, Donald Pleasence, Jane Hylton, Kenneth Griffith, Conrad Phillips, Jack Gwillim, Vanda Hudson, Yvonne Romain, Colette Wilde.

If the plot of Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959) seems a tad fanciful to you (and let’s face it, the thing is bloody unhinged), it comes across like one of those gritty kitchen sink-dramas that were being churned out round about this time when you compare it with Anglo-Amalgamated’s next Horror offering, Sydney Hayers gloriously deranged Circus Of Horrors (1960). The terminally unlikely scenario of this one was dreamed up by writer George Baxt, who contributed uncredited dialogue to the script of Hammer’s Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958) and collaborated with Milton Subotsky in writing City Of The Dead / Horror Hotel (also 1960) which was effectively the first Amicus (though officially Vulcan) production. He was back at Hammer for John Gilling’s shadow Of The Cat (1961). I962’s Burn, Witch, Burn aka Night Of The Eagle, also directed by Hayers) was an uncharacteristically restrained exercise in psychological horror on the parts of both writer and director. Baxt was back doing uncredited dialogue duties for Hammer (and indulging his obvious big-top fetish) in Robert Young’s Vampire Circus (1972.) The final feature he scripted (in collaboration with its director, Jim O’Connolly) was Tower Of Evil aka Horror Of Snape Island (1972.) The point of this little digression is to establish Baxt’s credentials as a churner out of quality trash, a happy knack which reached its undoubted high water mark in Circus Of Horrors…

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… which kicks off in “England, 1947”, where two stiff upper lipped-dudes are driving like twats out of hell to the assistance of society lady Evelyn Morley (Colette Wilde), speculating whether she’s been talked into going under the knife of controversial plastic surgeon Dr Rossiter, despite being warned by other doctors that the proposed procedure is “hopeless… even dangerous!” They get their answer when they roll up at the Morley place to find her smashing the joint up, laughing hysterically and sporting a face like a well-smacked baboon’s arse.

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Apparently, back in the 1940s, it was Scotland Yard rather than the General Medical Council who dealt with surgical malpractice. Dodging one of their roadblocks, on-the-lam Doctor Rossiter (Anton Diffring) drives a blazing dinky car down a hillside and is badly burned while escaping from it. His devoted assistants Angela (who’s madly in love with him) and her brother Martin (fuck knows what his motivation is) operate to heal his scars and simultaneously disguise his identity (though actually the only discernible difference in his appearance, pre and post-car crash, is that he’s shaved his beard off).

Adopting the guise of Dr Schuler, Diffring tells his sidekicks (played by Jane Hulton and Kenneth Griffith, respectively) that they can lie low in France until all this silly bit of bother has blown over. Tooling around en francais, they happen upon a young girl by a rural roadside, whose face was scarred by a left-over bomb from WWII. When they ask Nicole to be directed to her papa, she points out the circus on the other side of the road… good job too, they nearly missed that! “Schuler” restores Nicole’s pretty face. “I am beautiful… I am beautiful… I am beautiful…” she repeats, over and over again, while skipping among the assorted clowns, freaks and strong men, to the point where you’re rather hoping that one of them will grab the little brat and give her a good slapping. Meanwhile her dad (Donald Pleasance) is signing the failing circus over to Schuler, who promptly gets him drunk and stands by, without any attempt to intervene, while he is mauled to death by an extra in a flea-bitten furry suit… er, I mean, by one of his performing bears.

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Censured by Angela and Martin for his callousness, Schuler advises them that they will turn the circus into the greatest attraction on Earth by populating it with desperate criminals whose appearance he has changed to allow them to evade justice. They’ll be variously coached to ride horses through flaming hoops, train lions and elephants, fly through the air on flying trapezes and so on… and they’ll be deterred from breaking ranks by the “before and after” dossiers that they know Schuler has compiled on them. What could possibly go wrong? Well, when the deterrent effect of those dossiers proves somewhat less than compelling, an ever-increasing number of would-be grasses encounter unfortunate accidents during their performances. It doesn’t exactly help that Schuler is an insatiable fanny hound and that the beauties he creates with his surgical skills are promoted and demoted on the bill according to where they currently rank among the notches on his bed-post. Professional and sexual jealousies further stoke the tension and increase the number of malcontents for whom spectacular demises must be devised. Adding significantly to the sinister ambience, each one is accompanied by Garry Mills crooning “Look For A Star”, a gloopy hook line in search of a song that’s uncomfortably reminiscent of Joe Meek at his most murderously mongy.

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Now, absolutely none of this makes a lick of sense. If Rossiter / Schuler is such an ace cosmetic surgeon, how did he botch the Morley girl’s op so spectacularly as to necessitate such a drastic career change? What were the odds on him finding a facially damaged young girl whose father needed help turning his circus around? How does the endless succession of grisly deaths among his employees square with Rossiter / Schuler’s avowed attempt to keep a low profile? Where did he pick up the skill set with which to train circus performers and the business acumen that enables him, over the course of a decade,  to turn the lamest show on Earth into – as he promised – “the greatest attraction in Europe” (we see him chiding the ring master over the timing of the clown’s entrance: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a dozen times!”)? By now, his little operation has also become known as “the jinxed circus” (“riding to glory on a trail blood”) due to the amount of its performers who’ve publicly pegged it (all chalked down to misadventure by the credulous authorities). As a suspicious police detective observes when the show hits Blighty, this ghoulish aspect has promoted ticket sales among the more jaded elements of the thrill seeking public. The roar of the grease paint, the smell of the crowd, eh?

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“Death takes a lot of defying around here”, quips Inspector Arthur Ames (Conrad Phillips), posing as “Arthur Desmond, freelance crime reporter” and romancing Nicole, now grown up in the comely shape of Yvonne Monlaur. Meanwhile the bitch-off between Elisa the stiletto-wielding prostitute turned high-wire queen (Joan Colins-lookalike Erika Remburg) and horse back acrobat Maga (Vanda Hudson) is reaching critical mass. Magda’s leaving the circus and Schuler to marry a besotted old rich dude…. how foolish of her to agree to working a final shift in the knife throwing act. Ditto Elisa (who’s already survived the introduction of a snake into her bathroom) and her flying noose routine, which inevitably concludes with her becoming  the 12th “accidental death” in this circus. “Quick, get a doctor… and send in the clowns!” barks Schuler. It’s just like David Cameron said… namby-pamby “Health & Safety culture” is a millstone around the neck of thrusting young entrepreneurs! Meanwhile exhumations of previous circus employees / victims have established that they’d all undergone plastic surgery and the police are (very slowly) putting two and two together (“Plastic surgery is the key!” “But what lock does it fit?”) Just to up the ante, the cops invite Evelyn Morley and her smacked baboon’s arse of a face to the circus’s big London opening…

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Getting careless, Schuler is mauled by a man in a gorilla suit. He authorises Martin and Angela to operate on his face but unwisely taunts the latter about his engagement to his latest protegé Melina (Yvonne Romain) before going under the anaesthetic. There’s a fantastic ultra close up of Angela mugging furiously to convey her delight when Schuler rips his bandages off to reveal a face like a festering walrus scrotum. His long serving, long-suffering sidekicks have clearly had enough… they also stint on the daily PCP rations so that the lions end up mauling Melina while she’s attempting to “tame” them! As the man in the gorilla suit chases Schuler into the path of Evelyn Morley’s limo, there’s another great mugging close up as the former society beauty (who recognised Schuler as Rossiter by dint of the snot green scarab ring he unwisely wore in both guises) runs over the doc, whose consequent injuries are beyond the remit of plastic or any other kind of surgery. Bastard had it coming…

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It was smart indeed for Billy Smart’s Circus to participate in the promotion of a film which perpetuates the myths that a) circuses are entertaining and b) clowns are funny, though I don’t imagine it ended up recruiting a lot of staff for them, given the estimate it offers of an average circus performer’s life expectancy!

Schlocky as they undoubtedly are, both Horrors Of The Black Museum and Circus Of Horrors tell us a lot about British society on the cusp of the ’50s and ’60s. The shadow of WWII still looms large and there’s clear dissatisfaction with austerity but misgivings about the consumerism that might replace it. Where would it all end if the rabble’s tastes are relentlessly indulged? Spend a couple of hours watching ITV (not exactly a plastic surgery-free zone) for the chilling answer… Perhaps the most apposite auguries of this brave new world are the medical atrocities of Mengele et al, which seem to have somehow “inspired” the surgical practices of Rossiter / Schuler (ironic that the gay actor Diffring, who fled persecution in Hitler’s Germany, was so often called upon to play characters who, explicitly or otherwise, amounted to “nasty Nazis”). Perhaps the dread apprehension of what Hitchcock and others had filmed in the death camps in some way influenced Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the film that completed Anglo-Amalgamated’s so-called “Sadean trilogy” in the following year.

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“Camp? Moi?”

And never forget…

 

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The Greatest Show On Earth, Part 1: Arma Virumque Cano… SANTA SANGRE on Severin Blu-ray, Reviewed

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

I saw in the ’90s (which would prove to be an exceptionally eventful decade for me) with a New Year’s Day preview screening of four upcoming Horror biggies at The Scala (for which the decade would, regrettably, prove a decisive one). Through the fog of time and encroaching senility I recall that the bill included Argento’s Opera (which took a few years to get a proper release over here) and concluded with the latest entry in the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise (I guess it would have been Part 5: The Dream Child, though I think I skipped all or part of that screening to stand a chance of getting home at a reasonable hour)… the third film was Society (or was it Two Evil Eyes?)… but I remember quite clearly that the bill was completed by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989).

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Most of the audience would, like myself, already have seen most of the films on this bill, if not on the big screen. There was a fair old buzz building up over Santa Sangre, though. Was the man who had electrified the counter-culture (amazing / confusing many of us in the process) with El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) a spent force? Since the latter title his projected film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi saga Dune had foundered on Hollywood incomprehension of his epic vision (and intolerance of the expense it would entail). His one completed feature Tusk (1980) was allegedly a big disappointment, though we had to take that on trust because it was about as easy to see as his reportedly lost feature debut, Fando And Lis (1968). Needless to say, I emerged from the gloom of The Scala into the brittle Winter brightness of King’s Cross and the new decade, raving about one of the most stunningly original films I had ever seen. Darrell Buxton subsequently pointed out that despite its on-the-nose allusions to James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) and nods to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920), the film that Jodorowsky had actually pinched rather a lot from here was Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927)…

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… no matter, there are only so many stories (especially ones as twisted as this) in the world and everybody is, to a more or less conscious degree, influenced by what has gone before them. Santa Sangre still stands as potent cinematic assault on the senses and the very soul… or so I assumed. I’m not actually sure that I’ve watched it all the way through since that screening at the Scala almost three decades ago (despite owning several editions of it) so Severin’s characteristically lush Blu-ray release comes as a welcome opportunity to take another dip in The Holy Blood and re-acquaint myself with this particularly florid manifestation of Jodrophrenia…

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The first thing which struck me was that certain pieces of dialogue make much more sense on a subsequent viewing (for instance Blanca Guerra admonishing Axel J for the banality of his hallucinations, which initially seems like a throwaway moment of surreal whimsy is, with hindsight, obviously pointing towards the film’s denouement). Much of the dialogue is actually somewhat clunkier than I remembered, though that hardly matters for a film maker who cut his teeth in Marcel Marceau’s mime troupe and has always insisted that he makes films with his balls rather than his brains. Santa Sangre is hardly a kitchen sink drama, even if El Jodo packs just about everything bar the kitchen sink into this 123 minute three-ring circus. Who else but Jodorowsky could mount an epic allegory of self realisation and spiritual independence via the Mother Of All Primal Scenes and subsequent misadventures of a compulsive slayer of women (played by his son Axel), a story based on the director’s encounter with a fan who turned out to be the notorious / celebrated Mexican serial killer Goyo Cárdenas? I won’t bother trotting out too much of the plot, which might well look ridiculous on paper… on screen Santa Sangre remains a magnificent mind fuck of a movie, whatever its cinematic antecedents.

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As if all that weren’t quite enough for you, those Severin gringos have loaded this disc with … great googly-moogly… more than five hours of exclusive extras! Dave Gregory’s feature-length appreciation, Forget Everything You Have Ever Seen, is exhaustive to the extent of featuring Santa Sangre’s oft-neglected co-writer Roberto Leoni, though elsewhere on this edition Jodorowsky insists that Signor L’s participation was minimal and talked up to satisfy Italian quota requirements. There are various interviews with the director in which he fully justifies his eccentric reputation. I’ll leave you to discover most of these treasures for your selves, suffice to say that at one point he retracts his comment about making films with his balls and announces that he’s now making them with his anus(?) Any other director making that claim would be laying themselves open to a pretty obvious put down, but coming from Jodorowsky it makes  you wonder if some of his more pedestrian contemporaries shouldn’t consider making their films with more, er, niche body parts…

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You also get a commentary track, on which Alan Jones struggles manfully against AJ’s imperfect English and mercurial mind to come up with something coherent (when your interviewee introduces himself with the words “I hope that I am here”, you know that you’re going to have to earn your money) and deleted scenes on which Jodorowsky also comments. Those with found memories of Jonathan Ross’s For One Week Only series on Channel 4 will be happy to find an amended version of the episode that marked Santa Sangre’s British release here, alongside the expected trailers and a short film by Adan, another of Jodorowsky’s sons, which confirms that the apple never falls far from the tree. There are a couple of Simon Boswell shorts in which Jodorowsky seems to be supporting the OST composer for this film in a fledgling film-making career of his own. Most chilling of all is Goyo Cárdenas – Spree Killer, a documentary on the film’s real life , rehabilitated inspiration.

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Among Jodorowsky’s many memorable pronouncements in the supplementary materials assembled here is the one in which he declares Santa Sangre “a gift to the people”. Unsettling as it is, this is one gift for which (besieged as we are, on all sides, by banal cultural popcorn) we should remain eternally grateful.

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Fade Away And Radiate… THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN Vs THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN

1) “I shrink therefore I am”: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

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BD. Region B. Arrow Academy. PG.

“I was still continuing to shrink… to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the Man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite… but suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept… the infinitely small and the infinitely vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if I would somehow grasp The Heavens. The Universe… worlds beyond number… God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of Man’s limited dimension. I had presumed upon Nature… that its existence begins and ends is Man’s concept, not Nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance… all this vast majesty of Creation. It had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes  smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God there is no Zero. I still exist!”

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This stirring soliloquy (pisses all over Rutger Hauer’s “tears in the rain”, don’t it?) closes the peak achievement in the C.V. of Jack Arnold, that peak achiever in the milieu of ’50s Cold War Sci-Fi cinema (hm, is it too late to consider slipping in a “spoiler alert” there?) By the time he commenced shooting The Incredible Shrinking Man, Arnold already had It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge Of The Creature (1955) – those first three shot in then-voguish 3-D – and Tarantula (also 1955) under his belt, as well as anonymously heading up the second unit that rendered the climactic destruction of the planet Metaluna in Joseph M. Newman’s This Island Earth (closing out a particularly busy 1955).

Arnold is primarily interesting as one of those directors who, within the confines of the studio system (alongside his SF credits he was also churning out westerns, thrillers, melodramas and even juvie delinquent epics to fulfil the terms of his Universal contract) brought enough of a personal stamp and smuggled in enough of his ongoing personal preoccupations to merit consideration as an auteur. It’s difficult to ignore the suggestion that Arnold’s own background as the scion of Russian immigrant stock predisposed him towards sympathy for the outsider (which translated readily enough, in his science fiction work, into sympathy for the alien) and his pre-Universal involvement in such union-boosting efforts as Our Union (1949) and With These Hands (1950) meant that he was never going to fall in line with the paranoid “Reds under every bed” McCarthyite hysteria that informed so much contemporary American screen Sci-fi.

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In a stroke of good fortune, Universal gifted him, as producer, Bill Alland, a protegé of Orson Welles who had participated in the notorious 1938 Mercury Theatre radio production of H G Wells’ War Of The Worlds, which convinced a significant chunk of the American public that they were actually being invaded by Martians. In another, Alland  enlisted Ray Bradbury, then emerging as a giant of SF literature and somebody else who could be relied upon to imagine alien visitations in a more optimistic light than such near contemporaries as  1951 efforts, Christian Nyby and Howard Hawkes’ The Thing From Another World and Robert Wise’s more sophisticated The Day The Earth Stood Still (in which authoritarian aliens offered the human race peace…. or else!) or William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (also 1953). Together they initiated a tradition of sympathetic screen aliens that would reach its tragic apogee in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), though they lost the battle with studio suits which resulted in the otherworldly visitors being portrayed as cyclopean jellies, rather than left to the viewer’s imagination. Another fantasy film great, Jacques Tourneur, lost similar battles several times but Arnold was in a strong enough position to resist studio demands to compromise his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man, with a “happy ending” just four years later.

By then Arnold had a new producer, Albert  Zugsmith, a figure often derided as devoid of taste (worth pointing out though, that he did produce Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil in 1958). What he did have was the rights to Richard Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man, so once again Arnold was well served in the writing department… even more so, given that Matheson had contractual dibs on writing any film adaptation of his book. After the protagonist’s affair with a circus dwarf had duly been downgraded to a supportive friendship, Matheson’s story evolved, in the hands of Arnold, beyond its story of male status anxiety in a changing world (reflecting the insecurity of its writer’s own chosen profession… tell me about it!) into the defining screen myth of atom age existential angst. Just how do you live an authentic, meaningful life in the face of the daily threat of nuclear annihilation?

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Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is enjoying a boating holiday with his dutiful wife Louise (Randy Stuart) when she goes below deck to grab him a beer, just as the boat passes through a mysterious mist (of nuclear fall out, we are led to believe) that adheres to his skin. Later, as he tells his doctor (we have to take it on trust), he is accidentally sprayed with insecticide and the cumulative effect of these two unfortunate incidents is his ever accelerating decline in stature, beautifully paced and convincingly rendered via oversized sets and props plus inspired split-screen work and other in-camera effects. In a marvellously impactful scene, Louise reassures Scott that as long as he’s got a wedding on his finger, she’ll be there for him… only for said ring to slip off of his rapidly diminishing digit!

As his condition relentlessly progresses and rubber-necking neighbours and news crews assemble on his lawn, he rants: “So I became famous… I’m a big man!” at his long-suffering wife, who’s struggling to do her best for him under impossible conditions. When she accidentally lets the family cat in before a shopping expedition, Carey finds himself besieged by it in the doll’s house which he’s been reduced to occupying. Extricating himself from that particular peril, he falls into the cellar which is by now an intimidating alien (or possibly post-Apocalyptic) terrain where leaky boilers generate tsunamis and scraps of food must be contested with common house animals. After his climactic victory over a spider that’s now about three times as big as he is, our diminutive Everyman makes it through a grate into the jungle that was formerly his garden and as he fuses with the cosmos, delivers that marvellously moving valediction.

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To accompany this extraordinary cosmic collision of Sci-Fi schlock, philosophy and visual poetry, Arrow have assembled an impressive array of extras including the Arnold doc Auteur On The Campus, a Tim Lucas commentary track, and an interview with Richard Christian Matheson about his father’s creation, plus the Super 8 digest version of Arnold’s film, which is almost as drastically reduced as its hero. As well as the expected trailers and reversible sleeve, first pressings of this release will include a fully-illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kim Newman, on which I’m currently not in a position to comment.

So that was how the sensitive way Hollywood dealt with radiation anxiety in 1957. Fast forward 20 years, and…

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1) “Don’t sit next to a garbage can!” The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Regions B / 2. Arrow. 18.

“Magnificent… you’ve never seen anything till you’ve seen the Sun through the Rings of Saturn!”

“Oh my God… it’s his ear!”

“Have we got crackers?”

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Steve West (Alex Rebar) is the only survivor of a NASA space probe that orbited Saturn. He found the view of Sun flares through its rings “Magnificent!” but it killed his colleagues and caused blood to gush from his nostrils onto his ’70s porn star moustache. Back on Earth, NASA installs him in a state of the art secure hospital that’s apparently been constructed in somebody’s garage, where he is guarded by a bored-looking doctor and a fat nurse (played by – I kid you not – Bonnie Inch). When he wakes up he’s not best pleased to find his hands and face resembling those of Michael Gambon in The Singing detective. The fat nurse takes this discovery even less philosophically and – apropos of nothing in particular – she runs down a corridor in slow motion then through a glass door, screaming all the way. Possibly miffed that they didn’t assign him somebody who looked more like Joanne Whalley, scabby Steve chases her down and rips half her face off.

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With me so far?

General Mike Perry (Myron Healey) details Steve’s friend Dr Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning) to locate the rapidly suppurating Steve as a matter of priority before these top-secret developments come to the attention of the press. To this end he is issued with a Geiger counter, with which he wanders around the woods shouting: “Steve, it’s Ted… I want to help you.” You may scoff, but the discovery of Steve’s ear (resembling a bubbling pizza slice) on a bush shows that Ted is on the right track. Steve apparently needs human cells to stay alive and after he’s decapitated an angler played by a certain Sam Gelfman (one of this film’s producers… the other was Amicus legend Max J. Rosenberg) and we’ve suffered endless slow motion footage of the severed noggin bobbing around in a stream and going down a waterfall, the General arrives in town to bring a new level of urgency to the manhunt, i.e. they spend a lot of time planning dinner. Ted is forbidden to tell anyone about the unfolding crisis, but spins the beans to his wife after admonishing her for the absence of crackers from their kitchen cupboard. No doubt this would  have spoiled the evening for his in-laws but luckily they don’t arrive because they’ve been killed by Steve. Miscellaneous other victims include Jonathan Demme, who’s wandering around in the woods for some obscure reason… and TIMM also alarms Rainbeaux Smith during a totally gratuitous topless location shoot.

“The more he melts, the stronger he gets!” we are unreliably informed… and the more he kills, the more Ted and The General eat. There’s an interminable scene in which the latter fixes himself a cold turkey leg salad, only to have his face bitten off by Steve, who subsequently loses his own arm after attempting to attack a girl in her kitchen. Finally, in an epic foreshadowing of the climax to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Ted and some cops track Steve down to a deserted industrial plant. He kills all of them then suffers his final meltdown. Discovered by a janitor, he is shovelled into a nearby bin as a radio report trailers the next space probe to Saturn…

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Is there any discernible moral that we can draw from The Incredible Melting Man? Most certainly… as stated by director Sachs in an accompanying 20 minute featurette: “The real moral would be… if you’re melting, don’t sit next to a garbage can!” Crackers indeed!

FX legend Rick Baker also appears in the featurette, reflecting on this early outlet for his prodigious talents and taking the piss out of Rebar’s thespian pretensions. He also reflects that with Rob Bottin, Craig Reardon and Greg Cannom on his crew “it’s funny that (TIMM ) wasn’t better than it was!”

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Cannom gets his own say in another featurette. Sachs contributes a very droll commentary track (“It’s a gloop movie, basically!”) in which he laments the attitude of the film’s producers, who didn’t “get” his ironic, kitschy, comic book vision (though Baker contends that this orientation was less a matter of irony and more about making a virtue of necessity).

As with it’s incredible shrinking antecedent, this release also includes the film’s Super 8 digest version and there’s a piece on the whole Super 8 digest phenom by Douglas Weir in the inlay booklet, alongside Mike White’s essay on TIMM. I did get that one and jolly good it is, too.

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An Ideal Place To Kill… OASIS OF FEAR Reviewed

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DVD. Region Free. Shameless. 18.

The sad news of Ray Lovelock’s death, following so fast on the passing of Umberto Lenzi, has prompted us to dust off the HOF archives and take a retrospective look at one of their collaborations, the 1971 giallo Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere (“An Ideal Place To Kill”) aka Dirty Pictures… can’t help thinking that Shameless missed a trick there by releasing the “rebuild edition” under consideration here (which reinstates footage previously believed to be lost) under the title Oasis Of Fear.

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Umberto Lenzi… what can I say that you couldn’t possibly work out for yourself by reading the interview with him elsewhere on this Blog? Although several of my questions seemed to irritate him to distraction (which was far from my intention), he did seem genuinely pleased at my suggestion that his early gialli with Carroll Baker had exerted an influence over such subsequent Hollywood bonkbusters as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.

Lenzi wanted Baker to star in Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere too, but other commitments obliged him to substitute Irene Papas for her in the role of patrician swinger Barbara Slater. Personally, I find Papas better suited than Baker to this kind of film (delivering a performance here that is studded with subtleties) and Lucio Fulci, for one, seems to have agreed with me, casting her as the priest’s mother who nurses a deadly secret in the following year’s miraculous Don’t Torture A Duckling (and yes, we’ll finally get round to reviewing the Arrow Blu-ray of that when we get a breather from all the other stuff that’s currently clogging up our in-tray).

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Another, er, somewhat less obvious bit of casting in Un Posto Ideale Per Uccidere has Latin lovely Ornella Muti playing the decadent Dane Ingrid Sjoman. She and her ostentatiously British (check out that Union Jack-et!) hippy boyfriend Dick Butler (Lovelock, who was indeed half-English) have been financing a heady slice of la dolce vita for themselves by flogging those “dirty pictures” to sex-starved, red-blooded Italian dudes. These loose-livin’ free-loveniks are understandably dismayed to find their smut supply running out, jeopardising their selfless mission to “spread the gospel of sexual freedom to darkest Italy”. Ingrid’s a game girl though, and more than happy to pose for some home-made porn. Not long after they hit on this expedient, however, our anti-heroes are busted by kill-joy cops and ordered to leave the country.

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While they’re attempting to do so they run out of gas and try to siphon some off in a plush villa on the edge of town. Attractive but older and uptight owner Barbara is naturally pissed off on discovering these uninvited guests in her garage but something about the free-wheeling kids seems to pique her interest and she unexpectedly invites them to stay the night. This being the swinging ’70s, after all concerned have necked enough booze and gotten to know each other, various sexual permutations play out (Muti, in only her second or possibly third screen credit, delegated her nude scenes to a suitably sumptuous body double). Dirty Dick is suitably tickled by this outcome and teases Barbara that she’s risking some kind of Manson massacre by inviting footloose hippies into her home and bed. As it happens, somebody is getting into deep shit but things are not entirely what they seem and the pay off will play out with predictable giallo unpredictability (well, the resolution might have surprised contemporary viewers, though seasoned pasta paura fanciers probably won’t have too much trouble, at this remove, working out what’s going on).

The commercial imperative to try to cop a bit of the Easy Rider action dictates a conclusion which doesn’t amount to very much but there is plenty of period kitsch to cherish and Lenzi effectively embroiders that staple theme of Italian exploitation cinema which indicts the respectable bourgeoisie as more morally reprehensible than the social dregs whom they despise and exploit.

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The late, great Ray Lovelock built a screen career on ambiguity… he’s sexually ambiguous as Evan in his screen debut, Giulio Questi’s startling Django Kill! (Se Sei Vivo, Spara, 1967)… in Jorge Grau’s legendary zombie-stomper Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1974) he’s a cynical hustler turned archetypal English hero (right down to being named “George”)…  he’s a lily-livered kidnapper with qualms, who just might save the ransomed girl in Lenzi’s Almost Human (1974, a busy year for our Ray)… he’s not quite the man we thought he was in the following year’s Autopsy, that most macabre of gialli from Armando Crispino… there’s more sexual ambiguity from him as the only heterosexual man on the planet who couldn’t manage an erection for Edwige Fenech in Marino Girolami‘s The Virgin Wife (“La Moglie Vergine”, 1975)… in Ruggero Deodato’s Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man (“Uomini Si Nasce Poliziotti Si Muore”,  1976) he and Marc Porel play cops whose disregard for the rule-book makes them virtually indistinguishable from the criminals against whom they’re supposed to be protecting society… in Franco Prosperi’s Meet This Man And Die from the same year, Ray’s a cop going deep, deep undercover.. and in Prosperi’s 1978 effort La Settima Donna (“The Seventh Woman”) aka Terror and Last House On The Beach (no question for guessing which Wes Craven film supplies the “inspiration” for that one) he poses as “the voice of reason” in a gang of bank-robbers brutalising the young women among whom they’re hiding out, although he’s obviously orchestrating and relishing the various outrages. The mystery in Fulci’s Murder Rock (1984) turns on Lovelock’s character, who he is and what he might or might not have done…

This ambiguous, chameleon-like aspect made Lovelock an ideal actor for giallo and it’s regrettable that he only essayed a handful of roles in that genre. Still, the C.V. he left behind (and he was working in features and TV as late as last year) is impressive enough as it stands.

Rest in peace, Ray. Adios, Umberto…

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Bad Day At Red Stone… THE DEVIL’S RAIN Reviewed

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

Publicity for the US release of Dario Argento’s super-stylish Suspiria (1977) made prominent use of the line: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 80”, from which prospective viewers could only have drawn the perverse and erroneous conclusion that Argento’s Horror tour-de-force ended on a note of anti-climax. The publicity campaign for the seventh feature outing by another noted stylist, Robert Fuest’s The Devil’s Rain (1975), made no such error, insisting that it packed “absolutely the most incredible ending of any motion picture ever!” For their characteristically lush BD revisit, Severin take a scarcely less rabid tack, promising “the most eye-popping, flesh-melting finale in grindhouse history”. So, does the ending of The Devil’s Rain live up to those billings? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves… Fuest things first…

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After a Bosch backed title sequence, TDT throws us abruptly, in the best Shakespearian tradition, into the thick of its action and leaves us struggling to work out what the Hell is going on. In a remote desert dwelling, Mrs Preston (legendary film noir actress / director Ida Lupino) and her son Mark (William Shatner, filling in time before the Star Trek revival and putting in his customary… broad… performance) open their door to find an agitated daddy Preston insisting that somebody named Corbis wants his book back, before rapidly disintegrating into a rancid pool of goo on the porch.

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At this point I was expecting a quick cut to Diana Rigg receiving a message that reads: “Mrs Peel, we’re needed”… too clever dick by half on my part, as although Bob Fuest production designed very early (pre-Honor Blackman) episodes of The Avengers and directed several in the final series, when Linda Thorson had replaced Diana Rigg, he never worked on any in the Emma Peel era… more’s the pity.

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Anyway, back in the desert Shatner hot foots it over to Red Stone for a confrontation with Corbis, in the Saturnine form of a brilliantly cast Ernest Borgnine (it couldn’t have taken too many hours of make-up to turn him into a randy old goat). Under a glowering sky they enact Fuest’s little tribute to John Sturges’ Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) before repairing inside a clapped out, boarded up wooden church whose interior reveals a groovy stained glass window, various Satanic paraphernalia and pew-loads of hooded, chanting acolytes with empty black eye sockets. Borgnine swaps his cowboy threads for a crimson robe and their battle of faiths begins in earnest. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a one-sided battle and Mark is soon himself reduced to the status of empty eyed Satan fodder.

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It’s Captain Kirk… but not as we know him.

Meanwhile his brother-in-law Tom (Tom Skerritt) is attending a scientific demonstration of his wife Julie (Joan Prather’s) psychic powers, presided over by Dr Sam Richards (Eddie Albert). In the course of this she experiences visions of what’s going on at Red Stone so everybody heads over there in an attempt to save Mark and Mrs Preston, setting up the climactic battle between Good and Evil and the Burman’s much touted goo spouting, Play-Do vomiting finale…

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Fuest felt himself to be on a mission to “smuggle Art into Product” and although The Devil’s Rain affords him nothing like as many opportunities to do this as his Phibes brace or  The Final Programme (1973) there are some startling moments herein, e.g. when Julie stares into the empty sockets of a devil worshipping drone and finds herself in the midst of a sepia-tinted flashback to Puritan times which explains (or purports to explain) what’s going on with that book of bloody signatures, the cauldron of souls and all manner of other bewildering stuff. In retrospect, it occurs to me that this sequence exerted a big influence over the opening one to Lucio Fulci’s gothic gore mini-masterpiece The Beyond (1981).

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That the above-mentioned devil worshipping drone is played by unrecognisable movie debutant John Travolta (whose then room-mate Prather got him this role and also converted him to the cause of Scientology) is just one of the esoteric footnotes to The Devil’s Rain, the authenticity of whose Satanic ceremonies was ensured by the participation, in a consultancy role, of Anton LaVey, founder and high priest of The Church Of Satan. You also see him, golden-masked, at Borgnine’s elbow during significant ritual moments.

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Much is made of LaVey’s participation in this disc’s extensive bonus materials (apparently “approved by Lucifer himself!”), including interviews with his biographer Blanche Barton, also Peter H. Gilmore and Peggy Nadramia, the Church’s current high priest / priestess. The consensus which emerges is that LaVey had a ball making The Devil’s Rain and got on famously with everybody while doing so, but wasn’t crazy about the finished film and would probably have been prouder of appearing in one of Lupino’s noir efforts. Further interviews follow with Skerritt, FX technician Tom Burman, pundit Daniel Roebuck and a short, contemporary one with Shatner. As well as her reminiscences, we get to see the on set Polaroids taken by script supervisor Ana Maria Quintana and of course the expected trailers, TV and radio spots are present and correct.b3-24-78.jpgThere’s also an invaluable 2005 audio commentary with Fuest (who passed away in 2012), mediated by Marcus Hearn. The director is every bit as distractedly eccentric as I remember from my own brief meeting with him. He frequently seems to tune out of the conversation, only to admit to Hearn that he’s getting wrapped up in watching his film. They still manage to cover his career in reasonable depth and it’s interesting to learn that after doing the Phibes movies, he turned down the chance to direct Vincent Price again in the thematically similar Theater Of Blood, though he makes a point of praising the job Douglas Hickox did on that in 1973. He declares his philosophy of production design to be “anything to disturb the eye” and refutes, in passing, the claim (originating in Cinefantastique magazine) that he suffered a nervous breakdown while making the picture under consideration here. Fuest reveals that much of the “most incredible ending of any motion picture ever” was shot by a second unit and that he finds it “like some sort of wake… it goes on and on… you could take about 20 minutes of that stuff out!” His keenness to make what is already a pretty pacey movie into something even pacier (perhaps it was Fuest’s extensive TV experience that influenced his apparent desire to constrain things within something like an hour’s running time) is evident when he attributes TDR’s “unrelenting” momentum to an apprehension that “if you stop to think about it too much, you get into trouble”.

 

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Fuest’s Faustian folly is indeed a gloriously senseless, massively entertaining mess of a movie. What a cast! What a visionary director! What a fantastic release by Messrs Daft &  Gregory, doing what they do best… rescuing cinematic oddities that have fallen into disregard or indifference from late night screenings on obscure standard definition channels and affording them definitive HD restorations, with a crop of boss extras to boot. Hail Severin!

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When Bobs collide… Freudstein & Fuest at Manchester’s third annual Festival Of Fantastic Films in October 1992.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joi… ministering cyber-sprite?

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… and the commercial reality.

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The genius pulp Art of Virgil Finlay. Inspiration?

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Sylvia Hoeks as “Luv”. Infatuation.

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

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

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… and the “real” thing.

(*) Sure they do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the contentious bit…

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

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

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

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

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