Posts Tagged With: Aliens

“Black Magic From Deep Space”… XTRO Reviewed

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BD. Region Free. Second Sight. 15. 

Not all Extra Terrestrials were as friendly as E.T. … nor were any of them remotely as financially successful. Back in 1982, Stephen Spielberg’s touchy-feely encounter of the mawkish kind wiped the box office floor with such superior downbeat contenders as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing, so what chance did a low-budget, Anglo-American Alien wannabe directed (and scored) by the obscure Harry Bromley Davenport (whose only previous feature was Whispers Of Fear from 1976) stand?

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Precious little, probably, when its own director dismisses “the dreaded Xtro” (his own words) as “an extraordinary mess”.  Cooked up between HBD, producer Mark Forstater and New Line honcho Bob Shaye as some kind of UK answer to the surreal non sequitur horrors of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979), hyped on its eventual release as the dark mirror image of Spielberg’s box office champ (with heavy Alien overtones), Xtro is indeed a mess, albeit a very, very enjoyable one. Davenport has also described his little opus as “pointless… completely ludicrous… rubbish…. awful and reprehensible” but I’d characterise it rather as a Poundland restaging of The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)… and I mean that as a compliment! In fact if I may be so bold, Xtro’s queasy quasi-Oedipal undercurrents and sci-fi slant on dysfunctional family life ultimately place it considerably closer to Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) than Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).

The film’s opening sequence  goes right back to the source of all that touchy-feely alien hugging nonsense, Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) and reinvents its famous “flying-bone-into-spacecraft” segue for the abduction of protagonist Sam (Phil Sayer), whose subsequent return to Earth kicks off a series of highly improbable and improbably grisly events (“The idea was to do the most disgusting things that we could possibly get away with… we just wanted to shock people” admits Harry somewhere during the supplementary materials). Having boned up on alien obstetrics according to Ridley Scott, HBD presents us with the rape of “woman in cottage” (the ever lovely Susie Silvey) by slithery, sub-Gigeresque genitalia after which, in a wince inducing scene, she gives birth to a full-grown Sam.

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His wife Rachel (Bernice Stegers) has very mixed feelings about Sam’s reappearance, as during his absence she has set up home with photographer Joe (Danny Brainin). Scrumptious au pair Analise (Maryam D’Abo) is also sceptical, but at least Sam’s son Tony (Simon Nash) is glad to have him back. Sam cements Tony’s loyalty by passing on some alien powers (in another icky scene that involves neck-sucking and Cronenbergesque bladder eruptions) and soon the lad is bringing his toy clown and action man to life, to kill the interfering old biddy from downstairs (Anna Wing, who must have been particularly grateful when East Enders came along) and conniving in the transformation of Analise into a mummified alien egg breeder. Apropos of nothing (aside from Shaye’s insistence), a black panther prowls the house at random moments…

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Finally, after various other folks have been messily dispatched, Sam reverts to a monstrous metallic insect man and whisks Tony off in his space ship for a new life, God knows where.

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Davenport, as he freely admits, was blessed with a fine cast who never so much as hint in their performances that they consider this outré material beneath them. Admittedly Maryam D’Abo, for whom Xtro represents her feature debut and who suffers from a bit of a wobbly accent, later wrote it out of her filmography. Indeed, on becoming a Bond girl (The Living Daylights, 1987) she declared to the press that she had never done and would never do full frontal nude scenes. Xtro provides conclusive and rather delicious evidence to the contrary.

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Phil Sayer (now the late Phil Sayer, sadly) generates genuine pathos in his role as the dislocated dad. Bernice Stegers, whose CV also boasts Fellini’s City Of Women and her husband’s Four Weddings And A Funeral, brings credence and therefore credibility to anything in which she appears, witness her compelling turn in Lamberto Bava’s magnificently overwrought 1980 effort Macabro (below) and here. Regrettably, on the night when Mrs F and I once found ourselves sitting at the next table to Stegers in the now defunct Old Orleans restaurant on the bridge in York, my better half dissuaded me from approaching her on the grounds that I’d spoil the poor woman’s dinner if I reminded her of “all the terrible films she’s been in”. Speaking of spoiled dinners, I later threw up my chowder… bit of a washout all round, that evening was. It’s especially galling to learn from Stegers’ appearances in the bonus materials on this set that she’s rather tickled when people engage her in conversation about Xtro…

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“… just don’t ask me about that bloody Macabro thing!”

Once liable for confiscation under Section 3 of The Obscene Publications Act back in those dark draconian days of the early ’80s, Xtro’s BD debut comes with a ’15’ certificate and laden with extras, mostly courtesy of them Nucleus boys, that are almost as entertaining as the feature itself. “There was this awful period of the ‘video nasties’…” reflects Davenport in the archive feature Xtro Exposed: “ … an awful British phrase, it has a lot English pettiness about it”. Too true, Harry… though the twitchy director can’t resist enthusing about the news report on a psycho killer which featured close-ups of Xtro prominently displayed in his voluminous  video collection (“You can’t do better than that, really… sales went through the roof!”)

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In the more up-to-date Xploring Xtro, Jake and Mark have assembled most of the surviving participants and various interested parties, including Tik & Tok, reminiscing about their robotic and alien contortions and Robert Pereno reprising his immortal “Stay in the car”! line. Maryam D’Abo continues to maintain her distance from the project and although I know Jake and Marc tried hard to identify the current whereabouts of Simon Nash, their efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful. In his absence, other participants comment cattily on his crap acting and how much weight he put on during the shoot (more on that later).

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In The World Of Xtro we are introduced to Mr Dennis “Xtro” Atherton (just for a second there I thought we were going to get Andrew “Xtro” Featherstone), an über-obsessive fan of the film who views it as a Bergmanesque family drama with added space aliens and has more cock-eyed theories about it than any of the Shining devotees showcased in Rodney Ascher’s Room 327 could ever muster regarding Kubrick’s film. My favourite among Dennis’s many obsessive observations is the one concerning the magical confluence of Xtro’s length (83 minutes) and year of release (1983)… actually it was released in 1982 and seems to last 84 minutes, but I can’t bring myself to hold this against the likeable Mr Xtro Atherton.

What’s at the root of this singular obsession? Our man reveals that D’Abo’s nude scenes made a big impression on him as a pubertal youth… I bet they did, in fact they remain in my all time top three of female nude scenes in mainstream movies (Elizabeth McGovern in Ragtime, 1981 and Annette O’Toole in Cat People, 1982… thanks for asking). Wonder how good Maryam, who must be nearly 60 now, looks nekkid these days… way better than I do (below), no doubt.

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Xtro’s two existing (semi) sequels are glossed over, but the really big news is that HBD and Mark Forstater are reuniting for Xtro – The Big One (I kid you not), wherein a fourth Xtro incursion will coincide with a massive LA earthquake. We get to see some CGI-heavy test footage from that. There’s also a video tribute to Phil Sayer (incorporating the song Brian May wrote about him)…

… and of course the disc contains four (count ’em) different versions of the original feature, including two distinct endings, the British video release and Harry’s 2018 re-polish which, he freely admits, might have made the film look worse rather than improved it in any way. In fact the high contrast look of Xtro redux gives it more of  a comic book look than anything else, which I guess is quite appropriate for its subject matter. Intriguingly, Harry has also digitally thinned out the face of the much maligned Simon Nash but regrettably, we never get to hear Dennis Atherton’s pronouncements on the profound significance of this particular tweaking.

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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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Brain Drain On The Train… HORROR EXPRESS Reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Book him, Crocker!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind the gap!

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“Who loves ya, baby?”

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Making The Cyclops Cry… CONTAMINATION reviewed

Blu-ray (A/B) – DVD (1/2) combo. Arrow. 15

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“Who you calling a toaster oven, Earthling?!?”

An abandoned boat drifts down the Hudson river, bearing a fresh consignment of pulsating  green pods from Mars. When they ripen, they burst open and and shower any Earthlings reckless enough to be in their vicinity with acid. As if that weren’t nasty enough, this is nasty Martian acid which reduces the investigating coast guards to exploding showers of offal, lovingly filmed in super-slow motion by director Luigi Cozzi. The human race responds swiftly and before you can say “chest burster” every Italian in New York is on the case. Dr Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) takes control: “I’m a colonel, directly responsible to the President, Special Division Five”, she barks: “… put Emergency Plan Seven into effect.” Stella enlists the services of Police Lieutenant Arris (Marino Mase), the sole survivor of that Marie Celeste massacre, and also Hubbard (Ian McCulloch), an astronaut who was laughed out of NASA when he returned from the first manned Mars probe claiming that his colleague Hamilton was killed by pulsating Martian pods. Holmes finds this guy residing in alcoholic squalor, but galvanises him into action with some catty reflections on his virility, to wit: “In this state, you couldn’t even get it up with a crane!” (What a ball-breaker!)

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Hubbard repeats his story and this time gets a more sympathetic hearing. The accompanying flashback sequence – depicting his ordeal in a cave at the Martian pole – is gripping stuff, comparing very favourably to the corresponding scene in Alien when you consider the films’ respective budgets. One of Goblin’s most atmospheric, throbbing scores does no harm either. Holmes, Hubbard and Arris trace the pods to a waterfront warehouse, where a cop who knocks on the door is unceremoniously shot through the head. SWAT dudes storm the place, but the warehousemen duck any awkward questions by the simple expedient of exploding in slow motion. Stella theorises, straight off the top of her head, that the pods are to be placed in the Big Apple’s sewer system, where they will incubate and blow up a large section of the city. “National security is at stake” she warns: “… and possibly even more than that!”

Our intrepid threesome fly off to Columbia, to be greeted by the expected outbreak of stock footage. Villainous locals smuggle pods into Stella’s bathroom while she’s taking a shower, but the boys rescue her, setting the scene for the climactic confrontation on a coffee plantation that has been turned over to the cultivation of pods (check out the pod incubation unit and ponder whether you’ve seen that room before… maybe at the climax of Argento’s Inferno? Perhaps also as the setting of the most notorious moment in Andrea Bianchi’s Nights Of Terror?) The operation is run by Hamilton (Siegfried Rauch), the supposedly dead astronaut, his will directed by the dreaded Alien Cyclops (“… it’s slimy, slithering appearance more than made up for by the fact that it has all the mobility of a toaster oven”, to invoke the memorable contemporary description in Fangoria magazine.)

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The Cyclops mesmerises Arris with its throbbing yellow eye then sucks him into its gaping maw. Stella’s next on the menu but Old Mother Hubbard, despite undergoing another Mars flashback (makes a nice change from all those ’Nam flashbacks) shoots the cyclops in the eye, which for some reason causes Hamilton to burst into flames. The army turns up on cue to round up the Martian minions and close down the plantation but unfortunately that’s not the end of the story – back in NYC (right outside The Twin Towers, uncomfortably enough) pods are ripening in sidewalk garbage piles. One of them bursts as the credits roll.

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Although gore wasn’t exactly unknown in Italian horror cinema before the late ’70s, the succession of ever more graphically violent American box office smashes in that period prompted a veritable tsunami of spaghetti splatter… happy days! Contamination is a textbook demonstration of the sheer vitality, seat-of-their-pants inventiveness and shameless dollar chasing exhibited by Italian movie mavens during what was destined to become the final throw of exploitation all’Italiana. As that non-sequitur title suggests, the film was originally conceived as a cash-in on The China Syndrome (1979) but when Alien (1979) burst its way through John Hurt’s chest and into the hearts of movie goers around the world, producers Claudio Mancini and Ugo Valenti enthusiastically jumped the biomorphic bandwagon, their rapidly rehashed property being touted, variously, as Alien Contamination, Alien 2 and Alien Arrives On Earth (good job they weren’t crass enough to pit Alien against Predator, huh?) until Fox’s lawyers had their say. Neither unfazed by this nor discouraged by such recent examples of Italian sci-fi as Lugi Cozzi’s 1978 howler Starcrash, they enlisted Cozzi to throw together an energetically eclectic conflation of Alien, Quatermass, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Invaders From Mars and, striking a patriotic note, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979.)  Having starred in that and Marino Girolami’s Zombie Holocaust (1980), Ian McCulloch was along for the ride modelling a proto-Trump hairdon’t and doing his best bargain basement Bond bit (Mancini, perhaps fancying himself as a stem of Broccoli, being determined to cram a sub-006-and-a- 1/2 element into this cut price concoction.)

Precisely such relentless trend chasing is the subject of bonus featurette The Sincerest Form Of Flattery: A Critical Analysis Of Tne Italian Cash-in, in which Maitland McDonagh and Chris “Temple Of Schlock” Poggiali expound upon the filoni theory of Italian making, whereby generic streams are drained until they run dry… an entertaining examination of its subject, though it mysteriously peters out itself while Poggiali is in mid flight. Other extras include a rabidly enthusiastic commentary track from current Fango editor Chris Alexander, who’s fiercely keen to defend Contamination from its detractors while simultaneously acknowledging the schlocky nature of the whole proceedings (*). There’s the expected trailer. The director’s career is profiled in Luigi Cozzi Vs Lewis Coates and Sound Of The Cyclops showcases Goblin member Maurizio Guarini with emphasis on his score for this film. Both Notes On Science Fiction Cinema (an archive Cozzi interview combined with some valuable behind-the-scenes footage) and a nifty graphic novel appeared in a previous Blue Underground DVD release.

Best of all is the 15.11.14 Q&A session from the Abertoir Horror Festival, Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Moderated by Ewan Cant in front of a receptive audience, Cozzi and McCulloch are on good form and the whole thing is a hoot. Particularly memorable are McCulloch’s electrified reaction to the director’s assertions about how much money Contamination took (might one infer that it was a different story when his royalty cheques were being discussed?) and then the star starts wondering aloud about why, precisely, some of Contamination’s scenes had to be shot in Columbia, of all places. When Cozzi doesn’t exactly go out of his way to dissuade McCulloch from this line of speculation, the latter’s astonishment is palpable… Priceless stuff!

After some early misfires Arrow, have got this Blu-ray mastering malarky well and truly licked… you could quibble that some of the film’s early outdoor shots look a tad grainy but they’ve resisted the temptation to sink the picture in DNR fudging and Contamination will probably never look better than this. And it’s impossible to sign off here without commenting on the fact that this former “video nasty” is now deemed fit for consumption by 15 year olds. “National security at stake”? Pah…

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“Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”

(*) Alexander beats himself up about his inability to put a name to the cameoing face of Carlo De Mejo, son of Alida Valli and a familiar face from any amount of pasta paura epics… as these things often do, this prompted me to google what De Mejo had been up to recently. Sadly, prominent among this list was dying. He took to his grave the secret of what the f*ck the climax to Fulci’s City Of The Living Dead (1980) actually meant.

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