Posts Tagged With: Christopher Lee

Towers Opens Fire… Indicator’s FU MANCHU CYCLE, 1965-1969 BD Box Set Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. 15

“God save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula”. The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, 1968.

Now that everything pre-Millennial is being rigorously combed through for possible retrospective violations of an ever tightening political correctness code, with particular reference to actors playing characters of a different racial heritage from their own (i.e. acting), it’s an “interesting” time for Indicator to release a characteristically epic BD box set devoted to five Fu Manchu films produced in the ‘60s by the notorious Harry Allan Towers and starring Christopher Lee as the “Devil Doctor / Yellow Peril incarnate”… that’s “interesting” as in the old Chinese curse: “May you live through interesting times” (am I, as an occidental dude, even allowed to reference that one anymore?)

First things first… the fourteen Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer (1983-1959, aka Arthur Sarsfield Ward, but known to his Mum, when he was growing up in Birmingham, as Arthur Henry Ward) are unashamedly Sinophobic, cashing in on contemporary (well, it’s never really gone away) hysteria over “The Yellow Peril” swamping Western, Christian, capitalist culture. The books are enthusiastically anti-Semitic, into the rotten bargain, but early comic strip, radio and film adaptations emphasised the Sinophobia, reaching a peak with MGM’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (1931), in which Boris Karloff (an actor who did have Asian heritage) as the title character, orders his minions to enslave white men and rape their women. Charles Brabin’s film was so “screamingly racist” (in the words of Christopher Frayling during a bonus interview here) that it was pulled from distribution after official complaints by the Chinese government and VHS copies were being cut as late as the 1980’s. During WWII the American State Department ordered Republic Pictures to shoot no more FM serials after Dreams of Fu Manchu (1940) for fear of offending China, then an ally against imperial Japan.

The series produced by Harry Allan Towers (above), though, are an entirely different kettle of koi carp. For one thing, after the author died (of… get this… Asian Flu) that inveterate adaptor of vintage literature bought the character rights rather than the story rights for the Fu Manchu novels from Rohmer’s widow, saving himself a savvy packet and simultaneously divesting his series of the novels’ racist baggage by penning new stories under his trusty “Peter Welbeck” non de plume. Here, the Doc is less of a ranting maniac and more of a Chinese nationalist, honourable after his own fashion and certainly (until a certain Spaniard got his busy hands on him) a man of his word (even if most of the words he speaks concern his ambitions for world domination, exceeded only by his desire for revenge on his ongoing nemesis… Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Sir Dennis Nayland Smith). Then there’s Christopher Lee, who obviously brings real physical presence and gravitas to the title role. Lee had already played orientals to impressive effect in two 1961 efforts, Hammer’s Terror of the Tongs (1961) and Rialto Film’s Edgar Wallace adaptation The Devil’s Daffodil, directed by Akos Rathonvi. Lee’s Fu Manchu is no Benny Hill “Cooky Boy” caricature, more a Blofeld-like supervillain. The influence of the early Bond films is unmistakable, though instead of 007, Fu’s up against Rohmer’s answer to Holmes and Watson, in the shape of Smith and his loyal companion Dr Petrie (played in all of these films by Howard Marion-Crawford). The series’ other ever present is Tsai Chin as the Doc’s daughter Lin Tang, an inscrutable chip off the fiendish old block.

With Don Sharp (“a lovely, make-do-and-mend director” in the words of assistant Ray Andrew) calling the shots, ably assisted by equally dependable DP Ernest Steward, inaugural entry The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) also benefits from a castload of such krimi regulars (the film is a UK / West German co-production) as Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor and Walter Rilla alongside seasoned British pros like James Robertson Justice (“You can’t leave the museum littered with dead Chinese!”) Dublin doubles for London and indeed the Chinese courtyard where we find Nayland Smith (played by Nigel Green) attending the judicial decapitation, for “crimes beyond number” of the title character. Not for the last time in this series, reports of the Doc’s demise would turn out to have been seriously exaggerated…

Back in “London”, Nayland Smith is bored with his desk job, thirsting for action. He tells his friend Petrie of his nagging doubt that Fu Manchu is still alive and of course he is, having substituted a brain washed doppelgänger for himself on the chopping block. As you do. Before you can say “Evil plan to take over the World”, not entirely inconspicuous Burmese dacoits in martial arts outfits are kidnapping scientists and strangling people with Tibetan prayer scarves all over the capital. Fu’s got himself a Limehouse cellar HQ, very handy for drowning his enemies and leaving them floating around in the Thames. Dr Muller (Rilla) is forced to help the villain synthesise a deadly biotoxin from the black hill poppy (ironic stuff, considering the history of the Opium Wars) when Fu kidnaps his daughter Maria (Dor). Karl Jannsen (Fuchsberger) collaborates with our boys to try and save the Mullers but soon Fu is demonstrating the power of his dreaded lurgy by wiping out the population of seaside town Fleetwick, trailered in one of the ominous radio broadcasts he seems to favour. Meanwhile Lin Tang tops Myrna Loy’s Fah Lo See in Mask of Fu Manchu for sheer unabashed sadism, though she is frequently pulled up by her iron-disciplined father, a firm believer in the adage that violence is a tool rather than a toy. The explosive conclusion in Tibet is a little abruptly arrived at and concluded but by the time Fu Manchu has uttered his soon to become familiar threat that the world will hear from him again (and it usually does), all but the most demanding viewers will consider themselves well served by this satisfying Saturday matinee type romp.

Douglas Wilmer replaces Nigel Green as Nayland Smith in Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) another ripping yarn shot partly in Dublin but mostly studio bound, played out in the dungeons where Fu has made his new HQ and keeps his collection of kidnapped / hypnotised eminent scientists’ daughters. Their dads are thus obliged to chip in with their expertise on his project to build a sonic death ray which, after a decoy threat to Windsor castle, disintegrates a British battleship at sea. Westminster Abbey, stuffed with world leaders, is next on the Doc’s hit list but the BBC collaborate on blocking his deadly radio waves and the French foreign legion join an attack on his base, which blows up after Fu cranks the power too high, over the objections of his technical advisor Burt Kwouk. The UK film industry’s most prolific Chinese thesp is joined by familiar British character actors (e.g. Rupert Davis) and this being another co-production with West Germany, a further krimi contingent in the shape of Heinz Drache and Joseph Furst.

With Sharp otherwise occupied on IRA thriller The Violent Enemy and Towers’ Rocket to the Moon, Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967) was directed by the similarly stalwart Jeremy Summers. Reflecting developments in the ongoing Bond franchise, this one’s a bit more self-consciously modern, edgy, violent and gimmicky than its predecessors. Seeking the leadership of international organised crime (represented by Horst Frank as an oddly accented American racketeer), Fu comes up with his most fiendish plan yet, to weaken world wide law enforcement by either bumping off or discrediting its major practitioners. Wilmer’s Nayland Smith is kidnapped and replaced with a surgically engineered, brainwashed ringer who promptly strangles his maid and is sentenced to death. With the real Assistant Commissioner out of commission, his associates (principally Peter Karsten’s Kurt) have to do most of the sleuthing and foiling. Maria Rohm, Towers’ long time companion, adorns the proceedings as Shanghai dive chanteuse Ingrid, though she’s actually lip-synching to the voice of Samantha Jones.

Received critical wisdom has it that after the solid “Hammer-looking” Face, this series declined markedly with each successive entry and it’s been suggested that Towers spent progressively more of each film’s budget on wining and dining himself and favoured members of his cast and crew. In point of fact, the first three entries are roughly comparable in quality and Vengeance, shot partly in Ireland but also at the Shaw Brothers’ studios in Hong Kong, arguably tops the claustrophobic Brides in terms of production values, scenic locations and thrills / spills. Summers was initially signed up to make another three Fu Manchu epics for the producer but when contractual undertakings clashed, Towers had an oven baked (maybe half-baked) alternative ready to go. Depending on your cinematic tastes, its arguable that the rot really set in with Blood of Fu Manchu (1968)… what’s indisputable is that the series now took a sexadelic swerve into a completely parallel universe, the unparalleled universe of Spanish cult director extraordinary, Jess Franco. Towers had already called Franco in to rescue The Face of Eve (1968) when Summers left that one uncompleted. Did dear old Jess ever really rescue a picture? He’s certainly finished off more than a few. Whatever, with him safely ensconced in the Fu Manchu directing seat, this series would never be quite the same again. Blood… is unrecognisable as the work of the director who made e.g. Succubus, the same year. Despite some sub-Bava lighting effects and signature shots of scantily clad women suspended in chains, there are no pretensions to auteurism here, just Jess taking the money (surreptitiously spending much of it shooting scenes for several other movies he’s got in development) and running. Though “Peter Welbeck” remains the writer of record (and Towers was no doubt happy to pay himself for writing it), this one bears the unmistakable stamp of a thousand other Franco screenplays jotted down on the back of a fag packet. One of Daniel White’s more listless scores does nothing to help.

Now based in some Amazon ruins, Fu has resynthesised an ancient Inca poison that will be administered to world leaders via the kisses of beautiful women whom he has kidnapped and brain washed (this one was released in The States, to general indifference, as Kiss and Kill, increasing suspicion that the Fu Manchu brand was losing its box office allure). Nayland Smith (now played by Richard Robin Hood Greene), having copped a mouthful of poison, is incapacitated and unseen for most of the picture (though he re-emerges with a blazing machine gun during its alleged climax). In another wage-bill cutting move Lee’s Fu, having set all this dastardly shit in motion, also disappears for much of its running time. Lin Tang is brought so far to the fore that she’s even seen sitting on Fu’s throne at one point (she’s following her father’s footsteps, she’s following her dear old Dad!) Nor does he discourage her from enjoying the whipping of captives, as he did in the first film. Shirley Eaton apparently never knew that she’d been cut into this one from footage shot for The Girl from Rio (another Franco / Towers Rohmer adaptation released in 1969) so she never got paid for it. Maria Rohm and Franco himself pop up in the cast and during the protracted absence of Lee and Greene from the screen, much of the narrative centres on the oafish antics of bandit Sancho Lopez, another questionable racist stereotype played by Ricardo Palacios (who looks like a refugee from a bad Spaghetti western, though he actually appeared in some of the very best ones). Marion-Crawford’s Dr Petrie is present and correct but he’s been reduced to a bumbling comic relief character, hacking his way through the Brazilian jungle in search of a nice cup of tea. When he does occasionally show, Lee brings something less than 100% conviction to the delivery of his lines, but with doozies like: “Let him wait like an ant on an anvil!”, who can blame him?

The world did hear from Lee’s Fu Manchu one more time, in Castle of Fu Manchu, but it’s anyone’s guess if they knew WTF he was on about. Scrabbled together with finance from the UK, West Germany, Italy, Spain, Lichtenstein and Turkey (anywhere but The States, which Towers was studiously avoiding while he waited out a vice charge) this one was largely filmed in Istanbul. As ever, Franco demonstrates skilful deployment of his “more bang for your buck” locations, but narrative wise this one makes its wobbly predecessor look like The Magnificent Ambersons. The general idea is that Dr Fu has cracked the formula for freezing large expanses of water instantaneously, threatening world shipping routes. He demonstrates this by freezing “the tropical waters of the South Atlantic” (er… are you sure about that, Doc?), something conveyed to the viewer by stock footage copped from Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958). Elsewhere he causes a massive dam to burst, rendered by further footage theft, this time from Ralph Thomas’s 1957 effort Campbell’s Kingdom. At least Burt Kwouk’s scenes have been pinched from an earlier entry in the Fu Manchu series, if not one that Franco himself directed. The active ingredient in Fu’s ocean-freezing formula is (what else?) opium (is there nothing that stuff can’t do?) and to secure a sufficient supply of it, the Doc goes into partnership with Turkish dope mogul Omar Pashu (Jose Manuel Martin) whose evil henchwoman is played by a Fez-wearing Rosalba Neri (we don’t see enough of her but hey, can you ever really see enough of Rosalba Neri?) It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Nayland Smith (Richard Greene again) ultimately thwarts these megalomaniacal shenanigans. This time the mandatory closing promise / thereat that the world would see Fu Manchu again rings hollow. Despite planning for a sixth entry, Harry Alan Towers decided that Jess Franco had singlehandedly achieved what nobody else ever managed… to kill off Fu Manchu (though no doubt the penny-pinching producer himself had a significant hand in the Doc’s untimely demise).

Could the world’s cinemas feasibly hear from Fu Manchu again in these more “woke” times? One imagines some kind of major revamp would be in order. As a pragmatic jobbing actor, Burt Kwouk was always cool regarding his appearances in this and similar fare. Tsai Chin later said that she felt she’d let her race down by appearing in the Fu Manchu flicks, though no doubt if an occidental actress had played her character, that would now be seriously frowned upon as well. You can’t win, really… just ask that perennially underachieving would be world dominator, Dr Fu Manchu. No matter… his cinematic crusade to rehabilitate the international prestige of Chinese would be achieved (and then some), scant years later, by a certain Bruce Lee.

All films have been handsomely restored from 4K scans of the original negatives. The first three are international BD premieres, the Franco films making their first UK appearances on blu here. Each film is introduced by the BFI’s Vic Pratt. Audio commentaries come courtesy of Stephen Jones / Kim Newman, David Flint / Adrian Smith and Jonathan Rigby. There are archival audio interviews with Don Sharp, Ernest Steward and Jeremy Summers, video ones with Lee (including with the Guardian’s David Robinson and a short piece from the Dublin location of Face), also AD Anthony Waye and clapper loader Ray Andrew on their never-a-dull-moment experiences working for the late Harry Alan Towers. There’s also an entertaining experience with the man himself, who owns up to a “confused” love life (apparently his long-standing partner Maria Rohm sanctioned or disallowed his one night stands on the basis of the proposed conquest’s star sign!) The wonderful Rosalba Neri (below) also talks enthusiastically about working with Franco, whom she remembers as “a genius”.

Kim Newman reflects on Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, Jonathan Rigby on Christopher Lee’s early career, Stephen Thrower on the Franco / Towers collaborations and Christopher Frayling outlines the whole “yellow peril” controversy attaching to Fu Manchu on screen. Two silent Stoll Picture shorts from 1923/4, starring H. Agar Lyons as the Doc – The Fiery Hand and (renewed topicality, here) The Coughing Horror – also included here as extras, illustrate just how far back the arguably dishonourable tradition extends (and each is presented with an optional new score by the band Peninsula). If you need the mood lightening a bit after that little lot, this set also includes Jeremy Summer’s Children’s Film Foundation short The Ghost of Monk’s Island… what, no Sammy’s Super T-shirt?!? You do get the requisite shedload of trailers, TV spots, alternative credits and titles, image galleries plus Super 8 presentations and colour test footage of Lee and Tsai Chin from Blood of Fu Manchu. The limited (to 6,000 numbered units) edition also packs an exclusive 120-page book with a new essay on these films by Tim Lucas, appraisals of the eventful lives and careers of Sax Rohmer and Harry Alan Towers, an examination of the work of Fu Manchu creator, new writing on The Ghost of Monk’s Island Stoll Pictures’ silent Fu Manchu serials, archival newspaper articles, pressbook extracts, contemporary critical responses and full film credits, also an exclusive double-sided poster and five replica production stills.

Phew, did I leave anything out?

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Hey, You’ve Got To Hide Your Hyde Away… I, MONSTER Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. 12.

Still smarting over their uncredited role in bringing Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) to the screen, always chasing market leaders Hammer, Amicus honchoes Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky released their stab at the “definitive” adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde in 1971, the same year as Hammer’s floridly revisionist Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde arrived. All the better to play up their version’s putative faithfulness to Stevenson’s text, you might have thought, but inexplicably they lost their nerve, opted for a non-Stevensonian title and rechristened Christopher Lee’s alternative identities “Charles Marlowe” (the handsome, well intentioned but fatally hubristic scientist) and “Edward Blake” (his increasingly bubo-infested, dentally challenged malevolent shadow).

There’s been much fruitless speculation (to which I won’t add) over the reasoning behind this but even after we’ve parked that one, the other chestnut that keeps coming up and crowding out any discussion of the film’s actual merits is the abandoned 3-D gimmick which utilised the Pulfrich effect, dispensing with the need for special cameras but requiring Lee to walk from side within static shots more frequently than he oscillates between Good and Evil (while folks in the background typically traverse the screen in the opposite direction!) Amicus thought better of it before releasing I, Monster but it you don a pair of those cardboard glasses (surely every well appointed household is equipped with one?) while watching, you’ll get a pretty good idea of how it might well have worked, via an impressive visual collaboration between DP Moray Grant and art director Tony Curtis (no, not that Tony Curtis!) Personally, I always get a headache watching this stuff… still recovering from that Channel 4 screening of Flesh For Frankenstein!

Visual distractions aside, Weeks keeps things rolling along in satisfyingly entertaining fashion. I won’t insult my readers by assuming that you need a run down of the plot, reasonably faithfully adapted from Stevenson’s 1886 novella by Subotsky (though he can’t resist adding an anachronistic dollop of Freud to the principals’ musings about Rousseau, the nature of Evil, et al). The film is certainly way more faithful than Terence Fisher’s Hammer effort The Two Faces Of Dr Jekyll from 11 years earlier (which neglected to mention RLS at all in its credits / titles). Nor will you need me to point out that the combination of Lee and Peter Cushing (as Marlowe’s bewildered friend Dr. Utterson) makes for “must watch” stuff. The casting of Mike Raven, however, as their colleague Enfield, only exposes the fragility of his big time Horror Icon aspirations.

A root through the lower echelons of the supporting cast, though, does throw up some interesting finds, e.g. Michael Des Barres (who, like the late Raven, has straddled the worlds of film and music) as a “Peaky Blinders” type who gets into a razor fight with Blake and the uncredited trio of Lesley (Blue Peter) Judd (as De Barres’ strumpet girlfriend), future “video nasties” stalwart Ian McCulloch as “man at bar” and – as “girl in alley” – young Chloe Franks, a perennial Subotsky favourite who qualifies as the UK’s answer to Nicoletta Elmi on account of her roles in this, Trog (1970), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Tales From The Crypt (1972), Whoever Slew Aunti Roo? (1972) and The Uncanny (1977).

Indicator’s limited (to 5,000 units) edition, another BD World Premiere, boasts two cuts of Weeks’ film, the 75-minute theatrical cut and an 81 minute variant, each restored in 2K. The director contributes a new audio commentary in addition to an archive one on which he collaborated with film scholar Sam Umland in 2005. Stephen Laws, who offers a short introduction to the film, also pops up interviewing Weeks in footage shot at the 1998 Festival Of Fantastic Films in Manchester. Carl Davis discusses his score for the film in another new interview. Audio interview wise, a section of Phil Nutman’s epic pow wow with Subotsky is complimented by part one of the BEHP interview with editor Peter Tanner. Yes, you get trailers and image galleries and if you’ve ever wanted to view this film’s trailer with an audio commentary from Kim Newman and David Flint, here’s your chance. I haven’t seen the limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet but am reliably informed that it includes Milton Subotsky’s memoir on I, Monster, a new essay by Josephine Botting, archival interview with Stephen Weeks, overview of contemporary critical responses and full film credits.

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Thrilling To Gilling … Swashbuckling Matinee Madness On INDICATOR’S FIFTH HAMMER BD BOX SET

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Hammer Volume 5: Death & Deceit.
BD. Indicator. Region B. 12.

VISA TO CANTON (Michael Carreras, 1961) World BD premiere.
THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (John Gilling, 1962) UK BD premiere.
THE SCARLET BLADE (John Gilling, 1963) World BD premiere.
THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR (John Gilling, 1965) World BD premiere.

Although he’s better remembered for his Hammer Horror credits (notably the superior 1966 brace The Reptile and Plague Of The Zombies, less notably for the following year’s lack-lustre The Mummy’s Shroud or 1961’s The Shadow Of The Cat… though the latter is regarded as something of an underrated gem by Hammer aficionados) John Gilling directed a similar amount of Hammer’s swashbuckling adventure yarns (stirring tales of derring-do for boys of all ages), including the lion’s share of this latest limited edition Hammer box from Indicator, which easily maintains the high standards set by its predecessors.

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… and we’ll just gloss gently over Gilling’s Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1952)

It’s received wisdom, in certain quarters, that Hammer kept the UK film industry afloat during the 1960s with its “lavish productions”, but anything more rigorous than a cursory squint at these films themselves  (never mind the cheese-paring anecdotes related in the supplementary materials here) reveals a modus operandi not too far removed from that of Jess Franco himself, with stock footage of crowd and battle scenes cheerfully filched from other pictures.

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Notoriously, the sea dogs in Gilling’s The Pirates Of Blood River (and I guess the clue was right there in that title) don’t even have a ship from which to fly their Jolly Roger, unless you count the stock footage galleon floating around under the film’s titles or a conspicuous model thereof, briefly glimpsed later in the picture. Instead, the dubiously accented Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee, fresh off of Bava’s Hercules In The Haunted World but, four years after Dracula, still billed beneath Kerwin Mathews and TV actor Glenn Corbett) leads his posse of pretty and not so pretty boys through waterways populated by ravenous piranhas (for the purposes of the story) and (in real life) raw human sewage! Tall, dark and gruesome, Lee managed to keep his head above the scum line but if you study the relevant sequences diligently, you might be able to work out the precise moment at which Oliver Reed (as LaRoche’s sidekick Brocaire) contracted an eye infection.

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The Pirates of Poo Pond…

By all accounts Gilling was a martinet with little interest in endearing himself to his actors and about as much regard for Health & Safety as the people who put that cladding on Grenfell Tower. In The Scarlet (Crimson, States-side) Blade, we learn, only the threat of a walk out by the crew dissuaded him from staging a hanging stunt in such a way that the actor involved was in very real peril of asphyxiation. It’s interesting to see Michael Ripper (generously basted in Bisto as gypsy Pablo) in that film, “riding a horse” (but quite clearly not) against a blatant back projection, having witnessed another thespian coming an equestrian cropper under Gilling’s direction. Ripper, incidentally, gets much meatier roles in many of these adventure yarns than he could ever have hoped for in Hammer’s more celebrated Gothic Horrors… he’s also great as knife throwing Pirate Mack (get it?) in Blood River.

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While he was never going to be voted humanitarian of the year by his collaborators, Gilling was that rarest of commodities in early ’60s British Cinema, a writer / director and one with a real knack for moral ambivalence and character development. In POBR Mathews’ Jonathan Standing finds his good standing in an island community of stuffy Huguenots seriously undermined when his affair with another man’s wife is discovered. She tries to elude her shame by running into a piranha infested river (with predictable results) while he’s sentenced by a jury of elders (chaired by his emotionally torn father) to a spell in a particularly brutish labour camp. Liberated from this hell hole by those pirates, Standing throws his lot in with them, on condition that they treat the rest of the islanders (including a pre-pubescent Dennis Waterman) with clemency. When they laughingly renege on this undertaking, Standing has to reconsider his position all over again…

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Hammer never saddled up for any ostensible oaters but Pirates and its companion pieces are clearly crypto-Westerns. The obvious literary model, meanwhile, is the story of Coriolanus, as evoked by Shakespeare via Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s The Lives Of The Noble Grecians And Romans. Gilling continues to plunder this palimpsest with further not so simple minded thrills and spills in the aforementioned Scarlet Blade, wherein Olly Reed’s Roundhead Capt. Tom Sylvester oscillates between careerism (masquerading as the call of duty and devotion to Lionel Jeffries’ Col. Judd) and lust (masquerading as love) for Judd’s Royalist sympathising daughter Clare (June Thorburn) who secretly supports the fifth column activities of the Zorro-like title character, Edward Beverley, played by Jack Hedley. Maybe if I’d opened my pitch for a Hedley interview with this one rather than the scarlet blades he encountered in lucio fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982), I might have got somewhere…

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The film is simple-mindedly pro-Cavalier and freighted with anachronisms and inaccuracies but Gilling is clearly less interested in such stuff than he is in individual conscience and its attendant dilemmas. In distinct contrast to Reed’s character’s death in Pirates (“Ooh mama”, indeed!) Sylvester’s character contradictions ultimately explode in one of the the most scenery-chewing death scenes ever committed to celluloid.

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There’s more of the same in The Brigand Of Kandahar, with half-caste (as he would have been referred to in those days) British officer Case (Ronald Lewis) again falling from grace on account of an illicit affair (his peers disapproval here compounded by considerations of class and the taboo of miscegenation). He takes up arms against the British Empire with the dreaded Eli Khan (Reed getting to wear the boot blacking on his face this time) before the latter’s duplicity and casual cruelty make for second thoughts… further complicated bt the erotic attentions of Yvonne Romain’s “Ratina” (!?) Stay tuned for a “lust in the dust” styled denoument and plenty of other stuff subsequently lampooned in Carry On Up The Khyber (1968).

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Gilling went on to direct episodes of such iconic ITC television series as The Saint, The Champions and Department S and… after relocating to Spain (where he died in 1984), Cross Of The Devil, (1975)… a semi-canonical entry in the Blind Dead / Templars cycle.

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Michael Carreras’s Visa To Canton (“Passport To China” for the American market) is a significantly less sophisticated proposition than any of the above, in fact you could comfortably dismiss it as a pale Bond knock off… until you check your dates! Ian Fleming’s greatest creation first saw the light of the silver screen in Terence Young’s Dr. No, two years after Richard Basehart’s Don Benton used his Far East travel agency as a front to foil some fiendish Oriental insurgency (Hammer’s track record in this area doesn’t hold up well to PC scrutiny… Anthony Bushell’s Terror Of The Tongs was made back to back with Visa To Canton but Red Communism was clearly supplanting inscrutable supervillains as the “Yellow Peril”), wooing the dangerously glamorous Lisa Gastoni while doing so. It would be overstepping the mark to claim 007 as a Benton clone (Visa To Canton looks like it’s striving to set up a few sequels but presumably those were deemed surplus to requirement after international audiences had bonded with Bond) but the music’s another matter and it’s here that David Huckvale’s diverting bonus discourses on the OSTs to the films in this box proves most telling, pointing out the influence on Monty Norman’s 007 theme from the ostinatos that Edwin Astley (Pete Townshend’s father-in-law, BTW) fashioned for Visa To Canton.

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As on Indicator’s previous Hammer sets, this one is stuffed with extras. Horror author Stephen Laws provides well informed but pleasantly fannish introductions to each film, female critics profile their leading actresses (here it’s Josephine Botting on June Thornburn, Melanie Williams on Yvonne Romain and Virginie Sélavy on Lisa Gastoni, while Kat Ellinger handles  Marla Landi (great to learn that she became Lady Dashwood after marrying Sir Francis, whose namesake ancestor founded the Hellfire Club!) Audio commentaries come courtesy of Vic Pratt, Kevin Lyons and (for Pirates) screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, art director Don Mingaye and Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. You get the expected trailers, image galleries all and the “Collectors Booklet” stuff I never set eyes on.

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Strewn among the remaining extras, we find such treats as Stephen Laws interviewing Andrew Keir (who found Quatermass And The Pit director Roy Ward Baker about as likeable as everybody else here found John Gilling) at Manchester’s Festival Of Fantastic Films in 1993; Jonathan Rigby’s extensive personal reminiscences of top Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster; appraisals of Gilling from Kim Newman and Neil Sinyard,  the latter likening him to Val Lewton, no less. Yes, We Have No Piranhas is an exhaustive video essay on Pirates of Blood River’s censorship travails, with split screen comparisons detailing every excised piranha bite. We also learn that the BBFC (whose John Trevelyan remembered TPOBR as the only film he ever busted down from an ‘X’ certificate to a ‘U’) insisted on the volume of whip cracks being reduced!

The Gilling stuff has been beautifully remastered and Visa To Canton looks OK. This is another cracking box set limited to 6,000 numbered units, so what are you waiting for? Grab yourself a piece of the action, right now…

 

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It’s Hammer (Horror) Time! Indicator’s HAMMER VOLUME FOUR: FACES OF FEAR Box Reviewed

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BD. Indicator. Region Free. 15.

Indicators limited (to 6,000 numbered units) edition Hammer Volume Four: Faces Of Fear box set trawls through that legendary studio’s repertoire in similarly promiscuous style to its three predecessors, yielding four UK Blu-ray premieres. First up is possibly the most undervalued jewel in Hammer’s Gothic crown, Terence Fisher’s The Revenge Of Frankenstein (1958). Although it’s generally acknowledged that, in the previous Universal cycle, James Whale outdid even the splendours of his Frankenstein (1931) when he made The Bride Of Frankenstein in 1935, Fisher’s second Frankenstein flick tends to get undeservedly short shrift relative to the big break through picture he helmed for Hammer, The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957).

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TROF takes up exactly where the original left off in 1860, as the Baron (Peter Cushing) is led out to his assignation with the guillotine. His deformed assistant Carl having greased the executioner’s palm, the attending priest affords the Baron more solace than he could possibly have imagined by going under the blade in his place. Three years later, Dr Stein has relocated to Carlsbrück, where he’s maintaining a very successful medical practice. His lucrative work on the town’s neurotic young ladies and their matchmaking mothers underwrites his free clinic for this burg’s unwashed social marginals who in, their turn keep the Baron in body parts for his sophomore crack at creating a new creature. Carl will be repaid by having his superfine mind relocated to a more salubrious body (that of Michael Gwynne) and everybody will be happy ever after. That’s the idea, anyway…

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Ambitious young doctor Hans Kleve (Francis “future voice of Captain Scarlet” Mathews) is Klever enough to figure out the doc’s true identity and volunteers to assist him. As the alternative is to be turned in to the police, “Doctor Stein” graciously accepts this kind offer. The big operation turns out successfully but the intervention of well-off do gooder Margaret (Eunice Gayson) sparks off an unfortunate sequence of events resulting in the handsome young creature degenerating physically and turning cannibal (!) The hoity-toity local medical board aren’t best pleased with these developments, but their response pales into insignificance compared to the reaction of the unwashed paupers / unwitting organ donors, leading to a twist ending which sets up the Baron nicely for the rest of the series as a proper self made man.

 

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Did I mention the fab cameos from Michael Ripper and Lionel Jeffries?

Among the expected plethora of extras attending this 4K restoration there’s that cracking trailer with Cushing’s baron ‘fessing up to his escape from Madame Guillotine and his plans for new outrages. In the featurette Back from the Dead Jonathan Rigby, Alan Barnes and Kevin Lyons devote their collective attention to the film. The consensus emerges that Eunice Gayson’s character was a bit of a waste of screen space. Pamela Hutchinson makes the pro-Eunice case in her featurette then Kat Ellinger gets the casting vote in a visual essay directed by Dima Ballin. I don’t know if Kat’s the first critic to discern a connection between Cushing’s Frankenstein and Dennis Price’s character in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949), but the comparison is very well drawn.

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There are two audio commentaries from duos of genre pundits, Marcus Hearn / Jonathan Rigby and Kim Newman / Stephen Jones. David Huckvale (author of Hammer Film Scores And The Musical Avant Garde) dissects Salzedo’s score and you get 12 soundless minutes of on-set outtakes plus the 8 minute long Super 8 presentation and image gallery. As with all the other films on this set, there’s a trailer with optional audio commentary (in this case by Joe Dante). There’ll also be a limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet including a new Marcus Hearn essay and Kieran Foster on Hammer’s unrealised Tales of Frankenstein TV series, Jimmy Sangster on The Revenge of Frankenstein, a selection of promotional materials, an overview of contemporary reviews and comprehensive film credits.

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At the point in my life where it was beginning to dawn on me that Horror Films might actually be worth writing about rather than just casually consuming, Mario Bava, Roger Corman and Terence Fisher were generally regarded as the holy trinity of auteurs among Horror directors in the critical texts I started reading. Producer Val Lewton was afforded similar status. Subsequent waves of pro and fanzine publications have only boosted Bava’s credentials but these days Corman is more highly regarded for the talent he brought along rather than his own directorial efforts and Lewton has just about disappeared off the radar which Fisher vacated long ago.

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Wolf Mankowitz seemed to have precious little respect for Fisher even in 1960, when he was called upon to impart an air of “respectability” to the director’s The Two Faces Of Dr Jekyll. His screenplay, freighted with throwaway Freud and Nietzsche, displays similarly scant regard for Robert Louis Stevenson (and to make it unanimous, Hammer deny Stevenson a writing credit for a classic  story that had slipped into the public domain), introducing a new character, Paul Allen (Christoper Lee) who turns an infernal triangle (also involving Dawn Addams as the doc’s flighty wife) into a right raunchy rectangle.

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Paul Massie takes on the title role(s), tweedy and dull in a joke shop beard (Hammer make up maestro Roy Ashton sparing every expense) as Dr J, clean shaven, wild eyed and overacting furiously as Paul Allen gives Mr H. a guided tour of the most vanilla debauchery London has to offer. Composer Monty Norman (yes, the Bond guy) and DP Jack Asher impart the requisitely lush sound and visuals (beautifully rendered in this HD remaster) to keep a golden era Hammer romp rattling along. By the close of proceedings Dr J is confronted with the real life fall out from his abstract philosophical theories about “authentic” manhood. This one would make an interesting double bill with Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Miss Osbourne (1981), which wrestles with similar ethical concerns and takes similar liberties with the narrative of RLS’s venerable yarn.

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Bonus wise you get an audio commentary with film historians Josephine Botting and Jonathan Rigby, the latter also popping up alongside his usual cohorts in the overview featurette Identity Crisis. Academic Laura Mayne profiles Dawn Addams and we get the additional benefit of a fan’s audio interview with Paul Massie (who reassures his interlocutor that the sex films in his films were actually staged) and an archive interview with Wolf Mankowitz. In Mauve Decadence, David Huckvale supplements his discussion of Monty Norman’s score with observations on the film’s colour schemes. Plus all the expected stuff and the booklet will feature a new essay by Kat Ellinger, a selection of promotional materials, an overview of contemporary reviews and full film credits.

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Not wanting to be typecast as… well, tall, dark and gruesome, Christopher Lee declined the lead role(s) in TTFODJ in favour of one that prefigures several he subsequently took in certain of Jess Franco’s better budgeted De Sade adaptations a decade or so later… and of course in 1971 he took the “Jekyll / Hyde” (actually Marlowe / Blake) roles in Stephen Weeks’ even looser Amicus adaptation I, Monster. So go figure.

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Lee wasn’t the only one worried about flogging the goose that laid the golden egg to death, either. Michael Carreras and the other Hammer bigwigs were more worried about that than I clearly am about mixing metaphors and for Taste Of Fear (1961), Jimmy Sangster was tasked with writing an hommage to a French film that was released in 1955 and whose influence, though apparently rapidly eclipsed by Hammer’s more overtly explosive efforts, subsequently pervaded some of Hitchcock’s finest screen achievements (notably Vertigo and Psycho) and later the gialli with which it has, on numerous occasions, been associated in this blog. I’m talking, of course, about Henri George Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (below). Underlining this attempted shift in style Taste Of Fear, directed in 1961 by Seth Holt (heading up only his second feature film) was shot in moody monochrome (rather than Fisher’s favoured gaudy colour schemes) by Douglas Slocombe.

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Wheelchair bound Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) visits her estranged father’s cliff top mansion in the South of France, only to be told that he’s away. So why does what appears to be his corpse (below) keep turning up in the conservatory, swimming pool and elsewhere? Looks like her step mother Jane (Ann Todd) and the family doctor Pierre Gerrard Lee again) are attempting to gaslight Penny out of her inheritance. Luckily Ann’s hunky chauffeur Robert (Ronald Lewis) seems to be rooting for our girl… but there are plenty of twists to come.

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Nearly 60 years after its initial release, Taste Of Fear remains an effective shocker, from its gloomy opening to the satisfying poetic irony of its conclusion, with twists piling upon twists along the way. You’ve got to give Holt, Sangster and co credit for something fresh because the template of Les Diaboliques had not, at this point, been thrashed into the ground by so many late ’60s and subsequent gialli (most of them written by Ernesto Gastaldi). Don’t get me wrong, I love those pictures but Clouzot’s original remains superior to them and indeed Taste Of Fear, because… well, I think it’s something to do with the fact that its protagonists are struggling to survive in a drab, unforgiving environment, as opposed to the louche playboys and girls who came later. Does that make me sound “classist”? I’m not sure that’s even a real word…

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Together with two presentations of the main feature (including the US version Scream Of Fear) we’re treated to a particularly bumper slate of supplementary materials on this disc including a commentary track from Kevin Lyons, who joins Jonathan Rigby and Alan Barnes in the featurette Body Horror. Expect lots of anecdotes about director Holt having to contend with Strasberg’s formidable mother on set. Melanie Williams profiles Ann Todd and there are not one but two (one video, one audio) interviews with Jimmy Sangster. Joining Jimmy in the British Entertainment History Project archive, Douglas Slocombe talks about working for Hammer and Steven Spielberg and camera operator Desmond Davis and assistant sound editor John Crome chip in with their reminiscenses.  You get the Super 8 version of Scream of Fear and the booklet will contain an essay by Marcus Hearn, Jimmy Sangster on the film, an archival on-set report, selection of promotional materials and an overview of contemporary reviews.

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The Damned (1962… “These Are The Damned” in the US) would fit just as comfortably (or uncomfortably) on any other Hammer box. This eclectic effort could have been (and at various points was) hyped as both juvenile delinquency and sci-fi saga, the latter slant enhanced no end by its more than passing resemblance to Wolf Rilla’s Village Of The Damned (1960 and pictured below, mainly because it’s such a groovy graphic!)

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Middle-aged yank Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) sails into Weymouth and begins his holiday by falling foul of a honey trap involving attractive young Joan (Shirley Anne Field) and run by her brother (Oliver Reed, who appears briefly in Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll and was last seen ripping off seaside tourists on this blog in Michael Winner’s The System). Beaten up by King’s “Teddy Boys” (clearly a gang of actual Rockers, drilled by King in a foreshadowing of Alex’s handling of his droogs in A Clockwork Orange), Wells continues his pursuit of Joan and by various clumsy script contrivances the dramatis personae find themselves in a secret base on an island where irradiated children are being prepared for a post-Apocalyptic future…

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A likely story, with awkward characterisations exacerbated by some conspicuous miscasting, The Damned is nevertheless well worth watching due to the profusion of challenging ideas throws out by Joseph Losey (several of whose films have been recently released by Indicator). On the lam from McCarythyite witch hunting (and originally pencilled in to direct Hammer’s X – The Unknown, 1956, until its Commie-phobic star Dean Jagger objected and Leslie Norman replaced him), Losey was always fascinated by the power dynamics between social groupings, be they biker gangs or deep state bigwigs dictating the fates of nations. He’d studied with  Bertolt Brecht so maybe we can give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that if the characterisations and miscastings in this film have an alienating effect, they were supposed to. Maybe.

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This one will also be accompanied by an exclusive 36-page booklet comprising a new essay by Richard Combs, Losey’s reminiscences, the US pressbook, contemporary reviews and all the rest of it. The 2K restoration is presented in two 96-minute versions, as either The Damned or These Are the Damned. Rigby, Barnes, Lyons and in this case Nick Riddle present an overview of the film and there’s a commentary track courtesy of Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan. You get alternative appraisals from Neil Sinyard and I Q HunterFilm plus an interview with filmmaker Gavrik Losey, son of the director and always an acute analyst of his father’s work. Film historian Lindsay Hallam profiles Viveca Lindfors. There are interviews with first time screen writer Evan Jones, brought in by Losey to  improve the screenplay (so God knows what kind of shape it was originally in) and camera operator Anthony Heller. Possibly the most engaging interviews of all are with grown up radioactive munchkins David Palmer, Kit Williams and Christopher Witty, who all seem to have developed juvenile crushes on Shirley Anne Field (and why on Earth wouldn’t they?), who is also interviewed. Here at THOF we’ve never knowingly spurned an opportunity to run a picture of SAF looking lurvely and why should this posting be any different?

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The Asylum That Dripped Blood… Two AMICUS Horror Portmanteaus Arrive On UK Blu-Ray In Limited Editions.

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The House That Dripped Blood. BD. Second Sight Films. Region B. 15
Asylum. BD. Second Sight Films. Region B. 15
Released 29/07/19

Having put their own stamp on the Portmanteau Horror format with the Freddie Francis brace Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965) and Torture Garden (1967), Amicus honchos Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg attempted to diversify their portfolio with, among others, juvenile Sci-Fi epics (They Came From Beyond Space and The Terrornauts, both 1967) and dramas that were psychologically (The Mind Of Mr. Soames, 1969) or socially (A Touch Of Love, the same year) significant… before returning to tried-and-tested multi-story chills with The House That Dripped Blood (1970), on which Subotsberg saved money by shooting in an around a lodge on the Shepperton Studio grounds and by entrusting the project to moderately talented TV director Peter Duffell. Previous collections having been MCd by Death himself (Dr. Terror) and Old Nick (Torture Garden), writer Robert Bloch came up with an embodiment of real evil to link the vignettes in this one… an estate agent!!! Actually John Bryans (as “A.J. Stoker”… geddit?) isn’t particularly scary and his role in the narrative wraparound is further weakened by the intrusions of a clueless cop (John Bennett) investigating four cases of foul play and mysterious disappearance at the titular abode. 

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In Bloch’s first tale Joanna Dunham plots to send horror author husband Denholm Elliott insane by disguising her toy-boy paramour as one of the writer’s own murderous creations… unfortunately this guy turns out to be a bit of a method actor; romantic rivals Peter Cushing and Joss Ackland develop a mutual obsession with a wax work of Salome… to the extent that they both end up losing their heads over her; Christopher Lee plays a widower whose tyrannical treatment of his cute daughter turns out to be justified, albeit ineffective (at this point Lee was meditating a retirement from horror roles and the plentiful sight and script digs at him throughout THTDB might well have influenced his decision); and in the final, comedic episode, Jon Pertwee essays the role of a lovey darling horror actor (desperately trying to out-ham Ingrid Pitt) who buys a vampire’s cloak which turns out to be all-too authentic.

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The House That Dripped Blood cleaned up at the box office for Amicus, largely no doubt to a lurid marketing campaign based on that title (Duffle had wanted the film to be called “Death And The Maiden”!) The Peertwee section is right up there with Michael Armstrong’s Eskimo Nell as a humorous critique of low budget genre filmmaking but the varying tones of the episodes never really cohere and the all-important wraparound story plods before petering out in anticlimactic fashion. Subotsberg unceremoniously shuffled Duffle (with a minimum of kerfuffle) back to (in Pertwee’s phrase) “the dreary confines of television” TV land, while future entries in the cycle were entrusted to safer directorial hands…

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… e.g. Roy Ward Baker (above left, with Subotsky) on Asylum (1972). Here young psychiatrist Robert Powell auditions for a job at an isolated funny farm by attempting to work out which of the inmates is his predecessor Dr Starr (my money’s on the big-nosed, mop-topped dude with the drumsticks), who’s taken an unfortunate turn for the hopelessly insane. Orderly Geoffrey (“Crowman”) Bayldon treats him to a guided tour of the loony bin, where he meets the inmates and Bloch’s terrifying tales unfold. Barbara Parkins (that’s Parkins, poster guys!) tells of how she egged her lover Richard Todd on to the axe murder of his wife Sylvia Sims, whose dismembered body parts he wraps in brown paper and deposits in the freezer. Having ganged up on and disposed of Todd (a ludicrous but highly entertaining spectacle), the wrapped up remains turn their vengeful attentions on Barbara, who manages to chop half her face off while putting down the unruly limbs. The evidence for this is disappointingly rendered by Hammer make-up nabob Roy Ashton through the simple expedient of drawing some lines on her face with red marker pen!

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Next up, financially strapped tailor Barry Morse attempts to bring back Peter Cushing’s dead son by making up a black magic suit which, when carelessly placed on a mannequin, brings on the stiffest acting since Fluff Freeman in Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors; Then (allegedly) recovering basket case Charlotte Rampling has an evil friend (Britt Eland) who turns out to be a figment of her imagination; finally, Herbert Lom builds murderous homunculi to get his retaliation in first against Patrick Magee, the psychiatrist who intends to lobotomise him. Powell drastically misses his guess re the ID of the mad medic and is strangled by the real Dr Starr, amid an outbreak of spectacular overacting. Another candidate for the job arrives as the credits roll, another cyclical suggestion of the seminal Dead Of Night (1945).

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Rampling’s episode is the only real weak link in Asylum… viewers can see the “twist” coming a mile off but, compounding the insult, never get to sees Ms Ekland dancing around in the buff (as in The Wicker Man) or masturbating on the telephone (a la Get Carter). Baker was probably too much of an “Old School” director for that, nevertheless piling on the gore and grue with great gusto and the grand guignol is perfectly complimented by selections from the most bombastic orchestral works of Modest Mussorgsky.

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Asylum is just one of those films that’s always going to look rather grainy on blu-ray (there’s little to choose between this transfer and the one on Severin’s recent Amicus box set)… House That Dripped Blood fares a bit better, grain-wise, on this showing. In terms of extras, the Asylum disc carries an audio commentary with Baker and Camera Operator Neil Binney, the Inside The Fear Factory featurette, the BBC’s on-set report Two’s A Company, David J. Schow’s appreciation of Robert Bloch, the reminiscences of Subotsky’s widow Fiona and a theatrical trailer… all of these familiar from other recent editions. There’s a reversible poster and reversible sleeve options, with the choice of vintage or new Graham Humphreys artwork. The booklet, which I haven’t seen, will feature essays by Allan Bryce, Kat Ellinger and Jon Towlson.

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Purchasers of THTDB are marginally better provided for vis-a-vis supplementary materials. A new commentary by Troy Howarth joins the previously heard one from director Duffell and Jonathan Rigby. Second AD Mike Higgins gets to have his say in another fresh featurette. Then there’s the familiar ‘A’ Rated Horror Film short, comprising interviews with Duffell and cast members, also the trailers, radio spots, reversible poster and sleeve options you’d be expecting and another booklet with the assessments of Brycie, Kat and Mr Towlson.

BTW, did anybody out there not guess who Dr Starr was? C’mon guys, get a grip…

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

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

If you’ll indulge me in a spot of nostalgia (and why wouldn’t you?), Eugenio Martin’s Horror Express (Pánico En El Transiberiano, 1972) was – along with the likes of Witchfinder General, Tales From The Crypt, et al – a regular fixture on the Friday late night horror slot with which Granada TV used to enliven my humdrum adolescence. In those days of course (sit up and pay attention, Junior, this is for your own good!) we didn’t yet have the benefit of VCRs and given that the gaps between transmissions of certain films might be as long as two years, it was a catastrophe of global proportions if you succumbed to sleep half way through this or some or other horror gem, usually waking up during the credits with a stiff neck and another significant wait in prospect.

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Flash forward past the VHS era and into incipient middle age, at the dawn of DVD, where Horror Express became one of the most widely released titles on the nascent format, mostly in scuzzy looking and not necessarily authorised editions on fly-by-night labels, apparently because of a misconception that it had entered the public domain. Indeed, if memory serves me well, this is the first title I ever saw on DVD, round at David Flint’s place. Image Entertainment’s managed a decent R1 version that has been deleted for some time now and was followed  by a R2 incarnation from Cinema Club’s Horror Classics imprint, very welcome despite its absence of extras, full screen presentation and rather tired, solarised-looking print, which seemed identical to the one that subsequently got screened by the BBC. In 2011 Severin managed a predictably pristine BD / DVD combo edition chock full of impressive extras that you’re going to get another chance to catch on the new Arrow release under consideration here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anyone Who Had A Heart… TALES FROM THE CRYPT reviewed

“Ooh, Mister Grimsdyke!”

Blu-ray. Region B. Final Cut. 15.

Although Amicus got their series of portmanteau horror epics off to a barnstorming start with Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965), its immediate successors – Torture Garden (1967) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971) – were patchy affairs. Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg subsequently cemented their place in the Horror Hall Of Fame though with the holy trinity of Asylum, Tales From The Crypt (both 1972) and Vault Of Horror (1973.) TFTC is a perennial personal favourite here at The House Of Freudstein, so just imagine the scene of jubilation on Christmas morning when it transpired that, among the copious goodies Santa had deposited from his bulging sack, was the new Final Cut BD of this seminal effort (sorry, I just interviewed Julian Clary’s gag writer and I think something has, er, rubbed off.)

For this one the Amicus boys recalled Francis as director but, having exhausted the prolific pen of Robert Bloch in their previous efforts, turned to the blood drenched pages of EC’s notorious, suppressed comics for inspiration, adapted its five vignettes from stories by Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig that had featured in EC’s Tales From The Crypt and its sister publication The Vault Of Horror. The cod moralising of these comics was perfectly suited to the evolving ethos of Amicus…whereas Dr Terror had dished out terror, horror and ultimately death in indiscriminate style (Christopher Lee’s vindictive art critic deserved all he got, arguably Roy Castle’s voodoo profaning trumpeter too, but it’s difficult to see what Neil McCallum, Alan “Fluff” Freeman and Donald Sutherland had done to merit their respective fates, apart from simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time), there had been an accelerating trend in subsequent cycle entries towards poetic justice, allowing viewers to revel in the grisly demise of a screen character, with the comfort of clear consciences because the bastard had it coming!

Coffee Table revelation

Despite the warnings of tour guide (Amicus regular Geoffrey Bayldon) against “losing their way”, the usual motley crew of misfits wander off while checking out some underground catacombs, seemingly bored by his tales of religious intolerance and persecution. The stories they share, when confronted by a sinister robed figure (the casting of Sir Ralph Richardson as The Crypt Keeper stands as a coup that would only be topped when Bob Guccione signed up his mate John Gielgud for Tinto Brass’s big budget wankfest biopic of Caligula, 1979) reveal them as rather more petty exemplars of man’s eternal inhumanity to man, though admittedly each gets paid out in boffo style. Joan Collins celebrates Christmas Eve by bashing out her boring husband’s brains with a poker (maybe he didn’t get her the horror Blu-ray she asked for), warning her daughter not to come downstairs because Santa’s on his way… and he obligingly arrives in the shape of an escaped homicidal maniac, whom the kid (Chloe Franks, Christopher Lee’s witchy daughter in The House That Dripped Blood) gleefully lets in at the patio door; Ian Hendry bails on his wife and kid to do a runner with sexy mistress Angie Grant, only to end up in one of those endlessly looping “phew, it was all a dream / oh shit, no it wasn’t” nightmares of RTAs and walking death; a pair of property value-obsessed proto-yuppies drive kindly old bin man Arthur Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing) to suicide on Valentine’s day, which improves the tone of the neighbourhood but leads to a vengeful visit from his shambling corpse on February 14th the following year; Barbara Murray wishes for a financial upturn on a magic jade stature (“It’s just like that old story, The Monkey’s Paw” observes another character, helpfully) and inadvertently condemns her husband, ruthless industrialist Richard Greene, to an eternity of agony (cineastes might care to play “Spot the Cocteau quote” during this story); finally, in the longest episode, retired military man Nigel Patrick becomes the governor of an institution for blind men and systematically raids its budget so that he can lead the high life while they freeze and starve. Patrick Magee, riveting as ever, leads an improbable but satisfying insurrection involving a razor-lined rat run (difficult to imagine the old blind boys constructing this without inflicting some nasty injuries on themselves and each other), the Major’s Alsation, starved into a feral state and… lights out! The moral of this story? Never say: “Can’t you see I’m having my lunch?” to a blind dude… Predictably, The Crypt Keeper reveals that all of them have actually perpetrated the respective desperate deeds described above, before consigning them to a fiery abyss and admonishing us not to end up like them. Sure thing, Sir John.

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At this point in the Amicus portmanteau cycle, things were getting distinctly gory, in fact the more visceral details of Greene’s never ending death throes (twitching intestines, severed hand wandering around his coffin…) were cut from versions broadcast on TV until very recently. It’s notable that the accelerating emphasis in these films on dishing out just desserts (the Cushing segment is even entitled “Poetic Justice”, fer Chrissakes) arrives, in this EC adaptation, at an increasing identification of the bad guys with rapacious capitalism, making you wonder if the banning of the original comics in the States during the mid-50s had more to do with this critique of The American Way than with any alleged tendency to inspire juvenile delinquency or whatever. Developing this theme further, the following year’s Vault Of Horror would trap its story tellers in the basement of a shi shi city office block, after its titles have played out over footage of the palace of Westminster. There’s no crypt keeper (or vault… bloke) in that one, but it’s even easier in 2016 than it was in the early ’70s to work out who the real bad guys are.

Final Cut have effected a top transfer of this mini classic, allowing the viewer (this one, certainly) to relish the curves of Barbara Murray’s magnificent bosom in all their HD glory… just don’t rely on her to come up with any good wishes next time you’re rubbing your monkey paw, OK? And while we’re pondering the Jason family’s little predicament, why exactly were Richard Greene’s veins full of enbalming fluid the instant before he died of a heart attack? Maybe M. Night Shyamalan’s threatened TFTC TV reboot will clear that one up? Or maybe not…

Bonus materials comprise a stills gallery and Tales From The Amicus Crypt, a watchable 36 minute appreciation from talking heads such as Jonathan Rigby, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Chibnall and Kevin Lyons. I haven’t seen Kevin for years… nor, indeed my copy of Martin Barker’s Video Nasties book.

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BD SleeveScream Carl, Scream! copy

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