Posts Tagged With: Science Fiction

“Black Magic From Deep Space”… XTRO Reviewed

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DVD. 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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Sonic Does Solipsism… Cronenberg’s eXistenZ Reviewed

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Ted Pikul in the throes of an eXistenZial epiphany. Yesterday.

BD/DVD Combi. Region B/2. 101 Films. 15.

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Why do artists feel the need to revisit former glories? Perhaps because their glory days are so demonstrably behind them. Consider Opera (1987), the final fling in a string of baroque, bloody, beautiful and flat-out berserk horror and thriller classics that Dario Argento had sustained for nearly two decades. Then consider his abysmal Phantom Of The Opera (1998), a weak-as-piss rehashing of the same themes with the same cinematographer, Ronnie Taylor, merely underlining the point that Argento’s muse had deserted him, to be replaced by… well, by Asia.

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Just a year later, David Cronenberg brought us eXistenZ, which on superficial perusal (and that, I confess, is all I gave it at the time) came across as a pointless and decidedly less full-blooded and edgy reworking of his polymesmeric Videodrome (1983). Obliged to give it a second viewing (by the fact that those nice folks at 101 sent me a review copy of their new BD / DVD edition), I find that I’ve given eXistenZ shorter shrift than it merits (e.g. in my cursory dismissal of Cronenberg’s post-Fly output while reviewing his debut novel Consumed).

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In the near future, wimpy marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) accompanies legendary games designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a test seminar for her latest advance in virtual reality technology but no sooner have she and a bunch of fans plugged pulsating, placenta like game consoles into their spines (all par for the Cronenbergian course) and started communing in cyber space, than a pro-reality terrorist (ditto) makes an attempt on Allegra’s life with a gun fashioned from bones which shoots teeth (a piece of mutant technology that has clearly evolved out of Videodrome) and Ted finds himself promoted to Allegra’s body-guard. Brow beaten by her into having a bioport inserted in his spine (by Willem Dafoe’s freelancing gas station attendant) Ted embarks on a white knuckle adventure in which it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish gameplay from reality…

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Just as Brian de Palma was justified in reviewing the ethical quagmire of Casualties Of War (1989) through the lens of subsequent media technology developments  for Redacted (2007, above), eXistenZ cannot simply be dismissed as “Videodrome light” (although I’ve been guilty of doing precisely that)… it’s a genuine auteurist reconsideration of that film’s thematic concerns in the light of technology-driven cultural change on the cusp of The Millennium (and goes about its business so much more smartly than it’s vastly bigger budgeted contemporary The Matrix).

eXistenZ is “Videodrome updated and upgraded”, a film addressing the concerns of those who used to worry if young people watching The Last House On The Left really got that it was “only a movie… only a movie” and now wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night wondering if players of Grand Theft Auto or Call Of Duty can correctly answer the question that provides the last line of eXistenZ”: “Are we still in the game?”

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Ordering Chinese food becomes a tricky business amid the fluid reality of eXistenZ.

Despite its shifting planes of reality, this one is narratively much tighter than its predecessor and boasts an ending that is simultaneously more predictable but more satisfying than that to Videodrome, which Cronenberg was notoriously still trying to work out on the last day of shooting.

Over and above its Videodrome connections, eXistenZ reflects Cronenberg’s musings (after conversations with William Burroughs and Salman Rushdie) on the independent existence an artistic creation takes on, with potentially malign consequences for its creator.

It’s also, regretfully, the closest we will ever get to Cronenberg’s once-mooted screen adaptation of Philp K. Dick’s darkly psychedelic 1965 novel The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch… observant Dick heads will appreciate the packaging of the fast food Ted and Allegra consume while on the lam.

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Get your skates on, 101’s release of this title, number 002 in their Black Label range, is limited to 3000 copies and comes with slipcase and a booklet including the essay Enemy of Reality by Alex Morris and an interview with Denise Cronenberg  by Phillip Escott. Can’t comment on either of those because I haven’t seen them.

The disc comes stacked with extras, including (alongside the mandatory trailer) Cronenberg’s audio commentary, “making of” and promo feaurettes plus one that focuses on the work of DC’s long-serving production designer, Carol Spier and interviews with the director himself, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Willem Dafoe, visual FX technician Jim Isaac and Jude Law.

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Brand new to this edition are two commentary tracks, one by Kim Newman and Ryan Lambie and another from Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson, plus an interview with Christopher Ecclestone, who freely admits that his American accent in the film is crap but tries to explain this away on the grounds that nobody in eXistenZ is quite what they seem. Nice try Chris, but you can’t pin the blame for that preposterous accent on Allegra Gellar!

Ecclestone also suggests that in the light of ever-accelerating technological change, a remake might be in order. Cronenberg was way ahead of the curve, though… what’s the betting that if such a project were ever green lit, its protagonists would be schlepping around collecting Pokemons?

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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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All That Zarjaz… FUTURE SHOCK! THE STORY OF 2000 AD Reviewed

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… wielding their gleaming tweezers, no doubt.

BD. Region Free. Severin. Unrated or BD. Region B/2. Arrow. 15.

The IPC comic Action (created by Pat Mills and published 14/02/76-11/11/77) specialised in, er, “adapting” the storylines of violent contemporary movies (Jaws, Rollerball, any amount of vigilante cop sagas) for a readership who were avidly discussing them in the playground but too young to sneak into cinemas and actually see the bloody things. In the process it garnered much hostile tabloid comment, anguished TV debate and the undying enmity of Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers And Listeners’ Association. WHS and Menzies started getting cold feet and so did IPC, pulping the print run of issue 37 (an ultra-rare copy of which recently went for two-and-a-half grand on eBay!) and the comic lingered on for another year or so of declining sales in woefully bowdlerised shape. As a precursor to the “video nasties” witch hunt of five years later and indeed, as a social panic in its own right, the Action story deserves documentary treatment…

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In the absence of that, here’s Paul Goodwin’s 2014 documentary on Action’s spiritual successor, the rather more successful (forty years as “the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic” and still counting) 2000 AD. Mills’ new creation was seen as some kind of retreat on its inception. “Because it’s a Sci-fi comic, people thought that it would be nice and middle class…” he remembers: “Boy, were they in for a shock!” They sure were, with a continuing stress on “action” (which in Mills’ formula always equalled “violence”) and a new pantheon of iconic, anti-heroic characters such as Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Halo Jones, The ABC Warriors and Nemesis The Warlock (2000 AD even revamped The Eagle’s venerable Dan Dare for a spell) running amok in hard-hitting strips that were Dystopianly satirical, sardonic and Sadean.

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Goodwin’s very welcome doc, adeptly handled for the most part, unfortunately kicks off with a couple of my least favourite lazy pop social history clichés, concerning the cultural climate from which 2000 AD emerged. The late ’70s was, by this account, a period of “social conflict” in the UK and the evidence wheeled out to support this trusty old chestnut is familiar stock footage of Arthur Scargill, aggro on the picket lines and bin bags piling up in the streets. OK, so working people at this time were achieving a measure of success in the struggle to advance their economic conditions by flexing their industrial muscle (nobody was going to hand them anything on a plate, where they?) and that apparently amounts to “social conflict.” By implication the current situation, in which the boot is very much on the other foot and being enthusiastically ground into the faces of the working poor, the disabled, the demented, immigrants and benefit claimants (when it isn’t pressing down on the accelerator of wealth transference to the 1% from the rest of us) must be seen as a period of relative “social harmony”. Tell it to the nurses queueing at food banks and the tenants of high-rise tinder boxes! So much for pop social history…

My other least favourite lazy cliché follows hot on the heels of the first and has it, in this instance, that 2000 AD drew its “grit”, “authenticity”, “street credibility” and any amount of other bullshit from the punk “movement” and the antidote it allegedly provided for the drippy hippy legacy of the ’60s. Well, the idea of punk as a street level / grass-roots tendency has always been laughable, considering that it was cooked up between a record industry hell-bent on cutting production costs and an elite circle of entrepreneurs who had been to Art School and thought (correctly) that they could use a dodgy strain of French academic theory (Situationism) to flog a bunch of stupid clothes to “the kids”. In point of fact, 2000 AD’s initial impact and impetus came from its adherence to the dark, taboo busting ethos of “drippy hippy” Felix Dennis’ Cozmic Comix, from which milieu the new title recruited such luminaries as Bryan Talbot, Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons.

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The pre-titles sequence’s clumsiest moment, though, comes when the voice over is referencing a “clash of cultures” and we simultaneously cut to The Clash on stage, performing some cod “political” diatribe in their customary hysterical manner. Speaking of Da Clash, during (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Joe Strummer (aka diplomat’s son John Graham Mellor) warned us: “They got Burton suits, haha, they think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money”. The main thrust of Goodwin’s doc (which, it’s fair to say, improves dramatically after its glib introduction) is how the founders of 2000 AD overthrew the complacent likes of Eagle (which, if we are to pursue the putative punk parallels, might be cast in the infra-dig Emerson, Lake and Palmer role) and such anachronistic oddities as Whizzer And Chips, only to fall into old fartitude themselves as successive waves of young Turks arrived at King’s Reach Tower to redefine the cutting edge of comic cool, before giving way in their turn to further turks / future farts… while in the background the guys in suits continued to turn all of their respective rebellions into money.

Distinguished alumni interviewed here include Kevin O’Neill, Dave Gibbons, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Bryan Talbot, Carlos Ezquerra, Grant Morrison and David Bishop, plus the “comic activist” (whatever that is) and historian Paul Gravett, Alex Garland (who wrote the second, superior Dredd movie) and Karl Urban (who played the title  character in that) and fan boys including Scott Ian (the guy out of Anthrax with the silly beard) and some bloke from Portishead.

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Throughout this feature the rival factions diss each other (the only subject on which there seems to be unanimity is on how much everybody despises the character of Tharg, the comic’s notional alien editor) and big up their own credentials as true custodians of the soul and spirit of 2000 AD, with frequent interjections from founder and on / off contributor Mills, the Gordon Ramsey of the comic world… this is a man whose default emotional state appears to be “seething”. Of course he has a lot to feel angry about and one of Future Shock’s ongoing refrains is how disgracefully the creative talents have been treated by IPC and subsequent publishers. Shocking enough that writers and artists were expected to surrender all copyright in their work in perpetuity for a measly flat fee (as the late artist formally known as Prince once observed: “If you don’t own your masters, your masters own you”) but when Kevin O’Neill discovered that a) his story Shok! had been plagiarised for the Richard Stanley film Hardware and b) that he was being threatened with legal action by the film company’s layers unless he disowned any rights to the story… well!!!

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Neil Gaiman admits to shedding tears over the fact that Alan Moore (the most notable absentee from the interviewees here) abandoned The Ballad Of Halo Jones because of the shabby way he was being treated. When Brian Bolland defected to DC (specifically to its Vertigo imprint) he turned out to be the first of many. The second half of this doc details the subsequent decline in 2000 AD’s mojo and flirtations with closure. After the nadir represented by its ill-advised ’90s dalliance with the “lads’ mags” demographic, the only way was up and Future Shock! closes with the comic thriving under the safe custodianship of Rebellion Developments, still sending thrill-meters into meltdown across our and other galaxies. Meanwhile popular culture (have you checked out one of those Marvel movies recently?) and the world we inhabit have finally caught up with 2000 AD … kudos to Mills and co but perhaps, on reflection, this is not something we should be celebrating!

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Goodwin deploys flashy editing, groovy graphics and metal music in a style that suits his subject perfectly. It’s a subject he loves and the reverence he clearly feels for its protagonists means that interviews are occasionally allowed to go on a bit too long. At 110 minutes, Future Shock! would benefit from a bit of a trim, with more material allowed to spill into the off-cuts which form much of the generous bonus materials. Another nice featurette has Pat Mills revisiting King’s Reach Tower – well, standing outside it – and reminiscing in its shadow.

In terms of these supplementaries and their presentation of the main feature, there’s really very little to distinguish between the similarly impressive Arrow and Severin editions that recently arrived at the House Of Freudstein. You spends your Earth money and you takes your choice…

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Borag Thungg, Earthlets!

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A Final Flash Of Optimism For The Human Race… FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE reviewed

Flash & Dale

“… daftly named Everyman in a fruity costume”?!?

DVD. Region Free. Delta. “U”.

Episodes

  • The Purple Death
  • Freezing Torture
  • Walking Bombs
  • The Destroying Ray
  • The Palace Of Terror
  • Flaming Death
  • The Land Of Death
  • The Fiery Abyss
  • The Pool Of Death
  • The Death Mist
  • Stark Treachery
  • Doom Of The Dictator

A typical product of my regular delvings through the thrift shops of Dunwich, this obscure box set release fits all “12 Dynamic Chapters” of Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe onto three discs. Eagle eyed viewers will notice that the serial’s actual title appears to be Space Soldiers Conquer The Universe and that the Space Soldiers in question are those of Ming’s army. Obviously the penny belatedly dropped with somebody that this wasn’t exactly a) striking the desired patriotic tone, or even b) what actually happens.

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Originally conceived as competition for National Newspapers’ Buck Rogers strip, King Features’ Yale graduate polo player-turned-space jockey Flash Gordon (as inked by Alex Raymond and ghost written by Don Moore) became a byword for economy and elegance, massively influential on DC’s later Superman and Batman characters. Flash’s serial adaptation made it to the silver screen in 1936 and just to emphasise how far the imitator had outstripped the avatar, when Buck first boldly ventured into cliff-hanging chapter play, a full three years later, he was played by the same Larry “Buster” Crabbe who had already portrayed Flash in two serials.

Mr Gordon’s mortal nemesis, in print and on celluloid, was of course one Ming The Merciless. Although his authoritarian, militarist and expansionist policies are an obvious expression of contemporary unease in the liberal democracies at the rise of fascism and spectre of potential gas attacks from the skies, Ming’s manifestly oriental appearance and even the name of his home planet might seem like a quaint (or obnoxiously bigoted) Hollywood throwback to Sax Rohmer from the perspective of a Europe bedevilled by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, but this is no awkward anachronism. Consider the arguments of modern historians who contend that the beginning of WWII should be backdated to 1931, when Japan’s bombing of China was followed by an orgy of torture, rape and murder… and of course when America was finally attacked, it was by Hirohito’s imperial airforce (an aerial assault repaid with considerable interest less than five years later.)

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“Enough with the Sieg Heil-ing already, Zarkov!”

The eponymous first Flash Gordon serial (directed by Frederick Stephani) is, perhaps predictably, the best. When Earth is threatened by collision with the erratically orbiting planet Mongo, world leaders take the logical step of dispatching a polo-playing Yale graduate and his motley mates to land on and scope out this new world. What they discover is an impressively imagined (and reasonably well executed) alien environment (even if Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson’s Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, was destined to be overshadowed by Brian Blessed’s barnstorming histrionics, 44 years later) plus a turbulent political situation in which the planet’s rightful ruler Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) has been supplanted by evil emperor and would-be conqueror of the universe, Ming (Max Middleton.) As an hors d’oeuvre, he wants to conquer FG’s sexy girlfriend Dale Arden (Jean Rogers.) In addition to fending off his unwanted advances, Dale’s obliged to keep a watchful eye on Ming’s slinky daughter Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), who has her own designs on Flash. Just to make things even more complicated, Barin is carrying a secret torch for Aura. A whole constellation of worlds colliding there… who knew that saving the universe would turn out be such a soap operatic business? Luckily Dr Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon) is left free to concentrate on countering Ming’s arsenal of fiendish futuristic weaponry by virtue of the fact that absolutely nobody wants to fuck him

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“Oh yeah? You’ve had worse…”

It’s pretty much the same story in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (1938), aside from a change of venue prompted by the contemporary Red Planet vogue that was sparked by Orson Welles’ notorious War Of The Worlds radio broadcast earlier that year. This time Ming is assisted in his nefarious schemes (which include the stripping of Nitrogen from Earth’s atmosphere) by Azura (Beatrice Roberts), an evil Martian Queen with the Circe-like power to turn rebellious subjects into Clay People. These memorable creations (and the equally memorable musical theme that accompanies their appearances) are among the redeeming features of a sequel that, in the directorial hands of Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill, generally lacks the pazzaz of its predecessor. On the plus side, Barin finally hooks up with Aura after a (thankfully uncompleted) fight to the death with Flash. After whipping off his mask and explaining his motivation, he’s immediately forgiven by FG, who obviously figures that all’s fair in love and interplanetary war.

Beebe and Ray Taylor co-directed this, the third serial, in 1940. By now there had been so much frantic shuffling between Earth, Mongo and Mars that energies were flagging and diminishing returns had inevitably set in. For instance the Rock Men, an obvious attempt to emulate the weirdness of the Clay People, fall pretty flat despite their Twin Peaks-like habit of talking backwards. Not even an upgraded Dale (Carol Hughes replacing Jean Rogers) could pep things up significantly. The action kicks off with deadly dust from outer space spreading the dreaded “purple death” (“yellow peril”, anyone?) across Earth… and no prizes for guessing who’s behind that. Flash and co head for Mongo to assist Barin in his bid to wrest control of Mongo from Ming. Zarkov devises an antidote to the purple death, ingredients for which must be gathered on the ice planet of Frigea, cue a blizzard of footage culled from the 1930 feature White Hell Of Pitz Palu. Furthermore FGCTU, like its predecessors, relies heavily on sets and props from contemporary Universal productions… much of the first two was shot in Dr Frankenstein’s various castles, labs and dungeons and here the costumes worn in Barin’s tree principality of Arborea seem to have borrowed from some kind of Robin Hood epic (see below.) Elsewhere the gang are kitted out in quasi-militaristic costumes from some kind of Ruritanian romance.

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No sooner has the purple death been thwarted than Ming starts coming up with a head spinning plethora of WMDs, seemingly one per episode, with which to keep Zarkov on his toes. The counter measures he comes up with frequently need to be lugged across glaciers, magnetic deserts, etc, and personally delivered by Flash until Ming is definitively (and apparently permanently) defeated.

Herein lies the most charming aspect of FGCTU… its pantomime depiction of totalitarianism, the hokey nature of its WMDs and its reassuring insistence (eagerly swallowed by its frightened audiences) that any maniac willing to use them could be foiled by a simple sock on the jaw from a daftly named Everyman in a fruity costume. The industrialisation of murder represented by The Holocaust and the nuclear denouement to WWII were shortly to consign such optimism to the dustbin of history. Childhood’s end.

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Tube Trains Of The Gods… QUATERMASS AND THE PIT reviewed

Quadermass

Blu-ray Region B – DVD R2 combo. Optimum / Studio Canal. 12.

Seeking to redistribute some of its eggs from the bulging Gothic basket and with one eye on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, lumbering towards completion at Shepperton, in 1967 Hammer revived the Quatermass franchise with which they had made their initial incursions into the Cinema of the Fantastique. Ten years after Quatermass II, Roy Ward Baker (here credited by that name for the first time) had supplanted Val Guest as director and Andrew Keir now provided a far more subtle and nuanced Professor Bernard Quatermass than his predecessor Brian Donlevy could ever have managed. Nigel Kneale was still scripting and came up with a doozy here.

Renovations at Hobbs End tube station lead to the disinterment of several humanoid skeletons and a crashed Martian spacecraft, which stiff upper lip military man Julian Glover and his political backers insist is a Nazi black propaganda hoax left over from WWII, despite outbreaks of telekinesis and seriously altered states of consciousness among those working the site. While the Establishment blusters and stonewalls, Quatermass and fellow boffins Dr Ronay (James Donald) and Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) research the history of Hobbs End, a shunned area since time immemorial on account of various spooky goings on. By dint of some ahead-of-its-time brain imaging gizmo, they manage to work out that insectoid Martians had been carrying out genetic experiments on proto-humans, in a failed attempt to colonise the Earth before their home planet became uninhabitable. Or did they fail? As work on the site continues, that spaceship puts on a psychedelic light show that mesmerises then melts bystanders, the laws of gravity are suspended, Martian race memories provoke a pogrom of locals whose genomes depart from those approved on The Red Planet and, as London crumbles, a huge alien insect head (or is it that of Old Nick himself?) materialises over its burning skyline. Yep, it’s going to be one of those days…

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Q&TP plays Xtro to 2001’s E.T., harshing the mellow of the late ’60s trip with a suggestion that there’s a downside to transcendence and transformation and that those Chariots Of The Gods might just be taking us somewhere that we really don’t wanna go. Quatermass himself has evolved from his Donlevy incarnation, for whom every bit of hideous galactic blowback was to be answered with another reckless spasm of hubristic scientific probing. Keir’s Prof grasps the need for humanity to proceed through the cosmos with caution and humility but the fools who run the military-industrial complex will always rush in, regardless.

Baker manages to render the apocalypse as a curiously claustrophobic albeit undeniably effective chamber piece (rendering even more eerie and unsettling the one occasion that a character – the drill technician – escapes the tube station set, tripping his possessed brains out in a church graveyard.) Consider how much more money must have been spent on Lifeforce (1985) in an obvious but obviously failed attempt to emulate Q&TP. Indeed, in certain unkind quarters (principally The House Of Freudstein), Tobe Hooper’s Cannon fodder folly is customarily referred to as “Quatermass And The Shit”! Even Ridely Scott’s Prometheus (2012), which I actually love (yep, I’m the person who enjoyed Prometheus) cost astronomically more to generate a similar level of cosmic awe to what Kneale and Baker achieved here on minimal resources.

Quatermass and the Pit Book

As a teenage misfit growing up in a Liverpool very different from the welcoming, folksy idyll depicted in Gerry Marsden’s Ferry Across The Mersey, I always afforded a special place of prominence, among the genre films in which I sought solace, to Quatermass And The Pit. Its scenes of rough community justice being meted out to those who didn’t quite fit in seemed more like excerpts from a kitchen sink documentary about council estate life than depictions of exotic interplanetary conflict.

The Blu-ray mastering here is faultless, both in terms of visuals and the film’s stereo soundtrack. I’m sure the DVD disc will be similarly impressive when / if I eventually get round to checking it out. Pity about the random pack shot, which image I believe was originally deployed in conjunction with the film’s US release, under the similarly non-sequitur title Five Million Miles To Earth. Special Features include all-knew interviews with Judith Kerr, Julian Glover, Joe Dante, Kim Newman, Marcus Hearn and Mark Gatiss (whose portrayal of Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock seems to be not exactly uninfluenced by Glover’s performance herein.) Arguably all these bits of footage would have served the disc better if edited into some sort of documentary supporting featurette. Whatever, the participants are unanimous in their praise of Q&TP, if also in their identification of its achilles heel, the lamely rendered flashback to Martian insect genocide.

Quatermass Hive

Kneale and Baker pass over that scene silently in their audio commentary (which seems to date from some time in the mid-’90s) and indeed, there seems to be nearly as much dead air as commentary in this particular bonus, an object demonstration of a whole that is considerably less than the sum of its considerable parts, considering the wealth of schlock scientific profundity / millenarianist mysticism that the commentators once cooked up between them…

… for, make no mistake, Quatermass And The Pit deals in timeless human concerns and dilemmas. Witness the following classic and astonishingly prescient exchange between the Prof and his colleague:

Quatermass: “If we found that Earth was doomed… say by climate change… what would we do about it?”
Dr Ronay: “Nothing… just go on squabbling, as usual!”

Hmmmm…

%22Alien Apocalypse, you say? Armageddon outta here!%22 Barbara had a little bike...

“Alien Apocalypse? Armageddon outta here!” Barbara Shelley declines her invitation to join the insect nation…

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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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