Posts Tagged With: Science Fiction

Train In Vain… SNOWPIERCER Reviewed.

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BD. Region B. Lionsgate. 15.

Now here’s a queer thing… I’m posting a preview of a film that makes its UK disc debut tomorrow but right around the time I post it, you’ll be able to watch Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer on Film4. Released to wide indifference in 2013, this one has, of course, been given a new lease of life by the phenomenal international success, in 2019, of Bong’s Parasite, just as artist Jean-Marc Rohette and writers Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand’s graphic novel saga Le Transperceneige was rescued from obscurity after the director discovered bootleg Korean editions and brought it to the silver screen as Snowpiercer. The film has been shunted into the sidings for so long that its re-emergence coincides with a new Netflix serialisation starring Jennifer Connelly, bumped up in their schedule due to the spike in demand for new TV product amid Covid confinement, which itself adds another layer of topicality to its oppressively trainbound narrative.

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Before we proceed, let’s get the gratuitous Jennifer Connelly shot done and dusted.

The remarkable thing is that Snowpiercer needed any such helping hand. This is a truly monumental slab of epic Cinema which addresses the same themes as Parasite with a similarly acute satirical eye but over a significantly larger and more expensive canvas. Nobody involved in the production puts a noticeable foot wrong but special mentions must go to DP Hong Kyung Pyo, the production design of Ondrej Nekvasil, Stefan Kovacik’s art direction, set decorator Beata Brendtnerovà and Catherine George’s costume designs. His imagination unfettered by budgets, it’s easier (and a whole lot cheaper) for a comic book artist to create such an impressive alternative reality but under Bong’s assured hand, his team match anything that Rohette has come up with. I keep thinking of Brazil (1985), no doubt nudge-nudged in that direction by the naming of John Hurt’s “revolutionary philosopher” character as “Gilliam”.

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At some point in our not too distant future, world governments finally agree on a serious stab at sorting out global warming but bungle it so badly that the Earth is plunged into an Ice Age that no living being can survive. “Luckily”, the Elon Muskesque Wilford (Ed Harris), foreseeing exactly such an outcome (or was he in some way implicated in it?) has devised a futuristic train that circles the frozen globe perpetually, sustained by the water converted from the snow it ploughs through but also by the ruthless exploitation of the plebs confined to its rear carriages, while the elite live out their first class lives in luxury and dissolution, protected from the great unwashed by elaborate security systems and battalions of thuggish guards. Mind the gap…

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Inspired by Gilliam and attempting to exorcise his own personal demons, Curtis (Chris Evans) leads his pissed off people on an epic battle through the train, traversing a succession of carriages with their own distinct social stratification and associated Hogarthian vignettes, gradually accepting the mantel of leadership as the bodies pile up all around him… and finally the much anticipated meeting with the superficially charming but self-evidently amoral and monstrous Wilford. Think Willard and Kurtz in Apocalypse Now… Tyrell and Batty in Blade Runner. When Curtis is offered control of the engine room, will he succumb to temptation or stay true to his revolutionary principles?

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Like Boon’s crew, his multi-racial cast are uniformly excellent. By this point Hurt just had to stagger on to a screen looking ruffled and he had your undivided attention, but special mention must be made of Tilda Swinson’s astonishing turn as the loathsome Mason. Swinson’s is a personality I’ve never particularly, er, warmed to (and her participation in that bloody Suspiria remake did nothing to break the ice with me) but credit where it’s due, this is a remarkable performance.

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A double bill of Snowpiercer and Sang-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan (2016) would go a long way towards alleviating the ennui of your next Lockdown evening. Described as a “visionary director” in the film’s publicity blurb, Bong is the biggest Far Eastern talent to cross over since John Woo and I’m genuinely excited to ponder what might be in the pipeline from him. Let’s hope he can thrive without recourse to some of the artistic compromises that were forced upon his illustrious predecessor.

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Extras comprise a handful of short teasers and the hour long Transperceniege: From The Blank Page To The Blank Screen, following creators Rohette et Legrande as they witness their neglected baby’s cinematic baptism / transformation.

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The Case Of The Bloody Irises… THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES Reviewed.

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BD. Second Sight (appropriately enough). Region B. PG.

There are certain films, youthful viewings of which leave you indelibly marked for life. In my personal experience these have tended to be films with crushing climaxes. There was Psycho… Peeping Tom… Onibaba… and Roger Corman’s The Man With The X-Ray Eyes (1963) fits no less (un)comfortably into that slot (or should I say socket?) The most unforgettable evening I ever spent with this film (I’m not convinced it was even the first time I saw it) was during a visit I paid to my sister in Durham in the mid ’70s. I attended the Miners’ Gala, took in a couple of rousing addresses from Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner, then downed a couple of pints and what turned out to be a dodgy pie. Later that evening the queasy physicality (and even more disturbing metaphysicality) of Corman’s film, screened on the BBC, was exacerbated by a vigorous vomiting session. Nearly half a Century later I’ve forgiven Corman enough to welcome this stonking UK BD debut of arguably his finest cinematic hour and a half… I’d still like to have a word with whoever baked that bloody pie, though!

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“If you could have one super power…” has been the opening gambit in many aimless and often alcohol oiled conversations between adolescents of all ages. Well, my own preference is easily deducible (time travel, so I could have that word with the pie man) but for many an over-excitable young fellow, the traditional answer has been “X-ray vision!”  Take a cold shower then viddy well, little brother and you might have cause to reconsider…

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Dr James Xavier (Ray Milland) is an idealistic research scientist, frustrated (aren’t they always?) by the limitations of human understanding. He’s working on a solution that, when applied to the eye, will allow it pierce superficial surfaces and perceive what’s going on beneath. The potential benefits for e.g. surgical procedure are easy enough to see, but Xavier’s friend Dr Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone, below) warns him that certain things are best left to the Gods. Xavier’s hubristic response (“I’m closing in on the Gods!”) illustrates just how close he is to the thin line separating idealistic scientists from mad scientists.

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TMWTXRE was made in the midst of Corman’s Poe period and in the same year as he directed The Haunted Palace, often cited as a Poe adaptation but actually based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward. There’s definitely something Lovecraftian about the scene in which Jimbo tries to impress his sexy colleague Dr Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis, above) by administering his solution to the eyes of a lab monkey, which becomes terrified – fixated on something – before dropping dead. “What did it see?” agonises Dr Di (a question answered with overly literal banality, albeit to riotously entertaining effect, in Stuart Gordon’s 1986 Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond).

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Undeterred, Dr Xavier throws caution (not to mention scientific methodology) to the wind, soaking his eyes in the stuff. The fringe benefits soon become obvious, as Diane takes him to a hep drinks party and he gets to see more of the groovy twisters and swingers than he’d probably bargained for. Elsewhere, he saves a little girl’s life by hijacking her operation but the surgeon he supplanted huffily pulls rank and gets him suspended.

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Dr Brant tries to reason with the increasingly agitated Xavier, then to sedate him, only to be accidentally (and hilariously) defenestrated. On the lam, our hero is drawn into sideshow hucksterism (where he really pisses of Corman staple player Dick Miller) then a phoney healing racket by Carney barker Crane (Don Rickles). When Diane tracks him down he quits and accompanies her to Las Vegas, with the intention of making money on the slots and tables (why did it take him so long to think of this?) He’s so successful that the casino management challenge him, ripping off his dark glasses to reveal eyes now resembling puss-encrusted piss holes.

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Again Xavier bolts, crashing his car fortuitously close to a bible-bashing revivalist tent show. He tells the redneck preacher that he can see God… more significantly, God is looking back at him and Xavier is withering under the Divine gaze. Advised by the pastor to pluck out the eyes that offend him, our man obliges and his cautionary tale ends on a freeze frame of his screaming face and gory, empty eye sockets…

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“Loads of laughs and fun at parties!”

… or does it? It was in his genre survey Danse Macabre (1981) that Stephen King floated the notion that this film originally ended with Milland screaming: “I can still see!?!”, a line subsequently excised on the grounds that it was just too damn horrible. Various contributors to the extras on this impressive set have differing takes on whether that ever actually happened and not even Corman’s own accounts of this are consistent. The film’s “real” title (it’s rendered as simply “X” on the credits here) remains similarly elusive.

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Other bonus materials include a prologue that has always been an integral part of the picture in my previous viewings of it. This cut starts instead with a long static shot of an eyeball, which seems to puzzle even Corman on his informative commentary track. Elsewhere on that he relates how he first conceived this one as a story about the periods of recreational drug use by a jazz musician and concedes that in many ways it’s a dry run for his The Trip (1967). Although Corman first experimented with LSD while researching the latter, I would contend that TMWTXRE is in many ways a truer “acid movie” than its more literal minded successor. Corman closes his commentary with the arch observation “Classical Greek drama on the cheap!” as Ray Milland extracts his aching orbs. Great stuff. You also have the option of an alternative talk track from Tim Lucas, who’s characteristically on top of his brief (e.g. refuting the received wisdom that this is Don Rickles’ feature debut).

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Still not seen enough? There’s a featurette with the ubiquitous Kat Ellinger (somebody else who seems to have seen everything) in which she connects the film to traditions of American Gothic and Romanticism… Joe Dante delivers his appraisal… a trailer and even a commentary on the trailer from Mick Garris. The limited edition boasts a rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys, reversible poster with new and original artwork and a soft cover book (which I haven’t set eyes on) with new writing by Allan Bryce and Jon Towlson). Oh, and of course there’s a new interview with Corman, who turned 94 about a month ago and still insists that he he wants to remake The Man With The X-Ray Eyes to take advantage of today’s improved FX technologies (personally I find the whole “Spectrama” thing a cherishable cheesey chuckle) and more relaxed attitudes towards onscreen nudity. But really, why bother? The original is a certified cracker with a splendid central performance from Milland (who never plays down to the material and later cited TMWTXRE as his strongest screen outing alongside the one that won him the Oscar for The Lost Weekend in 1945)… and why haven’t I mentioned Les Baxter’s emotive “eerie” score already? This is a pulp cinema treatment of profound themes…. what more could you possibly aspire to?  If The Man With The X-Ray Eyes teaches us anything, it’s that hubris isn’t the greatest idea…

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Death Of A Salesman… NOT OF THIS EARTH Reviewed

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DVD. Region 2. Nouveaux Pictures. PG.

“You are about to enter into the dimension of The Impossible. To enter this realm you must set your mind free from the Earthly fetters that bind it. If the events you are about to see here are unbelievable it is only because your imagination is chained! Sit back, relax and believe… so that YOU may cross the brink of time and space… into that land you sometimes visit in your dreams”.

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One of the many self-aggrandising tall tales Don Van Vliet liked to tell concerned an alleged stint as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Finding himself demonstrating said appliance to a clearly underwhelmed Aldous Huxley, no less, the flustered future Captain Beefheart forgot his carefully prepared patter and after mumbling a few non sequiturs, blurted out: “Sir… this thing sucks!” to the bemused American Academy of Arts and Letters laureate. Or so the story goes…

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I’m always reminded of this fabled encounter when watching a particular scene in Roger Corman’s hugely entertaining Not Of This Earth (1957). Dick (here “Richard”) Miller, as salesman Joe Piper, talks himself into the basement of the mysterious Paul Johnson (Paul Birch) to demonstrate the superiority of the Airwaves vacuum cleaner. Joe’s not at all flustered, in fact he’s kinda pushy and obnoxious. No problem for Mr Johnson, who whips off the shades that he wears throughout the movie and kills the uninvited caller with a single look, then siphons off his blood before sending samples through a Star Trek-like transporter to his home planet Davanna, where Johnson’s kinsfolk are all dying from blood diseases triggered by an ongoing nuclear war.

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Johnson is acting under specific and somewhat harsh instruction but, y’know, “Davanna must endure!” His mission, as imparted by a Davannian big wig who sometimes materialises in that transporter, is “to be accomplished in 5 out of 6 phases”. I’m still not quite sure what that means but Johnson seems clear enough. Phase 1 is to study the characteristics of the Earth’s subhumans (that’s us). Phase 2 is to increase the quantity of blood he transmits to his home planet (so far he’s managed only 30 measly cupits, whatever they are). Phase 3 requires a live Earthling specimen to be transmitted to Davanna for vivisectionary research. Johnson himself apparently is Phase 4, which means that his survival or death from imbibing Earth blood will determine the mission’s success or failure. If he does thrive on that red, red krovvy, Phase 5 will involve the conquest, subjugation and pasturing of the Earth’s subhumans. If at any point Johnson anticipates the failure of the mission, Phase 6 will kick in, i.e. the utter obliteration of planet Earth.

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Realising that 30 cupits is hardly gonna cut it, Johnson steps up Phase 2 by extracting blood from, among others, the aforementioned Joe Piper, various vagrants and a teenage girl who it’s difficult to feel too sorry for on account of the following jive-talking exchange with her lame-ass boyfriend (“I think it’s time I cut out now” “Don’t be a drag, you know how you flip me” “I’m hip” “So?” “If my father dug this scene, he’d put small round holes in your head!”) He even visits the local blood bank in an attempt to buy some but sassy nurse Nadine Storey (Beverly Garland) advises him that “we don’t just hand it out like gasoline”. After Johnson has brought her boss Dr Rochelle (William Roerick) under his psychic control, Nadine is redeployed as Johnson’s personal nurse. Her cop boyfriend, Harry Sherbourne (Morgan Jones) finds all of this not a little fishy…

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Johnson also has a hipster driver / manservant / whatever, Jeremy Perrin (Jonathan Haze). Christ knows what agency he was recruited from but after a bit off ill-conceived “comic” business with him, things pick up again when Johnson decides that Dr Rochelle has outlived his usefulness. As well as blood draining equipment, his bag contains a dessicated thingy which, when water is added to it, transforms into… well, into a rubber bat / lampshade kind of thing which flops over the doc’s head and suffocates him.

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A Davannian female (Anne Carroll), in mandatory shades, is sent to assist Johnson in his mission but after she scarfs down some rabies infected blood (what were the odds on that?) the hospital report on her death blows things wide open. With Harry in hot pursuit on his police bike, Johnson drives away and perishes in an auto crash, just in time to break his psychic hold over Nadine, who was about to transport herself to Davanna for a spot of vivisectional research.

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At Johnson’s graveside, Harry expresses empathy for this stranger in a strange land but Nadine’s heart is hardened against him.  Both are relieved that the Earth is no longer under threat. Or is it! As they reflect on what has happened…

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“He’s behind you!”

A meaner spirited Man Who Fell To Earth, this is reportedly among Corman’s least favourite of his own movies and an uncharacteristically sloppy spot of admin (the copyright year was not mentioned on the release print) saw it consigned to the public domain, hence this exploitive bare bones edition from Nouveaux, who went to a lot more trouble with their editions of Fellini and co. It can’t even boast a menu and the only other DVD in my collection missing one of those is the DVD, Ltd (yes, “DVD, Ltd”) release of Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go In The House (1979), one of the first discs I ever acquired. Still, Corman’s caveats notwithstanding, the film is enough fun to stand on its own considerable merits. I’ll certainly be watching it again, which is more than I can say for Jim Wynorkski’s 1988 remake, starring Traci Lords in her first “legit” role.

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Not Of This Earth is great fun but also has an indisputably melancholy quality to it. Occasionally misfits and marginals (e.g. Don Vliet / Don Van Vliet / Captain Beefheart, in his final incarnation as an avant garde painter) manage to parlay their perceived “weirdness” into financial gain. The rest of us have to muddle on as best we can. Still, I can think of worse epitaphs…

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“Chainsaws In Outer Space… Why Not?” The NORMAN J. WARREN Interview.

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Although I’ve enjoyed his company on several subsequent occasions, my interrogation of Norman J. Warren took place at and around the second Black Sunday film festival in Ashton-under-Lyne in February 1990, when the Freudstein interviewing technique was even less polished than it is now. The complete (ish) transcript appeared in A Major Horror Magazine but another rag commissioned me to adapt our conversation into the following profile, which they never actually used or paid me for… which was nice of them. Nearly (ouch!) 30 years later, their loss is hopefully your gain, dear readers. Beyond Terror and Norman’s Fiend Without A Face reboot remain tantalisingly unrealised projects but maybe one day? Like chainsaws in outer space, why the hell not?

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In the mid-60s, the young Norman J. Warren had begun his career assisting Anatole and Dimitri De Grunewald on the likes of Rod The Mod, a documentary look at the trendy life and times of the equally youthful Mr Stewart. “Like a lot of other people in their late teens / early twenties, I was desperate to direct, and couldn’t understand why the establishment wouldn’t give me the chance to do so”, Norman laughs: “It’s only later on when you realise why they didn’t! So out of sheer frustration I made a short film called Fragment in 1965. I’d already made other amateur efforts, but I decided to do Fragment properly, on 35mm and so on and I managed to talk several independent cinemas into screening it. It was just pure luck that one of those cinema managers, Bachoo Sen and a guy called Richard Shulman had just gone into film production. They’d decided to start with sex films because it was an obvious way to make a quick buck and because it was low budget. They were new to production, they wanted a director who was not too experienced, thus couldn’t give them a hard time, and of course somebody who was enthusiastic enough to do it for very little money. They gave me a call, made me an offer and I said yes immediately, without knowing what it was!” (Laughs)

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What it was, was Her Private Hell… “a black and white film made in 1967, and I dread to think what it would look like now. The whole thing was so naive, but I was grateful for the chance to actually direct a feature film and make all the mistakes that you inevitably do, which is how you learn your trade. The second one, Loving Feeling (1968) – which is about a disc jockey who destroys his marriage because he takes advantage of all these girls who are throwing themselves at him – looks a lot more polished, though I was still making mistakes in that one”.

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One of the biggest mistakes Norman made was not scrutinising the small print closely enough. “Bachoo never spent an awful lot of money on his productions, but he spent a hell of a lot on his contracts! Eventually I tried to challenge him for money, after working seven days a week, virtually 24 hours a day for two years on two films… I did the story for Loving Feeling, edited Her Private Hell, did all the sound… and I hadn’t been paid anything, apart from the odd fiver here or there for something to eat. Whenever I said I needed some money to get a taxi home, he’d would drive me home in his own car – I never seemed to get any cash! When it came to the crunch, a solicitor told me the contracts had been so beautifully written, that I really had no claim on anything! We ended up reaching a settlement, and it worked out that I’d been working for £20 a week, which – depending on what your job was – mightn’t have been bad money for that time, but if you think what I’d been doing, the responsibility and the hours I was working… also, how much money Bachoo made on these pictures! Her Private Hell, for instance, cost something like £18,000 to make and in one cinema alone in the Charring Cross Road, where it played for 14 months, it was taking £5,000 a week! Then of course it went around the entire country, and was sold to foreign territories. I dread to think how much it must have made, the profit must have been absolutely enormous, but I didn’t see any of it. Bachoo later relocated to The States and called me asking if I wanted to direct this terrible picture, Nightmare Weekend, for him. I didn’t take him up on his offer, even though I really wanted to get back into directing, and having seen the finished result, I think I made the right decision! Once again, it was a sex film disguised as a horror movie. Of course in a way I’m terribly grateful to him because he gave me the chance to direct my first feature film, to get through that enormous barrier you have to surmount to be accepted as someone who can actually direct a feature-length film… but I don’t want to go through all that again! I learned my lesson the hard way”.

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Loving Feeling was the debut movie for Euro-sex bomb Francoise Pascal, who claimed in the documentary version of David McGillivray’s book Doing Rude Things that she needed twenty brandies before she could bring herself to take her clothes off… a version of events that Norman disputes: “She was very young, and she wasn’t shy at all. She didn’t have a very big part, but she was a very attractive girl in those days. I wasn’t aware of any brandies or embarrassment…. in fact the problem, as I recall it, was trying to get Francoise to keep her clothes on!”Another of Norman’s leading ladies displayed no such willingness to drop her drawers in the cause of Art: “Georgina Ward was a very grand lady, actually, came from a very wealthy background. I don’t know what happened to her. She was in another sex film made by the producer Hazel Adair, who used to write that soap opera Crossroads. She was very coy, didn’t want to do any nudity, so we brought in a body double for the sex films. David McGillivray mentions something like this in his book, though he might have been referring to Lucia Modugno, the Italian actress in Her Private Hell. We received some very beautiful photos of her aged about 17, but they turned out to be very old photos, because when we met her at the airport, I actually thought she’d brought her mother with her! I was very sorry for Lucia, because once we started filming she realised she was to old for the part, and didn’t really have the figure… of course she was surrounded by all these young girls. It was very sad”.

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“After a while, you run out of things to do with a bed…”

“David was right when he said that sex films weren’t a genre I enjoyed working in, though this wasn’t out of any sense of prudery. I actually found the genre very restricting… the story lines just revolved around people taking their clothes off and going to bed, and after a while you run out of things to do with a bed, you know, camera angles and so on. A lot of people got labelled and never did anything else, and when the British sex films came to an end, they just faded out with them! So after the second one, although I was offered the chance of doing The Wife Swappers, which was eventually done by Derek Ford, I refused, and more or less put myself out of work, as far as directing was concerned, for several years, until the opportunity to direct Satan’s Slave came along. After that one I knew that this was what I really wanted to do, which was nothing to do with money, just because it was a much more satisfying experience all round”.

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“I think some of the younger fans are not only amazed that there was a British industry in those days, but that these sort of films, with such graphic content, were being made here… reflects Norman: “Those who’ve managed to see an un-cut foreign print of Satan’s Slave, for instance, are quite shocked that a movie like that could have been made in this country and that it could have been seen commercially in cinemas… they all were, that’s something I’m very proud of, that they were all shown theatrically”.

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After the disappointment of The Naked Eye (a project on which Norman was to have directed Cushing and Price for AIP) falling through, Satan’s Slave (1976) was conceived in a rush of frustrated enthusiasm and tackled by all concerned in a spirit of D.I.Y. gusto. In it, aristocratic Michael Gough presides over a cult dedicated to the revival of an ancestral witch via human sacrifice, a batty plot culminating in one of those trusty “So, it was all a dream… hang on, no it wasn’t!” moments. Terror (1978) commences in similar fashion before the witch-hunting action is revealed to be a film-within-a-film but (you guessed) the cast and crew are soon being bumped off in gruesome fashion. With Norman and writer David McGillivray (who’d already written several of Pete Walker’s “terror pictures”) both under the recent spell of Argento’s Suspiria, Terror places even less emphasis on narrative cohesion than its predecessor, concentrating instead on a succession of spectacular designer deaths.

terror-1978-film-04553e9b-38be-4b3d-add3-97849bd1d85-resize-750.jpg“David was very good indeed to work with”, remembers Norman: “because he never got offended when I wanted to make changes. A lot of writers feel that their work is set in marble and they don’t want any changes, but David (laughs)… maybe he’s just been very lenient with me, but he’s never had any complaints when I’ve thrown out lines or changed scenes around completely. David appears in Satan’s Slave and he has a smaller role in Terror, he’s the TV reporter in that one. I know those films contain some violent scenes and they get a bit gory at times, but there’s no viciousness about them. My sole intention was to entertain, and to me they’re sort of light-hearted films, in a way…”Something of that playful spirit is captured in the title of All You Need Is Blood, the “making of…” documentary, which David Wyatt shot on the set of Satan’s Slave. “It was shot in the hope that the BBC would broadcast it as a programme about the making of his low budget film, but all they did was take out shots from it’s opening, in which Michael Gough is conducting a black mass, and use it in a religious programme about the growing menace of Satanism – as though it was the real thing!” Ain’t it reassuring to know that your license money gets spent so responsibly?

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Always the first to acknowledge his films’ weaknesses, Norman states that with the plots of these gory little epics “we fell into the trap of making things incredibly complicated, which gave us problems half-way through when we realised it was so complex that it was actually quite difficult to work out what was going on”. This is one reason why Beyond Terror, one of the projects Norman is working hard to develop (along with properties entitled Darkland and Skinner), is an expansion of his 1978 smash-hit.

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I remind him (as if he needed any reminding) that Terror was the top-grossing film in Britain on its release in 1978: “Yes it was! This tiny film, which cost scarcely more than £80,000, was Number One for a week, and when it opened all over America, in towns like Chicago and Oklahoma, it actually broke box office records! In Chicago it packed them in all the cinemas for a week!”

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In between Satan’s Slave and Terror, Norman took a stab at science fiction with Prey 77 (featuring the ever saucy Glory Annen, above), a virtual three-hander in which a lesbian couple’s rural idyll is rudely interrupted by the arrival of an enigmatic stranger who turns out to be the vanguard of an alien invasion force. When I suggested that the film had been influenced by Jose Ramon Larraz’s Vampyres (1974), which shares its country setting, small cast and indeed one of its actresses, Sally Faulkner, Warren demurred: “No, I haven’t seen the Larraz film unfortunately, in fact I don’t think I was influenced by anything for Prey, outside of its tiny budget… plus I had literally three weeks preparation, including writing the script. In some ways the small scale of everything was actually a positive thing, because despite the brief schedule I was able to spend time with all the principle actors, building the characters and so on, and I think you can see that in the finished film. Sally is particularly good, the way you suddenly start realising, she’s the crazy one!”

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Norman’s career continued in a sci-fi vein (featuring additional Glory Annen) with 1979’s Outer Touch: “That one was quite successful in America, where it played as Spaced Out, but it didn’t do very well in Britain. Basically, it’s a science-fiction comedy, and making it taught me just how difficult comedy is – the most difficult, I think, of all the genres. It’s totally about getting the timing right”. Norman’s next picture, Inseminoid (1981), was straight SF with no comic trimmings. 20th Century Fox certainly weren’t laughing when they got the idea that it was an attempt to cash in on Alien. “Nick Maley and his wife Gloria came up with the idea for Inseminoid as a showcase for his special effects expertise, which really is quite amazing. This was before they or anyone else had seen the Ridley Scott film and we were genuinely very surprised, when we saw Alien, that there was this similarity to the script we were about to shoot. Anyway, Fox wrote to us, not quite demanding – but ‘requesting’ – to see Inseminoid when it was finished, so we let them screen it and they themselves decided that it wasn’t a rip-off. They sent us a very nice letter, which the producer Richard Gordon has still got, in which they said they were happy for us to go ahead, wished us luck and said they thought our film was very good, considering its budget. Indeed, in a way it’s rather flattering when these comparisons are made between Alien and Inseminoid, because they had a budget of $20-30 million and we made ours for $2 million. This was possible because we shot it in Chiselhurst Caves in Surrey rather than on a set, which was cold, damp and claustrophobic, but gave us stuff that we could never have afforded to build”.

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Norman also recalls the extent to which this picture benefited from the trojan efforts of his players, particularly two well-known actresses: “Stephanie Beacham was a joy to work with, and Judy Geeson (above) was an absolute dream – she was just so enthusiastic, involved in the whole production. I don’t think she had more than two or three days off in the entire schedule and even on those days she insisted on turning up, simply because she didn’t want to miss anything that was happening. I caught up with Judy recently in Hollywood, and happily she’s now over some of the personal problems she’s been suffering… she told me it’s amazing how many people she meets bring up the subject of Inseminoid, even today”.

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Several contemporary and subsequent reviews of Inseminoid questioned why there was a need for quite so many chainsaws in pursuance of interplanetary exploration, to which Norman smilingly responds: “Why wouldn’t there be?” There’s really no answer to that, so I changed the subject to the film’s VHS re-release by the revived Vipco label, which was hyped along the ridiculous lines of being “The greatest ever bunk-up in outer space” (or some such nonsense) shortly before the company went belly-side up again in the wake of such disastrous releases as The Nostril Picker. “It wasn’t just that they were putting out rubbish, they was putting out too much, too soon”, opines Norman: “You only had to do a few sums to see that it was quite crazy, because putting out a video is not that cheap, and there weren’t enough people buying those things to offset that sort of cost. It’s very disappointing when these things blow up, but when it does happen, it’s usually their own fault. Richard Gordon is now desperately trying to find out where the master has gone…” (we heard that Vipco mastered some of their stuff from VHS!) “… and who is making money on the copies that are still floating around”.

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As for the promised “bunk-up” that never actually transpires… “That’s down to the way some people misunderstood the insemination sequence, where there’s a sort of plastic tube that’s going into Judy, and people got the mistaken impression that it’s the alien’s penis but we never intended that, because if he’s an alien, why would he have a penis that’s compatible with a human being?” “Or made out of plastic?” I add, helpfully. “Yes, that was supposed to be some kind of artificial insemination equipment, and we shot that sequence very impressionistically, to be like a dream, because I know that if we had shot it straight, it would have played like a rape scene and been cut out. So it has this sort of abstract quality to it that the censors didn’t mind”.

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In the mid-80s Norman found himself making a brace of pictures for producer Maxine Julian, whose penny pinching ways made for a couple of dispiriting experiences: “We had to fight to stop Bloody New Year (below) going out as ‘Time Warp Terror’, not that this improved the film very much! It was a terrible disappointment to me – there were just so many problems with the production, and Maxine didn’t even like horror films, she was only interested in saving money and making it in as short a space of time as possible. It was a wasted opportunity, because the script was pretty good”.

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The other fruit of Norman’s Maxine Julian period, that classic of camp espionage cinema Gunpowder, used to turns up regularly on UK TV in the early hours of the morning. “That’s exactly where it belongs!”, he laughs: “Maxine had made some strange arrangement by which we were shooting in Macclesfield, not an easy place to do things, and she was only casting people who lived within driving distance of Macclesfield (because she wouldn’t pay for hotels) and yet didn’t have a Cheshire accent. For some reason she had us shooting in November / December, so doing scenes on the river with a boat and a helicopter, the biggest problem was to stop the actors going completely blue, you know? All the time, the budget was shrinking before our very eyes. She was sending back important props that we hadn’t finished with, then she went and bought stock footage, so there’s a wonderful scene in where you get this giant army helicopter landing and all these men pouring out of it, then cut back to our footage and there five men coming through the trees… if you look carefully at the battle scene, you’ll find that the same people are on both sides! There was one scene, I’m not joking, where she wanted to indicate a submarine by having somebody walk around in this pond, holding a bit of drainpipe above the surface, looking like a periscope! I said we’ll never get away with this, I point-blank refused to shoot it!” (Laughs)

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“Those two knocked my enthusiasm a bit” admits Norman: “I enjoy working in the low budget field, but even I have my limits. The one lesson I did learn is that you’ve got to have a producer who loves what you’re doing as much as you do, who’s not just an accountant. I decided that I’m never going to work like that again – even if it put me out of directing again for a long time, I just couldn’t stand to do another Gunpowder or Bloody New Year”.

fiend_without_face_poster_02.jpgKeeping himself going with commercials, rock videos and educational films for the BBC (precisely none of which concerned the menace of Satanism!), Norman has been preparing his long-mooted remake of / sequel to seminal 50’s alien invasion stop-motion fest Fiend Without A Face: “It’s now in what will hopefully be the final re-write stage, just a matter of tidying up and working on the characters, taking on some comments that Richard Gordon has been making and hopefully when that’s concluded, within the next month or so, we’ll be ready to take it to the next stage. The alarming thing is what a painfully slow process it is. When I sat down and realised how long I’d been tinkering around with Fiend, it scared the life out of me, but then the likes of Shallow Grave, Jacob’s Ladder and even Forest Gump were knocking around for years as scripts before they were finally shot. Funnily enough, Bob Keen’s movie Proteus is now going through, and Bob just reminded me that he was originally contacted about that movie when I was supposed to be directing it. I’d forgotten because it was called Shaper or something in those days. We couldn’t get it off the ground then because the shape-shifting effects proved too alarming, cost-wise, for possible backers”.

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Undeterred, Norman won’t be sparing the special effects in his new version of Fiends: “It’ll employ a combination of stop-motion, animation, some computerised effects and, on top of that, probably some straight forward old-fashioned physical effects, where it’s all done right there in front of the camera. The monster brains will be recognisably like the old ones, but we’re writing them to be much more nasty, they’re really vicious little things this time out. They’ll also be much harder to kill… remember in the first film, they were stopped by blowing up a nuclear power station? That shows you how naive people were, back in the ‘50s!”

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Meanwhile, the quest to secure financing continues: “When I was trying to set up Beyond Terror I encountered a lot of resistance to the idea of making a genre film. The moment you mention horror or science fiction you could almost feel this barrier coming down, they really didn’t want to be associated with it. Undoubtedly, recent increases in censorship have contributed to this attitude, but I find it such a perverse one because horror has always been the most successful genre, it’s just gone on for ever. If you talk to any video distributor or supplier, and people who have film libraries, they say the most profitable things for them are the horror pictures – they never seem to date. People will rent a horror picture when it’s donkey’s years old, whereas they won’t necessarily be doing that with one of the current big releases in ten years, or even a couple of years time. This a genre that I enjoy very much and, although I’m always looking for opportunities in The States, I’d really prefer, if possible, to do it in Britain, because everyone acknowledges that we’re capable of producing very high quality work over here. Despite everything, the horror film hasn’t gone under. It keeps fighting back… I think it’s going to be with us forever!”

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Norman, photo-bombed by fanboy git. Yesterday.

 

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Loads More Mister Nice Guy… NORMAN J. WARREN Celebrated On Indicator’s BLOODY TERROR Box Set.

maxresdefault.jpg“I’m very pleasantly surprised by this ongoing interest in my work, not just for me but because it’s bringing attention to all the films that were being made during that period. I think some of the younger fans are not only amazed that there was a British industry in those days, but that these sort of films, with such graphic content, were being made here. Those who’ve managed to see an un-cut foreign print of Satan’s Slave, for instance, are quite shocked that a movie like that could have been made in this country and that it could have been seen commercially in cinemas… they all were, that’s something I’m very proud of, that they were all shown theatrically”. Norman J. Warren, in an interview from the Freudstein archives…

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BD. Indicator. Region Free. 18.

Nice guys, proverbially, finish last. The career of Norman J Warren (by general assent, just about the nicest guy you’re likely to meet) never quite took him into the Premier League of genre directors. Then again, neither did that of his contemporary and peer Pete Walker… and Walker was definitely not the nicest guy I’ve ever encountered during my three decades-plus as a hack journo. The release of this limited edition (6,000 units) Indicator BD box comes as an opportunity to praise Norman, not to bury him… to fondly salute a body of work in which enthusiastic cinephilia, rugged resourcefulness and sheer bloody minded determination  trumped slender resources in a manner that’s both redolent of its era and eminently watchable today.

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The Terror mounts. In Terror.

Like Walker (albeit with markedly less enthusiasm), Warren lost his directorial cherry making soft core sex films before graduating to the chillers with which he really felt comfortable. This long overdue HD upgrade of Norman’s Horror / Sci-fi output (give or take 1979’s Outer Touch / Spaced Out ) disregards his skin-flick phase though there are smutty traces of it in e.g. Terror (1983), one of whose two films-within-a-film, “Bath Time With Brenda”, plays like a more or less affectionate memoir of his, Walker’s and indeed their shared screen writer David McGillivray’s experiences in the skin trade… you’ll notice that at no point in her ablutions does sexy Brenda (the larger than life Tricia Walsh) actually remove her bra.

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Main features wise, Bloody Terror emulates Anchor Bay’s DVD set from 15 years ago… alongside Terror you get Satan’s Slave (1976), Prey (1977) and Inseminoid (1981), all looking significantly better for their HD upgrades. Indicator have also thrown in a badly conserved and frankly ropey-looking print of 1987’s Bloody New Year (the original elements of which were accidentally destroyed!) for NJW Horror completists. If you’re already familiar with this label’s Night Of The Demon and William Castle box sets, you won’t be surprised to learn that they’ve also packed the thing with a bewildering amount of extras… on which, more later.

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Satan’s Slave is your basic “reincarnation of the ancestral witch via human sacrifice” effort, the best example of which remains (and probably always will) Mario Bava’s Mask Of Satan / Black Sunday (1960). The presence of Michael Gough as its presiding cultist Alexander Yorke probably makes Vernon Sewell’s Curse Of The Crimson Altar (1968, above) a more pertinent comparator, though here Gough’s got nothing like the cast of Horror A-listers (Karloff, Lee, Steele) he had to play off in Sewell’s picture… would’ve been a different story altogether had female lead Candace Glendenning (who plays his niece Catherine) not (reportedly) turned down the Linda Blair role in The Exorcist (d’oh!) As it is, she’s now best known for this one, Pete Walker’s The Flesh And Blood Show and Jim O’Connolly’s ‘s Tower Of Evil (both 1972)… not a bad little legacy from our obviously warped Freudsteinian perspective. Catherine doesn’t let a little thing like her Mum and Dad being immolated in a car crash, en route, spoil her enjoyment of the hospitality at Uncle Alexander’s place, where she’s romanced by creepy cousin Stephen (Martin Potter), whom we earlier saw sexually assaulting a previous guest before slamming her head in a door. Satan’s Slave was predictably butchered by the BBFC back in the day but here restored in not one but two distinct variants (compared and contrasted in a companion featurette). The “export version” features a more protracted and delirious rendition of the sexual assault described above, while Norman’s preferred “director’s cut” soft pedals that scene but has all the BBFC cuts restored. Both versions feature sleazy Steve (deservedly) getting a nail file jammed into his lecherous eye before the distinctly guessable twist ending. Spoiler, you say? It made a right bloody mess of his face, I can tell you…

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“Ooh, that’s gotta hurt…”

If Satan’s Slave scours the ’70s for some scrap of Gothic sensibility, Warren’s subsequent films played out in increasingly contemporary and even futuristic milieus. Sure, Terror kicks off with further witch hunting shenanigans but these turn out to be scenes from a film being screened for its cast and crew… you might even recognise the odd film journalist in there. Rest assured, several of the assembled subsequently suffer a series of grisly demises. Norman has freely admitted that he had recently seen and was under the spell of Suspiria when he conceived this one, as is evident in the film’s occasional stabs of saturated primary colours but more obviously in its abandonment of narrative logic as the designer deaths pile, thick and fast, upon each other. Terror’s no Suspiria but it’s great fun.

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“If you pick them, they’ll never get better…” Prey.

Between Satan’s Slave and Terror, Norman’s gory predelictions took a turn for the Sci-fi  in Prey. Released in 1976, the same year as a certain Nic Roeg / David Bowie collaboration, this one could be neatly summarised as “the man (Barry Stokes) who fell To Earth, dabbled in cross dressing then started eating his way through the human race, starting with a lesbian couple (Sally Faulkner and Glory Annen) who are trying to get away from it all in the country”. Beset with familiar pacing problems, Prey packs enough non-sequitur splatter and scuzzy sex to win the coveted HOF seal of approval.

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Norman’s knack for anticipating big budget Sci-Fi efforts continued with Inseminoid (“Horrorplanet” in The States), a film which caused the bods at 20th Century Fox serious consternation on account of its perceived similarity to Alien. Warren insists that it was arrived at independently of the Ridley Scott blockbuster and I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt a) because he is, as I keep saying, such a nice guy and b) because of the characteristically lengthy and bumpy gestation endured by Inseminoid… nowhere near as traumatic a confinement, of course, as that suffered by Sally Geeson when impregnated by some alien booger while she and fellow astronauts are excavating the remains of a dead civilisation on a planet very, very far away. Norman got maximum space location bang for his buck by shooting in Chislehurst caves and Inseminoid looks mighty fine in scope dimensions. Nice electronic score by John Scott, too…

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Bloody New Year (1987) has, for reasons mentioned above, been sourced from a 35mm print that looks like it was soaked in alien jizz on that faraway planet. By this point Norman was still trying to get his Fiend Without A Face reboot off the ground while working as a hired gun (in this instance for producer Maxine Julius). At the time of writing the FWAF clips and allusions with which Bloody New Year is peppered remain the closest he has come to realising that particular dream project. The film itself concerns a bunch of yooves in horrible ’80s apparel who, fleeing a funfair rumble, find themselves on a remote island where sinister secret Ministry of Defence experiments have put a serious dent in the space / time continuum. Plenty of potential in this scenario and BNY has it moments but ultimately not even the ever enthusiastic NJW could do much with the resources made available to him here.

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Never saying die, NJW continues to seeking that elusive next feature break while busying himself with small projects, many of them represented among the extras on this collection. Norman J Warren Presents Horrorshow (2008) can be neatly summarised as Tales From The Crypt meets Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell, with Norman presiding as horror host over the linking sections. He trades once again on his elder statesman status in the “Norman J. Warren & The Ghost” edition of the “Turn Your Bloody Phone Off” audience advisory series and narrates the trailer to somebody else’s still unrealised (as far as I can work out) House Of Mortal Sin update Daddy Cross.

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Just about anybody who’s ever collaborated with Norman is represented here in an interview, director profile or commentary track. The ever-enchanting Stephanie Beacham is as good VFM as ever, remeniscing about her time on “Insecticide” and as for the perma-jolly Trevor Thomas… I’ll have a pint of whatever he’s on, please! Tasters of unrealised projects, extended scenes, “making of”s … and so many interviews! After absorbing the contents of this box, you might well decide that you never want to see another interview with Norman J. Warren as long as you live! (*)

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You even get one of the lucrative TV commercials that Norman regularly churned out for board games in the run ups to Christmas (in this instance Whipper Snappers from 1977). Still no Rod The Mod, though… the 1965 short Fragment, present on previous releases, has been lost in the shuffle this time out…. and when, oh when are we going to see the full length Bath Time With Brenda?

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Keep your eye on Norman J. Warren, one nice guy who hopefully isn’t finished just yet.

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(*) So obviously our next posting, arriving imminently, will be… The Norman J. Warren Interview!!!

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The Shadow Over Doug McClure… HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP Reviewed.

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Monster: Humanoids From The Deep (1980). Directed by Barbara Peeters (and Jimmy T. Murakami, uncredited). Produced by Roger Corman (uncredited), Hunt Lowry and Martin B. Cohen. Written by Martin B. Cohen, Frank Arnold and William Martin. Cinematography by Daniel Lacambre. Edited by Mark Goldblatt. Art direction by Michael Erler. Music by James Horner. Creature FX by Rob Bottin. Special FX by Roger George and (uncredited) Chris Walas. Stunts by Diamond Farnsworth and Jack Tyree. Starring: Doug McClure, Ann Turkel, Vic Morrow, Cindy Weintraub, Anthony Pena, Denise Galik, Lynn Theel.

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“We’re having a great time down here… we’re waving to people… we’re playing records… we’re doing a whole lot of things!” Mad Man Mike Michaels paints an irresistible radio picture of the annual Noyo Salmon Festival.

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Jim Hill (Doug McClure… you might remember him from constant lampooning in The Simpsons) and beautiful scientist Susan Drake (Ann Turkel… you might remember her as the trophy wife of Richard Harris) team up to investigate weird goings on in the fishing town of Noyo. A sinister salmon canning corporation is setting up its new factory upstream, which Hank Slattery (Vic Morrow), his redneck cronies and the townsfolk in general regard as booster for the local economy, though Native American “Johnny Eagle” (Anthony Pena) has eco-conscious-cum-spiritual legal objections to the misappropriation of his people’s ancestral lands. A certain amount of low level racist aggro plays out in this poor man’s Henrik Ibsen scenario before we crack on with what everybody’s actually come to see… i.e. oversexed mutant salmon-men, spawned by sinister corporate attempts to increase fishing yields, chasing large-breasted, bikini-clad lovelies around the cove and impregnating them. “It’s my theory that these creatures are driven to mate with humans, to accelerate their already incredible evolution” speculates Turkel. Who could forget (or indeed forgive?) the scene in which a ventriloquist’s dummy talks a buxotic beach babe out of her bikini, only for a humanoid to invade their tent and violate her?

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All hell breaks loose when the Humanoids run amok at Noyo’s annual Salmon Festival, molesting women (and dismembering people of whatever gender) to the running commentary of the exceptionally irritating Mad Man Mike Michaels, a DJ who’s clearly learned his trade from the guy heard over the climax of Zombie Flesh Eaters). Created by Rob Bottin (he’s actually in there under one of his suits), they look fucking great, with long arms that they wave around like Andrew Marr and (unlike Marr) prominent brains that are bashed in by handy-dandy planks, marlin spikes and what have you when the crowd turns on them and drives them into the bay, which Jim Hill (not, under any circumstances, to be confused with Jimmy Hill) ignites.

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There’s a touchy feely reconciliation between Johnny Eagle and his erstwhile persecutors. “Everything’s alright now, Sheriff… isn’t it?” asks a character who’s clearly never seen a New World release or any kind of monster movie before, cueing the sucker punch coda in which Turkel supervises the rather messy birth of a humanoid / bikini-clad lovely hybrid, incorporating the ten seconds of alien copying that was obviously all Roger Corman was prepared to fund… ooh, that’s gotta hurt!

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Like a dumbed-down Creature From The Black Lagoon / sexed-up Horror Of Party Beach, Monster rattles through its economical 80 minutes ticking all the exploitive boxes to pleasing effect. I first encountered it on a theatrical double bill with Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls (1979) and it’s been a firm personal favourite ever since, just crying out for rediscovery by a wider audience (Arrow, are you listening?) Nothing is as powerful as a trash movie whose time has come… not only was M:HFTD parading its eco-consciousness and championing civil / indigenous rights nearly 40 years before David Attenborough started counting all the plastic bags floating around the North Pole, the story behind its production also chimes spookily with today’s feminist movement… but not in a good way. Not if you believe the official account, anyway…

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The widely accepted version is that Roger Corman promised Barbara Peeters that she could direct a right on eco-thriller then undermined her by cutting in gratuitous tit’n’ass shenanigans filmed by Jimmy T. Murakami on obviously inferior film stock. Doncha just hate that kind of patriarchal bullshit? But wait just a cotten-pickin’ minute… the “starry eyed neophyte shafted by chauvinist movie mogul” line must have generated some useful hype for the publicity campaign, but how does it square with the known facts? For an alleged sexist, Corman has relied heavily on the collaboration of his wife Julie over the years and has never shown any reluctance to foster female talent (who’s that “Gale Hurd” lurking among the production assistant credits on Monster?) What’s more Peeters had already directed the exploitive Bury Me An Angel (1971) and the sexploitive Summer School Teachers (1974) for Corman, not to mention co-writing and co-directing the dykesploiation epic The Dark Side Of Tomorrow (1970) for Harry H. Novak (never exactly regarded as among the most woke of producers).

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As for Murakami, he subsequently directed (among many others) the film adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ anti-nuke parable When The Wind Blows (1986) and video promos for Kate Bush and David Bowie, so for all we know, he was responsible for the eco-conscious stuff and Peeters handled the boob’n’bum aspect. Whatever, her career wasn’t exactly sabotaged by the Corman connection, any more than those of Joe Dante or Jonathan Demme (who earned their spurs shooting bits and pieces for insertion into Corman features) or Gale Anne Hurd were. Although she never attained the same heights as some of those guys, Peeters carved out a respectable career for herself directing episodes of such TV shows as Cagney and Lacey, Falcon Crest and Remington Steele.

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Two final thoughts… 1) Jeff Yonis’s 1996 TV movie remake of M:HFTD (despite perpetuating the original’s big boob fixation with the casting of Emma Samms) is a travesty which you can safely avoid. 2) The film under consideration here should also be avoided by anyone who’s about to give birth. In fact anyone who might ever conceivably find themselves in that position should give it a very wide, er, berth indeed…

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Meanwhile, on a Ghanaian poster for a completely different film…

 

 

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Creatures From The Cack Lagoon… THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH Reviewed

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Who ate all the hot dogs?

BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“…and you’ll never hear surf music again!”  – James Marshall Hendrix.

Somebody… I don’t quite recall who it was… maybe Celine (one of those light-hearted guys, anyway)… once said that “if you want to see people at their most desperate, watch them while they are enjoying themselves”… something along those lines, anyway. Bear these sage words in mind as you watch the bikini babes and gym bunnies busting their best beach party moves to the melodious tones of The Del-Aires in “The First Horror-Monster Musical”, The Horror Of Party Beach.

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“Everybody do The Zombie Stomp… You bring your foot down with an awful bomp!”(Beginning to get the picture?)

This, er, distinctive creature feature, directed by Del Tenney (aka “Connecticut’s own Ed Wood”)  first entered my consciousness as one of The Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time, so designated by Harry Medved in his influential 1978 book of that title. I’m grateful to Severin for the arrival (with an awful bomp) of this fine BD edition and the opportunity to finally see for myself if THOPB lives up / down to Medved’s estimation.

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Hunky Hank Green (John Scott) is certainly having a hard time enjoying himself at The Del-Aires’ beach gig. His wildcat girlfriend Tina (Marilyn Clarke, the Ruby Wax lookalike pictured above) taunts him about his dweebish devotion to Science and when a bunch of bikers turns up she starts flirting outrageously with them, leading to a rumble that’s almost as badly choreographed as the dance routines (incidentally, Tenney appeared as an extra in Laslo Benedek’s seminal The Wild One, 1953). Serves Tina right when she’s the first to get mutilated and murdered by one of the mutant fishmen spawned after the casual dumping of radioactive waste into Stamford’s bay.

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The situation escalates rapidly as two fish men gatecrash a rather tame sorority sleepover party (folk songs, hair combing, pillow fights) and kill twenty girls (the bloody aftermath of this attack, routinely cut from TV broadcasts and many VHS releases, has been restored here in all its gory glory by Severin). It’s readily apparent that the budget only stretched to two fishmen costumes but some nifty split screen work increases their ranks to six at certain salient moments. During the “climactic” confrontation, various extras with sacks over their heads provide unconvincing fishman backup, with Tenney obviously figuring that you won’t notice this if he cuts quickly enough. Suffice to say, he doesn’t cut quickly enough.

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But we’re getting ahead of ourselves… Hanks finds a new love interest in the more deserving, shapely shape of Elaine (Alice Lyon), daughter of Dr Gavin (Allan Laurel). This guy’s got all manner of preposterous theories about how the fishmen were spawned and what to do about them. Personally (call me a stickler), I can’t give much credence to any scientist incapable of pronouncing the word “protein” correctly, but Dr G has definitely hit on something when he speculates that the Party Beach horrors might react adversely to sodium (bit like throwing salt on the slugs in your back garden… one of Mrs F’s favourite activities, by the way). You might well think that the required element would be shipped in, lickety split, by the military but no… Hank has to jump into his sports car, drive over to NYC and jolly well buy some sodium (?!?) After a few bags of that have been chucked around the monsters disintegrate into fizzing piles of goo and the world is saved forever from the perils of irresponsible nuclear technology. If only…

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Extras (aside from the inevitable trailer) include an archival interview with the late Del Tenney, an agreeable bloke who expresses himself satisfied with what he’d achieved in life. His widow Margot Hartman appears in Dan Weaver’s retrospective documentary Return to Party Beach. Surviving Del-Aires Bobby Osborne and Ronnie Linares (who’ve got a great future as teen idols behind them) reminisce, knock out a few numbers and test the water re a possible comeback. In the featurette Shock & Roll, film maker Tim Sullivan agues that “horror movies are to movies what rock’n’roll is to music” and based upon this persuasive proposition, mounts an entertaining survey of Rock & Roll Horror Movies.

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As ever, Severin have come up with an appropriate assortment of marketing knick-knacks and indeed gee-gaws to accompany this release and if you’re planning on hosting your own Beach Party this Christmas, check out their Bundle of Party Beach, which includes an Inflatable Beach Ball and an Enamel Pin with which to burst it. Personally, this dancin’ fool could do with one of those dance step diagrams to work on my Zombie Stomp but hey, you can’t have everything…

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Alienated With Extreme Prejudice… And Can You Put Some Chilli Sauce On That? Shedding Light On SHOCKING DARK.

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BD. Severin. Region Free. Unrated.

“Can’t you smell that stink of shit?” Geretta Giancarlo Field.

The last time we embarked on a Severinian binge here at THOF we were up to our asses in Bruno Mattei / Claudio Fragasso monstrosities but in a rare display of trash film fallibility, we managed to miss this one. It seemed only right, therefore (and even more appropriate in light of the film’s increasingly relevant and no-doubt sincerely heartfelt ecological concerns) to kick-start our Several Days Of Severin with a look at Mattei’s Shocking Dark (1989), billed by the Sevsters themselves (who certainly know a thing or two about this stuff) as “the most infamous mash-up in Eurosleaze history!”

Never known for their reluctance to pad out a film with stock footage, Mattei and writer Fragasso (billed here under their sho’nuff “Vincent Dawn” and “Clyde Anderson” aliases… in fact Fragasso’s identified as “Clayde” Anderson this time out) commence the proceedings with travelogue shots of Venice while some voice over schmuck wonders what the ravages of pollution will have done to it by the turn of the Millennium… and indeed, who could possibly have predicted that it would be an abandoned wasteland, under the ruins of which elite Marine units battle it out with mutant aliens and time travelling cyborgs? Anybody who’s ever watched a Mattei and / or Fragasso flick before, that’s who! Altogether, now: “Just one gorenetto, give it to me…”

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Though Demons’ Geretta Geretta (billed under the altogether more feasible handle of Geretta Giancarlo Field) and her fellow grunts from Operation Delta Venice Megaforce try hard to emulate the ruffty-tuffty troupers in James Cameron’s Aliens (did I mention yet that Shocking Dark owes rather a lot to Aliens? How remiss of me!) in truth they look more like refugees from a gay porn movie… and not a particularly macho one, either, the way they squeal and blurt every time one of those aliens (which resemble nothing so much as ambulatory kebabs and prove disappointingly easy to gun down) hoves into view.

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Ms Geretta is always agreeably sassy in these things (in 1984 she had graced Mattei and Fragasso’s hysterical Rats: Night Of Terror, of course) but unfortunately she gets killed off relatively early in Shocking Dark, before she can celebrate a heart-warming reconciliation over a hand grenade with the Italian guy she’s spent most of her screen time racially abusing. Otherwise, all of your favourite Aliens scenes are recreated in predictably am-dram fashion… Dr Sarah Drumbull (Haven Tyler in her only screen credit) as the Ripley figure even manages to rescue and bond with Newt surrogate Samantha Raphelson (the similarly uni-credited Dominica Coulson).

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Clive Riche, in contrast to both of those ladies, has kept commendably busy since making his debut here… Christ knows how, given his ripe overacting (one of his more subdued moments, below) as “Drake”, a character driven mad by his earlier run in with the kebab creatures.

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Christopher Ahrens is Samuel Fuller (!), an all-purpose kung fu special forces dude who’s along for the ride to represent the interests of the sinister and corrupt Tubular Corporation (!!), whose property speculation scam and clandestine chemical / bacteriological weapon tests (“cybernetics applied on a molecular basis”) devastated Venice in the first place. Fuller is ultimately revealed as part Ash from Alien, part Terminator (as if his increasingly Arnie-esque tones hadn’t already tipped you off) and is even described as a Replicant… so Mattei and Fragasso have managed to stir a pinch of Blade Runner into this indigestible concoction, too.

“I’m immortal… the most perfect (sic) thing ever created by the Tubular Corporation” announces cybernetic Sammy as Drumbull and Raphelson scramble to escape a nuclear reactor (did I forget to mention the nuclear reactor?) facility that will self-destruct (you guessed) in T-10 minutes. Just as their time is about to elapse, the girls happen upon a time machine (what were the odds on that?) which takes them back to the present day (or the tail end of the 20th Century, anyway) where Fuller follows them for a twist ending that will rip a new asshole in your space / time continuum.

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Much as I love those Severin boys, I’d have to take issue with their assessment of Shocking Dark as “the most infamous mash-up in Eurosleaze history!” It’s an admittedly awesome Italo-schlock milestone but throughout it I get the sense of a director building himself up to such mashed masterpieces as 2004’s Land Of Death (“Cannibal Holocaust meets Predator”) and his 2007 swan-song “everything but the kitchen sink… hang on, there’s a kitchen sink in there as well” zombie brace Island Of The Living Dead and Zombies – The Beginning.

Also known (before James Cameron’s lawyers got wind of it) as Aliens 2, Alienators and Contaminator, initial orders of Shocking Dark were dispatched by Severin in “an extremely unofficial limited edition (Terminator 2) slipcover that will be available until a cease and desist arrives”. Punters picking up that edition might well have been in for a nasty surprise, though I guess if you’re reading this blog you would have been hip to the gag…

Extras include another chunk of Severin’s ongoing interview with co-writers Fragasso and his missus Rossella Drudi (remembering their final collaboration with Bruno Mattei) and a characteristically lively audience with Geretta Geretta / whatever her bloody name is. Plus alternative Italian Titles.

Looking for the perfect junk movie to accompany a late night fast food binge? Naan better than Bruno Mattei’s Shocking Dark…

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How Does It Feel To Be One Of The Beautiful People? HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN Reviewed

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

Prior to the advent of the internet (if you pampered millennials can actually imagine such a thing), Phil Hardy’s Aurum Horror Encyclopedia was the hard-pressed Horror hack’s bible. Before the dawn of VHS, in fact (“Dawn of what, now?” – A Pampered Millennial) we would drool over its reviews of films we thought we’d never live to see… The House That ScreamedThe House With Laughing Windows, Don’t Torture A Duckling, et al. A lot of those titles are now in general circulation, of course, but Hardy’s tome also alerted us to the existence of and tantalisingly synopsised a whole subset of forbiddingly entitled Japanese efforts such as Koji Wakamatsu’s Violated Angels (1967), Teruo Ishii’s The Joys Of Torture (1968) and Shiro Toyoda’s Portrait Of Hell (1969)

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Arrow have been making some impressive inroads into Japanese territory recently, notably (for our purposes) with their Bloodthirsty Trilogy box. Now here’s Ishii’s 1969 effort Horrors Of Malformed Men (“Kyofu Kikei Ningen”) which, startling as it is to Occidental eyes, is typical of the edgy sex / crime / horror fodder that the Toei studio were churning out during the ’60s and early ’70s.

Freely adapted from the popular weird tales of Edogawa Rampo (think about it), the film starts with amnesiac Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) finding himself in a mental institution, the general vibe of which is Marat / Sade-a-go-go, with wall-to-rubber-wall sex-crazed, semi-naked mad chicks. Security seems pretty lax in this joint and during one of his regular nocturnal rambles around its grounds, Hirosuke strikes up a friendship with pretty young circus performer Hatsuyo (Teruko Yumi)… gotta have a circus right next door to the nuthouse, right? After singing a lullaby that sparks a vague childhood memory in his head, she agrees to try to recall its origin but when he meets her next day (after donning a joke shop beard, for some reason) she’s bumped off and Hirosuke is framed for her murder. She says enough before dying to convince him that he can locate his home town “somewhere along the coast of the Sea of Japan”… narrowing things right down, there! Improbably, he does make it back home and even more improbably, passes himself off for his dead doppelganger Genzaburou (also played by Yoshida). It helps that they’ve both got a swastika tattooed on one of their feet… very PC. Most improbably of all, Hirosuke is accepted by the dead guy’s family, the difficulties attendant on carrying off this masquerade briefly slowing the loopy action for a bit…

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… no worries, things are back from flat to barking batshit crazy in a nano-second after our man has sailed over to Panorama island in search of his long-lost dad, Jôgorô Komoda. This guy’s played by one Tatsumi Hijikata, a kind of Japanese equivalent to the recently deceased Lindsay Kemp. No surprise then that when we’re introduced to him he’s doing a spot of, er, interesting interpretive dancing on a wave-lashed stony outcrop of the island.

When not busting radical moves at the seaside, Jôgorô likes to experiment on his kidnapped victims, transforming them into freaks… so we get goat girls, another chick with a hand sewn to her head, non-identical Siamese twins… other dudes seem to have some feathers stuck to them or to have simply been given a quick splash of silver paint.

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Despite professing indirect inspiration from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Horrors Of Malformed Men is clearly based largely upon H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island Of Dr Moreau, though Jôgorô gets things arse-ways about by reducing humans to the level of beasts rather than speeding up the evolution of animals, as was Moreau’s modus operandi. The resulting human oddities and horrors foreshadow those of the Emperor Tiberius’ own island getaway in Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1979) and I wonder if Tom Six had certain scenes from HOMM in mind when he dreamed up The Human Centipede (2009). Japan’s censors sensed other allusions when they banned Horrors Of Malformed Men… although no more sexy or graphic than other contemporary Toei releases it could, they figured, be construed as an allegory for certain unfortunate events that happened in Japan during 1945.

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Love Island’s new policy re recruiting contestants proved controversial with viewers…

What’s Jôgorô’s motivation for these crazy surgical antics? Well, he wants to flood the world with an army of mutants as revenge for the way he was rejected by polite society on account of his webbed fingers (sense of perspective needed here, Jôgorô!) His beautiful wife turned against him and took a lover. He’s just telling Hirosuke how he resolved this little marital spat (by chaining them up in a cave, feeding him to crabs then obliging her to eat the crabs… I couldn’t seem to find this one anywhere in the Relate training manual) when Edogawa Rampo’s regular Sherlock Holmes figure, Kogoro Akechi (Minoru Oki) turns up and proceeds, in know-it-all fashion, to explain everything that’s been going on (I must admit, I was still more than a tad baffled when he was finished).

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Edogawa Rampo, yesterday.

Kogoro persuades Jôgorô not to pull the lever that will blow up the whole island (an inadvisable design feature previously popular in Universal Frankenstein movies) but Hirosuke, having recently discovered that he’s been shagging his sister, opts to blow up with her during a firework display, a spectacle that just about tops all the other weird shit we’ve been sitting through for approximately the last two hours… it’s like the climax of Zabriskie Point, albeit even more dementedly druggy. As the star cross’d lovers heads fly through the air, you ask yourself why, if he was such a shit hot surgeon, Jôgorô didn’t just separate his webbed fingers. Well, that would have been a lot simpler but a lot less fun for us, the viewers.

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Apart from the stuff you’d expect (if, indeed, you’ll ever trust your expectations again after watching Horrors Of Malformed Men) the generous bonus materials include two audio commentaries, by Japanese cinema buffs Tom Mes and Mark Schilling (perhaps things will become a little clearer after I’ve heard those), Schilling’s rather touching video account of Ishii’s visit the Far East Film Festival in Udine (followed by a tourist trip to Venice… I don’t believe he was attending that city’s film festival), a new video interview with veteran Toei screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda and the featurette Malformed Memories, in which filmmakers Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo The Iron Man) and Minoru Kawasaki (The Calamari Wrestler) talk of their admiration for the Cinema of  Teruo Ishii. These interviews did manage to resolve one outstanding issue for me, that of cultural relativity … do these films just look (very) weird (indeed) to our round eyes while being consumed as commonplace by domestic Japanese audiences? No… turns out that they alternate between picking their jaws up off the floor and laughing their asses off, too!

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Ishii’s “Pink” classic Orgies Of Edo, another 1969 effort, is next up from Arrow so hang onto your hats.

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“Black Magic From Deep Space”… XTRO Reviewed

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BD. Region Free. Second Sight. 15. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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