Blu-ray: James Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’

James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.

Cohen Film Collection

Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.

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Blu-ray: Mario Bava’s ‘Kill, Baby… Kill!’

The title may sound like a serial killer thriller but Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill (Italy, 1966) is a Gothic ghost story with haunting images, grotesque edges, and glorious style. Think of it as Bava’s answer to a Hammer horror, with hysterical superstition and suspicion of outsiders replacing the lurid sexuality of Hammer’s Victorian horrors and Bava’s rich palette setting an altogether more expressionist atmosphere.

Kino Classics

Shooting exteriors on location in rural mountain villages of picture-postcard medieval stone dwellings and labyrinthine streets, Bava creates a fairy tale world of an oppressively provincial 19th century village in the grip of a curse. At least that’s the explanation of the townspeople who dismiss the scientific investigation of Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), a coroner from the city called into determine if Irena (Mirella Pamphili), a young woman whose death by impaling opens the film, was murdered or committed suicide. The villagers know—she is the latest victim of a curse upon the village—and do everything they can to drive the coroner and Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), the city investigator, from their insular little village. With the help of Monica (Erika Blanc), who was born in the village but sent away to school and has recently returned, Paul is determined to find the true cause of the inexplicable deaths plaguing the village.

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Blu-ray: ‘Vampyr’ on Criterion

An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr (Denmark, 1932) is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.

Criterion Collection

Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.

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Blu-ray: It Comes at Night

The title of It Comes at Night (2017) sets certain expectations. What exactly comes at night? But the survival thriller from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, set sometime after the ravages of an unnamed and unexplained plague have ripped through the cities and sent survivors into the isolation of the wilderness, isn’t about monsters (human or otherwise) who hunt in the dark. It’s more insidious than that, which is what makes it so unsettling and unnerving.

Lionsgate

Our first image is of man, diseased and unable to speak, expiring as figures hidden behind gas masks try to comfort his passing. It’s both tender and alienating, a teary farewell turned mercy killing by terse, protective Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Shults continues directing in that vein. Everything is off-balance, the familiar always on edge. Their country home in the lush green forest has been boarded up and turned into a fortress, the gentle days are under constant threat of pillager and armed invaders, and the nights are plunged in isolation where every sound is a potential attack. So when they catch a man breaking into their home (which, to anyone on the outside, appears abandoned), they have to make a choice whether to believe Will (Christopher Abbott) when he says he’s just trying to find water and shelter for his wife and young son.

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Blu-ray: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’

“Do you want to meet a ghost?”

Arrow

The meditative and metaphysical horror cinema of Kiyoshi Kurosawa made him one of the masters of Japanese horror during its amazing cycle of surreal and nightmarish horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, but his films never really crossed over to the general audience in the U.S. His insidiously unsettling films were too slow and cerebral for traditional horror audiences while the “horror” tag kept away the kinds of viewers that would be in tune with his eerie tales of guilt and alienation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was never recruited by Hollywood, and so he remains known mostly to those viewers with a passion for Asian horror. Among those fans (and I count myself as one), Pulse (Japan, 2001) is embraced as one of his greatest works, perhaps his best.

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Blu-ray: ‘Death Line’ (aka ‘Raw Meat’) on Blue Underground

Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972) – Gary Sherman directs this underrated (and for years largely unseen) British horror film about the last survivor of a literal underground clan (trapped in a subway construction cave in a century before) who emerges from his cave to hunt for food on the London Underground. Yes, it’s a cannibal film, but it’s also a startlingly tender film about a literal underclass abandoned by the world above, a story that roils in class division. It takes the death of an OBE to get the police looking into the spate of disappearances on the London Underground.

Blue Underground

The killer, an unspeaking, primitive figure called the “Man” in the credits (Hugh Armstrong), is also in some ways the protagonist. Drooling and diseased, suffering from plague and malnutrition, he hunts the tunnels of the Underground for food for his dying mate (June Turner). Donald Pleasance steals the film as the unconventional, sarcastic Inspector assigned to the case and then meets his match in a single scene with Christopher Lee as an arrogant high class MI-5 agent. Not so David Ladd (son of Alan Ladd and brother of co-producer Alan Ladd Jr.) as an American in London and Sharon Gurney as his girlfriend and soon-to-be captive of the Man. Their self-involved manner and disdain for the lower classes stands in contrast to the purity of the underground couple but the film stumbles over their scenes together.

Apart from that, however, Death Line is a remarkable horror film.

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Blu-ray: Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’

The Stepford Wives meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in Get Out (2017), the directorial debut of writer / comedian Jordan Peele, a tricky and successful mix of social satire, modern horror, and savvy commentary on race as experienced by a person of color in a largely white society.

Universal Home Video

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris Washington, a photographer with a promising career and a gorgeous, supportive girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), and after months of dating, he’s finally meeting the parents for a weekend stay. Her parents are white, liberal, and affluent, and on the drive over he finds out that she hasn’t told them that he’s black, which makes him a little uneasy. No worries, they are warm and welcoming, perhaps a little too overeager to make him welcome. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a chatty hugger who launches into his spiel of how he would have eagerly voted Obama in for a third term. Mom (Catherine Keener) is a therapist who seems to be sizing up all those suppressed feelings, a suburban Earth Mother who seems just a little too eager to hypnotize him. They make a point of just how much they don’t see color, which of course only accentuates how much he stands out in this upstate social pocket where the only other black faces are groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel). They have been with the family so long they have become part of the family, explains Mom. Just maybe not quite in the way you assume.

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Blu-ray/DVD: Train to Busan

You could call Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016) “Zombies on a Train”—it certainly makes a catchy logline and it frames the premise accurately and succinctly—but it reduces this fleet, fierce, unexpectedly human thriller to a mere gimmick.

Apart from the slyly eerie prologue, the film opens without any hint of the viral rampage to come. Workaholic divorced dad Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) is a hedge fund manager in a Seoul financial firm juggling a financial crisis while his neglecting his young daughter Soo-an, one of those adorable tykes whose moon eyes and disappointed face gives us a history of neglect—not the physical abuse kind, mind, he’s just been absent in every meaningful way—and finally shames him into taking her back to her mother on the train to Busan. It’s just another ride as far as the passengers are concerned, but that because the train pulls out just before the yard is overrun in a swarm of rabid bodies, but not before one infected soul climbs aboard.

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Blu-ray: Giallo! Restored Italian horrors on Arrow, Synapse and more

Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
What Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD)
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Tenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD)
Manhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray)

A mysterious stranger stalks a beautiful woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo—a distinctive Italian brand of horror film that was born in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s and 1980s—combines a poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity. You could call it “spaghetti horror,” though it hardly captures what makes the genre so unique and, at its best, so delicious.

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, which is the Italian word for “yellow” and refers to a series of cheap paperback mysteries and thrillers that sported yellow covers, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. The cinematic roots include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (with its elaborately choreographed murder scenes), Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and the krimi, a distinctly German genre of murder mystery based on the British thrillers of Edgar Wallace and his son, Bryan Wallace. These films generally featured a mysterious, usually masked killer, an eccentric investigator, and a roll call of suspects that usually ended up systematically murdered in creatively gruesome ways.

Death Walks at Midnight - image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Death Walks at Midnight – image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties, bloomed in the seventies, and celebrated a resurgence in the late nineties as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and DVD in restored and uncut versions. I devoured these releases but, like so many other fans, I also discovered that the pool of Italian horror was, just as with the spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, huge and filled with copycats and knock-offs cashing in on the current trends. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for moments of inspiration. That’s not to say anyone gave up on the genre, only that for a few years the hits were fewer and farther between.

Labels like Blue Underground, Kino Lorber, Synapse, and Mondo Macabro kept the genre alive during these fallow years. Now Arrow, a British label that recently launched an American line of Blu-ray and DVD releases (through distributor MVD), has injected new blood into the genre with some of the best editions of classic, notorious, and outrageous giallo titles in the past couple of years. Most (if not all) of these films have previously been released on DVD, some of them satisfactory, others not so much. They make their respective Blu-ray debuts in impressive deluxe editions. Here are a few stand-out releases from the past 12 months or so, as well as a few choice releases from other labels. And where better to start than…

bloodblackBlood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), Mario Bava’s 1964 giallo landmark. Many experts of the genre have cited The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) as the birth of the giallo, but I say this elegant slasher picture and its mix of poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is where it really began. If Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch turns violence into a ballet, then Blood and Black Lace is murder as ballroom dance. Bava sets the atmosphere with a beautiful yet eerie credits sequence that gives each star his or her own moving fashion still and then jumps into a stormy night, where the winds lash and snap the chains of the hanging sign and twist the streams of the elegant fountain until it resembles the spray of a disaster. Order becomes chaos.

Forget the plot, which has something to do with a masked stalker hunting the gorgeous models of a Rome fashion house and a personal diary that becomes the film’s maguffin, and just take in the color and style. The man, dressed in black with a blank white mask that evokes the fashion mannequins of the film, leads his partners, invariably beautiful women impeccably dressed in bright, bold colors, through an often elaborate, usually sadistic, tightly choreographed murder. The plot becomes secondary to spectacle of the dreamy dance of death, choreographed with sadistic precision, delivered in lurid color, spied upon with a restlessly gliding camera. There’s an undeniable edge of misogyny to the whole thing, but the psycho-thriller aspects seem beside the point as the narrative melts into abstract moments of dreamy, disconnected beauty. Cameron Mitchell (who also starred in a pair of Viking movies for Bava) plays the head of the fashion house and, thus, is the prime suspect in the eyes of the obsessive Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner)

Previous DVD releases have all been a little disappointing. Bava was a cinematographer and special effects artist before graduating to director. His films are painstakingly designed and painted on the screen and Blood and Black Lace is one of his most beautiful. You can see it right there in the opening credits, a Gothic fashion shoot bathed in intense, unreal sprays of red and purple and green. Arrow gives the film its American Blu-ray debut in a transfer newly mastered from a 2K restoration from the original camera negative, with both the Italian and English language soundtracks (note that American actor Mitchell’s voice in the English version is one of many dubbed by Paul Frees) and newly translated subtitles for the Italian version.

New to this edition and featured on both Blu-ray and DVD editions is commentary by film historian and Mario Bava biographer Tim Lucas and the almost hour-long “Psycho Analysis,” an in-depth documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre featuring interviews with directors Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi among others. There is also an appreciation of the film by Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, directors of the giallo tributes Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (10 mins), the visual essay “Gender and Giallo” by Michael Mackenzie (38 mins), a panel discussion on Mario Bava featuring Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, recorded at the 2014 Courmayeur Film Festival (11 mins), the complete episode of David Del Valle’s television series The Sinister Image featuring his interview Cameron Mitchell (56 mins), and the alternative US opening titles (sourced from Joe Dante’s private print and scanned in 2K especially for this release). Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the neo-giallo short film Yellow by Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt. The accompanying lavishly illustrated booklet features new essays by giallo historian Howard Hughes and David Del Valle and a print interview with Joe Dante.

whathavesolongeWhat Have You Done to Solange? (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) is celebrated as one of the masterpieces of giallo. It’s also one of the most disturbing entries in the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume. On the one hand, What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) comes right out of the krimi-inspired plots of a mysterious masked killer hunting down victims and leaving their rent bodies on display to taunt the cops and terrorize the community, with a side of salacious nudity out of the schoolgirl films of Germany and the swinging cheerleader and student nurse films of the U.S. On the other, it is about a killer targeting high school girls and murdering them with a sexual assault out of the Jack the Ripper school of hateful misogyny. Our prime suspect is also our protagonist, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), an Italian physical education teacher in an exclusive British girl’s school. He’s married to a schoolteacher (Karin Baal, introduced as a chilly, severe figure) and sleeping with a student (Cristina Galbó), though the film takes pains to assure us that she is 18 so it’s okay, wink wink, nudge nudge. The growing suspicions of Enrico send him on his own investigation with his wife at his side and it turns out that their mystery-solving partnership is better than marriage counseling.

Director / co-writer Massimo Dallamano, the cinematographer of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) and director of salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh (1969) and The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970), stacks up the genre conventions. One character has violent flashes of the murders, something between supernatural premonition and buried traumatic memory (complete with a sickly inventive bit of stylistic ingenuity involving a murder, a nightmare, and a whip-pan transition). There are obligatory shower scenes (complete with a peeping tom more pervy than menacing) next to imagery of Catholic repression and guilt. In one flashback involving an abortion, the scene transforms from shared act of rebellion to grotesque assault, an act of sadism and sexual violation rather than a medical procedure. The filmmakers may have set the film in Britain but the illegal back-alley abortion is purely Italian, as is the Catholic morality.

What Have You Done to Solange? has plot holes big enough to trap the elephant in the room, but it is unusual and surprising and perversely compelling, with a disturbed twist that gives the salacious and sick predations a psychological grounding. This is not violence sexualized but an angry, vicious assault upon the sexuality of the victims, which gives the film a weird, resonant pay-off, and the lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. Solange is exploitation to be sure, but Dallamano doesn’t fetishize or stylize the violence as spectacle. Rather, his film reverberates with a fear of female sexuality and mourning over the loss of innocence. That’s not to say Dallamano transcends the conventions of the genre, but he certainly complicates them.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, newly remastered from a 2K restoration from the original camera negative and featuring both Italian and English language soundtracks with optional English subtitles. It was shot with the actors delivering their lines in English so the dub would better match. Given the international make-up of the cast, the English language version is likely the definitive one here.

New to this edition is commentary by horror historians and critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman, new interviews with actors Karin Baal (13 mins), Fabio Testi (21 mins), and Fulvio Lucisano (11 mins), the half-hour visual essay “Innocence Lost” by Michael Mackenzie, plus a booklet with new essays on the gialloscores of Ennio Morricone by Howard Hughes and the career of actress Camille Keaton by Art Ettinger.

deathwalkstwiceDeath Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli(Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) is a double shot of gialloconnected not by story or character but by genre, style, and creative collaborators. Both films are directed by Luciano Ercoli, written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén (aka May) Velasco, and star Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (under the screen name Susan Scott) and leading man Simón Andreu, a team first brought together for Ercoli’s directorial debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970).

Death Walks in High Heels (1971) opens on an attention-grabbing set piece: a masked figure with a big knife stalks and stabs a man on a train, but the real object of his hunt is missing. The victim is—or rather, was—a notorious jewel thief and the police immediately pay a call on the dead man’s daughter Nicole (Nieves Navarro), a celebrity stripper in Paris. So does the killer, who terrorizes her with a knife and the threat of brutal sexual violence unless she hands over the jewels from a recent heist. She hadn’t a clue as to where her estranged father stashed his loot but neither the police nor the killer believe her. As for her hot-tempered boyfriend Michel (Simón Andreu), we’re not exactly sure what he believes. He’s an opportunist kept in high style by Nicole, a situation that tends to bring out the resentment of the ne’re do well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish the alpha male dominance while living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one. Frank Wolff is the friendliest stalker on the stripper circuit, following Nicole from one club to the next and finally whisking her out of the country to his English seaside villa to escape the killer and the cops. (Key scenes with Paris and London landmarks were shot on location but otherwise Spain and Italy stand in for France and Britain.)

The quirky Inspector Baxter (Carlo Gentili), a sardonic police investigator with a dry wit and a slow-witted assistant (George Rigaud), is right out of the krimi, as are the masked killer (whose faceless appearance is just as much about instilling terror as concealing identity), the gallery of eccentric suspects, and the splashes of gallows humor. And then there’s the voyeurism and the disembodied eyes. The operatic, intense close-ups that Sergio Leone turned into a stylistic trademark of the spaghetti western are transformed by Ercoli into mystery and menace: the eyes of unidentified onlookers, isolated in extreme close-up or framed by the holes of a mask or the lenses of glasses, binoculars, and telescopes. Nicole can’t escape the gaze of lusting men even in hiding and just who is doing the watching is as much a mystery as who is behind the mask.

Death Walks at Midnight (1972) is not actually a sequel but in the proudly opportunistic tradition of Italian genre pictures it recalls an earlier success, in this case the filmmakers’ own. This time around, Navarro is a fashion model named Valentina (a reference to the comic book series by Guido Crepax?) who reluctantly agrees to be the subject of an experimental hallucinogenic drug for an unscrupulous tabloid reporter (Andreu). In the middle of a psychedelic trip she witnesses a gruesome murder in the apartment across the way but apartment is spotless by the time the police check it out the next day, The reporter chalks it up to an acid flashback—there actually was a murder committed in the same apartment months ago and he’s convinced the drug unlocked a memory she buried out of trauma—so Valentina becomes a high fashion Nancy Drew to navigate a world of eccentric informants, colorful suspects, and bohemian allies.

Ercoli pushes his style to more stylistic flamboyance: curious camera angles, unsettling compositions, a sense of Gothic around the edges of the modern world. Valentina’s sometime-lover Stefano (Pietro Martellanza), an artist with a lavish studio, gives Ercoli the opportunity to splash a little abstract color around. He pushes the film through creative set pieces and wild plot twists with a snappy pace, keeping the rollercoaster of suspense and spectacle moving with rapid but smooth momentum. Most refreshingly, Navarro takes the lead in the investigation and in the film. The men are a few beats behind, though no less arrogant for it. She isn’t even obligated to disrobe this time around, which I attribute to a sign of respect and affection from director to actress. The married and lived happily ever until Ercoli’s death in 2015.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the films, newly remastered from a 2K restoration from original camera elements and featuring both Italian and English language soundtracks with optional English subtitles. High Heels features commentary by giallo historian Tim Lucas and interviews with director Luciano Ercoli and actress Nieves Navarro from 2012 (24 mins), screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi from 2015 (32 mins), and composer Stelvio Cipriani from 2015 (26 mins), and a brief video introduction by Gastaldi. Midnight features commentary by Lucas, a 2015 interview with Ernesto Gastaldi (31 mins), visual essay “Desperately Seeking Susan” by Michael Mackenzie that explores at the collaboration between Ercoli and Nieves (27 mins), and the alternate TV version of the film, which runs four minutes longer and features additional and alternate footage. The alternate version is taken from an inferior video source. The accompanying 60-page booklet features new essays by Danny Shipka, Troy Howarth, and Leonard Jacobs. The box set is limited to 3000 copies.

killerdamesKiller Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia(Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) pair up the only two giallidirected by Miraglia, who learned the ropes of genre filmmaking working his way through the studio system as a script supervisor and assistant director before making his directorial debut in 1967 with the crime thriller Assassination. Miraglia is more indebted to the Gothic tradition in his brief engagement with the giallo and his two features, which are embraced by some critics as minor classics of the genre, are more mystery thriller than horror. They also, like Blood and Black Lace and Death Walks at Midnight, embrace the fashions of the era, which he weaves into the Gothic flashback to create something a little different for the genre.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) opens with the attempted escape from an asylum, and then jumps ahead to his freedom. Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) is a handsome widower living in a run-down mansion in the countryside haunted by memories of his dead wife. To deal with the grief he frequents nightclubs and strip joints in the city, looking for red-headed beauties who resemble his late wife, then proceeds to lure into the family dungeon to torture and kill. Yes, all those dreamy, soft-focus reveries of naked romps in the woods turn out to be memories of his wife’s affairs. His release from psychiatric observation was apparently premature but in perhaps the most unexpected twist in the film he shifts from villain to victim. When he marries Gladys (Marina Malfatti), a woman whose wardrobe is defined by dizzying plunging necklines and blouses that surely must be glued to her breasts, mere hours after they meet at Gothic-chic party, the dead Evelyn appears. Whether she’s an actual ghost or an elaborate scheme, there is something decidedly human killing off members of the manor and there is no shortage of suspects—a bitter wheelchair-bound aunt, the brother of the dead wife who slinks around spying on everyone, a devoted cousin who keeps showing up—or victims.

It’s a confused plot—by the time the film ends it’s completely forgotten that he’s an insane serial killer—with details that are a dubious even for the coincidence-laced genre. Seriously, who leaves an open bag of powdered sulfuric acid next to a swimming pool? But it’s also a handsome film with great locations and art direction and a memorable mix of fashions. The walk through the dark, decrepit old manor let slide into ruin that ends up in Alan’s modern, well-life bachelor pad is an effective bit of atmospheric whiplash in a film where the past and present are constantly colliding, and the journey to the family crypt is like a trip back hundreds of years (or at least to an early sixties Italian Gothic horror film).

Red Queen Kills Seven Times - image courtesy of DVD Beaver

Red Queen Kills Seven Times – image courtesy of DVD Beaver

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) refers to an ancient family curse that a kindly grandfather (Rudolf Schündler) tells his constantly battling young granddaughters, who are already on the verge of fulfilling it: every hundred years, a brutal, bullying heir to the manor is killed by her sister and then returns from the grave to kill seven times, the final victim being her murderer. Jump fourteen years ahead and Kitty (Barbara Bouchet), the blond sister, is now a photographer for a Berlin fashion house and the brunette sister is missing (“moved to Canada,” everyone says) when the grandfather dies and the Bavarian family castle is to pass to the girls. In fact, the sister is dead and the curse begins again as members of the family and the fashion house are murdered by a mysterious figure clad in black with a red cape. Like Evelyn before it, the DNA comes from the German krimi, and this one is even set and shot in Germany. Details that appear confusing at first—three of the leading actresses have a startling resemblance, to the point that you might mistake one for another—pay off by the end. The plots is overly confusing (common to the genre) bit it ultimately fits together nicely (not so common). Also note an early role by future genre star Sybil Danning.

Both of Miraglia’s films straddle the old and new. Their sophisticated, fashionable protagonists live modern urban lives yet are constantly drawn back to the family manor, a legacy rooted in family history and tragedy. These are centuries-old mansion and castles where paintings of the dead keep the past around as if haunting the place. His character have inherited the baggage of family history and it weighs heavily on them. It’s a sensibility reminiscent of Corman’s Poe films brought into the modern world and that past struggles with the present for control over our heroes.

Features both Blu-ray and DVD editions of the films, newly remastered from a 2K restoration from original camera negatives and featuring both Italian and English language soundtracks with optional English subtitles. Evelyn features new commentary by Troy Howarth and interviews with actress Erika Blanc and critic Stephen Thrower, plus archival interviews with Blanc and production designer Lorenzo Baraldi and a brief video introduction by Blanc. Red Queen features new commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman, interviews with actress Sybil Danning and Thrower, an alternate opening, and a brief video introduction by Baraldi, plus archival interviews with Baraldi and actors Marino Masé and Barbara Bouchet and the interview featurette “If I Met Miraglia Today” with Blanc, Baraldi, and Masé. The accompanying 60-page booklet features new essays by James Blackford, Kat Ellinger, Leonard Jacobs, and Rachael Nisbet. The box set is limited to 3000 copies.

edgarblackcatsEdgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Two Adaptations by Sergio Martino & Lucio Fulci (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) pairs up two Italian films that use Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” as a foundation for bloody horror but otherwise have little in common.

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key(1972), directed by Sergio Martino, is the more interesting of the two, and it stars the voluptuous, dark-eyed beauty Edwige Fenech, the sex bomb of giallo, in what was (in the words historian Justin Harries) “Her finest and most atypical role.” Oliveira (Luigi Pistilli) is a once popular novelist now blocked and taking out his frustrations on his poor abused wife, Irina (Anita Strindberg). He carries on flagrant affairs and plays the decadent lord of the manor for the flower children of a local tent camp. Fenech is the writer’s gorgeous young niece Floriana, a sexy free spirit who arrives for a visit and immediately stirs things up when she gets involved with a motocross racer, an affair that riles up the writer. Meanwhile all of Oliveira’s mistresses are systematically and brutally murdered. It’s classic giallo: a mysterious killer stalking beautiful women, interspersed with scenes of sex, sadism, voyeurism, and utterly gratuitous nudity. But it’s built on a narrative architecture that is faithful to the Poe short story—a black cat named Satan, a family treasure, and a conspiracy of terror behind the murders. It’s just filled out with giallo twists and spectacle, the most glorious spectacle being the voluptuous, dark-eyed Fenech.

The Black Cat (1981), directed by Lucio Fulci, throws in elements from other Poe tales. Patrick Magee stars as a psychic who can send his pet cat to kill his enemies and Mimsy Farmer as a photographer and amateur detective who notices the scratches on each victim that the cops missed. It’s a confusing mystery and a muddled film and while it features blood and nudity, it is tame compared Fulci’s infamous gore classics.

Your Vice Is a Locked Room features a new interview with Sergio Martino (34 mins), the retrospective featurette “Unveiling The Vice” featuring interviews with Martino, star Edwige Fenech, and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (23 mins), the visual essays “Dolls Of Flesh And Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino” by Michael Mackenzie and “The Strange Vices of Ms. Fenech” with film historian Justin Harries (30 mins apiece), and a brief interview with Eli Roth. The Black Cat features commentary by filmmaker and Fangoria editor Chris Alexander, the featurette “Poe into Fulci: The Spirit of Perverseness” with film historian Stephen Thrower (25 mins), a new interview with actress Dagmar Lassander (20 mins), an archival interview with actor David Warbeck (70 mins), and the featurette “In the Paw-Prints of the Black Cat” on the film’s locations (8 mins). The box set is limited to 3000 copies and features a booklet. Also available separately with all the supplements except the booklet.

tenebraeTenebrae (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD) – Dario Argento’s 1982 feature was his return to the classic giallo after his excursions into supernatural horror with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Anthony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, a best-selling thriller novelist whose promotional tour in Italy takes a terrible turn when a mysterious killer recreates the brutal murders from his book with real life victims. At first the killer targets so-called “deviants,” then Neal’s own friends, and finally promises that the author himself is next on the list, which prompts the author to turn detective.

Columbo it ain’t, but Argento has always been more concerned with style than story and his execution of the crimes is pure cinematic bravura. From the simple beauty of a straight-razor shattering a light bulb as the camera catches the red hot filament slowly black out to an ambitious crane shot that creeps up and over the sides of a house under siege in a voyeuristic survey that would make Hitchcock proud, Argento turns the art of murder into stylish spectacle. He even lets his kinkier side show with flashbacks of an adolescent boy and a teasing dominatrix in red stiletto heels, which come back as a key motif of the film. There’s something creepy about Argento’s fascination with the slicing and dicing big eyed, scantily clad Italian beauties, which he addresses with self-deprecating humor in a scene where Neal is taken to task for the misogynist violence of his stories, but his cinematic command of color and movement and point of view gives it a perverse beauty and he knows how pull a cinematic surprise.

Previously on DVD, the Blu-ray debut features the original Italian cut newly remastered from the original camera negative and the color is glorious. New to this edition is commentary by Argento expert Maitland McDonagh and the 90-minute documentary Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of Giallo from Calum Waddell, which chronicles the development of the genre from its roots in early 20th century crime fiction and its influence on the modern slasher film. Rare English-language sequence insert shots are mastered in HD and playable within the film via Seamless Branching, and the disc include the American credits sequence (retitled Unsane in its original American release). The limited-edition Steelbook special edition also includes a bonus DVD copy, a CD soundtrack, and a booklet.

horriblehichThe Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) is not exactly giallo but it is a forerunner to the genre. The 1962 Italian horror from Riccardo Fredo (under the name Robert Hampton) stars Barbara Steele (whose voice is dubbed) as the new young wife to widower aristocrat and famed surgeon Dr. Bernard Hichcock (Robert Flemyng), who wife accidentally died years ago while playing their (consensual) kinky sex games. She arrives in the grand old manor to find the legacy of the dead wife dominating the household.

The title is only the most prominent tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. The setting and plot evoke Rebecca and Notorious, right down to Harriet White as the severe, old family maid who remains devoted to the dead mistress and keeps certain doors locked from the new lady of the manor, and a skull found hidden under the bed covers is out of Under Capricorn. (Tim Lucas wrote a great Video Watchblog piece on the film’s influence of and homage to Alfred Hitchcock.) The style, however, is in the tradition of the Roger Corman Poe movies of the early 1960s, with Gothic style, intense color, sets that look evoke ancient castles and spooky dungeons, and that distinctive obsession with death with a kinky Italian twist that gets picked up in giallo. The hidden doorways and secret rooms, the basement chamber, even the cat slinking through scene after scene, all come from Poe.

Olive gives the film its American disc debut on a terrific-looking disc. No supplements and it’s the shorter, English-dubbed American cut only, but it’s essential for fans of giallo and Barbara Steele.

manhattanbabyManhattan Baby (Blue Underground, Blu-ray+DVD+CD) – Lucio Fulci directs yet another knock-off of The Exorcist, this one starring Christopher Connelly as an archeologist who brings his family to Egypt. A blind woman in a marketplace gives his daughter (Brigitta Boccoli) an ancient amulet that apparently imbues her with a curse, or perhaps a demonic possession, that she carries back to New York City. Connelly is the token American star in an otherwise Italian cast, with Cinza De Ponti (Miss Italy of 1979) as the family nanny and Cosmimo Cinieri (who also co-starred in Fulci’s The New York Ripper) is the antiques dealer and amateur exorcist. Fulci also borrows from The OmenPoltergeist, and other films, and tosses them all together with his own obsessions (eyes and blindness) in this supernatural mess. Fulci, whose cavalier way with narrative logic stands out in a genre where such issues are routinely ignored, has his fans, thanks to the bizarre beauty and surreal spell of his best films. This isn’t one of his best but it has its moments and Blue Underground delivers a terrific three-disc special edition

Both the Blu-ray and DVD discs feature the great collection of new video interviews with composer Fabio Frizzi (56 minutes), actor Cosimo Cinieri (9 minutes), makeup effects artist Maurizio Trani (11 minutes), and Fulci historian Stephen Thrower (12 minutes), plus a live studio performance of Fabio Frizzi playing the main theme. Carried over from the previous DVD release is an 8-minute interview with co-writer Dardano Sacchetti. Also includes a bonus CD with Fabio Frizzi’s soundtrack and a booklet with an essay by Fulci specialist Troy Howarth.

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‘Memento Mori’ and the Terrible Melancholy of Korean Horror

The rise of Asian horror in the late nineties was built on a different recipe than the Freddy and Jason knock-offs and post-Blair Witch found-footage horrors of American movies. After the cycle of gore films of the eighties ran its course in both Japan and Hong Kong, horror was relegated to the made-for-video industry (known as v-cinema), where younger talents found ways to create eerie thrills on limited budgets and resources. A 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki laid the groundwork for the coming boom: Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring) was made into a TV film, a TV series, a smash 1998 movie by Hideo Nakata, and a string of sequels and remakes (including a Korean version). Along with the eerie madness and supernatural forces of Kiyoshi Kurosawa‘s movies (Cure, Pulse) and the vengeful ghosts of Ju-on(a.k.a. The Grudge) and its many sequels and remakes, a new genre was born. J-Horror underplayed the on-screen violence, creating shivery moments of malevolence seeping into the material world from beyond, killing and corrupting everything it touches, with stories built on the vengeance of spirits unable to move on. The conventions of American ghost stories—discover the secret keeping the dead trapped on Earth to send them on their way—no longer applied. The truth will set neither the living nor the dead free.

Where the Japanese industry largely recycled the creepy imagery and angry supernatural killers of those trend-setting films, South Korean directors took the same elements in a different direction. K-Horror also focused on unsettled spirits, but rather than anger and vengeance, they explored regret, anguish, loss, and betrayal; the most resonant films offered spirits more damaged than malevolent, prevented from moving on by unfinished business or unfulfilled yearnings. The Asian horror revival coincided with the sudden relaxation of film censorship rules in South Korea, which helped fuel the rise in Korean action cinema. But even as action thrillers became more visceral and violent, horror cinema was closer to the teen and young-adult serial melodramas that still dominate Korean TV—more focused on the emotional than the physical.

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Have a Freudian Field Day with ‘Spider Baby’

Spider Baby (1967), more formally known as Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, is a magnificent film maudit of exploitation cinema, a true American independent vision, and an eccentric triumph unappreciated (and in fact largely unseen) in its own time. Think of Lord of the Flies by way ofFreaks, a mix of horror and comedy with a nod to Psycho and a dash of Freud. It’s one of the greatest blasts of B-movie creativity to get dumped into American drive-ins and grindhouses—and get rediscovered decades later in the era of home video by genre-movie mavens. (That’s how I first stumbled upon the film and fell in love with its invention and inspiration.)

This was the official directorial debut of Jack Hill, who apprenticed under Roger Corman (shooting uncredited scenes for Dementia 13 and The Terror), and went on to make his name in cult-movie circles with films including Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier, and Switchblade Sisters (1975), a girl-gang picture that Quentin Tarantino rereleased under his Rolling Thunder banner in the late 1990s.

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Blu-ray/DVD: The Neon Demon

neondemonThe Neon Demon (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” We first meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl from Middle America looking to leverage her youth and innocent beauty into a modeling career in Los Angeles, made up as a glamorous victim of a decadent world. Sprawled out in designer clothes across an expensive couch with fake blood slathered across her neck and dripping down her arm, she could be shooting the ad for her own fate in the big bad city.

Nicholas Winding Refn, who wrote and directed his social commentary-as-heady horror film, isn’t big on subtlety. Elle Fanning is an enormously talented young actress who has become shorthand casting for innocence, youth, and authenticity, and that serves Refn’s purposes perfectly. She does indeed have that “deer in the headlights” look, as her agent says in one of the on-the-nose lines that fills the script, and her fresh look, not yet jaded by LA decadence, makes her the next big thing in a culture where the supermodels du jour age out of their prime at 20.

This is LA as a culture of predators and prey. On one of her first nights in the city, staying in a seedy motel (run by a thuggish, intimidating Keanu Reeves) that is home to drop-outs and runaways, there’s an intruder in the her room. Not a person but a cougar that has already sniffed out the fresh meat in town. Put another way, Jesse is the delicate angelfish swimming in a pool of sharks but she learns quickly. Two hardened, competitive models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) size her up as the competition immediately at some industry soiree and begin immediately with the head games. A freelance make-up artist (Jena Malone) takes her under her wing but is it sisterly concern or something else? Malone is a seemingly warm, normal, human connection in a culture of surfaces and attitudes, but when we drop in at her day job styling corpses at a funeral home her whole nature is tossed into question when she uses her subjects as sex dolls. She’s an artist who wants to possess her creations. Heathcoate is perfectly feral as the cutthroat superstar model who plays mindgames with the competition while Abbey Lee, a real-life modeling veteran, brings out an ambiguous mix of hunger, loss, desperation, and opportunism as she loses jobs to Jesse, who starts to become as brittle and self-absorbed as the rest of the walkway meat market.

The Neon Demon was booed at Cannes and almost universally panned by critics that saw the film as vapid or shallow, but then that’s taking it all at face value. Beauty is the beast in this a horror film as fashion layout. Refn’s stripped down production design and eighties neon visuals are accompanied by synth soundtracks and dance club sounds, but the film is also filled with images of fertility, lunar cycles, hedonism, and occult symbols. What begins as an allegory for the hunger for youth and beauty with the modeling / show business industry as a form of vampirism becomes absurdly literal, channeling cannibalism and Countess Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins. I don’t see it as failed social satire, as its critics claim, but as a more primal portrait of the obsession for youth and beauty and the drive to control, dominate, package, own, and ultimately devour it. Jesse is the latest sacrifice to the gods of success and desire and power in NWR’s monogrammed photo shoot. And even if you don’t go with Refn’s predatory allegory, you can simply luxuriate in the glorious images and mad imagination of the modeling industry as sacrificial altar. This is style as substance and it is delicious.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and actress Elle Fanning and the featurettes “About Neon Demon” and “Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon.”

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