Category: horror

Dec 16 2014

Videophiled: Barbara Steele and ‘The Long Hair of Death’

LongHairofDeath

Raro VIdeo

The Long Hair of Death (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) – Raro Video, the American arm of an Italian home video company, is one of only a couple of disc labels with a tightly-defined mission, in this case a focus on classics of Italian cinema that ranges from auteur masterworks to genre landmarks and cult items. The Long Hair of Death (1964) is one of the latter, a moody Gothic horror from genre stalwart Antonio Margheriti (whose name was immortalized by Quentin Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds) starring Barbara Steele, the British actress who became the most striking and mesmerizing star of Italian horror cinema in the sixties.

The preferred genre of the prolific Margheriti (whose films were often signed with the anglicized pseudonym Anthony Dawson, as it is here) was science fiction but, being an Italian director in the genre pool of the sixties (and later the seventies and eighties), he did it all: peplum, fantasy, crime, action, westerns, and of course horror of all kinds. His Gothic horrors of the sixties are among his best and this, his second collaboration with Steele (after Castle of Blood, 1964), is a minor beauty of the genre, a medieval revenge film with an innocent burned for witchcraft, a corrupt aristocracy, a curse, a ghost, and a sweet, sweet revenge. Steele is the eldest daughter of the woman framed for murder and burned alive and as she sacrifices her maidenhood to Count Humboldt to stop the trial by fire, his cruel son Kurt (George Ardisson, looking like Italy’s answer to Doug McClure with bad attitude) ignites the “test” blaze, which is quite literally a maze of bundled straw surrounding the accused It’s a great scene, with the woman scrambling up on a cross in the center of the inferno as pyres rage around her to spit a curse upon the family, and Steele soon follows, murdered to cover up the sins of the Humboldt family. Only when her innocent young stepsister Lisabeth is grown into a young beauty (Halina Zalewska) and forced into marriage to the scheming Kurt does Steele return, this time as the embodiment of her mother. She takes the name Mary and poses as a seductive traveler who immediately becomes of object of Kurt’s obsession. She turns seductress and appears to encourage Kurt to murder his wife but her true motivations are more insidious.

It’s a little slow as these things go, with the story just creeping along as Margheriti’s camera drinks in the atmosphere of the gorgeous castle locations and the secret passageways and ominous crypts and dungeon sets. It’s an atmosphere of plague and pestilence, though the ravages are only glimpses outside the castle walls (the peasants are, of course, locked out), but the worst seems to be over (coincidentally as Mary appears) and the local priest prepares to preside over a celebratory ceremony that looks positively pagan. The tension between peasant superstition, religious power, and the purely self-serving rule of the corrupt aristocracy makes an interesting backdrop that, while never really explored, figures in the finale as revenge is served.

The rest is about the beauty of figures that float through the atmosphere of Margheriti’s sets and locations and the mesmerizing presence of Steele, whose scary beauty is delicate and vulnerable yet feral and fierce. She is equally compelling as the innocent maiden of the opening scenes, the seductress in the castle, and the avenging dark angel of her wronged mother. But even if the film meanders more than it unnerves, more interested in creating elegant images and moments than tension or mood, the finale is perfectly orchestrated and it delivers a deliciously cruel poetic justice with echoes to Bava’s Black Sunday, the film that made Steele an icon of Italian horror.

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Barbara Steele in ‘The Long Hair of Death’

This appears to be an excellent transfer from less-than-stellar source materials. At its best the image is sharp and clean, with excellent detail and a rich gray scale in the black and white image, but the sharpness can vary from shot to shot. That may be inherent in the original photography or a matter of restoring the complete film from different sources (there are no notes on the provenance of the elements or the transfer apart from “New HD Transfer Digitally Restored). It has English language credits and both Italian and English language soundtracks, but it also has brief scenes of nudity that were surely not in the American release. There is a light, almost ghostly spiderwebbing of what looks like emulsion cracks through a few sequences over what is otherwise a strong image but no other glaring damage. It’s likely the best materials available for the film and the digital transfer is very good, delivering a strong, steady image. Note that the English soundtrack features an (unidentified) American actress dubbing Steele’s lines and a poor visual match to the lips, so I favor the Italian soundtrack with subtitles.

Also features an introduction by Chris Alexander, editor of Fangoria and Delirium Magazine and director of Blood for Irina (he makes the claim for this as Steele’s finest Italian Gothic moment), and video interviews with Edoardo Margheriti (the director’s son) and screenwriter Antonio Tentorio, all shot on standard definition video, probably a decade ago or so, and the accompanying booklet features a short essay on the film and the Italian Gothic horror genre by Alexander.

More releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital at Cinephiled

Barbara Steele in ‘The Long Hair of Death’

Nov 01 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Ravenous’

Shout Factory

Ravenous (Scream Factory) channels the story reminiscent of the Donner Party disaster and the legend of Alferd Packer (the only American ever convicted of cannibalism) into a gruesome survival thriller with a crimson-hued streak of black humor and an elemental hint of the supernatural. The resulting film takes top honors as the definitive frontier cannibal movie. Not that there’s a long list to choose from, mind you, but this earns its position with honors, thanks to a gleefully weird and savagely bloodthirsty sensibility.

Guy Pearce is Captain John Boyd, whose battle cowardice during the Mexican-American war inadvertently results in making him an accidental hero. The ordeal of playing dead under the bleeding corpses of his fellow officers also puts him off meat, as the opening scenes so vividly illustrate. Director Antonia Bird cuts straight to the heart of the situation as she intercuts soldiers devouring bleeding-rare steaks at a military luncheon with the bloody casualties of battle stacked like cordwood: meat is meat, at least as far as this film is concerned. Boyd’s commanding officer (John Spencer of The West Wing), who knows that his valor is a fraud, ships him out to the fringes of military reach: a fort in a California mountain pass, which runs with a minimal compliment during the impassable winter months. “This place thrives on tedium,” smiles fort commander Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), who takes everything with a bemused indulgence. How else to survive a company made up of a useless drunk second-in-command (Stephen Spinella), a giggling weed-head idiot (David Arquette), a twitchy, mumbling chaplain (Jeremy Davies), and a macho soldier boy (Neal McDonough) who holds the rest of the company in utter contempt?

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Oct 30 2014

Videophiled Classic: Halloween Disc Pick – ‘Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut’

NightbreedNightbreed: The Director’s Cut: Special Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

Clive Barker’s 1990 film Nightbreed, adapted from his novel Cabal, was taken from Barker’s hands, cut down drastically from his 142-minute rough cut (which made the bootleg rounds in a version called “The Cabal Cut” taken from a video workprint), and released in a form that Barker was never happy with. The release of Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut: Special Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) features a new cut of the film overseen by Barker and restored by Mark Allan Miller, who hunted down the original footage discarded from the rough cut. This is the version that Barker claims as his director’s cut, as he was not given the opportunity for his own final cut before the studio stepped in.

That brief history comes from Barker and Miller themselves in a new video introduction to Scream Factory’s release and it’s clear they are both proud of this release. Morgan Creek, the producing studio, wanted something along the lines of his low-budget Hellraiser. Barker had something else in mind, a celebration of misfits and monsters in a weird story of fear and prejudice filled with Biblical references and mythic resonance. The real monsters of Nightbreed are the humans, especially a psycho psychiatrist named Dr. Philip K. Decker played by filmmaker David Cronenberg with a flat delivery and deadened voice that makes him all the more unnerving. This doc is a real piece of work, drawing his kills from the nightmares of his patients and then framing them for the crimes, but Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is not a normal patient and his visions of a place called Midian aren’t nightmares. They are anticipations of his legacy: he belongs to an ancient race of misfit outsiders considered monsters and banished to an underworld away from humanity.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Oct 25 2014

Videophiled Classic: Halloween Disc Pick – ‘The Vincent Price Collection II’

The Vincent Price Collection II (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) follows up last year’s collection with the debut of seven more Vincent Price horror films in a special edition set. Shout Factory (under its Scream Factory imprint) draws from its licensing relationships with 20th Century Fox and MGM to complete the run of Roger Corman Poe films begun last year and fills to the rest a couple of sequels and two titles too often relegated to public domain bargain discs.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), the final film in Corman’s cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, is considered by many the best (partisans tend to split over this and The Masque of Red Death, 1963), and it is certainly the most sophisticated, with rich performances by Price, who is both haunted protagonist and Gothic romantic leading man (a first in the series) as widower Verden Fell, and British actress Elizabeth Shepherd, who brings a zest for life to the role of Rowena Trevanion, whose fascination with Verdan’s self-imposed exile turns to romance. Once she draws him out of the haunted manor and into the world for their honeymoon, that shadow of gloom is lifted and he can even discard the shaded glasses he wears in the bright light (“I live at night,” he explains early on), but once back in the abbey, the ghost of Lady Ligeia reasserts her control. Or so it seems after Verden offers a demonstration of hypnosis and Ligeia takes over Rowena for a chilling instant while she’s under the spell.

The Tomb of Ligeia is the only one of Corman’s Poe films to shoot location exteriors (Corman used studio sets entirely for previous films to create a rarified unreality, he says, as befitting his interest in psychology and the unconscious in relation to horror), and the ruins he uses for Fell’s abbey home are astoundingly beautiful, the bleached bone remains of a fallen castle behind his stone manor, the dead of the past haunting the living of the present. Fittingly, it is also the most psychologically rooted of his Poe adaptations, though the revelations of the finale do not fully explain the black cat who seems to act as Ligeia’s familiar in the abbey, or Rowena’s brief possession by Ligeia. Robert Towne’s intelligent script and Corman’s moody direction melds the explicable and the supernatural very nicely in a tale that is never simply one or the other.

As with the previous set, these editions are from HD masters provided to Shout Factory by the rights holder, in this case MGM. It’s a good looking transfer though it is not a restoration. You can see surface scratches and grit and in one spot a light vertical scratch running through the left side of the image, but it also has vivid color, good clarity, and a strong image, which is still the most important thing in a disc release.

Features commentary by Roger Corman carried over from the earlier DVD release plus new commentary recorded for this release by actress Elizabeth Shepherd, and an archival video introduction and afterward by Vincent Price, originally taped for a public TV horror series decades ago, plus a gallery of stills and a trailer.

Continue reading at Cinemaphiled

Oct 12 2014

Videophiled Binge Watch: ‘Penny Dreadful’ and more horror TV

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Let’s catch up on a month of TV releases. And as Halloween is coming, let’s begin with some shows from the dark side.

Penny Dreadful: Season One (CBS, Blu-ray, DVD) takes a premise similar to the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: the characters and supernatural beings of 19th century horror literature all exist in the real world.

Oscar-winning screenwriter John Logan created this series, which revolves around a trio of original characters who take on the supernatural underworld of London, and scripts all eight episodes of the debut season. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) is searching for his daughter Mina, who has been taken by a vampire (as in the novel Dracula), with the help of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a medium with a troubled past and a possible curse upon her. Josh Hartnett is the American Ethan Chandler, who comes to London as part of a Wild West show and hires himself out as a gunman to the team. Assisting the team is Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose first experiment (Rory Kinnear) has returned to demand a mate, and weaving through their stories is the decadent Dorian Gray, who woos Vanessa. One episode reworks The Exorcist and the season finale suggests that Bride of Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will be part of the story next season.

The title captures the tone of the series and horror director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) sets the ominous, shadowy mood as he helms the first two episodes. It features impressive production values, strong writing, excellent actors, and a Gothic atmosphere that favors mood over spectacle, and Logan intelligently and creatively weaves the classic stories into this original drama. Dr. Frankenstein after all abandoned his first born, essentially setting the moral yardstick for his offspring, and the show offers a compromised human Frankenstein and an angry, outraged creature with both the sensitivity and the emotional instability of a child that can rip the heart out of another person. And while the vampire of this tale is never referred to as Dracula, the show offers an interesting take on the story. But it’s the original characters that are the most compelling and the rocky relationship between bereft father Malcolm and tormented Vanessa, a kind of foster daughter in the shadow of his absent daughter, both needed and rejected by Malcolm. If blood defines family in the first episodes of the show, loyalty and sacrifice defines it by end of the season, and it is the American cowboy who brings that lesson home. I have a fondness for dramas built around makeshift families and offbeat teams who earn the loyalty of one another, and through the course of the season, Penny Dreadful turns into that kind of series.

It’s one Showtime’s most popular and most acclaimed shows to date, and outside of a Showtime subscription or a la carte digital purchases of individual episodes, disc is the only way to see the show. If you’re a horror fan, it’s definitely worth it. Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with numerous featurettes and bonus episodes of other Showtime original shows.

More TV on disc and streaming at Cinephiled

Sep 17 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Countess Dracula’

Hammer Studios struggled to remain relevant in the seventies as their lurid Gothic style was upstaged by the transgressive horrors in films like Night of Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Witchfinder General, which pushed the boundaries of movie conventions, screen violence, and subject matter. Their answer was to simply push their natural tendencies in R-rated territory. In other words, more explicit blood and boobs. Their most notorious examples were a series of erotic vampire films with female predators who use their bodies and their wiles to seduce their prey.

Title aside, Countess Dracula (Synapse) is not a vampire at all. The screenplay is inspired by the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian countess who murdered hundreds of girls in the late 16th century, ostensibly to bathe in the blood of virgins to keep her youth, or so the legend goes. This isn’t a faithful retelling, however, but an original take on the legend with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dimension to it. Polish-born actress Ingrid Pitt, fresh from playing the bloodsucker Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers (1970), made her second Hammer appearance as the Countess Elisabeth Nádasdy, though you wouldn’t recognize her when she enters the film under ridges of prosthetic wrinkles and old age make-up. She’s an aging widow burying her husband (how many Hammer films have so set the atmosphere by opening with a funeral?) and bitter over how he has split the inheritance between her and their daughter Ilona (a very young and innocent-looking Lesley-Anne Down), who had been sent to Vienna years before. There is no mention of why she was sent away–it was ostensibly for her education in the cultural center of Europe–but Elisabeth’s disdain for human life (she doesn’t flinch when her carriage cripples a peasant in a horse-drawn hit-and-run) and the controlled fury of greed and envy she shows at the reading of the will suggests it may have been for the girl’s own protection, just one of the unspoken suggestions woven through the film.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Aug 19 2014

Videophiled: Jim Jarmusch’s vampire ‘Lovers’ and ‘A Brony Tale’

OnlyLovers

Only Lovers Left Alive (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is the richest film that Jim Jarmusch has made in some time. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are the eternal lovers Eve and Adam, vampire soulmates who have become disenchanted with a world that the zombie inhabitants (their word for humans) are blithely poisoning. They are sophisticates, sensualists, artists, beings who find their greatest pleasure in one another, and Jarmusch suggests that they have evolved to a kind of elemental form, pure beings who revere art and beauty and just happen to need to feed on human blood to survive. The problem is that human blood is also being poisoned, which makes the pure “good stuff” a kind of rare wine that is saved and shared sparingly.

Swinton and Hiddleston bring both a grace and ennui to the screen, suggesting centuries of experience by their very presence, yet the joy they give one another enlivens the mournful tone of their nocturnal existence. In contrast to their languorous sensibilities is Eve’s sister, a wild child played by Mia Wasikowska with an insatiable appetite and an instinct for chaos, while John Hurt is the dying elder, poisoned by the world around him. Read the reviews here.

I did not receive a review copy but the discs should have a behind-the-scenes featurette and deleted and extended scenes.

BronyTale

A Brony Tale (Virgil, DVD, Digital VOD) offers a gentle entry into the very real “Brony” phenomenon: adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, a group that is overwhelmingly male, heterosexual and unashamed of their love of a cartoon about pastel-colored talking horses designed for little girls. Our guide through this world is Canadian voice actress and singer Ashleigh Ball, who provides the voices of two little ponies in the current incarnation of the series, Apple Jack and Rainbow Dash. “The pervert alarm, for sure, went off in my head,” she says when she first learned about the subculture, and she takes a tour to investigate the phenomenon on her way to Bronycon 2012 in Manhattan, where she’s been invited as a guest of honor.

If you are expecting some kind of freak show, you’ll be in for a surprise. Director Brent Hodge is a friend of Ball and frames the film through her perspective and experience, which works because she’s a sincere, serious, likable young woman who finds that the Brony phenomenon is far more positive and affirming than surface appearances might suggest. The spokesmen for the Bronies (mostly men, which in this case is representative of the culture at large, though a few women are represented as well) make a fine case for themselves and celebrate the values of the series in their own lives. When we get to the Iraq vet and former artist who was lifted out of his depression and inspired to draw again because of his engagement with the series, you don’t feel like making fun of any of these fans anymore. A Brony Tale isn’t deep or probing but neither is it sarcastic or dismissive.

The DVD features director commentary, the featurette “The Many Voices of Ashleigh Ball” (which basically expands a sequence from the film where Ball performs the voices of her various cartoon gigs), a brief photo-shoot and an acoustic performance by Ball, whose band Hey Ocean! provides the film’s soundtrack.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Aug 13 2014

Larry Fessenden: Taking Genre Seriously

There’s no shortage of independent horror filmmakers but Larry Fessenden is the filmmaker who puts the emphasis on the “indie” part of the equation. As a writer/director, he’s take the classic horror genres and turned them inside out. No Telling was his take on Frankenstein as an environmental drama, Habit, a vampire story set in the drug addict culture of New York City, Wendigo, a monster movie of myth and imagination and The Last Winter, an eco-twist on the ghost story in the culture of big oil. Plus, in addition to his own directorial efforts, Fessenden has produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, through Glass Eye Pix, his own production shingle.

'Beneath'

Beneath, Fessenden’s latest, is a fish story: six teens stranded in a rowboat in the middle of the lake without a paddle while a giant man-eating catfish prowls the water waiting to eat his way through the buffet. What begins as a classic horror film, complete with teenagers who do all the dumb, reckless, aggressive things seemingly designed just to get them stuck in the water, transforms into an insidious character piece that strips away all pretense of humanity and lays bare the envy, resentment, spite and animosity they’ve been burying all this time under snarky remarks and dirty looks. Though it was made as a horror film for a cable channel, it plays more like an American indie drama: Mamet in a boat with a teenage cast and a seriously savage portrait of survivalism at all costs. On the occasion of the release of Beneath on Blu-ray and DVD a few months back, I spoke with Fessenden about the film, his career as a director and a producer, his support of independent filmmaking of all genres and why he’s still so committed to making his brand of horror cinema.

Keyframe: Beneath is the first feature you’ve directed that is not from your own script. Why this project and why the cable channel Chiller?

Larry Fessenden: As you know, I am also a producer and I went there to pitch some of my directors and just to get in with the channel. It seemed liked a fun proposition to produce a film through Chiller. They had money and they were ready to make some original features, and I went through some of the projects that I thought were interesting that we had lined up and they said, ‘Well, those sound good but we also have this,’ and they pulled out this script and I read it and I said, ‘Well I want to do this one, because I love the fish genre, I love how contained the story is, and if you guys are willing, I’d like to try my hand at it.’ I’ve never been a snob about how the work is done. I did another TV show written by some dudes. That was called Skin and Bones [for the series Fear Itself] and it’s one of my better pieces. It’s always exciting to take something and adapt it and put your spin on it and see how you come out. Like doing a cover song.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Jul 25 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1920)

Stage and screen legend John Barrymore took on the good doctor and his vicious alter ego from the famous Robert Louis Stevenson novel in this silent horror classic, adapted as much from the stage play by Thomas Russell Sullivan as from Stevenson’s original book. It wasn’t the first adaptation of the story but it became the most celebrated until Fredric March took on the role in the sound era, and it helped elevate the respected actor into a major big screen attraction.

As Dr. Henry Jekyll, the moral, religious man who keeps company with society gentleman who find Henry more than a little self-righteous, Barrymore takes on a theatrical nobility: quiet and subdued, he stand tall and stiff and favors his great profile to the camera. He runs a free clinic (called “the human repair shop,” a phrase that inadvertently brings to mind Frankenstein more than Hyde) that his friend Sir George Carewe (Brandon Hurst) sneers at. “You should live–as I have lived,” he advises the sheltered Henry. Sir George is the father of the proper young lady Millicent (Martha Mansfield), who admires and loves Henry, a seeming contradiction that he explains to Henry thusly: “I protected her as only a man of the world could.” After a visit to a seedy nightclub, where Sir George invites dancing girl Miss Gina (Nita Naldi) to get Henry all hot and bothered, Henry decides that maybe it’s time to let his baser desires out for a romp. But rather than sully his soul (or his reputation) he concocts a potion is release the evil buried inside (the original sin?), essentially releasing the id from his dominant superego, to take a Freudian approach

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movie

Jun 15 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Godzilla vs. Hedorah’

Godzilla, the biggest star of Japan’s giant monster craze of the 1960s, went through an interesting evolution since his debut in the 1954 Godzilla, a dark nuclear parable in a solemn key featuring a giant rampaging lizard who descends upon Tokyo like a biblical curse with attitude. Godzilla’s devastating rampage and radioactive breath leaves behind thousands of casualties and a city aflame, recalling nothing less than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In subsequent years and through numerous spin-offs, the films went color, he was joined by more giant monsters, fought aliens, had a son, took up residence on Monster Island, and transformed from enemy of humanity to its protector, a state of affairs that lasted until the series reboot in 1984 and a second wave of films. Through them all, Godzilla was incarnated by a stuntman in a suit stomping through miniature cities and landscapes while an overcranked camera filmed it at high speed to give a dreamy, slightly-slow motion look and a sense of mass and size to the monster battles. The process is affectionately known as suitmation.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (released in the U.S. under the title Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster), the eleventh film to feature the big green scaly one, was the strangest, trippiest picture of the original cycle of Godzilla films, perhaps of all time. The series had descended into juvenile fantasy in recent years and for this 1971 production a whole new creative team was brought in, headed by first-time director Yoshimitsu Banno, who had apprenticed as an assistant director under Akira Kurosawa. He and co-screenwriter Kaoru Mabuchi created a new kind of monster, one created of pollution and toxic waste, and brought in a supporting cast of teenagers and young adults who dress in mod fashions and flail away in go-go clubs along with dancers in body paint. The opening credits, which features a close-up of a female vocalist singing a pop song called “Save the Earth (Find a Solution/To Stop Pollution)” against a psychedelic backdrop, evokes James Bond by way of macroscopic imagery on acid. Intercut with the vocal stylings are shots of seas polluted with oil and garbage that look more like documentary clips than special effects.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

May 25 2014

DVD: ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’

“Your flesh will creep… at the hand that crawls!” promises the poster for the 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers, a Warner Bros. production that, modest by studio standards, is one of the classier horror films of its day. Once a thriving genre, horror films had largely slipped into the B-movie units of the Hollywood majors by the 1940s, with the Poverty Row studios picking up the slack. This production, helmed by Robert Florey and featuring Robert Alda, Peter Lorre, and J. Carrol Naish, sounds on the surface like a twist on The Hands of Orlac, a chestnut of a thriller about the hands of a strangler grafted onto the body of a musician that have a murderous life of their own. And while The Beast with Five Fingers does indeed feature a famed musician and a killer hand crawling through the picture, it is also an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives gather for the reading of a will and start turning up dead.

That all comes later. The film opens with Robert Alda as an American in Italy fleecing tourists with ersatz jewelry and a line of malarkey sold with a devilish grin. That’s just a sideline for Conrad Ryler, a former musician who is now part of the retinue that serves Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), a piano maestro paralyzed by a stroke but for one arm, with which he uses to pound out Brahms on the grand piano that dominates the front room. Ingram’s nurse Julie (Andrea King) and his secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre), an obsessive who is usually squirrelled away in the library studying ancient astrology and magic, fill out Ingram’s staff, and it’s a rather strained sense of community.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

May 18 2014

Videophiled: 11 Classic ‘Godzilla’ Romps Across Three Decades

GodzillaHedorah

Remakes have a tendency to revive interest in the originals, at least as far as the studios are concerned. They roll out new editions rolling on disc and digital streams in anticipation of interest and the new Godzilla has no shortage of ancestors: 28 Japanese Godzilla features (and one American film that is best not spoken of) from the 1954 original to the final Japanese appearance in the 50th Anniversary feature Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

Eleven of those films are newly released on Blu-ray this month, spanning forty years of Japanese giant monster madness. Not all of them are masterpieces (or even particularly good, to be honest) but a couple of them are classic and most of them are great fun. And through them all, Godzilla is incarnated by a stuntman in a suit stomping through miniature cities and landscapes while an overcranked camera filmed it at high speed to give a dreamy, slightly-slow motion look and a sense of mass and size to the monster battles. The process is affectionately known as suitmation.

Kraken, an imprint of anime specialist Section23, has three pictures from the first wave of Godzilla film, known to the kaiju cognoscenti as the Showa Period. One of them, the 1971 Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Kraken/Section23, Blu-ray, DVD), originally released in the US as Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, is the trippiest picture of the entire cycle. It’s a Mod-zilla mixing of pop music, hip nightclub scenes and psychedelic imagery with an environmental message and the pollution spawned monster.

That’s right, Hedorah is born of pollution and toxic waste, growing from a bizarre black tadpole to a weird, blobby slime monster (the name, in fact, is a pun on the word hedoro, the Japanese term for sludge or slime) through osmosis and a voracious appetite for pollution. In the film’s most memorable (and unabashadly druggiest) scene, Hedorah grows legs (or something similar that provides landfall locomotion), ambles up to a smokestack belching black smoke and huffs it down like a stoner with a giant, putrid bong. Sounds like a solution for pollution, right? Except that Hedorah oozes poison gas as a by-product, which itself evolves from a knock-out gas to an acid fog that eats its victims down to the bone. Yes, this is the first Godzilla film since the debut that leaves victims littered across the screen. Even Godzilla is affected by it, and when he punches Hedorah, his arms simply sink into the creature, like it was made of sludge.

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'Godzilla vs. Hedorah'

The series had been sliding into juvenile silliness for a few years and Banno was brought in to recharge the series. He has some big ideas for this mod monster party and the environmentalist theme is unmistakable, but the seriousness of the message is somewhat upended with the pop-art playfulness of his direction. Animated interludes are interspersed, providing anything from pseudo-educational illustrations for scientific exposition to mere cartoonish doodling, and a dour sequence featuring refugees from the affected cities rendered in black and white jolts to color a teen hipster grabs a guitar and leads a rock band in a high energy dance party in the middle of a rural field. Less endearing is the woozy new Godzilla theme with a wah-wah trombone that suggests the comic stumbling of a wobbly drunk rather than the mighty threat of a prehistoric creature with an atomic upgrade. And for this one film only, Godzilla flies, and it’s not dignified by any measure. He tucks his tail between his legs, turns around, and uses the force of his radioactive breath as a jet propulsion to chase Hedorah flying backwards.

It’s truly bizarre and quite a trip, and it was too much for Toho Studios. A planned sequel was scrapped, Banno was bounced from the franchise and journeyman director Jun Fukuda brought back. Some fans hate the film. I think the sheer oddity of the creative chemistry makes it one of the most strangely entertaining entries of the entire series.

More Godzilla releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

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