Category: horror

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.

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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.

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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.

godzillavshedorah

'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

May 08 2014

DVD: ‘Dante’s Inferno’

Dante’s Inferno, the 1935 spectacle of destructive greed and carnival ballyhoo, opens on flames. It’s not hellfire but the boiler-room furnaces of an ocean liner where Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) is ostensibly a stoker, though he manages to get out of work with a litany of manufactured injuries before he’s tossed out. He’s a born con man and hustler and he lands in his element: a carnival midway. When he’s shown a little kindness by Pop (Henry B. Walthall), the operator of a sleepy concession known as “Dante’s Inferno,” a mix of haunted house and cheap museum dedicated to the lessons of “the greatest poem ever written” (in Pop’s words), he returns the favor by taking over as pitchman and barks up a crowd for the attraction. The partnership becomes family when he falls for Pop’s pretty daughter Betty (Claire Trevor) and they have a son. It’s the beginning of a classic (and not particularly original) rise-and-fall drama of a rapacious man who tramples those who stand in the way of his ambition and leaves a trail of destruction as he bribes, blackmails, cheats, and cuts corners on his way to the top of the amusement racket, with just enough time left for a last-minute act of redemption.

This was one of Tracy’s final films for Fox before he left for MGM, where his talents were given a more respectful showcase. Now I’m not actually a big fan of Tracy but I confess to having a new appreciation for the actor thanks to those scrappy, bouncy Fox films of his early career. A lot of those scripts are undercooked (like this one) and the productions are sometime rushed but Tracy overflows with personality and the attitude of a guy who got wise knocking about on the streets. “I’ve had every trick in the trade kicked into me,” Jim tells Pop. “Now it’s my turn to kick back.” He presents himself with a sense of calm and control, however, like a man who is cagy about letting the world see what’s he’s thinking or feeling, which makes quite a contrast to guys like Cagney and Lee Tracy and the rat-a-tat streetwise heroes of the Warner street movies.

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May 01 2014

Videophiled Classic: Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ Restored on Blu, Claire Denis’ ‘Trouble Every Day’ Debuts on DVD

Sorcerer (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) – William Friedkin spent years trying to untangle the rights to his 1977 film, an expensive dream project that he made after hitting it big with The French Connection and The Exorcist, and after suing to force the studios to clear up the legal morass he supervised a restoration, mastered from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative, that screened at the Venice Film Festival in 2013 and played around the country before making its Blu-ray debut in April.

It’s a remake of Henri George-Clouzot’s survival thriller The Wages of Fear, about four men hiding out in a grimy South American village who agree to drive two trucks with unstable dynamite in the back over 200 miles through the jungle, and apart from a lengthy prologue that introduces the men and the crimes that sent them into hiding, it’s a faithful remake with a very different feeling. Friedkin gives the jungle a primal quality, an aliveness that makes their journey feel like a trip through an alien world waiting to swallow them up, and makes the trucks themselves characters in the film (the title Sorcerer is actually the name of one of the old trucks, which are practically reconstructed by the drivers for the trip). In contrast, the men are oddly without dimension apart from Roy Scheider’s New Jersey mobster Jackie Scanlon, who takes the name Juan Dominguez in his underworld witness protection plan. A gangland wheelman in his former life, he’s the driving force (so to speak) in grinding through the challenges of the overgrown road: a fallen monster of a tree, a rotting suspension bridge, cliff roads almost washed away by monsoon rains, and a terrorist band hiding in the jungle. The score by German electronic outfit Tangerine Dream—their first soundtrack for an American film—helps set the otherworldly tone. Their music is actually used sparingly through the film but their slow but insistent rhythm and electronic tones (unique at the time and still quite effective) is the film’s defining sound.

Though Friedkin hinted that the release would feature new commentary and other supplements via his Facebook page back in 2013, there disc features no supplements beyond a letter from Friedkin and the 40-page booklet in the Blu-ray Book package, featuring photos, art and an excerpt from Friedkin’s autobiography. The disc looks and sounds superb (the greens of the jungle look unnaturally overbright though it gives the ordeal a hallucinatory quality) but beware that Warner botched the DVD, producing it from an unrestored master, and Friedkin himself has warned buyers to wait until Warner comes out with a remastered DVD on June 10.

Trouble Every Day

Trouble Every Day (KimStim / Oscilloscope, DVD), Claire Denis’ wigged-out 2001 take on the vampire film, makes it stateside disc debut more than a decade after its theatrical debut. It’s about time. While it had its boosters, the film was lambasted on its original release (look at Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll see the majority of its positive reviews from the 2013 revival) for its utterly insane portrait of a madwoman (Béatrice Dalle, but of course) who is locked in a basement because of her propensity to devour her lovers. And I mean literally devour them.

It’s a cannibal film, but in the Cronenberg sense—horror as biology and disease and psychological transformation—with Denis’s weird mix of too much intimacy and observational distance. The tangle of sex and death is obvious but no less visceral: Dahl giggles and coos and barks in pleasure as moves from caresses and kissing to eating her lover come dinner. She’s never sadistic; it’s more like playing with her food. Vincent Gallo, Tricia Vassey and Alex Descas co-star. The disc features an audio introduction by director of photography Agnès Godard and a booklet with an essay by Melissa Anderson.

More releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Apr 05 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1′

If you’re arriving late to class, here’s the recap: director / producer / modern B-movie legend Lloyd Kaufman directed the original Class of Nuke ‘Em High, a flamboyantly grotesque parody of high school movies and radioactive mutant horror, in 1986. The premise: a high school in Tromaville, the most toxic city in America, is located right next to a nuclear power plant and the students gets contaminated when a dealer sells drugs irradiated from the plant. It spawned two sequels (produced and co-written but not directed by Kaufman), the last one released in 1994. Twenty years later, Kaufman revives the franchise with a new micro-budget epic so sprawling that it was split into two parts (ostensibly upon the recommendation of Quentin Tarantino, a la Kill Bill). Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 was shown at film festivals and played limited runs and special midnight screenings across the country before landing on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital platforms, which is still the primary mode of distribution for Troma’s cult movies.

In Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1, the old nuclear plant and its giant cooling towers (which loomed over the old high school thanks to cheap optical effects) have been bulldozed under (that’s what passes for environmental clean-up in the Tromaverse) but a new business has sprung up in its place. As guest narrator Stan Lee explains over the opening montage of clips from the earlier trilogy, “Tromorganic Foodstuffs, Inc, was built right over the old Tromaville Nuclear Power Plant. What could go wrong?”

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Mar 31 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Dead Kids’ (aka ‘Strange Behavior’)

Originally released in the U.S. under the name Strange Behavior, Dead Kids is the debut screenplay by future director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Bill Condon (he Oscared for Gods and Monsters) and the directorial debut of producer Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop), two Americans who got their offbeat horror movie made by filming it as an Australian / New Zealand / American co-production in New Zealand. The title Dead Kids makes it sound like a slasher picture or a zombie film, and while there are some elements of both of those genres echoing through the film, it’s really a mix of mad scientist thriller and revenge movie dropped into a somewhat surreal recreation of small-town Midwest America.

Michael Murphy stars as John Brady, an easy-going chief of police (or maybe county sheriff?) in Galesburg, a small Illinois town close enough to Chicago to request help from the city’s homicide detectives. He’s a widower and a single father to Pete (Dan Shor), a smart, good-looking high school kid who wants to go to city college, despite Dad’s insistence he go to a major university and see a little of the world beyond this town. Dad has good reason to send Pete away: he blames a professor at the local college for the death of his wife. The professor is long deceased yet his legacy still hovers over the school through pre-recorded lectures and professors who continue his psychiatric research and experiments in behavior modification. Pete, eager to make a little extra money, signs up as their latest test subject in a vaguely-described study being run by the doctor’s protégé (Fiona Lewis, with an air of icy dominatrix about her). The project, of course, turns out to have a sinister side, as an outbreak of violent, inexplicable murders attest.

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Mar 25 2014

Review: Larry Fessenden’s ‘Beneath’

Beneath was one of the best horror film of 2013. But most people never heard about it.

Produced by Chiller, a horror-themed sibling to the SyFy cable network still struggling for name recognition and access to cable systems, Beneath is the first feature in almost a decade directed by Larry Fessenden. It played a few film festivals and received a limited (very limited) release in July before hitting cable on a channel that few viewers know exists. Which means that hardly anyone has had an opportunity to see the film. With the movie coming out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, that should change.

'Beneath' - There's a monster fish in the water. Let's poke it with a stick!

The limited coverage it has received so far, at least on the horror-centric sites, seems to have missed the point, or at least became so complacent in their own superiority to the conventions of the genre that they never noticed how cleverly Fessenden, who has been turning classic horror genres inside out for over twenty years, and the screenwriters transformed the conventions of this genre—notably the idiotic behavior of potential teenage victims—into defining elements of story and character.

Beneath is both a tribute to monster-in-the-woods and the creature-under-the-water horror (the opening dream sequence turns the “Jaws” prologue into a teenage wet dream) and a genuine indie drama in the guise of a horror film. It springs from Fessenden’s love of reimagining classic genres in modern terms and real-world situations, and for using the conventions to tell character stories. And it was accomplished on a commercial cable movie budget.

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Mar 08 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Frankenstein Created Woman’

When British production studio Hammer Films first found success reviving the classic movie monsters with remakes of Universal horror films of the thirties in full, blood-dripping color and lurid Gothic style, they tried their hand at every iconic horror classic they could, but they found their biggest successes minting sequels to The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958). The Dracula films turned into a curious mix of spin-offs, sequels, and modernized updates, with guest bloodsuckers filling in for Dracula until Lee returned to title role. The Frankenstein movies, however, became a more connected cycle of films, variations on a theme centered not on the creature (as in the Universal films) but on Baron Frankenstein, played by Peter Cushing in all but one of the films. They followed a chronology (with minor exceptions) that charted the Baron’s monomaniacal obsession to create life at any cost and Peter Cushing defined him as a ruthlessly ambitious man of science, a pitiless rationalist ready to sacrifice human life in the name of scientific discovery. He was, in an odd way, both hero and villain of the series, and a very different portrait of the scientist than presented in either the novel or the iconic 1931 film.

The 1967 Frankenstein Created Woman, Hammer’s fourth Frankenstein film, is a loose sequel that finds the Baron in residence at a generic Bavarian village with a new assistant, Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), an old, amiably befuddled, apple-cheeked country doctor, and a whole new plan of attack. Instead of the familiar surgical patchwork bodies cobbled together from unwitting organ (and body) donors and reanimated with electricity, he takes a more metaphysical approach this time.

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Mar 06 2014

Videophiled Classic: ‘The Visitor’ Brings Satanic Incoherence with a Side of Bizarre

Visitor

The Visitor (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1979 Italian giallo-esque supernatural horror with an American cast and a former Fellini assistant taking the directorial reigns with more imagination than storytelling discipline, is not the first Exorcist knock-off to come out of the Italian genre factory. It may, however, be the least coherent. Opening on Franco Nero as a Django Jesus in a heaven with art direction out of Logan’s Run and populated with bald children, it quickly sends John Huston as a paternal emissary (or maybe a particularly grandfatherly God, who knows?) on mission to stop Santeen from taking over Earth through 8-year-old Katy Collins (Paige Conner, more creepy Bad Seed than possessed Linda Blair). There’s also a helping of The Omen, Carrie, The Birds, and the hall of mirrors of The Lady From Shanghai (among many other films), a basketball game with an exploding dunk shot, an abduction out of UFO lore, and Glenn Ford as a police detective who gets his eye pecked out by a falcon.

Giulio Paradisi (directing under the screen name Michael J. Paradise) came up with the story, which recasts the idea of a satanic thriller as a cosmic battle, and apparently keeps rewriting as it goes along. Katy has vaguely telekinetic powers and a strange sense of humor (in a game of tag at an ice rink she tosses a couple of teenage boys out of the rink and through a plate of glass) and somehow the evil corporate cabal’s mission to have Katy’s mommy (Joanne Nail) spawn even more devil children becomes a campaign of torture that lands her in a wheelchair and worse. The cast also drops in Shelley Winters as a cranky housekeeper, Mel Ferrer as the corporate devil, Sam Peckinpah as a doctor (completely dubbed into anonymity), and young Lance Henriksen as the Ted Turner of the Apocalypse. Okay, that’s a stretch, but it does actually take place in Atlanta (though most of it is shot in Rome).

Paradisi may not have a clue about directing actors (Glenn Ford walks through his performance in a daze, though in his defense he probably read the script and ended up more confused than ever) but he has picked up a few tricks from Argento on how to move a camera and from Fulci on how to stage a supernatural freak-out. It’s not particularly gory, mind you, and the cut-rate optical effects of the cosmic finale are so slapdash they become abstract, but that kind of works for this oddball trip.

The Visitor9

'The Visitor' - In heaven, everything is fine

I confess that this is the first time I’ve tried to review a Blu-ray release via streaming video. It may not have made that much of a difference, for despite the claims of being “restored” the print was filled with minor scuffs, scratches and abrasions and the picture looked a little soft. More likely this is a preservation rather than a restoration, an HD master of a high-quality print.

The press release insists that there are interviews with star Lance Henriksen, screenwriter Lou Comici and cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri, but only Henriksen and Comici were accessible to me. Both artists describe a production where no one had any idea what was going on with the script or the story, including the director, who dismissed all queries when asked to explain. Henriksen is marvelously good-natured about remembering the experience, which he found a delight even though the film is such a mess (his story about getting direction from co-star John Huston is priceless). I did not receive a copy of the booklet that accompanies the disc.

More cult and classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Mar 05 2014

Blu-ray: Paul Schrader’s ‘Cat People’

Ostensibly a remake of the 1942 classic by the same name, Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People is a cat of a different species entirely. At the time, it was accused of being garish and gory and literal in its exploration of sexuality as an animal impulse, in contrast to the shadowy psychological suggestions of the Jacques Tourneur-directed original. Schrader, who was a brilliant film critic before he turned to writing scripts and then directing films, had written Taxi Driver and Obsession and Raging Bull and came to Cat People after American Gigolo, his third film as a director but his first big success. Cat People was the first project he had not written himself, a script that had been developed by other directors, and while he had screenwriter Alan Ormsby significantly rework the script with his own ideas, Schrader took no screen credit for it. Yet Schrader himself remarked years later that “when I look back on it, I see Cat People as being almost the most personal film I’ve done.” He reunited much of the creative team from American Gigolo–director of photography John Bailey, composer Giorgio Moroder, and most importantly visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti–and transformed a sleek, sexy horror remake into a Paul Schrader film.

The film opens on a dream-like scene in a desert of blowing amber sand where young women are sacrificed to leopards. It plays more like myth or metaphor than literal flashback, a beguiling, beautiful, terrible fantasy of sex and magic and flesh and fur in what could be the most magnificent cinematic snow globe ever shaken on screen.

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Mar 03 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’

Seven years after resurrecting Count Dracula for a new generation in Hammer Films’ The Horror of Dracula, Christopher Lee returned to role under the direction of Hammer’s defining director, Terence Fisher, for a direct sequel. In fact, Dracula: Prince of Darkness opens a recap of the Horror of Dracula finale, which is the first and last time we see Peter Cushing in the picture. But while the film is a genuine sequel with a new story (scripted by Jimmy Sangster from an idea by producer Anthony Hinds, both using pseudonyms in the credits) it reworks many details from the classic novel and Hammer’s adaptation on a smaller scale.

This time the innocents are a group of English tourists–brothers Charles (Francis Matthews, speaking with a Cary Grant lilt) and Alan (Charles Tingwell) and their wives Diana (Suzan Farmer) and Helen (Hammer regular Barbara Shelley)–vacationing in the Carpathian Mountains. Dumped in the woods by a terrified coachman just before darkness falls, they are taken to Dracula’s castle in a driverless carriage and take refuge in the seemingly empty yet oddly kept up place, despite the warnings of travelling priest Father Sandor (Andrew Keir in holy monk warrior garb) and the ominous arrival of the castle’s sole living occupant, Klove (Philip Latham), servant to long-dead master. Klove delivers the film’s best line to his guests, who enquire about the Dracula legacy: “My master died without issue, sir, in the accepted sense of the term.” (Curiously, Klove is nowhere to be seen in the original The Horror of Dracula). He’s enough to put you off the main course, and it does exactly that to Helen, the only member of the party with sense enough to want out of there.

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