Saturday 25 June 2011

Blood Castle (1970)

BLOOD CASTLE is an Italian / Spanish co-production of a gothic horror film that was directed by José Luis Merino and stars Erna Schurer, Carlos Quiney, Agostina Belli, Cristiana Galloni and Mariano Vidal Molina.  It premiered in Italy in October 1970 under the title 'Il castello dalle porte di fuoco' and in Spain a couple of years later as 'Ivanna'.  An independent, educated young woman arrives at the castle of Janos Dalmar to work as his lab assistant where she learns that the dashing young Dalmar is under suspicion of the murders of several young girls in the area.  Nevertheless she is drawn to him and begins to experience vivid dreams in which she submits to his will.

I should start by saying that I saw a very ropey print of this film which, while apparently uncut, was pan-and-scanned, scratchy, poppy and generally pretty muddy.  Inevitably seeing a film under such conditions means you are not seeing it as the director intended.  Indeed, BLOOD CASTLE is a good example of what can happen to a film after the director has handed it over to the studio.

For a kick off, it was distributed under numerous different titles (imdb lists 11) and was often cut to suit the requirements of a particular distributor.  Its original running time was 94 minutes but it has been shown in at least two other versions, running for 78 and 75 minutes.  On VHS and DVD it has had at least six different distributors; I suspect the co-production deal has meant that the copyright situation is unclear and the film may be in the public domain as a result.  If it is in the public domain then unscrupulous companies can grab any old print they can find and whack it out on DVD, under any title they choose.  That would certainly explain the shoddy print I saw as well as the utterly meaningless title BLOOD CASTLE.

You have to sympathise with Merino because from what I can tell he was actually trying to do something a little different with this film.  It has more in common with something like Jane Eyre or even Rebecca; that is to say it is more gothic than horror.  It has a strong female central character which is unusual for the period, it's restrained in the blood and guts stakes and there's interesting contrasts drawn between science and rationality on the one hand and depravity and insanity on the other.  However, despite the nod towards a more enlightened approach to women the film still relies on the standard woman in peril scenario and the casual attitude towards attempted rape, sexual abuse and general misogyny is disappointing to say the least.

Merino made a considerable number of genre pictures in the '60s and '70s, most of them Spanish / Italian co-productions but his career petered out as the exploitation market dwindled in the early '80s.  I've not seen any of his other films but a look at his filmography suggests he was more at home with action movies, specifically WW2 and westerns, than horror.  Erna Schurer's career followed more or less the same path as Merino's, getting plenty of work in some pretty cruddy European movies before more or less retiring in the early '80s.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Demonoid (1981)

DEMONOID is a Mexican / USA co-production that was directed by Alfredo Zacarias in 1979 but not released until 1981.  It stars Samantha Eggar, Stuart Whitman and Roy Jenson. The plot doesn't make a huge amount of sense but essentially it's about the disembodied hand of an ancient Mexican demon that comes to life and takes control over any being unfortunate to cross its path.  What its objective is remains unclear but there you go - it's that sort of film.

Don't worry, this is DEMONOID under its alternative title.

I hate to judge a book by its cover but as soon as you see the name Stuart Whitman crop up you can be pretty sure you're about to see a tired, derivative and low quality genre movie.  A pretty big star back in the day, by the late 1970s unfortunately for him, and us, he was an actor on the slide.  He mainly made guest appearances in US TV shows; the only lead parts he was offered were in cruddy genre movies that probably needed a star name, albeit a fading one, to greenlight the project.

Samantha Eggar as Jennifer Baines

Stuart Whitman as Father Cunningham

It's left to Samantha Eggar to do the heavy lifting here.  A talented actress, she's wasted in films like this but nevertheless gives a committed performance and is the best thing about the whole sorry enterprise.  You can only feel sympathy for her when she's reduced to thrashing around clutching a fake hand to her neck.

Whitman, on the other hand, sleepwalks and mumbles his way through his part - as a priest! - and looks totally uninterested.  Which he may well have been and as understandable as that might have been, given the material, to communicate such disinterest so plainly is unforgivable.

The underground temple to the Mexican god of fake plastic hands...

... speak of the devil and he shall appear.

I've said before that one rule horror film-makers need to learn is that cats are not frightening.  Well the second rule they need to learn is that disembodied hands are not frightening.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that disembodied hands are laughable.

One final point worth noting is the presence in the cast of Haji, star of several Russ Meyer movies, although I must confess I didn't spot her and wasn't aware of her involvement until looking up the film on the net afterwards.  She has a very small role as the blowsy moll of a mobster type.


Shock Waves (1977)

SHOCK WAVES, also known as ALMOST HUMAN, was directed by the magnificently named Ken Weiderhorn in 1977 and stars Brooke Adams, Luke Halpin, Peter Cushing and John Carradine.  Set in the Caribbean, it begins with a terrified young woman being rescued from a drifting dinghy; in hospital she recounts what led her to be in that predicament.

SHOCK WAVES is a good example of a cross-genre movie, otherwise known (by me) as a have-your-cake-and-eat-it movie.  You've got zombies, to get the horror fans in; you've got underwater action and bikinis to get fans of THE DEEP in; and as if that isn't enough, you've also got Nazis, to get the WW2 fans in.  Partly by chance, and partly by design, it also has a cast which will endear to film buffs approaching it for the first time now.

There are some good moments in it actually and the spooky atmosphere is sustained throughout.  Ocean-based movies that are actually shot on location almost always look good and are almost always quite exciting, simply by being set at sea: the ocean is a great location and can be used to suggest menace, adventure, isolation - you name it.  Plus it allows for crusty old sea captains, plucky sailors and bizarre passengers (all of which are present and correct here).  The best bits mostly come in the first two-thirds, essentially up until we are told what's going on, as if we hadn't already guessed: the eerie weather which presages the raising of the U-Boat, the discovery and exploration of the seemingly abandoned hotel.

Unfortunately, it then degenerates into a long and rather repetitive chase, as the survivors try to fight off the undead Nazis and get off the island.  The make-up effects by CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS star Alan Ormsby are really good, but there are too many shots of the Nazis rising from the sea; it's good once or twice but after that it's just overkill.

The cast is well worth noting.  Brooke Adams somehow went from this to Terrence Malick's breathtaking DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) and hence a decent career in mainstream Hollywood productions.  Luke Halpin was the star of the TV series FLIPPER which I've never seen but I understand he and it were very popular in the 1960s; in this he's kind of Nick Nolte-lite but decent enough.  Cushing needs no introduction from me: I'm a huge fan and he's as dependable as ever in this, even gamely splashing about in the surf despite not looking too well.  Next to John Carradine, hoever, he looks in the prime of life.  Carradine is I suppose the US equivalent to Cushing but only in terms of the nature of his output and its prolific rate; he's nowhere near as good an actor and too early in his career settled for guest appearances in crummy horror movies.  He has a presence though and his gnarly, arthritic hands really suit his character here.

The People Who Own the Dark (1976)

THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK is a Spanish post-apocalypse film that was originally released in 1976 as Último deseo.  It was directed by Léon Klimovsky and stars Alberto de Mendoza, Jacinto Molina, Maria Perschy and Antonio Mayans.  After a nuclear war which has rendered the survivors blind, at a remote mansion a group of scientists, government officials and military officers who escaped the destruction, plus the hookers with whom they were about to start partying, try to make their way to safety.

This is one of those mid-seventies Spanish genre films in which the men have wild sideburns, combovers and beige acrylic rollneck sweaters and the women, should they figure at all, are cannon fodder or hookers and, in this case, both.  Still, having a go at Spanish genre films of the mid-seventies for being hideously unfashionable both in visual and ideological terms is like shooting fish in a barrel; under Franco (General, not Jess) it's a miracle films were being made at all.  And let's face it, the genre output of most western countries was similarly inclined: the CONFESSIONS OF... series anyone?

Plot-wise it's a mix of DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, NO BLADE OF GRASS and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 in that you've got blind people, no food and a location under attack by hordes of nasties.  You've also got a weird, and irrelevant, sequence in which the men gather for a masqued banquet / orgy that is probably a nod to THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH but comes off more like THE MAGUS. 

As it goes, I quite enjoyed it.  The set up is concise and swift and the aftermath handled with admirable matter of factness by Klimovsky.  I liked Molina's character Borne: despite being the guy with the most useful skills he's also arrogant, sadistic and utterly ruthless.  He's responsible for killing more of the survivors than the horde can manage.  There are a couple of good sequences with people tiptoeing around the blind nasties and a few gruesome moments but, as with most films of this type, its about the disintegration of the group and who, if any, make it to the end alive.

With the utter 70s-ness of it all, it's tempting to regard this as a bit of a camp classic but I actually think it's better than that.  All films are a product of their era and while this one never really tries to transcend that it does manage to sustain a bleak mood despite the naff decor.

Léon Klimovsky, the world's foremost Argentinian dentist turned director, made his first film in 1948 but started churning out genre pictures from the mid-1960s and actually made a few good ones before calling it quits in 1979.  Jacinto Molina, aka Paul Naschy, was the grand old man of Spanish genre movies and is probably their equivalent of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Freddie Francis all rolled into one.  He died a couple of years ago having racked up 100 films as an actor and 15 as director.  What a man.

Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973)

It's almost impossible to overstate the influence of George Romero's 1968 landmark NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Not only is it responsible for the ubiquity of the zombie in popular culture but it also provided inspiration to countless filmmakers as a high quality, low budget, hugely successful independent feature.  Of course some of the films which followed in its wake were dreadful, as there will always be those looking to make a quick buck, but there were also minor gems like this one.

CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS was directed and co-written by Bob Clark in 1973.  It stars co-author Alan Ormsby as Alan, an egocentric leader of a theatre company, who takes his actors to a remote graveyard as part of a prank to fool them into thinking he can raise the dead.  But when they actually manager to do just that all hell breaks loose.

What I like about it is that Clark has the confidence to hold back on the horror for ages, taking care to establish his characters and setting, building the atmosphere and slowly increasing the tension; I'm struggling to think of another horror film which keeps the actual horror in reserve for quite as long as this one.  But I say "actual horror" advisedly because there is horror of a different kind in this part of the film.  Alan is a monster: he takes pleasure in belittling and humiliating his actors, thinks nothing of abducting the graveyard janitor, and sees exhuming corpses as harmless fun.  The entire 'Orville' sequence which starts out as black comedy turns into something far darker, more unpleasant and downright perverse.  More than anything, this part of the film reminded me of Brian De Palma's early films, particularly HI MOM! (1970).

When it does come though, the horror is swift, brutal and unstoppable.  No holing up in a farmhouse for days here; the living can only manage to fight off the dead for about twenty minutes before they succumb.  It's worth mentioning the make-up effects which were done by multi-talented Alan Ormsby.  They're really good for the most part and even more impressive considering the numbers of zombies shown.  A lot of films and TV series skimp on the effects by having only showing a few monsters onscreen at any one time (DR WHO and ALIENS are two examples that spring to mind); however, this movie has loads, which makes the final onslaught all the more impressive.

That said, I can understand why people don't like CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS.  The build up is very slow and will turn a lot of people off.  Even if you make it through that section you might feel the payoff wasn't worth waiting for.  It's also very much of its time with garish clothes, ugly hairstyles and would-be groovy dialogue.

Bob Clark, who died in 2007, had a patchy career but did make some memorable films.  BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) is a highly regarded early entry in the slasher subgenre, MURDER BY DECREE (1976) is a terrific Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper period thriller and most lads of my generation will have cause to thank him for PORKY'S (1982).  TURK 182! (1985) has its admirers too.  Alan Ormsby went on to have a wildly varied career in Hollywood mainly as a writer of films including MY BODYGUARD (1980), Paul Schrader's remake of CAT PEOPLE (1982) and the Tom Berenger schoolteacher / vigilante flick THE SUBSTITUTE (1996) but he also directed the Ed Gein biopic DERANGED (1974) and did the make-up effects for underwater Nazi zombie romp SHOCK WAVES (1977), a review of which will appear on this blog imminently.

Friday 3 June 2011

Roadkill (2011)

"If you can smell something nasty, it's probably ROADKILL"

That's what the tagline should have been for this stinker.  Actually, I say that slightly tongue-in-cheek because it's unpretentious and director Johannes Roberts is competent enough to make sure it meets most of its (admittedly limited) ambitions.  There are pretty girls, some good-looking guys, sadistic villains, a nasty monster and the occasional splash of gore. So it's kind of fun in an empty-headed way.  The plot, such as it is, concerns an RV full of American students who while on a roadtrip through Ireland knock down and kill an old gypsy lady, who curses them with her dying breath.  As any Birmingham City fan will tell you these curses are not to be sniffed at and pretty soon they find themselves being stalked by a vicious flying monster.

The kids are okay, struggling with dialogue like "Is that a house?" while looking at a house in broad daylight.  For marketing reasons they play Americans but as far as I know they're all British.  The accents aren't bad but you just have the is nagging feeling all the way through that something isn't quite right.  Quite who persuaded Stephen Rea to appear in it is anyone's guess but I would suggest it's the cruddiest film he's made to date.  Which leads me to the monster - it's not badly designed but by the standards of the day it's executed poorly.  I know it's only a TV movie but even so ...  

It would be tempting to leave it there but if you scratch a little deeper there are some pretty murky assumptions underpinning the view of the world that it presents.  All the girls have big tits, tiny waists and big arses; they all wear sexy clothing.  All the Irish people they meet are malevolent degenerates.  The country itself is portrayed as just a great big one-horse town with limited facilities, no public services and, worst of all, poor mobile phone coverage.  It makes jokes out of race, sex, and child abuse.  There's one non-shite character and, as is usually the case in movies, he gets offed early on.

Now, you might say I'm taking a po-faced attitude to what is clearly intended to be a bit of trashy fun.  But there are numerous examples of fun genre movies that do quite sophisticated things with racial and gender politics, or that are in bad taste without being offensive.  In short there are films that can be basic and entertaining without being ignorant.  Sadly, most filmmakers are all too ready to deliver a film that they think hits all the right spots, rather than try something a little bit different, because they don't think they'll work otherwise.

In the 50s, directors like Sam Fuller and Don Siegel made films that on the surface appeared to pander to the worst excesses of American paranoia, all about invasions and Commies and pinko liberals.  But some critics have argued that if you look closely enough, Fuller and Siegel left little cracks and fissures in their work which, if you explored them, revealed a more ambiguous layered meaning that was asking pointed questions about America and its view of the world.

So, while accepting that Fuller and Siegel were great directors and that it's unreasonable to expect everyone to achieve those standards, what I look for - particularly in genre movies, because it's easier to get away with - is some evidence that while the requisite thrills and spills are being delivered, the director is leaving signs which point you towards a less one-dimensional reading.