Sunday 31 July 2011

The Southern Star [1969]

A bit of an oddity this one.  A French / British co-production from 1969, it's one of those adventure films which don't seem to get made much these days.

Set in Senegal, it's about the chase for a ginormous stolen diamond - the Southern Star of the title - which is coveted by various people: George Segal, who wants it to prove his worth to his fiancee's (Ursula Andress) curmudgeonly father (Harry Andrews); Ian Hendry, who wants it to frame Segal for its theft and thereby win Andress from him; Johnny Sekka, Segal's friend, who is a 'jackdaw' who loves shiny objects; and Orson Welles, who wants it for its value.

Harry Andrews (R) presents the Southern Star to his guests, as Ian Hendry (L) looks on
The problem is that the film isn't funny enough or thrilling enough.  The interplay between Segal and Sekka is good but it all comes right at the beginning of the film; after the diamond is stolen they are separated, Segal teams up instead with Andress and they just don't have the same chemistry.

George Segal and Ursula Andress, burning up the screen
Similarly, the film's central section - Hendry chasing Segal and Andress through the jungle - is hampered by the miles of stock footage through which the actors have to hack their way.  It's no exaggeration to say that there's more stock footage in this movie than there is in any of Edward D. Wood Jr's oeuvre.  To be fair, some parts of the film were shot on location in Senegal, which is fine, but even then it isn't made to look particularly photogenic.

Some stock footage of apes from the library.  The footage is from the library, not the apes.  Oh you know what I mean.
According to imdb, the opening sequences were directed by Welles with Sidney Hayers responsible for the rest of the film.  I wasn't aware of that when I saw the film but can honestly say that the first ten or fifteen minutes are by far the best and most interesting.  The rest is as anonymous as an episode of the TV series TARZAN, the one with Ron Ely.

George Segal pretending, unsuccessfully, that he's in Africa and not standing in front of a rear projection.
Film buff notes: the cinematographer was Raoul Coutard who worked with Jean-Luc Godard on a lot of his pictures, including the previously reviewed ALPHAVILLE (1965).  The screenplay was adapted from a Jules Verne novel by David Pursall and Jack Seddon who wrote many scripts together, without creating anything particular notable.  Former Beatles producer George Martin arranged the title song which, of course, is sung by Matt Monro.

Orson Welles interrogates Johnny Sekka (L)j

Friday 29 July 2011

Sabata (1969)

In spaghetti westerns there are several films which featured characters who were so popular with audiences that they ended up spawning several sequels, both official and unofficial.  The best known of these is Clint Eastwood's 'Man with No Name' character.  He is followed, roughly in descending order of popularity and ubiquity by Django, Sartana, Ringo and Sabata.  Evidently badasses only have one name; super-badasses have none at all.  It makes sense when you think about it: Colin Django or Barry Sartana just don't quite have the same ring.

Sabata first appeared in Gianfranco Parolini's 1969 feature Ehi amico... c'e Sabata, hai chiuso! which more or less translates as 'Hey friend, that's Sabata - you're done!'.  Happily that was shortened to just SABATA for general release outside Italy. 

Lee Van Cleef as Sabata
Like pretty much every other 'hero' in spaghetti westerns, Sabata is a lone gunman with an eye for gold who is the hero by dint of being relatively more moral than the villains.  Sabata's USP is his inventiveness: he kills a man with a gun hidden inside a bag; he disguises himself as a portrait painting to kill some more men; he has all sorts of attachments to make his trademark pistol serve different functions.  And as if that wasn't enough to see off hordes of henchmen, he is a deadeye shot too - able to drop a horseman from 600 yards apparently.

So one tough hombre.  Not so tough, however, that he doesn't need a couple of allies.  You get this a lot in spaghetti westerns: a loquacious sidekick who makes up for the fact that the hero tends to be a man of few words.  In Sabata's case, he gets two: the corpulent knifeman Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla) and the acrobat Alley Cat (Bruno Ukmar).

Three amigos: (from L to R) Sabata, Alley Cat and Garrincha
Sabata is played by the great Lee Van Cleef who served his apprenticeship in two of the Eastwood / Leone films before getting his own leading role in the spaghetti western boom that followed.  It's good to see him playing a 'hero' for a change although again that's a relative term in these movies.  He exits holding mountains of cash and leaving dozens of bodies behind, having paid his friends to help him to do it, so he's no Robin Hood, let alone Shane.

It's these moral ambiguities, not to say outright cynicism that makes the spaghetti western so appealing.  The black and white morality of most US westerns goes right out of the window, to be replaced by scheming, treachery, corruption and carnage.  SABATA is also typical of the genre in that the villains are all authority figures: three pillars of society who steal money from the Army to finance the purchase of land that will increase in value with the imminent arrival of the railroad.

William Berger
William Berger, who plays Banjo, was one of the most prolific cult Euro actors of them all.  An Austrian, from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s he racked up well over a hundred screen credits, working with directors such as Jess Franco and Mario Bava along the way.  Probably most familiar from his work in spaghetti westerns such as this one, Berger was nevertheless game for anything and even popped up in a couple of blaxploitation pictures in the 1970s.

SABATA was shot on location in Almeria in Spain and at the famous Elios Studios in Rome where, among others, DJANGO [1966] was filmed.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Hotel (2004)

HOTEL is an Austrian psychological chiller directed by Jessica Hausner in 2004.  As I think I have mentioned before, there aren't that many female directors around and even fewer making genre movies.  Even more rare is a female director making a genre movie which features mainly female characters.  HOTEL is one such movie. 

Irene is a young woman who has just started a new job at a rather shabby hotel in an Austrian valley.  She learns that the girl whom she replaced had left under circumstances which are being investigated by the police; as the days go by, Irene begins to wonder whether her new colleagues may have had something to do with it.

Franziska Weisz as Irene
HOTEL is an exercise in creating and sustaining an atmosphere.  There are no big shock moments here - the film is all about the slow accumulation of minor occurrences, which gradually build Irene's paranoia to the point where she feels she may be in danger.  This is where the film is successful: seemingly unremarkable events - losing a favourite necklace, finding a pair of spectacles - take on an ominous significance.  The repetitive nature of Irene's tasks means that slight variations to her routine add to the air of menace, as does her colleagues' indifference to her.

The awesome Birgit Minichmayr
Unfortunately all the characters, including Irene, are so passive that when the end does come it doesn't have the impact it should.  It doesn't help that the film is so ambiguous about what has been going on, to the extent that the denouement could mean everything or nothing.

I like this shot, principally because it reminds me of Cinema Delirium
The acting is good, in so far as it is allowed to be.  Franziska Weisz makes a refreshingly ordinary heroine, with her glasses, prim mannner and unflattering clothes.  Birgit Minichmayr, who played one of Hitler's secretaries in DOWNFALL (2004), is a sullen and possibly malevolent presence as Irene's closest colleague Petra.  Mrs Leibig, the hotel caretaker's wife who may be trying to warn Irene that she is in danger, is played by Rosa Waissnix, a non-professional actress who was apparently the manageress of the hotel where the film was shot.

Horror Island (1941)

An unpretentious supporting feature, HORROR ISLAND doesn't have the atmospheric grandeur of the Val Lewton / RKO classics but it does have an endearingly goofy quality that's hard to dislike. 

Feckless boat captain Bill Martin and his gormless sidekick Stuff are on their uppers when they stumble upon one half of a treasure map; unfortunately the map points to a location on a supposedly haunted island. 

Fuzzy Knight (L) and Dick Foran (R)
Somehow, director George Waggner (who directed the original Lon Chaney Jr version of THE WOLF MAN) in 70 minutes manages to cram in several punch ups, a haunted castle, a one-legged sea dog, a caped villain, a wanted ganagster, a car crash, an exploding parcel, hidden passages, secret doors, sleepwalking, the Federal government and a wise-cracking romance.

The Phantom threatens the sleeping Peggy Moran
While it's not quite as much fun as that makes it sound, it's near enough.  Dick Foran as the hero is bland but Fuzzy Knight is good value as Stuff and the supporting cast have fun with small but memorable parts.  Of these the standout is probably Lewis Howard as louche playboy Thurman Coldwater. 

The Skiddoo arrives at Horror Island
I expect Waggner used sets from bigger budget productions because they look too good for a B picture; the quayside set in particular is great - big enough for a full size boat and water!

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Ikarie XB1 (1963)

IKARIE XB1 is a Czech science-fiction film directed by Jindrich Polak that premiered in July 1963 before getting a US release the following year as 'Voyage to the End of the Universe'.  It follows the voyage of the Icarus, a deep-space craft tasked with finding habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system.  Not knowing very much about post-war Czech cinema, or any other period for that matter, I'm not familiar with the actors but, for the record, Zdenek Stepanek plays Captain Abajev, Radovan Lukavsky plays Commander MacDonald and Otto Lackovic plays Michael.

It's very much pre-Kubrick sci-fi which means the set design is not striving for realism.  All the rooms are enormous, there's a full-scale gymnasium and the flight deck is more like a library than a spaceship.  It's more Starship Enterprise than Discovery One or Nostromo.  Nevertheless, the sets are imaginative, considering the budget, and they have thought to include heating ducts, cooling tubes, airlocks and so on.  Actually it's rather easy to poke fun from a 21st century perspective but you have to consider that when this film was made man had yet to land on the moon and it was only a couple of years since Gagarin had orbited the Earth.

It's interesting to see the Soviet (or quasi-Soviet) take on space travel.  The impression you get from watching US sci-fi is that they regard it very much as 'the new frontier' - in other words, whatever is out there is theirs for the taking and woe betide any little green men who happen to get in their way.  It's manifest destiny all over again, sadly.  IKARIE XB1 is more thoughtful in this regard: the prospect of encountering new civilizations is not presented as a gigantic commercial opportunity but as a monumental advance for all of humanity.  Incidentally, there is very little of what one might consider to be Soviet propaganda, save for one sequence when the Ikarie encounters a derelict spacecraft full of dead bourgeoisie.

I think it's fair to say that IKARIE XB1 inhabits the middle ground between something like IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and Andrei Tarkovsky's masterful SOLARIS.  It represents a move toward greater realism than the former but lacks the transcendent meditation of the latter.

Der Würger von Schloß Blackmoor [1963]

Also known as THE STRANGLER OF CASTLE BLACKMOOR, this is an example of a krimi, a kind of German equivalent to the giallo in that it deals with bizarre crimes and characters in gloriously stylised settings.

Most of the krimis were based on the works of Edgar Wallace, an English novelist who was extremely popular in the 20s and 30s.  In 1959, out of the blue a German film adaptation of a Wallace story was a big hit and led to a rush of follow ups.  Various companies tried to get in on the act but the lion's share were made by Rialto and are generally considered to be the best.

How the Germans see the British aristocracy
This is the first krimi I've seen but I understand it contains many of the familiar elements: fantasy English setting; convoluted plot; mystery killer; aristocracy contrasted with 'lowlifes'.  The film was not part of the Rialto series but made by a rival company who based their films on the work of Edgar Wallace's son, Bryan Edgar Wallace.  I enjoyed it but it seemed clear to me that it was  not meant to be taken at all seriously - more than anything it reminded me of the high melodrama of someone like Tod Slaughter.  Pure escapism then, and none the worse for that.

This still of Walter Giller as Edgar is hilarious enough in its own right, but what you don't see is that a) he's wearing a kilt, and b) he bonked his head on the lamp behind him as he came through the door
Once you get into the spirit of it and can look beyond the evident cheapness of it all then it becomes strangely endearing.  The plot, as far as I could tell, revolved around some stolen diamonds that practically all of the characters had a motive for wanting to get their hands on.  But who is the mysterious killer that's strangling all and sundry?

The masked strangler, or - if you're German - der Wurger
Much of the running time seemed to be spent in tiny little cars shuttling back and forth between London and 'Castle Blackmoor', apparently located within convenient driving time of the city centre.  In fact, pretty much everything indicated that the film-makers had, at best, only a vague knowledge of England and English culture; the pub (where all the criminals hung out) looked like none I've ever seen.  But that's part of its charm really - the sort of DIY-ness of it all.  One really good thing about it was the weird electronic score by Oskar Sala; for those familiar with such music, it reminded me of Morton Subotnick.

Ironic that two Germans from THE GREAT ESCAPE should end up playing Englishmen: Hans Reiser (L) and Harry Riebauer (R).  In the middle is the lovely Karin Dor, from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
A couple of points to note about the, I assume, all German cast: both Harry Riebauer (who plays the detective on the case) and Hans Reiser had small roles in John Sturges' THE GREAT ESCAPE, made the same year.  Riebauer plays the officer who sticks the pitchfork into the haybales where John Leyton is hiding, and Reiser plays the Gestapo officer who spots Richard Attenborough at the railway station.

A memorably sticky end

Monday 25 July 2011

House of the Damned [1963]

Maury Dexter's HOUSE OF THE DAMNED is a decent little mystery / thriller, interesting as much for its credits as its entertainment. 

Running little more than an hour, in black and white and with an unfamiliar cast it's clearly a B-picture but remarkably - and fantastically - it's shot in a beautifully crisp 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Quite why it got the Cinemascope treatment I have no idea but it's always a pleasure to see films shot this way, particularly in genres more often noted for their cheap production values. 

The Pacific coast was made for 'Scope photography
As a consequence, this film looks gorgeous: the long, snaking driveway to the castle; the extravagantly long American cars of the period, the gloomy, empty corridors; the oak-panelled rooms.  To his credit, Dexter also manages to create a spooky atmosphere and some memorable supporting characters, such as the seedy real estate manager and the bored nurse working the night shift.

I love these immense old American cars; compared to British cars of the same period they're from another planet.  You'd have a hard job getting a Vauxhall Victor to fill an entire Cinemascope frame.
As an exercise in style and tone then it's mostly successful; unfortunately, in plot terms it's weaker.  The set up is fine: a husband-and-wife architect team is asked by a solicitor friend to visit an apparently empty castle to assess its suitability for redevelopment.

Greystone Mansion
As they prepare to spend the night there, they begin to realize the castle may not be as empty as they were led to believe.  In fact, the set up and sustained atmosphere of menace is good enough that it deserves far better than the absurd and abrupt climax.  Still worth seeing though.

Cinemascope can make even a garden pond look like the Taj Mahal
Maury Dexter made a good number of genre B-pictures in the 50s and 60s which makes his subsequent career directing dozens of episodes of THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE seem slightly bizarre.  Richard Kiel, a familiar face in many delirious films, most notably as Jaws in a couple of James Bond pictures, has a small role.

Richard Kiel (R) is interrupted while knocking seven bells out of Ron Foster (L)
The wonderful property which is as much a character in the film as any of the actors is the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, California.  Evidently it has been used many many times as a movie location; a list of some of them can be found here.  The house itself has a webpage here.

Road Train (2010)

More evidence to support my theory about Australian films (see entry for Wake in Fright) but in itself a poor effort.  It starts well enough, with a mildly bickering quartet of Australian youngsters driving cross-country being spun off the road by an enormous lorry.  So far so DUEL but it's such a great concept that it can survive familiarity.  Unfortunately, after that ROAD TRAIN goes completely off the rails, if you'll pardon the expression.

What happens is that our heroes find the truck seemingly abandoned further up the road and, with their own car totalled, get in and drive off.  At this point the plot becomes increasingly incoherent and fragmented; it appears that the spirit of the truck (your guess is as good as mine) 'possesses' those who drive it and forces them to kill in order to obtain fuel, i.e. blood.  While all this is going on, the truck is at a standstill and, unsurprisingly, the four leads being less charismatic aren't able to carry the movie.  So it all falls apart amid some dreadful acting and lurid visuals.  The landscape looks as stunning as ever of course and there are a couple of spectacular stunts but you know the film has failed when the plot hinges on a young girl attempting to reverse a road train - and being able to do it. 

Quite what happened with this film, I don't know.  For it to fall apart so abruptly and so completely suggests that, like GHOSTKEEPER, they ran out of script, or money, or both and were obliged to make it up as they went along.  This is the debut feature from director Dean Francis, a former NEIGHBOURS actor, and it doesn't bode well for his future career behind the camera.

Sunday 24 July 2011

The Ruins (2008)

A superior teens-in-peril movie, this follows a quartet of American students on holiday in Mexico who learn to their cost that a previously undiscovered Mayan temple has been forgotten for a reason.  The basic premise is similar to that of the Stephen King stories (and films) "Cujo" and "The Raft", in that the central characters are caught between a rock and a hard place, a situation in which they can neither remain nor escape.

The characters are reasonably well drawn for this type of movie, the acting decent enough and the effects pretty good.  But where the film really scores is in the fiendish set up.  Almost as soon as they arrive at the ruins, the characters are prevented from leaving by a seemingly murderous bunch of local peasants.  Shortly after that they suffer a grievous injury to one of their number and then realise the ruins themselves pose a threat even greater than that of the peasants.  The strength of this set up is that the audience is, naturally, rooting for the Americans but also understands that if one or more them make it out of the ruins alive then the consequences could be disastrous.  It's a neat trick to pull off and works so well that, come the climax, you're not sure whether it represents victory or defeat.

The gore is kept to a mimimum and, unsually for a genre film, is largely self-inflicted; one sequence is a definite contender for the top five "Improvised Surgery" list.  My only quibble would be the rather leering attitude towards the female characters, one of whom spends most of the film running around in her pants and ubiquitous dirty white vest.  But it's a confident debut feature from director Carter Smith, whose career I shall make a point of following.  My hope is that he develops into a solid, new generation genre director like Eli Roth and Zack Snyder.

Saturday 23 July 2011

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

I must confess I was disappointed with this: it is a well-known movie by an excellent director (Robert Aldrich) that enjoys a high reputation but I found it overlong, ponderous and ineffective.  For some reason, I had come to believe that it was a classic gothic horror in which two equally vile old hags holed up in a crumbling mansion treat each other spectacularly badly.  So I was surprised to find it set in a relatively modern house, in a pleasant suburb of (presumably) Los Angeles, with neighbours, housemaids, and so on.  And I was equally surprised to find that the Joan Crawford character, Blanche - Baby Jane Hudson's sister, was a rather pitiable figure.

Perhaps it's because my preconceptions were wrong that I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would.  Maybe, maybe not.  Even if that is true, the film is still way too long and contains far too little incident to justify such extravagance.  Even the famous scenes - such as Jane serving Blanche something unexpected for her dinner - seem tame.

I think the film's chief interest today lies in the casting and performances of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as the two sisters.  Crawford has by no mean a flattering part but next to Bette Davis it's a doozy.  It's a fearless performance from Davis who spends much of the time as a hateful slattern, half dressed in inappropriate clothes.  But she's so good she manages to elicit some sympathy for Jane, a sympathy which turns out to be entirely justified when she and the audience get to know the whole truth about her sister ...

Attack (1956)

Robert Aldrich was a great director of tough, cynical films who liked to pick up rocks and observe what was going on underneath.  He was interested in depicting life with the veneer stripped away, laying bare our bitterness, hypocrisy and self-delusion.  If he had a world-view at all, he was a nihilist - think of the climax of KISS ME DEADLY (1955) or John Cassavetes exclaiming in THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) that he has enough dynamite "to blow up the world!".  In fact, it's worth considering how many of his films end with the death of the central character.

ATTACK is classic Aldrich.  Set during WW2, it follows an Infantry Company commanded by the cowardly Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert).  His failure in the field is costing the lives of the men; Lieutenant Costa (Jack Palance) wants to kill him but Lieutenant Woodruff (William Smithers) would prefer to register a complaint with their Colonel (Lee Marvin).  Unfortunately the Colonel and the Captain are old friends from the Deep South and have a mutual agreement that will benefit them when the war is over.

This is war as I imagine it must be: an horrific muddle of compromise, self-interest, cowardice, bravery, corruption and treachery.  It's a million miles from the heroic self-sacrifice of, say, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  The acting is terrific: Palance is outstanding as the essentially decent Lt Costa who becomes consumed by his hatred for Cpt Cooney.  At one point, his left arm crushed by a tank, Costa still manages to pick himself up to do what he believes has to be done.  Albert is really good too: his Cpt Cooney is a pathetic man in every sense but even he is shown to be a victim, of his own weakness.  Marvin is typically commanding as the corrupt Colonel Bartlett and the supporting cast features the likes of Richard Jaeckel, Strother Martin and Buddy Ebsen.

It's great stuff.  There isn't a single female character in the entire picture.  but don't let that fool you into thinking Aldrich only made men's movies: remember, this is the guy who went on to make WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (1968).

Images (1972)

A disturbing study of a woman (Susannah York) who may or may not be experiencing psychological collapse, this inhabits that strange demi-world of films like THE SHOUT (1978) which use elements of horror cinema while falling short of being outright horror films themselves.  In IMAGES there are shocks, mysterious figures, ghosts, violence and a twist ending; and yet the film doesn't set out, I don't think, to frighten but to explore.

What Robert Altman likes to explore in his films (although not quite to the extent of someone like Nicolas Roeg) is narrative convention.  In this film Altman shifts the narrative focus from York to one of the characters in her hallucinations (including herself) and back again so that it is impossible to say which of the 'fictions' being depicted represents 'reality', even assuming one of them does.  The sense of psychological isolation in which literally everything, including her own persona, may be a figment of her imagination is troubling.  Her personal torment and isolation is at once mirrored and contrasted with the achingly beautiful but remote landscape of County Wicklow.

Wake in Fright (1971)

I really enjoy Australian genre cinema: it has a unique atmosphere that I think derives from a deep-rooted fear of the environment, of the ancient history of the place and, in some cases, of the people.  Australia is a country where the vast majority of the population clings to the edges, around the coast.  There they are near food, near other like-minded people and also near to the possibility of escape.  You don't have to go very far inland to reach a beautiful but inhospitable wilderness that promises death to the careless or foolish.  Australian genre films, and the horror films in particular, reflect the stark and immediate contrasts between civilization and savage, security and peril, familiar and alien.  Classic examples are PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, THE LAST WAVE, LONG WEEKEND, WALKABOUT, but modern Australian genre cinema continues that trend in, for example, ROGUE, BLACK WATER and THE REEF.

WAKE IN FRIGHT, directed in 1971 by Canadian journeyman Ted Kotcheff, very much follows those themes while defying easy categorization.  It's not a horror film, although there are horrific situations in it; it's not a thriller, although there are thrilling situations in it; and neither is it a psychological drama, although there are elements of that too.  I suppose, like many of the very best films, it simply is what it is.  It tells the story of a young teacher who stops over in the town of Bundanyabba, on his way home to Sydney for the Christmas holiday; there he falls under the spell of several of the town's strange but strong-willed characters who directly and indirectly prevent him leaving.  It stars Gary Bond, an English actor who had a small part in ZULU, Donald Pleasence and some great Australian actors: Chips Rafferty, Jack Thompson and John Meillon.

If I had to have a stab at trying to describe it I'd say it was a like cross between Sam peckinpah's STRAW DOGS and Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS.  But really you'd have to see it for yourself because it really is unique.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  If you do seek it out, it's worth bearing in mind that it was also known as OUTBACK.

Friday 22 July 2011

The Toolbox Murders (1978)

Dennis Donnelly's THE TOOLBOX MURDERS isn't really a proper slasher movie.  For one thing it was released before John Carpenter's landmark HALLOWEEN, the film that is most identified as heralding the arrival of the subgenre.  Neither does it have some of the key elements of the slasher film: there are no party preparations, no necking teenagers, and no big reveal at the end.  What it does have is an introductory flashback sequence, amasked killer, nubile female victims and an almost gloating sadism to the death scenes.  Perhaps then it is best regarded as a proto-slasher: essentially an exploitation film that by accident managed to pre-empt the development of a subgenre.

The film's semi-notorious reputation, and the reason it ended up on the UK's video nasty list, is down to the first half an hour which follows the ski-mask clad intruder into several flats and observes him killing the occupants.  Not unlike THE PROWLER (1981), the murder scenes are upsetting not only becuase they are graphic but also because they unflinchingly document the victims' terror and pathetic attempts to resist.  This, you think, might actually be what's it's like to be in that dreadful position.  This is horror, not as a relatively gentle massaging of mankind's deepest fears, but perhaps as a reflection of life itself: nasty, brutish and short.

After such an opening the film, perhaps wisely, lets up; 90 minutes of horror that intense would be almost impossible to watch.  We follow a desultory police investigation into the murderer's kidnapping of a young girl and the more effective efforts of her brother to track her down.  This is TV movie territory: flatly directed, visually drab and with little sense of pace or atmosphere.  What it does have is a remarkably committed performance from Cameron Mitchell, who must have wondered how he ended up starring with pornstar Kelly Nichols (here operating under the pseudonym Marianne Walter) in a very nasty horror movie.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Shrooms (2007)

Apart from having the worst title since STOP, OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT this is one of those films which, more than anything, represents a missed opportunity.  Every time the chance emerges for it to turn into something good or unusual it instead settles for the predictable or the routine.  It starts with the highly implausible premise of a bunch of American students visiting Ireland with the express intention of driving into the woods and getting off their tits on the local magic mushrooms.  Only it turns out that the woods are in fact the grounds of an abandoned Catholic reform school where the boys were horrifically abused by the staff.  Or were they?

SHROOMS hinges on the idea that once the teens are tripping neither they nor they audience are able to tell reality from fantasy.  It's an interesting idea but one that isn't developed much further because, as it turns out, if you're a tripping American student in a horror movie you behave just the same as a non-tripping American student in a horror movie.  So we get the kids picked off one by one, chases through the woods and end up with pretty girls in dirty white vests clutching axes, like we do in most every horror movie de nos jours.  It's a shame because there are some good moments: Bluto getting fellated by something dark and nasty; Lisa asking for help in the least appropriate place; the woods themselves.  But sadly those moments get lost, not like tears in rain, but amid the unimaginative drek that makes up the rest of the movie.  I point the finger at you, Mr Director, Paddy Breathnach.

House (1986)

Cor, talk about chucking everything in bar the kitchen sink.  There's loads going on in Steve Miner's HOUSE and some of it is quite good, so let's deal with that first.  It has a decent stab at horror / comedy, with the emphasis on the comedy; think of the weird third segment of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE or JUMANJI.  Or even GREMLINS.  In other words its '15' rated, as opposed to '18'.  It actually sustains that atmosphere well  rattling along, never settling on one theme for too long.  It's also set in a slightly off-kilter USA, which is always good to see, where there is no traffic, no pedestrians -  in other words, no reality to intrude on the strange goings-on.  The effects are pretty good too and it's kind of fun to see actual rubber monsters again, instead of CGI.

On the downside, there's probably a bit too much going on.  Poor old William Katt: his aunt has just killed herself, he's got writer's block, his marriage (to Kay Lenz) has fallen apart, his son has been abducted, his neighbour (CHEERS' George Wendt) won't give him a moment's peace, he is traumatised by Vietnam flashbacks and his house is haunted.  That's a fair bit to resolve in 90 minutes and to be honest Miner doesn't try; what he does instead is solve everything in one fell swoop, which is a bit of a cop-out.

HOUSE was a big hit in its day to the extent that it became a minor franchise.  Steve Miner went on to spawn a further mini-franchise with another comedy / horror LAKE PLACID (1999) and contributed installments to both the HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH series.

Track of the Cat [1954]

TRACK OF THE CAT is an American western that was directed by William A. Wellman and originally released by Warner Bros in November 1954.  It stars Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Tab Hunter and Diana Lynn.  It tells the story of a deeply dysfunctional family whose isolated Colorado ranch is being terrorised by a panther.

Robert Mitchum was that rare thing: a brilliant actor and a brilliant movie star.  It's difficult to pin down exactly why he was so successful at both because he was neither classically good-looking nor classically trained.  It may just be that he made acting, and life itself, appear simple, straightforward and fun which must have appealed to cinema-goers in the post-WW2 period when he rose to fame.  His insouciance though masked an ability to really act, in a way that other stars, for instance Humphrey Bogart, could not.  Perhaps it's best to think of him as the blue collar Cary Grant although Mitchum certainly had a greater range.

Robert Mitchum as Curt Bridges

It's difficult to imagine Grant playing Mitchum's role in William Wellman's TRACK OF THE CAT.  Curt Bridges is a difficult man to like: he's brave, sure, but he's also boorish, manipulative and cruel.  He hunts the big cat alone out there in the snow, without much in the way of gear or provisions, but he never elicits any sympathy. 

Curt on the track of the cat

In some ways this could be regarded as one of those films popular in the post-war period which saw a move away from the standard depiction of the American hero - brave, strong, resilient - in favour of a man who was unsympathetic, morally ambiguous and yet somehow still admirable.  In other words, a more complicated character.

Sheltering in a cave, Curt finds a volume of Keats' poems
 It's no coincidence that Montgomery Clift and James Dean were the new box office idols - replacing figures from the 1930s and 40s like Bogart and Clark Gable.  In this film, that part is played by Tab Hunter who wasn't any great shakes as an actor, although decent enough in this.  Hunter, like Clift, was a conflicted homosexual whose public persona as a heartthrob was totally at odds with his private life.  In Clift's case, as a Method actor, he was sometimes able to draw upon that inner turmoil to deliver riveting performances; unfortunately Hunter wasn't so talented and so his career eventually petered out.  Happily though, Hunter lived to see homosexuality de-stigmatised and is no doubt a much happier person because of it.

Tab Hunter as Harold Bridges

Apart from Mitchum, the film is worth seeing for its striking design by Ralph Hurst and Cinemascope photography by William H. Clothier.  Apparently Wellman had the idea of making a black and white film in colour, so the sets and costumes are almost entirely monochrome.  It adds up to one of the most stylised mainstream Hollywood pictures I've seen; so controlled is the composition, photography and colour that it's reminiscent of Italian giallos, particularly those of Dario Argento.

Note the high contrast black and white with a blaze of colour

An amazing composition shot from within a grave

Only the occasional flash of colour illuminates this narrow palette: Diana Lynn's lipstick, Robert Mitchum's coat and the beacon lit to guide him home...

John Ford would have admired this shot: all the characters isolated from one another, to represent the Bridges family dysfunction.

Director William A. Wellman had been in the directing business for nearly 30 years by the time he made TRACK OF THE CAT and for some years in more minor jobs before that.  However, his isn't a name your much these days, perhaps because his most successful pictures were made a very long time ago.  WINGS [1927] was the first film to be awarded the Best Film Oscar, and THE PUBLIC ENEMY [1931] is perhaps the film most responsible for establishing James Cagney's fearsome screen persona.  He also made my favourite version of BEAU GESTE [1939], the one with Brian Donlevy as the tyrannical Sergeant Markoff.  Apparently Wellman had himself served in the Foreign Legion as a pilot.  All of these film are at least 75 years old and now that vintage black and white films are so rarely shown on television many of them are largely forgotten.

The Bridges ranch

William H. Clothier worked with Wellman nine times, first as a camera operator during the pre-WW2 era and then as a fully fledged cinematographer in the 50s.  A huge percentage of his films are westerns, including Sam Peckinpah's debut feature THE DEADLY COMPANIONS [1961] and seven John Ford pictures.  Clothier's work on TRACK OF THE CAT is really superb and even if you aren't a fan of westerns I would urge you to give it a whirl.

The Killings at Outpost Zeta [1980]

THE KILLINGS AT OUTPOST ZETA is an American sci-fi film that was produced and directed by Robert Emenegger and Allan Sandler.  It was originally released at some point in 1980 which I have not been able to determine.  It stars, if that's the right word, Gordon De Vol, Jacqueline Ray, Jackson Bostwick and Stan Wojno.  It's about an elite team which heads to a remote planet to investigate a series of deaths.

NB.  Only small stills for this one because it's such a ropey print and enlarged they look terrible.

If you can get past the bargain basement costumes and sets, there's the germ of an interesting story here.  The premise is a good one, so much so in fact that you wonder why more sci-fi films haven't used it.  Admittedly the plot does then develop along predictable lines but some thought at least was given to dreaming up an unusual monster and there's perhaps more science than you'd expect from such a cheapo production.

The landing on Outpost Zeta
The alien landscape is pretty good too and shows what can be achieved with a red filter, a smoke machine and a bit of imagination.

Spacemen venture forth from Outpost Zeta
On the downside, the aforementioned sets and costumes, and indeed the props, are pretty laughable: everything is red or white, or red and white. Some of the acting is pretty shocking too, although it must be said they don't have much to work with. The last half hour drags pretty badly, after a sprightly opening.

Red with white piping.  White set.
Red and white.  White set.  Red prop.
Red and white.  White set.  Red and white props.
This one looks like a still from a Beastie Boys video.
I can't tell you much about the actors I'm afraid because there's no proper credits list which attributes which role to which actor.  I can tell you that Emenegger and Sandler collaborated on a number of projects in the early 80s including ESCAPE FROM DS-3 [1981] which I have managed to track down and will endeavour to write up soon.

The Prowler [1981]

THE PROWLER is an American slasher movie that was directed by Joseph Zito and originally released in November 1981.  It stars Vicky Dawson, Christopher Goutman and Farley Granger.  Like practically every slasher flick you care to name, this one features another masked killer terrorising another group of students who are arranging another annual ball.  On this occasion the killer wears combat fatigues and his weapon of choice is a pitchfork or, if he's travelling light, an Army-issue bayonet.

This movie has something of a reputation as being one of the most brutal slashers around and I'd have to concur.  The death scenes do have a unflinching sadism which lift it above most others (or plunges it into the depths, depending on your outlook): they seem to prolong the suffering of the victims long after most directors would have cut away.  Frankly it's just as well because the rest of the film is pretty unmemorable.  There's the customary flashback opener, the customary party preparations, the customary lovers tiffs and so on.

The Prowler attacks!

RESERVOIR DOGS Lawrence Tierney has a wordless cameo as a wheelchair-bound red herring and the late Farley Granger plays a kindly old copper who goes off on holiday, leaving his gormless deputy in charge.  The big reveal comes as no big surprise but there are one or two shock moments still in store after the final whistle, so to speak.  Not brilliant then, but worth seeing and probably in the second rank of slashers.

Farley Granger as Sheriff Fraser

Lawrence Tierney as Major Chatham

It's difficult to say much about THE PROWLER that I haven't already said about a number of other slasher flicks; look those up and I promise you most of what I say about them is equally applicable to this one.  There's dancing, there's necking, there's swimming, there's showering and there's stabbing. That's pretty much all of yer slasher boxes ticked right there.

Sometimes you get showering and stabbing...

and sometimes you get swimming and stabbing.  Very versatile these slashers.

Aside from the aforementioned veterans there is literally no-one in the cast whom I have heard of.  A different story with the crew though.  Joseph Zito directed several successful genre pictures including the Chuck Norris actioners (is there any other type of Cuck Norris picture?) MISSING IN ACTION [1984] and INVASION USA [1985] and the misleadingly titled FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER [1984].  Likewise, cinematographer Joao Fernandes worked on a lot of Chuck Norris pictures without ever crossing into mainstream Hollywood productions.  The band that plays at the graduation ball is credited as Nowhere Fast but their lead singer looks an awful lot like Graham Parker.  The final thing to mention is that the special effects and make-up are the work of the slasher movie go-to guy Tom Savini.

Tom Savini's excellent effects / make up work.