Friday, 29 April 2016

Hands of the Ripper (1971)

In the early 1970s Hammer Films turned out a series of remarkably interesting horror films, including Hands of the Ripper, directed by Peter Sasdy. It’s a fascinatingly original reworking of a clichéd idea, this time Jack the Ripper.  It benefits from a strong cast, headed by Eric Porter as a turn-of-the-century medico who is an early disciple of Freud and wants to use Freud’s ideas to cure violent criminals.  

Jack the Ripper is not actually the subject of the film although he certainly plays a crucial part indirectly. The movie opens with one of the Ripper murders, witnessed by a small girl. We then jump forward fifteen years in time.

Dr John Pritchard (Eric Porter) is attending a séance. Pritchard is very much a sceptic. He considers himself to be as man of science. Whether Freudian psychoanalysis is actually more scientific than gazing into a crystal ball can of course be debated and in fact the movie does in its own way debate that very point. 

The séance has a tragic sequel. The medium (a rather nasty piece of work as we have already discovered) is brutally murdered. The police are baffled but Dr Pritchard knows there are two possible suspects. One is a Member of Parliament named Dysart; the other is the medium’s assistant, a timid young woman named Anna.

Dr Pritchard is extremely interested in murder. He believes that he can uncover the sequence of events that lead a person to become a murderer and he believes he can cure that person. He takes Anna into his home so that he can study her, whilst also keeping a close eye on the Member of Parliament.

More murders follow. Dr Pritchard is confident he is making progress but how many more people are going to die before he finds the answers he is seeking? And exactly what is it that he is likely to uncover? We already know part of the answer, which was revealed in the opening scene, but that opening scene left some vital details obscure.

Dr Pritchard has no patience with the paranormal or the supernatural. The MP, Dysart, on the other hand is a believer and wants Pritchard to pursue the truth through occult means by consulting a psychic. This sets up an intriguing contest between science and the occult since both the psychic and Pritchard are able to unlock vital secrets from Anna’s mind.

This is a film with, by Hammer standards, a fair amount of gore. Fortunately it isn’t really overdone. 

Dr Pritchard is a kindly sensitive man whose thirst for scientific knowledge leads him to take absurd risks. He believes that no price is too high to pay to advance knowledge. His scientific zeal proves to be irresponsible and dangerous. In some senses this film could be seen as a mad scientist movie, of the sub-type in which the mad scientist is not evil but is led into disaster by misguided zeal. It’s certainly a very unconventional but exceptionally interesting example of the sub-type.

Eric Porter is superb as Dr Pritchard, giving a subtle performance as a man who is both sympathetic and reprehensible in his irresponsibility. Derek Godfrey is very good as the slightly sinister Member of Parliament who may or may not have some involvement in at least one of the violent murders. Angharad Rees does well as Anna, a rather difficult role given that she spends much of the movie in a kind of trance state.

This one is apparently director Peter Sasdy’s personal favourite among his films. He has the benefit of an intelligent screenplay by Lewis Davidson and while the budget was naturally limited he also had the advantage of being able to use the Victorian streetscapes built at Pinewood Studios for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes giving the movie a surprisingly lavish look. Sasdy had already made two good gothic horror films for Hammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula. He understood horror and he also understood how to work within the genre whilst adding some original touches.

Synapse Films have released this movie in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, and with some worthwhile extras. The Blu-Ray transfer is excellent.

Hands of the Ripper has a plot that is intelligent and complex in both a psychological and a moral sense. The story moves along at a good pace, the acting is good, and there’s some excellent cinematography which towards the end even gets a bit arty and gets away with it.  This is a clever and original horror movie. Highly recommended.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Cult of the Cobra (1955)

Cult of the Cobra certainly has a promising title. Does this 1955 Universal horror shocker live up to that title? We shall see.

The movie opens somewhere in Asia in 1945. Six American GIs who will be returning to the States shortly after four years of war are doing a little sight-seeing. An old snake charmer named Daru attracts their attention but the story he has to tell interests them even more. Daru claims that a man can be changed into a snake and a snake can be changed into a man. Or even a woman. Sergeant Paul Able (Richard Long) is already inclined to believe such legends. Although he’s a scientist he also believes in werewolves and vampires as well as shape-shifters. When Daru offers to smuggle the GIs into the temple of the Lamians so that they can see such marvels for themselves he’s anxious to take up the offer. His buddies figure it could be fun so they’re willing to go along.

Everything might have been fine if only Nick (James Dobson) hadn’t tried snapping a few photographs of the ritual. A fine old fight erupts and the six American soldiers are informed that they are now cursed and that the snake goddess will kill them one by one.

Of course they don’t believe there’s anything in this threat, although Paul Able is not so sure.

In fact only five of the six young men make it back to the US alive. One of them dies - of snakebite!

The five survivors settle back into civilian life. Paul Able and Tom Markel (Marshall Thompson) have been competing for the affections of the same girl, Julia (Kathleen Hughes). Paul wins the contest but Tom soon finds consolation when he encounters the beautiful Lisa Moya (Faith Domergue). Tom falls head over heels for Lisa. Lisa is personable enough but anyone not totally smitten by her might find her to be just a little odd. And animals are terrified of her.

As for the curse, the five friends soon have cause to wonder if perhaps there might be something in it after all after yet another mysterious and rather fatal accident.

Of course we’re going to suspect that maybe Lisa is involved, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that she’s a snake goddess or a shape-shifter or a follower of the Lamian cult. Even Paul, despite his belief that such legends may be based on something real, can see that there might be a rational explanation. As for Tom, all he knows is that he’s found the girl of his dreams.

There might not be anything original about the script but it has the right ingredients and they’re combined quite satisfactorily. Director Francis D. Lyon worked mostly in television. There’s nothing startling about the job he does here but it’s a very competently made and well-paced movie and there are a few very effective scenes (the bowling alley scene is vaguely reminiscent of the swimming pool scene in Cat People). Despite the subject matter and the lurid title this does not come across as a particularly cheap or shoddy movie and on the whole it’s played surprisingly straight - in fact it gives the impression of having been made with at least a certain amount of care.

Cult of the Cobra boasts a reasonably solid cast. Richard Long is likeable and manages to make Paul Able just flaky enough for us to accept his belief in various occult legends without being so flaky as to be unconvincing playing a man who is ostensibly a Man of Science. Marshall Thompson is pretty good as Tom, who is perhaps a little naïve where women are concerned (even though he thinks he’s a ladies’ man) but is still a basically sensible ordinary kind of guy even if he is an artist. He is however clearly so besotted by Lisa that he’s no longer entirely rational. Tom is the most complex of the male characters and Thompson makes him interesting and sympathetic even when we find ourselves getting a little frustrated by his excessive devotion to Lisa.

David Janssen, soon to find stardom on TV in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, gets a fairly decent role as the bluff cheerful Rico who likes running a bowling alley more than he liked being in the Army. Kathleen Hughes is perhaps the weak link - Julia is an actress and she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer and it’s difficult to see why men are fighting over her. William Reynolds brings some intensity to his performance as Pete, another of the hapless GIs.

It is Faith Domergue though who is the star. She has the right kind of slightly exotic beauty and she conveys the necessary mysterious quality as Lisa Moya. She plays Lisa as slightly detached but with genuine emotions as well so that we do have some real doubts about her - she might be an inhuman monster or a victim herself or perhaps she’s been caught up in something sinister. Or perhaps she really is human but just a little odd.

This is one of the five movies in Universal’s Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection: Volume 2, a great DVD set that represents fabulous value for money (The Land Unknown and The Leech Woman are also great fun). Cult of the Cobra was shot in black-and-white and widescreen and the anamorphic transfer is exceptionally good. The only extra is a trailer but given the insanely low price of this set it would be churlish to complain about the lack of extras.

Cult of the Cobra has some genuine chills and it’s consistently entertaining, and Faith Domergue’s performance is enough on its own to justify seeing this one. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Hercules, Samson & Ulysses (1963)

1958 saw the beginning of the short-lived but spectacular Italian peplum boom. Scores of imitators followed, and then after five or six years it was all over. The Italian film industry abandoned the peplum and embraced the spaghetti western. Which is a pity since on the whole the peplums were a lot more fun. Pietro Francisci directed the movie that started the craze, Hercules. And In 1963 he directed one of the last notable entries in the cycle, Hercules, Samson & Ulysses.

Francisci had in fact been making historical epics since the beginning of the 1950s. And in 1973, long after the peplum craze had run its course, he made yet another movie of this type, Sinbad and the Caliph of Baghdad. Clearly Francisci had a taste for this sort of thing.

Hercules, Samson & Ulysses opens with Hercules and his young friend Ulysses battling a sea monster that has been menacing Greek fishermen. Before the monster can be dealt with a storm intervenes and the heroes are shipwrecked. Hercules and Ulysses and four companions survive but the storm has taken them a very long way - all the way to a Danite village in Judea.

The people of Judea don’t seem too pleased about the arrival of these shipwrecked Greeks. Actually they’re mostly worried that the Greeks might be in league with the hated Philistines. The villagers are also worried that these visitors might betray their hero Samson who is hiding out amongst them.

Hercules and his friends set off for Gaza (where they hope to find a ship to take them home to Greece) accompanied by a Philistine merchant. When Hercules kills a lion with his bare hands the merchant is convinced that he must really be the famous Danite hero Samson. And there’s a very large reward for anyone who helps the Philistine king to capture Samson.

Hercules will meet the real Samson and in order to save his friends he will have to betray Samson to the Philistines. Unless of course he can find some honourable alternative - and Hercules can surely be relied upon to do the honourable thing?

Pietro Francisci knew his stuff when it came to directing this type of movie. The pacing is taut and there are some inspired moments. The action scenes (of which there’s no shortage) are well executed. The highlight is the epic fight between Hercules and Samson with the two heroes hurling gigantic stone blocks at each other, knocking over stone walls and generally demolishing every structure in sight. It’s truly one of the best peplum fight scenes ever. There are more superb and inventive action sequences in the latter part of the film.

The sets are very impressive. For a low budget movie this production manages to look very expensive.

Francisci wrote the screenplay as well as directing and he came up with a fairly decent story. It takes some of its inspiration from the Biblical story of Samson but brings Hercules into the story in at least a vaguely plausible way.

The acting reaches no great heights but it’s fine for this style of movie. Kirk Morris (who despite his screen name was an Italian actor and bodybuilder) is a convincing and quite acceptable hero and his performance is actually quite lively. Samson is played, and played pretty well, by Iranian actor Iloosh Khoshabe (under the suitable American-sounding name Richard Lloyd) while Ulysses is played in rather amiable and not overly heroic style by Enzo Cerusico. To be honest Ulysses is a minor character in this story. The original Italian title Ercole sfida Sansone would have been more accurately and more appropriately translated as Hercules Challenges Samson.

Diletta D'Andrea provides some amusement as Leria, the wife of Hercules. She’s a devoted wife but she’s getting a bit fed up with having her husband constantly away from home doing hero stuff.

Aldo Giuffrè is suitably cruel and villainous as the Philistine King. A really classic peplum should have a beautiful but evil queen and in this film it’s the notorious Philistine queen Delilah, played with considerable panache by Liana Orfei. Hers is the standout performance in the movie. I especially love her costume in the climactic battle scene - she looks like a sexy comic-book super-villainess.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD provides a pretty good anamorphic transfer. There is some very minor print damage but not enough to worry about and the colours are pleasingly vivid. If you’re a hardcore peplum fan you’ll know how hard it is to find these movies on DVD in an acceptable condition and in the correct aspect ratios - and peplums were always made in a widescreen format and even more than most movies they absolutely have to be seen in the proper aspect ratio. This release is most definitely a welcome one. One word of warning - don’t watch the trailer before watching the movie. It gives away far too much!

All peplums have a certain amount of camp appeal but Hercules, Samson & Ulysses stands up as a very decent action adventure movie indeed. This is definitely not to be dismissed as a so-bad-it’s-good movie. It’s superbly made, fairly well acted, it looks terrific and it’s packed with genuine spectacle and imaginative action scenes. It may have come along towards the tail end of the peplum boom but it’s one of the best movies of the genre. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

The 1960s produced the Bond movies which of course spawned countless imitators. The 1960s also produced the phenomenon of the anti-Bond movies - movies that were a deliberate reaction against the Bond films, movies that tried to be dark and edgy and cynical and non-glamorous and that generally took themselves pretty seriously. They were aiming at being Serious Cinema, as distinct from mere entertainment. A few of them, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, succeeded. Others did not. One spy movie of this period that definitely falls into the anti-Bond camp is the Anglo-American co-production The Quiller Memorandum, made in 1966. 

Quiller (George Segal) works for the British Secret Service. Two top British agents have been killed in West Berlin and Quiller has now been assigned to take their place. They were investigating a neo-Nazi organisation.

Quiller meets a pretty young German school teacher, Inge Lindt (Senta Berger). One of the other teachers at her school has recently been arrested for being a Nazi so Quiller assumes the school must be a hot-bed of neo-Nazi activity (although why he would assume that is difficult to comprehend). Sure enough Inge knows all about the neo-Nazis and tells Quiller she can introduce him to someone who can tell him where their secret base is. Quiller quickly manages to get himself captured without finding out anything and is drugged in an attempt to get him to tell the neo-Nazis where the British have their secret base. At this point you might be thinking that this sounds like a pretty lame plot, but it gets worse.

Quiller and Inge fall in love. Quiller manages to get himself captured once again. This time he thinks he’s found the secret base but now he has to find a way to get the information to his controller.

That’s about all there is to the plot. Many spy movies of this era fall into the trap of over-complicating things with so many plot twists that it becomes difficult for even the most alert viewer to keep track of what is going on. The Quiller Memorandum has the opposite problem. It has no plot twists at all. Well OK, it has one, which is supposed to be a big shock but it’s unfortunately rather obvious and not much of a shock at all.

The screenplay was written by Harold Pinter. Pinter was a much-admired playwright who wrote a lot of screenplays. Unfortunately being a playwright does not necessarily make one a good screenwriter and Pinter’s films can be rather talky. The Quiller Memorandum suffers from this defect. It is also abundantly clear that Pinter had very little understanding of the spy genre. One can’t help suspecting that he despised the genre and was deliberately trying to make this not just an anti-Bond movie but an anti-spy movie. The result is a dull and uninteresting screenplay.

Director Michael Anderson also seemed keen to avoid falling into the trap of making an entertaining action movie. There are a few token action scenes, most of them very low-key. The intention was presumably to rely on suspense and on an atmosphere of paranoia but it doesn’t really come off. The street scenes late in the film with Quiller being shadowed by hordes of bad guys is the one scene where the paranoia does start to work.

One of the movie’s faults is that these dreaded neo-Nazis don’t seem very menacing. We’re never given any hint of what their master plan is. They don’t appear to have any master plan. They don’t seem to be very important people. They don’t appear to be holding vital posts in government or the armed forces or big business. Maybe they just get together once a week to drink beer and sing the Horst Wessel song. They seem rather futile and silly. They’re not even efficient thugs. Quiller is the most incompetent movie spy in history but they are even less competent. Since we have no idea of who they really are or what they are really up to it’s hard to feel any particular paranoia about them. And without any effective paranoia the movie is left with a thin uninteresting plot and virtually no action.

George Segal was a bizarre choice to play Quiller. His constant wise-cracking is at odds with the otherwise serious tone of the film. There’s no psychological interest in the character. He’s just mildly irritating. Senta Berger is a dull leading lady although her part is so underwritten there was very little she could have done.

There’s a star-studded supporting cast, all of them wasted on two-dimensional characters. Alec Guinness does provide at least some interest as Quiller’s cynical controller. Max von Sydow is the chief bad guy, a cardboard cut-out Nazi villain who doesn’t do anything villainous enough to be really interesting. George Sanders and Robert Helpmann play minor characters who play no actual part in the story. 

The characters are, without exception, lacking in depth or complexity or ambiguity and it is impossible to care what happens to any of them. Pinter may have thought he was being deep (or perhaps he thought he was being wry and offbeat) but he has only succeeded in being pretentiousness and tedious.

The movie goes for a film noir-influenced look with lots of night scenes and a very subdued and rather grungy colour palette. This works extremely well and does convey an effectively sordid and seedy feel. The scenes in the deserted indoor swimming pool complex and the neo-Nazis’ secret headquarters look genuinely menacing. The location shooting is great and the sets are great. The visuals almost succeed in achieving the paranoia that the screenplay fails to deliver.

Fox’s Region 1 DVD release offers a decent anamorphic transfer plus an audio commentary.

The Quiller Memorandum looks quite impressively atmospheric but it fails to generate any real interest. Pinter’s screenplay doesn’t work and the characters are flat and lifeless. Anderson’s directing has its moments. Possibly worth a rental if you’re an Alec Guinness completist but I can’t really recommend this one.