Saturday 31 January 2009

The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

I’m not as fond of the Amicus horror anthology movies as a lot of other people, but I must admit to enjoying The House That Dripped Blood quite a bit. Robert Bloch’s script isn’t that brilliant, but director Peter Duffell approaches his task with a great deal of enthusiasm and manages to breathe life into even the most tired horror movie cliches. And he gets great performances from his cast - none of these actors were simply turning up to collect their pay cheque. And it is an extraordinarily strong cast.

The linking story is that a particular rather gothic-looking house seems to have a fatal effect on its tenants. The first story involves a writer whose creations threaten to take on a life of their own, with Denholm Elliott being wonderfully jumpy and neurotic. The second story is a fairly predictable tale about a waxworks and a wax dummy, but Peter Cushing’s almost unbearably melancholic performance as a man whose loneliness is overwhelming adds an unexpected emotional resonance. Joss Ackland is also very good, as Cushing’s sometime rival in love.

The movie really hits its stride with the third story. A middle-aged man (Christopher Lee) and his seven-year-old daughter (Chloe Franks) rent the house. The man doesn’t believe in sending his daughter to school, or allowing her to mix with other children. He employs a governess (Nyree Dawn Porter) to educate her. It’s set up so that Christopher Lee appears to be playing a typical Christopher Lee character - a bit pompous, a control freak - but the twist is that things are not as they seem. Lee and Nyree Dawn Porter are both splendid, but they’re unlucky in having to share the screen with Chloe Franks, a truly remarkable child actress.

With the final story the tone changes markedly. This one one is pure campy fun. An ageing third-rate horror movie actor is the house’s latest tenant. To give his performance in his latest vampire movie more authenticity he purchases a cape, a cape that looks the way a vampire’s cape should look, from a mysterious theatrical costumer’s shop. Jon Pertwee as the actor and Ingrid Pitt as his co-star are delightfully over-the-top, gleefully chewing any scenery they can get their hands on. Geoffrey Bayldon is equally outrageous as the owner of the costumer’s shop. The special effects are ludicrously bad, but deliberately so, and they add to the fun.

Ray Parslow’s cinematography gives the movie a nicely queasy look. Asylum remains my favourite Amicus movie, but this one really is a lot of fun.

Friday 30 January 2009

Evil Come Evil Go (1972)

When it comes to oddball films combining sleaze, horror and just plain strangeness Something Weird Video rarely fail to deliver the goods. Evil Come Evil Go adds religious fanaticism to the mix, and an extra dose of kinky kookiness.

Sister Sarah Jane is the founder and, at this stage, the only member of the Sisters of Complete subjugation. She’s a traveling evangelist on a mission to rid the world of pleasurable sex, and of the evil men who indulge in this most heinous of sins. She picks up men in bars, and as soon as they try to engage her in pleasurable sex she kills them in fairly gory fashion. Arriving in LA she recruits her first disciple. Penny is a young lesbian whose and wealthy family on the East Coast pays her lots of money to stay as far away from them as possible. She’s thrilled to have finally found a cause to which she an devote herself, and is eager for Sister Sarah to initiate her into the order. The initiation involves her being stripped naked and tied to a bed. Sister Sarah’s belief in the wickedness of sex for pleasure is clearly just one of the sexual issues she has!

Pretty soon Penny is luring men back to her apartment so that Sister Sarah can punish them for their sinfulness. Considering her deeply held beliefs about sex Sister Sarah seems to spend a surprising amount of time listening to the bedroom activities of Penny and her victims before intervening, and listening in a state of some excitement and in a state of partial undress. When Penny’s ex-girlfriend turns up it transpires that women are also guilty of the sin of desiring pleasurable sex, much to Sister Sarah’s disapproval.

Cleo O’Hara as Sister Sarah really makes this film. It’s a mind-bogglingly over-the-top performance, and her bizarre wardrobe makes it even more fun. You’d think her male victims would figure out there was something amiss with her when she started singing hymns during sex, not to mention her air of total hysteria. Sarah Henderson as Penny is awful, but she’s awful in a very entertaining way. Her line readings are just totally and jaw-droppingly wrong, but in this movie that kind of performance is a plus.

There’s a great deal of fairly explicit nudity and sex, and quite a bit of gore for a 1972 American movie. The ending is unexpected, and although it’s probably more due to sheer amateurishness on the part of writer-director Walt Davis than any actual intention it kind of works, and adds to the twistedness of the movie.

The picture quality is quite grainy at times, but it’s perfectly watchable, and if you like your movie weirdness with extra added weirdness you won’t want to miss Evil Come Evil Go.

Sunday 25 January 2009

Cosmos: War of the Planets (1977)

I wasn’t even aware of Alfonso Brescia until I read a recent review of his early sword and sandal epic Conqueror of Atlantis, but that review was enough to make me anxious to see some of his movies, and as luck would have it I happened to have a copy of Cosmos: War of the Planets (Anno zero - guerra nello spazio) lying around. And what a deliciously and deliriously strange little movie it is!

It’s obviously heavily influenced by Star Trek, but this is a completely crazed bad drug-trip version of Star Trek. The story has something to do with a strange unidentified signal picked up from somewhere in the galaxy. Earth spaceship MK-31 is set to investigate, and ends up on a mysterious planet. There’s an insane super-computer, and a race of degenerated human-like creatures, both survivors of a war between humans and machines. That’s as much sense as I could get out of the plot, but if you care about things like plotting what on earth are you doing watching a 1970s Italian science fiction movie anyway?

It may not have a coherent plot, or even vaguely competent actors, but it does have other much more important things going for it. It has a soundtrack with lots of goofy electronic pinging noises. It has dialogue jam-packed with the most nonsensical technobabble you could ever hope for. It has ultra-cheap (and I really do mean ultra-cheap) but very trippy special effects. It has amazingly silly costumes. If, like me, you consider these things far more important than mere plotting then you should be well and truly satisfied.

It also has a manic energy to it. There’s always something happening, and even when it makes no sense it’s fun to watch. It has those moments of weirdness you only get in European sci-fi movies, such as people plugging themselves into machines to have a kind of virtual cybersex. And it has loads of style. In some ways it’s a bit like Mario Bava’s wonderful Planet of the Vampires, with sheer style and visual inventiveness triumphing over a ludicrously small budget and a lack of any real narrative drive. Brescia isn’t the brilliant stylist that Bava was, but he makes up for it with much more weirdness. If you enjoyed Planet of the Vampires or Antonio Margheriti’s Wild, Wild Planet then you’re going to love this one.

This is wildly entertaining high camp nonsense, and a must-see for lovers of the strange world of Italian science fiction movies of the 60s and 70s. I loved it.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Girl in Gold Boots (1968)

When judging a movie like Girl in Gold Boots there’s really only one question that needs to be answered - does it actually deliver on the promise of the cover art? Does it really feature go-go dancing girls in gold boots? Since the answer to this is a resounding yes, this is clearly a movie that you simply have to have in your DVD collection.

And this is not just a movie that features go-go dancing - this is a movie in which go-go dancing is absolutely central to the plot. Go-go dancing is the heart and soul of the film. There are girls in incredibly short mini-skirts go-go dancing. There are girls in silver and gold bikinis go-go dancing. This is almost the Holy Grail of go-go dancing movies.

There’s also a plot. Sort of. A rather shady and somewhat mysterious stranger whose name later turns out to be Buzz wanders into a sleazy diner in a one-horse desert town, to find the waitress Michele dancing to the music on the jukebox. He tells her she should give up waitressing and go with him to LA, where his sister will get her a job as a dancer. In no time at all she’ll be a star. She doesn’t really believe him, but she’s tired of her drunken father who runs the diner, so she decides to take a chance. He has a car, but no money, but she has $14 so they set off for the big city. On the way they pick up a musician just back from Nepal who rejoices in the name of Critter Jones. Buzz turns out to be a jumpy violent psychopath who is convinced that Michele is destined to be his true love, which is unfortunate since for Michele and Critter it was love at first sight.

Strangely enough it transpires that Buzz’s sister really is a star dancer in LA, in a club called The Haunted House, and she not only gets Michele a job dancing at the club, but within a few days Michele has taken her place as the lead dancer! Further plot complications involve the drug-dealing owner of the club, and the discovery by the resident band that Critter is actually a great song writer. Buzz proves to be one of the dumbest criminals in movie history. And Michele finds that show business is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially in the cut-throat world of go-go dancing.

Leslie McRae plays Michele. She’s exceptionally beautiful, she’s a great go-go dancer, and a spectacularly untalented actress. A terrible actress she might be, but luckily for her the other members of the cast are much much worse. None of which matters, because this is not exactly Shakespeare. In fact it’s such a bad movie that good acting would have completely ruined it. This movie demands bad acting, to complement the jaw-droppingly corny dialogue, the inept direction and the bizarrely nonsensical script. It all adds up to great entertainment. Ted V. Mikels, who directed this film (and the equally entertaining
and equally campy spy spoof The Doll Squad), is in the great tradition of Ed Wood, making outrageously bad movies that are nonetheless enormous fun.

The Alpha Video DVD isn’t fantastic when it comes to image quality, but it’s acceptable and it’s dirt cheap. And it includes a commentary track! If you don't buy this DVD how will you ever be able to forgive yourself? A true camp classic. And it includes lot and lots of go-go dancing!

The Image (1975)

Stylish erotica doesn’t come any more stylish than the movies of Radley Metzger. Having demonstrated that softcore porn could be art, and very good art, he went on to achieve the far more difficult task of showing that hardcore porn could be art as well, and (with The Opening of Misty Beethoven in 1976) that a hardcore movie could be good enough to be judged by the same criteria by which any other movie is judged.

The Image, made in 1975, was a transitional film for Metzger. It’s borderline hardcore. The sex is most definitely real. And it deals with S&M sex. At this point you’re probably wondering why on earth you’d want to bother with something that is clearly going to be mere exploitation. But this is a Radley Metzger movie, and despite the subject matter this is not really an exploitation movie. It is in fact a serious exploration of sexuality. And being a Metzger movie, it manages to combine this serious exploration with humour, a superb visual style, complex characters and yes, that dreaded word, art. It’s a production that can seriously be compared with a movie like Last Tango in Paris, the major difference being that it’s considerably more entertaining and less pretentious.

At a rather fashionable party a man named Jean encounters an old acquaintance. There had clearly been some involvement between Jean and Claire in the past, although the exact nature of the involvement is unclear. In fact his feelings about Claire are obviously contradictory and confused. Claire has a new friend, a young and very beautiful woman named Anne. The relationship between the two women appears to be sexual, but unconventional. When he meets them together shortly afterwards, it becomes clear that Anne is Claire’s sexual slave. It also becomes clear that this relationship is consensual, and that Anne derives considerable sexual pleasure from it. Claire offers to lend Anne to Jean, telling him that he may do whatever he pleases with her.

Of course this arrangement is bound to lead to complications, especially as Claire gets much of her pleasure from watching (and at times participating in) the sexual activities of Jean and Anne. Jean is increasingly obsessed by Anne, while both Claire and Anne seem to have ambiguous emotions about the whole setup.

In the hands of most film-makers this could be a very tacky movie indeed, especially considering that the sexual content is extremely graphic, but Metzger has a sure touch and avoids that sleaziness. He also takes both the emotions and the sexual motivations of his characters seriously, and he makes no judgments.

There are so many ways that a movie such as this could come spectacularly unstuck that you find yourself waiting for the inevitable false step, but it doesn’t happen. If you can’t deal with this aspect of sexuality or with fairly explicit sexual images then you might want to avoid this one. Which would perhaps be a pity, as it’s a humane, intelligent and very stylish movie, and a very good movie as well.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

The Devil’s Messenger (1961)

The Devil’s Messenger, released in 1961, is in fact three episodes of a Swedish TV series called 13 Demon Street cobbled together with a framing story featuring Lon Chaney jnr as Satan. What it looks like is three episodes of a TV series cobbled together with a framing story. I’ve never really been a fan of the anthology movie (with a couple of notable exceptions including Dead of Night and Asylum). This one is no worse than the average. The framing story (always the biggest potential weakness in this sort of movie) is particularly feeble, but Lon Chaney jnr makes a fun Devil.

The essence of the three episodes that comprise the bulk of the movie is that the chosen victims are offered an illusion leading to temptation. In the first two stories, one about a photographer and one concerning an anthropologist who discovers a 50,000 year-old woman frozen in the ice, the temptation is to lust. The second story gives the lust angle a definitely kinky twist. The third story involves love gone wrong, leading to revenge.

In the first installment a photographer takes a picture of a house. There is no-one in the picture, just the house, but the photographer sees the image of a woman. He is maddened by the image, and by the lust it incites. The second segment involves the unearthing of frozen woman, with whom an anthropologist becomes obsessed in a very unhealthy way indeed. The third story has a man tortured by a dream. Believing he can destroy the dream’s power by finding the building in which the dream takes place, he becomes involved in a struggle against his destiny.

The stories are all fairly low-key, but that approach works reasonably well. The emphasis is on the weaknesses that already exist in the victim’s characters, and the inevitability with which those weaknesses lead them to their doom. There are no stunning surprises, but the atmosphere of moral degeneracy, the very dark tone, and Lon Chaney’s outrageous performance make it an entertaining enough way to spend 70 minutes, especially if you don’t approach it with excessively high expectations. It’s not classic cinema, but it’s fun.

I’d love to know if the whole 13 Demon Street TV series (which was apparently filmed in English) is available on DVD.

Sunday 18 January 2009

The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

The Colossus of Rhodes (Il Colosso di Rodi) was part of the immensely popular series of Italian “peplum” movies of the late 50s and early 60s. Perhaps its main claim to fame is that it gave Sergio Leone his first official directing credit. While many of the Italian peplum or sword and sandal epics incorporated mythical or fantastic elements, this one purports to be a straight historical epic. Mind you, the “historical” events depicted in this motion picture bear no relation whatsoever to actual history!

The only connection to history is that the giant statue that gives the movie its title really did exist, being one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and really was completed in 280 BC. The actual colossus was however much smaller than the one in the movie, and lacked the high-tech features of the movie version. In any case, as the film opens a celebrated Athenian soldier named Dario is visiting Rhodes just at the time that the colossus is bring dedicated to the sun god. He finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue, of plots and counter-plots, as both the king’s first minister (aided by the wicked Phoenicians) and a rag-tag group of Rhodian freedom fighters are conspiring to take control of the island. He becomes fascinated by the beautiful Diala, the step-daughter of the designer of the brilliant but eccentric designer of the colossus.

This Italian-Spanish-French co-production was a relatively big-budget offering (and a substantial commercial success), with the producers securing a distribution deal with MGM. It really is quite spectacular visually, with some great sets (especially the temple with the giant monstrous mouth and the Babylonian-looking winged lions) and glorious (although historically ludicrously inaccurate) costumes. The aim was clearly to capture the feel of the American epics of the 50s like Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur rather than the more cheesy look of Italian Hercules movies. This is presumably why monsters and mythical creatures were avoided. Actually it doesn’t need monsters, because it has the colossus itself, which fulfuls the same functions. It’s not just a statue - it’s a prison, a scientific laboratory, and an advanced weapons system. It’s loaded with gadgetry, and it designer is a genuine mad scientist type.

It’s been released on DVD by Warner Home Video as part of their Cult Camp Classics range, and although it has undeniable camp elements it’s too well-made to qualify as a so-bad-it’s-good movie. Sergio Leone handles both the action sequences and the epic scale of the movie with considerable flair.

The commentary track by Christopher Frayling is particularly interesting. He points out that Leone intended the movie, oddly enough, as a homage to Hitchcock, with the hero Dario being based on Roger Thornhill, the character played by Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Once you understand this, the movie makes a lot more sense, and the parallels are striking. Dario is, like Thornhill, a fairly decent but rather irresponsible guy who gets caught up in a bewildering web of conspiracies and deceit, and he really has no idea what is going on. It also makes perfect sense of Rory Calhoun’s performance as Dario, which is actually rather effective.

The movie’s big weakness is the lack of a charismatic female lead. It needed a larger-than-life wicked woman, a true vamp, to spice up the limp romantic sub-plots, and to add some sex appeal. Or perhaps I should say, to add balance to the sex appeal. There’s enough half-dressed beefcake on display to please half of the audience, but a distinct lack of equally sexy females. And it’s the sort of movie that really needs cheesecake as well as beefcake!

On the whole though it’s rather entertaining. I can’t imagine any lover of sword and sandal movies not enjoying this one, and it’s an interesting glimpse of Sergio Leone’s earlier career with some surprising similarities to his later spaghetti westerns.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Destroy All Planets (1968)

There’s nothing like a really bad Japanese monster movie, and Destroy All Planets is a a really really really bad Japanese monster movie! It has all the ingredients you expect - irritating boy genius children, amazingly bad special effects, a script that relies on the bad guys doing unbelievably stupid things, and the destruction of Tokyo (which I don’t count as a spoiler since it’s not a Japanese monster movie if Tokyo doesn’t get destroyed). It also has flashbacks to previous adventures of Gammera, to pad out the running time.

And it has Gammera himself - the most delightfully weird of all giant fire-breathing flying turtle movie monsters. OK, so it’s the only giant fire-breathing flying turtle movie monster, but it’s still wonderfully bizarre. As a bonus, this one has a terrific Pop Art alien spaceship that looks like it belongs in a 60s discotheque.

Of course there has to a climactic monster-on-monster battle, and this time Gammera is pitted against a creature that looks like an enormous malevolent budgie with tentacles! This evil and ferocious octopus/parrot hybrid certainly provides Gammera with a challenge.

One can only nope that if Earth ever is invaded by aliens, the aliens will be as inept as these guys. Being outsmarted by a couple of annoying Boy Scouts has to be very embarrassing indeed if you’re an evil alien race bent on dominating the universe. Their basic idea - of holding children as hostages and then using their mind control technology to force Gammera to do their bidding - isn’t an entirely bad one, but their execution of this plan is distressingly incompetent.

But of course Destroy All Planets is a 1960s kids’ science fiction movie, so it’s hardly fair to criticise it for being a bit on the sully side. The main thing is - is it entertaining? The answer has to be yes. I’m personally not the biggest fan of this genre of movies, but it has to be admitted that they have a level of delirious insanity that you really don’t get in any other type of movie. That alone is sufficient reason for watching.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Miniskirt Love (1967)

Miniskirt Love is another bizarre slice of 60s sexploitation from Something Weird Video, included in a triple bill with Cool It, Baby and Venus in Furs (no, not the Jess Franco flick). It was directed by Lou Campa, who was also responsible for Cool It, Baby.

It starts off with a perfect suburban family. Well perhaps not quite perfect. Teenage son Billy (one of those movie teenagers who looks around 30) is a little odd. He’s not really playing with a full deck, and spends most of his time taking photographs. Mom has artistic leanings and is studying acting, and is sleeping with her acting teacher. Dad has a high-stress job and relaxes by having sex with hookers in hotel rooms.

Unfortunately Billy regards everything as suitable subject matter for his camera, including Mom and her acting teacher having sex. And he can’t wait for Dad to arrive home from work so he can show him the photos he’s taken today. Not surprisingly, Billy’s photographic hobby leads to Mom and Dad having words in the kitchen, and Mom happens to be holding a carving knife. With Dad dead and Mom in the psych ward it seems there is no-one to look after poor Billy, but luckily his Aunt Janet steps into the breach.

Aunt Janet is a fairly youthful and attractive woman, and she’s determined to give Billy the love and affection he needs. She’s a woman with a lot of love and affection to give, and a desperate desire to give it. And she tend to express this affection in a fairly physical way. Pretty soon Billy is responding well to all this warmth and tenderness. Cut to five years later, and Billy and Janet are living as a couple. Complications do arise one day, however, when the Avon Lady calls while Billy’s at work. It seems she’s also a woman with a lot of love and affection to give, and when Billy arrives home unexpectedly he finds Aunt Janet and the Avon Lady expressing that love and affection in a particularly enthusiastic manner on the living room floor. Fortunately it turns out there’s enough love and affection for everybody. But what’s going to happen when Mom is released from the psych hospital? How will she deal with this happy little threesome?

What makes these 60s sexploitation flicks so strange is not the content, but the style. It’s like a mix of reality TV and surrealism, and they manage to be both sleazy and oddly innocent and naïve at the same time. These were the days when people apparently kept their underwear on when they had sex. It’s all very steamy and overheated while showing very little indeed. The scene with Aunt Janet lying in bed, thinking about young Billy and getting all hot and bothered and thrashing around in a frenzy of sexual frustration without actually doing anything to herself is wonderfully typical of these types of films. Combined with the stilted acting and some jaw-dropping dialogue it all adds up to extreme weirdness, but there’s an oddly appealing quality to it. You just have to keep watching the films, in case the get any stranger, and they almost invariably do.

Sunday 11 January 2009

Spider Baby (1968)

Jack Hill’s Spider Baby was subtitled The Maddest Story Ever Told. That might not be true today when movies about inbred rural degenerates are reasonably familiar, but back in 1968 it was probably no exaggeration.

The Merrye family suffers from a rare hereditary degenerative disease. In fact the disease is so rare it’s unknown outside of that one family. Those afflicted don’t just regress mentally to early childhood, they also regress to an earlier and more barbaric state of humanity. They become child savages. The three physically grownup but psychologically primitive children who are the sole remaining members of the family are cared for by the family chauffeur, Bruno, who is (mostly) able to stop them from murdering people. Things slip out of Bruno’s control when some distant relatives, accompanied by their lawyer, arrive in the hope of getting their hands on dome of the family’s considerable fortune.

The children are convinced that these outsiders will tell the outside world about them, and that means bad things will happen. So they decide the strangers will have to be dealt with. The lawyer finds himself tied up to a chair while the creepiest of the children, Virginia, shows him how to play “spider” - a game of her own devising that invariably ends with the hapless victim being slashed to pieces. Meanwhile Aunt Emily has fallen into the clutches of Ralph. Ralph is in the last stages of Merrye’s Disease, and Aunt Emily’s prospects are not looking good at the hands of someone who is more or less a cannibal with a mental age of about three. Bruno realises that drastic steps need to be taken.

It’s played as a horror comedy, and its one of the better examples of a genre that has ben often attempted but rarely executed with complete success. Lon Chaney jnr is terrific as Bruno. Jill Banner is delightfully bizarre and terrifying as Virginia , with Beverly Washburn also extremely good as her only slightly less murderous sister Elizabeth. Sid Haig, a regular in Jack Hill’s films, plays Ralph to perfection.

A truly strange movie, but oddly captivating. A must for lovers of extreme movie weirdness.

Friday 9 January 2009

The Uncanny (1977)

The omnibus horror film enjoyed considerable success in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. One of the last such movies was The Uncanny, made in 1977. It was actually a British-Canadian co-production. The three segments are linked by a framing story, in which an eccentric author (Peter Cushing) tries to convince a publisher (Ray Milland) of the importance of his book that sets out to prove that cats are really powerful malevolent entities that threaten to control our destinies and exact terrible vengeance against humans. Cushing, looking particularly cadaverous, gives one of his best performances – he’s wonderfully edgy and more than half-crazed.

Unfortunately the framing story is by far the best part of The Uncanny. The first segment, set in 1912 and dealing with a wealthy woman who decides to leave all her money to her cats, is not too bad. Her spendthrift nephew and one of her servants conspire together to steal her will, but her cats take matters into their own hands.

The second segment, about a young orphaned girl and her cat, is embarrassingly bad. It features some of the crudest process shots you’ll ever see, and some of the worst acting.

The third segment seems promising, with Donald Pleasence as a Hollywood star in the 30s who murders his wife so that he can carry on his affair with her understudy undisturbed. His dead wife’s cat still lives in his house, however, and is determined to avenge its mistress’s death. It tries to be zany comedy but the humour falls very flat, and Pleasence seems strangely muted in his performance. Given the deficiencies of the script you can’t really blame him for being somewhat uninterested. Denis Héroux’s lacklustre direction doesn’t help matters. This is a movie that is perhaps worth a look if it shows up on cable TV but it’s not really worth seeking out.

Thursday 8 January 2009

The Phantom of Soho (1964)

The conventional wisdom is that the best of the German krimi films based in the works of Edgar Wallace that were so popular during the 1960s (and that played such a key role in keeping the German film industry afloat) were those made by Rialto Studios. That may be so, but The Phantom of Soho (Das Phantom von Soho), produced by the rival CCC studios, is still a great deal of fun.

This 1964 production was actually based on a work by Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, as were quite a few others. This allowed the use of the familiar Edgar Wallace name without involving copyright difficulties.

A mysterious assassin known as The Phantom is murdering wealthy Englishmen in Soho. The case has attracted the attention of the famous crime writer Clarinda Smith, who happens to be engaged to the head of Scotland Yard. She is eager to show that she can solve the crime before the police can. The crimes seem to be linked to a night-club, a night-club that has associations with prostitution and assorted criminal activities. It transpires that the murders are connected with the mysterious disappearance of a yacht some years earlier.

The actors are not the familiar faces from the Rialto movies but they’re still extremely competent. in these films there always has to be one detective whose role is to provide comic relief. In this case it’s Peter Vogel, as the bumptious Sergeant Hallam, and he’s moderately amusing and not overly annoying.

The plot is highly involved and has a satisfying number of twists and turns. The atmosphere of London’s Soho as usual has little to do with the real London but it’s nicely mysterious and foggy. There’s plenty of entertainment to be had here and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The best thing that can be said about the Alpha Video DVD release is that it’s cheap. Sound quality is OK but image quality is dreadful. But it is very cheap, and it’s a fine little horror/crime movie.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

The Hands of Orlac (Orlacs Hände, 1924)

Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac has been filmed several times, with the best-known version being possibly the extremely good 1935 MGM version under the title Mad Love, and starring Peter Lorre. The original screen adaptation was however the 1924 Germans film by Robert Wiene, the celebrated director of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

A great concert pianist, Paul Orlac, is injured in a train crash. His hands are damaged beyond repair. A brilliant surgeon performs a risky experimental surgical operation on him - transplanting onto him the hands of an executed murderer. Orlac soon becomes convinced that the hands have some sort of life of their own, and that they will lead him inexorably to evil. And in fact Orlac finds himself the prime suspect in a murder investigation, with the evidence against him seemingly incontrovertible. While the plot is quite similar to the later Mad Love, there are some crucial differences. Since they involve spoilers I’m not going to tell you what those differences are!

This film doesn’t have the extreme Expressionistic style and deliberately artificial painted sets of Caligari. It still manages a very Expressionist feel, achieved mainly by the lighting, and by the acting. Conrad Veidt’s performance as Orlac is very extreme. The movie has some of the same nightmare feel that Caligari has, and Veidt in particular is like a man trapped in a nightmare from which he cannot awake.

If you’re not familiar with the silent cinema of horror and the fantastic The Hands of Orlac is probably not the best place to start. The exaggerated and stylised acting style takes some getting used to.

But if, like me, you’re a fan of classic German Expressionist movies then this one is a must-see.

It’s included in the Kino German Expressionism DVD boxed set. For the age of the movie the picture quality is quite acceptable.

Monday 5 January 2009

Norman J. Warren's Terror (1978)

Terror, made in 1978, is only my second Norman J. Warren film, after the immensely entertaining Satan’s Slave. I’d heard some fairly negative things about this director and was expecting his movies to be little more than Z-grade trash. While they are undeniably trashy, they’re actually pretty good trash!

Terror opens with a witch about to be burned, who curses the entire Garrick family and all its descendants. It turn out that this is only a movie, made by one of the descendants of that very family. It’s only a movie, but it’s based on an actual event, an actual witch-burning, and the witch did indeed curse the family. But that’s just an old family story, isn’t it? After a viewing of the movie at a family get-together, further entertainment is provided by an amateur hypnotist. He puts his girlfriend in a trance, but everybody assumes she’s just pretending. Then he hypnotises Ann Garrick, and she starts running about with a sword, but of course it’s all just fooling about. The Garricks own a film studio, and those film people live in a permanent world of make-believe, don’t they?

But when the amateur hypnotist’s girlfriend is found dead, skewered to a tree by the very sword involved in the previous night’s shenanigans, can it all just be dismissed as make-believe or hoary legends?

Terror is often dismissed as a cheap British copy of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. That’s a little unfair. While Warren was obviously influenced by Argento’s use of elaborate visual set-pieces the movie is really more of a traditional British horror movie of the “gothic horrors intruding into the contemporary world” sub-type. Argento’s influence did lead Warren to attempt a few rather ambitious visual set-pieces of his own, and with surprising success. Oddly enough, the effects that have the most potential for embarrassing cheesiness work quite well. The film set turning against the film-maker, the scene that starts with the actress covered in blood dripping from the ceiling, even the notorious and often derided car of death scene, are all visually original, interesting and reasonably creepy.

The acting is of standard 70s British low-budget horror quality, and effective enough. Unlike Satan’s Slave it doesn’t have a grand sceneery-chewing performance by a Michael Gough, but perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Warren was trying to breathe new life into the rapidly decaying corpse of the British horror movie industry by adding some eurohorror touches, and as magnificent as is Gough’s performance in Satan’s Slave it may have been a little out of place in this one.

Overall, a highly entertaining horror film with moderate amounts of gore, just the merest dash of sleaze, and a surprising amount of style. BCI’s exploitation double-movie pack includes both this film and Satan’s Slave, and both movies are well worth seeing. In fact they’re essential viewing for any fan of 70s horror.

Saturday 3 January 2009

Bride of the Monster (1955)

One thing about watching an Ed Wood movie - whatever faults he may have had as a film-maker, being boring wasn’t one of them. And Bride of the Monster is classic Ed Wood.

The plot (which at times veers perilously close to coherence) involves a mysterious monster in a swamp, a mad scientist, plans for world domination with atomic supermen, Tor Johnson running around being Tor Johnson, and what appear to Russian spies.

The dialogue is jaw-dropping, the special effects are laughably inept but fun, and the acting is what you expect in an Ed Wood film. This is however the only Ed Wood movie in which you’ll see Bela Lugosi actually getting a chance to act. OK, it’s Bela long past his prime, but there are occasional flashes to remind us that we are seeing one of the legends of horror.

If you’re going to make a Z-grade no-budget horror sci-fi film the one thing you can’t afford is to let the action flag. And it doesn’t. There’s always something happening, and even if it doesn’t make sense (and very little in this movie makes sense if you had time to stop and think about it) it maintains the atmosphere of breathless excitement. There’s less use of more or less irrelevant stock footage than in other Ed Wood movies, and there are even actual sets that don’t look like they were put together by kindergarten children. But don’t panic - despite some dangerous tendencies towards making sense this is still an Ed Wood movie, with the madness and true weirdness that one associates with his name.

How Ed Wood ever got the reputation of being the world’s worst director is a mystery to me. This movie is much more fun than the average $100 million Hollywood summer blockbuster. It sets out to entertain, and in its own individual and slightly strange way it does just that. To me, that’s a successful movie. It’s a must-see movie.

Thursday 1 January 2009

Score (1973)

I was very pleasantly surprised by watched Radley Metzger’s Score. I wasn’t surprised that I enjoyed it (I’ve loved the other films of his that I’ve seen), but I was surprised because it was so different in tone from those other movies. The switch from self-conscious artiness to chic sex comedy was unexpected, but it worked beautifully.

This is really a very funny movie! And even better, it’s funny in such a good-natured way. It might be a sex comedy, but there’s nothing crass or offensive or misogynistic about the humour. It’s clever, elegant and witty.

Elvira and Jack live in a mythical city, a city devoted to pleasure. And Jack and Elvira are most certainly devoted to pleasure. Their favourite games involve keeping score (hence the title) to see which of them can compete the most seductions in a specified time period. It’s a game they’re extremely good at, but the arrival of Betsy and Eddie provides them with their toughest challenge yet.

Instead of portraying sexual games as something dangerous and destructive, they’re shown as being simply fun, and the worst thing that can happen to you in these games is that you might end up having extremely good sex. It’s also nice to see an erotic movie in which all the actors can actually act.

Score is about as explicit as you can get while still remaining technically soft-core, but Metzger makes sex stylish and playful. It is most definitely an erotic movie, but it works equally well as a sophisticated comedy of manners. A Radley Metzger movie never looks cheap, and as in all his films there’s also much enjoyment to be had from the 70s fashions and sets.

It’s such a fun little movie. I loved it.