Monday 28 April 2014

The Awakening (1980)

Bram Stoker’s 1903 mummy novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (which is in many ways a better and more interesting horror novel than his much better-known and more popular Dracula) had been adapted for film with considerable success by Hammer in 1971, as Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. The Awakening, released in 1980, is a very different adaptation of this same novel.

While Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is unashamedly an exploitation horror movie (and a very good one) The Awakening is much more in the style of the big-budget big-studio horror movies of the 70s such as The Exorcist and even more particularly, The Omen. In fact it owes a great deal to The Omen.

Dr Matthew Corbeck (Charlton Heston) is an eminent Egyptologist who has devoted much of his career to the search for the tomb of Queen Kara, the so-called nameless queen. Kara had such an evil reputation that after her death every reference to her was expunged. If any Egyptian tomb is going to be the subject of a curse it is Queen Kara’s. Corbeck and his assistant Jane Turner (Susannah York) have finally discovered the tomb. And, wonder of wonders, it is intact. It has not been defiled by tomb robbers. This may be simply because the secret of the tomb’s location was very well hidden, or it may perhaps be because of Kara’s terrifying reputation.

While Corbeck and Jane are unearthing Kara’s tomb Corbeck’s wife Anne goes into labour. The baby is born dead. Or so it seems. But at the moment that Corbeck lays eyes on the sarcophagus of Kara the baby suddenly starts to cry. She is not dead after all. 

Corbeck’s wife had been insanely jealous of the intimacy between Corbeck and Jane. The movie suggests that her jealousy had no real foundation but be that as it may Anne leaves Corbeck and takes their daughter Margaret with her back to her home in the US.

Eighteen years later Margaret suddenly decides that she must see her father. She sets off to England, despite Anne’s vehement opposition. Corbeck has by this time married Jane. Margaret is about to turn eighteen, which happens to have been Queen Kara’s age at the time of her death.

Corbeck has always been obsessed by Queen Kara but now the obsession threatens to get out of hand. Things become more serious when Corbeck and Margaret visit the tomb and discover the canopic jars containing Kara’s internal organs. These were always removed from the body before mummification and carefully stored.

Corbeck’s obsession increasingly hinges on a forbidden ritual which supposedly has the power to restore Queen Kara to life. Kara had a reputation as a sorceress and she had never intended that her death would be a permanent thing.

Corbeck is a desperately conflicted man. He knows his obsession is dangerous and he fears that Kara is controlling his actions from beyond the grave. Whenever he tries to draw back, or whenever somebody else attempts to hinder his plans to perform the ritual, terrible things happen. People die violently, in accidents that are too convenient for Kara’s purposes to be easily dismissed as mere accidents. Corbeck is losing control of events. Kara may prove to be too strong for him. And possibly too strong for Margaret.

The Awakening performed disappointingly at the box office. The hostility of critics certainly did not help. Much of this hostility was undoubtedly aimed at Charlton Heston. By 1980 his  approach to acting was unfashionable and his politics were even more unfashionable. Critics might have forgiven him for his supposedly dated acting style but they were not going to forgive him for his politics. Actors who insisted on holding dissenting political views were not to be tolerated.

As for his acting, the criticisms leveled at him on that score miss the point entirely. The extravagantly over-the-top theatrically of his acting was a feature, not a bug. It was Heston’s style and he did extremely well and it worked for him. There’s a reason that Heston’s most notable late-career performances were mostly in science fiction, horror and disaster movies. They were the only movies being made at the time that gave him the opportunity to utilise his talents effectively. His performance in The Awakening is spot-on.

The problem is not Heston but rather Stephanie Zimbalist. She is absolutely the wrong actress to play Margaret. She lacks the presence, the charisma and the mystique that the role requires. The hint of an incest theme isn’t developed fully, which is perhaps just as well since it would have been an unnecessary distraction.

While Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb approaches the subject from the standpoint of pure gothic horror The Awakening takes a radically different tack. It attempts to tell the story as psychological horror. This works for the character of Matthew Corbeck, although it works less well in the case of Margaret.

The movie benefits from high production values and from Jack Cardiff’s superb cinematography. There are some good visual set-pieces and some imaginative mayhem including a rather obvious homage to Dario Argento’s Suspiria. 

The Region 4 DVD offers a good if not brilliant transfer without any extras.

Despite its indifferent reputation The Awakening is a fine example of the 1970s big-budget big-studio approach to horror. It’s perhaps a little slow in places and the ending is a little abrupt but on the whole it’s an interesting and rather successful adaptation of Stoker’s very underrated novel. It’s a must-see for Charlton Heston fans like myself. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966)

Kill, Baby... Kill! (original Italian title Operazione paura) was one of Mario Bava’s gothic horror masterpieces. While Bava worked in many genres and did great work in all of them I have always personally felt that it was gothic horror that provided the opportunity for his visual genius to shine at its brightest.

Kill, Baby... Kill! is a ghost story although as with all of Bava’s movies the imagery is much more important than the plot.

In the early years of the 20th century (the internal evidence of the movie would suggest a date of around 1907) Dr Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives in a village in Transylvania. He has been asked to come by Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) in order to conduct a post-mortem on Irene Hollander, a young woman who has died violently in circumstances that could suggest suicide or murder. The villagers have no doubt why she died. It is a curse, a curse connected with the Villa Graps. This curse has claimed many lives already, its victims all dying in somewhat similar circumstances.

Dr Eswai needs someone with some kind of scientific training to witness the post-mortem. The only person available is science student 22-year-old Monica Schuftan (Erika Blanc) who has born in the village but has not been back to her home since early infancy. As we  will later discover Monica’s links with the village are not at all what we were originally led to believe.

Inspector Kruger’s investigation is going nowhere. No-one in the village will tell him anything and although the burgomeister Kierr (Luciano Catenacci) seems willing to help he also seems resigned to the impossibility of getting anything out of the villagers.

The witch Ruth (Fabienne Dali) is the only person the villagers have any faith in. Not surprisingly it proves difficult for someone with her faith in magic to offer much in the way of effective co-operation with a man of science like the doctor, even though Ruth seems less hostile than the other villagers.

More deaths occur and it seems that Monica is destined to be yet another victim of the curse, along with Dr Eswai.

The curse originated with the death of seven-year-old Melissa Graps and it is the hate-filled ghost of this child that has driven so many people to grisly deaths.

The ghost story is a fairly routine one but it is Bava’s visual sorcery that makes the movie compelling. He offers us a series of stunning visual set-pieces, but more importantly he creates a vivid nightmare atmosphere in which reality seems to melt away into a hallucinatory dreamscape. Bava’s enthusiasm for coloured gels is on full display in this movie and this technique combines effectively with some splendidly evocative gothic locations. The movie was shot in various locations in Italy and they really do work superbly.  

The sense of entrapment is all-pervasive as the hapless hero encounters gates that lock behind him, a dizzying spiral staircase and finally reaches a crescendo with the doctor pursuing his own doppelgänger. What doppelgängers have to do with the plot is not clear but it certainly adds to the nightmare atmosphere. A collection of dolls and a child’s rubber ball are used to excellent effect.

Erika Blanc as Monica has little to do other than look frightened and vulnerable. Dr Eswai is mostly rather ineffectual, although he’s courageous enough. The most interesting character is the witch Ruth and Fabienne Dali makes the most of her ambiguous role.

The Anchor Bay DVD offers an excellent transfer that puts most of the earlier (and rather unsatisfactory) DVD releases to shame. Unless or until this movie gets a Blu-Ray release the Anchor Bay DVD certainly offers the best chance to appreciate Bava’s box of visual magical tricks.

Kill, Baby... Kill! is one of the high-points of 1960s eurohorror, a tour-de-force of striking gothic imagery that demonstrates Bava’s effortless mastery of the genre. Highly recommended.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a major hit for Irwin Allen (who produced and directed as well as co-writing the screenplay) in 1961. The success of the movie inspired Allen to follow it up in 1964 with the television series of the same name.

Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) is an eccentric scientific genius who has somehow persuaded Congress to let him build a highly advanced nuclear submarine, the Seaview. Nuclear submarines were a topical subject at the time, just a few years after the USS Nautilus’s famous voyage under the North Pole.

The Seaview has a number of civilian passengers on its maiden voyage, including a congressman who considers the Seaview to be a waste of money. Also aboard, for some obscure reason, is psychiatrist Dr Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine). Dr Hiller is not the only woman aboard the submarine. Admiral Nelson has brought along his secretary, Lieutenant Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden) who presence has predictably caused major disciplinary problems.

Apart from its other advanced features the Seaview boasts the world’s only underwater aquarium, which allows Commodore Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre) to indulge his hobby, the study of sharks and other denizens of the deep. Emery also happens to be one of the world’s leading physicists, a circumstance that will soon turn out to be rather fortunate. When we first meet him he’s taking one of his sharks for a walk.

The Seaview is a research submarine rather than an actual warship although it’s rather heavily armed for a research vessel with an array of missiles (with atomic warheads of course) and torpedoes. You just never know when you’re going to need a nuclear missile.

The Seaview has just repeated the Nautilus’s feat and surfaced at the North Pole when an alarming discovery is made - the Van Allen Radiation Belt which surrounds the Earth has caught fire. The sky is on fire! This delightful piece of scientific silliness sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

One thing that is refreshing is that this movie does not follow the very tedious practice, so common in 1950s sci-fi, of blaming every disaster on humans.

An emergency session of the United Nations predictably achieves nothing but a lot of pointless talk. It’s going to be up to Admiral Nelson and the Seaview to save the world.

Admiral Nelson and Commodore Emery believe they have a plan that can do just that. It’s obvious what has to be done. If you have a fire raging out of control what do you do? You nuke it of course. So they have to nuke the Van Allen belt - the atomic explosion will blow the whole belt out into space. All they need to do now is to contact the President of the United States to get the go-ahead (they have very wisely decided to ignore the UN completely). It’s obvious that Admiral Nelson intends to proceed with his plan whether he gets official approval or not. This is one of those science fiction movies that casts scientists very much in the hero mould, with politicians being seen as largely irrelevant.

While the Seaview is involved in a race against time to reach the only location from which the missile can be fired Admiral Nelson finds himself faced with other obstacles. The most serious is that the scientific consensus is against him. The majority of the world’s scientists disagree with his plan. The UN is against him as well. They have ordered the destruction  of the Seaview. Fortunately Admiral Nelson knows only too well that the scientific consensus can be wrong. 

Another obstacle is the psychiatrist, Dr Miller. Dr Miller believes that thinking for yourself and having the courage of your convictions are sure signs of a paranoid personality. 

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea really owes more to Jules Verne than to the average submarine movie. It is in some ways an updated version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This turned out to be a rather clever idea.

The Seaview will be familiar to fans of the television series. Irwin Allen very wisely kept the miniatures and some of the sets from the movie and was able to re-use them in the TV series. It’s still a very cool looking submarine.

The relationship between Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane (played by Robert Sterling in the movie) is a lot more combative than in the TV series. Although we’re told that Admiral Nelson is like a father to Crane they clash repeatedly, usually over some high-handed action by the admiral who tends to regard the Seaview as his own personal property and infringes on the captain’s area of responsibility in a manner that is inevitably going to cause tension. The Admiral Nelson of the movie is a rather more arrogant character that the Admiral Nelson played by Richard Basehart on TV. Walter Pidgeon is fairly convincing as a visionary scientist with perhaps just a bit too much self-confidence.

Robert Sterling is a little dull as Captain Crane. Joan Fontaine seems somewhat out of place in this movie. Having a psychiatrist let loose on a submarine proves to be as disastrous one one would expect it to be. Barbara Eden is there purely to provide some glamour, which she does. By 1961 Peter Lorre’s health was failing but he still has his moments. On the whole I prefer the cast in the TV series but that may of course be due to my greater familiarity with the TV version.

The special effects are pretty well done with the burning sky being quite impressive. Of course it wouldn’t be a submarine adventure movie without a giant killer octopus, and this movie boasts not one but two such creatures. It has to be admitted that the first giant killer octopus in this movie is one of the more disappointing examples of the breed, looking obviously fake. The second example is a great improvement, being clearly a real octopus in a tank with a model of the Seaview.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but offers a reasonably good anamorphic transfer.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a pure adventure film that (quite rightly) has no interest whatsoever in scientific veracity. As a submarine adventure movie it’s second only to the Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in entertainment value. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Crack in the World (1965)

Crack in the World is both a science fiction movie and a disaster movie and it delivers the goods on both counts. This 1965 production was made by Security Pictures and distributed by Paramount and boasts surprising lavish production values.

Dr Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews in possibly the best of his many 1960s cult movie appearances) is a well-meaning and dedicated scientist who has come up with a plan to provide the entire world with limitless cheap energy. The plan is simplicity itself - all you have to do is drill right through the earth’s crust to reach the magma below. He’s managed to get large-scale funding for the scheme and has set up an ambitious drilling operation in Tanganyika.

There’s only one slight problem. Just before reaching the magma they strike a layer of rock they can’t drill through. Dr Sorenson has a solution for this - a thermonuclear explosion should do the trick. He’s persuaded the US Air Force to provide him with a nuclear missile for the purpose.

Dr Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore) works for the project but he has his doubts about the wisdom of using nukes. His fear is that the explosion will create a gigantic crack in the world and that will mean the end of the planet. He believes that underground nuclear tests have already caused hairline cracks in the earth’s crust.

This scientific dispute is complicated by a romantic triangle involving Dr Sorenson, Dr Sorenson’s wife Maggie (Janette Scott) and Dr Rampion.

Dr Sorenson is determined to go ahead with the blast anyway, and he does. And of course the result is the crack in the world that Dr Rampion predicted. Now Dr Sorenson and Dr Rampion have to work together to find a way to save the earth.

The romantic triangle subplot actually works surprisingly well. Apart from adding some extra dramatic tension it also has the effect of humanising Dr Sorensen, making him more than just a well-intentioned mad scientist. Some reasonably good acting from all three leads helps a good deal. Dana Andrews does particularly well as his character starts to self-destruct.

The special effects are extremely good by the standards of 1965. In fact they’re extremely good by today’s standards. This may not have been a big-budget movie but it looks like one. The sets are equally impressive with the project’s underground operations centre looking quite convincing. The miniatures work is excellent and there are enough explosions to satisfy anybody.

The science is of course very silly, another major factor in the movie’s favour.

Andrew Marton’s long directing career wasn’t especially distinguished but he does a very creditable job here. The movie is nicely paced and the tension is maintained very effectively.

The location shooting was done mostly in Spain.

There’s a definite mad scientist touch to the movie but it’s nicely balanced by making Dr Sorensen a sympathetic and even tragic figure. And while his actions might have threatened the survival of the world he accepts the responsibility for those actions and then knuckles down to the task of saving the world. The anti-technology elements are irritating but they’re balanced to some extent by giving the scientists the chance to try to undo the damage they’ve done. It’s also made clear that Dr Sorensen’s motives are admirable even if he is inclined to take perhaps a few too many risks. But as he points out, if you don’t take risks you can’t make progress.

Olive Films’ DVD release is completely typical of this company’s output - there are zero extras but the 16x9 enhanced transfer is absolutely superb.

Crack in the World is exciting and fairly spectacular and it’s also well-acted. Both science fiction and disaster movie fans should be delighted by this movie. Dana Andrews fans will be pleased to see him getting the opportunity to do some real acting. Very highly recommended.

Thursday 10 April 2014

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

The 1960s and 1970s represented a golden age of wartime action adventure movies. The Eagle Has Landed, a British production, was unique in having a World War 2 setting with Germans as heroes.

In real life German paratroopers carried out a daring and successful operation to rescue Mussolini after he had been deposed. The premise of the movie, based on a novel by Jack Higgins, is that this operation gives Hitler the bright idea of ordering an even more daring mission - to kidnap Winston Churchill. Admiral Canaris (Anthony Quayle), the head of the Abwehr (the German military intelligence service), is instructed to carry out a feasibility study. Canaris thinks it’s the most stupid idea he’s ever heard but orders are orders, and in any case he’s confident that Hitler will forget all about his brainwave in a week or so.

Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall) is given the job of preparing the feasibility study. And then it seems that fate has taken a hand. The Germans just happen to have an agent in a tiny seaside town named Studley Constable in Norfolk, and the town just happens to be a few miles from the country house at which Churchill is going to be staying in the very near future. And the town just happens to be ideally situated on a quiet stretch of coastline. The clincher is that Radl just happens to have come across the perfect man to carry out such a mission. Colonel Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) is a brilliant and recklessly bold paratroop commander who speaks faultless English without a trace of an accent. The Germans would need to have a man on the ground first and here again fate has put the ideal candidate at Radl’s disposal in the person of Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland), an IRA terrorist currently lecturing at a German university. Much to Radl’s amazement he finds himself coming to the conclusion that the operation has a real chance of success.

There is one minor problem. Colonel Steiner is currently under sentence of death for trying to free a Jewish girl from under the noses of the SS. But when SS chief Heinrich Himmler (Donald Pleasence) presents Colonel Radl with a written authorisation from Hitler allowing him a free hand in carrying out the operation that minor obstacle is removed.

Colonel Steiner and his men agree to carry out the mission on one condition (a condition that will have fateful consequences) - they will wear Free Polish uniforms but they will wear their German uniforms underneath. They are prepared to die, but they are not prepared to accept the shame of being shot as spies.

Liam Devlin successfully makes contact with the German agent in the Norfolk village, but things quickly start to get complicated for him. The last thing he had expected was to fall in love in the middle of the operation but that’s what happens when he meets Molly (Jenny Agutter). 

Steiner and his men parachute in and everything is going smoothly. Then fate (yes, fate again) steps in. One of his men rescues a young village girl from drowning but in the process of doing so his German uniform is revealed. Nonetheless Steiner presses on.

Fate is also about to take a hand in the career of Colonel Pitts (Larry Hagman). Pitts is in command of a US Ranger detachment stationed near Studley Constable. He’s about to be shipped back home and will thus lose his one chance of seeing combat. When he learns of the presence of Steiner’s men in the village he sees his chance. Rather than contact the War Office he decides that he will be the hero of the hour and gain all the glory of foiling the German plan. Sadly Colonel Pitts’ military skills fall ludicrously short of his ambitions. Pitts’ rash decision does provide the opportunity for the movie to launch into some full-scale action sequences. The war has come to Studley Constable, with a vengeance. And Churchill is about to arrive. It seems that all that stands between Steiner and success is one bumbling American officer.

The movie goes to elaborate lengths to establish that Colonel Steiner is a good German, a man who hates the Nazis and who is determined to do his duty, but to do it with courage and honour. The movie goes to equally elaborate lengths to establish that Steiner’s men are good Germans, Germans who will risk their lives to save drowning children. This does serve a very important purpose. The movie cannot work unless the audience can be persuaded to be at least half-hoping the Germans will succeed. Even Radl has to be a fairly sympathetic character. Michael Caine and Robert Duvall manage to make their characters effectively sympathetic without being too irritatingly virtuous. They are honourable men, but they are also ruthlessly efficient. The performances of Caine and Duvall are crucial and they are both superb. Caine, surprisingly, makes a convincing German officer and he has the advantage that Steiner is supposed to speak English without a trace of an accent, so the actor fortunately is not tempted to have a try at a Teutonic accent.

Anthony Quayle had played countless British officers and he plays Admiral Canaris exactly the same way. Donald Pleasence is delightfully and chillingly menacing as Himmler. Larry Hagman is deliriously over-the-top as the hapless Colonel Pitts. His performance is a treat although he does seem to be acting in a different movie from the other actors! When he makes his appearance the tone of the whole movie changes subtly, with a slight suggestion of black comedy. This could have ruined the film but fortunately the premise is itself so outrageous that it gets away with it. Fate can turn life into tragedy but it can just as readily turn it into farce, and the line between tragedy and farce is in any case often rather blurred.

The movie faces a bigger challenge in making Liam Devlin sympathetic. Donald Sutherland pulls out all the stops to make Devlin a loveable rogue and he does a good job of it but we can’t help remembering that he is a member of a terrorist organisation, and he doesn’t have the advantage of being able to claim that he is a soldier doing his duty for his country. Devlin is certainly charming but his charm comes across as having just a little of a  sinister touch.

This was a lavish production and some care was taken to give it the right authentic touches, even to the extent of having an actual German Fieseler Storch aircraft (or a remarkably good replica aircraft) and a genuine-looking captured British Motor Torpedo Boat. The action scenes are executed with considerable skill.

John Sturges already had an impressive record as a director of action movies and his handling of this one is confident and assured. 

The Region B Blu-Ray lacks extras but the transfer is faultless.

The Eagle Has Landed is a fine example of the excellent action adventure movies of its era. Great entertainment, highly recommended.

Sunday 6 April 2014

The Devil’s Sword (1984)

In the 1980s the Indonesian film industry was booming. Indonesian audiences wanted action and thrills and that’s exactly what Indonesia’s film industry offered them, in movies like The Devil’s Sword.

Producer Gope Samtani knew how to assemble the necessary ingredients - a magic sword, lots of martial arts, lots of swordplay, plenty of black magic, an evil queen, a beautiful heroine and as much sex as the Indonesian censor would let him get away with. And he had the right leading man in handsome charismatic Barry Prima. Barry Prima wasn’t a great actor but he had the matinee idol looks to appeal not just to Indonesian audiences but to the export market as well.

The legend of the South Sea Queen had provided the inspiration for movies and comic books (and would be the subject of the classic 1989 Indonesian horror thriller Lady Terminator). The evil Crocodile Queen of The Devil’s Sword is basically a variation on the theme.

Magic swords forged from meteorites were another ingredient with guaranteed appeal for Indonesian audiences (and they show up in the folklore of many other countries as well). The magic sword in this movie can confer almost unlimited power upon the warrior who wields it. So naturally all the evil warriors in Java are trying to find the sword. The one man who can stop them is the most formidable of all the good warriors on the island, Mandala (Barry Prima). Mandala’s ageing guru has already paid the price fir trying to conceal the whereabouts of the sword from the evil warriors. So now Mandala has an additional motive  for foiling their evil plans - to avenge the mutilation of his guru.

Mandala is not the only one after revenge. Banyu-Jaga (Advent Bangun), the chief henchman of the Crocodile Queen, has kidnapped the husband of a village chief’s daughter. The daughter, who happens to be a formidable martial arts expert in her own right, teams up with Mandala. She knows the fate in store for her husband. Like so many other village men he will have to serve the insatiable lusts of the dreaded Crocodile Queen. She is determined to save the poor boy from a fate worse than death.

Along the way Mandala and his newly acquired sidekick will have to battle a collection of extremely fearsome evil warriors. Luckily the evil warriors have stated fighting amongst themselves so that’s thinned out their numbers a little. Unluckily, Mandala himself falls prey to the Crocodile Queen. His guru, the one who tried unsuccessfully to prevent the evil warriors from finding out where the sword was hidden and lost both his legs in the process, has to use his powers of telepathy to rescue Mandala.

Of course it all ends with a climactic fight in the Crocodile Queen’s cave.

This all sounds fairly typical of 1980s sword and sorcery movies, and it is. The Devil’s Sword does however have a few things that make it stand out from the crowd. The first of these elements is the skillful blending of local mythology with a standard sword and sorcery plot. The second element is the outrageous sense of fun. 

The special effects are fairly crude but they’re executed with so much flair that for the most part they work extremely well. The arrival of Banyu-Jaga on a flying rock is a particular highlight. There’s also a very cool cyclops monster.

The Crocodile Queen’s lair probably wasn’t a very expensive set but it looks terrific. This movie proves the truth of something I’ve always believed - energy, imagination and enthusiasm are far more important than big budgets.

The Crocodile Queen makes a wonderful villainess. The Devil’s Sword really pushed the edge of the envelope when it came to the amount of sex the Indonesian censor would allow. It might be tame by the standards if the time in regard to what is actually shown but it manages to create an incredibly sleazy atmosphere. There’s also a considerable amount of gore but the violence is so cartoonish it’s impossible to be offended by it.

This film boasts a host of colourful villains, all of them being satisfyingly evil in completely distinctive ways. The crocodile men are a nice touch.

Absolutely everything you could possibly wish for in a sword and sorcery movie can be found here.

Mondo Macabro have managed to find a remarkably good print. The 16x9 enhanced transfer really is quite superb. As always with this company’s releases the extras are fascinating and informative, the highlight being a truly bizarre interview with Barry Prima who must be one of the most delightfully eccentric movie stars in history.

The Devil’s Sword is a non-stop roller coaster ride of sheer unadulterated fun. If a movie it to be judged by how well it achieves what it set out to do then this is a truly great movie. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Fascination (1979) on Blu-Ray

Fascination, released in 1979, was the last film in Jean Rollin’s original cycle of vampire films which had started with Le viol du vampire in 1968, although he would return to the vampire theme in the late 1990s with Two Orphan Vampires.

If you’re unfamiliar with his work Fascination is not a bad place to start – the surrealist elements always present in his movies are less extreme in this one, or at least they’re less overwhelming. It also has (by the standards of a Rollin movie) a coherent plot. In the late 70s Rollin was moving towards a slightly more accessible style, but without sacrificing the strengths of his earlier productions. Fascination is still a million miles away from Hollywood notions of horror.

Right from the start we find ourselves in the world of Rollinesque surrealism, a surrealism liberally laced with decadence. We see two girls dancing on a stone bridge with a phonograph sitting on the roadway of the bridge. We then move to a slaughterhouse where two women are drinking ox blood from wine glasses. This scene was probably inspired by a short story, The Glass of Blood, by the French decadent poet and novelist Jean Lorrain (1855-1906). Lorrain’s story was in turn inspired by a somewhat bizarre real-life practice of the time in which wealthy people suffering from anaemia or similar disorders would start their day with a glass of cow’s blood at a local slaughter-house.

This strange obsession with blood provides the theme of the movie, another of Rollin’s very unconventional filmic explorations of vampirism. Oddly enough though the element of vampirism is downplayed for most of the film, only becoming explicit at the end (and even then it’s still more than a little ambiguous).

The story proper begins with a falling-out among a group of thieves, one of whom takes shelter in an apparently deserted château. The château is not quite deserted however. Marc (for that is the thief’s name) soon encounters two rather unsettling young women, Eva (Brigitte Lahaie) and Elisabeth (Franca Maï), whose interest in him is obviously sexual but equally obviously goes beyond the merely sexual. He is warned not to stay around until dark, as they are having other guests, apparently very dangerous ones. His problem is that he cannot leave because the other apaches, his former confederates, are waiting for him outside and they are armed.

Whether Eva and Elisabeth really want him to stay or not is rather uncertain. Elisabeth seems to be very attracted to him and (for reasons that will later become clear) that may be why she seems to hope he will leave.

The château is surrounded by a moat and the only means of entrance (or exit) is by means of a stone bridge. He seems to be comprehensively trapped, at least until Eva takes a hand. In one of the most iconic scenes of 1970s horror she deals with his quondam accomplices rather effectively by means of a scythe. 

Still Marc does not leave. The other guests arrive, all women and all behaving in a strange manner that is both seductive and vaguely menacing although Marc is too arrogant to take the hints of menace seriously. He is too intrigued, too fascinated, to leave. Staying at the château may prove to have been a rather serious mistake once the actual nature of the planned festivities becomes clear.

Fascination has the lyrical, poetic visual style you expect from Rollin.  It also has extremely competent acting, with Brigitte Lahaie and Franca Maï as the two disturbing young women and Jean-Marie Lemaire as the thief on the run all giving strong performances.  

The elegant chateau provides a perfect setting for a Rollin film. The movie is set in the early years of the 20th century and captures the feel of fin de siècle decadence very effectively. If you’re already a fan of Rollin’s brand of poetic and deliciously perverse erotic horror you won’t be disappointed by this movie.

Rollin was first and foremost a visual stylist. One gets the feeling that plotting only interested Rollin insofar as it contributed to the atmosphere and provided the excuse for creating striking images. In this case the plot, while rather thin, is relatively straightforward.  The surrealism comes from the manner in which the story is told and from the imagery.

Of course a Rollin vampire movie is going to feature lesbianism. While this was obviously good for the box-office it does serve a genuine purpose, lesbianism being (like vampirism) a sterile and rather self-reflexive kind of sexuality.

Interestingly enough, considering its release date, Fascination is fairly light on gore. Even the sex and nudity is even, by late 70s standards, rather restrained. In fact restraint is a hallmark of this particular film and it proves to be one of its strengths. Rollin’s aim was always to create a feeling of mystery and in this case the downplaying of the gore is accompanied by increased emphasis on mood. This is a movie that is for the most part subtly unsettling rather than shocking, which makes the few shocking moments all the more effective. In some ways it’s much more reminiscent of his 1973 non-vampire movie The Iron Rose than of his earlier vampire movies. It could in fact be argued that Fascination is not a vampire movie at all, but rather a movie about a group of women fatally fascinated by the vampire myth.

Rollin was never especially interested in horror as such, belonging more to the French tradition of le fantastique. He liked vampires not because they were frightening but because they were entrancing, creatures adrift in time and out of place in the real world. He was more anxious to create a sense of wonder suffused with melancholy than to scare his audience. That counted against him at the time but has worked in his favour as far as his enduring reputation is concerned.

Redemption’s Blu-Ray release is quite stunning and is a vast improvement over their old DVD release. Picture quality is pleasingly crisp and the colours and strong and vibrant. The extras include an episode of a 1999 TV documentary series called Eurotika dealing with European cult cinema, an episode that includes an extended interview with the director, and a booklet containing a perceptive essay on Rollin by Tim Lucas.

Fascination was one of Rollin’s most commercially successful movies and it’s also one of his most artistically satisfying creations. Very highly recommended.