Thursday, 22 February 2018

THE HOUSEMAID (2016)

Directed by Derek Nguyen, Starring: Kate Nhung, Jean-Michel Richaud, Rosie Fellner. Horror, Vietnam, 2016, 105mins, Cert 15.

Released in the UK in a Dual Format Blu-ray & DVD on 19th February 2017 by Eureka Entertainment as part of its new Montage Pictures range.

Set in Vietnam in 1953, first-time director Derek Nguyen serves up an intriguing gothic horror period drama (with just a few too many jump-scares).

Linh (Kate Nhung), a bedraggled young woman, pitches up out of the rain seeking a housemaid position at the vast French colonial mansion owned by Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud). Competition for the vacancy is non-existent as both the house and surrounding grounds which make up the Sa Cat rubber plantation are rumoured to be haunted by both the Captain’s late wife and the former mistreated plantation workers. Having ingratiated herself into the minimally staffed mansion, it isn’t long before romance blooms between Linh and Captain Laurent, which seemingly proves to be the catalyst for the spirits of the dead to rise seeking revenge...

Shades of REBECCA then with the colonial mansion standing in for Manderley, the usurping of the deceased first lady of the mansion, and a creepy Mrs Danvers-like housekeeper.

The ghostly manifestations are of the customary J-horror variety. (The screeching apparition reminded me at times of the horror parody trailer HANDJOB CABIN!) This is somewhat redeemed however by a late twist to the deadly appearances of the spectral ex-wife seemingly risen from the drowned depths of the estate’s lake.

Sumptuous production design and slick 2.35:1 photography make the most of the atmospheric period setting, whilst the plot utilises the historical/political backdrop to deliver an interesting take on the traditional gothic romance.

Whilst the jump-scares serve to gift the trailer’s editor with material to hard-sell the supernatural elements, they also act as a (partial) red herring when the true picture of revenge is revealed underneath the veil.
 
 ***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Thursday, 15 February 2018

HOUSE (HAUSU) 1977



Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi, Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Kumiko Ohba. Horror, Japan, 1977, 88mins, Cert 15. Released in the UK on Blu-ray on 12th February 2017 by Eureka Entertainment.


Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE is a phantasmagorical ghost train ride through a haunted mansion bursting with psychedelic surrealism. 


On paper the wafer-thin plot reads as a standard genre set-up. A group of teenage school girls take a trip into the countryside to spend their summer holiday at an isolated mansion belonging to their friend Angela’s aunt. This grey-haired aunt – who Angela hasn’t seen for some years - is wheel-chair bound and seemingly lives alone in the old cobwebbed house...


This is a film brimming with every conceivable visual technique (or at least every one available to a Japanese filmmaker back in 1977). It’s maddeningly uneven pace reveals the director’s commercial advertising background, but just like a good ghost train ride in the fairground, every corridor you turn down reveals something startlingly inventive.


On the train which conveys the girls out of the city (presumably Tokyo), a fellow passenger is briefly glimpsed reading a copy of Denis Gifford’s ‘A Pictorial History of Horror Movies’, and it’s not much of a leap to conclude that director Obayashi’s agenda for the film is to present a live-action tongue in cheek flip through some of that book’s pages.


The white Persian cat with the flashing eyes appears to be the catalyst for a large portion of the spooky and sometimes gory mayhem on display, and this monstrous moggie would surely have proved to be a more worthy adversary to James Bond than even Blofeld himself!


With its manically animated furniture and erupting geysers of blood, it pre-dates Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD 2 by 10 years. Mind you, even Raimi never conceived of transforming a schoolteacher into a bunch of bananas (sadly off-screen).


HOUSE is a visually stunning, at times beautiful cinematic piece of artifice, gorgeous matte backdrops and an animated train jostle for screen time with the frenetic jagged lunacy of a schoolgirl eating piano, a floating severed head with a taste for posteriors and a dancing skeleton (who went on to sell Scotch video tapes in the 80’s).


The 1.33:1 OAR HD transfer is sumptuous, capturing all the rich and garish textures within a pleasingly authentic thin layer of cinematic grain. Extras include an exclusive video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, a 90min archive of interviews, and a collector’s booklet.


Recommended.


**** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Monday, 12 February 2018

MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND (2017)



Directed by: Ana Asensio, Starring: Ana Asensio, Natasha Romanova. Horror. US 2017, 80mins, Cert 18. 


Released on Digital HD on 5th February 2018, and on Blu-ray & DVD in the UK by Bulldog Films Entertainment on 12th February 2018.


“Did you come here alone too?” 
“No, with two other models.”
“What happened to them?”
“New York ate them.”
(That’s not a spoiler by the way).


Writer, director and star Ana Asensio’s debut feature is one of those films you can only properly discuss with someone who has watched it. 


We follow a day in the life of Luciana, an unregistered Spanish immigrant trying to make a new life for herself in New York after the death of her daughter. Without a social security number, Luciana scrapes by on cash in hand gigs such as handing out flyers dressed as a clucking chicken and escorting two little brats home from school. Her (unseen) flatmate leaves terse rent demanding post-its on the fridge, and hoards of cockroaches are only a rip in the bathroom wall away. Unsurprisingly therefore, when Luciana is offered $2,000 to attend a party, “...and it’s not what you think” assures her model friend Olga, Luciana takes the bait.

It’s not a very nice party, although it’s almost certainly not what you think it’s going to be. (And even though Luciana has to wear high-heels and a slinky black dress it’s not the Presidents Club annual charity dinner either).


Noah Greenberg’s hand-held Super 16mm camera restlessly shifts from one female New Yorker pedestrian to another before seeming to randomly settle on Ana Asensio’s Luciana as the film opens. The intention is to suggest being that Luciana’s tale is merely one of countless similar experiences that the lens could choose to shed light on.

You have to wait for over two-thirds of the film to get to the actual party sequence, but the interactions and events preceding it gradually build incremental unease and dread whilst in the back of your mind you keep wondering when will that ’18’ certificate be earned? (For the record I think a ‘15’ would have been sufficient, but hey ho). 


Luciana’s muted non-reactive reaction upon finding she is suddenly sharing her bath with cockroaches is the most stark representation of the internal numbness of grief she is harbouring – and it is this deadening of the senses that will come into play much late on.


First-time director Asensio has stated that the film is partially autobiographical (although thankfully this applies more so to the first two-thirds rather than the final sequences). Clearly this project is in part a cathartic exercise for her, and Asensio’s unwaveringly committed performance conveys a simmering intensity born (in part at least) from personal experience.


The ‘pay-off’ scene had me squirming on the sofa, but reactions to it will be dictated by personal phobias and Achilles heels. The open ended conclusion left me a tad nonplussed and unsatisfied, but in many ways it reflects the theme of the piece.


Memorable, if not necessarily that re-watchable. 


Extras: Cast & Crew Interviews (40 mins approx).
Paul Worts

*** (out of 5*)


This review was first published by FRIGHTFEST.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)



Directed by: Billy Wilder, Starring: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Geneviève Page, Christopher Lee. Comedy/Crime, UK 1970, 125mins, Cert PG.Released on Blu-ray in the UK by Eureka Entertainment on 22nd January 2018.

Queen Victoria: “When can we expect to read Dr Watson's account of the case?”

Holmes: “I hope never, ma'am. It has not been one of my more successful endeavours.”

From Cushing to Cumberbatch, Rathbone to Robert Downey Jnr, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary detective is one, if not the most portrayed fictional character on both the big and small screen. In amongst the seemingly endless list of esteemed actors to take have taken on the mantle, Robert Stephens’ 1970 interpretation is often, like the film it so admirably services, undeservedly overlooked. Co-written and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder, this irreverent yet affectionate film playfully reinterprets long-held canon about the Baker Street detective and his partner in crime-solving, Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely), and grafts a romantic back-story layered with melancholy which lingers like loch fog throughout the film.

Originally running in at some 200 minutes in its first cut, the eventually released version was by all accounts butchered by studio insistence resulting in the culling of roughly a third of Wilder’s intended material. Two of the four cases scripte
d were axed, along with some additional flashback material. As a result, the surviving 125 minutes inevitably feel off-kilter and uneven, although there’s still heaps of enjoyment to be had. For starters there’s the pleasingly amusing diversion whereby Holmes is invited to impregnate a famous Russian ballerina in exchange for a priceless Stradivarius violin, before the suitably convoluted and frankly barmy main case involving (but by no means limited to) the Loch Ness Monster, midgets, Trappist monks, canary smuggling and Queen Victoria!


Wilder, together with his long-time collaborating co-writer A. L. Diamond gift Robert Stephen’s Holmes with pithy witticisms, for example, upon being requested to help recover six missing midgets, he pronounces thusly: “The circus owner offers me five pounds for my services. That's not even a pound a midget!” Alongside Holmes, the excellent Colin Blakely more than holds his own as the long-suffering Dr. Watson, whether it’s excitedly spotting the supposed Loch Ness Monster, or single-handedly (and somewhat over ambitiously) trying to get off with an entire company of Russian ballerinas. To be fair he appears to be making reasonable progress - that is until Holmes impishly suggests he and Watson are lovers!

Geneviève Page’ delivers a mesmerising performance as the multi-layered Victorian femme-fatale ‘Gabrielle’ who manages to best even the great Holmes, and ‘Mycroft’ - who is also always several steps ahead of his sleuthing brother - is memorably portrayed by the ever-reliable Christopher Lee (the only actor to have played the roles of both Mycroft and Holmes in his career).

Rich period production detail and some lovely location work in Scotland provide plenty of diverting pleasures, all whisked along to the accompaniment of Miklós Rózsa’s memorable score.

It’s a shame therefore to report that the print used for this HD presentation is of such a poor state. A high degree of damage, flicker and distractingly noticeable reel changes are prevalent throughout. To be charitable you could say it provides an authentically aged celluloid viewing experience, but that’s not what most people would buy a Blu-ray for is it? 
Extras are however copious, which compensates for the below par PQ, and compliment the film generously.  

**** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts