Monday, 14 May 2018

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)



Directed by: James Whale, Starring: Boris Karloff, Melvyn
Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton. Horror/Comedy, US 1932, 72mins, Cert PG.
Released in Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) on 21st May 2018 in the UK by Eureka Entertainment.  

“Have a potato!”

Watching THE OLD DARK HOUSE for the first time courtesy of this stunning 4K restoration Blu-ray was quite a sentimental experience for me. My late father would often recall the film with a wistful fondness whenever I asked him about horror films he’d seen in his youth. (He was 12 when the film was released, but I’m not sure exactly when he first saw it). Considering all the splatter and gore I made him sit through with me on VHS in the 1980’s it’s hardly surprising the poor man looked back with fond nostalgia for the more gentile horrors conjured up by James Whale!

The first thought that strikes me upon watching the film is that the actual horror is somewhat perfunctory. Yes the classic elements are all in place, a stormy inhospitable night, a remote cut-off location with a spooky old dark house, a facially scarred menacing mute butler (Karloff), and a family secret locked away in the attic. Yet the stagey dialogue (screenplay by Benn W. Levy based on the novel ‘Benighted’ from J.B. Priestley) is positively bristling with pithy exchanges and a liberal sprinkling of camp – the latter of which is mostly provided by Ernest Thesiger and his wondrously expressive nostrils as Horace “Have a potato” Femm. Like a gothic Kenneth Williams, the flickering flames and candle-light accentuate his bird-like features alarmingly well. Credit where it’s due then to Whale and his cinematographer collaborator Arthur Edeson (FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN), who wring every drop of gothic atmosphere from their cavernous mansion with billowing drapes and bolted rooms of mystery. 


The plot, a gossamer thread upon which Whale spins his theatrical web of camp comedic social satire, is a classic established trope of the horror genre. A group of stranded travellers, married couple Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and gooseberry Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), abandon their car after torrential rain causes a landslide forcing them to seek shelter at the Femm ancestral home. Once ensconced around a warming fire and tucking into a hearty plate of beef and potatoes, they are joined by Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his chorus-line companion Gladys (Lilian Bond) who are similarly stranded. Their somewhat reluctant hosts are the twitchy nervy Horace (Thesiger), his deaf, religiously fanatical sister Rebecca “No beds!” (Eva Moore), and Boris Karloff’s grunting alcoholic butler. Upstairs lurks the 102 year-old father of Horace and Rebecca (played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon) and behind a further locked door lurks the other Femm family member, Saul (Brember Wills), a pyromaniac in true ‘Jane Eyre’ fashion.

After his hugely successful adaption of Mary Shelley’s ‘Modern Prometheus’, James Whale was given near carte blanche with this picture and he seems to have jolly well run riot with his humorous sensibilities. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of pure gothic horror. A stunning scene of shadow play and a bone-chilling description by Eva Moore of a how a sibling died in agony provide genuine menace in amongst the near-farcical comings and goings on.

It’s a splendidly entertaining spritely 72 minutes, ripe and rich in both dialogue and atmosphere, and gorgeously restored in this pristine 4K restoration which makes a visit to THE OLD DARK HOUSE irresistible.    
 
Extras: Limited Edition O-Card, an exclusive video essay by critic David Cairns, audio commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, audio commentary by Gloria Stuart, audio commentary by James Whale biographer James Curtis, Daughter of Frankenstein: A conversation with Sara Karloff, an archival interview with director Curtis Harrington about his efforts to save The Old Dark House, trailer and a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by critic Philip Kemp.   
 

****

Paul Worts

Saturday, 5 May 2018

BRAVEN (2018)



Directed by: Lin Oeding, Starring: Jason Momoa, Stephen
Lang, Garret Dillahunt, Jill Wagner. Action, Canada 2017, 94mins, Cert 15.
Released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on 30th April 2018 in the UK by 101 Films. 

Straw Logs

If you fancy having your photo taken with bearded beefcake Jason (‘Aquaman’) Momoa and his autograph on an 8x10 at London Film and Comic Con in July it’ll set you back £150. In the meantime, if you’re a fan, you could do worse than pick up a copy of this modest yet competent DTV revenge actioner for a fraction of the price.

Joe Braven is a hard-working rugged Newfoundland logging family man. When he’s not supervising his tree-felling business, he’s at home playing snowballs with his beautiful wife Stephanie (Jill Wagner), falling asleep whilst reading bedtime stories to his sweet young daughter Charlotte, and getting increasingly concerned about his ‘pops’ Linden (Stephen Lang). Unfortunately pops is displaying increasingly Alzheimer-like symptoms which come to a head (and result in stitches to his) when they cause him to get duffed up in a bar after mistaking a random female patron for his deceased wife. Having extrapolated pops from aforementioned brawl by displaying some impressive muscle flexing, Joe decides it’s time to take pops up to his hunting cabin in the woods for some father-son bonding and to raise the thorny issue of supervised care for pops. Unfortunately a gang of drug traffickers have stashed a sack load of heroin in the cabin, and they’re rather anxious to retrieve it: at all costs. 

The criminals are led by Garret Dillahunt’s ‘Kassen’, a man so ruthless he ignores a waitresses’ reproach for smoking in a diner, and rather more ominously thinks nothing of repeatedly slamming an incompetent accomplice’s face down into the table in full view of the diner’s clientele!

So, after 45 minutes of patient set-up, Joe Braven eventually gets to be brave as a stakeout siege unfolds around the snowbound cabin. The stakes are raised higher still when Joe realises his daughter has snuck along for the ride – and wife Stephanie isn’t far behind either. Time then for Joe to get busy improvising with bow and arrow, axe, and in one audaciously daft sequence, a bear-trap, as he and sharp-shooting sniper/hunter pops defend the cabin against the heavily armed drug mob.

The stunning snowbound Newfoundland locations provide a visually arresting backdrop against which Jason Momoa and a well-drilled troop of stuntmen stage some reasonably decent action sequences. Momoa acquits himself convincingly enough in both the family man scenes and when going mano a mano against the one dimensional baddies. Thundering through the woods like a man mountain and hurling flaming pick axes with aplomb, I couldn’t help think Momoa would make a formidable Jason Voorhees if Paramount ever gets their act together and commission another instalment. Mind you, would Momoa agree to hiding his chiselled jawbone by donning a hockey mask and keeping his sculptured musculature under wraps whilst chopping up camp counsellors?

Stephen Lang reliably adds value as Momoa’s vulnerable dad, managing to wring some genuine pathos out of a largely by-the-numbers script before his future care dilemma is unceremoniously solved. Jill Wagner chips in with a feisty and welcome late-turn in the archery department too. 

One aspect of the production that niggled me was the actual hunting cabin which gave the appearance it was newly built rather than the ye oldie hunting lodge where father and son supposedly bonded for years. (Watching the extras my suspicions were confirmed, it was indeed custom-constructed for the film). Given the implausible mayhem occurring on screen, this might sound like pedantic nitpicking, but it took me out of the narrative at times when it really need not have. But freshly built IKEA cabin aside, overall it’s a solid undemanding piece of ‘15’ rated violent(ish) entertainment.

Could it launch a franchise ala Liam Neeson’s TAKEN? Who knows? But if DC’s upcoming AQUAMAN proves to be a washout, Momoa can always keep his head and rippling shoulders above water with stuff like BRAVEN - or appearances at comic cons.

Extras: Making of featurette (6mins) and cast and crew interviews (6mins).


*** (out of 5*)


Paul Worts


This review was originally published by FRIGHTFEST.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

TERRIFIER (2017)

Directed by: Damien Leone, Starring: David Howard
Thornton, Jenna Kanell, Catherine Corcoran, Katie Maguire. Horror, US 2017, 81mins, Cert 18.

Released on Digital HD on 30th March 2018 and DVD on 9th   April 2018 in the UK by Signature Entertainment.  

Writer/director Damien Leone’s unapologetically gory grindhouse homage features a killer clown named ‘Art’ who makes Captain Spaulding and Pennywise look like children’s  entertainers, and the Chiodo Brothers outer space incarnations like E.T. Originally (and wholly appropriately), programmed as the late-night curtain closer at last year’s Halloween FrightFest, this pared-down uber-gruesome stalk-and-slash may well pay tribute to Craven, Romero and Hooper in its closing credits, but it feels closer in tone to  Herschell Gordon Lewis given the amount of onscreen viscera.

Dawn (Catherine Corcoran, RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH VOLUME 1&2), and her friend Tara (Jenna Kanell, THE BYE BYE MAN), are heading home from a Halloween party when they encounter a creepy mime artist clown ‘Art’ (David Howard Thornton), who takes a shine to Tara and follows them to a pizzeria where the girls are having a late night sobering-up snack. Tara is especially freaked out by the unspeaking clown, and speculates as to what the contents of the large sack he carries around might be. Unfortunately for both her, Dawn, and practically everyone who encounters ‘Art’ this Halloween night, they are all about to gruesomely find out...

Colourised and scored to evoke a 1980’s vibe, albeit with smart phones and selfies, writer/director Damien Leone certainly succeeds in evoking the tone of such offerings as William Lustig’s MANIAC, and for us nostalgic Brits, it would definitely have been labelled a ‘video nasty’.

Leone’s killer clown had already appeared in his earlier short films and in his feature debut ALL HALLOWS’ EVE (albeit played by a different actor), but does ‘Art’ have horror icon potential? Well he’s apparently indestructible, unspeaking, well-versed in the use of multi-various tools for slaughtering random victims, and just may possess supernatural powers of regeneration: so he ticks most of the right boxes. (He lacks any kind of back-story, but hey, ask Rob Zombie what happened when he grafted one onto ‘The Shape’!) He’s certainly creepy, but to me he lacks the physical presence to command a franchise, and when did Jason, Michael or Freddy have to resort to using a handgun to gain the upper-hand?

‘Art’s mayhem is however incredibly graphic, with an unflinching depiction of a dissection by hacksaw of a naked female victim suspended upside down being the grotesque Grand Guignol highlight in a welter of practically rendered slaughterhouse splatter.

It’s nastier and less fun than the over the top silliness of say for example Juan Piquer Simon’s PIECES, and ultimately its inherent mean spiritedness may prevent it from having true staying power. You only have to look at the fate meted out to the film’s ‘final girl’ for evidence of this. But it's certainly a gore hounds wet dream. And whether or not you see a metaphor in one early scene whereby ‘Art’ writes his name on a toilet wall with excrement, it’s hard to remove the shear unpleasantness of it from your mind.

Extras: Making of featurette and trailers.

***(out of 5*) 
Paul Worts

Originally published by FRIGHTFEST.

A QUIET PLACE (2018)

Directed by: John Krasinski, Starring: Emily Blunt, John
Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe. Horror, US 2018, 90mins, cert 15.

Released in cinemas in the UK from 5th April 2018 by Paramount Pictures. 

Rarely have I sat in a cinema with such a reverent silence from fellow patrons as that I experienced whilst watching John Krasinski’s nail-biting suspenser. 

The set-up is simple enough. A post-apocalyptic scenario whereby a family are trying to survive without making any sounds which will attract the aural predatory attentions of alien creatures which hunt through their hyper-sensitive hearing. 

The three aces up director and co-star Kransinski’s sleeve are firstly the assured handling of sound (and often the lack of). Secondly, the careful measured portrayal of the family dynamic, mostly sketched through sign-language with only a minimal amount of spoken dialogue (ironically delivering more rounded characters than we are usually graced with in horror films). And thirdly, the heightened sense of scripted peril and the near-forensic attention to the little details all finely attuned to ring out every last potential drop of suspense and perceived danger. 


Alongside Kransinski, his real-life wife Emily Blunt plays the mother, who brilliantly and near-silently sells excruciatingly toe-cringing suffering in sequences such as the upwardly protruding nail in the barefoot and the enforced bloodied bathtub entrapment. Her eldest child is her daughter, superbly played by Millicent Simmonds. Both character and actress are deaf. It’s a pivotal role, refreshingly notn one-dimensional, and Simmonds delivers a brilliant performance of both strength and vulnerability which provides the core around which the entire family are intertwined. Her younger brother is essayed by Noah Jupe, who also pitches in with a sympathetic portrayal of a (naturally) scared kid, desperately trying to suppress his fears to his father.

The bottom line is we care about these characters, which makes their predicament far more engaging and involving, and my (often) clenched knuckles were all the more whiter as a result. 

Yes there are a couple of loud jump-scares liable to induce abrupt unintentional redistributions of popcorn into laps, but they are well-earned, and justifiable within the context of the film’s premise.

The creature design is excellent, coyly introduced at first with quick blurred glimpses before ratcheting up to shredding claws and finally to hideously full-bodied reveals. Onscreen gore and blood is judiciously employed minimally to convey internal trauma and suffering, and in one brief moment the aftermath consequence of creature assault. But it’s the startlingly assured deployment of audio threat which is the real trick which draws you in and keeps you hooked in nervous unity with the onscreen characters. 

A QUIET PLACE is a film worth (quietly) shouting about. 
****(out of 5*)
  Paul Worts

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

IMAGES (1972)


Directed by: Robert Altman, Starring: Susannah York, Rene
Auberjonois. Horror. UK 1972, 141mins, Cert 15. 
 
Released on Blu-Ray on 19th March 2018 in the UK by Arrow Academy.

Once thought lost (Columbia Pictures were rumoured to have burned the original negatives) Robert Altman’s early 70’s improvisational foray into psychological horror re-emerges like a phoenix from the (non-incinerated) ashes in an Arrow Films exclusive brand new 4k restoration from the original negative.

Cathryn (Susannah York), a schizophrenic children’s author, persuades her photographer and keen hunter husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) to escape for a break to her childhood home in the rural Irish countryside after an anonymous phone caller suggests Hugh is having an affair. Meanwhile, Cathryn’s own former French lover Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi) – who died 3-years previously in a plane crash – is rather disturbingly popping up all over the house, sometimes seamlessly interchanging with her husband in the blink of an eye. And then there’s her husband’s friend Marcel (Hugh Millais), who surreptitiously gropes Cathryn at every (in) opportune moment whilst whispering sexually suggestive invitations only just out of earshot of his 12 year-old daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) – who in turn just might be a younger image of Cathryn herself. No wonder poor Cathryn is having a mental breakdown, or is all of this just imaginary symptoms of her unravelling mind?

Visually there’s much to admire in Altman’s experimental hybrid fusing of art house inspirations such as Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA, with the tropes of the psychological thriller. Together with his revered cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Altman pulls off some extraordinary cinematic flourishes such as the unsettling in-camera Bavaesque trickery interchanging husband and former (dead) lover. Another hauntingly memorable sequence involves Susannah York’s Cathryn standing on a hill top observing a mirror image of herself arriving at the house down in the valley below. Altman then cuts to this alternative Cathryn looking up to the horizon and making out the silhouetted figure of herself staring back down at her. Altman and Zsigmond make the most of the lush canvas of Irish landscape, including a striking waterfall which proves to be both an ethereally beautiful location whilst instilled with a foreboding foreshadowing √† la DON’T LOOK NOW which would follow in 1973. 

Susannah York (deservedly) won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her extraordinary portrayal of the psychologically haunted children’s author. York, pregnant whilst filming, narrated from her own work: ‘In Search of Unicorns’ during the film, lending an autobiographical layer to the proceedings as well as the fantasy symbolism which Altman incorporates into the piece.

My patience was at time stretched by some of the mundane dialogue: “This is the first time I’ve had a tomato sandwich”, “Do you like it?”, “Yeah”. I also laughed out loud when Cathryn runs terrified whilst being pursued by a harmless tail-wagging King Charles spaniel (even if the canine may well be a doggy doppelg√§nger). When he isn’t photographing decapitated wildlife, Rene Auberjonois (probably best known for ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’), spends most of the film with a cigar in his mouth naively unaware of his wife’s shattering sanity, of being cuckolded (mentally at the very least) by both the living and the dead, and worse of all, telling jokes which wouldn’t pass muster with Christmas cracker manufacturer’s quality control standards.

Cameras, lenses and binoculars are constantly within frame, symbolising Cathryn’s creeping paranoia, as we the watcher also observe her through the film lens, thereby making us complicit voyeurs. The onscreen interchanging of husband Hugh with her deceased lover Rene is playfully mirrored in the names of the casts’ characters: Rene  Auberjonois (‘Hugh’), Hugh Millais (‘Marcel), Marcel Bozzuffi (‘Rene’). Even Susannah York (‘Cathryn’) and Cathryn Harrison (‘Susannah’) are in on the in-joke.

Wind chimes jangle and an abundance of symmetry and double imagery is accompanied by the soundtrack which reflects the mental splitting of York’s character with a melodic Oscar nominated score from John Williams intercut with the contrasting jarring percussive sounds of Stomu Yamashta. 

The film is in many ways a jigsaw puzzle like the one Cathryn and Susannah attempt to complete. Its many elements don’t always neatly fit together, but once the puzzle is complete (or as complete as director Altman will allow); its detailed construction reveals itself and rewards patient examination.

There’s a rich palette of extras on the disc, including an audio commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, scene-select commentary and an interview with Robert Altman, a new interview with Cathryn Harrison, an appreciation by Stephen Thrower and the first pressing comes with an illustrated collector’s booklet. 

****(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts



This review was first published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

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