Saturday, 27 December 2014

THE BUBBLE (1966) aka FANTASTIC INVASION OF PLANET EARTH - 3D BLU-RAY REVIEW - By Paul Worts

Directed by Arch Oboler. Starring: Michael Cole, Deborah Walley, Johnny Desmond. Science Fiction, US, 1966, 91mins, cert Unrated.

Released in the US on 3D Blu-ray on 18th November 2014 by Kino Classics.

Before I give a critical appraisal of Arch Oboler’s 1966 3-D sci-fi flick THE BUBBLE, I feel I must firstly declare my undying love for ‘early’ 3-D films. And just so we are all clear, by ‘early’ I’m referring to that period from the 1950’s up until the mid-1980’s. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the current 3-D IMAX presentations and will invariably seek out a 3D showing rather than a ‘flat’ screening wherever possible (yes, even ‘post-conversions’ – sacrilege I know). But my true affection is for a time when 3D was still a relatively fresh gimmick, and a gimmick invariably attached to non-mainstream films with somewhat less wholesome fare in general then THE SMURFS. 

So onto THE BUBBLE. A light-aircraft carrying a heavily pregnant woman, Catherine (Deborah Walley) and her husband Mark (Michael Cole) flies through a storm and is forced to make an emergency landing in a remote town. The town’s inhabitants appear trapped in their own individual mini time-warps, repeating actions and phrases like wind-up toys. The plane’s pilot, Tony (Johnny Desmond) sets off to explore and ends up in a western-like saloon replete with a high-kicking gartered showgirl, a barman on a time-loop and a tray of drinks that levitates off the counter and floats around the bar as if it’s been carried by an invisible waitress!

It turns out the town is encased in a dome like bubble which has trapped the town’s citizens like butterflies in a jar (the question is who or what is observing them and whether the jar is ultimately a killing jar..?

This is a lightweight flimsy film which plays out like an overlong episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Its pace is as leaden as most of the residents of the bubbled town it portrays. (The original version apparently ran to 112 minutes before it was re-cut down to the current length – perhaps, in this instance at least, a small mercy?).

But despite the film’s obvious shortcomings it does boast some outstanding 3D photography and a host of wonderful ‘in-your-face’ moments for stereoscopic devotees (such as myself) to go all cross-eyed over. Director Arch Oboler is no stranger to purveyors of the third dimension thanks originally to the fact that in 1952 he gave the world the first 3-D film in colour (BWANA DEVIL formerly known as THE LIONS OF GULU). With THE BUBBLE he served up the first stereoscopic feature to be filmed in ‘4-D Space-Vision’, a new lens and projection system that required only a single-strip of 35mm film and provided glorious widescreen polarised 3D.

THE BUBBLE boasts a number of memorable 3D sequences, most notably the aforementioned floating drink tray; which elevate (no pun intended) the frankly mundane plot and provide frequently cheesy excuses to ‘reach-out’ to the viewer. Despite the crankiness of the story and the half-baked conclusion (it rains, implying the bubble is opening) it’s still more fun (in 3D) then Stephen King’s current big-budget TV series, UNDER THE DOME which it inevitably invites comparison with.

Retitled in 1976 by Monarch Releasing Corp.
I first saw THE BUBBLE at a rare screening at the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre on London’s Southbank during a season of 3D films. From the opening shot where the aircraft’s wing seemingly stretched out unapologetically right over the audience’s heads into the back row of the auditorium I was sold. Like so many 3D films, watching them ‘flat’ in 2D robs them of their primary raison d'être, and this would be undoubtedly true in the case of THE BUBBLE.

Thankfully, Kino Classics have undertaken a painstaking restoration and the fruits of their (considerable) dedication are now available to view in a remarkable 3D Blu-ray presentation. Of course the print still bears some signs of ageing and the lack of love previously afforded to its storage, but these are more than forgivable and in my opinion add authenticity to the overall viewing experience. The 3D imagery is crisp, with only occasional ‘ghosting’ evident and the ‘in-your-face’ moments are all present and correct.

THE BUBBLE is an important milestone in the history of stereoscopic cinema, and I am profoundly grateful to everyone involved in this labour of love for proving the opportunity to re-experience THE BUBBLE in all its ‘4-D Space-Vision’ glory from the comfort of my sofa. Now if only Paramount would do the same for FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 then I would be in seventh 3D-heaven...)
  
Extras:  Essay by Bob Furmanek, Screenplay excerpts of deleted scenes, Trailers, Stills Gallery, Alternate Opening (3-D and 2-D), Restoration Demonstration 3-D and 2-D).  
****(out of 5*)

Check out the excellent: 3-D Film Archive site here.

Monday, 13 October 2014

DEVIL'S TOWER (2014)

Directed by Owen Tooth, Starring: Roxanne Pallett, Jason Mewes, Frances Ruffelle,
Jessica-Jane Stafford. Horror, UK, 2014, 82mins, cert 18

Released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 15th September 2014 by Monster Pictures.

Having been (literally) thrown out onto the street by her abusive alcoholic mother, Sarah is forced to take up residence in Albion Court, a tower block seemingly filled with wall to wall drug dealers, generic low-life characters and a murky past. “What, you’re moving into the murder flat?”(exclaims one of the residents). “He’s just winding you up, they didn’t die IN the flat”, reassures another. But Sarah will soon find out that it’s what is residing in flat 254 on the top floor that she really needs to worry about...

Not entirely sure where to begin in trying to review this film. I guess I’ll start with the lead, Roxanne Pallett (formerly of TV ‘Emmerdale’ fame), making her ‘scream queen’ debut playing Sarah a character who is either 21 or 18 years of age. Let me explain. Her most treasured possession, a silver cigarette lighter, is inscribed ‘21st Happy Birthday’ from her mum and dad (dad’s dead: not explained). But - and here’s the rub – when mum (Frances Ruffelle) subsequently totters up unannounced and unwelcome at her flat she tells Sarah that motherhood is a life sentence which started: “...18 years ago when you were born”. Perhaps the booze has clouded her timeframe – then again, her confusion could be down to the fact that her onscreen daughter is being played by an actress who is in reality 31 years of age.

This low-budget British supernatural zombie rom-bonk is crammed full of awful cringe-inducing characters uttering cringe-inducing dialogue which even the script editor for ‘Eastenders’ would baulk at. Remember the film David and his dead friend Jack watch in the porno cinema on Piccadilly Circus in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (‘See You Next Wednesday’ of course), well the acting in that for the most part surpasses most of the performances here.

In fact, its sheer preposterousness is actually its only saving grace; such is the level of seemingly unashamed amateurism on screen you feel somewhat obliged to see it through to its bitter end just to see quite how much further down it will sink.

And then there’s Jason (CLERKS, JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKES BACK) Mewes, whose career has faded so far he can’t even claim top-billing, turning up surreally as ‘Sid’ the squatter. “Sid, no offence, but you’re a bit of a lunatic” pronounces Sarah’s best friend Lucy in a rare moment of perceptive insight. But then everyone is a loony in this loony tune of a horror film which is described as a ‘zombie home invasion horror’ but which doesn’t deliver on this promise (and which is laughably half-hearted even then) until there’s only 20 minutes left of the running time. Presumably the make-up budget must’ve run out by this point as the zombies appear to be munching down without a hint of viscera or steaming innards in sight. And speaking of ‘home invasion’, everyone seems to blithely leave their front doors unlocked. There are countless occurrences where characters just barge into their neighbours flats – surely this shockingly lax sense of home security belongs back in the ‘Ena Sharples’ era of Coronation Street rather than a contemporary graffiti littered hell-hole like Albion Court?

DEVIL’S TOWER is frankly a car-crash of a film which you can’t help but stare at in astonishment. Why Roxanne Pallett thought a film where she gets to deliver dialogue such as: “He tried to rape me [“What?”] No, it’s alright I tried to rape him too” would act as the propellant to launch her ‘scream queen’ career is unfathomable. (On the evidence of this I don’t think Danielle Harris needs to worry about any competition). Perhaps she should have taken more heed of the caretaker’s advice: “This building isn’t kind: now bugger off!” Then again, as the film staggers limply towards its daft climax, a possessed participant utters this particular gem: “Don’t ask me to explain, his mind is otherwise engaged”.  This sums up DEVIL’S TOWER in a nutshell.

Extras: Commentary by director Owen Tooth and writer Adam J. Marsh, bloopers, trailers and ‘Behind the Scenes’ stills.

**(out of 5*)

Sunday, 5 October 2014

ANNABELLE (2014)



Directed by John R. Leonetti, Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard. Horror, US, 2014, 99mins, cert 15.

In cinemas Friday 10th October 2014

Expectant mother-to-be Mia collects antique dolls, and her doctor-in-training husband John has found her the perfect gift: a rare vintage child-sized doll in a pure white wedding dress. Initially saving it for when their child was born, he instead decides to make peace after a bit of a tiff by unveiling his present to her early. A piercing scream from their neighbour’s house awakens the couple in the middle of the night and upon investigating, John finds their neighbours have been brutally attacked. Hurrying back to her house Mia is about to find out that the perpetrators, a man and a woman belonging to a satanic cult, are now in her home and the woman is more than taken with Mia’s new doll...

So here we have the origin story of the creepy doll known as ‘Annabelle’ which featured briefly in James Wan’s far superior THE CONJURING. Admittedly this prequel had a tough act to follow; so it’s no real surprise to find it’s not nearly as successful in eliciting the sustained supernatural threat and constant frissons to consistently make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It does still have its moments though.

Wan this time hands the directing responsibilities over to his go to cinematographer John R. Leonetti (who lensed both INSIDIOUS instalments for Wan as well as THE CONJURING). Leonetti, whose last directorial gig was THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 2 back in 2006, delivers the occasional effectively choreographed set-piece, but fails to consistently nail the ‘BOO!’ money-shot scares. To be fair, he isn’t helped by Gary Dauberman’s uneven script which can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s a made-for-TV homage to ROSEMARY’S BABY or a mainstream compendium of the 20 greatest modern supernatural clichés presented in a James Wan stylee. Leonetti is further hampered by his bland leads, Annabelle (spooky coincidence!) Wallis, as ‘Mia’ (insert ‘Farrow’ here), and Ward Horton as ‘John’. (Thought: if even the writer isn’t interested enough in these characters to invest them with last names what chance do you think the audience will?) You feel the director has been somewhat sold short when THE CONJURING had the calibre of Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and Lilli Taylor shoring up the script and bringing genuine believability to the characters.

Alfre Woodard (last seen on the big-screen in 12 YEARS A SLAVE and probably best known to genre fans on the small screen in TRUE BLOOD) does her best with what little she’s given to play with as ‘Evelyn’, a local bookshop owner who stocks a handy range of satanist cult literature and who has seen ‘one or two things’ herself. She also has a nasty scar on her wrist and a tragic back-story which is glossed over too briefly which then comes back to haunt the film (no pun intended) later on when her actions strain plausibility.  The church is represented by F. Murray Abraham-lookalike Tony Amendola as ‘Father Perez’ who has a slightly suspect habit of taking photos of all the newborn members of his flock. Priests generally don’t fare too well in supernatural films, so compared to say poor ‘Father Karras’ in THE EXORCIST, ‘Father Perez’ gets let off relatively lightly on this occasion. 

As with THE CONJURING, the period detail (late 1960’s here) is impressively rendered. In addition, the backdrop of the Manson murders and references to ‘Helter Skelter’ lend the film a chilling real life context in which to place the cult elements of the plot. Ironically, for a film firmly pitched as a supernatural thriller, the most effective sequence (and coincidentally the only time the film actually made me ‘jump’) was the non-supernatural and visceral attack on the neighbours and the subsequent home violation.

Another key sequence which I felt should've registered higher on the shock ohmmeter, involves Mia’s nightmarish trip to her apartment block’s basement whereby she finds herself trapped in a lift that won’t budge whilst fleeing from something demonic lurking in the shadows. Perhaps it was fact that there was also an ugly scary pram wheeled into view which let it down for me. Upon seeing the pram, all I could think about was NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD and I suddenly found myself half-expecting Freddy Krueger to jump into the light proudly proclaiming: “It’s a Boyyyyy!”

There’s at least two other ‘jump’ moments which didn’t work for me due to poor staging; and then we must consider the ‘star’ of the film: ‘Annabelle’ herself. As the aforementioned doll is only a conduit for evil demon thingies she doesn’t actually do anything except look pig ugly. No head-twisting; not even a cheeky wink or a flash of sharp teeth. And yet despite this fact the camera pulls up close and personal on her visage on several occasions. Each time you brace yourself for ‘the moment’ but each time you’re left slightly deflated with no payoff. Perhaps we've been spoilt by ‘Chucky's antics? And as for her design, why would any sane person want to: a. collect something that looks like a shrunken version of Bette Davis in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JAN; and b. place it in prime view on a shelf glaring down at her newborn child? If that isn’t a recipe for childhood trauma then I’ll just go and write a letter to daddy... (See what I did there?)

ANNABELLE is a film that will mostly scare people who scare easily. It does generate the odd moment of genuine jumpiness; but these are then more often than not dragged down by leaden scenes where nothing much happens to paper-thin characters and a demonic doll that looks ghastly but doesn’t actually do anything.  

 **½ (out of 5*)
    
 Paul Worts

Monday, 22 September 2014

NIGHT OF THE COMET - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Thom Eberhardt, Starring: Robert Beltran, Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney. Sci-Fi / Horror, US, 1984, 95mins, cert 15.

Released in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Video on 22nd September 2014.

It’s 1984 in the Valley. A spectacular once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, namely a close encounter with a passing comet, has the population gearing up for a night of unprecedented star-gazing celebration. Unfortunately the aforementioned comet brings with it a rather nasty surprise in that everyone who gazes upon it or is exposed to it is either instantly disintegrated into red dust, or turns into a flesh-eating zombie. Cinema usherette Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) can thank her lucky stars then that instead of witnessing the celestial light-show first-hand she chose instead to spend the night with the projectionist – in the projection booth of the local fleapit – which just happens to be steel-encased...Her cheerleading sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) also manages to miss the cataclysmic event having run away from home after a bust-up with bitchy step-mom.

This is a film so quintessentially 80’s it should almost have been sealed in a time-capsule the moment it was completed and deposited for safe keeping in a vault with instructions only to open at a set time in the distant future. The 80’s iconography literally drips off the screen and the incessant synth and sax pop soundtrack almost makes your ears bleed. 

This film escaped me upon its initial release, an oversight I blame almost entirely on the subdued uninspiring original poster art which really didn’t do it any favours. Not that it’s an easy film to sell mind you. It has a LAST MAN ON EARTH science-fiction premise and a couple of half-hearted zombie attacks (the best of which is a fleeting dream-sequence) but neither can be said to deliver any real substance on either front. It’s mainly a likeable cheesy B-movie with a refreshingly likable couple of leading ladies in big-haired Catherine Mary Stewart and gum-chewing Keli Maroney.


Upping the cheese factor to fondue levels we have Latindio Robert Beltran (best known as ‘Commander Chakotay’ from STAR TREK: VOYAGER) as ‘Hector’ who also manages to escape immediate dustification by spending the night in his truck engaged in a bout of horizontal salsa with a lonely hitch-hiker.

It’s a film I’d suggest you need to meet at least half-way (if not more) in order to fully appreciate it. There’s some nice gags sprinkled in with the comet dust such as the Jean Harlow Clark Gable RED DUST film poster (see what they did there?) on the door in the projection booth. The projectionist is waxing lyrically about a pristine print of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE in 3D to a buddy on the phone. (Ironically, given that celluloid as a cinematic medium is now virtually extinct in 2014; a similar discovery today would arguably elicit an even greater excitement than that imagined in 1984).

The scenes of deserted downtown L.A. (shot through a red filter which would once have sent videocassette players into colour-bleed meltdown) are nicely atmospheric; an impromptu fashion parade in a shopping mall encapsulates an unadulterated moment of escapism against the backdrop of (total bummer) near extinction. I also loved the exchange between Samantha and her stepmom Doris who trade face-slaps before gold ole’ Doris floors her step-daughter with a hook to the jaw.

Arrow’s Blu-ray does a reasonable job of bringing this low-budget grainy feature into the HD light. The extras are copious: 3 separate audio commentaries; interviews with Kelli Maroney, Catherine Mary Stewart, Robert Beltran, Mary Woronov and special make-up effects creator David B. Miller. The obligatory trailer comes along as standard, plus there’s a reversible sleeve and an illustrated collector’s booklet.


***(out of 5*)

Saturday, 6 September 2014

SHE

Directed by Chelsey Burdon and Mark Vessey, Starring: Fiona Dourif, Phillip James.
Horror, Short, UK, 2014, 15mins.  

‘She’ (Fiona Dourif) is living with ‘He’ (Phillip James). Trapped in a sterile, loveless (and wordless) living hell of a relationship, ‘He’ perpetrates one final act of violation upon ‘She’ which will ultimately lead to her crafting and executing a bloody and brutal vengeance.

SHE’s world premiere took place in August this year at the prestigious FrightFest in London where it was officially selected as part of the short film showcase strand.

This is a deceptively simple short film which, upon initial viewing, you’d be forgiven for only taking away from it the final graphic imagery. But there is much more lurking beneath the surface than just its unflinching Grand Guignol climax. 

Fiona Dourif’s portrayal of ‘She’ is nothing short of mesmerising. Her face is a hypnotic canvas of subtly-shifting nuances conveying the inner turmoil of a woman battling feelings of fear and loathing followed ultimately by the transformation brought about by empowerment.

Phillip James reigns in the outward signs of hatred and brutality lurking within his character and this cold emotionless pays off as we find ourselves tip-toeing warily around him in parallel to Dourif.

SHE is a meticulously designed and executed piece of filmmaking. Symmetry is prevalent throughout: the anniversary dining table settings; the twin stork figurines on the sideboard and the reflection of Dourif’s face when it’s pressed against the shiny kitchen work surface, framed by a knife blade. The uncluttered clinical furnishings reflect the sterility of the couple’s relationship. Rather disconcertingly however there is an old-fashioned gramophone player deliberately juxtaposed against this modernity. It provides a background of crackly nostalgic old (romantic) songs which act as an aural counterpoint to the decidedly unromantic events unfolding at the dinner table. It also features in a striking camera sequence where the camera slowly zooms in on a piece of flesh before the screen dissolves to black and then as the darkness fades away the camera resurfaces  coming out of the gramophone’s horn. This sequence, enhanced superbly by the sound design reminded me of a sequence in David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET involving a dissolve into a severed ear.

Speaking of severed matters, one has to praise Paul While’s prosthetic work for providing a genuinely unforgettable and gleefully disturbing sequence which tops all other examples of this effect to date within the genre and which secures SHE a guaranteed place in the annals of extreme cinema.

Joint directors Chelsey Burdon and Mark Vessey pulled off an extraordinary coup in securing Fiona Dourif for their low-budget (£7k); Kickstarter-funded and shot in 2 days project. Clearly Fiona and the film’s Kickstarter supporters had faith in them, and having now delivered SHE, it should be clear to all who view it that this faith was entirely justified.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Friday, 5 September 2014

INVASION OF THE SCREAM QUEENS

Directed by Donald Farmer, Starring: Brinke Stevens, Michelle Bauer, Mary Woronov.
Documentary, US, 1991, 82mins, cert Exempt.


Released in the UK on DVD on 15th September 2014 by Wienerworld

Originally made back in 1991 and released on video, Donald Farmer, director (at the time) of such straight-to-video titles such as CANNIBAL HOOKERS and VAMPIRE COP, rounded up a bunch of actresses currently working in the horror/ exploitation B-movie market and interviewed each one about their experiences working in the genre.

This documentary is a time capsule. Upon opening it transports you back to when the home video market was booming, when distributors were constantly looking for product to fill the video rental store shelves and punters were eager to feed their voracious VCRs. Director Donald Farmer knew this from his experiences in securing distribution deals for his films and so he called upon some of the ‘scream queens’ he had personally worked with at the time - together with a few more he could secure to talk on camera without stretching his modest budget - and cobbled together this cheap looking hodgepodge compilation of uneven interviews.

Today the term ‘scream queen’ would apply to contemporary actresses such as the inimitable Danielle Harris, but in Donald Farmer’s time capsule we’re in 1991, and his limited frame of reference tends to largely feature the ladies working for schlock-meisters such as Fred Olen Ray (e.g. HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS, EVIL TOONS, THE TOMB) and David DeCoteau (e.g. CREEPOZOIDS, SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA, NIGHTMARE SISTERS). Regarding the actresses featured, Farmer himself states in his brief intro to this re-release: “...some of them are still working, some of them are not; some of them have disappeared off the face of the earth”.

First up is Michelle Bauer, who ‘graduated’ from making videos for the Playboy channel to making B-movies such as DeCoteau’s NIGHTMARE SISTERS, a film which, in Michelle’s own words, includes: “...the longest bathtub scene in the world...It runs about ten minutes, and it’s the three of us [Michelle, Brinke Stevens, Linnea Quigley], stark naked; with one bar of soap and lots of sound effects...”

The second of this hot-tub trinity, Brinke Stevens (who gained a masters degree in marine biology before hot-tubing) describes herself as having been a very weird kid: “I looked like a werewolf, dark features, little pointy teeth (which they later filed-off) and very thick eyebrows”.

Unfortunately the third bath-babe, Linnea Quigley, doesn’t appear in the documentary. The clues as to why this might be are provided by the only onscreen male interviewee, director David DeCoteau, who rather cryptically states that he doesn’t work with Linnea anymore for various reasons, and that: “I guess we’re both up scaling our careers...” Glancing through their respective IMDb credits they’ve certainly worked together again since and in fact David’s latest film: 3 SCREAM QUEENS (due for release on 31st October 2014) stars none other than Linnea, alongside both Michelle and Brinke. Wonder how that career “up scaling” worked out for the both of them...?

And so a parade of lesser known, (and a few completely unknown, at least to this reviewer) B-movie actresses sit in front of Farmer’s static camera and talk about their experiences in direct-to-video fodder ranging from the obscure to the very obscure, with the occasional more well-known title (e.g. THE HILLS HAVE EYES 1977, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD) thrown into the mix.

But then suddenly, in the midst of all these straight-to-video 80’s ‘starlets’ – like a mirage in an oasis of dreck -we suddenly get the refreshing inclusion of the statuesque Bond and Hammer actress Martine Beswick regaling us with her on-set battle not to consent to full-frontal nudity during the filming of DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE. 

Mary Woronov’s onscreen time is largely devoted to her paintings, not quite what viewers of this DVD (or presumably renters of the original tape) are or were really interested in. She does however provide an interesting introduction into how she wound up in the sexploitation film LOVE ME MY WAY with a young Lynn Lowry (of whom I’d wished Farmer could’ve also included in the documentary seeing as she features in both a clip from LOVE ME and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD).

Original not so subtle VHS artwork
And of course it would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that the documentary itself had been sourced from a VHS master which provides copious amounts of (genuine) tracking snow, sound crackling and occasional picture black-out. The actual video film clips are as blurred and near non-discernible as I remember them from the 80’s. This does however provide an authenticity to the material, and a reminder of the context in which these films would have originally been viewed in the home.

INVASION OF THE SCREAM QUEENS is clearly not an all embracing in-depth study of the ‘scream queen’ phenomenon. (The 2011 documentary SCREAMING IN HIGH HEELS: THE RISE & FALL OF THE SCREAM QUEEN ERA for example provides a retrospective angle on the horny-trinity of Bauer, Stevens and Quigley).  

It’s not even particularly well-made, for example there is neither an opening title sequence, nor any end credits, and some of the interviews are frankly bizarre both in terms of content and in execution. At times it feels as if you are watching a porn film audition rather than a B-movie documentary – such is the apparent emphasis on sex and nudity in the on-screen interviews. But, nevertheless, it does illustrate a specific time in B-Movie / exploitation / horror history, and for that alone it’s of mild nostalgic interest to those of us who grew up watching these dodgy videos, but who today can view our B-movies and stuff like it on HD remastered Blu-rays.

P.S. Despite the cover promising otherwise, there is absolutely no sign of Camille Keaton, nor any reference to I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE in the documentary.  

Extras:  Interview with Director Donald Farmer (which appears to repeat itself thereby doubling its running time). Deleted Interviews, Photo Gallery and an excerpt from the out of print book featuring the section on Linnea Quigley (which is so faintly reproduced you’ll have to take a magnifying glass to the screen to read). 

Paul Worts

**


Monday, 18 August 2014

RAISED BY WOLVES - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Mitchell Altieri, Starring: Jenna Haze, Evan Crooks, Monty Geer. Horror, US, 2014, 79mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD on 18th August 2014 by Signature Entertainment

I’ll be honest, I was more than a little disappointed to find upon reading the film’s brief synopsis that it wasn’t about either wolves or lycanthropes. But this initial disappointment paled in comparison to the sinking feeling in my heart when it turned out to be not only wolf-less but a wolf-less found-footage shaky cam effort.

This however was not apparent from the opening sequence where we are filled in on the events which allegedly occurred in 1973 on a desert Indio Indian Reservation. A cult leader by the (unlikely) name of Ernest Plainsong gathered a group of troubled teen followers and after claiming he could identify demons disguised as humans living around the area sent his ‘children’ out to ‘cleanse’ the demons. Bad enough you’d think. But unfortunately some of his followers then began to claim that they too had this demon-spotting ability and a further massacre occurred within the cult itself.

Cut to the present day and a group of skateboarding obsessed teen males and their girlfriends drive out into the desert seeking the old abandoned cult leader’s compound. Why? Because it allegedly boasts a deep pool (presumably drained) which they want to skate in. Hmmm...

Cue lots of wobbly skateboarding footage, followed by lots of wobbly running footage; followed by lots more wobbly running and screaming as one by one the totally disposable and detestable group of friends are possessed by the demonic spirit residing in the abandoned commune.

Question: did they have microwave ovens in 1973...?

Porn star Jenna Haze makes only a brief appearance (in her briefs – see what I did there?) before removing her top and smashing an interrogating law man’s head repeatedly into the table. Frankly she does him a favour for this truly is a film in which the old tagline: ‘The lucky ones died first’ applies. I just wish the batteries on the shaky-camcorder had died a lot sooner.

* (out of 5*)

This review was first published on FrightFest .

Monday, 21 July 2014

AFTER THE DARK (AKA THE PHILOSOPHERS) - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by John Huddles, Starring: James D’Arcy, Bonnie Wright, Sophie Lowe, Daryl Sabara. Science Fiction, US / Indonesia, 2013, 107mins, cert 15.

Released in the UK on DVD on 21st July 2014 by Signature Entertainment

On their last day before graduating, a class of high-achieving students are given one final challenge by their philosophy teacher. Imagine a nuclear apocalypse scenario whereby there is a fully-equipped bunker which can only sustain ten people for a year. Who do you decide to take with you into the safe haven of the bunker in order to help repopulate and rebuild the human race once the fallout has settled – and who do you leave outside to die in the radiation?

Going into this film with neither prior knowledge nor any pre-conceived notions, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find a smartly written conceit bristling with ideas and told with ravishing visuals. Mind you, it’s not an easy film to classify, nor indeed to heartily recommend without reservation.  The premise is essentially a philosophical classroom discussion. All a bit cerebral – not necessarily a bad thing – just not a concept that’ll be universally welcomed you understand. Then again, the visual representation of the impending apocalyptical scenarios are realised with stunning Indonesian locations and judicious CGI. Although you never totally forget that what you are witnessing is essentially all just hypothetical, the script is sufficiently infused with moral curve balls which catch both the viewer and the students regularly off-guard.

It’s refreshing to watch a film about students in which you can actual believe they might just be capable of graduating and may genuinely have a grasp of the infinite monkey theorem. It helps that they are not just being served up on a smorgasbord for some slicing and dicing, but instead are there as mouthpieces for philosophical concepts and ideas. Amongst the student body you’ll recognise Bonnie Wright (Harry Potter’s sweetheart Ginny Weasley), at the front of the classroom, still in school, but at least she’s moved on from learning how to transfigure into a cat from Professor McGonagall. Another familiar face is Daryl (SPY KIDS) Sabara, now all grown-up and memorably manipulating one hypothetical scenario to engineer an (enviable) conclusion whereby he is the only male amongst a ‘harem’ of female students more than willing to copulate with him for the continuation of the human race despite the fact he is allegedly sterile! James D’Arcy’s teacher ‘Mr Zimit’ offers suave and sinister in equal measure and an alarming tendency to (hypothetically) reach for firearms in each hypothetical puzzle.

I will concede that I thought the conclusion was a tad disappointing. Not because it offers something so far-fetched and left-field that you feel cheated (it resolutely doesn’t) but rather that in playing it straight it all ends on a rather mundane note compared to the intellectual fireworks which have preceded it.

But with that reservation aside, I rather enjoyed my final lesson in Mr Zimit’s class, or rather in the philosophical minds of Mr Zimit’s graduating class. I didn’t learn a huge amount about the human condition, but I did take this thought away with me: in the event of a nuclear holocaust, when deciding if you’re ‘worthy’ of a place in the bunker, for god’s sake don’t say you’re a poet.

**** (out of 5*)



No Extras

Friday, 27 June 2014

COLD IN JULY - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Jim Mickle, Starring: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw. Thriller, US, 2013, 109mins, cert 15.

In cinemas from Friday 27th June 2014.

Based on Joe R. Lansdale’s multi-layered novel, director Jim Mickle follows up the highly regarded STAKELANDS and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (2013) with a gripping 80’s Southern film noir.

Having accidentally shot and killed an intruder in his home, family man Richard Dane (DEXTER’S Michael C. Hall) is reassured by the local sheriff that he acted in self-defence and that the intruder was a wanted felon. Still racked with guilt (the intruder was unarmed), he drives out to the graveyard just as the funeral is concluding. There is only one other mourner – the deceased’s father (Sam Shepard)...

This is a film which delivers three plots for the price of one. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on where the narrative is heading it shifts into an altogether darker territory. The opening chapter offers echoes of CAPE FEAR, with two relatively straight-played suspense set-pieces. But then the rug is gently but assuredly pulled from under both the viewer and our protagonist Dane, and the landscape twists into shades of BLOOD SIMPLE and beyond.

As the film continues to peel back layer upon layer, Michael C. Hall’s ordinary family man is pulled deeper and deeper into the film’s heart of darkness, until his initial desire to protect his wife and son leads him into having to make judgement calls upon which lives hang in the balance.

Shaking off his finely honed forensic psycho persona as DEXTER, Hall’s performance is engrossing and gives the film its emotional core. In addition, Sam Shepard delivers a perfectly pitched performance encompassing both understated menace and pathos. And then along comes Don Johnson’s almost film-stealing cowboy private investigating pig-farmer ‘Jim Bob’ who waltzes into town and acts as the ringmaster in the film’s final third ring circus.

Eschewing the first-person narration from the source material, Mickle and his long-time collaborator Nick Damici have fashioned a lean and taut screenplay which hones in on the story’s essence and strips away any fat from the bone. Mickle’s trusted composer Jeff Grace delivers a stunning synth soundtrack channelling Carpenter which throbs majestically in harmony to the ebb and flow of the story. The 80’s setting isn’t rammed down the throat (with the exception of Don Johnson’s intentionally hilarious gigantic ‘car-phone’), but is used more to isolate and pair-down the options available to the characters rather than to inject cheap knowing winks of nostalgia.

Jeff Mickle’s film is a confident, assured piece of genre filmmaking which cements his highly regarded reputation as a director and which proves unquestionably that revenge is a dish best served COLD IN JULY. 

****(out of 5*)

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

CAMP DREAD - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Harrison Smith, Starring: Eric Roberts, Danielle Harris, Felissa Rose. Horror, USA, 2014, 90mins, cert 18.

Released in the UK on DVD by Image Entertainment on 23rd June 2014.

Back in the 1980’s, horror film director Julian Barrett (Eric Roberts) helmed three successful instalments of the ‘Summer Camp’ slasher franchise. In an attempt to reboot his now flailing career, Barrett lures a bunch of young adult offenders to take part in a new reality TV show (Dead TV) with the chance to avoid prison and rehab, and a $1 million prize for the last contestant to be ‘eliminated’. Returning to the original location of the ‘Summer Camp’ franchise, and inviting his former scream queen (now newly trained counsellor) Rachel Steele (Felissa Rose), Barrett has installed video cameras throughout the camp grounds. Having wired each contestant with a micro-camera, he informs them that whilst they carry out their (scripted) daily tasks of preparing the camp for summer reopening, they will be ‘killed-off’ one-by-one by an unseen assailant. Once they have encountered the killer they are effectively out of the contest (sort of like a paintball fight if you will) and will have to depart the camp. However, the scripted reality starts to go decidedly off-course as the contestants start to be bumped off for real, and the stakes are raised to life or death.
This is a heavily signposted love letter to SLEEPAWAY CAMP (which itself featured a memorable performance by Felissa Rose and a jaw-dropping ending), and early 80’s summer camp slashers such as FRIDAY THE 13TH and THE BURNING. And whilst it isn’t a patch on any of them, it’s nevertheless reasonably entertaining - doesn’t scrimp on the gore (including one genuinely original death) - and boasts a real surprise ending all of its very own.

The script assembles the standard archetypes which have populated every decent slasher, and whilst they all come across as thoroughly unlikeable individuals at first, it does become easier to identify with (some of) them as the grisly proceedings begin to unfurl. Eric Roberts’ is excellent as the puppermaster director, monitoring his ‘contestants’ through his bank of video screens. Felissa Rose provides top-notch support as the faded scream queen. Danielle Harris plays the local sheriff in a welcome variation from her own scream-queen persona, unfortunately her screen time is limited to two scenes (pivotal though they maybe) which bookend the beginning and end of the film. She does however get to deliver some tongue in cheek dialogue such as: “I don’t watch horror movies...because I think that they suck.”
The practical make-up effects are over the top and range in quality, but it’s nice to see Crazy Ralph’s death scene from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 restaged without MPAA-enforced restraint, and a set-piece murder inspired by the ‘Angry Birds’ game.

Having grown up in London in the 80’s, my only knowledge of summer camp came from watching those body count horror flicks that CAMP DREAD obviously pays homage to. As a result of which, I’d consider any teenager completely insane for even contemplating entering those grounds previously stalked by the likes of ‘Cropsy’, ‘Jason’ or ‘Angela’. However, there’s clearly a commonly held nostalgia for the summer camp slaughter feature, and whilst CAMP DREAD doesn’t tick every box (it’s largely devoid of suspense for one), I still enjoyed my stay in its cabins. 

*** (out of 5*)
(This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.)

WITHER - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Sonny Laguna, Tommy Wiklund, Starring: Patrik Almkvist, Lisa Henni, Patrick Saxe. Horror, Sweden, 2012, 92mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD by Signature Entertainment on 23rd June 2014.


A Swedish homage to Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD, this low-budget Scandinavian effort pours on the gore in buckets but lacks the ferocious audacity of its inspiration.
Led by Albin (Patrik Almkvist), a group of good-looking youngsters head out into the woods to an isolated cabin for a weekend of frolicking. The deserted cabin is recommended by Albin’s father, and he assures Albin and his girlfriend Ida (Lisa Henni) that the place has been abandoned for at least five years; that he’ll make sure there’s electricity available; and that if they run into any problems they’re to contact him. It’s not made clear just how dad came to know about the cabin, nor how much investigation he did into the reason for its abandonment, but it turns out he really couldn’t have picked a worse location...


I missed its original showing on the Discovery Screen at last year’s FrightFest, so I was very much looking forward to checking this out. Unfortunately, it failed to live up to my expectations. The script creaks more than the rotting floorboards in the cabin. The one-dimensional characters are as equally wooden as the walls – and they stay that way even once they’ve been possessed by the soul-swallower in the cellar.
The female characters in particular suffer a disproportionately rough ride (even by generic horror standards) although I did feel sorry for the poor lass who initially (and quite inexplicably) decides to descend into the cellar with just a candle for company. Still, it’s not just any candle, it’s a magic candle as it appears to decrease and increase in length from shot to shot. At least no one suggests playing a mysterious tape recorder (there isn’t one – or else I’m sure they would’ve). The script is filled with idiotic moments – which would be perfectly acceptable if the two directors and three scriptwriters (!) offered some indication that this was all being played tongue-in-cheek or with a knowing wink to the audience. But instead we just get a joyless po-faced gore-fest. Admittedly some of the largely practical gore effects are exceptionally well executed, but they really deserved a better showcase than this leaden clomping effort for which my initial enthusiasm gradually waned the longer it went on until ultimately it withered away completely.
No extras.

** (out of 5*)

(This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Monday, 28 April 2014

SISTERS (1973)

Directed by Brian De Palma, Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, William Finley, Charles Durning. Horror, thriller, USA, 1973, 93mins, cert 15.

Released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by Arrow Films on 28th April 2014.

Brian De Palma’s 1973 SISTERS represents a significant change in direction for the eventual Hitchcockian auteur. Taking his inspiration from Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, and adding a pinch or two of PSYCHO to the mix, De Palma concocts a deliciously delirious thriller that marks the first of his visual voyages into cinematic voyeurism.

Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), a 25 year old African American man, is faced with a moral dilemma when a blind woman enters a changing room and begins to undress in front of him. But nothing is what it seems. The woman is an actress/ model, Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) and the scene is being filmed and shown to two contestants on a TV show who have to guess how Woode will react to the situation. Both Woode and Danielle are watching from the wings along with a studio audience which includes Danielle’s former husband Dr Emil Breton (William Finley). Pulling the visual rug from under the audience straight away, De Palma wastes no time at all in signalling his intent to present to the audience a deceptive and duplicitous tale. A tale ripe with red-herrings; audacious technical conceits and a tongue in cheek premise.

Everything in the film is connected with watching. Danielle’s neighbour, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), a local newspaper reporter, witnesses a murder from her apartment window, with the victim smearing the word ‘help’ with a bloodied hand on the window within Danielle Breton’s flat. De Palma employs the split screen device to supreme effect during both this and a subsequent sequence which gives the audience simultaneous insights into how the murder scene is being cleaned up (and the body hidden) on the left of the screen, whilst the right-side shows us the police officers and reporter Collier ascending up to the apartment. The split screen technique is often dismissed as being purely gimmicky, but De Palma’s employment of it here yields a playful heightened suspense.

De Palma’s films are not on the whole known for having strong female protagonists, but in SISTERS the male characters are largely playing second fiddle to the two outstanding female leads (and the only murder victims are men).  Margot Kidder excels in her dual roles as both sensuous playful French / Canadian actress/model Danielle and as her deadly sister Dominique. Jennifer Salt delivers an effective turn as the feisty reporter determined to uncover the truth despite the sceptical antipathy of the police. Even her real-life mother (Mary Davenport) pitches in as her onscreen mum and their comedic scenes together have an added air of authenticity about them as a result.

For the chaps, William Finley’s creepy and sinister Dr Breton looms alarmingly in De Palma’s fish-eye lens. (Finley, a regular for the director, would go on to play The Phantom in De Palma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE). And the venerable Charles Durning, in an early role, plays a private detective roped into helping Jennifer Salt’s reporter with some amateur snooping. Having followed a sofa all the way from Staten Island across into Canada, he is last seen suspended from a telegraph pole watching through binoculars (presumably waiting in vain) for someone to come and collect it!

Proceedings are heightened immeasurably by a terrific Bernard Hermann score, complete with early use of Moog electronics! For me, the soundtrack perfectly sums up De Palma’s little gem of a film. It’s at once clearly recognisable as being in the tradition of a Hitchcock; yet it has its own unique identity; infused with impish creative embellishments; and it is this duality that elevates the film to more than the sum total of its maguffins and magic tricks. 
   
The transfer from Arrow retains the authentic film grain, and whilst the image initially appears slightly cropped during the opening credits, its overall a fine rendering of a film which utilises both 35mm and 16mm film stock.

The extras, listed in full below are excellent, with Justin Humphreys' efficiently comprehensive 47 minute visual essay being the stand out.     

Extras: What the Devil Hath Joined Together: Brian De Palma’s Sisters – A visual essay by author Justin Humphreys. Interviews with co-writer Louisa Rose, actress Jennifer Salt, editor Paul Hirsch and unit manager Jeffrey Hayes, The De Palma Digest – a film-by-film guide to the director’s career by critic Mike Sutton, Archive audio interview with William Finley (excerpt), Theatrical Trailer, Gallery of Sisters promotional material from around the world.

There’s also apparently an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Kier-La Janisse (House of Psychotic Women) as well as Brian De Palma’s original 1973 Village Voice essay on working with composer Bernard Herrmann and a contemporary interview with De Palma on making Sisters, and the 1966 Life magazine article that inspired the film. These items were not included with the preview copy.


****(out of 5*)
Paul Worts


This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.


Monday, 14 April 2014

ANTISOCIAL - A review by Paul Worts

Directed by Cody Calahan, Starring: Michelle Mylett, Cody Ray Thompson, Adam Christie.
Horror, Canada, 2013, 92mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD and Bluray by Monster Pictures on 14th April 2014.


It’s New Year’s Eve. Forced to attend a university lecture as she didn’t do very well on her criminology finals, Sam’s day goes from bad to worse when her (cheating) boyfriend Dan breaks up with her via a Skype-like conversation conducted through The Social Redroom, a Facebook-like social media forum. Closing her laptop down, she takes out her mobile and deletes the Social Redroom app (not before catching an alert informing her that Dan’s status has already been changed from “taken” to “single” – ouch!) Given the reason she really wanted to talk to him, this was not what she was hoping for...But then there’s long-time best friend Mark’s New Year’s Eve party to go to, and even though she’s clearly not in the mood to party, and prone to bouts of nausea, she reluctantly shows up. And just when Sam thinks her 31st December can’t get any worse; it appears there’s a highly contagious global infection breaking out which turns the affected victims into violent hallucinating zombies.
  
Given its European premiere at FrightFest 2013, Cody Calahan’s Facebook meets VIDEODROME via NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD premise isn’t outstandingly original, yet once you get past the generic teen tosh it manages to crank up a gear or two and the final third pulls off some pleasingly effective tongue-in-cheek moments of gore before the memorable final sequence concludes proceedings nicely.  
As with most films that feature social media-reliant scenarios, I always marvel at how quick and reliable the protagonist’s wireless signals are. Even whilst fleeing up a staircase in a block of flats, a character can conduct a near-perfect Skype video conversation (Why you’d want to do this at such a time of clear and present danger is another matter). Of course the whole premise is a not-so-subtle dig at how social media is controlling our lives, turning us into zombie-like addicts constantly seeking on-line validation and recognition and all the while losing our grip on reality and, paradoxically, our ability to really communicate with each other.
The story would have benefited from a less teen-angst-centred approach; I’m thinking perhaps a more coldly analytical Cronenberg-like scalpel to the material. However, director Calahan, along with his co-writer Chad Archibald certainly provide some nice hallucinatory moments of body-horror – not to mention quite literally a scalpel (and power-drill) for those hard to reach brain infections.
Of the cast, Michelle Mylett as Sam is the best of a fairly generic bunch, infusing her character with a plausible layer of sympathy and vulnerability before ratcheting up her self-sufficiency and survival instincts. Ana Alic’s blonde nymphet Kaitlin rises above the standard nubile-for-hire guise when trussed in Xmas tree lights and crawling feral-like on all fours in the film’s singularly most memorable sequence.
Ironically, I deactivated my Facebook account (temporarily) a week before watching this film. I felt I was actually becoming more and more (forgive the unintentional pun) antisocial with every posting. Putting this in context, Cody Calahan’s ANTISOCIAL is more than worthy of a few ‘likes’, even if the teen’s early postings induce initial buffering before connection is achieved.   


Extras: Audio commentary, behind the scenes feature, trailer.

*** (out of 5*)

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.