Monday, 26 October 2015

CONTRACTED: PHASE II

Directed by Josh Forbes, Starring: Matt Mercer, Marianna Palka, Morgan Peter Brown. Horror, US, 2015, 75mins, Cert 18.
Released in the UK on DVD & Download from 26th October 2015 by Primal Screen.

Following straight on from the first film, Riley (Matt Mercer), now infected with the ‘highly contagious pathogen’ he contracted from Samantha is beginning to get nasty scabs and maggots growing out of his back. He’s also got a detective (Marianna Palka) sniffing around after she’s begun connecting him to the corpses beginning to pile up. Of course Riley does know more than he’s letting on, and with time running out he’s determined to track down the mysterious and sinister BJ (Morgan Peter Brown) who appears to be the creator of the virus.

I confess I haven’t seen the original CONTAGION so I can’t make any informed comparisons with its sequel. Luckily there are some helpful flashbacks early on which show Samantha in full-blown zombie infection lunging for her mother (Caroline Williams) before she’s gunned down. I also find out that prior to that Samantha was raped by a sinister figure referred to as ‘BJ’ in a car, resulting in her contracting this ‘necrotic STD’ which eventually caused maggots to fall out of her vagina (never a good sign) when she was having sex with Riley. Given this rather unfortunate turn of events, it’s perfectly understandable therefore that PHASE II opens (it’s now ‘Day 4’ apparently) with an anxious Riley having blood tests to determine if he’s caught anything from Samantha. “I hope she was worth it”, mutters the doctor. Even though the test results come back negative (really?), we are presented with close-up visual evidence to the contrary. Those deep gashes on Riley’s shoulder aren’t healing, and having firstly removed a fragment of finger nail (Samantha’s?) from the gouges, he’s having to squeeze out maggots with a Stanley knife; contending with Niagara Fall nosebleeds; red eye/grey eye syndrome, and a rotting complexion.

Apart from the wincingly gory body-horror make-up – which is excellently rendered, there’s not a great deal of flesh on the bone in terms of story, and given that we are told the virus has a ‘100% mortality rate’ you are often just left to marvel about just how gruesome Riley’s degradation needs to get before wearing dark glasses and a hoodie won’t work anymore. Still there are some nicely comic exchanges along the way - when a drugstore owner enquires: “Are you alright son?” Riley replies: “Allergies” (before scuttling off to the public restroom for some impromptu auto-surgery). His heavily pregnant sister - married to the doctor who performed the blood test – leans in to stage whisper: “Use a condom with her” when Riley shows up at a wake with his mother’s cute female carer Harper (Anna Lore).  There’s an excruciatingly hilarious tribute song performed during the wake entitled ‘Alice’ which is sublime in its awfulness. And to top it all, Riley’s nosebleed drips into the dip (I did briefly wonder whether his ear might follow suit à la the custard scene from Peter Jackson’s BRAINDEAD). 

Highly implausibly, whilst it’s by now well-known how lethal and contagious the maggot germ thingy is, when Riley is eventually hospitalised (having performed his role as ‘Typhoid Mary’ admirably); there’s absolutely no sign of any medical quarantine procedures being observed. And security is so lapse that anyone wearing a doctor’s coat can just waltz right through the ward! In fact the only thing less convincing than this set-up is Marianna Palka’s wavering attempts to suppress her native Scottish tongue and deliver an American accent.

Given the suggestion just before the end credits roll, there’s clearly ambition here to continue on into a ‘Phase III’, but I can’t say I’ve been sufficiently infected with enough enthusiasm to stay the course.  
  
Extras: trailer.


**(out of 5*)
Paul Worts

This review was originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

THE SKULL

Directed by Freddie Francis, Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Christopher Lee. Horror/Thriller, UK, 1965, 83mins, Cert 12.
Released in the UK on Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) on 26th October 2015 by Eureka Entertainment.

Based on Robert (PSYCHO) Bloch’s short story, “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade", director Freddie Francis employed every trick in the book in order to pad out the running time of Milton Subotsky’s minimalist screenplay. In doing so, Francis, together with his director of photography John Wilcox, fill up the voracious widescreen Techniscope canvas with a mise-en-scène treasure trove of occult knick-knacks and bric-a-brac. Their aim is clearly to distract the audience from noticing the absence of any real plot, and, using 1965 sleight of hand, to somehow convince that the skull of the infamous Marquis de Sade is floating across the room, carried by the hands of invisible supernatural forces, rather than clearly visible wires.

A suitably Poe-like gothic prologue offers up a creaking graveyard gate, an owl that does cat impressions, and a grave-robbing French phrenologist unceremoniously divorcing the Marquis de Sade’s head from the rest of his corpse with a spade. Having soaked the head in a nice relaxing acid bath (after firstly taking care to oust his mistress from the bathtub into the bedroom), the acidic fumes seep out from under the closed bathroom door, where upon the phrenologist’s companion discovers her lover floating stone cold dead in the bath with a nasty throat wound.

Zipping forward in time, we arrive at an auction of occult artefacts not usually seen in TV’s ‘Bargain Hunt’. Two collectors, Peter Cushing (Dr Christopher Maitland) and Christopher Lee (Sir Matthew Phillips) are engaged in a bidding war which Sir Matthew is winning – he has more money than sense it seems and appears to be bidding way over the odds as if he was somehow possessed (hmmm...) Advising Peter Cushing’s character against trying to outbid his rival is Patrick Wymark’s ‘Marco’, a shifty, snuff sniffing dealer who makes a living ‘acquiring’ unusual occult items for his client. Marco has a vested interest in making sure Dr Maitland still has some cash left over after the auction so that he’ll buy his Marquis de Sade book fashioned from human skin (not a common item on ‘Bargain Hunt’ either). And of course it doesn’t stop there. Ignoring the warnings from Sir Matthew that the skull of the Marquis de Sade is evil, Peter Cushing’s curiosity gets the better of him when Marco comes calling with the aforementioned skull (purloined from a somewhat relieved Sir Matthew himself). No good comes to those who own the skull, a fact that Dr Maitland is soon to discover for himself.

Cushing turns in a sterling performance (when didn’t he?), ably supported by his often screen partner Lee in a lesser role. There’s a snooker scene where it’s obvious from the way the scene is cut that neither can pot a ball to save their lives, yet they never waiver from their task at hand. Patrick Wymark’s dodgy dealing Marco almost steals the film from Cushing with his nervous ticks and constant snuff inhaling.  
As mentioned before, there’s considerable padding in evidence in certain scenes, most notably one which consists entirely of Peter Cushing quietly reading de Sade’s book, yet the camera pries and pans in amongst the garishly lit occult treasures of Dr Maitland’s study to such an effect as to suggest a palpable and incremental build up of supernatural tension. 

A dream sequence, hastily revised after the British censor took exception to the intended full-on debauched de Sade torture chamber vision, provides a standout moment of surreal invention which the film never really manages to recover from.

And then of course we have the skull itself, which, despite the best efforts of Francis and Co to infuse it with ominous connotations using tricky lighting techniques, remains just an unremarkable clichéd prop on barely hidden wires.

Given its modest origins, THE SKULL might have fitted more readily into a slot in one of Amicus’ portmanteau compilations. Having said that, the limitations of the story and screenplay are valiantly addressed through creative visuals and solid work from a stellar cast.  
           
I can’t comment on the restored 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray as the screener was only a DVD, however, to my eyes the DVD image was resolutely sharp, with only minimal print damage in evidence, and grain at acceptable levels.

Extras: New interviews with film scholar Jonathan Rigby and critic and author Kim Newman (although occasionally and inevitably covering the same ground, both are still very much worth investing time in). There’s also a limited edition collector’s booklet which was not supplied with the disc.

*** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Saturday, 24 October 2015

THE KILLAGE

Directed by Joe Bauer, Starring: Rita Artmann, Dryden Bingham, Laura Jane Turner. Comedy Horror, AUS, 2011, 102mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD on 26th October 2015 by Monster Pictures.

A group of eleven young employees and a seemingly ineffectual instructor embark on a weekend-long work retreat at a camping site in the middle of the Australian countryside. Unfortunately one of the group turns out to be a masked killer who proceeds to dispatch them one by one in various ‘creative’ ways.

Director, writer, actor, co-producer, co-cinematographer, editor, co-casting director, ADR mixer, sound editor, sound mixer, visual effects artist and (finally) colourist Joe Bauer’s ultra-low budget slasher film spoof is a low-brow hit and miss (mostly miss) redundant attempt to trash a sub-genre which needed no further trashing or mockery after SCARY MOVIE.

Shot over two long weekends (with a further week of ADR needed to re-record all the dialogue) – I accept that it is a minor miracle that the film ever got completed at all. But, to quote Jeff Goldblum’s character in JURASSIC PARK, perhaps the filmmakers were “... so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should”.

Here at Fleapits we will always try to champion low-budget efforts, and I approached THE KILLAGE with an open-minded smile on my face. However, my enthusiasm rapidly started to evaporate within minutes as one by one the parade of crudely drawn (with a crayon) stereotypical characters were embarrassingly introduced without the merest hint of a decent gag in sight.

I actually enjoyed the first SCARY MOVIE. Sure a great deal of its laughs came from non-genre related sexual jokes and set-pieces, but in amongst Anna Faris’ bat-infested pubic bush type gags, there was also some perceptively spot on winks to the genre. My favourite sight-gag being when Ghostface appeared by a tree and was then spotted scurrying behind it - referencing Michael Myers’ stalking of Laurie Strode in Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Bauer stages a parody of a jump-scare scene from another Carpenter classic, THE THING. Unfortunately Bauer kills the joke by allowing it to repetitiously drag on way past the initial knowing titter. (He’s guilty of gag overkill later on when the ‘final girl’ really, really, makes sure the killer is dead...)  I did however like the “Welcome to Camp Yurulgundie” sign (geddit?).

As the ‘final girl’ (it’s Emily by the way, but that’s hardly a spoiler) Rita Artmann gives the least objectionable performance given the frequently puerile nonsense going on around her. There’s an outdoor exercise scene that makes CARRY ON CAMPING look like it was penned by Noel Coward in comparison.
"Ooh Matron! Take them away!"
Director Bauer’s guitar playing minstrel-like character Gus vies for the most implausibly written character title with the moronic ‘Jock’ who inexplicably spends a large portion of the film stark naked – complete with an unfathomably long penis for good measure (no pun intended).

The actual murders range from decent(ish) - death by bong – to the (why oh why not funny) ill-judged CG decapitated talking head crapiness.

I think the reason THE KILLAGE fails to deliver is largely down to the fact that there just isn’t any real love or appreciation for the genre it’s supposedly referencing. It can still be done, take for example the wonderful TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL. This combined a clever comedic spin on the backwoods hillbilly horror sub-genre and created two genuinely likeable characters the audience could root for - even as the bodies started piling up. Whilst the largely budget CG body count in THE KILLAGE is also piled high, the comedy is pitched so low, and the characters so unsympathetically loathsome that not only do you rarely laugh, you just don’t care either. 

Paul Worts

*(out of 5*)

Thursday, 22 October 2015

YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY



Directed by Sergio Martino, Starring: Luigi Pistilli, Edwige Fenech, Anita Strindberg. Horror, Italy, 1972, 96mins, Cert 18.

Released in the UK on Dual Format Blu-ray + DVD on 19th October 2015 by Arrow Video (in a limited edition boxed set with Lucio’s Fulci’s THE BLACK CAT) 
Out of the five giallos Sergio Martino directed in the early 1970’s, YOUR VICE... brings to the banquet table a ripe feast of art house sensibility infused with spicy soft-core sex, and topped off with occasional morsels of giallo violence.


Oliviero Rouvigny (Pistilli) resides in a crumbling country villa, spending most of the time hosting decadent parties for the local hippies, whilst publically humiliating his wife Irina (Strindberg) as his once flourishing literary career slips ever further away. After his mistress, a former student, is found brutally slain with a sickle, Oliviero becomes the number one suspect. Things get even worse for Oliviero when his maid is also brutally slain in his mansion. In order to avoid further suspicion he walls the body up in the cellar. The murders don’t stop there however, and Oliviero’s life gets even more complicated with the sudden arrival of his beautiful niece Floriana (Fenech) who wastes no time in bedding not only his wife, but also the local delivery man before turning her irresistible charms on Oliviero himself! Throughout all this, lurking reproachfully in the shadows is his beloved black cat Satan – despised by wife Irina – who seems to be licking its chops at the cage containing Irina’s precious white doves...

Indebted to ‘The Black Cat’ by Edgar Allen Poe, but also influenced by Clouzot’s 1955 psychological thriller LES DAIBOLIQUES, director Martino’s hybrid giallo, perhaps not as well known as TORSO, is nevertheless a fascinating thriller with a host of juicy elements thrown into the pot.
Whilst the murder set-pieces are efficient enough, they almost seem perfunctory to the film. It’s as if Martino is more interested in exposing the psychological underbelly of his characters rather than opening up flesh wounds. Not that isn’t an abundance of (female) flesh on display, most notably that of Anita Strindberg’s Irina and the mesmerizingly beautiful Edwige Fenech as the sexually-liberated Floriana who waltzes into the villa after half an hour and owns the film as she disrobes both physically and psychological, all those around her. Both actresses are given meaty roles beyond the usual giallo victim confines however, and both rise to the occasion with Strindberg’s transformation key to the plot, and Fenech, playing the sexual catalyst rather than the usual innocent prey with a deliciously infectious allure. 

There are some startlingly effective visual flourishes conjured up by Martino and his cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando, taking full advantage of the lush Italian countryside and crumbling villa to create some visually arresting compositions. Editor Attilio Vincioni seems to be having great fun punctuating the narrative with jump-cut close-ups of black cat Satan’s ever watchful gaze, and there’s a standout sequence involving a motorbike ride feverishly cut with glimpses of a glamorous roadside advertising hoarding. A lushly haunting harpsichord and string score by Bruno Nicolai stirs up proceedings with a melodic spoon without overly ladling the recipe.

The typically twisty narrative is laced with some richly ribald dialogue, for example, when Oliviero tries to break off a date with his gorgeous ex-student mistress Fausta, she reminds him that: “You started working on me over the desks at high school sir, and now you’ll pay the price!” And who can resist a film which serves up (literally): “Satan loves sheep’s eyes”.
Whilst the film’s title, (taken from a note passed to a character in Martino’s earlier giallo THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH) makes little sense to me in terms of the story – how about ‘Don’t Torment a Cat’? (ha ha) – it offers up a fascinating slice of early 70’s Italian cinema. YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM...which deserves to be reopened and re-evaluated, and thanks to Arrow’s splendid HD transfer, now it can be. 

Extras: Through the Keyhole – a brand new interview with director Sergio Martino. Unveiling the Vice – making-of retrospective featuring interviews with Martino, star Edwige Fenech and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Dolls of Flesh and Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino – a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the director’s unique contributions to the giallo genre. The Strange Vices of Ms. Fenech – film historian Justin Harries on the Your Vice actress’ prolific career • Eli Roth on Your Vice and the genius of Martino


****(out of 5*)


Paul Worts

(Originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website)

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH



Directed by Terence Fisher, Starring: Anton Diffring, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court. Horror. UK, 1959, 83mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Dual format Blu-ray/ DVD on 21st September 2015 by Eureka Entertainment.

Paris 1890. Dr. Georges Bonner* has discovered the secret of eternal youth (he’s 104 years old but could pass for 30ish). Unfortunately the price to pay for immortality is to murder a young woman every 10 years, remove her fresh parathyroid glands, and exchange them via surgery with his own worn out ones. (He does however have a temporary ‘get out of jail free card’ whenever the 10 years are nearly up in the shape of a bubbling frothy green potion which sustains him for another 6+ hours at a time). But his usually reliable and now naturally ageing surgeon /co-inventor Professor Weiss has suffered a stroke and his hands can no longer perform the delicate surgery required to keep Dr Bonner youthful. And as if that wasn’t enough, Inspector Legris is on his trail – a trail strewn with dead mistresses who’ve posed for Dr Bonner over the years and whose sculptured busts serve as macabre artistic souvenirs marking the passage of time.

Adapted from the Barré Lyndon play ‘The Man in Half Moon Street’ (and previously filmed in 1945), Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay betrays its original stage origins with an abundance of talky scenes and a scarcity of horrific incident – at least for a Hammer film. It also suffers from the absence of Peter Cushing who turned down the lead role, and perhaps ultimately this is why the film is one of Hammer’s lesser known cinematic offerings.

Instead of Cushing we get melodramatic Anton Diffring, whose over-the-top stagey performance as the increasing maniacal gland snatcher raises titters rather than shivers: “I need a new watch. I need absolute accuracy!” 

There are some interesting philosophical exchanges between the mad doctor and his ageing co-conspirator Professor Weiss (Arnold Marlé) on the acceptance of mortality (or not in the case of our mad doctor), and Christopher Lee provides solid support as Dr. Pierre Gerard – a fellow surgeon reluctant to perform the unethical surgery required to sustain Dr Bonner. Lee’s character holds firm until Dr Bonner threatens the life of his current romantic interest (and former lover of the mad doctor) Janine Dubois, played by the mesmerising Hazel Court.

This is very much Hammer-lite. Neither overtly gruesome (except for the odd nasty burning side-effect), nor overly sexy – Hazel Court’s semi-nude pose is carefully framed to conceal her modesty (there’s supposedly a topless ‘European’ version – but it’s not included here). The story borrows most obviously from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, but there are also elements of HOUSE OF WAX and several fog-bound scenes have a distinct ‘Jack the Ripper’ air about them.

It’s enjoyable tame hokum, albeit with a rushed and incongruous ending (a character presumed dead inexplicably turns up alive; badly scarred and cackling insanely). And whilst it’s never going to be considered a classic as such, it’s an interesting curio in the Hammer catalogue.  

(*Listed as Bonnet’ on IMDb and in seemingly every source – but the name plaque outside the Doctor’s residence at the film’s opening clearly spells it: “Bonner”, so I’m sticking with it!)

Extras: New video interviews with Jonathan Rigby and Kim Newman. There’s also a Collector’s booklet which wasn’t included with this DVD screener.

***(out of 5*)
Paul Worts

Friday, 2 October 2015

CONTAINMENT

Directed by Neil Mcenery-West, Starring: Lee Ross, Sheila Reid, Andrew Leung, Louise Brealey. Horror, UK, 2015, 77mins, cert 15.

Released in the UK on DVD on 5th October 2015 by 4Digital Media.

“Please remain calm. The situation is under control.”

Recently divorced Mark (Lee Ross) is not having a good start to his day. Awaking to find both the electricity and the water in his tower block have been turned off, he then can’t seem to open the window, the mobile phone signal appears jammed and his front-door has been glued shut. Initial suspicions that this might be some kind of prank are soon dispelled when he glances out across to the adjacent high-rise and spots a fellow resident desperately pounding his fists on his own sealed in double-glazed flat. Then, to top in all, Mark glances downward and sees HazMat (hazardous materials) suited personnel entering the block opposite whilst some kind of field hospital appears to taking shape on the communal lawn below.

First-time director Neil Mcener-West’s low-budget high-rise rift on [REC] mixed with THE CRAZIES type of scenario is proficient and lean and delivers a taunt kitchen-sink nightmare scenario. It’s focus is not so much on the reason for the ‘containment’ (there are a few cursory details offered late on regarding some kind of virus outbreak), but more about how the trapped residents react to the situation, and to each other – and that’s where the real horror is located.

As our reluctant hero, frustrated artist Mark (played with measured conviction by Lee Ross) finds himself forced by circumstances into banding together with his neighbours who, except for grouchy OAP Enid (Sheila Reid), he’s never really paid any attention to before. But thanks to the hit first ask questions later approach of bully-boy Sergei smashing through the paper-thin apartment walls in order to gather them together (safety in numbers), Mark is about to find out exactly what his neighbours’ true natures really are. Refreshingly, there aren’t any zombies resulting from this biohazard, here the threat lies within when the claustrophobic pressure of being trapped with a seemingly deadly pandemic in the air begins to take its toll mentally and physically on the remaining tenants.

Sheila Reid lightens the mood on occasions with barbed pronouncements such as: “Trust us to be the last – just like the fucking bins”, and writer David Lemon also provides her with this assessment of the residents’ predicament: “Weren’t like this during the war...At least it were some’ing you could all see...”

With clearly a very modest budget to play with, the sound design is worth its weight in gold for painting in the suggestion of an encroaching military presence of helicopters etc, and the haunting soundscape which accompanies the carefully composed shots of bleak vistas provide an effectively unsettlingly backdrop to the visceral struggles within the tower block.

Whilst the premise itself is hardly original, the film’s overall strength lies in its unsentimental and unflinching examination of quite how fragile the veneer of civilised society really is. Some of the characterisation is thin, and plot holes leave the occasional splinter, but the ruthless thrust of the narrative coupled with a trimmed-to-the-bone running time ensures the cracks don’t weaken the structure fatally. 

***(out of 5*)
      

Paul Worts