Tuesday, 26 April 2016

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1983)

Directed by Douglas Hickox, Starring: Ian Richardson, Donald Churchill, Denholm Elliott. Crime, Horror, UK, 1983, 100mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray, download and on-demand on April 25th by Second Sight.


“But without the imagination Watson, there would be no horror”.

Originally planned as a series of six made-for-TV films, US producer Sy Weintraub’s plan was scuppered after just two (THE SIGN OF FOUR being the other) were completed due to copyright wrangling with the Conan Doyle estate and Granada Television swooping in and making their own Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett as the famous detective.  
    
Directed by Douglas (THEATRE OF BLOOD) Hickox, with a script penned by Charles (THE FLY, PSYCHO III) Edward Pogue, and lensed by veteran cinematographer Ronnie Taylor (whose incredible roster of jaw-droppingly diverse credits even include three Argento’s), clearly there is much to entice horror fans to revisit this re-working of the tale of the glowing beasty on the moors.


Ian Richardson’s interpretation of Holmes is a friendlier, better humoured reading of the Baker Street sleuth and one I immediately warmed to. His impish playfulness is encapsulated by his masquerade as a fortune-telling gypsy popping up unexpectedly with his pack of cards disguised as a cross between Ron Moody’s ‘Fagin’ from OLIVER! and Peter Cushing’s ‘Doctor Schreck’ from DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS.


Donald Churchill’s ‘Watson’ is less endearing however, coming across as an annoying, pompous, blustering windbag. Inevitably, Pogue’s screenplay plays fast and loose with some of the original story’s elements – but one reward of this is to introduce the character of ‘Geoffrey Lyons’. Inspired casting throws up Brian Blessed in the role, who SHOUTS a lot whilst chewing up the scenery, is mistakenly considered a prime-suspect due to his ‘black’ beard (which in reality is the brownest black beard I’ve ever seen and therefore surely a ‘red-herring’), and towers over the production like Robbie Coltrane’s ‘Hagrid’ in the HARRY POTTER franchise. Martin Shaw is completely miscast as American Sir Henry Baskerville (inevitably dubbed), perhaps the casting department miss-interpreted their instruction to get a professional? 


The actual hound of the title is initially and very unpromisingly rendered with a brief daub of animation before a suitably mighty canine (enhanced with SCOOBY-DOO day glow) is enticed to attack later on. But a word of warning to any animal lovers – this production is ruthless in its depiction of dispatching creatures great and small. Whilst Sir Hugo Baskerville is molesting farm girl Francesca Gonshaw (Maria from ALLO ‘ALLO!) her stolen horse is torturously consumed by the quick-sand like bog that is Grimpen Mire. This triggered my traumatic flashbacks to Artax’s demise in the Swamp of Sadness from THE NEVERENDING STORY, and coupled with the brutal assault it’s intercut with, this sequence would surely have brought a barrage of ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ complaints to ‘Points of View’ had it ever been shown on TV! And it doesn’t stop there. Dr Mortimer’s pooch gets chewed up more graphically than Amy Steel’s ‘Muffin’ in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, and director Hickox even throws in a close-up of rabbits being skinned and gutted and the carcass of a freshly consumed sheep – it’s a PETA video nasty I tell ya!

Production values are high for a TV film, and cinematographer Taylor even pulls off an Argento-like set-piece early on with a spiralling camera depicting Sir Charles’ death by fang juxtaposed with a steadicam chase as servants rush to his aid.


Unfortunately, I have to report that Taylor’s photography isn’t at all well served by the surprisingly ropey ‘HD’ transfer which is often so poor it’s easy to forget you’re actually watching a Blu-ray. 


But this classic shaggy dog tale is reasonably well-told and provides an entertaining enough yarn to sink your teeth into, even if you are required to overly extend your imagination to evoke horror at, and from, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. 


Extras: Audio commentary by ‘Holmes’ expert David Stuart Davies.

***(out of 5*)


Paul Worts


Originally published on the FRIGHTFEST website.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

EXPOSED

Directed by Declan Dale, Starring: Keanu Reeves, Ana de Armas, Mira Sorvino. Crime, mystery, US, 2016, 97mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on Digital HD April 15th and DVD & Blu-ray April 25th by Signature Entertainment.

New York Detective Scot Galban (Keanu Reeves) investigates the brutal murder of his partner. Meanwhile, a young woman called Isabel (Ana de Armas) starts seeing albino angels and appears to be pregnant from some kind of Immaculate Conception.

Originally titled ‘Daughter of God’, the film apparently suffered significant studio interference resulting in director Gee Malik Linton pulling an ‘Alan Smithee’ and hiding behind the pseudonym ‘Declan Dale’ (presumably because ‘Dirk Diggler’ was copyrighted). Whether writer/director Linton’s original vision would have delivered a more satisfying final product is something we’ll probably never know. Certainly the original title suggests the intention was to focus on Isabel – whose story admittedly appears more interesting than the negligible murder investigation which Keanu Reeves staggers through with as much urgency as a somnambulistic zombie wading through a particularly deep pool of treacle. 

Keanu’s cold amoral detective is portrayed in such a detached minimalist manner I’d actually describe it as a non-performance.The character of the murdered detective’s widow, played by Mira Sorvino, appears written (and played) as the next phase in the embittered life of her tart-with-a-heart hooker role from Woody Allen’s MIGHTY APHRODITE. Ana de Armas admittedly makes a reasonable fist of it conveying her character Isabel’s vulnerability and emotional turmoil. 

The film is watchable. The photography for example manages to ring every drop of cinematic interest as it’s possible from the essentially threadbare dry drama. The problem is that having sat through it you inevitably feel cheated and unrewarded. Police corruption, Catholic faith, child abuse, rape, you name it there’s enough individual elements here for several films. Unfortunately, all these competing strands end up drowning in the muddied waters of a re-edited product with a seemingly shoe-horned Keanu Reeves cop-thriller floating precariously through it like an unconvincing rubber dingy. 

Neither one thing nor the other, the film suddenly arrives at an abrupt conclusion with a supposed double twist bonus, (one of which I saw coming so clearly it might as well have been advertised on a neon billboard in Times Square). And as for the other, well in order to at least try to instil some doubt as to the identity of the killer, the actual detail of the murder isn’t revealed to the viewer until the panicky last-minute dénouement. The fact that it’s shown in the trailer seriously undermines the mystery – unless you’re Keanu Reeves’ Detective Galban however - who struggles implausibly with it for most of the films running time. 

Roll on ‘Bill & Ted 3’.      

Extras: Behind the Scenes
**(Out of 5*)

Paul Worts
(Originally published on FRIGHTFEST website)
 

Saturday, 16 April 2016

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT



Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Starring: Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann. Drama, Germany, 1972, 124mins, Cert 15.

Released in the UK on Blu-ray on 4th April 2016 by Arrow Academy.


I’ll be completely honest, when I saw the title on the disc my first thought was: is this an obscure early 70s Italian-German co-produced giallo that I’ve never heard of? A quick search on IMDb dampened my initial enthusiasm when I discovered it was no such thing, but instead some serious art cinema from German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Now whilst I’m more than familiar with the films of Michael Fassbender, I’m a Fassbinder virgin (or at least I was until popping my cherry with Petra).


Adapted from Fassbinder’s own stage play, the entire film takes place in the bedroom of Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), a successful fashion designer who lives with her assistant/maid/general dog’s body/slave, Marlene (Irm Hermann). Masochistic subservient Marlene doesn’t utter a single word during the course of the film, but still manages to convey the inner turmoil bubbling away within when she realises the object of her devotion has fallen in love with Karin (Hanna Schygulla) a young would-be model. Plot wise, essentially that’s it. The film is divided up into several distinct acts; each one defined by a change of costume for Petra as Fassbinder forensically examines the emotional impact of the relationship between Petra and Karin (and the mutely observing Marlene).


Given the one-set location, Fassbinder infuses the mise-en-scène with an abundance of detail, from the mannequin dolls passively observing the goings-on in Petra’s bedroom to the visually dominating painting which covers the wall. A floor-to-ceiling blow-up of Poussin’s ‘Midas and Bacchus’ (I looked this up in case you mistake me for an art expert) it acts as a stunning symbolic backdrop to the unfolding events before it.


I can appreciate the meticulous design and precise camerawork which positively oozes out of the screen in this superb blu-ray restoration. But I can’t say I was ever fully engaged with or sympathetic to any of the characters, and I found the overly-theatrical postures and mannerisms, no matter how painstainkingly well choreographed they undoubtedly were, too ripe of artifice to really care. In truth it’s a very slow, very talky couple of hours. I did like the scene where frustrated Marlene pounds furiously away on her typewriter in the background whilst Petra and Karin engage in elaborate shadow and wordplay on the bed. I found myself wondering what Marlene was actually typing: ‘All work and no play makes Marlene a dull girl’ over and over again perhaps? Or maybe the actress was really composing a letter of complaint to her agent demanding she gets at least some dialogue in whatever role she’s offered next? And I’d have given anything for a black leather-gloved hand to have crept into frame wielding a cut-throat razor at some point, but alas Fassbinder felt his art house musings didn’t require any such frisson of excitement (shame).


If (unlike me) you’re a connoisseur of Fassbinder’s work, then I’m sure this title will be an essential purchase (assuming you haven’t already forked out for the Criterion US import). The picture quality is stunning given the film’s age and the comprehensive extras add good value to the overall package. For me, whilst I can’t say after watching it that I’m now a fully paid up member of the Fassbinder fan-club, I can at least partially see why it’s held in such high regard in art cinema.


Extras: Commentary by filmmaker and lecturer Diane Charleson, a 50-minute interview with the director conducted for German television in 1978, and a 1992 documentary containing interviews with four of the director’s leading ladies, Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla and Rosel Zech.


***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts