Friday 18 December 2020

CRASH (1996)

Directed by: David Cronenberg. Starring: James Spader,

Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette. Canada 1996, 100mins, Certificate 18.

Released on digital download from 30th November 2020, and on both Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray and Blu-ray in limited editions by Arrow Video from 14th December 2020.

“The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.”

When David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel ‘Crash’ screened at the Cannes Film Festival on the morning of 16th May 1996 it set off a chain-reaction that became a very English moral panic. The Evening Standard’s pompous film critic Alexander Walker pronounced the film as being “beyond the bounds of depravity”, and wrote in his review that it contained “some of the most perverted acts and theories of sexual deviance I have ever seen propagated in mainline cinema.”

So, thanks to Arrow Video you can now view these depraved sexually deviant acts in ultra HD courtesy of a 4K restoration of the uncut NC-17 version, supervised by director of photography Peter Suschitzky and approved by director David Cronenberg himself!

Not that the film was ever actually banned or cut in any way by the BBFC. Instead, thanks largely to a concerted crusade spearheaded by the Daily Mail - which eventually led to some 400 press reports on the film – and harkened back to the ‘video nasties’ moral panic in the 80’s,  Westminster City Council insisted on cuts being made before it was shown in London’s West End. This, despite the fact the Council had previously given permission for the film to be premiered as part of the 1996 London Film Festival. Having been granted an uncut ‘18’ certificate from the BBFC, to the distributors considerable credit, they refused to re-submit for cuts and the film was therefore effectively banned in the West End, including Leicester Square. (I watched it at the A.B.C. Shaftesbury Avenue, a short walk away over in neighbouring Camden).

Reviewing it again after some considerable time in this glorious HD restored version, I found the film to be far more sexually focused, both visually and dialogue-wise, than I originally recalled. Still somewhat restrained compared to the moral indignation it stirred up however, with only one scene I’d class as actual sexual ‘body-horror’ (involving Rosanna Arquette’s leg, and even that is shot largely through implication rather than graphic close-up). I chuckled appreciatively at the customary dark Cronenbergian conceits (Cronenberg himself admits in the TIFF Q&A to laughing all the way through a recent re-watch). And I admired the detached unblinking viewpoint, admittedly here never bleaker, as he focused his microscopic lens on the Petrie dish of human subjects crashing and colliding about, indulging their symphorophilia and car crash fetishism, or ‘benevolent psychopathology’ as their leader, Vaughan outlines.

Having only previously been available in the UK in a bare-bones DVD, this limited edition release from Arrow Video represents somewhat of a gourmet banquet in comparison.

Firstly, the HD transfer, which I viewed on standard Blu-ray, is superb, rendering every scar and metallic infusion with skin in pristine clarity with natural film grain, and showcasing Cronenberg regular Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography richly and with depth. I would imagine the Ultra HD 4K version is equally terrific and then some.

There’s a brand new audio commentary by the Australian film scholar Adrian Martin. Significant new interviews are included: director of photography Peter Suschitzky, (who doesn’t like horror films, thought Cronenberg was ‘just’ a horror film director, but concludes he was “the most intelligent director I’ve ever worked with”), executive producer Jeremy Thomas, composer Howard Shore (three harps and six guitars), and casting director Deirdre Bowen, which collectively add up to some 90 mins.

There’s two substantial Q&A’s included on the disc, one recorded in 2019 at TIFF with Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen (52 mins), together with the gargantuan 1996 Q&A at the National Film Theatre with author J.G. Ballard (with a running time longer than the film itself, clocking in at a whopping 1 hour 41 mins). Some behind-the-scenes footage, contemporary press interviews and trailers are sprinkled in for good measure, along with a brand new video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal entitled ‘Architect of Pain: The Cronenberg Project’ on the Canadian auteur’s use of architecture and location.

And then there’s five short films vying for attention on the disc. Firstly, an 18 minute film originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Review series, starring J.G. Ballard and loosely adapted from his 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition entitled, ‘Crash!’ (catchy title). Two shorts inspired by Ballard and the novel Crash: Nightmare Angel (33 mins) and Always (crashing) (14 mins). And finally, in terms of what’s crammed on the disc, Cronenberg himself contributes two short films: ‘The Nest’ (2013, 10mins) and At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World (2007, 4 mins).

The only extra which appears missing, which will apparently be included on the upcoming US Criterion Blu-ray release, is a 1997 commentary by Cronenberg himself, which does seem an odd omission. Personally I’d have sacrificed Adrian Martin’s commentary if it was a choice (no offence Adrian).

The limited edition also includes a fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Vanessa Morgan, Araceli Molina, Jason Wood and Zoe Beloff, and a reprinted excerpt from Cronenberg on Cronenberg (which I have a dog-eared and well-read copy of on my shelves at home).And to top and tail this lavish release, there’s a fold-out double-sided poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork, and Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

In an archival interview on the disc, Cronenberg states that his intention with the film was to avoid all the emotional response clichés (in the same way that Ballard’s original source novel does). In this I think he certainly achieved his goal, as it’s a film to be admired and respected, but perhaps a challenging work to completely warm to. Cronenberg, whist somewhat horrified to admit it, also considers CRASH to be ‘politically correct’ in the sense that all the sexual and violent acts depicted in the film are consensual. Ballard, in turn, described his novel as a cautionary tale, a nightmare marriage between sex and technology, but at the same time an invitation to explore. A perfect analogy of the  Cronenberg approach, and now with Arrow’s fine limited edition release, an invitation I’d certainly recommend accepting.

 *****(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

SPRING (2014)

Directed by: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Starring: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker, Francesco Carnelutti. Horror, Romance, Sci-Fi. US 2014, 109mins, Cert 15.

“Are you a vampire, werewolf, zombie, witch or alien?”

In answer to American tourist Evan’s (Lou Taylor Pucci) question posed to his alluring ‘Italian’ girlfriend Louise (Nadia Hilker): actually none of the above as it turns out in Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead’s critically acclaimed romantic/sci-fi/body horror hybrid. Think Richard Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE, Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION, by way of Ron Howard’s SPLASH with a healthy dollop of H.P. Lovecraft. 

Finally available on Blu-ray here in the UK,(after an inexplicable wait), plaudits are therefore in order to 101 Films for coming up with a handsome package of special features, including 2 separate director commentaries, a HD transfer that showcases the subtle palette cinematography and meticulous framing, and comes replete with a reversible sleeve with alternative artwork.

On the surface it’s a deceptively simple story of boy meets girl, at least initially, before splicing sub-genres into a romantic exploration of the cyclic nature of change, rebirth, renewal and decay.

In California, Evan Lou Taylor Pucci – EVIL DEAD, 2013) gets into a vicious bar brawl after attending the funeral of his mother, his last remaining relative, who he has cared for whilst watching her gradually succumb to cancer. Losing his job as a result of the fight, and with the cops on his trail, on impulse he gets on a plane and heads to Italy. After several days spent in the company of a couple of boozy British travellers (incredibly grating), he finds himself in a sleepy coastal town where he encounters a beautiful woman in a red dress, Louise, (Nadia Hilker, THE WALKING DEAD). Plucking up the courage to ask her out, she instantly offers him sex, which arouses (steady on) his suspicions that this is all too good to be true and that maybe she’s a prostitute.

He takes a job as an assistant to an elderly widowed farmer named Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti), and spends his nights back in town hoping for a glimpse of Louise again. Soon enough he finds her and a relationship quickly develops. Louise is however somewhat of an enigma. After confiding as such to farmer Angelo, Evan is counselled with: “Women, jewels of the world”. Evan will however eventually discover Louise’s true nature, and just what she means when she describes herself as: “half undiscovered science”.

Gradually, as their relationship develops, Benson and Moorhead begin to introduce visual hints and pointers into their widescreen frame. Spiders entrap flies in webs, and there’s a creeping accumulation of dead strewn fauna scattered around the town. Seemingly in contrast however, vines begin to grow rapidly, leaves spring out of brickwork, and flowers bloom and wither. The poster on Louise’s wall warrants close scrutiny too.

The film’s third act goes into overdrive in terms of explanation, revelation and off-the-wall humour. The script throws up all manner of details and mind-boggling reveals which quietly explode like a row of firecrackers. In the interest of not overly spoiling the almost giddy pleasures herein I will not go into them here. I will however quote Evan’s consoling “At least you’ve got the same back story as Harry Potter” in response to Louise’s “You’ve got the same back story as Batman”.

The final sequence is a brilliantly conceived resolution, which lingers long after the end credits roll. Benson and Moorhead manage to pull off a naturalistic and convincing balancing act, on the one hand an engaging portrait of two young people falling in love, (perfectly played by its two leads), whilst on the other, delivering a sprinkling of practical and CG enhanced creature effects to supplement themes and concepts which all blend into a richly entertaining and quietly moving tale.  


**** (Out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

Thursday 22 October 2020


Directed by: Chris Helton. Starring: Casper Van Dien, Griff Furst, Brianne Davis, Judd Nelson. Thriller, US 2019, 86mins, Cert 15.

“You ready for a weekend that’s gonna change your life?”

DEAD WATER meekly follows in the wake of far more effective claustrophobic sea thrillers such as Phillip Noyce’s 1989 DEAD CALM and Rob Grant’s 2019 HARPOON. It sinks itself with a script that treads (dead) water for two-thirds of its modest running time before introducing Judd (THE BREAKFAST CLUB) Nelson’s black bearded pirate (no, really), who appears to have randomly drifted in from a completely different and far more interesting film.

In a clear attempt to kick against type-casting, STARSHIP TROOPERS Casper Van Dien is implausibly cast as a rich orthopaedic surgeon named Dr John Livingstone (I presume). Whilst his decorated Marine buddy David ‘Coop’ Cooper (Griff Furst) was on active duty in Afghanistan, the bone doctor Livingstone was ‘taking care’ of David’s TV reporter wife Viviane (Brianne Davis). Returning home with full-on raging PTSD, buddy John suggests the couple come along for a few days away on the open water cruising with him on his new luxury 75ft yacht the ‘Bella Would’ (don’t ask).

Once onboard, Dr Livingstone’s rehabilitation strategy consists largely of plying Coop with beer, poker and a supremely inadvisable game of truth or dare. When that fails, he employs an unorthodox therapeutic technique of shoving a harpoon gun in his mate’s face and demanding he tells him how many people he killed in combat! As Coop understandably storms off Van Dien strains every sinew of his chiselled jaw to deliver this cod-psychology diagnosis with a semi-straight face: “You know you act like a calm ocean but you’re turbulent underneath!”

When Coop first boards the yacht, he quips: “It’s not going to be a ‘three hour tour’, is it?” Well the first hour almost feels like three, with ponderous rather than portentous pacing floundering to the point where I would have welcomed the introduction of a poorly rendered 3-headed CGI shark to chow down on this plodding love-triangle.

However, just as I was about to send up a boredom distress flare, along comes partial salvation in the shape of a fishing vessel named ‘Usual Suspects’ (no, really) and Judd Nelson as Sam, a black bearded pirate with a freshly-inflicted scar above his eye (sadly a poor substitute for an eye-patch).

The unwritten commandment thou shall not spoil prevents me from navigating you much further through the remaining turbulent waters of salty and frankly ludicrously laughable plot twists and weakly staged (belated) violence. However, I honestly wished the film had introduced Judd Nelson’s pirate a whole lot sooner, or better yet, jumped ship completely over to the ‘Usual Suspects’ vessel.

But, the location photography shot in the U.S Virgin Islands provided an agreeable distraction when viewed on a grimly wet and windy Sunday morning. To give Casper Van Dien his due, although he would have been better served playing the ex-marine role, Casper acquits himself competently enough given the blandness of the writing and the unsubtle direction which undermines any implied ambiguity as to his character’s motivations. Apart from his PTSD, all I learnt about his buddy Coop was that he prefers pistachio ice-cream to actual food, and Brianne Davis’ ‘Viviane’ is a better shot with a firearm than Dr Livingstone is with a harpoon gun.

Ultimately, DEAD WATER is dead in the water long before Yo Ho Ho! pirate Nelson climbs aboard. There’s just about enough story here to fill up the running length of an episode of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, but the preceding 50+ minutes serve as unnecessary ballast that should have been heaved overboard long before this ship set sail.      

(P.S. Note for all scriptwriters, if you’re going to reference arguably the finest sea-faring suspense film of all-time, please have the courtesy to at least get one of its main protagonist’s character’s names correct: it’s ‘Quint’ not ‘Quintin’.)

Paul Worts

**(Out of 5*)

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

Tuesday 11 August 2020


Directed by: Brian Avenet-Bradley and Laurence Avenet-Bradley Starring: Trista Robinson, Hannah Race, Paul Chirico, Marshal Hilton. Horror, US 2018, 90mins, Cert 15.

Available on-demand/download from 20th July 2020 and on DVD from 3rd August by Second Sight Films.

“Retirement is death.”

When her grandfather dies unexpectedly, Alisha (Trista Robinson) inherits his house. Unable to afford the upkeep, she temporarily moves in to get it in a reasonable state to sell. But almost straightaway there’s an eerie atmosphere, and things soon start to go bump in the night. Is the supernatural presence trying to guide her to hidden secrets buried in the crawlspaces of the house, or is there a more tangible threat lurking around the periphery of the property?

The modern urban setting is reminiscent of JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, (albeit with California instead of Japan) and the well-worn spooky haunted house tropes are familiar from an inordinate amount of genre ghost-fests. However, writer/director Brian Avenet-Bradley and his co-directing real-life partner Laurence have two aces up their sleeves which elevate the material, enabling it to deliver more than the sum of its initially clichéd parts.

Firstly, they execute with clinical precision half a dozen absolute doozy jump scares, several of which had even this semi-jaded old horror connoisseur yelping involuntarily. The first doesn’t arrive until nearly a third of the way into the running time, even though the measured preceding build-up is laden with portent indicators. Doors creak open, intercoms and pipes convey whispering voices, a creepy ornament twists it head before revealing an old photograph inside with a face scratched out, bathwater turns black, and, in a nice variation on the child’s ball bouncing down the staircase, a pet mouse’s exercise ball clatters and spins on its axis (without its owner inside). Whilst on the staircase, and trust me, I wouldn’t choose to linger there any longer than necessary, this is the location for the film’s most effective jump scare, a perfectly choreographed staging of sleight-of-hand misdirection not unlike the type of shock pulled off in-camera by Mario Bava in his literally titled SHOCK. 

And then there’s the Avenet-Bradley’s second ace. Incidental details incrementally build to a disconcertingly and unexpectedly dark twisted third-act reveal.

I must mention ‘Twinkie’ the mouse (and Twinkie’s stand-in ‘Twixie’). At one point Alisha’s friend Steph (Hannah Grace) suggests letting Twinkie run free in order to lead them to where a secret is hidden. I half-hoped she would justify this theory with something as equally barmy as Dario Argento’s assertion in PHENOMENA that: “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic.” Sadly no such justification was forthcoming.

ECHOES OF FEAR is a well-engineered ghost train ride. From the outside it appears to be housed in the back of an old funfair lorry with sunlight poking in through the holes in its walls. The ride initially meanders through a steady cheesy stream of the cinematic equivalents of rubber cobwebs and juddery animatronics before cranking up to some genuine gotcha seat-jumper scares and delivering a grim finale in amongst the crawlspaces. It’s by no means a game changer, but it left me with a wry smile on my face when I finally emerged back into the daylight and exited the ride.  

***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

Sunday 19 July 2020


Directed by: Mike Hodges. Starring: Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce. Horror, US 1989, 103 mins, Cert 15.

“We steal if we touch tomorrow. It is God’s.”

Criminally under distributed on its initial release, this intriguing late-80’s metaphysical thriller is finally now getting the HD release it merits courtesy of Arrow Video. In a brand new restoration from the original negative, approved by writer-director Mike Hodges (FLASH GORDON, GET CARTER), all the colours of this dark rainbow radiate in a spectrum of themes and ideas about religion, bilocation, corporate corruption and the darkness that lies ahead for the planet. 

In a spellbinding performance eschewing her early 80’s ‘kookiness’ Rosanna Arquette (DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, CRASH) plays Martha Travis, a travelling medium who tours across the Bible-Belt with her sceptical alcoholic father (Jason Robards, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN). Conducting séances on stages to relay messages from the deceased to their ticket-paying loved ones in the audience, during one such séance, Martha communicates with a dead man, violently murdered, all of which comes as quite a shock to his wife who insists she left him watching TV at home only an hour ago! But Martha has been given the blessing/curse of foresight – for later that evening the husband is indeed assassinated by a hit man whilst he’s at home watching James Cagney in WHITE HEAT on the tele. But this is only the beginning of Martha’s prophetic messages from the afterlife, and as more of her psychic predictions come true, this attracts the attention of both an investigative journalist, Garry Wallace (Tom Hulce, AMADEUS), and the aforementioned hit man, for Martha knows his name... 

Although labelled a supernatural thriller, Mike Hodges twisty, serpentine-like film is a Hydra of multiple plot strands, much like the Kudzu weeds whose tendrils invade the Southern US, consuming the landscape and the film’s ambiguous coda. Perhaps there’s actually just too much going on here for one film? For example, you could certainly argue that the sub-plot involving the hit man seems somewhat incongruous given the main thrust of the subject matter and it’s overreliance in the trailer miss-sells the film’s ambiance as a result.   

Rosanna Arquette’s medium, (sister Patricia would coincidentally also go on to play a medium in the literal-titled TV show ‘Medium’), is not only a conduit for the dead to relay words of comfort to their loved ones, but also it seems a  prophecyer for the destructive path human beings are on course for to turn the world black. If that wasn’t heady enough material, religion also comes up for close scrutiny and Hodge’s sprinkles in some spicy quips in amongst the debate. A corrupt policeman warns his dodgy benefactor that: “As the only Jew in the area, I know where the nails are going...” Hodges’s dialogue is often ripe and juicy with a hard-boiled pulp cynicism, as when Martha explains her willingness towards one-night stands to reporter Garry: “This way men lie with me and not to me”. 

Industrial corruption, health and safety whistle blowing scandals, meditations on the afterlife; it’s certainly a rich concoction. Little incidentals such as Martha’s wristwatch always seeming to be an hour or two behind merely float on by without further extrapolation. I was tickled by the wryly mundane scene at the airport check-in where the ruthless hit man is firstly informed his ticket isn’t for first class, that he cannot therefore access the first-class lounge, and finally, to add insult to injury, his flight is delayed! 

The North Carolina shooting locations provide a richly rewarding backdrop, and veteran cinematographer Gerry Fisher (EXORCIST III, WOLFEN, THE NINETH CONFIGURATION) pulls out all the tops with his crisp cinematography. A particular standout sequence encapsulates the early morning rising sun gradually illuminating the reflective glass of downtown office blocks before cutting to the raising of the American Flag and concluding with an ominous gust causing traffic lights to sway in the breeze as an explosion rings out in the distance and sirens are heard.

Jason Robards is splendidly grizzled (and guzzled) as the burnt out father who dismisses his daughter’s abilities (as he did her mother’s) but relies on the takings from her séances to keep him in liquor. Tom Hulce acquits himself equally well as the reporter initially described as being “ agnostic and an arsehole” who starts off merely chasing a story before gradually becoming obsessively entangled both with Martha’s psychic claims, and then with Martha herself, spiralling downward into one of the film’s open ended strands.

This is not a film that provides a neat explanatory wrap-up. As the weeds encroach upon the finale, the fate of one, (and the very nature of another) lead protagonist is ambiguous to say the least. Listening to the director’s commentary, this is intentional, so don’t castigate yourself if you too can’t immediately formulate a satisfactory hypothesis upon first viewing. Normally, I find open-ended conclusions frustrating, but given the richness of the material presented beforehand, combined with the strength of the performances, most notably Rosanna Arquette’s hauntingly beautiful and ethereal Martha, I’m willing to concede there is still a pot of gold waiting at the end of Mike Hodges’ BLACK RAINBOW. 

**** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

Wednesday 24 June 2020


Directed by: Bong Joon-ho. Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton. Sci-Fi, South Korea 2013, 126mins, Cert 15.

“The train is the world. We, the humanity”

Finally arriving on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK 7 years after its completion, this dystopian allegory on a train from Oscar winning director and co-scripter Bong Joon-ho (PARASITE) seems all the more pertinent given the present enforced world-wide lockdown.

In an attempt to combat global warming, scientists dispersed a chemically engineered coolant dubbed ‘CW-7’ into the atmosphere to bring Mother Earth’s temperature down a bit. Unfortunately, it worked rather too well and ushered in a new ice-age killing off almost the entire planet except for a few survivors who manage to board a train – the Snowpiercer. Designed by a rail-obsessed maverick genius known as Wilford, his technologically advanced ‘rattling ark’ circumnavigates the world once every 12 months on a global track layout, smashing through built up snow and ice blockades whilst being entirely self-sustaining.

Based on the French graphic novel ‘Le Transperceneige’, the film wears its class struggle allegory on its sleeve. The working class poor suffer squalid conditions in the rear of the train, whilst the first-class passengers towards the front enjoy luxurious dining and recreational facilities. However, 17-years after boarding the Snowpiercer, anti-hero Curtis (Chris Evans) is planning a peasant passenger revolt under the mentoring eye of his elder confidant Gilliam (John Hurt). But this plot to obtain a collective upgrade by taking the engine: “We control the engine, we control the world” will rely on a security specialist Namgoong Minsoo(Song Kang-ho) who is seemingly addicted to a drug manufactured from flammable industrial waste, and a hunch that the ‘armed’ guards have actually run out of live ammunition... 

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton - marvellously grotesque), in one of her raids on the poor end of the train, places a shoe on the head of protective father Andrew (Ewen Bremner, ‘Spud’ from TRAINSPOTTING) to reinforce the social hierarchy in this new world order on rails. Echoes perhaps to George Orwell’s chilling pronouncement from ‘1984’: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” But in case you think SNOWPIERCER will be bogged down with socio-political commentary, rest assured it storms through its (admittedly scientifically dodgy premise) with as much forward momentum as the train the action explodes within. Like a bleakly violent reworking of THE WIZARD OF OZ, every newly hot-wired door opens into a carriage of increasingly colourful lands offering tantalising glimpses of luxury and civility, with the ultimate prize being an audience with the omnipotent wizard himself, Wilford (Ed Harris) in the train’s Emerald City, the engine.

In order to avoid spoilers, details must remain vague and sketchy as to what the increasingly darker journey down the Snowpiercer specifically entails. There is a standout bloody set-piece when the train enters a tunnel, and a memorably disconcerting visit to the classroom section. But the fact that revealing the ingredients of the gelatinous ‘protein packs’ fed to the rear-end passengers occurs less than an hour into the running time signals that far more horrific surprises are awaiting further down the line.

Technically and visually, the film is a marvel of design, with each new section of the train offering bold, intricately detailed carriages. The cinematography pulls off the not inconsiderable achievement of making the potentially claustrophobic set-up of confined spaces visually arresting and immersive.

To this end, Bong Joon-ho is assisted with some strong performances, with John Hurt, now sadly missed, but fascinating as always, and Chris Evans stepping up to the mark proving he is more than just Captain America and delivering a third-act monologue which is so disturbing Marvel fans should be forewarned. 

The Blu-ray transfer vividly captures the nuanced detailed textures in both set and character, reproducing the extensive gamut of colour from the drabness and gloom of the rear carriages to the opulent garishness of the front sections whilst offering a pin-sharp transfer with a pleasingly filmic texture.

With a Netflix commissioned series due to arrive shortly, and director Bong Joon-ho’s stock higher than ever thanks to PARASITE (although genre aficionados were already championing the director after his 2006 creature-feature THE HOST),  now is a perfect time to catch this exceptionally well-realised, uncompromised, Korean Sci-Fi actioner powerhouse.  

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

Friday 3 April 2020

MAGIC (1978)

Directed by Richard Attenborough. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter. Horror, US, 1978, 107 mins, cert 15.

“It was you the whole time...I hope I don't die first, is all...”

Back in 1978, way before Chucky and Annabelle, but some considerable time after Hugo from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), director Richard Attenborough chanced his arm by bringing William Goldman’s novel and adapted script to the screen with Anthony Hopkins chancing his arm by sticking it up a creepy ventriloquist dummy.

MAGIC was Attenborough’s only directing foray into the horror/thriller genre - his follow up project turned out to be the multi-Oscar laden GHANDI. It’s a well-crafted portrait of psychological breakdown and all-consuming schizophrenia with shades of PSYCHO (1960). Corky (Anthony Hopkins), is an unsuccessful meek and mild stage magician who hits the big-time by reinventing his act with the addition of a snappy foul-mouthed sidekick ventriloquist dummy named Fats. 

The film’s pedigree is undeniable. Hopkins throws himself into the role hook line and sinker and delivers an unbridled tour-de-force performance, even taking illusion and ventriloquism lessons before filming in order to pull-off his voice-throwing magician routine in-camera. Burgess Meredith provides sterling support as Corky’s cigar smoking agent Ben Greene, “The Postman” (because he always delivers). Having discovered Corky, Ben secures a potentially lucrative network TV contract for his client, the only stumbling block being the network’s insistence on a routine medical examination. Corky panics (presumably due to a fear of what the psychological tests might find) and flees New York heading back to the rural wooded Catskills where he grew up. Taking a log cabin by a lake, he meets (and hooks up) with his old high school crush, Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret). Having been far too shy in high school to act on his yearning, Fats’ persona imbues Corky with the swagger to finally act on his feelings. Inconveniently, Corky gets caught in a love-triangle because Peggy Ann is married to her alcoholic high school boyfriend, Duke (Ed Lauter).

Corky’s agent pursues him into the Catskills and stumbles in on one of his client’s argumentative meltdowns with his dummy Fats. This leads to one of the film’s most effective scenes when Meredith’s character challenges Corky to keep Fats quiet for a full five minutes.  

It’s a film which incrementally creeps up (and out) thanks to Hopkins’ sleight-of-hand performance instilling the genuinely unsettling Hopkins lookalike dummy with a palpable sense of menace. To this end, Victor Kemper’s cinematography cunningly frames Fats in ways that suggests the dummy is an active participant and teases the occasional twitch from the wooden doll in the shadowed periphery. Attenborough orchestrates a couple of surprisingly violent and bloody sequences which jar (in a good way), and the lake setting provides suspenseful mileage thanks to a corpse that firstly won’t stay dead, and then won’t stay submerged. Proceedings are accompanied by a typically lyrical and rich score from legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith, with initially soothing strings punctuated with a disconcerting harmonica. 

The sharp robust HD transfer is really good with an appropriately authentic cinematic feel (by all accounts an improvement on the previous US release). This is praise indeed because I’m a fussy old git when it comes to PQ! 

And yet – despite its obvious qualities both on and off screen - the film doesn’t quite fully satisfy. Perhaps it because for a film that’s called MAGIC, there ultimately isn’t any narrative misdirection to surprise the viewer. The final act kind of feels like it needs to pull a rabbit out of its hat. 

*** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

Tuesday 4 February 2020


Directed by Peter Duffell. Starring Denholm Elliott, Christopher Lee, Jon Pertwee, Chloe Franks, Peter Cushing, Joss Ackland, Ingrid Pitt, John Bennett. Horror/Thriller, UK, 1971,102 mins, Cert 15.

Originally released in an highly sought-after Limited Edition Blu-ray package back in July 2019, Second Sight have now released the Standard Edition Blu-ray alongside fellow Amicus portmanteau ASYLUM, porting over the previous generous special features and infinitely superior reversible sleeve from Graham Humphreys.  

Amicus anthology flicks are British horror’s equivalent of a comfort blanket, and they don’t get much cosier than director Peter Duffell’s only horror foray: THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. A charmingly old-fashioned, bloodless (despite the misleading title), quartet of Robert Bloch adapted stories boasting genre stalwarts Cushing and Lee, alongside the ever dependable Denholm Elliott and a film-stealing turn from Jon Pertwee.

Like ASYLUM, the wraparound premise is housed in an imposing building, here a creepy gothic mansion whose occupants find their true natures tested and exposed with fatal consequences. The somewhat tenuous and clunky framing device grinds into gear when a Scotland Yard Inspector (John Bennett) investigates the disappearance of famous horror film star Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee) who was the latest resident at the house, and uncovers a sinister history of tragic events befalling all the previous tenants...   

The first story, METHOD FOR MURDER features Denholm Elliott as Charles, a horror author suffering from writers block until he moves into the inspirationally atmospheric house with his wife Alice (Joanna Dunham). Initially impressed with the library of classic horror books on the dusty shelves, his writing comes along leaps and bounds as he types up his latest horror novel about an escaped homicidal mental patient called Dominic whose modus operandi is strangulation. There’s only one problem, Charles starts seeing his fictional character popping up around the house and gardens. Will a visit to the psychiatrist help him delineate fact from fiction...?  

Peter Cushing is the main protagonists in the second story, WAXWORKS, where he plays Philip a recent retiree still longing after his unattainable deceased true love. A trip to the local wax museum sets in motion a sinister train of events when one of the exhibits seems to be the spitting image of his lost love... 

SWEETS TO THE SWEET stars Christopher Lee as a single father to a young girl (Chloe Franks). Insisting his daughter must be home tutored, he employs private teacher (Nyree Dawn Porter) who is initially perturbed by Lee forbidding the child to have any toys, especially dolls, and missing candles seem to send him into a state of irrational panic. But what exactly is his daughter researching in the encyclopaedia in the ‘W’ section...?
And then, rounding things off with a hilariously show-stealing turn is John Pertwee, an aging prolific horror film actor on the set of his latest picture, a low-budget vampire flick entitled: ‘Curse of the Bloodsuckers’. Disgruntled with the wardrobe department’s offering, he purchases a second-hand cloak from a unique theatrical costumer by the name of Theo von Hartmann (Geoffrey Bayldon). The garment is quite authentic, perhaps too authentic in fact...
Director Duffell originally wanted to call the film ‘Death and the Maiden’ after the classical piece by Schubert Peter Cushing is listening to in the WAXWORKS segment), but was over ruled in favour of a more luridly commercial title. The producer’s even insisted on an ‘X’ rating for the film, despite its entirely anaemic content!
There are some cheeky in-jokes and genre references scattered throughout the film which alert one to the fact that Duffell, whilst treating the stories with care and attention, wasn’t above winking to the audience at times. The classic genre books on the shelves that Denholm Elliott browses through are carefully chosen, and the placing of ‘The Haunted Screen’ (an analysis of Expressionism in German cinema) against the director’s opening credit hints at Duffell’s loftier ideals. The waxworks Cushing attends features a tableau which is clearly Christopher Lee’s DRACULA (ironically the best rendition in the whole set), and poor Mr Lee is also the brunt of an aside by Jon Pertwee’s character when he reminisces about the classic old horror films such as DRACULA: “The one with Bela Lugosi of course, not this new fellow...” 

The opening story METHOD FOR MURDER is the most effective and delivers some genuinely creepy moments, even if Dominic the strangler looks like a cross between Boris Karloff in THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), perhaps intentionally, and ‘Oddbod’ from CARRY ON SCREAMING! – certainly not.

Peter Cushing is always a consummate professional, and he certainly gives it his all in the otherwise largely underwhelming WAXWORKS segment, particularly during an axe fight. (The actual waxworks are this story’s major hindrance). It’s always nice to see Christopher Lee cast against type in SWEETS TO THE SWEET – even if he is upstaged by little Chloe Franks. And the scene between ‘Doctor Who’ and future ‘Worzel Gummidge (Jon Pertwee) and ‘Catweazle’ and Worzel’s future ‘Crowman’ (Geoffrey Bayldon) – giving his best impression of Ernest Thesiger - is a TV trivia joy to behold. (Quick side note: Geoffrey Bayldon turned down the part of ‘Doctor Who’ when it was offered to him as he was reticent about committing to a TV series – and then the script for ‘Catweazle’ came along).

Whilst THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD doesn't, it does positively ooze with a comforting nostalgic atmosphere. And in these dark times, when you fancy a little lighter genre offering, why not snuggle up and pay this house of Amicus a visit?  

***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.

Thursday 30 January 2020

ASYLUM (1972)

Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Starring Peter Cushing, Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, Patrick Magee, James Villiers, Herbert Lom, Geoffrey Bayldon. Horror, UK, 1972, 88 mins, cert 15.

“Never turn your back on a patient”. 

Following on from their special limited edition Blu-rays back in July, Second Sight has now released standard editions of the classic Robert Bloch penned Amicus anthologies ASYLUM and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD.
Amicus’ production model of modest tightly scheduled shoots allowed Messrs Subotsky and Rosenberg to attract top-drawer acting talent as they often only required them for a day or two of shooting. Case in point, ASYLUM, for which director Roy Ward Baker (SCARS OF DRACULA/THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) had a more than respectable roll-call of quality thespians to marshal for his first Amicus film.
Hammer legend and stalwart Peter Cushing provided the essential iconic genre anchor, and surrounding him were Herbert Lom, Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling, Patrick Magee, James Villiers and Britt Ekland.

As with all portmanteau pictures, the wraparound framing device is the glue that binds the individual tales into a satisfying whole. ASYLUM’s is both a particularly effective premise and also a kind of whodunit to boot. To the dramatic classical strains of Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, Robert Powell’s Dr. Martin drives up to the mist enshrouded grounds of an asylum for the incurably insane. Upon arrival he is greeted by interviewing doctor Dr. Rutherford (Patrick Magee), who sets him a challenge. Can he correctly identify which of the patients confined upstairs is the former doctor (now completely mad) for whom he is hopefully to replace? Guiding him into each of the patients rooms, and hearing their individual stories is the asylum’s intern, Max, played by the wonderful Geoffrey Bayldon – who also appears in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. (Quick aside: I once had the pleasure of chatting to Geoffrey about ASYLUM at a ‘Catweazle’ convention – he seemed to have found memories of it, and was keen to know whether it was available on DVD – it wasn’t at the time).

So, patient one (story one: FROZEN FEAR), Dr. Martin meets Bonnie (Barbara Parkins), who was having an affair with married man Walter (Richard Todd) who murders his wife (Sylvia Syms), chops her up into pieces, wrapping each part in brown paper and storing them in the newly purchased deep freezer in the basement. However, unlike Julie Andrews’ song in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, these brown paper packages tied up with string turn out to be anything but a few of Walter and Bonnie’s favourite things... 
Patient two (story two: THE WEIRD TAILOR), Dr Martin then meets Bruno (Barry Morse), an old-fashioned gentlemen’s tailor who is behind with his rent until he is generously commissioned by a ‘Mr Smith’ (Peter Cushing), a keen astrologer, to fashion a suit out of a special glowing fabric for his son. Mr Smith gives very precise instructions as to how and when Bruno can work on the garment. Having followed his client’s exact instructions to the letter, it is only when he delivers the suit to his client that he finds not only are his money troubles still far from over, but he has blood on his hands and the sinister true nature of the suit will be revealed once it is returned to his shop... 

Dr. Martin then meets patient three, Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) in LUCY COMES TO STAY, where Barbara insists she does not belong in the asylum. She then recounts her story of how she and her ‘friend’ Lucy (Britt Ekland) colluded to help Barbara escape from the confines of her sedative administering nurse and controlling brother George (James Villiers) using sharp implements...

And finally Dr Martin encounters Byron (Herbert Lom) in MANNIKINS OF HORROR, who has been fashioning a collection of robot dolls with life-like clay faces. He claims his creations have actual internal organs and he is experimenting with transferring his personality into the doll he has created of himself... 
My favourite Amicus anthology remains FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, but ASYLUM does have its own rewards. The framing device is sound, not to mention sinister, and its denouement is pleasingly unsettling. FROZEN FEAR features a nice jump-scare involving a severed arm, although the sight of a wiggling leg and shuffling torso are liable to induce giggles rather than shudders. THE WEIRD TAYLOR has a more sinister gothic aesthetic than the other stories, but the payoff doesn’t satisfy as it seems to go off on a less interesting tangent. LUCY COMES HOME features a nicely effective murder set-piece clearly inspired by PSYCHO (as does the basic premise – unsurprisingly given the scriptwriter Bloch). Herbert Lom appears to be rehearsing for his Chief Inspector Dreyfus role in the future PINK PANTHER films. You can almost imagine him trying out his deadly robots on Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau! (In Bloch’s original story the robots were actual mannequins, but presumably a typically tight Amicus shooting schedule wouldn’t allow for the luxury of stop-motion).  

In conclusion then, my diagnosis is that whilst the stories contained within make for an uneven bunch of bedfellows, no one, least of all me, would consider you mad if you checked out this ASYLUM.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published by FrightFest.