Tuesday 28 December 2010

Italian Film Review

I am feeling burnt out at the moment; unable to write. So I will just direct you towards Italian Film Review for now / ever.

Saturday 25 December 2010

Zombie mini-season

Yes, it's yet another mini-season idea. As before, the idea is to showcase some of the less well known films out there...

The Zombie
Mention the zombie film to most people and they’re likely to think of George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and its ever-increasing list of sequels, remakes, re-interpretations and so on. While Romero’s impact on the zombie film is hard to overestimate, there were zombie films before him and since which have taken a different approach. In this mini-season we showcase something of the history and diversity of the movie zombie, with films from the US, UK, Italy, Spain and France ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s.

White Zombie
Victor Halperin | USA | 1932 | 69 minutes
The earliest zombie film foregrounds the voodoo aspect of the zombie legend, blending German Expressionist inspired visuals and design with a Haitian setting. Bela Lugosi stars as the evocatively named Murder Legendre.

The Plague of the Zombies
John Gilling | UK | 1966 | 91 minutes
Two years before Romero’s epochal The Night of the Living Dead, Britain’s Hammer films presented their take on the traditional Haitian zombie legend, as a Cornish Squire uses voodoo to murder villagers in order to reanimate their corpses as labourers for his tin time. Colonialism, exploitation, the return of the repressed – this one has subtexts galore.

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
Jorge Grau | Italy / Spain | 1974 | 95 minutes
One of the first and best films to show the influence of Night of the Living Dead, this Spanish-Italian co-production, set in the Lake District, is felt by some to actually surpass its model in imagination, direction and gore.

The Grapes of Death
Jean Rollin | France | 1978 | 85 minutes
Jean Rollin made two zombie films around the time of Dawn of the Dead. While there is little good that can be said about the Nazi zombie themed Zombie Lake, The Grapes of Death sees the French horror auteur combine personal and commercial concerns to good effect. Horror/porn crossover legend Brigitte Lahaie stars.

Lucio Fulci | Italy | 1979 | 91 minutes
Dawn of the Dead inspired numerous imitations in Italy. The most famous of these - although the exact degree to which it is a rip-off has long been debated - is probably Lucio Fulci’s Zombie. Coming across as simultaneously a quasi-prequel to Dawn of the Dead and a return to the voodoo zombie, Zombie features two of the most iconic set piece moments in horror history in a shark vs zombie underwater duel and an enucleation by wooden splinter that was enough to see it banned in the UK as a “video nasty”.

Return of the Living Dead III
Brian Yuzna | US | 1993 | 97 minutes
The 1980s saw the emergence of the Living Dead franchise alongside Romero’s Dead films. Their theme of fully conscious zombies who find some relief from their pain by eating brains reached a point of surprising sophistication in this early 1990s crossover with the teen romance genre from Brian Yuzna: After the girl gets unwittingly turned into one of the living dead she finds that body piercing and self-mutilation provides a way to stave off the cravings for the boy’s brains. No, really.

Other contenders: The People Who Own the Dark, Shock Waves, Bio-Zombie, City of the Living Dead.

Friday 17 December 2010

RIP Jean Rollin

Sad to learn of Jean Rollin's death.

Only last week I was discussing Grapes of Death and Zombie Lake with some friends :-(

Monday 13 December 2010

Spanish horror film season

I am involved with programming films for the Edinburgh Film Guild, my local film society. As part of this we do some Friday night screenings which feature cult and B-movies, the sort of things which film societies traditionally have stayed away from, at least in the UK.

As part of next year's programme, I'm thinking of a Spanish horror season, looking at films produced during the final decade of the Franco regime.

What do you, as fellow cult / horror fans, think of the following? What should be added, and what should be removed?

Spanish Horror, 1969-1976

Following the success of The Mark of the Wolf Man in 1968 (shown last year as part of our werewolves mini-season) it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that Spain went horror crazy. That film's unlikely star, weightlifter Jacinto Molina/Paul Naschy made himself into a one-man horror factory playing almost all the famous monsters. Amando De Ossorio created the figures of the Blind Dead and brought them back for three sequels, while Jorge Grau and Jose Larraz ventured to Britain for the likes of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and Vampyres. Back home, Narciso Ibanez Serrador, who had earlier scored a hit with the TV series Tales to Keep You Awake made The House that Screamed and Who Can Kill a Child. Elsewhere more avowedly political figures like of Juan Antonio Bardem, with The Corruption of Chris Miller, and Eloy de la Iglesia, with Apartment on the 13th Floor and Murder in a Blue World, found the genre a useful way to sneak subversive content past the censors. But look more closely at De Ossorio's Tombs of the Blind Dead and you can still see a subtext, given that the undead medieval knights are blind and rely upon their young victims foolishly raising their voices.

With this mini-season we showcase some of the best and most entertaining Spanish horror of the period.

La Residencia / The House that Screamed
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador | Spain | 1969 | 99 minutes
Mrs Forneau (Lilli Palmer) owns and runs a school for wayward girls in France. Her absolute discipline has fostered a social order among the girls with rampant sex, lesbianism and torture the norm. She also has an adolescent son (John Moulder-Brown) she tries to keep isolated from the young women lest he be tainted by sexual relations; he must wait for a girl “just like his mother”. Meanwhile, girls are disappearing one by one, never to be seen again...

La noche de Walpurgis / The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman
Leon Klimovsky | Spain/West Germany | 1971 | 95 minutes
Elvira (Gaby Fuchs) is scouting the French countryside with her friend Genevievre, looking for the tomb of murderess and possible vampire, Countess Wandessa. She finds a likely site in the castle of Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy), who invites the women to stay as long as they like. As Waldemar shows Elvira the tomb she accidentally causes the vampire to return, hungrier than ever. Daninsky has a hidden secret of his own (note the English title) but will he be able to save her from becoming Wandessa's next victim?

La noche del terror ciego / Tombs of the Blind Dead
Amando De Ossorio | Spain / Portugal | 1971 | 86 minutes
In the 13th century there existed a legion of evil knights known as the Templars, who quested for eternal life by drinking human blood and committing sacrifices. Executed for their unholy deeds, the Templars bodies were left out for the crows to peck out their eyes. Now, in modern day Portugal, a group of people stumble on the Templars abandoned monastery and unwittingly rouse the inhabitants from beyond death...

Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti / The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
Jorge Grau | Spain / Italy | 1974 | 95 minutes
A near fascist cop (Arthur Kennedy) chases two hippies (Ray Lovelock and Cristina Galbo) whom he suspects of being behind a series of bizarre Manson family-like murders; unbeknownst to him, the real culprits are the living dead, brought to life with a thirst for human flesh by an experimental pest control device.

Las garras de Lorelei / The Loreley's Grasp
Leon Klimovsky | Spain | 1974 | 85 minutes
The legendary Loreley has been living for centuries in a grotto beneath the river Rhein in Germany. Every night when the moon is full, she turns into a reptile-like creature craving for human blood. When one girl after another of a nearby boarding school is killed by her, a hunter named Sirgurd (Tony Kendall) is engaged to kill the monster.

¿Quién puede matar a un niño? / Who Can Kill a Child?
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador | Spain | 1976 | 107 minutes
A couple of English tourists (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) rent a boat to visit an island off the southern Spanish coast. When they arrive, they find the town deserted of adults, occupied only by children who don't speak but stare whilst eerily smiling. They soon discover that all the children of the island have been possessed by a mysterious force or madness which makes them attack and murder their elders...

Sunday 12 December 2010

Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes

The volume of publications in recent years on Hammer films is such that you might well wonder whether any more are needed.

Wayne Kinsey has, however, established himself as one of the most talented writers in this crowded field, first with his long-running House that Hammer Built fanzine and latterly Bray and Elstree Studio Years volumes (also published by studio specialists Tomahawk).

As the structuring principle of these indicate, Kinsey’s main strength lies not so much in discussing what is on screen – though this is not to say that he is in any way inadequate as a critic/reviewer – as in looking behind the scenes, at the ins-and-outs of the productions.

This is an approach he has continued here, as he concentrates not upon the films and their main casts, but upon those behind the camera, ranging from the more likes of directors, screenwriters and cinematographers all the way down to the likes of carpenters and props buyers; some appearing on screen, including recurring stuntmen and extras are also profiled.

A number of those featured are not exactly unsung. Indeed, this is attested to by the likes of Kinsey’s conversational-style profile of director Terence Fisher (1904-1980), with its plentiful use of quotations from interviews from the 1960s and 1970s.

Nevertheless, if figures like director Freddie Francis, writer/director Jimmy Sangster, composer James Bernard, and make-up man Roy Ashton (himself subject of another volume from Tomahawk, Greasepaint and Gore) and the information on them, are comparatively familiar to fans of the studio, it is still good for this to all be compiled in one place and placed within a wider context.

Most of those profiled across the span of the book’s near 500 pages are, however, very much unsung. To give a few names at random: Production manager John ‘Pinky’ Green? Art director Ted Marshall? Renee Glynn, responsible for continuity? Effects man Sydney Pearson? Being honest, the only one I could place prior to reading was Glynn.

If you like Hammer – or, indeed, are interested in British cinema from the 1950s to 1970s – you need this book, which not only tells you who did what at Hammer but paints a vivid picture of this time and place in filmmaking more generally.

Last Bus to Bray: The Unfilmed Hammer

These two volumes, the first covering up to 1970 and the second from then to the present, are the classic “Curate’s Egg”: Good in places.

The good is the information they provide.

Basically, if you are a Hammer aficionado then you want these. Order them now and come back and read the rest of the review later.

The not so good is the writing and production.

A degree of leeway can obviously be given to any small press or self-published work. But there also comes a point where the number of typographical, grammatical, spelling and other errors becomes a serious hindrance to reading. Last Bus to Bray comes close to it. [I make no great claims about my own writings here, but then they are free.]

Unfortunately the layout and the poor quality of the reproductions (many rare, albeit sometimes reproduced from earlier publications) push it close to being beyond a pleasurable read, even for the fan.

As one such, I had long been intrigued by the way in which the studio would commission poster art for prospective films, in some cases prior to having a script written or any real pre-production work, as a means of gauging the interest in them and thereby their commercial viability. What remains less clear, however, is how far this was particular to Hammer.

Author Glen Davies does a fine job in going through the archives and sifting out those productions which were real possibilities, as distinct from those, especially in the 1970s and beyond, which were merely figments of over-enthusiasm or self-delusion.

What is lacking is much sense of how the unfilmed Hammer compares to the unfilmed output of other studios, especially genre specialists of the time. Did Tigon and Amicus likewise have all manner of possible projects, particularly in the the early and mid-1970s, a period when the British film industry as a whole was in crisis? Or was there something special about Hammer that meant they tended to attract more interest – or, indeed, be able to attract that bit more interest?

The dominant picture that emerges, reinforcing that of earlier studies, is one of a basic tension at the heart of the studio. Long-term studio head James Carreras was a hard-headed businessman. He felt no particular attraction to horror, but was happy to concentrate the company’s efforts upon the genre, as long as they remained profitable. His son Michael was more artistically inclined. He was keen to diversify the company’s output away from horror – or, in actuality, back to the more varied kind output they had produced prior to the success of The Quatermass Xperiment, The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula.

With Michael Carreras’s own attempts at non-horror productions generally failing, he was compelled to come back to his father’s studio with his tail between his legs. The rift with his father, however, was perhaps never really to be healed, with James Carreras not handing over the business in a family way but instead almost selling it to an old rival before his son bought him out.

But by this time the Hammer = Horror association was also one which was proving problematic, in that the kind of horror Hammer were associated with was ever more passé.

This tension is one that would remain: On the one hand, the very fact that there can be a publication like this attests to the brand value attached to the name. On the other hand, this brand value remains associated with a particular kind of horror that belongs in the past.

The history of abortive Hammer revivals in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s proves telling in this regard.

So, indeed, does the discourse around the recent remake of Let the Right One In. Depending on who is asking the question and who is answering its Hammer associations may be played up or not mentioned. Regardless, it seems fair to describe it as a Hammer film in name only – and indeed, only those who care about such things.