Friday, 27 May 2011

Happy Centenary Vincent Price!

Born this day one hundred years ago, Vincent Price was an actor renowned for his distinctive voice, wryly theatrical performances and flamboyantly gothic horror films throughout the 60s and 70s. What better way to celebrate the velvet-voiced Price’s centenary than to settle back, raise a glass of something shockingly red and full-bodied and treat your eyes (and ears) to one of his many atmospheric and cobweb-hewn gothic masterpieces. But where to begin?? I’ve made a list of some of my favourite Vincent Price films - this isn’t a selection of his best films; merely some of the ones I love most and ones that have ensured my admiration of him so much as an actor and a sophisticated master of the macabre.

House on Haunted Hill (1959). Eccentric millionaire Fredrick Loren (Vincent Price) has invited five carefully selected strangers to a ‘haunted house’ party and promises to pay whoever stays in the house for the whole night $10,000 dollars. With no way of contacting the outside world, the guests are locked in the house at midnight, and as the night progresses, it becomes obvious that this will be a night to remember! Ghosts, ghouls and murder – oh my! William Castle’s lovably daft House on Haunted Hill; a clunky, if not thoroughly enjoyable ghost-train romp through every creaky, hoary old cliché in the book is constructed as the cinematic equivalent of a fairground haunted house complete with pop-up ghosts, disembodied heads, vats full of acid, dangling rickety skeletons and disappearing bodies. Vincent Price is on top form as the decadently suave and sophisticated Fredrick Loren, throwing himself into the role with the all the melodramatic relish you’d expect; though he actually plays down his customary theatrics in House on Haunted Hill, ensuring Loren remains a dubious character we are never really sure about. Of course we ARE sure about him and by the final reel our instincts are proved right, as sure enough, he is revealed to be a seductively menacing and diabolically scheming individual who plotted the WHOLE thing! And he would’ve got away with it too, were it not for those pesky kids.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Based upon one of Edgar Allan Poe's most celebrated short stories, Masque of the Red Death was a Roger Corman adaptation and one of the few films that fully captures the doom-laden tone of the morbid writer's best work... Seeking debauched sanctuary within the walls of his castle while a plague ravages the surrounding countryside, Prince Prospero (Price) and his Satan worshipping nobility soon realise that when it’s your turn to die, no walls can keep out what is coming…
Surely one of the most beautiful and lushly filmed horror movies, Masque recalls the eerie beauty of work by the likes of Mario Bava and, eventually, Dario Argento.
As the sadistic Prince Prospero, Price is diabolically good. His cruel and distinctive tones wax lyrical about the power of the Dark One and the precarious stability of the material world. Philosophical discussions about morality and faith lend the film a distinct gravitas and depth. It is again testament to Price's performance that we actually feel a shred of sympathy for the eeeeviiil Prospero when he realises the magnitude and inescapable nature of Death.

House on Haunted Hill
The Last Man on Earth (1964). Due to a mysterious immunity he acquired when bitten by a rabid bat, Dr. Robert Morgan (Price) is the sole survivor of a devastating global pandemic. By day he spends his time collecting supplies, strengthening his fortifications and destroying the bodies of the living-dead plague victims. By night he boards himself into his house, as hordes of the vampiric post-human creatures leave their hiding places and congregate outside his house, baying for his blood… How much isolation can one man take? Based on Richard’s Matheson’s chilling novel, 'I Am Legend', The Last Man on Earth is a creepy, deeply upsetting and thought-provoking exploration of one man’s increasingly fragile mental state as he struggles to accept his isolated existence in a dark new world. Price carries the film – he is in every scene – a broken man who has lost his wife and daughter to the plague. He offers a restrained performance, effortlessly exuding the sadness and waning hopefulness of a desperate man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His doomful intoning contains all the elegant and macabre poise one would expect, and he ensures that the audiences’ sympathies lie firmly with Morgan.

Pit and the Pendulum (1961). This was one of the first Price movies I ever watched – sitting up past my bedtime and watching it through my fingers. Watching it now fills me with a blissful nostalgia. But enough of that… The story itself shares little in common with Poe’s tale, save for the titular torture device used in the finale and the overwhelmingly bleak and hopeless mood. Writer Richard Matheson would elaborate Poe’s short story, creating a dark Les Diaboliques type tale involving a melancholy nobleman losing his mind because of the apparent death of his wife (Barbara Steele). It becomes apparent that the deceitful and cruel wife is actually manipulating him from beyond the grave. The film teems with memorable and startling images, from the moody opening shots depicting a young man making his way along a harsh and craggy shore to an imposing castle in the background, to the warped and dreamy flashbacks and the images of prematurely entombed bodies. This film belongs to Price. He steals every scene and his depiction of a fragile man descending into madness is immensely touching and chilling. Price’s theatrical histrionics are inimitable and he is one of only a few actors who can do ‘tortured’ so well: yes, he is knowingly theatrical, but he is also mournfully compelling to watch.

The Last Man on Earth
Witchfinder General (1968). 1645, England’s countryside has been pillaged by Civil War. Matthew Hopkins (Price), an opportunistic and deluded ‘witchhunter’, exploits the breakdown of social order to further his own gain and impose a reign of terror on superstitious peasants. Visiting village after village, he and his assistants brutally torture confessions out of suspected witches and charge the local magistrates for the privilege. Directed by Michael Reeves, Witchfinder General was one of a few groundbreaking British horror films that exhibited a much grimmer, realistic portrayal of violence and suffering. Price provides a deathly serious performance, no knowing humour or camp theatrics here, and the film really benefits from it, unfolding as a relentlessly bleak and deadly serious meditation on suffering and sacrifice. It is said that director Reeves ostracised the actor on set to get this performance from him…

The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971). Renowned surgeon Dr Phibes (Price) fakes his own death and sets about avenging his beautiful wife’s untimely demise at the hands of a group of surgeons, taking the Ten Biblical Plagues of Egypt as his inspiration. This film basks in the glow of its opulent art-deco sets, lavish dialogue, overtly camp performances and fiendishly dark sense of humour. Price’s performance is one of undeniable theatrical chutzpah. The sight of him flailing around while playing his organ and gesturing dramatically must be seen to be believed. However is it testament to the talent of Price that Dr Phibes is a tragic and sympathetic monster imbued with haunting pathos, despite all the obvious camp theatrics. Phibes doesn’t even speak for the first half an hour of the film and Price conveys the character’s fragile emotional state through exquisite body language and those piercing eyes of his.

Witchfinder General
Theatre of Blood (1973). Shakespearian actor Edward Lionheart (Price) has his extreme delusions of grandeur quashed when an influential circle of critics pans him and is publicly humiliated at an award ceremony. He fakes his own suicide in order to return and have his revenge; all the murders he carries out are inspired by demises in various Shakespearian tragedies. While this film lacks the melancholic poetry of Dr Phibes, it does maintain a literary finesse and its humour is just as irreverent, camp and politically incorrect. Price is once again at the top of his game. While thoroughly deranged, his character still retains a modicum of humanity and sympathy. While he veers from hammy to hammier, the actor invests such theatrical vigour and enthusiasm; it’s impossible not to enjoy the blackly humorous story as it unabashedly unfolds. In a number of scenes when we are allowed a glimpse into Lionheart’s troubled psyche, he performs several well-known and evocative soliloquies from various Shakespeare plays. Price really shines in these scenes, delivering an impeccable performance laced with sorrowful pathos and a burning obsession.

Shock (1946). After witnessing a brutal murder from her hotel room window, Janet Stewart (Lynn Bari) falls into a state of catatonic shock. When she awakens, she discovers she is being held in a private hospital and treated by the sinister Dr Cross (Price) who she realises is the man she saw commit the heinous murder! Shock is not just a creaky ‘old dark house’ type thriller with a mental hospital and a two dimensional villain. Its twisted and slyly subversive story, in which a perfectly sane woman is made out to be insane so her accusations of murder are not taken seriously, unravels as a tightly constructed and provocative little chiller. Shock is a neat and nasty little thriller that boasts an early role for Price, whose suavely sinister and tortured performance, is the kind he became famous for.

The Abominable Dr Phibes
The Fall of the House of Usher (1960). When she returns to her family home after their engagement, Madeline Usher is visited by her fiancée Philip Winthorpe, who wants her to return to Boston with him. Her brother, the severely depressed Roderick opposes this suggestion with every inch of his brittle body. Philip discovers that the Usher lineage has been afflicted by an all-consuming malady and that the siblings, the last of the Ushers, believe they are cursed to descend into insanity like their ancestors did before them. A series of morbid incidents unfold over the coming days as events seem set to reach a horrific climax bringing an end to the Usher bloodline, once and for all… Setting the standard for all his other Poe adaptations, Corman weaves a delightfully morose tapestry of gloomy sets, swirling dry ice and matte-painting back-drops that were no doubt used in many of his other shoe-string budget productions. Price is as striking and resplendent as you’d expect. His portrayal of Roderick Usher went some way to map out similar mentally tortured and anguished individuals the actor would portray in his career, particularly for Corman.

Publicity still for The Bat
I’ve had to stop myself here, and I haven’t even mentioned films like The Fly, The Bat, House of Wax, Edward Scissorhands, House of Long Shadows, Cry of the Banshee, The Oblong Box, The Tomb of Ligeia, The Tower of London, The Tingler or Dragonwyck… I think the point I’m trying to make is that Price’s commanding presence is enough to ensure any film is essential viewing. As varied in tone and quality as all the above films are, it is Price and his performances that make them memorable, entertaining, moving and irresistible.

Happy centenary, Mr Price.

Happy Birthday Sir Christopher Lee!

Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, CBE, CStJ – who turns 89 today - really needs no introduction. Born in 1922, he is well known for his portrayal of various exquisite villain-types throughout the years, particularly Count Dracula in the fabulously gothic Hammer Horror films of the 60s and 70s. Despite having performed in over 266 films since 1948 – a fact which gains him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most film acting roles ever – one of the films he is most proud of is Robin Hardy’s pagan folk horror, The Wicker Man (1973). Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the leader of a small pagan community not averse to ritualistically sacrificing virgin coppers from the mainland in order to help their failing crops.

Lee was knighted in 2009 and received the BAFTA Fellowship in 2011. Some of his more recent film work includes Hammer’s latest excursion into dark matters The Resident, medieval action-horror Season of the Witch, body-snatching horror-comedy Burke and Hare and Robin Hardy’s long awaited follow up to The Wicker Man, The Wicker Tree.

Cheers, Sir Christopher!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Happy Birthday Peter Cushing!

Today is Peter Cushing’s birthday! One of the most recognisable faces of Hammer Horror, Mr Cushing was born on 26 May 1913 and is well known for his portrayals of Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing, often appearing opposite his best friend Christopher Lee. If you’re planning on watching some Peter Cushing films later, why not enhance your viewing pleasure by preparing one of the recipes below – personal favourites of Mr Cushing himself...

Peter Cushing's Pain - Grille Brule
From the book "The Cook Book of the Stars" - Copyright 1983

"It is surprising how my passion for this delicacy will not be taken seriously. Even the best Maitre d'Hotel - possibly because of that - smiles indulgently and serves the usual rack of something that looks (and tastes) like white flannelette - made of rubber.

Place 1-2 slices (according to appetite) of brown bread under a grill set 'high'. When flames appear, it is done. Reverse until the other side cries for mercy. Do not scrape off the cinders. Served with butter and your favourite marmalade, plus a pot of Indian tea, it constitutes a meal that can be eaten any time of the day or night, and often is by Peter Cushing."


Peter Cushing's Beetroot and Onion Supper Special
From the book "Living Without Cruelty" - by Lorraine Kay

"Actor Peter's two favourite flavours are combined here to make a filling and easy-to-prepare evening meal. Serve hot in individual bowls, sprinkled with chopped fresh mint if desired, and with a chunk of fresh granary bread. Busy mums could adapt this recipe by incorporating any left-over vegetables, turning it all into an ovenproof dish, spreading thickly with grated cheese and putting under a hot grill until bubbly. Serve with salad and hot garlic bread.

4-6 medium beetroots, scrubbed
2 sticks celery, scrubbed
2 large onions, roughly chopped or 8-10 pickling onion, whole
2 large potatoes, pre-boiled for 10 minutes
Sunflower oil
Freshly Ground black pepper

Dice the beetroot and finely slice the celery. In a large pan saute the onion until just turning brown. Add the beetroot and celery. Turn down the heat and cook for 2 minutes. Chop the potatoes into chunks and add to the pan. Season with pepper. Cover and cook on a very low heat until the potato is tender, stirring every few minutes to prevent sticking."

"As to my favourite recipe: I am a strict vegetarian, and enjoy greatly wholemeal bread toast with butter and Olde English Marmalade, served with a pot of Typhoo tea with milk and sugar! Simple, but delicious." – Peter Cushing

"Let a dear chicken be free-range and enjoy its life as God intended. And if it has a mind to, it can lay a lovely egg for your tea which you can give thanks for, but to put them in those horrendous cages is such an offence. Factory farming is a disgrace to God and mankind and should be stamped out." – Peter Cushing

After you’ve prepared your food, pop a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles or Frankenstein Must be Destroyed into your DVD player, stick the kettle on for a nice cup of tea (Cushing was a BIG tea drinker) and bask in the subtle, nuanced brilliance of a perfect English gentleman’s work.

Christopher Lee said of his friend's death (11th August 1994): "I don't want to sound gloomy, but, at some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again."

Recipes from the online Peter Cushing Museum.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Stonehenge Apocalypse

2010
Dir. Paul Ziller

When Jacob Glaser, a disgraced award-winning scientist turned conspiracy theorist and pseudo-science radio talk show host, is alerted to unusual electromagnetic energy fields occurring throughout the globe, his initial investigations lead him to Stonehenge. Somehow, the stones have begun to move independently and are building up enough energy to vaporise humans within a certain range. Jacob’s theory is that Stonehenge is the key part of a massive alien terraforming machine connected to other historical sites around the world that are now in the process of modifying the planet for new forms of life, to the detriment of humans!

Meanwhile, in the US state of Maine, a former colleague of Jacob’s has discovered an underground pyramid linked to the ongoing events at Stonehenge and is actively working towards the destruction of mankind in the hopes that he and his followers can survive the coming apocalypse and be the rulers of the next era of life on earth. When Jacob discovers the existence of a key that he believes is capable to switching off the doomsday machine, he sets about getting his hands on it before the military can commence a series of nuclear strikes on the sites responsible for the electromagnetic emissions that have begun to signify the end of humankind!

What once created life on earth is about to wipe it out! Or something.


With a title like Stonehenge Apocalypse, you'd (understandably) be forgiven for thinking this could be the greatest film ever. Therefore brace yourself, for it really pains me to reveal that actualy no, it is not in fact the greatest film ever. Stonehenge Apocalypse was made for the SyFy channel and its director Ziller is well versed in low budget B-movies, having already helmed such masterworks as Solar Attack, Swarmed and Yeti: Curse of the Snow Demon. I know, I know - this still sounds like evidence that Stonehenge Apocalypse will rock your little world. Unfortunately as entertaining as his work sounds, it tends to take itself quite seriously, as Ziller seemingly underestimates the power of wry humour or self-effacing irony when directing movies about killer yetis or aliens using a CGI Stonehenge to wipe out humanity. Stonehenge Apocalypse could have been the ultimate no-budget equivalent to Roland Emmerich’s overinflated and only marginally better written behemoth, 2012, but it doesn’t even come close. It doesn’t even entertain in an Asylum/'so bad its good' kind of way. If I may take a moment to attempt eloquence and biting critique, it’s just very, ‘meh.’

Hinging on the premise that aliens have already been to earth, millions of years ago and left markers for future visitations, Stonehenge Apocalypse has at its core a provocative idea that’s at least intriguing. Had it been handled in an effective manner, it could have had chilling implications as the story unravelled, a la the BBC's Quatermass series (1979). Ziller’s approach doesn’t really do the idea any justice. Then again neither does the screenplay he co-wrote with Brad Abraham, as the epic feel they aim for falls short, mainly due to the underdeveloped script and low budget. The film unfolds as a series of increasingly dull scenes featuring scientists in lab coats starring intently at elaborate screensavers while spouting ever ludicrous techno-jargon. These scenes are intercut with depictions of various global landmarks, such as the pyramids and Mayan temples turning into CGI volcanoes and destroying the surrounding areas. Everything is poorly rendered in cheap, less than convincing CGI. Usually, I love this sort of thing; but Stonehenge just doesn’t deliver on any level. Even the shots of the titular landmark were all CGI. There was no actual footage of Stonehenge to be seen. Not even of the stock variety.


All the old hoary clichés these types of films were built on are dragged out and flung across the screen with wild abandon: the protagonist is even a disgraced scientist whose theories proved too progressive for his contemporaries so he was ostracised. There’s also a sexy lady scientist who teams up with our hero and an over zealous military general who just wants to blow shit up.

While it may sound like the best movie ever, Stonehenge Apocalypse just can’t match up to its name and unless you happen to catch it on the SyFy channel, isn’t really worth bothering to track down on DVD. If you’re that way inclined however, and hey that’s cool – I’m not judging - Stonehenge Apocalypse (cert. 15) was released on DVD (£9.99) by Anchor Bay Entertainment on 28th February 2011. Extras include: Behind the Scenes featurette and trailer.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Bat

1959
Dir. Crane Wilbur

Murder-mystery author Cornelia van Gorder rents a country mansion for the summer while its owner, bank manager Mr Fleming, is on an extended hunting trip. Unbeknownst to Cornelia and her faithful PA Lizzie, Fleming has been embezzling bank bonds worth one million dollars, and hidden them in the manor. The women and their guests are menaced by a notorious killer dubbed 'The Bat' - who uses steel-clawed gloves to tear out the throats of his victims and will stop at nothing to get his hands on the loot!

The Bat is based on the 1920 Broadway play of the same name by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart. It was previously filmed by Roland West in 1926 as The Bat and as The Bat Whispers in 1930. Its stage origins are evident in the sets and locations, mainly limited to a couple of rooms in the seemingly sprawling mansion.
The premise of a mystery writer renting a big house in the country while the surrounding area is gripped in queasy panic by a crazed maniac, is an irresistible one. Add to this a sense of humour drier than a mummy’s tomb, hidden bank bonds, secret passageways, an old dark house, feisty spinsters, some rabid bats and Vincent Price, and hey presto, you have The Bat.


That most of the characters in The Bat are actually fans of murder mystery books and movies speaks volumes about the playful, knowing tone of the film. The protagonist herself is a mystery writer whose own titles include the likes of ‘The Private Morgue of Dr X’; surely a most fitting title for any Vincent Price or Bela Lugosi flick! The Bat displays a wonderfully wry sense of humour, even poking fun the very genre it nestles within. Much humour is derived from the situation Cornelia (Agnes Moorehead) finds herself in and she utilises her extensive knowledge of the thriller genre to outwit the coldblooded killer and eventually solve the mystery. At times it seems her overactive imagination will get the better of her, for as sturdy and resourceful as she is, she still gets spooked in the big old dark house. A gently humorous moment occurs when the she and Lizzie (Lenita Lane) are settling down for the night and begin to hear strange noises in the house. Lizzie quickly dispels any ambiguity or mystery almost immediately by listlessly rhyming off what the weird noises are as they occur.


Of course it’s all hokey fun but that’s not to say The Bat is without its more eerie, atmospheric moments. The big house is the kind of house designed for people to go snooping around in, and director Wilbur lights it moodily; the scenes set at night boasting lightning storms that momentarily light up darkened rooms to reveal figures hiding in corners and behind doors are a particular delight. The Bat features typical old dark house imagery; billowing curtains, secret doors and rooms, flickering lights, thunder storms, hands reaching from around corners to strangle and throttle, and nightdress clad ladies wandering through shadowy hallways wide-eyed with fear. The fun really begins as soon as the staff of the house get spooked by weird noises in the night and abandon the house, leaving Cornelia, with her overactive writer’s imagination, and the slightly more cynical though no-less easily spooked Lizzie, all on their lonesome.

Vincent Price in a striking promo shot for 'The Bat'
Before long the quiet house is host to all sorts of red herrings, suspects and victims, oh my! Scheming, double crossing, murder and greed are the order of the day, and The Bat delivers them in spades. One of the suspects trying to scare the women away in order to get into the house long enough to search for the loot, is the suave and charming Dr Malcolm Wells, played by none other than Vincent Price. We’ve seen what this cad is capable of earlier in the film when he shoots and kills the bank manager upon realising he is in the perfect situation to get rich quick. Price delivers a slightly more subdued performance here, and while his comic timing and wry wit are of course on full display, he really downplays any theatrics. His performance effortlessly matches the tone of the film; gently playful and quietly menacing.

Unexpectedly, The Bat presents us with strong, independent female characters. Cornelia and Lizzie are hardy, practical career women. The chemistry between Agnes Moorehead and Lenita Lane is lively and the pair sparks off each other in every scene. There is also quite a surprising amount of character development too, with stone-cold Lizzie displaying a maternal nature after the death of Judy (Darla Hood) – a young woman staying at the house preparing to give evidence in court after witnessing a crime. Dale (Elaine Edwards) is initially presented as the token wife of the young up and coming banker we assume will be the hero of the film; as soon as he is imprisoned, accused of embezzling the bonds his boss stole, Dale takes it upon herself to prove his innocence, putting her life at risk in the process. Sure, the characters are still stock types, but in comparison to many ‘old dark house’ murder mystery thrillers from the Fifties, this bunch of resourceful, non-hysterical ladies are more rounded than usual.


Most of the male characters come under suspicion throughout proceedings; all harbour dark secrets and shady pasts. Suspicion is effortlessly cast on each of them through the script's plethora of barbed quips and insinuations, which come thicker and faster than the punctures in the necks of The Bat’s victims. The Bat himself is a sight to behold. Sporting a pair of impractical but sinister looking gloves with steel claws embedded in them, he may not exude much menace for today’s viewers, but there are still one or two effectively creepy moments in which he is glimpsed lurking outside windows or behind doors. Indeed, the method by which he dispatches his victims is pretty gruesome and while we don’t actually see anything, the descriptions of the aftermath leave nothing to the imagination. For all its humour, The Bat still manages to surprise with the odd nasty moment; such as the death of Judy on the stairs, which comes after a carefully constructed suspense sequence featuring Dale in the attic... Shuddersome.

The Bat is delightfully old fashioned (in a ‘fake plastic bat’ kinda way) and perfect viewing for a lazy Sunday afternoon, or indeed, a dark and stormy night. When one character quips “A charming little caper”, they could have been referring to the very film they were starring in.

Check out the jazzy theme music here, courtesy of Monster Movie Music. Groovy, baby!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Red Canyon

2008
Dir. Giovanni Rodriquez

Several years after experiencing a traumatic event in their hometown, siblings Regina and Devon, along with a few of their friends, go back to sell off their late mother’s house. Ever since the incident took place, Regina has experienced flashbacks and is easily spooked. In order to face her fears, she returns to the nearby cave where the horror first began. Little does she know, what she discovers there will only worsen her deep-rooted terror, as a brutal assailant begins to shoot, slice, chop and stab his way through her friends…

At the heart of Red Canyon is an interesting premise. The idea of returning to a place from childhood that was the source of great trauma is one pregnant with dark promise. Intrigue is established early on, particularly through Regina’s flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative, and while director Rodriquez’s direction exhibits a number of deft moments, the befuddled screenplay tends to detract from what should be a compelling momentum. The story plods on in fits and bursts, tension is never sustained for long, and eventually things just get too muddled. What should have been a powerful revelation that cuts to the core and cripples with its unveiling, just sort of happens without any impact.

The characters are never really given much to do, and they just seem to run around from one place to the next, getting killed as they go. Aside from Terra (Katie Maguire) who seems to be the only gutsy, resourceful and likable character, no one else is worth bothering to root for. Even our intrepid heroine Regina (Christine Lakin) appears weak, whiny and selfish. Norman Reedus plays a more unappealing version of his character in The Walking Dead and saunters through proceedings, swigging whiskey, shooting stuff and just generally being a bit of a red-necked badass.

A couple of well executed chase scenes – including one with a ravenous dog – inject some life into proceedings, and one or two creepy moments hint at ambiguity and intrigue momentarily; Are the siblings carrying out the grisly deeds? Having experienced that trauma all those years ago have they finally snapped by returning to where it happened? Some of the night scenes in the desert are highly atmospheric and there are a couple of well-timed scares. Robert Filomena’s moody guitar based score and Sonnel Velazquez’s cinematography enhance the lonesome beauty of the landscape and desolate setting, but the stark isolation the friends find themselves in is never exploited as much as it could be.

More often than not, the muddled narrative renders it an uneven and eventually tedious affair. The downbeat and thoroughly depressing ending just works to rub salt in the wounds, rather than create a dramatic sting. Don’t get me wrong; I can appreciate downbeat endings if they wield enough power to haunt the viewer – The Mist, anyone? Whereas it and films of its ilk had the tenacity to create a real impact through an astounding denouement - thanks to good writing, engaging stories and characters to give a shit about - Red Canyon doesn’t quite cut it. This is a shame, because at its core is a genuinely nasty, mean and moody idea which lacks the powerful execution to make it truly effective.

Red Canyon (cert. 15) will be released on DVD by Chelsea Films on 23rd May 2011. Special Features include: Trailer; Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo 2.0.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Short Film Showcase: Crestfallen


2011
Dir. Jeremiah Kipp

Director Jeremiah Kipp follows up his stark and unsettling brood-fest Contact – a Cronenbergian meditation on addiction and paranoia – with a similarly provocative short focusing on a young woman’s suicide bid and the myriad instances and thoughts that have led to it.

Much like the scene in The Rules of Attraction in which a young woman slips into death’s embrace by slitting her wrists in a warm bath, Crestfallen captures the painfully wrought moment in an abstract, lyrically beautiful way that, while poetic, doesn’t lessen the impact. An ethereal atmosphere is conjured with shards of sunlight streaming through a window into the darkened world of the woman (Deneen Melody). As the life bleeds out of her and swirls into the bathwater, we are privy to her equally swirling thoughts.

Unfolding as a series of disarming and striking images, Crestfallen is tentative in its observation of shattered dreams and submerges us deep within her trauma. While not strictly a ‘horror’ short, Kipp (who also worked as an assistant director on I Sell The Dead) still conveys the utter horror of a young woman’s life collapsing around her and the drastic measures she takes when she feels she has nothing left to live for. Through flashbacks we witness her discovery of her lover’s infidelity, catch glimpses of her childhood and see a little girl who could be her younger self or her daughter; the first in a series of visual shards that injects hope into proceedings.



Kipp deftly weaves the fragmented images together to form a narrative, and while he guides us through a devastatingly dark place, he at least shows us the glimmer of light ahead before leaving us, ensuring we end on a note enrobed with hope. Despite its brevity, Crestfallen packs a weighty punch and highlights Kipp as a filmmaker who wields the precision to cut straight to the heart of his subject matter in visually astounding ways that enhance the resonance of his work.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Grindhouse Horror Double Bill In Belfast

Local indie production company Yellow Fever Films are hosting a Grindhouse movie double bill in Belfast’s Black Box on Sunday 15th May, with a screening of The Knackery and Isle of the Damned.

The Knackery is the eponymous extreme reality TV show in which a group of contestants prepare to fight to the death. With a reward of £1 million for the last player left standing, the stakes are high. They are raised even higher when a horde of flesh hungry, genetically modified zombies are unleashed to liven things up a bit… Unspooling as a vicious satire on reality TV, The Knackery poses the pointed question - How far will producers go to entertain their audiences? The pitch black humour and caustic parodying of reality TV echoes the likes of Series 7: The Contenders, Dead Set and The Running Man; whilst its tongue may be in cheek – it is wedged there pointedly.

Next up is the banned-in-492-countries grit-fest, Isle of the Damned! Private Investigator Jack Steele is hired by a mysterious treasure hunter to help him locate the lost treasure of Marco Polo. Steele’s quest brings him to a strange island off the coast of Argentina rumoured to be populated by a lost tribe of cannibals. As Steele and his small group of treasure hunters explore the island, they realise that the rumours are true and they must utilise all their resources to stay alive and make it off the island in one piece… But why do everyone’s lips move out of sync with what they’re saying!?? A grimy pastiche of Italian cannibal flicks, fans of 70’s/80’s exploitation movies won’t want to miss this. Best enjoyed with friends and liquor.

As well as the Grindhouse double bill there will also be movie trailers, including an exclusive trailer of YFF’s latest creepy horror film The Last Light, and a 3D glasses competition.

Date: Sunday 15 May
Doors 6.30PM
Adm £7
Venue: Black Box, Belfast

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Dead Hooker In A Trunk

2010
Dirs. Jen & Sylvia Soska

Four friends set out on an errand and end up in a fight for their lives when they discover the body of a dead hooker in the trunk of their car. The ragtag group must put aside their differences to dispose of the body and evade attempts on their lives by shadowy underworld figures, corrupt police, a sleazy motel manager, chainsaw wielding triads, and a brutal serial killer.

Energetic, oddball and effortlessly cool, the tantalizingly titled Dead Hooker In A Trunk is one of a few current films boasting impossibly exploitative titles that hark back to sleazy grindhouse flicks of the past. But can it live up to the promise of that title? Unfolding as a love letter to exploitation movies, the feature debut from Canadian twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska is an anarchic and eccentric road movie that subverts expectations and doesn’t stop for breath until its surprisingly poignant ending. That it has an unexpectedly big heart, and is a statement about the dynamics and importance of friendship and sisterhood; is just an added bonus. A real livewire buzz elevates it above and beyond your usual low budget indie fare. There is a sense when watching it that it’s somehow part of a 'bigger picture.' I think in hindsight that 'bigger picture' will reveal itself to be the career of the Soska sisters. If this debut is anything to go by, they will be big.



Shot on digital, the style of the film really varies. Much of it is handheld and sparks with a real kinetic vibrancy. Certain scenes possess an almost lyrical quality, particularly the likes of the beautifully filmed campfire scene, complete with sunspots and dapples of morning light on the lens, giving the scene a bittersweet intimacy. The delicacy of moments like this contrast strongly with scenes such as the one depicting the hooker’s demise, which is disarmingly brutal, beautifully orchestrated and dizzily intense.

While at times the narrative doesn’t seem to have a clear direction, Dead Hooker is never dull. Far from it, in fact. It unfolds as an almost picaresque series of vignettes; the raw energy and drive onscreen is infectious, and while the story may meander down unexpected and ever-loosely connected thoroughfares, it still grips and enthrals. It is essentially a microcosm of the road movie; while the physical journey doesn’t take the gang very far, the journey and development they undergo as characters is significant. The bizarre situations they find themselves in, though never questioning - such as an encounter with a necrophiliac motel owner, or being lassoed by a pimp on horseback (!) - serve to lend the film an off-the-wall execution, almost akin to magic realism. When one of the gang has her eyeball knocked out and another, her arm wrenched off by a passing truck, things just carry on as normal! Well, as normal as things can be in a film called Dead Hooker In A Trunk.



It would be easy to dismiss this as deliberately trying to be cool, but as the story progresses, we become more enamoured with the characters as attention is lavished upon allowing them to develop and breathe enough so that we enjoy their company all the more. As the story continues to open out, it soon becomes clear there is more going on here than just riffing on exploitation glories from the past. While not perfect, it has such an offbeat sense of fun and self-belief; it’s hard not to let yourself get caught up in its whirlwind.

The tone never settles with the story’s mixed bag of events resulting in extreme violence, high octane action, tender romance, black comedy and flashes of horror. It can shift from splatter movie disembowelments, to soul-searching poeticism to frenzied attacks, to comedy as black as a smoker’s lungs, in mere moments. There are some pretty outré moments, including a chainsaw attack and torture scene complete with tooth extraction and power drills, and the anarchic, at times madcap feel may perturb some viewers as much as it enthrals others. In lesser films this could be a major discrepancy, but with Dead Hooker it doesn’t jar too much; it almost dares the viewer to adopt the same ‘devil may care’, take-it-as-it-comes attitude of the characters. While it falters a little in pacing and loses some of the narrative thrust it began with, the energy of the cast and the increasingly outlandish moments continue to compel things forward.




The ragtag group of characters exude misfit chic and the cast give uniformly decent performances. As Junkie, Rikki Gagne proves alluringly coquettish, while an endearing CJ Wallis (also the composer of the dreamy score) exhibits good comedic timing as Goody Two Shoes, a shy Christian youth facilitator intimidated by Geek’s sister. The real highlights of the film however are the Soska sisters. The twins are compelling and light up the screen as Geek and BadAss/The Cunt. They don’t so much command attention, as seize it by the balls. And then bat their lashes at it. Writing, directing, producing, starring and providing some of the stunt work, the sisters have really proved that they are a force to be reckoned with here.

Dead Hooker In A Trunk is an explosive debut that showcases their talent and promise, and will hopefully be the first feature in a career full of bolshie, raucous, daring and unique film work.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Sweatshop

2009
Dir. Stacy Davidson

Charlie has a reputation as the promoter of the hippest and edgiest Dark Wave parties in town. In an enormous vacant warehouse situated on the edge of the city, she and her friends gather to set up an explosive rave without attracting unwanted attention. But someone, or something, is already watching… Unknown to the fun-seeking ravers, an inhuman beast resides within the confines of the warehouse armed with a mammoth weapon that serves only one purpose: to end the lives of those who trespass within its lair. Charlie had hoped this party would be the best she’d ever thrown – now it looks like it may be her last!

Another month, another straight to DVD ‘torture-porn’ flick featuring the innards of poorly developed characters getting sloshed across our screen. Sweatshop is by far one of the most rudimentarily scripted of the bunch. It also boasts some of the most inexcusable characters in recent memory, but it somehow manages to set itself slightly apart from the pack with a number of interesting twists; notably the gruelling effects, monstrously hulking killer and moodily throbbing electronic score courtesy of Dwayne Cathey. While it also features a number of nicely staged death scenes – even managing to work some suspense into the mix – Sweatshop still suffers from uneven pacing and takes too long to get going. Director Davidson substitutes slow-burning tension for endless scenes in which annoying characters - who all resemble drop-outs from a gritty cyber-punk movie - bitch at each other, talk about/give blowjobs, fuck each other and then bitch at each other again. The film at times resembles an overly long music video, with loads of scenes of the aforementioned annoying characters dancing around in slow-motion, sucking lolly-pops and pouting ‘seductively’ from under the copious dry-ice while moody dance music blasts out. It’s only whenever the frequency of the murders increases that we get any semblance of momentum or suspense.


One of the film’s merits is without a doubt the jaw-dropping spectacle of the killer. A downright formidable chap, he is decked out in animal furs and welding mask, and sports a hammer to make even Thor go weak at the knees. He is an unusual and grotesque figure and adds a real edge to the film. He has a couple of demonic looking minions too and their look appears to have been heavily influenced by Lamberto Bava’s Demons; all bulging eyes, contorted movements and toothy snarls. Indeed the influence of Italian horror is evident throughout Sweatshop; in the stylised lighting and colour palette, extreme-violence, highly moody location and somewhat convoluted screenplay.

The violence in the film is beyond brutal: skulls are crushed into walls, limbs are bound in barbed-wire, jaws are ripped off, intestines are yanked out, legs are mangled and crunched to bloody pulps and throats are slit wide open. The mal-developed characters and epilepsy-inducing editing lessens the impact somewhat, but there are some images here that will sear themselves into your head. Once we’ve finally limped to the finale, the sight of the hulking killer dispatching various ravers on the crowded dance floor should further satisfy gore hounds and echoes similar scenes of carnage on the dancefloor in Blade, Beyond the Rave and Freddy vs Jason.


Sweatshop is a standard techno-goth themed horror flick with conscience-bothering and outlandish violence, ridiculously behemothic serial killer and a genuinely Carpenter-esque soundtrack that perfectly evokes memories of grimy grindhouse flicks of yesteryear.

Sweatshop (cert. 18) is released on DVD (£9.99) by High Fliers Films on 9th May 2011.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Faust: Love of the Damned

2000
Dir. Brian Yuzna

When John Jaspers’ girlfriend is brutally murdered by a gang of thugs he loses the will to live and plans to kill himself by jumping off a bridge. Just before he jumps he is approached by the sinister "M" who offers a dubious proposition: he will enable Jaspers to wreck brutal revenge in return for the man’s soul. Jaspers accepts and is transformed into Faust, a demon-like superhero who embarks on a bloody trail of vigilante vengeance… However when “M” returns to claim Jaspers’ soul, all hell breaks loose when Faust refuses to stick to the bargain.

“I am the pornography that makes you hot!”

Based on the graphic novel by David Quinn and Tim Vigil, Faust was the first film produced by Brian Yuzna’s Spanish-based production company, Fantastic Factory. Something of an oddity, the film is, if anything, an interesting attempt to approach the super-hero movie from a slightly different angle. The notion of an avenging demon is a tantalising one akin to the likes of The Crow or Spawn; but one that never reaches its full potential.



The 'Faust: Love of the Damned' graphic novels had a reputation for containing some of the most out there sexual and horror content of anything in the graphic novel market. As the man responsible for the likes of Society, Brian Yuzna would seem the perfect candidate to helm such a potentially extreme project. Its easy to tell this was based on a comic book, some of the shots, including one of the earliest ones featuring Jaspers standing on the bridge in Faust form, are obviously going for the ‘iconic’ look, however rather than continue with this approach, Yuzna soon opts to just load the film with soft-core nudity and weird S&M imagery depicting the pleasures of the damned.

Indeed, while a bizarre Clive Barker-esque S&M saturated palette ‘dominates’ the film (sorry), unlike Barker’s hellishly tortured-erotica, Faust doesn’t have the intellectual musings to accompany such disturbing sights. The result usually resembles a cheap and obvious soft-core flick. As well as copious tits’n’ass, the film is awash with blood and gore courtesy of Yuzna regular, effects master Screaming Mad George, and much of the violence sits at odds with the cartoon humour. At times Faust comes on too much like a low-rate Freddy Krueger, spouting ‘witticisms’ while dispatching victims. One particularly baffling and outré moment comes when “M” grants a young woman’s wish to, erm, enhance her ‘assets’ and her breasts and buttocks swell to grotesquely monstrous size, briefly recalling some of the queasy sights from Yuzna’s much better Society.


The tone is all over the place. Faust is at times depicted as a ruthless, unstoppable killer, and others, a tragically doomed figure. As John Jaspers/Faust, Mark Frost provides a wacky, bug-eyed performance resembling Jim Carrey on steroids. Twisting and gurning his face he boasts a limited repertoire which fails to engage or convey the depths of his tortured soul. Elsewhere stable, if rudimentary support comes from the ever-reliable Jeffery Combs as good-intentioned cop Lt. Dan Margolies, and Andrew Divoff as the devilish “M.”

The Arrow Video boxset was released on 18th April 2011. It includes Faust: Love of the Damned, Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt, Beyond Re-Animator and Arachnid.

Special features on the Faust: Love Of The Damned disc include:
- Audio commentary by director Brian Yuzna
- “Director Of The Damned: Brian Yuzna, Faust And The Fantastic Factory”
- “The Pain in Spain: A History Of Horror In Hot Weather” with Angel Sala, director of the Sitges Film Festival
- Original trailer
- Double-sided fold-out poster featuring new artwork
- Collectors’ booklet “Brian Yuzna: Maestro Of Mayhem” by author and critic Calum Waddell
- Reversible sleeve featuring brand new and original artwork
- English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 audio options.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Arachnid

2001
Dir. Jack Sholder

A man is taken to a hospital in Guam with mysterious bite marks on him. This sparks a search for what could have caused such wounds. A small group of doctors and scientist-types are flown to the island he lived on to investigate by tough, straight-talkin’ pilot-chick, Mercer. Needing to make an emergency landing due to technical difficulties, the group become stranded and a brief exploration reveals the island is strangely deserted. Before long the group realise, to their horror, natch, what caused the bites… Strange new breeds of killer arachnids! From outer space! Or something.

Bad CGI aliens! Giant spiders from outer space! Cheesy dialogue! Macho posturing with big guns! Alex Reid! On the surface, Arachnid has everything a great B-movie should have and one could be forgiven for expecting a tongue-in-cheek irreverent romp. What becomes apparent though is that Arachnid actually takes itself quite seriously. Director Sholder never manages to muster much suspense though, nor does he inject much intentional humour into the mix. As a result, Arachnid is merely mildly entertaining. Other films such as Eight-Legged Freaks did this sort of thing much better.


The eclectic group stranded on the island consists of doctor/scientist-types, various ethically diverse secondary characters, a tough, straight-talkin’ pilot chick and an all-American, gung-ho ‘hero.’ None of them are even remotely developed; all are defined by where their names come on the credits. It goes without saying that as Mercer, Alex Reid is one of Arachnid’s saving graces. She plays her usual tough chick role with wry gusto and is as watchable as she usually is. Just a shame she’s not really given much to do. Once our rhubarbing gang get to the island they just sort of wonder around and get picked off one by one by various mutated bugs and giant insects. The arachnid of the title scuttles around menacingly in the background before coming out into the open for a not very thrilling climax. One pretty effective scene comes however, when the last few survivors hide out in a storage shed. Thinking they are safe, they bed down for the night. Ever alert Mercer thinks she hears something though and goes to investigate. Little does she know that above her head, in the darkness, the giant spider has begun its stealthy entrance into the shed. The moment is genuinely arresting, and for a brief moment, things get a little tense.


The film is pretty low budget, and while the animatronics SFX are actually not bad – particularly the titular spider, which gives the film a nice, old-school vibe - a number of really bad CGI effects are just laughable. They, together with cheesy dialogue provide much of the films unintentional humour. Some impressive gross-out effects feature throughout and the film relishes in icky, creepy-crawly moments, like the sight of giant ticks scurrying around under an unfortunate underdeveloped character’s skin. Eww!

The film straddles a sort of beige middle ground, it doesn’t even fall into the ‘so bad its good’ category, and you’d be forgiven for thinking such a film would be inclined to. It’s just kind of unremarkable, though in its favour, it, like other Fantastic Factory productions, has a delightfully quirky charm and eccentricity that ensures there is never a dull moment, and while it isn’t entirely successful, it is still quite an interesting flick. Arachnid is best served with alcohol, and lots of it. Eight-Legged Freaks did the whole ‘giant spider’ thing much better.

The Arrow Video boxset was released on 18th April 2011. It includes Arachnid, Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt, Beyond Re-Animator and Faust: Love of the Damned.

Special features on the Arachnid include:

- “King of the Spiders” – Brian Yuzna remembers Arachnid
- “Creature Comforts: The Monster Mayhem Of Steve Johnson”
- Original trailer
- Collectors’ booklet “Spider Man” and interview with director Jack Sholder by author and critic Calum Waddell
- English Stereo, English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 audio options.

Friday, 6 May 2011

House of Wax

1953
Dir. André De Toth

This month marks the centenary of the velvet-voiced Vincent Price. Born on May 27, 1911, Price would have turned 100 years old this month. What more reason could you possibly need to revisit one of his classic chillers… Like House of Wax!

In House of Wax, Price plays oddball wax sculptor Henry Jarrod, who seemingly perishes when his financial partner deliberately sets their wax museum on fire, intending to claim the insurance money. Miraculously, he survives with severe injuries, and builds a new wax museum. His "Chamber of Horrors" exhibition coincides with bizarre deaths and the disappearance of bodies from the local morgue. Could it be that Jarrod’s waxworks are the wax-coated bodies of his victims? Of course it is! When Jarrod notices a startling resemblance between down-on-her Sue Allen and his wax model of Marie Antoinette, which perished in the fire, he intends to dunk her in wax and immortalise her in his museum… Cue much maniacal laughter in the inimitable style of Mr Price.


House of Wax is a remake of The Mystery of The Wax Museum (1933) and was produced at the height of the short-lived 1950s craze for 3D films. Indeed, much of the film seems to have been deliberately created to showcase 3D technology. Throughout the duration we’re treated to prolonged shots of Can-Can dancers kicking their legs into the camera, a carnivalesque barker with a bolo-bat and various waxworks looming into view. All no doubt amazing; if you happen to be watching House of Wax in 3D. In the 1950s. When such things were all sparkly and new.

House of Wax may be light on plot, but it is high on lively set-pieces and it moves along briskly. The pacing in the second half slows somewhat though, as narrative emphasis shifts to the police investigating the murders. The film is routinely structured and few surprises wait to lunge out of the shadows. The climax revolves around the imperilled Sue (Phyllis Kirk) strapped to a table while Jarrod attempts to pour molten wax on her, while he ‘waxes lyrical’ (sorry) about how he wants to immortalise her beauty.


While not particularly scary, there are a number of pretty atmospheric moments, including the creepy bedroom encounter and the final unmasking of Jarrod when his wax mask is forced off by a hysterical Sue to reveal the hideously disfigured visage beneath it. De Toth peppers the film with shots exploiting the uncanny, eerie nature of wax dummies. The shots of the dummies melting in the fire are effectively creepy: their fixed smiles and cold staring eyes dripping off to form a kind of animated death grin. Another insidiously sinister moment comes when Cathy’s body is delivered to the morgue. The room is filled with gurneys holding bodies under white sheets, one of which sits bolt upright.

There are traces of a dark humour evident throughout, particularly in the scene in the morgue when the corpse sits up suddenly under a white sheet, and the attendant explains to his assistant that its just the embalming fluid and that “suicides are just like women: always have to have the last word.” De Toth also has a lot of fun surprising us with ‘moving waxworks’ in the scenes where various characters explore the Chamber of Horrors. We see figures in the shot standing still and assume them to be dummies, only for them to move. There’s also a typical mad-scientist type lab in the cobweb hewn, crumbling basement, complete with furnaces, bubbling cauldrons, vats of molten wax, glowering test tubes and a plethora of wax ‘body parts’ strewn about the place for good measure.


The characters are all fairly bland with only Jarrod, Sue and tragic Cathy (Carolyn Jones) afforded any kind of development. As Jarrod, Vincent Price once again plays the tortured artist and though character development is thin, he still imbues the character with a swathe of dark pathos. Sue, while down-on-her luck, is also conveyed as headstrong and assured. During a genuinely creepy scene in the guesthouse where Sue encounters a shadowy figure lurking over the body of her friend Cathy, she doesn’t do what many of the horror heroines of this time would have done, namely scream and faint. Yes, she screams, a lot, but she then evades death by pitching herself out of the window, onto the roof, along the ledge and down into the foggy street below where a well mounted chase scene plays out. A young Charles Bronson is quite watchable as a limping mute ‘Igor-type’ assistant, called, surprisingly enough, Igor. Shocker.


Shades of Burke and Hare abound and the film touches on a number of interesting concepts. Instead of medical experiments, Jarrod steals the corpses for art and entertainment. His “Chamber of Horrors” features exhibitions based on historic crimes of violence. The film in a roundabout way appears to be making a wry comment on the nature of horror and what attracts audiences to it – our fascination with the macabre. A few interesting jabs are made at horror entertainment too, as Jarrod’s financiers constantly harass him to make his wax exhibits more sensational and shocking, whereas he was initially more concerned with creating beauty. He retorts with: “The morbidly curious? I won’t cater to them.” When he returns after his accident, the twisted exhibitions he creates depict the brutality of humanity and include recreations of scenes from the French revolution, the execution of William Kemmler (the first person in the world to be executed in an electric chair), torture chambers, cavemen pillaging and Bluebeard’s secret, blood-soaked room.