Saturday, 30 April 2011

Poll Results

Over the last three months regular visitors to The Celluloid Highway will have noticed that a poll to decide the next themed month has been in session. I’d like to thank all those who took the time to vote, and thus decide my fate for the month of May. The last themed month was January’s successful exploration of the Italian giallo, a category which led from day one and won at a canter. This time however it was more evenly contested, with several categories in contention until the last few days. Without further ado here are the full results.

01 1950’s Science-Fiction -  19 Votes (25%)

02 German Expressionism -  15 Votes (20%)

03 Akira Kurosawa -  12 Votes (16%)

04 Universal Horror -  12 Votes (16%)

05 Documentaries -  9 Votes (12%)

06 Wim Wenders -  8 Votes (10%)

May will see a month of 50’s science-fiction, and commiserations to German filmmaker Wim Wenders who picks up the wooden spoon. Many thanks again too all those who took part…and don’t forget to keep watching the skies!

Friday, 29 April 2011

Monsters (2010)

Country: UK

I can imagine that many a mindless moron rented or purchased this title expecting the usual masturbatory excesses of modern CGI, and the hollow spectacle of alien marauders laying waste to mankind. One can well imagine the disappointment of the retards when Monsters develops into a subtle and nuanced character driven narrative that is far more concerned with humanity than it is showing off its visual effects. The sparing attitude to special effects allows the uncluttered narrative an opportunity to develop in interesting ways and retain an emotional core that might have been lost amid the artificiality of modern filmmaking techniques. Monsters also distinguishes itself in the creative control wielded by newcomer Gareth Edwards. British filmmaker Edwards not only wrote and directed Monsters but also acted as cinematographer, production designer and created many of the visual effects. This was also Edwards’ first feature film and he imbues it with a fearless impetuosity and an impressive awareness of the genre it sits within. It is perhaps a little too early to think of Edwards as an auteur, but this level of creative control is most unusual in genre filmmaking, and signifies to me at least, that the career of Edwards will be worth keeping an eye on. It will be interesting to see if Edwards is able to maintain this when the big budget investment of American producers inevitably comes his way.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Viking Queen (1967)

Country: UK

Hammer had a long tradition in the production of historical adventure films, one which dated back to their first Robin Hood adventure The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), which featured Don Taylor in the role of the outlaw thief. Two more Robin Hood pictures followed in 1960 and 1967, in addition to several controversial tales of Eastern cruelty (The Strangles of Bombay [1959), The Terror of the Tongs [1961]), a slew of pirate adventures (The Pirates of Blood River [1962], Captain Clegg [1962], The Devil-Ship Pirates [1964]), and miscellaneous departures into historical territory such as The Scarlet Blade (1964), The Brigand of Kandahar (1965) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). The emphasis in all of these films is on action and adventure rather than history, and The Viking Queen slots neatly into a subset of films with which Hammer had dealt with consummate ease. However, somewhat unusually, the lifeless screenplay by Clarke Reynolds and John Temple-Smith attempts to place the action within a historical context they believed to be accurate. The use of voice over and on screen captions do a semi-decent job in setting the scene; in this case 1st century Britain, a time when the country was divided up into numerous kingdoms, all ruled in collaboration with the occupying forces of the Roman army. The kingdom under scrutiny here is that of Icena, a realm that has seen the recent death of its beloved king, and the ascension to leadership of his daughter Salina (Carita).

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Country: UK

The Devil's Bride

Of the three Dennis Wheatley properties optioned by Hammer The Devil Rides Out is by some margin the most enjoyable. It has steadily risen to a position of prominence within the annals of British horror, and can now be viewed as an exemplar of the gothic horror form. The other two Wheatley films The Lost Continent (1968) and To the Devil - A Daughter (1976) are interesting failures. The former is unable to escape the abysmal production values and incompetent direction to realise the promise of the concept, and the latter suffers from its obvious mimicry of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), and an incredibly uninterested lead performance from Richard Widmark. By contrast The Devil Rides Out possesses sumptuous production values, truly inspired direction from Terence Fisher, and dedicated displays from the principal players. It appeared at a precipitous moment in the development of the horror genre. A brief window of opportunity for Hammer to produce one last great gothic horror production before the mode became increasingly anachronistic and irrelevant. The film fed into a sub-set of movies dealing with the themes of occultism, witchcraft and satanic worship. In contrast to the US, British horror had a long tradition of engaging with these themes dating back to Night of the Demon (1957), with other examples such as Night of the Eagle (1962), Witchcraft (1964) and Hammer’s The Witches (1966) offering novel approaches. Tigon would take on the mantle and push boundaries even further with Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). As excellent as all these films were, it is The Devil Rides Out that still leads the way.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Uzumaki (2000)

Country: JAPAN


For many J-Horror began with the investigation into a certain cursed video tape, and the cycle of death and tragedy that followed a viewing of it. Although Hideo Nakata’s low budget Ring (1998) exposed the limitations of modern technology through the incursion of the supernatural, it overflowed with the signifiers of past traditions. Nakata was essentially telling a very old story, and it was only correct that the narrative should have the cautionary quality of a fable or fairy tale. For several years the long haired avenging ghost girl was the trans-national symbol most associated with the Japanese film industry, but few horror films produced during this period offered anything new or original. Their success in the west was almost certainly due to a carefully constructed and self-conscious depiction of a Japanese culture that appealed to a western conception. By the year 2000 I for one was sick to the back teeth of long haired ghost girls, and if derivative Japanese product wasn’t enough, even South Korea got in on the act with their own brand of imitative celluloid waste. With the bubble well and truly burst on this form of cultural expression it’s easier to look back now and see that Higuchinsky’s peculiar feature film debut Uzumaki was one of the most distinctive and original productions of this cycle.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Peculiar World of Polish Film Posters - Part 1

If you haven’t been exposed to the weird and wonderful world of Polish film poster designs you have missed out on some peculiar and fascinating concepts. Naturally of greater interest is the interpretations given to major Hollywood productions, and they are often given a surreal dimension which makes one wonder quite how they would entice Polish cinemagoers to part with their cash and buy a ticket to the film. Instead of communicating a generic message through the poster images, numerous Polish designs opt instead for symbolism. In this respect Polish posters were conceived at the time as works of art, rather than becoming art retrospectively. These conceptual masterpieces feel as though they should be hanging in a gallery rather than on the wall of a cinema. I welcome all my fellow travellers on The Celluloid Highway to take a peek at some wonderful and exotic Eastern European ephemera.




Saturday, 9 April 2011

Prehistoric Women (1967)

Country: UK

Slave Girls

The commercial success of the insipid She (1965) and the far more enjoyable One Million Years B.C. (1966) inspired the powers at Hammer to continue mining the rich landscape of adventure films set in the prehistory of lost worlds. The two films previously mentioned, were by the standards of Hammer, relatively big budget and lavish affairs. She had the commercial draw of Ursula Andress, while One Million Years B.C. had the draw of both Raquel Welch and Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion visual effects. Instead of maintaining these production standards however, Hammer showed predictable contempt for its audience with a thriftiness that ultimately destroyed the epic nature of future fantastical adventures. The inappropriately titled Prehistoric Women (aka Slave Girls - a more fitting title) was Hammer’s third ‘lost world’ film, and like the previous two was lead by a sex symbol - in this case the statuesque Martine Beswick. Beswick is by far the best thing about this movie. The name Michael Carreras attached in a creative role to any film is ordinarily a sign for me to press the eject button on my DVD player - and here he is both writer and director. With the exception of Maniac (1963), which in itself is hardly special, the directorial career of Carreras is an arid wasteland of incompetence. While Carreras is the primary reason for Prehistoric Women’s imbecility, it has to be said he is not the only reason. One of the most damaging decisions for the film was to shoot entirely on a soundstage at Elstree Studios. The usual brilliance of the Hammer technical team has vanished here, instead they contrive to create some of the most unconvincing jungle terrain you are ever likely to see.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

We Are What We Are (2010)

Country: MEXICO

Somos lo que hay (Original title)

Mexican writer/director Jorge Michel Grau has crafted a powerful debut feature which seamlessly blends horror and art cinema into a potent social allegory which has the family at its centre. Although Grau downplays the horror elements of his narrative, the decision to use certain generic signifiers offers a potential new direction for an increasingly unadventurous national cinema that seems more preoccupied in genuflecting at the altar of past glories. For much of the films running time this is a family melodrama, but one which becomes increasingly desperate and hysterical. With this increase in tension comes certain plot revelations that propels the frantic family into a series of actions that eventually lead to disunity and downfall. The film opens with the death of the family patriarch in a modern shopping mall. After riding the gleaming escalators the man stares with undisguised hunger at a series of shop mannequins, before throwing up black vomit and expiring on the spotless white floor tiles. Within seconds of his death his corpse has been carted off and his mess mopped up. The swiftness and efficiency of his removal in this middle class consumerist space is easily the most troubling aspect of this opening. We soon discover that not only was this bedraggled chap the head of the family, but also the hunter. For we are in the company of a family of modern day cannibals. His addiction to whores, and the implicated disease ridden nature of their flesh, not only costs him his life, but plunges his family into crisis.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

Country: UK

Hammer’s fourth Frankenstein adventure is a significant improvement over the previous entry - the lacklustre and feeble The Evil of Frankenstein (1964). One possible reason for the shabbiness of that film might be the insipid and blatantly imitative direction of Freddie Francis. Without a doubt Francis was an accomplished cinematographer, but his skills as a director were less impressive. Fortunately for Frankenstein Created Woman (one of the silliest and most inappropriate titles for a film) Terence Fisher was invited back to the series. It had been nine years since Fisher had last had the pleasure of the Baron’s company, and his comfort with the material is obvious from the assured confidence of the direction and his eye for striking visual compositions. This is despite the fact that Fisher is working with, by the standards of Hammer, an incredibly offbeat and outlandish screenplay courtesy of Anthony Hinds. Hinds implements a number of important changes that make this an altogether unique entry in the series.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)

Country: UK

Pompous know it all Christopher Lee has made a career out of playing stilted and regimented characters, so its no surprise really that his performances in Rasputin: The Mad Monk and The Wicker Man (1973) stand out. Lee has significantly less dynamic range than this Hammer colleague Peter Cushing, but what he did always bring is a certain gravitas and dignity to roles, that in all reality, didn’t deserve it. In Rasputin Lee was afforded his only opportunity with Hammer to express a more outlandish and eccentric dimension to his acting. The result is a powerhouse display, a marvellously excessive exhibition in which Lee eagerly flaunts his domineering physicality. Equally important is the booming tones of Lee’s vocal delivery, the raucousness and carnivalesque nature of Rasputin betrays a fierce intellect which is often communicated through his voice. The strength of Lee’s performance is such however that practically every other aspect of the film is dwarfed by his fierce intensity. Although Lee is supported by capable actors such as Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, and Suzan Farmer their performances are mild distractions from Lee’s hyperbolic histrionics. When Rasputin isn’t lighting up the screen with his greed, gluttony, drunken carousing, dancing, violence, and general blasphemy, the film is totally flat. The price for sitting back and enjoying such an overbearing and imperious performance is a terrible dramatic imbalance, an imbalance which ultimately leads to the failure of the film as a whole.

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