Monday, 27 February 2012

Kill List (2011)

Country: UK

Few British genre efforts come with quite the degree of fanfare afforded to Ben Wheatley’s second film Kill List. But beneath the enthusiasm the prevailing trend to emerge from discussions of Kill List is that it’s an extremely divisive film. The critical notices have been patchy, but whatever one might think of the film, people are certainly talking about it. As a long time supporter of indigenous genre production I’m all for this. Any film that inspires discussion and argument is of benefit, especially in a film culture that sorely needs distinctive and generically progressive material. For many Ben Wheatley will be a new name, but his darkly humorous and dialogue driven debut effort Down Terrace (2009) marked him out as fresh new talent. In a way Wheatley was fortunate that Down Terrace slipped quietly away into the ether because viewing it will certainly prepare you for the style and tone of Kill List. The key ingredient both films have in common is a sense of rising tension. An atmosphere of menace, imperceptible at first, that steadily builds throughout both films, and culminates in moments of unexpected bloodshed and violence. There might be some who feel that the generic shift in the final third of Kill List unbalances and undermines proceedings, but in light of the simmering ambience of the previous hour the narrative had to go somewhere. That the writers (Wheatley himself and his partner Amy Jump) opt for the folk-horror territory of The Wicker Man (1973) is to be commended in my view.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

What Have You Done To Solange? (1972)


Cosse avete fatto a Solange?
Who's Next?
Terror in the Woods
The School that Couldn't Scream
The Secret of the Green Pins

In January 2011 I dedicated an entire month of The Celluloid Highway to the Italian giallo. Of the films I reviewed that month I was most impressed by Massimo Dallamano’s 1974 entry What Have They Done to Your Daughters? I particularly enjoyed the confident manner in which the narrative strategies of the giallo were fastened to the high octane thrills and spills one would commonly associate with the poliziotesschi. From 1946 to 1966 Dallamano carved out a career as a cinematographer, the culmination of which was his work on A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). But as a director we are only left with the merest of legacies. He only directed twelve feature films before his untimely death in a car accident in late 1976. On the strength of Venus in Furs (1969) and the aforementioned What Have They Done to Your Daughters? I was determined to explore as many of his dozen films as I could. Unfortunately I was waylaid on this quest and Dallamano was filed away for future reference. A year later I finally got the opportunity to screen his first giallo What Have You Done to Solange? and was immediately surprised (and not to mention a little weary) of the unanimous praise the film has received in critical circles. Only a select band of gialli have reviewed as well as Solange. I expected the film to struggle to live up to its reputation, but I’m pleased to report this is one film that is deserving of its current status amid the highest echelon of the cycle.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Stranglers of Bombay (1959)

Country: UK

At first glance one might assume that Hammer’s 1959 production The Stranglers of Bombay was a departure from the successful cycle of gothic horrors the company had been churning out since The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The reality is that despite its distinct historical and cultural setting the film is a solid example of what was increasingly becoming known as ‘Hammer Horror’. The structure of the movie will be all too familiar to those well versed in the films of Hammer and specifically those of in-house director Terence Fisher. The narrative is clearly demarcated along the lines of good and evil, and the rather simplistic Manichean universe that bound Hammer’s horror cycle at the time is effortlessly maintained. The screenplay by David Zelag Goodman opts to emphasis sensationalism over an intelligent examination of colonialism. So while we are offered up such delights as brandings, eye gouging, and mutilation, the question of imperialism remains a vague backdrop. Nevertheless colonialism would form the background to a number of later Hammer pictures including The Terror of the Tongs (1961), The Brigand of Kandahar (1965), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), The Reptile (1966), and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). The subject was never really explored with any degree of sophistication, but it did achieve a metaphoric highpoint in The Reptile. There was a great deal of potential in the premise of The Stranglers of Bombay for it to stand alone, but unfortunately it isn’t quite able to escape the strictures of a well rehearsed formula.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Guest Review - The Dead (2010)


Country: UK

In a short piece I wrote several months ago for Videotape Swapshop on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), I light heartedly remarked on the prolificacy, or over saturation, of zombie films within the contemporary horror canon as having become “ten a penny”. To elaborate on this comment, I would like to consider what might be perceived as a cyclical regression or perhaps the creative distress of the genre belonging to the Living Dead. This is to say that: since the late 70s, the undead in horror film have chewed on the bones of exploitation; groaned and wailed through the grue caked cityscapes of revisionism; shuffled down the path of post-modernism and found themselves back at the beginning of the nightmare – collected as a clawing mob outside the fortress of the High Concept. In a sense, the Morti Viventi sub genre has finally started to eat itself…

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Shadow of the Cat (1961)

Country: UK

Although credited to BHP Productions (a company formed by veteran horror scribe George Baxt, Richard Finlay Hatton, and filmmaker Jon Penington in order to take advantage of a new sponsorship scheme created by the ACTT*) 1961’s The Shadow of the Cat is at heart a Hammer production.† The film was shot entirely at Bray Studios and familiar Hammer names amongst the cast and crew included André Morell, Barbara Shelley, John Gilling, Arthur Grant, and Bernard Robinson. This was in fact director John Gilling’s first directorial assignment for Hammer, and although it has not attained the cult following of The Reptile (1966) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966), it’s still a competently directed film. The Shadow of the Cat hasn’t really had much chance to attain any kind of following, and it remains to this day one of Hammer’s most obscure titles. One possible reason might be the rather antiquated Cat and the Canary/Old Dark House type plot, and a second might be the timidity of the narrative. It singularly lacks the blood and thunder of Hammer’s gothic horrors, and in comparison is rather stately and well mannered. Neither does it have the clever plot mechanics or high levels of suspense that Hammer’s sub-set of monochrome psychological thrillers enjoyed. Its status as a Hammer film is open to dispute, and in my opinion quite rightly so. It is possessed of a tone and attitude that is quite unlike anything the company was making at the time, and its relative failure may have something to do with this. Nevertheless a curiosity such as this is surely deserving of a DVD release!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Celluloid Sounds - Thief (1981)

As The Celluloid Highway appears to be undertaking something of a mini Michael Mann retrospective (and I stress the word mini, Mann has done little that has interested me after Manhunter [1986]) I thought it only appropriate to return to his debut picture Thief, and the contribution to it, of the German progressive electronic group Tangerine Dream. At this point in the bands history they were relative novices to the world of soundtrack composition. Their first soundtrack was for William Friedkin’s haunting and often beautiful, but ultimately misguided, remake of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (1955) which went under the name Sorcerer (1977). Without a doubt the textured soundscapes of Tangerine Dream were a major creative highlight of the troubled production. In these early formative soundtrack years for the band their type of cosmic electronica was often used as a counterpoint to the unfolding narrative. Their cold and clinical tones would seem wholly inappropriate for the sweat and dirt of a poverty stricken area of South America, but time and again the music saves Sorcerer from becoming little more than a mild distraction.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Keep (1983)

Country: USA/UK

The gothic horror fantasy The Keep had everything going for it when pre-production began in 1982/3. The novel by F. Paul Wilson was a bestseller, and the director Michael Mann was coming into his second film off the back of a critical and commercial success with his debut effort Thief (1981). The film had a respectable budget of $6,000,000, and a solid and dependable cast that included Scott Glenn, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, and Ian McKellan. The casting however is very instructive; while all these actors are respectable in their own right, none of them were stars. The Keep was clearly the Michael Mann show, and the writer/director is both the worst and the best thing about the film. The novel represents a challenge too adaptation, and Mann was clearly not up to the task. His initial cut of the film ran to over two hundred minutes -  somebody should have reminded him his name was Michael Mann not Francis Ford Mann! And much of the controversy around the film centres on the studios decision to cut the film down to a more palatable one hundred minutes. The question of whether Mann’s cut would have made any more sense is moot, the film exists as it does. And in its present form it is untidy, chaotic, incoherent, and confused. The Keep fails dismally as a story; plot development lacks even the most basic sense of continuity and the narrative is a mangled mess. But from a visual perspective The Keep is a stunning success; it overflows with one striking image after another, and is stylistically at least, one of the most beautiful horror/fantasy films of the 1980’s.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Guest Review - Invocation Of My Demon Brother (1969)

Country: USA

My introduction to the works of Kenneth Anger began when I saw Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) [on the Channel 4 show Midnight Underground.] My first thoughts were “What the hell is this?” Bizarre imagery set to classical music, with a guy who had impressively long fingernails. In the pre-internet days, a trawling of the library uncovered a book featuring underground filmmakers. This led to my quest to track down as many of his works as possible, which was not easy in the days before multi-region DVD players. Most of the copies of Anger’s films were American, but eventually, through the classified ads in a magazine, a, cough, bootlegged copy of nine of his short film were mine, albeit on a Maxell C180.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Lobby Card Collection - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)

This months thrilling edition of the Lobby Card Collection completes Sergio Leone's trilogy of 'Dollars' film featuring Clint Eastwood as the nameless anti-hero. In comparison to previous instalments lobby card images for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly were relatively thin on the ground, but on my travels I still managed to find some interesting examples that were used to promote the film in French and Italian cinemas.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Michael Mann Poster Gallery

Thief (1981) - US Poster

 The Keep (1983) - US Poster

Manhunter (1986) - US Poster

Manhunter - US Poster

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Conquest (1983)


It is not unfair to say that Fabrizio De Angelis and Ugo Tucci’s decision to hire Lucio Fulci as director for their horror production Zombi 2 (1979) saved his career. The pair embarked on a wave of excessively gory and increasingly incoherent horror pictures, inflicting such delights as The Beyond (1981), The House by the Cemetery (1981), The New York Ripper (1982), and Manhattan Baby (1982) on an unsuspecting public. These were all critical titles in Fulci’s cult resurgence in the 1990’s and beyond, and for many, Fulci’s work under the auspices of De Angelis represents his most impressive. Unfortunately some time between the release of Manhattan Baby and pre-production on Fulci’s next picture Conquest the two parted company. Little did Fulci know that whoring himself out to the highest bidder - in this case Giovanni Di Clemente - would have such a devastating effect on the quality of his films. I’m not arguing that the De Angelis produced films were masterpieces, only a complete asshole could make a case for Manhattan Baby. But Conquest is so nonsensical and drab, and so utterly bereft of intelligence and charm, that one cannot help but conclude that Fulci’s current standing amongst horror aficionados is as much down to De Angelis as it is Fulci.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Knife of Ice (1972)


Il coltello di ghiaccio
Silent Horror

I should start this review by saying I’m not a big admirer of the films of Umberto Lenzi. I’m well aware of the high esteem he is held in by enthusiasts of cult Italian cinema, but to date I’ve only seen marginal evidence to suggest that Lenzi is little more than an incompetent and talentless hack. I say marginal because I am rather fond of his unconventional and surprising giallo Spasmo (1974), and he did make some striking contributions to the poliziotesschi cycle - most notably Almost Human (1974), Assault with a Deadly Weapon (aka Brutal Justice, 1976), and Violent Naples (aka Death Dealers, 1976). But what these films highlight is the strength of the casting, rather than Lenzi’s direction. I’m often very charitable to those filmmakers who were overshadowed/overlooked in favour of the Bava’s, Argento’s and more recently Fulci’s of the world, but I find Lenzi’s position to be entirely justified. If his career was overshadowed by others, then so too is the mans filmography. In this case by the odious excrement entitled Cannibal Ferox (1981). His earlier departure into the ‘Green Inferno’ The Man from Deep River (1972) was far superior, but Lenzi’s attempt to out grotesque Cannibal Holocaust (1980) casts a long and repulsive shadow over his career.

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