Thursday, 29 March 2012

Rome: Armed to the Teeth (1976)

Country: ITALY

Roma a mano armata
Assault with a Deadly Weapon
Brutal Justice
The Tough Ones

In recent months I’ve had the opportunity to scrutinise in more detail the long and varied career of Italian director Umberto Lenzi. My relationship with Lenzi’s films have been fraught and negative at the best of times, but I have to confess to finding myself mellowing towards his work with each passing obscurity that crosses my desk. After all Lenzi has directed over sixty films and only one of them was called Cannibal Ferox (1981). The prevailing consensus has it that Lenzi’s career can be divided into two distinct camps. In the first are his many contributions to the giallo and poliziotesschi cycles, which are fondly recalled, and generally considered half decent. In the second camp is everything else! From what I have seen so far that seems to be a fair assessment. But the overriding problem I have with Lenzi’s films still remains; namely that Lenzi himself is never the best thing about his films. His 1976 poliziotesschi flick Rome: Armed to the Teeth is a very good working example of this. Without a doubt the most distinctive aspect of this production is its cast. The film is led by Maurizio Merli (much maligned in some quarters, but I’ve always found him to be an appealing actor), who by this point was a veteran of the cycle, and could do the tough guy cop routine in his sleep. The supporting cast includes excellent turns from Tomas Milian, Arthur Kennedy, Ivan Rassimov, and Giampiero Albertini and these performances serve to offset Merli’s lack of dimension. The films second most distinctive feature is the superb musical contribution of Franco Micalizzi, and then maybe…and it’s a big maybe, we might put the direction of Lenzi third.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Dead of Night (1977) - TV Movie

Country: USA

Transmission Date: 29/03/1977

Almost exactly two years to the transmission date of Trilogy of Terror (1975) writer/director/producer Dan Curtis returned to the anthology format for three more tales of mystery, imagination, and terror, in the shape of Dead of Night. In those two years he had had departed from the horror genre and offered up a small screen action movie with The Kansas City Massacre (1975), and much more significantly realised an opportunity to helm a feature film in the shape of Burnt Offerings (1976). It’s clear from this insipid and monotonous cinematic exercise that Mr. Curtis was far more comfortable operating within the regimen of network television. It seems likely to me that had Burnt Offerings being a major critical and commercial success we may not have had Dead of Night, which on the strength of the final story Bobby, would have been a great shame indeed. The chief thing it has in common with Trilogy of Terror, aside from being an anthology, is that its reputation entirely rests on the final story. Trilogy of Terror has rightfully become something of a cult item, but this has never detracted from the fact that the first two stories are pretty lousy. Unfortunately the same fate befell Dead of Night, whose first two stories are so trivial and dull that they have completely undermined the films claim to the same type of cult following enjoyed by Trilogy of Terror. They both also have Richard Matheson in common, and I’m increasingly of the opinion that anything written for the screen by Mr. Matheson is worth a look.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Gargoyles (1972) - TV Movie

Country: USA

Transmission Date: 21/11/1972

Over the past few months I’ve watched a number of American TV horror movies from the 1970’s and 1980’s in a bid to bolster the cult television section of the site. On my journey it has become impossible to ignore the most recurrent feature of these old ’movies-of-the-week’; namely that the quality and effect of many of these films have been grossly exaggerated by the nostalgic twittering of writers/reviewers who now seemingly find it impossible to be objective about them. Thus far I have only come across a select handful of these movies that live up to the unhelpful hype and stand up to modern scrutiny; both Duel (1971) and Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) remain towering examples of the form, and anything with the name Dan Curtis attached to it offers a seal of quality that was not replicated elsewhere. The latest allegedly brilliant and/or terrifying TV horror movie to cross my desk is Gargoyles, which was broadcast on CBS in November 1972. The most distinguishing feature of this patchy 74 minute effort is the excellent costume design and special make up effects created by Stan Winston; the most impressive of which is rightfully reserved for the lead gargoyle played by Bernie Casey. You can always tell a film is in a spot of bother when the best thing about it is a costume! I had no option to conclude that Steven and Elinor Karpf’s pitiful and laughable screenplay was totally undeserving of Mr. Winston’s inspired efforts.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The New York Ripper (1982)

Country: ITALY

A viewing of Lucio Fulci’s scandalous The New York Ripper has almost become something of a rites of passage for horror fans looking too experience the more extreme and unpleasant end of the spectrum. It wields a strange repulsive fascination not dissimilar to controversial ‘Video Nasties’ such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978); to see them, and to own them in uncut prints, is seen as something of a badge of honour in some quarters. Fortunately such juvenilia are not to be found on these pages, and my encounter with this repugnant artefact came as a result of a piece of research into British film censorship. It’s not a film I would watch by choice, but then who would? Although it is often situated within the giallo cycle I find this position to be nominal at best. By 1982 the giallo was no longer a major force of influence within the horror genre, if anything gialli were absorbing influences from elsewhere; most notably from the American slasher film. A reversal of positions as it was, and one which would have a damaging effect on the giallo as films increasingly took on the appearance of cut rate slasher flicks. The New York Ripper is a very good example of this trend. Its prevailing influence was William Lustig’s squalid Maniac (1980) rather than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) or Deep Red (1975).

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Just Before Dawn (1981)

Country: USA

Just Before Dawn is a solid, and on occasion, very effective backwoods rural slasher film in the mould of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). Brooklyn born writer/director Jeff Lieberman came into it off the back of Squirm (1976) and Blue Sunshine (1978). The former was a worm infested ‘Revolt of Nature’ flick which showed evidence of an eccentric and off kilter sense of humour, and an intelligent use of space and landscape. The latter, arguably Lieberman’s finest film, proposed a novel outcome for counter-cultural experimentation with mind expanding narcotics; in this case baldness followed by an unsociable tendency for mass murder! But what really made Blue Sunshine effective was the decision to delay the effects by ten years, thus allowing Lieberman to explore the hypocrisies of individuals now desperate to be a part of the establishment. Just Before Dawn is probably Lieberman’s most derivative film, and the director himself is happy to admit his influences, but that doesn’t mean it is any less important than his previous efforts. From Squirm Lieberman learnt the importance of setting and location, and one of Just Before Dawn’s most important features is the evocative use of Silver Falls State Park in Oregon as the principal location. From Blue Sunshine he learnt how to create plausible characters which developed in a believable and credible way, and Just Before Dawn is infused with a rare interest in characterisation that helps to make it one of the better slasher films to emerge in the wake of Halloween (1978).

Friday, 16 March 2012

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Country: USA

In the baking heat of the Spanish countryside Clint Eastwood performed his duties as an actor in three spaghetti westerns that had little expectation attached to them; somehow amid the chaos of a Sergio Leone shoot Mr. Eastwood studied the Italian’s technique, absorbed the stylisations, admired the fiery filmmakers work ethic, and filed away the daily lessons he was exposed too for future reference. Eastwood was clearly determined to get more of out his three European vacations than just payment. It’s almost as if Eastwood knew that these formative experiences would be crucial in his later career. But Eastwood was not content with merely following the Sergio Leone curriculum of filmmaking, especially when the opportunity arose later in his career to work with Don Siegel. If Leone’s influence on Eastwood was visual and stylistic, then Siegel’s lay in the simplification of narrative; in a minimalist attitude to the presentation of familiar generic material. Eastwood’s first outing as a director was the atypical and unusual Play Misty for Me (1971); an intense psychological thriller in which Eastwood made his first attempt to subvert audience expectations built on his image as a tough guy action hero. His second film was High Plains Drifter, and it was his first western. It is a more instructive and intriguing film, and was his first clear opportunity to celebrate his influences and develop his own unique outlook.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Brigand of Kandahar (1965)

Country: UK

British director John Gilling holds a curious position within the history of Hammer Film Productions. He was the main creative force behind two of their most successful and fondly remembered titles; The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Reptile (1966). Yet the other films he made for the company have become outright obscurities. It is only in the last couple of months that two of his films - The Scarlet Blade (1964) , and The Brigand of Kandahar - made their debut on DVD; whilst The Shadow of the Cat (1961) still awaits a legitimate DVD release. Even his single entry into the ongoing saga of Egypt’s favourite mummified corpse The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) is largely overlooked and ignored despite being very entertaining. When one compares Gilling to other directors Hammer regularly employed such as Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, or Val Guest, his marginalisation becomes more apparent. Of course an obvious answer for the relative disappearance of these films might be that they’re dreadfully incompetent. Unfortunately The Brigand of Kandahar does little to dispel that reading.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Country: USA

With the recent blu-ray release of Rolling Thunder courtesy of Studio Canal I thought it was high time I reacquainted myself with Major Charles Rane and his hook-handed vigilantism in the bordellos and bars of Mexico. For the last ten to fifteen years the film has been languishing in the sulphur pits of distribution hell, and in that time it has steadily built itself a cult reputation. This is in no small part due to Quentin Tarantino and his gushing masturbatory praise for the film. The fact that Tarantino is a big fan is just one indication of the films simplistic juvenilia. The second is a screenplay by Paul Schrader which completely recycles the themes and preoccupations of his earlier effort Taxi Driver (1976), but chooses to omit questions of social and political fragmentation in favour of a highly personalised odyssey of violence and revenge. Although both films share a number of themes and plot points (for example both films conclude with a blood drenched finale in a whorehouse) Taxi Driver possesses an awareness and intelligence that is entirely lacking in Rolling Thunder. If the two films were relatives then Rolling Thunder would be the immature and irritating younger brother. The film has the feel of a quick exercise for Mr. Schrader, certain aspects feel underdeveloped, and certain aspects just make no sense at all. For example why on earth would a quartet of hard nosed bastards torture Charles Rane, and then shoot his wife and kid before his very eyes, all for a lousy $2,000? It all seems a little over the top and unnecessary; the plot hinges on a number of absurd contrivances, the most ridiculous of which sees Rane end up with a hook instead of a hand!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Don Siegel Poster Gallery

The Verdict (1946) - Italian Poster

Night Unto Night (1949) - US Quad Poster

  The Big Steal (1949) - US Poster

 The Big Steal - Italian Poster

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) - TV Movie

Country: USA

Transmission Date: 10/10/1973

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a humble ABC movie-of-the-week that was first televised on the 10th October 1973. Almost forty years on Guillermo Del Toro is still so impressed by this spine chilling 74 minute TV movie that he produced a remake. I’ve opted to do the sensible and intelligent thing; I’ve totally avoided the pointless remake, and instead watched the original again. To be fair to Mr. Del Toro remaking Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark makes a lot more sense than many of the other films that have been remade in recent years. Although it has cultivated a cult following over the years the original has been a particularly elusive item; its reputation being fed by the nostalgic memories of a generation traumatised by the diminutive demons that emerge from a bricked up fireplace. To coincide with the release of the remake Warner’s put the original out on DVD as part of its Archive Collection; excellent news for the America market, but disappointing for everyone else. Hopefully one day Warner’s will extend this fine service beyond the borders of America. Nevertheless there are still a myriad of ways to view this piece if you know where to look. One thing that The Celluloid Highway totally eschews is allowing nostalgia to colour an appraisal of a film. I find it an entirely unhelpful avenue, and one that defeats the object of criticism; so the question is without the rose tinted spectacles of childhood does Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark stand up to an objective critical scrutiny?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Lobby Card Collection - Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

I thought I'd continue on with the films of Sergio Leone, and following on the heels of lobby cards for A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, I present 12 cards used to promote his most operatic of westerns Once Upon a Time in the West. The film features excellent performances from Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale and Jason Robards, a wonderful score from Ennio Morricone, and an early screenwriting credit for none other than Dario Argento. If you haven't already picked it up the blu-ray from Paramount is well worth a purchase.


Monday, 5 March 2012

Fellowship of the Frog (1959)


Der Frosch mit der Maske
Face of the Frog

I’ve felt for quite some time certain dissatisfaction with the amount of column inches afforded to the Edgar Wallace krimi cycle within cult circles. This particular series of films has become one of the major losers in discussions of cult film. It becomes all the more surprising when one considers its close proximity to the Italian giallo. Whilst popular Italian cycles have enjoyed fetishistic attention (I myself am a party to this) others have been bizarrely written out of history. Of course part of the problem lies in the area of distribution, but of the forty titles that make up the Rialto produced Edgar Wallace series (the so called ‘official’ cycle), all have enjoyed legitimate DVD releases. When one goes beyond the Rialto films, one discovers a number of cash-ins based on the work of his son Bryan Edgar Wallace, and numerous films that weren’t based on either Wallace, but instead imitated the conventions of the Rialto films. These titles are much harder to track down, but then what else is a film scholar supposed to do? It’s important to remember that the term krimi in German simply refers to any film featuring elements of crime, murder, and detection; therefore the Wallace films do not have ownership of it. But what they do have is a style and mood all of their own, and hopefully over the coming months we can explore it together.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Keoma (1976)

Country: ITALY

Django Rides Again
Keoma: The Avenger
The Violent Breed

By the late 1970’s the landscape of the Euro-Western was limp and lifeless, the generic terrain parched and infertile. The occasional production little more than tumbleweed in a dusty and decaying town. The Spaghetti Western Database lists a paltry eight productions for 1976 and it would be fair to say that Enzo G. Castellari’s entry Keoma stands head and shoulders above the rest. Some argue that Keoma was not only the last important spaghetti western, but also one of the best ever made. Whilst I find the former possesses a nugget of truth, the latter is a lot harder to substantiate. However one fact that is undeniable is that out of the eight westerns that Castellari directed, Keoma is probably the most accomplished. I’ve argued elsewhere that although Castellari worked in a multitude of genres, his films, structurally at least, adhered very closely to the conventions of the western. So it’s something of a surprise to discover that until Keoma, he hadn’t directed a truly important or genre defining example. One of the major ingredients lacking in previous Castellari westerns is the sort of barnstorming and forceful performance that Franco Nero puts in as the beleaguered half-breed Keoma. With his wild and unkempt beard, penetrating blue eyes and long hair (actually a wig) Nero makes an indelible impression the likes of which audiences hadn’t enjoyed since Django (1966). Nero has his critics, but you won’t hear any negativity from me. Nero is at his charismatic best here and so dominates proceedings that the films director becomes totally overshadowed.

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