Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Country: UK

This somewhat solemn and humourless departure into the splintered realm of the paranormal has stood the test of time exceptionally well. In recent years a lot of haunted house films have been all noise and no intelligence. Just because technology in sound design has reached an apex, that doesn’t mean one should feel duty bound to bombard the audience with an aural discharge that borders on an assault. When modern sound design goes hand in hand with CGI the results are cinematic artificiality on a par with 3D. The Legend of Hell House is a comforting return to an age when creativity was genuinely required in the sound department and where a real set could conjure an atmosphere unlike anything we see today. The blueprint is obviously Robert Wise’s film adaptation of The Haunting (1963). A film that rightfully holds a very prominent place in any discussion of ghostly goings on (or not goings on as the case may be) and although Hell House doesn’t quite reach the brilliance of that earlier film it still achieves a respectability within the form. Richard Matheson’s source material places a greater emphasis on deviant sexuality and past perversion, and plays up in a more aggressive manner the age old dichotomy between rational scientific thought and the irrationality of the psychic world. Matheson’s screenplay tones the novel down, but not to an extent that damages the film.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1973)


La morte neglic occhi del gatto
Seven Dead in the Cat's Eye
Cat's Murdering Eye

Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye is a serviceable and entertaining murder mystery, but one which sits uncomfortably within the giallo genre that history has consigned it too. The film makes far more effective use of its various gothic elements than it does the chic and camp ephemera of gialli. Instead of the action residing within the modern architectural centre of a bustling European city, we instead find ourselves in a small castle in the highlands of Scotland. There is little sense of a wider world, aside from some investigating police officers who regularly appear from nowhere during the film. The insularity and claustrophobia of the isolated setting adds a great deal of atmosphere to the proceedings as director Antonio Margheriti efficiently works through the conventions of the gialli plot. The plot complexities and the mounting red herrings do at least place this film within the narrative structure of the gialli, but visually this is one of the more unusual examples.

Friday, 25 June 2010

My Dear Killer (1972)


Mio caro assassino

This efficient and at times impressively staged gialli was directed by journeyman filmmaker Tonino Valerii. He spent much of the 1960’s working on spaghetti westerns performing the role of assistant director to Sergio Leone on A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1964). Valerii also directed three of his own in this popular cycle before taking a change of the direction in the early 1970’s. This would be Valerii’s only attempt at a gialli and it would turn out to be both memorable and creatively successful. The film instantly benefits from the casting of George Hilton, who at the time, was an assured staple of popular Italian cinema. Hilton had previously appeared in the undistinguished gialli Next! (1971 aka The Strange Vice or Mrs. Wardh) and Case of the Scorpion’s Tale (1971) and brings with him the experience and gravitas required for the role of Inspector Luca Peretti.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)

Country: ITALY

Non si sevizia un paperino
Don't Torture Donald Duck

Lucio Fulci is now a name that is firmly associated with a series of highly stylised and graphically violent horror films which he made between 1979 and 1983. This cycle of films, in a long and generically diverse career, eschewed a plausible attitude to plot construction and were riddled with the numerous continuity errors that came with a more surreal outlook to editing. In a peculiar twist of fortune this fragmented approach to screen time and space created an hallucinatory atmosphere which was highly appropriate to the Lovecraftian imagery on display. Whilst much discussion has centred on questions of authorship throughout Fulci’s oeuvre, it is perhaps more illuminating to approach his work from the position of genre. Fulci was one of many filmmakers operating in Italy that reacted to popular cycles, and he was particularly adept at shifting into different terrain. It was almost inevitable that Fulci would turn his hand to the gialli and his first attempt was the obscure curiosity Perversion Story (1969, aka One on Top of the Other). He followed this with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and The Psychic (1977). Don’t Torture a Duckling is easily the most accomplished of these and emerges as not only an excellent example of the form, but also as a strong contender for Fulci’s finest film.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Fifth Cord (1971)

Country: ITALY

Giornata nera per l'ariete
Evil Fingers

If one film perfectly sums up the Italian giallo’s commitment to style over substance then it is surely Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord. Bazzoni at this point had no form within this genre and its just as well that he was able to secure the talents of Franco Nero on screen and Vitorrio Storaro and Ennio Morricone behind it. His narrative which was written in conjunction with Mario di Nardo and Maro Fanelli and based on D. M. Devine’s novel of the same name is a routine murder mystery that offers the audience precious little that Dario Argento hadn’t already delivered with his superior efforts. That said, what it does offer, is a perfectly serviceable, but typically convoluted plot, that weaves its way towards a very suspenseful climax. Bazzoni would follow this with the equally non-descript Footprints (1975) before disappearing entirely from the landscape of the giallo.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960)

Country: UK

Never Take Candy from a Stranger

This thought provoking and intelligent film from Hammer Film Productions is no longer a tantalising obscurity thanks to Sony Pictures’ recent Icons of Suspense collection. This excellent set continues a general trend in recent times of appreciating the breadth and diversity of Hammer with Never Take Sweets from a Stranger holding a prominent role in this. The controversial subject of child molestation remained a largely unexplored territory in 1960, and the narrative called for a delicacy and subtlety of approach for which Hammer, at the time, were not known. The major surprise of the film is just how tactfully the troubling details of the plot are presented. In all aspects of the production there is a feeling of understatement and minimalism, a sense that this adult subject can speak for itself and does not need the melodramatic and exaggerated embellishments of Hammer’s more sensational offerings.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)


La corta notte delle bambole di vetro
The Short Night of the Butterflies

Short Night of Glass Dolls is easily one of the most intelligent and stylish gialli to emerge out of Italy in the 1970’s. It marked the debut to feature filmmaking of Aldo Lado whose contributions to the giallo sub-genre are often overlooked. This is probably because he only directed two - but both this and Who Saw Her Die? (1972) have a thematic unity and a deftness of touch which separates them from those efforts which simply sought to regurgitate generic conventions. The subversion of the generic terrain is most prominent in Glass Dolls. This is one of the few gialli for example that has no major set piece murder scenes. It does away with the subjective point of view shots, it avoids slipping into the territory of camp, and has a general air of minimalism and subtlety that allows the unusual narrative to have space to breathe and develop. This is a fractured mystery which relies on the memory of the protagonist - and this immediately indicates the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Therein lies the inbuilt tension of the film, a tension that rarely lets up as the film twists and turns it way to an unforgettable and thoroughly disturbing climax.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)

Country: BRAZIL

The brilliantly titled At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a very important horror film for a number of reasons. Firstly it marked the debut to feature filmmaking of actor/writer/director Jose Mojica Marins. Marins was able to create a very distinctive visual and thematic universe throughout his career and his preoccupation with exploring religion, poverty, and counter-culture would result in favourable comparisons to that other South American agent provocateur Alejandro Jodorowsky. The quest to bestow the status of auteur on Marins is fraught with difficulty however. His notorious departure into the realm of hardcore pornography in the hard up late 1970’s and 1980’s damages any attempt to romanticise his troubled career. But the films he made featuring the character Coffin Joe are unmistakably his and at least showed that when he had sufficient freedom and funding his world view was imperative to the proceedings.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Body Stealers (1969)

Country: UK

Thin Air
Out of Thin Air
Invasion of the Body Stealers

The Body Stealers is a painful waste of time, energy, and celluloid. This cinematic excrement was released as part of Anchor Bay’s otherwise decent Tigon Collection in 2005, but as with all box sets it suffers from some substandard fillers. Its status as a filler is perhaps exemplified by the fact that it has taken me five years to get around to actually watching it, and I understood why, as the name Neil Connery appeared on the screen. Watching films and then writing about them is for the majority of the time a pleasure, but every now and then something comes along that is so dreadful that one begins to question whether one is spending their spare time in a constructive manner. Tigon had enjoyed a lot of success at the time with Witchfinder General (1968) and Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), but for some reason producer Tony Tenser decided there was a need for Tigon to diversify and appeal to a different market - as a result this bastardisation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), James Bond and Doctor Who surfaced to “thrill” a younger audience in the summer of 1969. Unfortunately for Tigon their attempts to do things outside the horror genre often failed, but that didn’t stop them trying…and trying!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975)

Country: ITALY

Nude per l'assassino

As the title might suggest Strip Nude For Your Killer is not the most sophisticated and intellectual of cinematic experiences. This is the Italian giallo at its least auspicious and most self-consciously exploitative. This is the flip side to the formal style and elegance of Dario Argento, Mario Bava…and even Lucio Fulci! In this case the visual style takes a complete back seat to gratuitous nudity and perverted sexual antics. There is of course nothing wrong with this - but for the fact director Andrea Bianchi assembled such an ugly and repugnant cast. Bianchi makes a few feeble and perfunctory nods to formal conventions with the occasional use of an intriguing colour scheme, the boring repetition of the zoom lens, and the odd interesting use of point of view shots. If this film fails aesthetically it more than makes up for this in its camp credentials. A tongue in cheek attitude to sexuality (bordering on offensive) goes hand in hand with an array of wild set designs and the usual assortment of eye watering costumes. Photography and fashion is a key preoccupation of the film. The plot centres around a chic fashion house which seems to have been included as a plot point merely for the purpose of exploring the nudity that Bianchi seems to have a fetish for.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Cash on Demand (1961)

Country: UK

Cash On Demand is a charming departure from the Mid-European gothic locale for which Hammer were best known. It appeared at a time when producer Michael Carreras was having some success in steering Hammer towards a more diverse range of films and the intention to differentiate this from the popular conception of Hammer is signified by the decision to shoot in black and white. The monochrome cinematography of Arthur Grant is crisp and concise and affords the film a sense of style and atmosphere very different to the gothic horrors -  and the tone of the picture also separates it from the psychological thrillers to which Hammer would give greater attention as the 1960’s progressed. The film marked a return for Hammer to the tactic of adapting a television success - in this case a 1960 episode of Theatre 70 written by Jacques Gillies. With some wisdom Hammer chose to retain Andre Morell from the television show, and in a piece of casting genius pitted him against Peter Cushing.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

It Came From Outer Space (1953)

Country: USA

The 1950’s was a wonderful boom period in the production of science-fiction films in the United States. This resurgence was shaped by a number of factors - both internal to the film industry and external in the wider fabric of society. The first and perhaps most crucial of these from an economic point of view was the creative dead end that the horror genre had found itself in post World War Two. The genre had largely been shaped by émigré directors under the auspices of Universal studios, but the horrors of war and the genre’s increasing stupidity and self parody opened up new terrain for a hybridised genre that mixed the conventions of horror within a discussion of contemporary technology. It was crucial for the horror genre to continue in some form in this age because of the uncertain political and social climate and the latent fears therein - the conventions of horror were still useful in addressing these anxieties. Hollywood quickly set about reconstituting and exploring these fears in a form that was more acceptable and exciting to an ever growing and affluent teenage audience, and the result was the horror/science-fiction hybrid. I prefer to the view the invasion narratives of the 1950’s as a hybridisation of horror and science-fiction because the removal of the formal attributes of either genre leads to a collapse in the effectiveness of the film.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Robocop (1987)

Country: USA

With a remake in the pipeline for 2013 I decided to return to the dystopian Detroit of Robocop and attempt to discover just exactly why this particular narrative has persisted over the last 23 years. The philistines among us would probably say it is entirely a matter of economics, but romantics such as myself would like to think there is something more going on. With sequels appearing in 1990 and 1993, video games appearing in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 2003, and a television mini series in 2000 Officer Alex Murphy and his Cyborg counterpart have become iconic figures in the science-fiction landscape. From a personal perspective Robocop is an important film in my cinematic education. It was the first 18 certificated film I was permitted to see by my parents, and the resultant video shop nostalgia is strong when I think of this film. But unlike other films I was allowed to see at this time Robocop has stayed with me, and it is always a delight when I screen it every couple of years.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Country: USA

The third entry in the Halloween franchise emerged just a year after Halloween II (1982) hit the screens and seemed to confirm to audiences that the masked psychopath Michael Myers had perished and would be heard of no more. This is the infamous one that didn’t feature the knife wielding maniac, or the dogged lunatic Dr. Loomis who is always one step behind. Although some fans of the Myers movies consider this entry to be an aberration, or even an error, it was in fact a daring and progressive move from producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill. The intention was to create a stand alone film every couple of years that made use of the Halloween period - an intriguing concept that deserves far greater respect and admiration than the pathetic Myers driven sequels that followed this daring film from 1988 onwards.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

I, Monster (1971)

Country: UK

The chilling and legendary gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde written by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and first published in 1886, has proven to be a particularly durable narrative for cinema and television to mine. Unfortunately the commercial imperatives of the marketplace, not to mention the conventions of narrative cinema, have often compromised its translation from page to screen. Perhaps most prominent in cinematic versions is the need too include a romantic sub-plot. The original novella is remarkable for its total lack of female characters. The second notable alteration is the need too include a special effects driven sequence illustrating the transformation Jekyll experiences when he morphs into the wicked Mr. Hyde. This aspect of the adaptation has taken on a prominence in the narrative that far outweighs its importance. For their 1971 take on Stevenson’s tale Amicus Productions, with a screenplay by co-founder Milton Subotsky, bravely removed the romantic underpinnings of past versions, and in a further act of bravery or perhaps desperation, gave the directing duties to young newcomer Stephen Weeks.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The House that Dripped Blood (1971)

Country: UK

Despite being hamstrung by one of Max J. Rosenberg’s silliest and most inappropriate titles (the director Peter Duffell wanted the far superior Death and the Maiden) The House that Dripped Blood is easily one of the finest, if not the finest, anthology horror film too emerge from Amicus Productions. Brilliant casting, excellent writing, and most importantly, unusually good direction give these simple morality tales an impressive veneer that Amicus only reached on a few exceptional occassions. If the film does have a weakness then it lies in the rather feeble and half-hearted framing narrative. This sees Detective Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) from Scotland Yard investigating (this involves sitting around, drinking tea, and being told creepy stories!) the recent disappearance of actor Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee). The estate agent, who is named A. J. Stoker (John Bryans) in one of numerous self reflexive touches, expresses dire warnings, but they ultimately go on deaf ears as the film reaches a somewhat predictable climax.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Beast Must Die (1974)

Country: UK

Black Werewolf

This utterly daft, but oddly endearing low budget horror flick saw Amicus Productions once again attempting (unsuccessfully) to conquer the single narrative feature film. As a story this is a complete nonsense but The Beast Must Die has the peculiar charm and characteristics of the cult film. An almost indefinable appeal, but one which has nevertheless seen this film remembered fondly. At the time it was heavily criticised for its gimmick of having a ‘werewolf break’ to allow the audience to decide which of Tom Newcliffe’s (Calvin Lockhart) guests is in fact a ravening lycanthrope. But this is precisely the type of detail which now aids a cult reading of the film. Furthermore the film has a large amount of generic hybridisation - melding as it does the horror elements of the werewolf sub-genre, thriller elements, the red herring structure of an Agatha Christie whodunit and various blaxploitation signifiers. Shot largely on location in the Surrey countryside surrounding Shepperton Studios the film makes use of some great rural countryside, especially in the sequences which open the film.

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