Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Country: USA

The Day the World Changed Hands
The Forbin Project

Uncertainties and fears about technological progression and the role of science in modernity has long been a preoccupation of science-fiction and horror narratives. In the 1970’s these ‘Revolt of Technology’ tales reached a higher level of visibility thanks chiefly to the neurotic machinations of HAL 9000 aboard the space station Discovery in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Although Kubrick pushed the boundaries of cinematic form and spectacle, the strongest sensation within his film was a deep pessimism and paranoia about mankind’s relationship to sentient technology. This was adapted perfectly to the 1970’s and became the clinical and logical flip side to the primal and instinctual ‘Revolt of Nature’ films which were also achieving prominence. Both of these sub-strata of horror and science-fiction were informed by the pervasive atmosphere of paranoia which smothered much of American production post Watergate. The fault often lay with venerated institutions - the military, scientific research, the government and even the media. The resolutions were often unsatisfactory and closure never fully achieved. The first major production to absorb the thematic impetus of 2001 was Universal Pictures’ Colossus: The Forbin Project. Interestingly the source material - a novel called Colossus by British sci-fi writer D. F. Jones pre-dated 2001 and appeared in 1966, and was the first part of a trilogy. The remaining two books remain unrealised by cinema, which on the strength of this film is something of a shame.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Revolver (1973)


Blood in the Streets
In the Name of Love

To date The Celluloid Highway has yet to travel down the road of the Poliziotteschi, but I’m happy to correct that now with one of the major films of that sub-genre. It is instructive to note the different attitude that popular Italian culture has with the concept of genre. Genre as it is applied to cinema is largely speaking a Hollywood construct that aids in the marketing and differentiation of its product. Popular Italian forms of cinematic entertainment have a much more fluid relationship with each other. In the case of Poliziotteschi and Gialli for example we find a great deal of cross pollination and a mutual cynicism about both behaviour in a capitalist system, and the authorities that govern the system. The Italians prefer to use the term filone, viewing these films as popular cycles rather than discreet self contained genres. This may seem a peripheral point, but it requires the scholar to adjust one’s thinking when it comes approaching these films. These films were seen as cycles within popular cinema, and narrative rules and conventions of form are far more open to the interpretative imagination of a filmmaker. So whilst American cinema was undergoing a period of generic revisionism in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, this was always an inbuilt quality of these Italian film cycles.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Hammer Frankenstein Films Poster Gallery

"Let's let our friend here rest in peace... while he can. " - The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) - French poster

Friday, 24 September 2010

L'enfance nue (1968)

Country: FRANCE

Naked Childhood

For the last five or six years I’ve been on/off collecting a series of DVD’s released by Eureka under their ‘Masters of Cinema’ imprint. In many ways this label is the nearest we have in the UK to the Criterion Collection, and they offer a wide range of world and art cinema in the best possible transfers. Between 2008 and 2010 ‘Masters of Cinema’ released a number of films by French filmmaker Maurice Pialat. I had steadfastly avoided these because I’d never heard of the man, but recently I took a punt on his 1968 debut feature film L’enfance nue (translates as Naked Childhood) and was very glad that I did. Pialat had directed the short film L’Amour Existe (1960), a dour and depressing travelogue through the working class suburbs of Paris, but little in that film (which is included on the Masters of Cinema DVD) could prepare one for the piercing naturalism of the startling L’enfance nue.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

[REC] (2007)

Country: SPAIN

The history of Spanish horror is littered with compromise and censorship. In the 1960’s an all too brief liberalism towards the genre opened the way for filmmakers such as Jess Franco, Paul Naschy, Amando de Ossorio and Eloy de la Iglesia to explore the creative potentialities of horror, but this golden period wasn’t to last long. Horror came under increasing scrutiny from the imperious eye of the state, to an extent that the history of Spanish horror cannot be written without an awareness of the political culture of the times. This has given Spanish horror an allegorical dimension that has never really left it, a political and social consciousness that has endured up until the present day. [REC] is an excellent example of a horror film distilling social and political anxieties, but one which uses the signifiers of the zombie and reality television in order to give it trans-national appeal.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966)

Country: ITALY

Operazione Paura
Curse of the Dead
Operation Fear
Curse of the Living Dead

This sumptuous and extravagant slice of supernatural period gothic horror is among Italian filmmaker Mario Bava’s greatest achievements. The dreadfully titled Kill, Baby…Kill! was Bava’s third descent into the phantasmagorical and supernatural realm of the gothic following his debut Black Sunday (aka Mask of Satan, 1960) and ‘The Wurdalak’ segment of his portmanteau Black Sabbath (1963). His proficiency in conjuring an appropriate visual treatment for this period was illustrated amply in those earlier efforts, but in Kill, Baby…Kill! Bava and regular photographic collaborator Antonio Rinaldi take this a step further, bathing a mysterious and isolated rural Italian village in a weird and highly effective palette of colours. The film opens in media res with a distinctive and inexplicable suicide, and the briefest of appearances of a child who will haunt the film. This is typical of the brand of restricted narration employed by Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale and Mario Bava in their screenplay. This enigmatic and inscrutable quality is maintained throughout. This of course is a complimentary way of saying that the film doesn’t make a lot of sense and has a slapdash approach to story and plot construction - Bava like many Italian directors prefers to tell his stories in visual terms, and few in the industry pulled it off with such style.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Hammer Vampire Films Poster Gallery

"I am Dracula and I welcome you to my house. I must apologize for not being here to greet you personally, but I trust you've found everything you needed." - Dracula (1958)

Dracula aka Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958) - US poster

Dracula #2 -  UK poster

Friday, 17 September 2010

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Country: UK/USA

An American Werewolf in London now holds such a position of cherished fondness within the annals of the horror genre that its easy to overlook a myriad of structural and tonal faults. Part of the problem is that the film is so keyed in to the emotional receptors of the horror fan that its nigh on impossible to be objective about it. The reason for the close proximity between the film text and horror fandom is that the writer/director John Landis is himself a horror fan. This was Landis’ tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930’s and 1940’s - most specifically The Wolf Man (1941), and he lays on a sense of nostalgia with a thick brush. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and if one can successfully harness it within a film you’re on to a winner. The nostalgic quality is evoked through an extended prologue set on the inhospitable moors of England (Landis isn’t afraid to throw almost every cliché in the book in) and a series of 1950’s and 1960’s pop songs, all of which comment on the action, sometimes in an ironic manner, in a way similar to that other ‘classic’ of nostalgia cinema American Graffiti (1973). We forgive Landis the cliché, we forgive the structural faults, we forgive the wildly uneven tone which veers from horror to comedy without any sense of purpose. We forgive him, because Landis knows what it is to be a horror fan, and we embrace his film because of his infectious love and enthusiasm for the genre.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Hitcher (1986)

Country: USA

The Hitcher is a film I find incredibly difficult to be objective about. Notwithstanding the dismal and desultory remake that appeared in 2007, the original 1986 production has for some years been challenging as my favourite film of all time. In the dark days of university when I had to endure endless drinking sessions in which Eisenstein or Jean-Luc Godard were toasted, I did my best to trumpet the brilliance of Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Wicker Man (1973) or The Hitcher. One such evening saw a painfully serious young chap wax lyrical on the montage editing favoured during the 1920’s by a number of Soviet filmmakers. It was summer, it was hot and stuffy in the bar, but this didn’t stop the guy from wearing a scarf indoors. Anyway I digress (but what is a blog for, if not for digression?). I was left cold and unimpressed by The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and instead I pointed out a scene in The Hitcher in which C. Thomas Howell is being chased down the desolate highway by a couple of cop cars. This scene is a marvel of editing, it includes a moment in which a helicopter is shot out of the sky, and ends with the cops managing to blow the tyres out of both cars. I also mentioned a sublime low angle tracking shot which glides towards Rutger Hauer after he has been thrown out of Howell's car. The low angle giving Hauer a malignant menace that haunts the film. Academic theories are merely models to aid a certain interpretation. They cannot answer the question of what makes a film good, or why we like a film. These questions are shrouded in a veil of subjective mystery. I cannot say whether The Hitcher is a good film or not, and I’ve seen it twenty times. Yet my colleagues that evening convinced themselves it was rubbish without ever having seen it. I prefer to embrace the mystery, to accept the unknowable…I should have known then that a career in academia was probably not for me.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Abominable Snowman (1957)


The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas

Hammer Film Productions quaint 1957 effort The Abominable Snowman holds a position of curiosity within the esteemed history of Britain’s greatest purveyors of gothic horror. Like all films of interest it tends to split opinion within horror circles. To those who perhaps prefer their horror more subtle than visceral it is seen as an intelligent human drama dedicated to a message of ecological awareness. To those less attuned too, or appreciative of, restraint and unobtrusiveness, it is viewed as slow, talky, and boring, with a ‘monster’ that appears all to briefly. Perhaps part of the problem for The Abominable Snowman is that even within the context of Hammer’s production roster it was considered anachronistic. Although it was made before The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), it wasn’t actually released until after the wicked Baron Frankenstein’s morally reprehensible experiments had struck an unsuspecting public. The black and white photography, token American actor, and the collaboration between director Val Guest and writer Nigel Kneale, belonged to a phase that Hammer were now leaving behind in favour of a colourful mid-European gothic netherworld in which the forces of good and evil were to do battle under the watchful eye of Terence Fisher. It was rushed out to capitalise on the newly discovered marquee status of Peter Cushing, a status which would have been unpredicted when the film was being made. Although Cushing controls the film, his domination is increased more with the knowledge that from the time the film was produced to when it was released, he had become a star.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Mario Bava Poster Gallery

In the 1960’s Mario Bava defined the look, tone, and atmosphere of Italian horror. Bava almost single-handedly popularised the genre and spearheaded a rich cycle of gothic horrors that attempted to imitate the luxurious art direction of Hammer, but with an attitude to screen violence far in excess of anything Hammer were allowed to do thanks to a squeamish censor. Bava brought with him a visual sensibility honed throughout the 1950’s due to his work as a cinematographer. Bava possessed a unique eye for atmospheric visuals, often creating beautifully composed scenes in which light and dark became critical players in the unfolding drama. The result was both a visual uniformity (Bava films are unmistakable) and a splendour that belied the low budgets he was forced to work with. In addition to his gothic horrors - Black Sunday (1960 - featuring Barbara Steele), Black Sabbath (1963 - featuring Boris Karloff) and his masterpiece Kill, Baby…Kill! (1966) he also directed westerns - The Road to Fort Alamo (1964) and Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970), science-fiction - Planet of the Vampires (1965), spoof spy adventures - Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Danger: Diabolik (1968) and historical adventures - Erik the Conqueror (1961) and Knives of the Avenger (1966). But arguably his most important contribution to popular Italian cinema was the first exploratory steps he took in the establishment of the giallo. The conceptual brilliance and ravishing colours of Blood and Black Lace (1964) became a defining generic statement and was never really improved upon or added too by the legion of filmmakers who followed in Bava’s wake. Later examples such as 5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970), and Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) were derisory and feeble efforts only saved by Bava’s cinematography. Perhaps his most influential film was A Bay of Blood (1971) whose set piece ‘body count’ structure would be imitated by countless slasher films for years to come. Bava’s decision to remain in Italy may have compromised a major international career, but this choice has been vindicated a thousand times over by the uniqueness and brilliance of many of his films. Without further ado The Celluloid Highway is proud to present the filmography of Mario Bava in poster form!

Black Sunday aka Mask of Satan (1960) -  US Poster

Friday, 10 September 2010

Soldier Blue (1970)

Country: USA

For anyone interested in the history of screen violence and the minefield of debates surrounding censorship, the western Soldier Blue will be an inevitable stop on the journey. Soldier Blue was a film dogged by controversy due to the brutality and sadism of its denouement, but it has much to thank Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) for. Peckinpah’s revisionist lamentation for the old west was marked by a hitherto unseen relationship to violence, and thus opened up the territory for a slew of filmmakers itching to push the boundaries of taste and decency within the confines of commercial filmmaking. In both the US and the UK Soldier Blue was heavily cut, and its only in recent years that audiences have been given the opportunity to se uncut prints on DVD. As well as offering a none too subtle allegory of a much publicised American military atrocity in Vietnam, the film also fed into a mini movement at the time which sought to remedy the regressive stereotypical depiction of native Indians. Although Soldier Blue is clear in its sympathies, there is an exaggeration and over statement in relation to its anti-war stance, and it totally lacks the depth, character, and pathos of its immediate contemporary Little Big Man (1970).

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

This Island Earth (1955)

Country: USA

In the 1950’s Universal International Pictures were the major Hollywood players in science-fiction films. But despite a very broad canvas for conceptual experimentation most science-fiction films of the early 1950’s were quite conservative in their approach to visual effects. The majority of the films were black and white and earth bound, and adhered to a sense of reality which was ill at ease with the notion of a spectacle that was fundamental to the genre. As the decade wore on however science-fiction began to develop a more daring attitude to visual effects, and a willingness to venture further in search of screen images that could persuade audiences to leave their television sets and embark on a trip to the cinema. One such film is This Island Earth, which is easily Universal International’s most ambitious science-fiction project, and one of a select band of films produced in the 1950’s that escaped the confines of planet Earth. The most successful and recognisable would probably be Forbidden Planet (1956) but for me the most enjoyable is the nonsensically titled This Island Earth.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)

Country: USA

Jule's Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth

As anyone who follows my errant scribbling will know I love 1950’s science-fiction films. Be they invasion narratives such as Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), giant bug films such as Them! (1954) or Tarantula (1955) or displaced prehistoric monsters such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The charm of these low budget films lie in their relationship to the creation of visual and special effects, and in their hysterical attitudes to politics, authority, and scientific endeavour. The special effects are not seamless and always betray the fact they have been created by human beings. I think this essential humanity, the fact that we can see on screen the culmination of an artistic process (be it convincing or otherwise) is one of the most endearing aspects. Although modern day CGI is programmed and created by human beings, it lacks the sense of warmth and humanity that is all part of the cinematic process. I find that CGI is a barrier to me completely suspending my belief and stepping fully into whatever fictional universe has been created. In this regard I believe modern day special effects have actually suffered something of a regression. One of the most enjoyable and convincing is 20th Century Fox’s 1959 production of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. A film which draws one effortlessly into the fabric of its narrative in a way which trash like Avatar (2009) simply does not.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Dario Argento Poster Gallery

This weeks departure into the colourful realm of promotional posters sees us exploring the dark and baroque universe of Italy's premier director of horror Dario Argento. Argento's cinematic offerings abound with exaggerated stylisation and a ravishing visual vitality that surely bodes well for the poster images attached to the films. Argento has made a tremendous career out of the narrative conventions of the giallo or murder mystery format, beautifully adapting this structure into a universe of phantasmagorical fantastique with such extravagant and illogical works of art like Suspiria (1977) Inferno (1980) and Phenomena (1985). Attacked for perceived misogyny and ridiculed for storytelling short comings Argento has rode these critical waves with aplomb and is still writing and directing films forty years after his debut picture The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Argento's loyalty to the giallo form is admirable and commendable, and despite a less than rigorous attitude to plot development, causal logic, and continuity, Argento has maintained a remarkable consistency in the manner in which tells his stories on screen. It is natural that any director will experience peaks and troughs over a forty year career, but Argento's devotion to the visual possibilities of the horror genre is without parallel. Without any further ado The Celluloid Highway is proud to present the filmography of Dario Argento in poster form - Enjoy!

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) - US poster

Friday, 3 September 2010

Die, Monster Die! (1965)

Country: UK/USA

Monster of Terror

In honour of the birth of H. P. Lovecraft I thought I’d reacquaint myself with one of the earliest film adaptations of his work. Lovecraft has been very badly served by cinema. With the worthy exceptions of Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) Lovecraft’s nightmarish vision of cosmic horrors has remained largely unrealised. One of his most evocative and memorable short stories is The Colour Out of Space which Lovecraft wrote in March 1927 and was first printed in the September 1927 edition of Amazing Stories. It has since become one of his most enduring tales. The first thing to say about Jerry Sohl’s screenplay adaptation is that it is very loose. In fact Die, Monster Die! has only a thin resemblance to the story it is based upon. The filmmakers instead are totally intent on recreating the look, feel, and style of the Corman/Poe cycle which was also distributed by American International Pictures. This isn’t much of a surprise when one realises that first time director Daniel Haller had in fact worked on every one of the Poe films as art director. So once again, as was the case with an earlier AIP adaptation of Lovecraft (The Haunted Palace (1963)) Lovecraft is subsumed into filmmaking strategies adopted for the Poe cycle.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Nightmare City (1980)


Incubo sulla citta contaminata
City of the Walking Dead

Like a great number of his contemporaries working within the blood soaked environs of the low budget/exploitation arena in 1970’s Italy, Umberto Lenzi is a director with a competent degree of generic utility. Lenzi is a journeyman filmmaker, a safe, if somewhat undistinguished pair of  hands. Lenzi offered some interesting and colourful contributions to the giallo genre which included Orgasmo (aka Paranoia, 1969), So Sweet…So Perverse (aka The Spider, 1969), and the beautifully titled Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972). His major contributions to the horror genre were three mindless and moronic entries into the cannibal subgenre - Deep River Savages (aka Man from Deep River, 1972), Eaten Alive! (1980) and the inexcusable cinematic excrement Cannibal Ferox (aka Make them Die Slowly, 1981). The result of these films is a cinematic legacy marked by sadism rather than proficiency, films lacking personality and any sense of stylistic coherence. A preponderance to rely on shock tactics has perhaps endeared Lenzi to cult film enthusiasts, but it takes very little effort to see that there is no depth to Lenzi’s cinematic offerings.

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