Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Circus of Fear (1966)


Circus of Terror

Circus of Fear is a solid if underwhelming crime thriller derived from the Edgar Wallace novel The Three Just Men (1926). It is not as some might assume a horror film despite the appearance of Christopher Lee. Lee spends the majority of the film underneath a black hood, and is only a visible screen presence in the last ten minutes or so. The casting of Klaus Kinski in a typically brief and totally pointless cameo however is a stronger indication of this films relationship to the West German ‘krimi’ films. This cycle of movies, almost exclusively based upon the stories of Edgar Wallace reached a point of saturation in the 1960’s and in certain regards were a major influence on the embryonic first steps of the Italian giallo film. There is a definite relationship between the two, one which generally seems to be overlooked in histories of the form. If there is ever an area of popular European cinema worthy of further elucidation and research then it is certainly the Wallace ‘krimi’ movies. Circus of Fear is an Anglo-German co-production, and the film as a result benefits from some intriguing casting decisions. The main creative force behind it was Harry Alan Towers, a significant producer of low budget genre pictures in the 60’s and 70’s who in this case also put his hand to writing the screenplay. Perhaps the less said about that the better; this is a highly confusing and clumsily plotted movie which is unable to make full and proper use of an interesting ensemble cast.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Night of the Eagle (1962)


Burn, Witch, Burn!

The contribution of the production/distribution company Anglo-Amalgamated to the history of British horror is often overlooked in favour of Hammer, Amicus, and to a lesser extent Tigon. Although they didn’t specialise in the horror genre, they proved to be more daring than their contemporaries when they did distribute such material. David Pirie’s so called ‘Sadean Trilogy’ comprising Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Circus of Horrors (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) were unleashed on an unsuspecting British public by the distributor. All three films were in colour, concerned with voyeurism and spectatorship, and rigorously contemporary. The latter title was a sobering and unexpected lesson in the power of the critics, and from that point onwards Anglo-Amalgamated beat a more sedate path through the horror genre. The remainder of the 1960’s saw harmless flotsam such as Konga (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and Circus of Fear (1966) released onto a very suspecting public. All of these films were lurid, colourful, camp and very comical, which makes their handling of Night of the Eagle all the more surprising. The film was shot in crisp monochrome tones by Reginald Wyer, it was based on a novel of some repute; Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943), and possessed a less is more stylistic attitude which evoked the subtle scares of Val Lewton. However it was Jacques Tourneur’s marvellously creepy Night of the Demon (1957) that wielded the greatest influence, especially in its depiction of a man of science and rationality coming to terms with the very real incursion of the supernatural into his calm and ordered life.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Dracula A. D. 1972 (1972)


Dracula 1972

Hammer’s seventh outing for Count Dracula is a curious entry which is never able to transcend embarrassment. By this point Hammer were literally and figuratively flogging a corpse, and their gothic horror films were tired, anachronistic, and only fleetingly lightened by lesbianism and nudity. Hammer’s horror films needed a new direction and after the surprise success of Count Yorga - Vampire (1970), which transplanted its vampire aristocrat into a modern setting Hammer clearly thought they had the answer. Much of the success of Count Yorga, Blacula (1972) and The Night Stalker (1972) rested on the manner in which the bloodsucker actually interacted with his surroundings. How Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) is able to manipulate the rationality and logic of modernity in order to cover his tracks is part of the films self-conscious appeal. He has integrated himself so successfully in modern society because of such things as cinema and literature, and the strong association between his kind and the world of fiction. This is a layer of meaning which Don Houghton’s screenplay for Dracula AD 1972 completely, and in my view catastrophically, omits. Instead when Dracula is resurrected in a black mass ceremony (almost a complete replay of a similar sequence in Taste the Blood of Dracula [1970]) he is not allowed to interact in any way with the modern world. He spends the film (when we are allowed an all to rare glimpse of him) stuck in an abandoned and deconsecrated church. This is a location that aesthetically at least could have worked in any of Hammer’s Victorian set Dracula films, so the inevitable question arises; what on the earth was the point?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Suspiria (1977)

Country: ITALY

Dario Argento's Suspiria

As each new piece of cinematic excrement is ejected from the mind of Dario Argento I begin to think that Suspiria might have been a fluke. Each successive Argento picture is puked up onto a wounded and insulted fan base, one which has no option but to retreat into the mists of time to remind themselves why they liked Argento’s films in the first place. This period is generally recognised as being the 1970’s. There has developed a rose tinted view of this decade in horror circles; propagated by those who were around at the time (unfortunately this generation pretty much still sets the parameters when it comes to horror discourse) and their nostalgic agendas to tell us it was better in their day. Argento directed six films in the 1970’s, three of them (Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, and Suspiria) were very good, the other three (Cat O Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and The Five Days of Milan) were poor to average. Even in Argento’s decade of peak creativity he only had a strike rate of 50%. The 1980’s was even more frustrating, a series of the films that were impressive in part, but failures as a whole. Argento has proven himself to be a mediocre filmmaker, time has shown him to make more poor and dissatisfying films than good ones. So what makes Suspiria such an exceptional film? The answer of course lies in the talents he surrounded himself by. There are three key elements to Suspiria, which if extracted, would damage the film irrevocably.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Country: UK/USA

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange

I should start this review by saying I’m not a fan of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, which was first published in 1962. I first encountered it as an impressionable seventeen year old at college (this experience seems to be a very common rites of passage, at least in the UK) and I found it to be a reactionary and highly conservative work of Orwellian propaganda. Beneath the layers of linguistic game playing (his use of slang language for the delinquent gang is more irritating than anything else) there beats a right wing heart. This element never totally leaves Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay, especially in the camera’s adoration of the narcissistic fascist pretensions of the films anti-hero Alex. The politics of the film are more ambiguous than the novel though, but both share an interest in stylistic radicalism. In both film and book this helps to mask the socio/political intensions of both authors. However the synergy between Kubrick’s visual and aural experimentation provides a resonance that makes certain set piece sequences far more troubling than anything that appears in the novel.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Night of the Demon (1957)


Curse of the Demon

The chilling ghost stories of English academic and scholar M. R. James have almost totally been ignored by cinema. When one considers some of the garbage that has been produced in the name of Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, or Edgar Allan Poe this ignorance becomes perplexing. The horror in the stories of James’ is of the nuanced and subtle variety, horror that would require a modicum of intellect to replicate on screen, this goes some way to explaining his omission from the world of film. To date Night of the Demon remains the only occasion James has been adapted for cinema screens. The screenplay by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester was based upon his short story Casting the Runes, and despite a number of alterations maintains the spirit of the original text. It should be noted that James has fared a lot better on British television. A number of his stories were chosen for the anthology series Mystery and Imagination (1966-68), and his tales provided the backbone for the BBC’s annual Ghost Story at Christmas throughout the 1970’s. It is certainly true that the short story is more suited to the anthology format, but Night of the Demon proves that James’ stories could make the transition to feature film with some measure of creative success.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Horde (2009)

Country: FRANCE

La horde

French horror cinema is enjoying a period of unparalleled creative success, and it comes as no surprise to me that this coincides with a period of civil unrest in the country. Issues such as the economy, pensions, the retirement age, and immigration have seen citizens take to the streets in protest. There is a noble tradition of striking in France, a tradition that seems in large part to have the sympathy of the population (an attitude which is quite different in the UK for example) and this melting pot of political upheaval and uncertainty surfaces quite notably in the latest gore soaked French horror film The Horde. The Horde follows in the footsteps of Switchblade Romance (2004), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007) and Martyrs (2008) in its unflinching portrayal of blood and guts and while it lacks the subtlety and intelligence of Them (2006 - for my money the most accomplished French horror film of this recent new wave) it makes up for this with its political overtones. Several of these major French horror films are ‘home invasion’ narratives, they offer a bourgeois vision of bland suburbia which is then shattered by the return of past events. The Horde situates its action in a rotting apartment block in Northern Paris, flipping the convention of middle class point of view to the perspective of rogue cops, violent gangsters, and the disenfranchised working class.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)


Taste the Blood of Dracula was Hammer Film Productions’ fifth film to feature Transylvania’s favourite son, and the fourth to feature the sartorial talents of Christopher Lee as the eponymous bloodsucker. I’ve always had a great fondness for this Hammer film, and in comparison to the other Dracula pictures produced by Hammer I rate this as second only to their 1958 production. By this point Bray Studios was a distant memory and much of the studio bound sequences seen here were shot at Elstree Studios. Later Hammer films had a cheap tackiness about them, but Taste the Blood…was one of the last to maintain a lushness and vitality, a visual presentation that far exceeded its modest budget. The film benefits tremendously from some impressive location work in the Hertfordshire countryside, and several exciting and stylish scenes mounted in Highgate Cemetery. Just a scant few months after the release of this film, Hammer put out their sixth Dracula film Scars of Dracula, and the aesthetic difference between the two films is incredible. In many ways this was the last great gothic horror film produced by Hammer, and distilled with economy and brilliance the class message that is visible throughout their films.

LSOH #25 - Out Now

I rarely advertise on The Celluloid Highway, but the magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors continues to excel and put the majority of genre magazines to shame. October 2010's issue is of special importance to me because it covers in detail my favourite British horror film of all time - Tigon Productions' 1971 folk horror masterpiece Blood on Satan's Claw. With brilliant performances from Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden and Anthony Ainley, and a weird avant-garde score by Marc Wilkinson, Pier's Haggard's film  has steadily risen in reputation over the years and is well deserving of its cult following and further study. If you haven't seen the film yet I wholeheartedly recommend it. 

To order your copy of Little Shoppe of Horrors visit Hemlock Books.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Daughters of Darkness (1971)


Les lèvres rouges
Blood on the Lips
Children of the Night
The Promise of Red Lips
The Red Lips

The traditions of the horror genre and those of art cinema are not the mutually opposed spheres of representation that one might at first glance think. Both horror and art films share an interest in transgression. These transgression’s might be political, social or cultural, but the form they normally take is through expressions of violence and sexuality. Art films sometimes use this thematic trajectory for a grander metaphysical or philosophical vision, whereas horror films enjoy the mess. The horror film takes pleasure in the breakdown and revels in the gooey stuff, but ultimately there is recuperation and conservatism. Radicalism and challenges to taboos are far more common in art films. But this is not to say that horror films cannot highlight a political or social anxiety, they just very rarely offer ideas to remedy the problems that have arisen - aside from the mindless destruction of the threat. These distinctions and commonalities are important things to consider when discussing Harry Kumel’s 1971 film Daughters of Darkness, because this is one of the few films that successfully cross pollinates the two forms.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Doomsday (2008)


A recent status update by a ’friend’ on Facebook proclaimed Newcastle born writer/director Neil Marshall a genius. I was somewhat surprised by this, is Mr. Marshall really to be considered in the same light as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Leonardo Da Vinci? Naturally I had to challenge this cretinous stupidity, but before I did, I paused and wondered if perhaps this individual was basing their statement on his first two films Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2005). Imagine my horror when I discovered they had not only seen Doomsday, but saw it as the clinching evidence of his genius. My polite disagreement resulted in him removing me from his friends list…go figure! Dog Soldiers was an enjoyable werewolf yarn, a mild distraction which benefited from the eerie isolation of the Scottish highlands. The subterranean monster movie The Descent was less successful in my view and somewhat overrated. There was certainly evidence in these first two films that Marshall had the potential to lead a new wave of British horror, which makes his third film Doomsday even more perplexing. The word homage is overused, it is a post-modern device utilised in my opinion, for the purposes of giving legitimacy to unoriginality. There is a fine line between homage and the mindless plundering of the imaginations of other writers and filmmakers.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Black Christmas (1974)

Country: CANADA

Silent Night, Evil Night
Stranger in the House

In a recent article entitled The Ten Most Overrated Horror Films of All Time I included Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian proto-slasher film Black Christmas as a footnote. Several people who commented on the piece (and thanks to all those who did) were somewhat surprised by its inclusion. With this in mind I decided to re-watch Black Christmas (once I found a copy, it took me twenty minutes of searching) and see if there was anything worth re-evaluating. My memories were of a visually bland and increasingly hysterical film whose position of prominence came about simply because somebody somewhere remembered this was made before Halloween (1978). There is a temptation to value films that began a cycle, but of course Black Christmas did not begin a cycle. Once again we have a case of retrospective acclaim. At the time of its release it appeared with little fanfare and quickly vanished in the same way. Many of the plot elements of Clark’s film were assimilated into the slasher form, but there is a crucial difference between this and the film that popularised these formal qualities; Halloween. The difference lies in the direction, and even a cursory glance of the respective filmographies of Clark and Carpenter will illustrate that the latter is a better filmmaker. All the ingredients were there for Black Christmas to be the Halloween of 1974 - but it wasn’t. The reason is that it simply wasn’t good enough.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Candyman (1992)

Country: USA

Clive Barker's Candyman

The previous incarnation of The Celluloid Highway was a Facebook group entitled The Never-Ending Encylopaedia of Horror, Science Fiction and Cult Cinema. At its peak the group attracted close to 700 members, but I was never satisfied at Facebook as a platform for inflicting my ramblings on the world. The most controversial moment came when I published a review for the 1992 Polygram production of Clive Barker’s Candyman. I was accused of racism (totally unjustified), anti-Americanism (some justification) and even received a death threat! - I kid you not. For all my American readers out there I should point out that my Anti-American stance existed for precisely the same amount of time George Bush Jr was in office. The very small incident of hysteria that my review generated reminded me of some of the things I’d read during my researches of the ‘Video Nasty’ scandal which beset the UK in the early 1980’s. It’s amazing how some people read what they want to read, or see what they want to see, and seem to be oblivious to the intentions or context of the cultural artefact. I apologise for this rare autobiographical detour, but the film Candyman will always hold a dear place in my heart; how can I not love the film after receiving a death threat over my review for it?

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