Monday, 27 December 2010

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Country: ITALY/USA

L'ultimo uomo della terra
Naked Terror
Night People
Wind of Death

Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic tale of contagion, holocaust, and vampirism I am Legend (1954) has assumed a position of major influence within the horror genre (even though the novel itself is arguably science fiction), but its adaptation to cinema has been fraught with failure. Almost immediately Matheson’s novel was destined to endure setback and frustration. Matheson wrote a screenplay for Britain’s Hammer Film Productions under the title Night Creatures, but the project was halted before filming began by a squeamish censor that was only just becoming accustomed to Hammer’s gothic horror. It remains one of the most tantalising missed opportunities of horror history. Its release would have come at the pinnacle of Hammer’s gothic horror cycle and would have offered a fascinating contrast to the trappings of gothic period settings. The next attempt at least made it to the screen when Matheson’s screenplay was picked up by Robert L. Lippert. The title was changed to The Last Man on Earth and was produced in Italy with distribution in the US handled by AIP. Matheson’s dissatisfaction with changes made by William F. Leicester, Furio M. Monetti and Ubaldo Ragona led to his decision to receive credit through the pseudonym Logan Swanson. The most risible screen version came in 1971 with Warner Bros’ Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man. A mindless action film that made wholesale changes in order to indulge Heston’s gun fetish and vile macho posturing. The 2007 version starring Will Smith could only improve on the absolute nadir that The Omega Man represented, but fell to prey to another fetish - that of CGI. Although Matheson expressed a negative view of The Last Man on Earth it does actually emerge as the most faithful rendering of the text, and in my view still remains the most accomplished screen outing for I am Legend.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Poll Results

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)

2010 saw a general election in the UK, the result was a hung parliament with no party having a clear majority. Nevertheless the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition and it remains to be seen whether this pact will have the desired effect on the country. But a more important poll has been going on right here on the pages of The Celluloid Highway, a poll to decide what I will be consigned to writing about for a whole month in January. Themed months are a funny thing, they seem an excellent and exciting idea until you actually start one, by the middle of the month you find your enthusiasm waning and crave the freedom to review anything else. In May 2010 I embarked on my first and it was dedicated to that peculiarly British phenomenon the Video Nasty. In July I followed this with a month devoted to the brilliant and perplexing Werner Herzog. For my next I decided I would leave it up to those who follow my blog. May I take this opportunity to thank everyone (there were 55 of you) who took time out to vote, and may I also thank all of my regular readers for their continued support throughout 2010. It has made this endeavour all the more worth it, and I look forward to another 12 months sharing my ramblings. Without further ado here are the poll results:

01 The Italian Giallo -  27% (15 votes)

02 Alfred Hitchcock -  20% (11 votes)

03 Clint Eastwood -  18% (10 votes)

04 Japanese Horror -  18% (10 votes)

05 Stephen King -  12% (7 votes)

06 James Bond -  3% (2 votes)

Also feel free to check out my new monthly column Theatre of Blood over at the e-zine The Black Glove. Each month I’ll be looking at a different aspect of classic horror and supporting it with republished archive reviews from The Celluloid Highway. 

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Masters of Horror: Homecoming (2005)

Country: USA

First Transmitted - 02/12/2005
Masters of Horror - Season 1, Episode 6

The majority of episodes that comprise the two seasons of Masters of Horror vanished, in my opinion justifiably, into a cultural limbo that is only navigated by the most hardened of horror veterans. By and large there was little of prominence here, not even the heavily scented whiff of nostalgia - the horror directors of yesteryear continued their depressing plunge into the patchy avenues of mediocrity. However there were two episodes in the first series that did manage to break the shackles of the restricted form and gain unexpected column inches and unexpected praise. A lot of column inches and controversy was reserved for Takashi Miike’s breakout episode Imprint. For those unused to Miike’s grotesque excesses the episode was startling. In my view Takashi Miike was the only director invited to take part in the series that is a true contemporary Master of Horror. Even though he rarely works in the genre, his films are infused with a sense of surreal chaos, of societal breakdown…the only unifying factors being bizarre sexual perversions and brutal violence. The other episode that attracted the attention of the critical mainstream was the Joe Dante contribution Homecoming. I happen too agree with Dante’s assertion that all horror films are political. But traditionally horror has utilised metaphor and allegory, few horror films possess the literalness of Homecoming. It is not open to multiple readings, Homecoming is a liberal/leftist attack on the Bush Jr administration and the illegal war in Iraq that was fought on the back of a lie.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Doctor Who - An Unearthly Child (1963)

Country: UK

Original Transmission Dates:
23/11/1963 - 14/12/1963 - 4 Episodes

What better way to start The Celluloid Highway’s occasional look at the classic series of Doctor Who than with the four part adventure that started it all. The 23rd November 1963 became a landmark date in the history of tele-fantasy when audiences were first introduced to the fog enshrouded junkyard that housed a police telephone call box that also happened to be a conduit into the fourth and fifth dimensions of time and space. The opening episode of An Unearthly Child introduces us to the quartet of time travellers with economy and speed. The mystery, initially at least, revolves around the character of Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), a 15 year old girl who has her teachers at Coal Hill School utterly bemused. Her science teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell) feels that she imparts her vast knowledge a little at a time, so as not to make him feel inferior and her history teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) is perplexed at her shifts from brilliance to stupidity. Rather unethically the teachers decide to follow the girl home to 76 Totters Lane and their curiosity is rewarded with their first fateful encounter with the enigmatic genius known as The Doctor.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Sergio Leone Poster Gallery

THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES (1961) #1 US poster


THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES #3 Spanish poster

Monday, 20 December 2010

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House (2005)

Country: USA

First transmitted on 04/11/2005
Masters of Horror - Series 1, Episode 2

Many filmmakers have attempted to navigate the delirious cosmic terrors of H. P. Lovecraft, but Stuart Gordon has been the most persistent. I don’t rate Gordon particularly highly as a filmmaker, but he has achieved something nobody else has; he’s actually made a decent film based on Lovecraft material. In this case the blackly humorous Re-Animator (1985), a film which retained the spirit of Lovecraft, but bravely adopted a sardonic tone, the result of which was one of the most original variations on the themes established in dozens of Frankenstein films. Since then Gordon has returned to Lovecraft on four separate occassions with varying degrees of success. He followed Re-Animator with From Beyond (1986) and offered up a visually ravishing spectacle full of colour and surreal special effects, but sadly the film had more artifice than substance, and only rarely approached the agitated feverishness of Lovecraft. His third attempt at Lovecraft was Castle Freak (1995), based on the story The Outsider and was largely an unsatisfactory and uninspired affair. This was followed by Dagon (2001), a film which has cultivated something of a cult reputation, but once again betrayed the narrative and the sense of encroaching and impending doom in favour of highly impressive visuals and a colour palette bathed in a chilly blue. His fifth attempt was on the invitation of Mick Garris for the first season of Masters of Horror. Gordon chose to adapt the tale Dreams in the Witch House, and the result is easily Gordon’s feeblest and most lacklustre Lovecraft adaptation to date.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2005)

Country: USA

First Transmitted - 16/12/2005

In the last twenty years the stock of John Carpenter has plummeted to such depths of mediocrity that my expectations for his contribution to the first series of Masters of Horror were not high. The concept of creator Mick Garris (himself a maker of mediocre and undistinguished films) was a novel one and on paper at least intriguing enough to warrant viewing the episodes. Of course a cursory glance over the names attached to the series indicate that this is either a nostalgia trip or a pallid attempt to resuscitate careers that flat lined decades ago. Carpenter’s is one such flat lining career, who like so many of his contemporaries almost entirely rely upon a reputation forged in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Although this was episode 8 of the series, this was the first one I saw, and as this is an anthology series the order is unimportant. Much to my surprise Cigarette Burns turns out to be one of the strongest episodes of the series and something of a semi return to form for Mr. Carpenter. If one were to measure his films purely by enjoyment factor, then this ranks as his best effort since 1988’s They Live. Of course Masters of Horror is very much a directors for hire type series, and Carpenter had nothing to do with the writing of the teleplay. This was handled by the unfortunately named Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan. The post-modern and intertextual nature of the episode is not especially in keeping with Carpenter’s oeuvre, but Carpenter does manage to direct some well mounted set pieces.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

Country: UK

Count Dracula and his Vampire Bride

Dracula Is Alive and Well and Living in London

The Satanic Rites of Dracula was Hammer’s seventh outing for the cape wearing fiend Count Dracula, and the last to feature Christopher Lee in the role. The Count would appear for one final time in a Hammer film in 1974 when John Forbes-Robertson put in the fangs for The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. This particular entry is a direct sequel to the risible cinematic disaster Dracula A. D. 1972 (1972), and I’m relieved to say is a vast improvement on that embarrassing offal. In the main the same team were retained from A.D. 1972, with Alan Gibson directing and Don Houghton writing the screenplay. It beggars belief that they were given a second chance, but fortunately this time the filmmakers manage to concoct an enjoyable and tightly paced film. However as a finale to Hammer’s series of Dracula films it is something of a feeble and half-hearted whimper and does not bear any kind of comparison to some of the earlier films. The producers were clearly determined at this point to make Count Dracula succeed in a contemporary setting, and in large part here they do well. The failure of A. D. 1972 is that Dracula is not allowed too engage with modernity and spends the whole of the film within the gothic walls of a deconsecrated church. In Satanic Rites, Dracula has utilised capitalism and property development in order to create a smokescreen in front of his real identity. He has acquired the resources and influence in order to put forward a more coherent plan of vengeance, and is able to manipulate greed and avarice to control those disciples he needs to carry out his plan. In many ways Dracula is more like a Bond villain here, and although the character features little in the running time, he is still given far more than in the previous entry.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Prophecy (1979)


Prophecy: The Monster Movie

Prophecy is one of the more hysterical and stupid of the ‘Revolt of Nature’ horror films that achieved major prominence in the years following Jaws (1975). On paper at least the talents behind this $12,000,000 Paramount Pictures production are easily a match for Spielberg’s aquatic opus. In the directors seat was veteran John Frankenheimer, a filmmaker of some repute who had distilled the paranoia of cold war politics to such devastating and conspiratorial effect in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and who had interrogated questions of identity in the little seen Seconds (1966). The writer was David Seltzer who had achieved enormous prominence with his apocalyptic exploration of the return of Satan in The Omen (1976). For the themes of Prophecy however the more important Seltzer film is The Hellstrom Chronicle, a frantic and panic-stricken documentary about the possibility of humanities dominion over the planet being challenged by insects. Having explored this territory before with some measure of success one would assume that with Prophecy Seltzer was about to make a major ecological statement. It does make a statement, but the manner in which this proclamation is made is both preachy and pretentious. This is the worst type of Hollywood film, one that assumes its audience has the attention span of a goldfish and the intelligence of plankton. With films that have a ‘message’ to convey, the most important thing becomes the way in which that ‘message’ is delivered, and it is in its delivery that Prophecy fails miserably.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Omnibus - Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)

Country: UK

First transmitted on the 07/05/1968 on the BBC

First published in the masterful 1905 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the short story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad is easily one of M. R. James’ most disturbing and arresting tales. With his background in the dusty libraries of academia and the enforced introversion of a scholarly way of life James created a series of pompous protagonists whose social skills have been blunted by their obsessions. They are not mere representatives of scientific rationality as you might find in lesser ghost stories, but also men of vanity, pride, hubris and an overriding sense of their own intellectual superiority. This gives them a depth and dimension that makes the inevitable encounter with the forces of the supernatural so much more powerful. In the wake of these chilling episodes with the unknown denial becomes vital to an act of self preservation because there is so much on the line. Not just their own conceptions of reality, but their careers and positions within the esteemed halls of universities; a position that would become untenable without their denial of the events. With this in mind Professor Parkin’s (Michael Horden) repetition of the word ‘no’ at the end of the BBC’s dramatisation of the tale takes on added significance.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Ghost Story for Christmas - The Signalman (1976)

Country: UK

First transmitted 22/12/1976 on BBC 1

The 1970’s was a decade of grim austerity for the British film industry, and although the cinemas were bereft of successful home grown product, television screens up and down the land were lit up by some of the most through provoking, intelligent and literate programming Britain has ever witnessed. Fortunately this was a decade of tele-visual innovation and experimentation, and a time when anthology serials reached a position of prominence. One of the most impressive and consistent was the BBC’s annual Ghost Story at Christmas. These chilling and nuanced short films offered a sobering riposte to the merriment of the season, a delicate feeling of unease amongst the decorations and festivities. The series ran from 1971-78 (and was briefly resurrected in 2005 and 2006) and five of the eight tales were based on short stories by M. R. James. These included The Stalls of Barchester (1971), A Warning to the Curious (1972), Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Ash Tree (1975). For whatever reason 1976 marked a departure from the world of James with the adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ short story The Signalman. This would continue for the final two episodes - Stigma (1977) and The Ice House (1978), which were based on stories by Clive Exton and John Bowen respectively.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Westworld (1973)

Country: USA

Produced on a modest budget of $1.25 million by MGM Westworld was one of the most commercially successful science-fiction films in the age before Star Wars (1977). It marked the debut to feature filmmaking of Michael Crichton, who in the 1970’s contributed (either as writer or director) a number of interesting pictures within the ‘Revolt of Technology’ subgenre. The first was The Andromeda Strain (1971) which was based upon his novel of the same name and saw an alien virus come to earth due to technological efficiency. Also of note is an adaptation of his novel The Terminal Man (1974) which charts the effects of a microchip placed in a scientists' brain in order to control his violent seizures. Another major contribution was Coma (1978) which he also directed, and combined elements of the paranoid thriller with technological unease. But for me Westworld eclipses all of these efforts by some distance. It was Crichton’s clearest and most efficient distillation of his techno-phobic themes, but also displayed a brilliantly self aware attitude to genre which was never replicated in Crichton’s later career. Crichton’s awareness of icons, conventions, and expectations makes Westworld both fun and incredibly chilling.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Of Walking in Ice (2007)


First published in 1978, this review is of the 2007 reprint.

Werner Herzog is one of the few directors who has continually emphasised the physicality of filmmaking. For Herzog the filmmaking process is as much an expression of brute strength and physical fitness, as it is mental and intellectual agility. In order to fully explore the musculature inherent in his attitude to the art Herzog has travelled the continents in search of harsh and dangerous terrains. This isn’t because of an irresponsible desire for risk taking in my view, but possibly to assuage the embarrassment Herzog might feel for having fallen into filmmaking as a career. In his manifesto for documentary cinema entitled The Minnesota Declaration Herzog states “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.” One of the key components of his ‘Rogue Film School’ is that “it is for those who travel on foot”, throughout Herzog’s writings and observations he has returned again and again to the idea of travelling on foot as a means to release the poetic qualities within, and to appreciate the landscape as something more than a scenic backdrop. This attitude reached its extreme apotheosis in the winter of 1973/4 when he embarked on a journey from Munich to Paris on foot, in order to visit the ailing German film scholar Lotte Eisner. Herzog believed that undertaking this epic travail in this manner would somehow lead to Eisner clutching to life, and to survive until he finally arrived. In this he was correct and Eisner would go on to live for several years.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Country: UK

Hammer Film Productions’ fifth entry in their cycle of Frankenstein movies is a major accomplishment. Those Frankenstein films directed by Terence Fisher have a remarkable consistency, and each subsequent instalment sought too extend the moral arguments set up in previous entries. There is a definite sense of thematic progression in Fisher’s Frankenstein films, and a sense of fragmented morality that centres on the twin pillars of these films; The Baron, and ‘The Monster’. In most of the films the creature is a reflection of a certain facet of the Baron’s personality - the best example is the vanity and pride of Karl/The Baron in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). But in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed this aspect of the characters’ is subsumed into the Baron’s uncompromising sadism. Prior entries had shown The Baron to be an astute reader of social situations, a well mannered aristocrat cleverly using the mask of benevolence to hide his diabolical schemes. There was at least a sense that somewhere amid the dismembered body parts The Baron’s motivations were noble and progressive. This moral tension is totally excised from Bert Batt’s screenplay, and The Baron is free to murder, blackmail, and even rape his way to the achievement of his nefarious goals. Depending on your point of view this is either a major weakness of the screenplay, or a major strength. I personally think it is a great strength, it leaves Peter Cushing free to indulge in some wonderfully cruel behaviour, and gives ‘The Monster’ an opportunity to fully explore the moral wasteland within which he resides.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Country: UK

Hammer Film Productions’ wasted no time in capitalising on the surprise commercial success of their first colour gothic horror film The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Within a year Peter Cushing was once again impressing audiences with his coldly logical Baron Frankenstein whose steely determination to create life remained undiminished despite a close call with the guillotine. The manner in which Frankenstein survives his execution is further evidence of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s ingeniousness. The switch of victims that takes place at the inhospitable gaol is not simply a throwaway event intended to ensure the survival of the films’ lead character, but a fundamental plot element of the ensuing sequel. Sangster’s screenplay builds on this opening by showing the ruthless way in which Frankenstein plays on the vanity of the crippled gaoler Karl, and the terrible price that Karl pays for placing his trust in the aberrant scientist. Not only are we to enjoy the return of the impeccable Peter Cushing as a result of this plot contrivance, but also a deep moral and thematic terrain that interrogates questions of mental illness, trust, and the manipulation of pride and vanity. This thematic trajectory for me makes The Revenge of Frankenstein a far more rewarding experience than The Curse of Frankenstein, and helps it to take its position as the greatest Frankenstein film put out by Hammer.

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