Saturday, 29 October 2011

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) - TV Movie

Country: USA

Original Transmission Date: 24/10/1981

Very few made for television movies have achieved the cult prominence of Halloween favourite Dark Night of the Scarecrow. It was originally broadcast on CBS in October 1981, became a network mainstay for many years, a success on video rental, and an unlikely success in other territories as well. I can personally attest to this by remembering several screenings on British television during the 1980’s which haunted my fractured dreams. In confirmation of the films cult credentials US distributor VCI belatedly issued a DVD in September 2010, and more impressively still issued a blu-ray in October 2011. Naturally the strictures and regimentation of US network television meant that the emphasis was very much placed on the writing. The teleplay was provided by J. D. Feigelson, and he produced a literate and well constructed plot, peppered liberally with some wonderfully acerbic moments of dialogue for the villain Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning). Nevertheless there are still several moments of surprising violence (the shooting of Bubba, the pitchfork fate of Hazelrigg), and one particularly unpleasant moment of off screen violence (the death of Harless). But it is the films almost total reliance on a carefully cultivated atmosphere of simmering small town tensions that sets it apart from contemporaneous efforts in the horror genre.

Friday, 28 October 2011

A Super(natural) Halloween Collaboration

Regular visitors to The Celluloid Highway may well have noticed a little image in the sidebar promoting a very special Halloween collaboration. I was invited by my erstwhile colleague Franco of the effervescent and consistently informative blog The Film Connoisseur to contribute to a themed post exploring the esoteric nature of the supernatural in film. My brief was to provide five obscure and interesting British examples. Also along for the ride was my good friend and Lone Wolves collaborator Brian Bankston of Cool Ass Cinema and Nottingham’s finest film expert Neil Fulwood of The Agitation of the Mind. It was a pleasure to partake in another excellent collaboration, and I thank Franco for extending me the invite.

 Head on over if you dare!!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Celluloid Sounds - Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

The regeneration and resurrection of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) has been something of a personal crusade for me. It was the first Halloween franchise film I ever watched (yes, even before Carpenters 1978 original) and its impression on me has remained undiminished in the intervening twenty years. While I would by no means argue it is the best film in the franchise, that honour does comfortably belong to the first film, I’m firm in my conviction that it is the second best. Halloween III is possessed of an attitude that is deeply pessimistic and cynical. It is perhaps the most unremittingly grim and paranoid mainstream American horror film of the 1980’s. It highlights the ease with which a force of evil can gain purchase within America, if it manages to tick all the right capitalist boxes. It illustrates the manner in which the media can be used as a tool of propaganda, and indicates how malleable the adult population is when confronted with the demands of children. The film does have a number of serious shortcomings, not least of which is a rushed finale, and uninspired direction. Much of the tension and atmosphere instead is derived from a chilling electronic score courtesy of Alan Howarth and John Carpenter. I even find the much maligned advertising jingle for Silver Shamrock a great piece of music. Its repetition in the film an intended strategy to irritate both the characters and the audience. It does my heart good to have read a number of positive reviews for Halloween III over the last few weeks, and I feel that slowly but surely, its critical standing is on the ascent in the horror community. This edition of Celluloid Sounds is a celebration of what I consider to be one of the finest horror soundtracks of the 1980’s.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Nightmares and Dreamscapes - Battleground (2006)


Original Transmission Date: 12/06/2006

The Stephen King short story Battleground remains one of my favourite pieces from the worlds leading writer of dark fiction. I first read it at the age of fifteen and its ingenious narrative and rapier sharp construction left a lasting impression on me. It was first published in the September 1972 edition of Cavalier, and then in the wake of the tremendous success of Carrie (1974) Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Shining (1977) was anthologised in King’s first collection of short stories Night Shift (1978). For my money this still remains King’s most original and consistent collection of tales. The decision to include Battleground as a part of TNT’s anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes left me both excited and worried. In the past television’s treatment of King’s works had gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. The first mini-series to be based on his work was Salem’s Lot, which aired in November 1979. In many ways this was as good as it got. Since Tobe Hooper’s memorable and chilling effort, small screen adaptations of King have struggled to live up to this early benchmark. Amongst the very worst of King’s mini-series adaptations include such abominated trash as The Tommyknockers (1993), The Langoliers (1995) and Rose Red (2002). The made for television movie hasn’t fared much better with stinking offal such as Sometimes They Come Back (1991), Trucks (2000), and Desperation (2006). How would the first anthology series based on King’s work fare?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Paranoiac (1963)

Country: UK

Distributors have been slow to mine the archives of Hammer for potential high definition blu-ray releases. To date we have had only three; the dual edition package of Vampire Circus (1972) courtesy of US distributor Synapse, UK distributor Optimum’s dual edition package of Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and Eureka’s presentation of Paranoiac. The latter was the first Hammer title to see the light of HD as Eureka took early advantage of their relationship with Universal (future HD releases from this label include Silent Running [1972], Touch of Evil [1958], Repo Man [1984] and Two Lane Blacktop [1971]). Although Paranoiac was not the most obvious title for the champagne treatment, it was the first time the film had enjoyed a digital release in the UK. Unfortunately it isn’t a particularly good film. It is boring, long winded (despite only running for 81 minutes), predictable and hopelessly riddled with generic clichés. These are major shortcomings, but in its favour the film looks beautiful. The monochrome cinematography of Arthur Grant is stunning, and totally justifies the decision to release this title in HD. That the film is so gorgeously shot is not a major surprise when one sees the name of cinematographer extraordinaire Freddie Francis as director.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Celluloid Sounds - Giallo Morricone [Part 1]

I make no apologies for the fact that the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone will figure prominently in the landscape of Celluloid Sounds. I have been a great admirer (who isn’t?) of Mr. Morricone’s film music for many years and am excited at the opportunity to pay fulsome tribute to him on The Celluloid Highway. In the first of this two part series I will be casting my eye and ear over Morricone’s often wonderful contributions to the Italian giallo cycle. In the 1960’s Morricone rose to international prominence with his unique and often imitated compositions for Sergio Leone’s trilogy of ‘Dollars’ westerns featuring Clint Eastwood as the implacable unnamed anti-hero. Many more superb soundtracks for the so called ‘spaghetti’ westerns followed. Some of my personal favourites are Navajo Joe (1966), Face to Face (1967), Death Rides a Horse (1967), The Great Silence (1968) and Companeros (1970). Although public perception strongly associated the maestro with this genre, the 1960’s were in reality a decade of diversity for the prolific composer, as he hopped effortlessly from one genre to another. In 1970 Morricone was invited to compose the music for Dario Argento’s directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, thus beginning a relationship with the giallo cycle that would encompass fourteen films. This opening instalment will investigate the first seven.

Dario Argento’s filmmaking debut has assumed a position of unparalleled prominence in discussions of the gialli cycle. It’s a position which I believe to be somewhat questionable. Between the release of Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963 and Argento’s film in 1970 well over twenty giallo films had seen the light of day. The difference of course was that none of these had set the international box office alight. Argento’s film was also more self-consciously indebted to the West German ‘Krimi’ cycle, which founds its inspiration from the pages of Edgar Wallace. Argento certainly had some refreshing stylistic tricks up his sleeve, and his playful attitude to gender maintained a sense of mystery that concluded in a fine twist. But the true importance of this films lies in the fact that it made the giallo a commercially viable genre. The soundtrack by Ennio Morricone has been released in a variety of editions over the years, the most prized of which perhaps is the Capital Records US LP released in 1970. My copy is the Cinevox CD release from October 2008 that includes a number of bonus tracks, the cover of which can be seen here.  This appears to be the most widely available edition of the soundtrack. The extract I have chosen is Piume di cristallo.

Morricone’s second gialli soundtrack of 1970 was for Luciano Ercoli’s distinctive tale of sordid blackmail and murder Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. Ercoli would go on to helm two more interesting gialli - Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972) featuring the statuesque talents of Nieves Navarro aka Susan Scott. Forbidden Photos… was co-written by Ernesto Gastaldi whose numerous contributions to the cycle remain underappreciated and under researched. Morricone provides a much a jazzier score than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, with a number of lounge music numbers that compliment the sleazy nature of the plot. This is not the easiest soundtrack to get hold of. The most complete edition would appear to be the Verita Note Japanese release from Oct 2006. The last time the soundtrack was issued on CD in Europe was Dagored’s 1999 edition. The extract I have chosen is Intermezzino Pop.

In 1971 Morricone would go on to compose the scores for no less than seven giallo productions. After the success of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the centrality of its music, it was only logical that Morricone should be invited to score Dario Argento’s second film The Cat O’ Nine Tails. In almost all key filmmaking departments Argento’s second gialli was less successful than his debut film, with the honourable exception of the music. Here Morricone develops nuanced and textured compositions which compliment themes of lost childhood innocence. Originally released on the Dagored label on LP in 1971 this is a very visible soundtrack thanks in part to the issuing of the single Ninna nanna in blu in Feb 1971. Dagored’s CD release in 2000 runs for 59:30 and contains three bonus tracks. This was trumped for completeness by the GDM CD Club October 2006 edition which runs for 1:13:33. The extract I have chosen is the title them Ninna nanna in blu.

Lucio Fulci only set foot within the gialli landscape on three occasions. The first of these was his distinctive London set thriller A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, featuring the acting talents of Florinda Bolkan, Stanley Baker and Jean Sorel. With its fragmented and illusory structure and unreliable protagonist, Fulci’s film has a number of impressive moments of surreal dream-like beauty. The music compliments this mood excellently as Morricone utilises a more experimental and chaotic tone to reflect the subjective hysteria of the central character. The soundtrack first emerged on CD in 1996 and was issued by Screen Trax and contained fifteen tracks running to 1:01:18. This was trumped in 2000 by by Dagored who issued both a limited edition thirteen track LP and a nineteen track expanded CD, the latter of which runs for 1:13:40. The extract I have chosen is La Lucertola.

Cold Eyes of Fear marked the only occasion that director Enzo G. Castellari entered the realm of the giallo. Castellari was more famed for his westerns at this point and as the 1970’s wore on would become strongly associated with the poliziotesschi cycle with a series of high octane action movies such as Street Law (1974) and The Big Racket (1975). This is another London set gialli, and that is perhaps the most distinctive thing about it. This is a tired and uninspired film, with a host of tepid performances, and a strange lack of energy uncommon for Castellari. The soundtrack is likewise highly divisive. Morricone opts for a more avant-garde approach and the film lacks a strong central theme. I don’t mind admitting this is my least favourite Morricone giallo score. Like the previous soundtrack Dagored released this on both a limited edition LP and CD in November 2000. The difference here being that both LP and CD are identical, featuring sixteen tracks running to 45:04. Music from Cold Eyes of Fear had appeared earlier on Point Records 1996 CD which paired it with selections from The Fifth Cord (1971). The extract I have chosen is Seguita.

The beautifully titled Black Belly of the Tarantula was writer/director Paolo Cavara’s only giallo entry. Cavara achieved notoriety in the early 1960’s as one of the co-directors of Mondo Cane (1962), but in Black Belly… he creates a stylish and tense film that benefits tremendously from the fine performance of Giancarlo Giannini, and a profusion of gorgeous actresses that include Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet and Barbara Bach. All of whom would achieve fame as Bond girls. The killers novel approach which involves paralysing the victims with a poisoned needle inserted in their necks, before stabbing them to death, gives the film a unique feel which Morricone’s music easily matches. This is a very stylish score and one of Morricone’s best. For many years the soundtrack was only available as part of the CAM labels 1992 release which paired it up with I Malamondo (1964). The CD was weighted in the latter’s favour, with Black Belly only managing eight tracks to I Malamondo’s nineteen. This was readdressed in June 2007 with Digitmovies fifteen track CD which ran for 57:36. The extract I have chosen is Un uomo si e'dimesso.

The Fifth Cord marked the only occasion that Franco Nero would appear in a giallo. He plays alcoholic journalist Andrea Bild who is forced to begin his own murder investigation in order to both clear his name and save his life. The director was Luigi Bazzoni who would go on to make the offbeat and peculiar gialli Footprints (1975) with Florinda Bolkan. The Fifth Cord is a much more conventional offering, though it achieves moments of beauty thanks to the exceptional cinematography of Vittorio Storaro and of course the wonderfully sleazy lounge music of Mr. Morricone. Music from this film first saw the light of day on Point Records 1996 CD which paired it with Cold Eyes of Fear. In September 2001 the film got a singular release by Dagored who put out a 24 track CD which ran for 58:07. An enhanced version featuring 31 tracks and running for 1:14:01 was released in Japan on the Verita Note label. The extract I have chosen is Trafelato.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Hitch-Hike (1977)

Country: ITALY

Autostop rosso sangue
Death Drive
Hitchhike: Last House on the Left
The Naked Prey

The screen image of songwriter and actor David Hess is entirely based on a triumvirate of roles in which he played a psychopathic sadist. The recent untimely death of Mr. Hess prompted me to return to the lesser known of these three performances, the criminally insane armed robber Adam Konitz, who takes centre stage in Pasquale Festa Campanile’s offbeat exploitation flick Hitch-Hike. Due to dreadful distribution the laughing rapist Konitz has been greatly overshadowed by Last House on the Left’s (1973) Krug Stillo and The House on the Edge of the Park’s (1980) Alex. Although Hitch-Hike has its moments, it doesn’t quite reach the sadistic heights of these other two films, and this has almost certainly impacted on its relative obscurity. Fortunately this obscurity was redressed by Anchor Bay’s 2003 DVD release, and its subsequent re-issue by Blue Underground in 2008. Part of the pleasure of the film is in seeing Hess and Franco Nero blaze their own personal trails of rampant masculinity throughout the proceedings as they compete in a highly entertaining contest of one-upmanship. One is none too surprised to see Hess straying perilously close to over the top. But even Nero, whose understated sensibility of taciturn minimalism stoked the ire of the critics, gets caught up in the excitement. The excessiveness of Hess somehow brings out the best in Nero who puts in a fine and nuanced performance.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Celluloid Sounds - Phenomena (1985)

I’ve always considered the soundtrack of Dario Argento’s Phenomena to be one of its most controversial aspects. The light textures and insinuating melodies of Ennio Morricone’s contributions to Argento’s early gialli, had rapidly made way for the grandiose and progressive rock inflected rhythms of Goblin. In the 1980’s Goblin’s approach took on a more synthetic and electronic sound which culminated in their offerings to the Phenomena soundtrack. The major difference here though was Argento’s decision too include heavy rock songs by Iron Maiden, Andi Sex Gang, and Motorhead. The result of their inclusion in the film was a damaging reduction in any atmosphere Argento was attempting to construct. On a recent viewing of the film I found these moments to be laughable and embarrassing. However if listened too in isolation the original soundtrack to Phenomena is very good indeed. The resounding highlight of the soundtrack however doesn’t come from Goblin, but from Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor’s marvellously spooky Valley.

01 Phenomena - Claudio Simonetti
02 Flash of the Blade - Iron Maiden
03 Jennifer - Goblin
04 The Quick and the Dead - Andi Sex Gang
05 You Don't Know Me - Andi Sex Gang
06 The Wind - Goblin
07 Valley - Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor
08 Locomotive - Motorhead
09 Jennifer's Friends - Goblin
10 The Maggots - Simon Boswell
11 The Naked and the Dead - Andi Sex Gang

In 1997 a second edition of the Phenomena soundtrack was released featuring the Goblin only instrumental material;

01 Phenomena
02 Jennifer
03 The Wind
04 Sleepwalking
05 Jennifer's Friends
06 Phenomena (Film Version 1)
07 Phenomena (Film Version 2)
08 Phenomena (Piano Solo - Film Version 3)
09 Sleepwalking (Alternate Version)
10 The Wind (Film Version - Suite 2)
11 The Wind ("Insects" - Film Version Suite 2)
12 Jennifer's Friends (Alternate Version)
13 Jennifer (End Titles)
14 The Monster Child (Bonus Track)
15 Phenomena (Video Clip Version - Bonus Track 2)
16 Phenomena (Alternate Version - Bonus Track 3)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Halloween Franchise - Poster Gallery

HALLOWEEN (John Carpenter, 1978)  - US Poster

HALLOWEEN - UK Quad Poster

HALLOWEEN - Japanese Poster

HALLOWEEN - Italian Quad poster

Monday, 10 October 2011

Deep End (1970)


I am a firm supporter and collector of the BFI’s Flipside imprint. With a remit to release obscure British cinematic rarities in dual format edition packages, already such wonderful treasures as The Bed Sitting Room (1969), Herostratus (1967), The Party’s Over (1965), and Bronco Bullfrog (1971) have been unearthed for an unsuspecting audience. The BFI’s excellent and important work continued with the issuing of Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s criminally under distributed tale of sexual obsession Deep End. My previous experience with this audacious art film came as an undergraduate, when I was fortunate enough to watch an off air recording on VHS. However as this was recorded off television sometime in the mid 1980’s the delicate textures and symbolic use of colour was all but lost amid the washed out and faded video image. In some strange way though the dilapidated and worn out vision of a London that had done all its swinging a couple of years before was somehow enhanced by the worn out VHS visuals. Although the rundown and decrepit London we see is still very much in evidence on the gorgeous HD transfer, it is the primacy of the colours, and their strikingly figurative role which takes centre stage.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Don't Look Now (1973)

Country: UK/ITALY

For me one of the most lamentable aspects of theatrical distribution was the abolition of the double bill. It was common practice at one time for cinemas to offer support for the feature presentation, and try as I might, my own efforts at engineering double bills at the local multiplex often end in failure. The best I have managed was a double bill of Land of the Dead (2005) and A History of Violence (2005)…no prizes for guessing which was the ‘B’ feature! The double bill gave patrons the feeling they were having a proper night out, and also represented value for money. It was probably this latter point which heralded the death knell for this form of distribution. Far be it from cinema chains to actually give the customer a good deal. Of all the double bills I’ve come across in the history books surely the most mind bending was Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man (1973). After the devastation of seeing Sgt. Howie burned to a crisp by Christopher Lee‘s pagan islanders, audiences would then experience the devastation of seeing Donald Sutherland murdered by a razor wielding dwarf in the passageways of Venice. Both films were distributed in the UK by British Lion, both films shared an interest in intricate plot details, both films fore grounded their settings and used their locations metaphorically, both films placed notable attention on character development, both became cult favourites, and at the time both were totally overshadowed by the self indulgent pretensions of William Friedkin’s bloated and banal The Exorcist (1973).

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