Mild Spoilers ...

15. Feb, 2016

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1970)

Freddie Francis, prolific director for Hammer films amongst many others, cites this as his favourite film. The reason may be that he had complete creative control over much of it. It was filmed entirely on location in and around sprawling Oakley Court, a Victorian Gothic Country House in Berkshire (a location Francis had used in previous projects).

There is a likelihood viewers may spend a chunk of the film’s opening moments wondering quite what they have stumbled upon, but before long, the eccentricities of the characters and the increasingly disturbing nature of their lives draw us into their world. As an audience, we are very much their guests.

The dysfunctional ‘happy’ family indulge in a perverse fantasy called ‘The Game’, in which they very much role play their own characters. Matriarch to this is the ever knitting, ever smiling Mumsy (Ursula Howells) who charmingly and reassuringly initiates the goings-on and keeps her children in line, along with Nanny (Pat Heywood), whose cheerful compliance hides a thinly disguised veneer of deadly jealousy – more of that later. The children are Sonny (Howard Trevor – for whom this is his only known screen credit) and Girly (Vanessa Howard. The film was built around her as a result of her convincing performance, even changing its name to ‘Girly’ for the American release. The failure of the film in the UK – which was saturated with horror films around the early Seventies – contributed to her decision to give up acting, which is a genuine tragedy. She wasn’t made aware of the film’s success in the US until later; maybe this would have influenced her decision to retire. How she didn’t become a star is a huge injustice – a true casualty of the floundering UK movie industry at the time). There is a briefly suggested incestuous relation between these two, which is never elaborated upon. ‘The Game’, in which the abductees are eventually killed, or ‘sent to the angels’, is recorded and viewed as a snuff film. The household can be seen as a genteel fore-runner for later successes like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’

The children travel occasionally to ‘the playground’, where they pick up strangers and bring them home to indulge in their game. With the latest acquisition, New Friend (Michael Bryant), a problem arises. A male prostitute, he becomes the focal point for the affections of Mumsy, Nanny and Girly (“Show Mumsy you’re not a little boy anymore.” “Sometimes a growing girl gets an appetite.”). A canny soul, New Friend uses this to break the family up by feeding the jealousy between characters.

Bryant is excellent as New Friend, playing along with the family’s games, but wily enough to build up his own agenda. At one point, after secret sex with Girly, the film cuts back to Nanny and Mumsy knitting in the front garden, with Nanny asking “Do you think he’s settled in?”

This is a wild, black humoured uncategorisable picture, but if a film in which a girl chops the head off her nanny and kills her brother whilst her friend contemplates poisoning her mother is not horrific, I don’t know what is. The cast are uniformly excellent (with Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper making an appearance as an outraged – he was often playing outraged characters – zoo attendant), with Howard in particular taking full opportunity to exploit Girly’s unsettling mix of innocence, sexuality, precociousness and psychotic tendencies. This is an absolute must-see – one of the most entertaining pictures I have seen in a long time.

15. Feb, 2016

De Poel/The Pool (2014)

This Dutch horror film opens with one of the most sharply observed views of a family holiday I have seen. Leannart Lennaert (Gijs Scholten van Aschat, who also co-wrote the screenplay) takes his wife Sylke (Carine Crutzen), and two sons Jan (Alex Hendrickx) and Marco (Chris Peters) camping, along with friend Rob (Bart Klever) and his daughter Emilie (Jamie Grant). The teenage sons argue, flirt with Emilie, while the elder members become more and more exasperated, whilst revealing that Sylke is having an affair with Rob. The level of sarcasm between the characters is delightfully realistic, and Len is determined they all enjoy themselves, whether they like it or not! As is often the way in these films, no matter how many rotting animals are found, no matter how food supplies inexplicably become festooned with maggots or injuries are sustained, they refuse to leave immediately.

After suffering food poisoning, Rob dies in the night. However, we see a brief clip of Leannart strangling him and vomiting over his face, making it appear he choked to death in his sleep. The clip is so sparse, it isn’t immediately clear whether it actually happened, or was just another of the increasing amount of hallucinations prevalent. The hallucinations are caused by a shell found by Jan, but seems to possess Leannart, and causes them both to see images of a young woman. In another brief flashback, it appears the woman maybe the reincarnation of a witch, drowned in the pool many years ago.

At the end, on Jan and friend Emilie are the only ones left alive. When they try to leave, they only find themselves back at their campsite. Emilie falls to her knees in despair.

‘The Pool’ is a slow moving film which features some exceptional performances. It is difficult to know what is hallucinatory and what isn’t as events wear on, and the ending does nothing to make things clearer: Jan finds a motorway, seemingly freedom. When he turns to look at the girl behind him, it is the woman from the hallucinations.

14. Feb, 2016

Zombie Night (2013)

‘Zombie Night’ establishes its credentials as a ‘TV movie’ straight away – it is shot very much in the style of a television drama rather than a cinematic one, and in order to grab the wary channel-hopper, it plunges straight into the thick of the action immediately.

Shirley Jones, veteran star of the Partridge Family amongst a myriad of other things, plays blind Nana. Her daughter Birdy (?) is played by Daryl Hannah. These are the main two characters in the opening of the story. They begin their roles screaming in fear and spend a lot of the running time in much the same hysterical fashion – until surprisingly, old Nana becomes one of the living dead herself.

In fact, the death count is impressive and the film does a good job of keeping the tension going. Characters who seemed designed to survive end up bitten/dead. The only problem is, zombies by their nature are limited. As a positive, the ‘hero’ can inflict injury on, or kill as many as necessary without displaying questionable morals – after all, they are dead anyway (there are a couple of occasions where blood spatters across the camera lens, which is an effect I like). As a negative, with such sustained one-note jeopardy, the onslaught of unrelenting tense situations becomes tiresome after a period of time.

There isn’t much time to get to know the characters, but there are some interesting developments in the lengths some will go to protect themselves – not once but twice does one character leave her friends – her neighbours of 18 years – to the mercy of the night-walkers in a doomed bid to save herself and her family. This raw, flawed action is a realistic characteristic. So is the teens’ habit of taking time out from tense life-threatening situations to do a bit of texting.

The young child Nathan is atrocious. It’s unfair to single him out, but surely better juveniles were available. He murmurs words statically through a barely opened mouth, and his fate is very disappointing – he survives.

‘Zombie Night’, as you may be able to tell from the title, isn’t going to revolutionise the zombie genre, although the idea that the living dead become powerless in the daytime is a convenient get-out clause. However, as one survivor points out, “What are we going to do when the sun goes down again?” As a messy, violent, occasionally graphic picture, it does the job nicely.

13. Feb, 2016

The Last Exorcism 2 (2013)

Initially opening to mainly negative reviews, this sequel to the 2010 film foregoes the ‘found footage’ style in favour of a more polished, straight-forward manner of continuing the story. Happily, Ashley Bell returns as the previously possessed Nell, found skulking, glassy-eyed and terrified following her earlier ordeal.

She is placed in a psychiatric hospital, which carefully helps her to adjust to ‘real life’ where she gets a job, tentatively begins a relationship with a boy and makes friends with the others who live in the home for girls where she has been placed. But bad dreams, sinister nurses, imaginary (or otherwise) happenings and dreams of an increasingly dark sexual nature are never far away.

It’s a slow moving picture, which may explain why it didn’t eclipse the success of the original. And yet the time is taken to really allow us to know Nell as a person, and sympathise every time her delicate nature is fractured either by supernatural events, or the betrayal of her friends: in a clever development, the ‘found footage’ from the previous film has been loaded onto YouTube, and through that medium the other girls from the home become familiar with Nell’s.

Ashley Bell is excellent throughout. She conveys Nell’s scripted unease with the world beyond her sheltered home-life with touches of surprise, curiosity and anger at the new strangeness around her, never quite sure of the apparitions she sees are part of ‘normality’, or fragments of her imagination …

As well as this notoriety, Nell has also been observed for some time by The Order of the Right Hand, a group who promise to help her. Calder (David Jensen) and Jeffrey (E. Roger Mitchell), who run the group, conduct an exorcism but the demon Abalam is too strong, and they inject Nell with a lethal morphine dose (cure or kill, it seems). The demon appears to her as she dies, in the forms of people she knows, beseeching her too take their hand. When she does, Abalam finally possesses her fully and she sets about killing all those who have let her down. To show Nell is truly irredeemable by this point, she becomes a fan of that (inexplicable) modern horror staple, heavy metal – because clearly, all horror fans also love hard rock music (we don’t)! Despite that last detail, this film is a thoroughly enjoyable sequel and a good story in its own right. Even if it had been more successful (it still turned in a $10 million profit, so it didn’t fair badly), it is difficult to imagine how Nell’s story could possibly continue.

11. Feb, 2016

The Last Exorcism (2010)

Evangelical reverend and showman Cotton Marcus has a plan to expose the concept of ‘exorcism’ as the farce he believes it to be. This, as you might imagine, is asking for trouble. He reveals to camera his ‘box of tricks’ (steaming crucifixes, sound effects etc) that will prove how gullible people are. Patrick Fabian is excellent as the fast-talking Cotton. The reverend is initially arrogant, cocooned in the high-energy joy he brings to his congregation despite not entirely believing his own words, but gradually becomes aware that events are bigger than he can possibly handle.

In ‘Blair Witch’ fashion, we are treated to interviews from the locals conducted by Cotton as he makes his way to where the exorcism is due to take place. Not all of them are friendly. One of the least amenable happens to be the son of the family for whom the exorcism is to be carried out. Indeed, one local’s proclamation that the house in question contains ‘the gates of hell’ is alarmingly prosaic.

When we meet the victim, Nell, allegedly under a demon’s possession, she is virginal and shy. Actress Ashley Bell overplays Nell’s wide-eyed innocence and wholesome smile … but then, we are meant to find her unnaturally good, in comparison to what comes later.

I enjoy horror films, but I only find a handful of them truly frightening. One is ‘The Exorcist’ which, as you may imagine, this shares similarities with – and this is another. Familiarity does not make the images of a young girl getting progressively more violent, unearthly and demonic any easier to watch. The look of horror on the face of her father, her (also very unnerving) brother (a brilliant performance from Caleb Landry-Jones) and Cotton himself is communicated very well to the audience.

Rather desperately, Cotton clings to the notion that – even despite bone crunching distortions (all performed without a stunt double) – the girl is not possessed by a demon but by shame. She is pregnant, and is terrified to reveal this to her God-fearing father.

It is ultimately revealed (and this is a SPOILER) that not only is Nell actually possessed (by a demon called Abalam), but (in true Wicker Man style) the entire neighbourhood is in on it also. When her new-born baby is thrown upon an open fire which apparently gives true life to Abalam, as a viewer, I am actually relieved – because up until that point, ‘The Last Exorcism’ had me just where it wanted me, figuratively watching behind my fingers, such was the power of performance and production. But the ending entered into a world of the fantastic, a revelation too far, that ripped the carefully built-up realism from the piece. Not that the climax isn’t effective – it’s just unnecessary when it serves to break the spell of what we had seen up till that point. The glimpse of an entity in the burgeoning flames is the only example of CGI in the film.

That bastion of decency, the UK Censor – who even since the 1930’s, has been a thorn in the side of horror pictures – banned the promotional poster because of its ‘offensive’ imagery. As is often the case, such reassuring suppression only helped fuel its success enough for a sequel, also starring Ashley Bell, in 2013.

10. Feb, 2016

Squeal (2008)

This film deals with pig/men hybrids. That’s not so much a spoiler, as the face of one such unfortunate is on all packaging. Unfortunately, with this being a very low-budget project, the pig make-up isn’t really its best feature, and so the decision to highlight it on DVD covers is questionable. The creatures are much better when seen in shadows, or obscured by objects etc. And their high pitched, porcine squeal is horrifying – indeed, it has to be to rise above the shrill screams of the 6 mostly appalling young people that get caught up in the machinations.

The performances are enthusiastic, the characters’ arguments are explosive and often amusing. But that doesn’t deter the viewer wanting to see most of them despatched by the mutants. Incidentally, there are only cursory explanations as to why these creatures exist – their deformity seems limited to their faces, as their bodies and hands seem entirely human.

What makes up the story is the same as in many other films of this nature. There are no real surprises. Director Tony Swansey makes a good job of communicating the utter despair of the totally degraded crew, and the fact that Travis (Stephen Dean) in particular never, for one moment, stops reminding us how reprehensible he is makes us yearn for something unmentionable to happen to him. When such a thing does occur (in this case, having his mouth sewn up with a guitar string), I defy anyone not to feel a certain degree of relief.

I enjoy watching ‘Squeal’ for what it is. It doesn’t take itself too seriously (although it plays mainly as a straight, brutal horror), and there is a moment after the end credits that amuses, as one pig hybrid puts on a magic show for two corpses, propped up. At the end, he pulls their dead faces into grins and cheers at his own cleverness.

9. Feb, 2016

Reeker (2005)

‘Reeker’ doesn’t start well. A family are driving down a desert highway, and the little boy is so nauseating, the viewer is instantly longing for him to come to a sticky end. Sadly, while his mother and father (and dog) are duly despatched after hitting a deer with the family car, the little angel’s demise is unrecorded.

After the opening credits, we meet ‘a group of young friends’: Trip takes drugs, Jack is blind, Cookie is naive, Gretchen sounds English (but could be Australian or Swedish, her pals speculate) and Nelson fancies Cookie. Trip is being stalked by Radford, his dealer. The acting isn’t always stellar, and as the storyline unfolds, it is so foggy it is open to interpretation. And yet, I really, really like this film (and its subsequent prequel, filmed in 2008). There is a genuine sense that the isolated desert, the motel in which (and around) the group stay, in fact their whole world, is removed from reality and doesn’t adhere to any rules. The shocks pile up until it becomes clear that, to use a cliché, anything can happen. A truly creepy and unfathomable atmosphere is created.

As glimpses of the original family (and the deer!) that are scattered throughout the story hint, the characters all appear to have died, although this is never made explicit (other than a rumbling, earthquake effect signifying the fatal crash of their camper van as they pass from life into death without knowing it). In this limbo state, Reeker comes for them. Drenched in a shimmering effect, the creature otherwise goes through typical slasher/killer motions, but because events around him/it exist in a ‘heightened reality’, Reeker’s appearance takes on an extra dimensional, unearthly quality (the foul stench of death signals his arrival, hence his name). As Reeker claims his victims, they assume similar fates to when they died originally. This is my interpretation; I may be wrong, but it makes sense of events to me. Themes are confounding, but very much worth investing in.

The set-pieces encompassing each (secondary) death are by turns stunning, gross, horrific and hilarious. And always bizarre.

In the end, only Gretchen and Jack survive their meeting with Reeker. As they are driven away by the police, they see their camper van on its side, the remains of their friends’ bodies scattered around it. Despite the creature’s attempts to kill them, they could not die because they didn’t cry in the original crash. The film doesn’t go out of its way to explain the true nature of Reeker, nor the unfortunate events that befall the luckless travellers; the tale is enigmatic, but well worth your time.

8. Feb, 2016

Wrong Turn (2003)

Five laconic young people are joined by a fifth, bland hunky monosyllable Chris (Desmond Harrington), the kind of beefy gent so beloved by genre films of this nature. Stranded in the woods of West Virginia, it isn’t long before two of their number – who make the fatal mistake of smoking weed and threaten to have sex – have been bloodily attacked and killed by unseen assailants.

‘Wrong Turn’ is a by-numbers slasher film. However, it is solid, well-made, has good performances and effects, and the location lends itself very well to the idea of inbred families hidden away from ‘normality’.

There comes a time when the group stumble upon what is clearly the home of the unlovely family, and yet, as is customary in such moments, still go in. Why? Because one of their number ‘needs to pee.’ With countless miles of wild forest all around, who wouldn’t enter a dwelling where human parts are over-flowing from pots and pans, uninvited, to answer the call of nature? And yet the illogical nature of otherwise intelligent people is essential for horror – without it, our remaining troupe wouldn’t be able to see the cannibalistic depravity in which these mutants exist, and the extent of the threat they pose.

The action moves at a fair pace as the group are picked off one by one, and each death is well-staged. The creatures know the land better than these city visitors and so this comes across as a game to them – their wheezing and shrill whoops of delight indicate they are always only seconds behind the diminishing band. Regarding the monsters – considerable restraint is shown in that we never get a really good lingering look at them. Their deformities are glimpsed through foliage, or obscured by movement, which enhances their effect. In the many sequels – five so far – the camera lingers on them a lot more, which is strange as subsequent budgetary restrictions show the make-ups become a lot less convincing.

And so ends chapter one, with a lone mutant survivor. As the enjoyable but formulaic films ends, (where inevitably, not-quite-death-metal title music rounds up the credits) the inbreed character Three Fingers makes one last holler of delight. He is the one cannibal that shows up in all subsequent films.

8. Feb, 2016

The Returned (2013)

This shares a title with the acclaimed French film/television series ‘The Returned’, but other than that, these projects are not connected.

This picture works on many levels: it is about the lengths people will go to to protect themselves, about fear, stigma, about hopelessness – and about dead eyed zombies eating people. In a climate where Living Dead films have flooded the market, it is to be applauded when a project attempts to try something different with the genre.

In a post-zombie environment, a serum ‘The Return Protein’ has been developed which – if administered in time – will allow any infected person to live a normal existence, provided they inject the drug daily for the rest of their lives. This, of course, costs a great deal of money, which causes resentment and protest among ‘normal people’. Thus, with this film, being bitten could be a metaphor for many present day prejudices, and works very well with that in mind.

Kate (Emily Hampshire) and Alex (Kris Holden-Reid) are living with the disease, as Alex is ‘a returned’. As such, he faces stigma and hatred on a daily basis. As supplies of the protein become scarce, his life is also the subject of much envy from others. Even his best friend Jacob (an excellent tortured performance from Shawn Doyle) is so afraid of losing his partner Amber (Claudia Bassols), he is driven to take measures that not only betray his friend, but also prove to be utterly futile.

The desperation of human kind, and the control money has over peoples’ lives are the real monsters here. Actual zombies are featured so infrequently, there are times when ‘The Returned’ seems to dissolve into a series of endless, intense conversations. But the viewer is advised to stay with this, because the build-up to the finale is edge-of-the-seat stuff. Although the ending appears to provide closure of sorts, the very human desire for revenge means that the story is far from over even as the credits role.

7. Feb, 2016

The Thing with Two Heads (1972)

Dr. Maxwell Kirshner is a rich, grouchy, white bigot, and is played by Hollywood legend Ray Milland. Born in Wales, Milland won an Academy Award in 1945. By 1972, roles were proving more difficult to come by, which may explain his involvement in this much derided film.

Much of the unease this film seems to have caused revolves around Kirshner’s blatant racism – and the fact that his experiments result in his head being transplanted onto the body of a black man. The theory is that after Kirshner’s head has been accepted by his new host body, then the original head – that of death row inmate named Jack Moss (Rosey Grier – who, apart from acting, has been a singer, Christian minister, and former professional American football player) – would be removed, leaving Kirshner with a new, healthy body. The relationship between Doctor and Convict is played for laughs, with Kirshner’s bigotry never once perceived as anything other than archaic. Is this unacceptable? Should the story never have been pursued? Is the fact that Jack Moss is introduced as a criminal stereotypical and distasteful? The fact is that he is ultimately proven to be both a more decent moral character than Kirshner, and eventually innocent of his crime, indicates to me at least, that many of those who criticise this film may not actually have seen it.

Putting aside this controversy, the film is a mix of comedy and horror. The surgical scenes of the operation to remove Kirshner’s head are excellent. The ‘stunt head’ is the work of fledging Rick Baker (who became a big name in special effect horror make-ups). One particularly effective moment is when the head is being taken from one body to another, the mouth and eyes open! Unexpected and very well achieved, this – and the earlier scene of an experiment conducted on a two-headed ape – belies the modest budget.

The two headed scenes are achieved with Grier filmed in longshot with the model head attached to his shoulder, or in close-up with he and Milland filmed together, with Milland behind Grier. The imagery is absurd, hilarious and quite horrible. The interaction between the two is – racist slurs aside – pretty funny (Moss driven to distraction by Kirshner’s snoring, Kirshner’s look of exasperation as Moss tries seducing his girlfriend – ‘C’mon honey, I’ll cover his head with a pillow case’).

With Moss determined to prove his innocence, he flees the hospital. The film then seems not to know what to do with the twosome, so a car chase ensues, Dukes of Hazzard-style, which goes on far, far too long.

In the end, as Moss says, ‘he’s got to go’, and the spare head is removed and Kirshner is last found abandoned, still plugged into the life-sustaining machinery, pleading with his minions to ‘find me another body … please.’

7. Feb, 2016

Extinction (2015)

(Not to be confused with the Dinosaur drama of the same name from 2014, this film is adapted from the zombie novel ‘Y pese a todo/And Despite Everything’ by Juan de Dios Garduno.)

Jeffrey Donovan stars with great intensity as Jack. His face may be familiar to horror fans as Jeffrey Patterson in ‘Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2’ (he was nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award for one half of the Worst Screen Couple in that much maligned film). Here, he and a little girl, the impetuous Lu (a brilliant Quinn McColgan) are two survivors of a zombie attack on a bus attempting to transport people to a ‘safe zone’ nine years earlier. Now, the world is in the biting grip of a very impressively imagined snow-scape. They meet up with Patrick, also a survivor of the attack and a character with his own story to tell, who is played with sensitivity by Matthew Fox. At one point we see a frozen cinema advertising screenings of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ – maybe this is an in-joke: a film adaption of this HP Lovecraft story has been promised and ‘in the works’ for some time now. It seems the filmmakers here are suggesting the world will have frozen over before it sees fruition!

‘Extinction’ is a fairly intimate story of human tragedy and forgiveness with a freezing backdrop of both a second ice age, and the evolution and adaption of the zombie creatures still in existence. Amongst the hopelessness, there is a scattering of heart-warming moments – Jack, Lu and Patrick turning from enemies to (almost) friends over a meal instigated by the youngster. And if the image of a bedraggled man cradling his dead dog, himself attacked and wounded by a zombie, across a picture postcard apocalypse doesn’t bring a tear to the eye, the viewer must have a hardened heart.

Filmed in Hungary and Spain, the constant dazzling white makes for a stunning visual framework for the well-acted human drama that unfolds. Very occasionally, moments threaten to cross the line into overt sentimentality, but manage to rein themselves in with commendable restraint. Only moments after Patrick assures everyone that ‘no-one is going to die,’ it is his sacrifice that allows Jack, Lu and a nameless new arrival (Clara Lago) the possibility of freedom – albeit uncertain.

6. Feb, 2016

The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

This film is flatly directed by veteran Vernon Sewell, and involves a mysterious creature stalking the British countryside relieving local youths of their blood.

Robert Flemyng plays entomology professor Dr. Carl Mallinger in a role originally designed for Basil Rathbone, who sadly died before shooting began. His daughter Claire is persuasively played by Wanda Ventham. Peter Cushing stars as the perpetually chewing Detective Inspector Quennell with a subtle edginess compared to his usual genial performances. As the undertaker, Roy Hudd appears in the kind of role Miles Malleson might have essayed ten years earlier, endlessly making puns about corpses etc. Vanessa Howard plays Meg, Quennell’s daughter; in one of those bizarre decisions typical of films made at this time, her voice is dubbed, very badly, by an artiste who sounds a great deal younger than the character. This practice has always baffled me – why take the time to hire an actor only to rob them of one of their most important hallmarks, their voice? Glynn Edwards, most famous for his role in television’s ‘Minder’ is Sgt Allan (one of this film’s highlights is the occasional banter between Allan and Quennell, apparently suggested by Cushing) while veteran Kevin Stoney plays Mallinger’s scarred retainer Granger.

The cast are capable, but the film plods and seems to last longer than its 88 minutes - there are various reports that both Flemyng and Cushing were not happy throughout. In the opening scene, which the film didn’t need to show as events are recounted later anyway, Africa is represented by a muddy English river and forest with ill-matching stock footage of wildlife inserted (including a Central American Macaw!). There is an initially amusing amateur dramatics play performed that serves no real purpose, but seems to drag, for example, and far too much time is spent with minutiae at a time when the story could really do with building up some sort of tension.

The Blood Beast responsible for the film’s alleged Terror is a human sized death’s head moth, Claire’s alter ego. Impractically, to commit the various murders, Claire would have to transform from fully clothed and exquisitely made-up into the creature, and back again, from one scene to the next. The creature’s eventual destruction is very badly conveyed, but at least it brings proceedings to an end, dispelling a growing feeling that the film was going to last forever.

5. Feb, 2016

Asylum (1972)

‘Asylum’ is an anthology film from the Amicus Company, based on stories by Robert Bloch. It has the distinction of proving more popular than the Hammer films of the time. The bombastic strains of ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ by composer Modest Mussorgsky accompany Dr Martin (Robert Powell) as he drives towards an imposing, mist-drenched asylum where he is to attend a job interview with Doctor Rutherford (Patrick Magee). This 1867 score is used again as Martin explores the corridors of the stately building – to be honest, the music is certainly rousing, but is too much to accompany what is after all, a man looking at some pictures, no matter how unsightly the images of early psychiatric treatments may be.

Rutherford sets Martin a task. If he can identify former medical specialist Dr Starr amongst the inmates, the position is his. He has to visit a selection of cases – first, guided by the orderly Reynolds (Geoffrey Bayldon, in a role for which Spike Milligan was also considered), he meets Bonnie (Barbara Parkins). What follows in ‘Frozen Fear’, is that Walter (Richard Todd) and Bonnie agreed to dismember Walter’s wife, occult practitioner Ruth (Sylvia Syms) and live off her money. Despite this, she escapes from the freezer into which her various body parts have been stored, and her assorted limbs, head (which is still breathing) and torso, carefully wrapped in brown paper and string, attack first Walter and then Bonnie … apparently (we see this in flashback, and it is one of this film’s greatest and most effective scenes. It is intentionally horrific and hilarious, perfectly balanced). This is Bonnie’s story, but she has no proof, only gaping wounds on her face where she axed her alleged attacker/s. Chances are, if you have seen this film, then the scene of the dismembered limbs scuttling across the floor is what will stick in your mind.

‘The Weird Tailor’ is next. Barry Morse plays Bruno, a struggling tailor who accepts an order from ‘Mr Smith’ (Peter Cushing) to create a suit made from special material, and to work on this at specific times over four nights. Smith promises a great deal of cash, but when the suit is delivered, is revealed to live in a house empty of furniture: Smith is penniless. Both actors are at a peak here and ably supported by Ann Firbank as Bruno’s wife (Bruno is a lot more sympathetic here than in Bloch’s original story and our sympathies are with him throughout as a result). Even the (enjoyable) silliness at the end of the episode doesn’t detract from its deep sense of melancholy and longing. Directed often in close-up, the squalidity of the two men’s desperation is expertly conveyed. This is not only my favourite segment from ‘Asylum’, but from any Amicus production.

Any tale that follows that would be hard pressed to match it, and sadly ‘Lucy Comes to Stay’ (originally planned as the first instalment, but moved to third place at Producer Milton Subotsky’s insistence) is the weakest of the three. This is by no means a bad story, the climax nevertheless shares similarities with ‘Frozen Fear’. It contains a terrific cast including James Villiers, Charlotte Rampling, Megs Jenkins and Britt Ekland.

Another Doctor – Doctor Byron – features next. Played by the always brilliant Herbert Lom, Byron has created tiny mannequins based on former colleagues of his. ‘These are not ordinary figures’, he explains, and goes on to explain that each figure is living and perfectly capable of functioning. He can bring them to life with his ‘conscious’, and his final model is based on himself. Absurdly (the viewer has to go along with this for it to be effective), this last mannequin travels downstairs and kills Doctor Rutherford, who is responsible for Byron’s incarceration.

And yet who is the elusive Dr Starr? The answer is brilliantly directed by stalwart Roy Ward Baker. It is the Bayldon’s orderly. Starr killed the original Reynolds, and does the same to Dr Martin. We finally see him as he truly is, frighteningly deranged, holding a stethoscope to Martin, cackling furiously, an insane child-like laughter. Bayldon is terrific throughout. Often a player of secondary characters, he is unassuming and courteous – and that is why the reveal is so very effective.

Finally, another candidate for the job arrives at the asylum and is greeted by Bayldon, echoing an earlier line about closing the door and keeping out the draughts. ‘As Dr Starr used to say’ he remarks with a knowing glance to the audience. Witty and unnerving, this is my favourite Amicus film.

29. Jan, 2016

Psalm 21 (2009)

In Stockholm, Henrik (Jonas Malmsjö) is a popular priest whose good relationship with his congregation sadly doesn’t stretch into his home life, which is awkward to say the least. On hearing of his father’s death, he drives through the night – against the wishes of his girlfriend – to his father’s hometown. On the way, he knocks down a woman whose body then disappears.

He takes lodgings with a very strange family and sees a little girl in the barn outside. The girl transforms into a CGI demon and vanishes. Then he meets other people who transform into CGI demons, including a teenage girl who appears to seduce him in the barn before assuming the appearance of his mother (I think) before transforming into another CGI demon.

This continues for the film’s running time and it soon becomes an impenetrable tangle of intensely acted, beautifully directed set-pieces and flashbacks, most of which appear to be designed to force Henrik into believing in the existence in Hell – something he has always previously denied.

The repetition and occasional absurdity of the effects cease to have any real effect after a while, especially as such moments are never really explained. It actually becomes an annoyance that such talent is wasted here – why take the time to perfect these shots and effects if they are just lost in a story that continually makes no sense?

The ending sees Henrik conducting a sermon to a full congregation (including his son, with whom it seems relations have at last improved) denouncing religion and his faith as an elitist fiction. The implication is that he has lost his mind, and his faith in religion, but gained the acceptance of his wayward family. Very odd.

29. Jan, 2016

Neither the Sea nor the Sand/The Exorcism of Hugh (1972)

Based on a book by former newsreader and housewives’ favourite Gordon Honeycombe, this offering from Tigon films introduces us to Anna (the wonderful Susan Hampshire) who is enjoying a somewhat stilted conversation with new friend Hugh (Michael Petrovitch) whilst strolling through the picturesque Isle of Jersey. Anna’s very vocal about her failing marriage and, what with the sea, sand and shivering, a closeness inevitably occurs between them. It’s difficult to believe the two should become so attracted so quickly and deeply, particularly as Hampshire invests Anna with an appealing forlorn quality, a need to be needed, and Petrovitch’s lines are clipped out staccato fashion, without any great emotion.

Even Hugh’s prissy, repressed brother George, played with great archness by Frank Finlay fails to quell their enthusiasm for each other – and so with lines like, ‘I want to be with you always’, it’s cruelly inevitable that tragedy is looming. And so Hugh dies on the beach from an instantly fatal heart attack, leaving Anna bereft.

And yet one dark night, Hugh comes back to her, dead yet alive. George says ‘he’s possessed by you, it’s revolting,’ in typically warm-hearted fashion. Such a premise is interesting but seems to be directed by someone with no real interest in the macabre, despite George’s doom-laden prophecies. As Hugh, now somnambulistic and communicating telepathically (via a voice-over) begins to decay, it’s pretty clear there’s to be no happy ending for the two besotted souls.

1960’s Doctor Who companion actor Michael Craze has the thankless role of Collie, forever trying to attract Anna’s attention. Despite having the advantage of not being dead, Collie is reduced to playing a very distant second fiddle to Anna’s black-eyed soulmate (although his deterioration seems to have reversed itself towards the film’s climactic scenes by the sea-front).

Susan Hampshire makes the most of Anna, and allows her a certain dignity (despite having a nude stand-in for the fairly mechanical sex scenes). This is a mournful, haunted story of doomed love, full of lost looks amidst charming yet windswept locations. It could have been more effective if the horror element had been further embraced – not just as a horror film, but a more engaging project all round given that the plot is somewhat thinly spread. Director Fred Burnley made the decision to play down the horror aspect, and of course that is a perfectly reasonable artistic choice – his resultant picture is slow-moving yet effective. Despite having its title changed from ‘Neither the Sea nor the Sand’ to ‘The Exorcism of Hugh’, the film didn’t attract any huge attention upon its release.

24. Jan, 2016

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

In this exotic Belgian/French/German production, John Karlen, who had spent many years brilliantly playing (the second) Willie Loomis in the cult American horror-soap ‘Dark Shadows’ here plays newly married Stefan. Danielle Ouimet plays the wife that Stefan seems strangely unwilling to introduce to his mother.

They are staying the same hotel is the magnificent and sensual Countess Bathory (Delphine Seyrig), who the desk clerk swears stayed at the hotel forty years earlier and has not changed at all, and her ward Ilona (Andrea Rau). Worryingly, there is a spate of killings around the district, the perpetrator untraceable.

Director Harry Kümel deliberately styled Delphine Seyrig's character after Marlene Dietrich and Rau's after Louise Brooks, the leaning to such genuinely iconic style pays dividends because the two figures are striking and make an impression before they have even spoken.

As is often the way in the chic European horror films, the locations featured are absolutely stunning. Most of the story place inside the splendid (and yet more than slightly oppressive) Hotel Astoria, Brussels, which lends itself beautifully to the moody timelessness of the piece – even if the Countess does describe it as ‘a caravan!’ Equally, the pacing is typically leisurely, allowing us to become immersed in the theatrical nature of the titular characters and their world. ‘Daughters of Darkness’ is very similar in style to ‘The Hunger’. Whereas the 1983 film has been slated for ‘style over content’, this is hailed as a classic. I’m not sure why such double standards should exist.

When Stefan does finally telephone his mother and tell her of his marriage to Valerie, ‘she’ is revealed to be a flamboyant, elderly man – possibly Stefan’s boyfriend. After that, Stefan – until now merely volatile – displays violent, resentful behaviour to his wife. Things don’t end there. The Countess seduces Valerie and prevents her from leaving, and Ilona falls for Stefan, telling him she is ‘afraid.’ She has good reason to be, for during a sex-fuelled altercation in the shower (caused by her aversion to running water, which Bathory seems unaffected by), Ilona is killed. Not long after his behaviour spirals, Stefan is also despatched.

There is a theme of red running (literally) throughout. Lipstick, nail varnish, costumes and sporadic gouts of blood; sometimes scenes fade to a strangely warm red before the next, reverting to contrasting cold blue colours, begins.
As Valerie and the Countess speed through the night to escape the coming dawn (‘Faster, faster,’ purrs Bathory), there is, inevitably, an accident in which both appear to be spectacularly killed...
… except three months later, Valerie, speaking with the Countess’s husky voice, appears as well as ever and indulging in her usual exotic lifestyle. Fade to red one final time.

A spell-binding film.

24. Jan, 2016

House of Mortal Sin/The Confessional (1976)

The word ‘exploitation’ has been linked with Pete Walker films, but he has questioned its meaning. After all, as he reasons, just about every film made now is exploitation-al in that nudity, sex and violence – often far stronger than in Walker’s films – feature as a matter of course and without much comment.

Pete Walker retired from directing films after 1979’s under-age sex drama ‘Home Before Midnight’, but was tempted back to direct his last, ‘House of Long Shadows’ in 1983. His films were frequently lambasted by critics; indeed, he sought to provoke controversy (‘rubbing them up the wrong way,’ as he called it) by deliberately featuring salacious themes throughout. And yet, as with many things, there is a new appreciation for his work now. He was independently releasing British horror films at a time when Hammer, Tigon and Amicus had long since given up on the genre and for that alone, deserves a great deal of merit.

We join this film with Jenny Welsh (Susan Penhaligon) enduring severely testing times. Regularly jilted by her live-in boyfriend, she has no-one to talk to of her woes and enters into a confessional at her local Church. The vicar Father Xavier Meldrum (a tremendous Anthony Sharp, who made a career playing vicars and librarians for many years) turns out to be somewhat perverse, so she flees, only to find she left her keys in the confessional booth. Breaking into the shop where she works with her friend Robert, she leaves him alone momentarily to buy some cigarettes, and when she comes back, she finds he has been attacked by a ‘mysterious’ stranger.

When it is revealed that Father Meldrum is a schizophrenic murderer caring for a disabled, housebound mother and intimidated by a bullying one-eyed housekeeper Mrs Brabazon (the incomparable Sheila Keith), it’s no great surprise. We are in familiar Pete Walker ‘Frightmare’ territory, revisiting themes of respectable establishment figures berating the young for their lapse morals, whilst turning out to be perverts and psychopaths themselves.

This is cited as Pete Walker’s favourite directorial experience, with professional actresses like Penhaligon and Stephanie Beacham needing less time-consuming guidance than some of his female protégés. ‘House of Mortal Sin’ is a typically enjoyable experience, although in common with his other projects, it is highly unlikely that his villains would get away with their burgeoning crimes for such a long time. It tends to drag in places, another of my problems with his earlier projects. Cutting 10 to 15 minutes might well have improved matters.

Calling for God’s forgiveness before strangling Beacham with rosary beads, methodically reading the last rites to his senile old mother before poisoning her (whilst Mrs Brabazon looks on with a sneer) and ending the film with the lunatic vicar still very much at large – all this may well have been deliberate provocation on behalf of Pete Walker to attract controversy. Judging by his comments in interviews ever since, that controversy never really happened, much to his disappointment.

23. Jan, 2016

Apocalypse Z/Zombie Massacre (2013)

I was sufficiently entertained by ‘Zombie Massacre 2: Reich of the Dead’ to seek out its prequel. With this debut, the filmography isn’t quite as bleak and gritty, but the characters are better defined – i.e.: there ARE some actual characters in this, not just cliché-spouting action men as there are in ZM2. Most of the acting here is fine, some isn’t. So – much like the other film, this is a bit of a mixed bag.

Zombies by their very nature are limited threats. They eat you, you turn into one of them. So wisely – or unwisely, depending on your point of view – the narrative here concentrates mostly on the human crew, a team of mercenaries contracted by the authorities to cover up an outbreak of the living dead, for which the Government (represented by General Carter played by Carl Wharton) is responsible. The remainders take time to make an impression, but after the arrival of a hillbilly and his (suspiciously young) girlfriend, the entourage prove to be pretty well-defined, especially ‘Mad Dog’ Mackellen (Mike Mitchell).

The Freddie Krueger-esque zombies themselves are more human than the full mask creatures from ‘ZM2’, which is probably budget necessitated, and there are plenty of them here. Luca Boni has a flair for these kind of pictures and succeeds mainly in the bleakness of the situation. He’s directed several other films in this genre, one of which appears to be another sequel to this, entitled ‘Eaters: Rise of the Dead.’

Sadly, a couple of the more anticipated deaths toward the end of the film actually take place off-camera. Worst offender is that of General Carter, whose death the viewer has been anticipating throughout the film and we don’t see it! There’s also a spot of unwelcome and unnecessary moral philosophising from the remaining heroes – but other than that, I really enjoyed this. There are some very enjoyable twists and turns along the way of the thinly-spread plot that keeps the audience on its toes. It isn’t flawless, but I would certainly look forward to any possible Zombie Apocalypse 3.

As a coda: there is a bizarre end scene that comes from nowhere but provides a satisfying topless bloodbath towards throughout the end credits. It proves if nothing else that, although the threat featured throughout this picture may have been curtailed, there are still plenty more of the living dead ‘out there.’

22. Jan, 2016

Mutants (2009)

This French film about surviving a zombie apocalypse is not to be confused with the American film released around the same time, with the same name.

Sometimes, it’s nice just to sit back with a cup of tea and watch a group of people being attacked by the living dead in a world gone mad and unspeakable conditions with little hope of survival or anything other than a life of unbelievable suffering.

In the icy grip of winter, armed with the determined but vague notion of escaping this carnage, Marco (Francis Renaud) and pregnant Sonia (Hélène de Fougerolles) hide out in an abandoned building miles away from anyone. Marco, however, has been infected, and over the film’s running time we see his girlfriend treating him, pathetically thinking he will recover. As his slow and graphic disintegration continues apace, the couples’ desperation is palpable.

I always find it pleasing – and true to life – when the ‘normal, decent’ people are revealed to be villains. And that’s what happens here when others arrive – some infected, some not. And so, perversely, the zombies – especially the completely mutated Marco – become a force for retribution, and the audience almost begins to side with them.

There is no let up from the misery, gore, graphic violence and horror, and the film is sometimes in danger of becoming very one note. There are only so many times you can be shocked and appalled when someone is unexpectedly killed by the living dead. The only moment of optimism comes at the end, when it seems the long suffering Sonia has been saved. Although the baby she is expecting has been conceived with someone infected…

Grim.

19. Jan, 2016

The Comeback (1978)

In a move Director Pete Walker describes as ‘making a rod for his own back’, ‘The Comeback’ swaps genders for the usual ‘woman in peril’ motif of many of his films by making singer/songwriter Nick Cooper (Jack Jones, very effective in a role for which power-crooner Bryan Ferry was also considered) the victim of nefarious goings-on.

Cooper secludes himself in a mansion in order to write a follow-up to his last successful album, released six years before, after which his career was put on hold because he wished to concentrate on his then new wife. Sheila Keith is sublime as the sinister house-keeper Mrs B, whose superficial old-school pleasantries seem to mask something infinitely more sinister – the kind of role that Keith excels at. Whilst this is happening, Cooper’s ex-wife has been murdered in their marital apartment and is caked in a riot of the brightest blood you ever did see – and that is where she remains for a vast chunk of the running time.

Cooper has an unfortunate ability to surround himself with unpleasant types. Or red-herrings. Apart from his selfish ex, there’s sleazy right-hand man Harry, his cross-dressing manager Webster (Charlie’s Angels’ David Doyle) as well as Mr and Mrs B. The exception to this unpleasantness is Webster's beautiful secretary Linda (comedienne, sex therapist and future Mrs Billy Connolly Pamela Stephenson), who instigates a relationship with Cooper.

The killings continue at a leisurely pace, by someone in a shawl and a mask, which could mean Webster. Increasingly it seems as if Mrs B might have something to do with it. As in many Pete Walker films, she represents the respectable (but frequently psychotic!) older generation disgusted with the lapsed morals of the young (if 40 – Jack Jones’ age at the time - is considered young). Equally, Cooper hears a young girl sobbing at night, and Linda could be responsible for that. He also suffers what he believes are several gruesome hallucinations.

The film comes across as a television thriller with horror overtones, and is played very well by its cast (including Bill Owen, and ‘House of Whipcord’s Penny Irving). The revelation at the end, [SPOILER] is that Mr and Mrs B had a daughter who worshipped Nick Cooper’s music, and killed herself when he got married, and it is them and their madness that were responsible for everything that had happened.

Cooper is understandably shocked, but relieved he wasn’t going mad after all, but as he leaves the mansion at the end, he turns to see the dead daughter at the window.

As far as I know, I have one more Pete Walker horror to see, which I am quite sad about. For the most part, his series of low-budget films have been extremely enjoyable – and I enjoyed ‘The Comeback’ as much as any.