Contains spoilers ...

7. May, 2016

Estranged (2015)

There’s a little known film from 1971 called ‘Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly’ (renamed simply ‘Girly’ for its American release), which features a playfully dysfunctional family who invite people round to their sprawling mansion house and kill them. ‘Estranged’ reminds me of that film somewhat. Except playful this isn’t.

January (Amy Manson) and her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quarterman) are travelling the world. They are reckless and full of life until tragedy strikes, and an accident robs January of her ability to walk and to remember anything. Callum calls her family home and they are both given permission to stay at their huge stately home as she recuperates. At first, the young couple’s vivaciousness is frowned upon by the family, and it seems fairly reasonable they should insist on separate bedrooms and old fashioned rules; after all, it is their house.

And yet things are not right here. Tiny clues to this are scattered skilfully by Director Adam Levins, and these become more blatant and more violent as ‘Estranged’ continues. January, only just beginning to walk again, cannot escape, and soon Callum mysteriously disappears. Understandably, this makes January ever more truculent, and her punishments more severe and harrowing, culminating in her being condemned to sleep in the cellar and getting systematically raped by James Cosmo’s towering Albert. January’s apparent sister, uptight Katherine (Nora-Jane Noone), sneaky sniggering brother Laurence (James Lance) and mother Marilyn (Eileen Nicholas) are happy to allow this brutality to continue, with Marilyn in particular spending much of the time in a world of her own. Only the butler Thomas (Craig Conway) seems in any way sympathetic, and slips a newspaper clipping under her doorway that begins to make sense of the whole depraved situation.

‘Estranged’ is an extremely well-acted film, with no member of the cast putting a foot wrong. January goes from go-lucky to morose to hardened-by-fear very convincingly, vehemently. When the twist comes toward the end, it is very effective, and provides an unexpected ending. The last minute game-changer might well have benefitted from being relayed in less hushed tones, making it clearer what actually has occurred. SPOILER – the fact that January’s situation at the end echoes that of her mother rounds things of in a satisfyingly harrowing way. A highly recommended, very dark, film.

6. May, 2016

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

‘Found footage’ continues to be maligned unnecessarily as a way of telling a story. It must be very difficult for actors to be convincing playing fictional non-actors, if that isn’t too convoluted a sentence. One of the first things that struck me about this film is how convincing everyone is in their respective roles. Anne Ramsey is excellent as Sarah Logan, so eager to be pleasant whilst betraying occasional jittery nerves concerning her mother, and over-doing the manners. Equally, as the titular Deborah, Jill Larson plays a very difficult part with nobility, dignity, uncertainty and the inevitable confusion that comes with Alzheimer’s disease, or whatever malady is effecting her.

For someone who likes horror films, it can be disheartening to sit through tepid, by-the-numbers pot-boilers with vacant acting and anaemic direction. Equally, it is hugely rewarding to find something as powerful as this – it is almost worth sitting through the dross to be genuinely unnerved and scared by a production that pushes all the right buttons.

Alzheimer’s is very real and can be a frightening condition. As Deborah says right at the beginning, she does not wish to be exploited. I too was intrigued as to how the illness could be used in a horror story without exploitation. The producers have managed it. Deborah’s condition rapidly deteriorates well beyond the ‘normal’ experiences of the disease, and her affiliation with snakes and inherited fixation with children makes that clear (from a slightly cantankerous but otherwise sweet, forgetful mature lady she becomes a venomous other-worldly creature that, in one of the most fearful scenes towards the end, appears to have her jaws locked, snake-like, around a child’s head).

The gardener and life-long friend Harris (Ryan Cutrona) shares a secret with Deborah, and for a while, it seems as if he is partly responsible for what looks very much like a possession. The truth makes sense of an otherwise slightly jumbled ending. With shaking cameras and only partially glimpsed scenes of gruesome horror, events almost threaten to collapse in upon themselves. But this doesn’t happen – we witness an almost happy ending of sorts, which, given the encroaching dread throughout, is something of a surprise. Except there’s more than a hint that it isn’t really a happy ending at all.

Apart from Cutrona, Larson and Ramsey, the documentary crew are extremely well-played also, demonstrating very real reactions to what is going on. I was pleasantly surprised that Michelle Ang (playing Mia, who headed the small team), who was so good in post-apocalyptic New Zealand drama ‘The Tribe (1999-2003)’ also had a popular stint in Australian super-soap Neighbours.

‘The Taking of Deborah Logan’ got under my skin. It unnerved me. Different things frighten different people. For me, the progressive revulsion of ‘The Exorcist (1973)’, or the recurring night curse of ‘The Blair Witch Project (1999)’ works for me because it taps into something real (in this case a real and distressing disease) and turns it into something truly macabre. Frightening.

4. May, 2016

The Mummy's Hand (1940)

Eighth billed Tom Tyler plays The Mummy here (just above Sig Arno as The Beggar) partly due to his slight resemblance to Boris Karloff, who played the original in 1932.

The mighty George Zucco disembarks from a train and moves silently though a crowd. We are then treated to his subsequent meeting with The High Priest (Eduardo Cianelli). Through the swirling mists, we see flashbacks from the original ‘The Mummy (1932)’, only with Tyler substituted for Karloff as Kharis, cursed and entombed for ever. What strikes me immediately about this is how the style is completely different from the original film – there is no slow build up, no particular infusion of atmosphere, just straight into the film and on with the story.

3000 years has elapsed, and it seems it is time to resurrect Kharis with the aid of three tana leaves. Nine leaves will animate Kharis – ‘but never must you brew more than nine leaves, or Kharis will become a soulless demon with a desire to kill.’

Also unlike the original, there is a rich vein in humour in this, from Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and especially his friend Babe (Wallace Ford), who achieve financing for their archaeological trip from The Great Solvani (Cecil Kellaway) and his headstrong daughter Marta (Peggy Moran), who inevitably falls for Banning. The humour works because it stems from the likeable characters and is scattered throughout, and provides a good contrast to the dark magic elsewhere.

Kharis is an impressive Mummy. His painful gait, slow determined movements, post-production blacking out of eyes and swatches of bandages looking less like a suit than would be apparent in further sequels – all these things serve to give him a determined yet spectral appearance. Tom Tyler is in it only briefly (indeed, some of his scenes are repeated through the 80 minute running time), but makes such a good job of the role, it is a great shame he was not brought back for future films in this series.

Some critics dismiss ‘The Mummy’s Hand’ as the ‘usual mumbo-jumbo’, which is unfair. The formulaic inclusion of tana leaves, lost princesses and High Priests hadn’t really become formulaic before this, and only took hold as subsequent Mummy films rolled on. This is possibly the most enjoyable of the series (and the most impressive looking, making good use of the huge ceremonial set from James Whale’s ‘Green Hell' earlier the same year), after the original, which retains a platform all of its own.

3. May, 2016

High-Rise (2016)

The depiction of human society collapsing into chaos is just as relevant and prescient today, over 40 years after the original JG Ballard novel was written in 1975. Tom Hiddleston (who also narrates the audio-book version) plays Robert Laing, first seen eating the remains of an Alsatian dog, as in the book.

Skipping back to three months earlier, when the complex was barely finished, and Laing is ‘welcomed’ into the ‘High-Rise’ by his fellow inhabitants, it is clear for the most part, that his manners, respect and politeness are no match for the abrasive confidence of many of his neighbours, determined to get him to ‘join in,’ and yet seem unwilling to accept him into their clique.

When the building slides into disrepair, and the luxurious amenities become an ever-growing series of unsightly, inoperable facilities, it seems the residents’ descent into pack mentality had started well before the decay of their world; if anything, the swimming pool, lifts and corridors are simply sliding into a fitting accompaniment to the residents’ wilful degradation. The building is simply accepting the squalor of its occupants.

The recreation of the 1970s is a conservative one, which is probably deliberate; it is doubtful how seriously we could take a story featuring the garish winged collars, flares and safari suits modelled at the time – instead we get more of a suggestion of the fashions from that era. The endlessly pregnant Helen (Elisabeth Moss), very much an innocent compared to the others, happily chain-smokes, without comment from anyone, another sign of the times.

Anthony Royle (the tower-block’s hierarchy?), the architect, floats around the wreckage of his dream like Dr. Moreau, surrounded by the barely human animals he has created. Jeremy Irons is every bit as good as you could imagine him to be. Typically of Ben Wheatley-directed films, the cast are universally good, and full of familiar faces, if not names. Dan Renton Skinner (better known as comic character Angelos Epithemiou) is unrecognisable as brutal Simmons, a character you long to see beaten up – which he is, by Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) who is even more Neanderthal than he. Reece Shearsmith is Nathan Steele, Sienna Miller plays Charlotte Melville, James Purefoy excels as Pangbourne, and Hiddleston is excellent as the central Laing. His character, like that of Helen, only partially succumbs to the toxic new world around them; fitting then, that they appear to form a relationship that may have a future, although nothing and no-one is exclusive.

A film ostensibly about unpleasant people succumbing to their baser instinct is not necessarily a story that justifies two hours, and yet any cuts made to this would rob the film of its potency. The humans presented are us, our society, without the veneer of respectability, policing or media. The lack of interference by the outside world is cursory, which is the only unrealistic aspect of this tale: the authorities simply don’t want to know.

Nothing is fixed; life continues. So as civilisation settles into a discarded biryani of filth, what could be nicer than to sit back, eat the rest of the dog, and listen to a speech from Margaret Thatcher whilst waiting ‘for failure to reach the second tower in the Development.’ Thatcher’s love affair with dividing the rich (on the top floors) from the poor (the lower levels – in every sense) could be echoed here, and again, still echoes now.

2. May, 2016

Witchfinder General/The Conquerer Worm (1968)

Opening with a very brutal, pre-credits hanging, ‘Witchfinder General’ goes on to feature an exceptional performance from Vincent Price, who despite a clash with Director Michael Reeves (Reeves declined to greet the actor at the airport on his arrival and made it abundantly clear he was not happy with his casting), names this as one of his favourite performances. It is easy to see why – he is given Matthew Hopkins, a Witchfinder steeped in hypocrisy, cruelty and genuine sin. Despite Price’s tendency to play extravagant characters, he invests Hopkins with a certain restraint, and is therefore extremely powerful: it is an excellent performance. Hopkins was a real life lawyer who, in 1644 elevated himself to witch-hunter, and is believed to be responsible for the deaths of 300 in the following two years.

There is a lot of screaming in this film. Indeed, even as the end credits roll, the heartfelt cries of Sara (Hilary Dwyer) threaten to drown out the music before they finally fade away. Such outbursts are entirely warranted, given the saturation of lies and duplicity that make the law by which normal people are expected to live their lives.

Michael Reeves died one year after this film’s release, aged only 25, his potential as a director and writer barely tapped. His work on ‘Witchfinder General’ is unstinting in its depiction of vile human behaviour and gleeful cruelty, the camera never in any hurry to move away from scenes of graphic violence and barbarism, not least from Hopkins, who misuses the word of God entirely for his own end. Hopkins dies violently, but not as graphically as he deserves, hacked to death by a crazed Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), whose wife Sara has suffered innumerable terrible acts of maltreatment.

Whilst watching my DVD version of this film, there are many brief moments where the picture quality deteriorates noticeably – it suddenly struck me that these are scenes cut from the previous/initial release for reasons of bloodshed. Even with such pruning, the film provoked much outrage when it premiered. Despite this – or probably because of it – it was a success, even now held up as a cult classic. And so it should be. The way of life is presented in a way that causes the viewer to watch from behind their hands even today, and every member of the impressive cast is terrific, giving full-blooded, forceful performances. Donald Pleasance, Reeves’ original choice for Hopkins, would have provided his own brand of excellence, but this is probably Vincent Price’s finest hour – which is quite something for so prolific a performer.

1. May, 2016

The Butcher of Louisiana/Proof of The Devil (2014)

Lisa Mackel Smith plays Kate Winters, a mother determined to prove that her murderous son was under demonic possession and not, as the authorities believe, suffering any kind of mental disorder. To do this, she hires a small documentary crew (Stu and Eddie and poor silent Joey) to film her as she submits to voluntary demonic possession herself.

After some risible scenes as the spell (by a demon called The Butcher – identical to the name given to the evil that took hold of Jessie, Kate’s son) takes hold, strange (but familiar to horror films), events start to occur. All the food in the house goes bad, relations between the documentary crew, Kate, her nurse and psychiatrist become antagonistic. And yet, apart from becoming more lurid and vulgar, none of the possessions – and there’s more than one - don’t progress in a way that ramps up much in the way of tension.

This is a not-so-distant cousin of other found-footage films, especially ‘The Last Exorcism (2013)’ – in fact, one character mentions its similarity to ‘Paranormal Activity (2010)’. Despite the efforts of the cast, however, it simply isn’t frightening. The ending, which piles proclamation after proclamation (often through a voice filter that makes it difficult to understand The Butcher’s words) just serves to muddy the waters and drags on far too long to remain suspenseful.

Well intentioned, and not without merit, this is nevertheless far from greatness.

1. May, 2016

Captain Clegg/The Night Creatures (1962)

Possibly one element of Hammer’s early horror films (Curse of Frankenstien, Dracula) that really got them noticed was the infusion of bright red blood and gruesome gore into otherwise sedate pictures. Captain Clegg doesn’t contain those extra elements – it is a tale of 19th century smugglers who disguise themselves as skeletal ‘marsh phantoms’ to obfuscate their wrong-doings. Despite references to having ears and tongues cut out, the horror element is very much in the background, and instead this is more of a period caper full of derring-do and spirited British performances. Sadly, this makes it substantially less interesting than Hammer’s better known output.

Yvonne Romain, who starred in the similarly anaemic ‘Curse of the Werewolf (1960)’ plays the subject of pirates’ desire and the daughter of Captain Clegg (Peter Cushing), and her co-star from that earlier film (although they never shared scenes), Oliver Reed is mostly wasted in the under-written role as innocent Harry, her would-be suitor.

This is a well-played, intriguing, mannered film with plenty of good performances. It’s a rollicking yarn - as a horror tale however, it doesn’t deliver the goods unless you are frightened by men riding around dressed as skeletons, on similarly disguised horses.

30. Apr, 2016

The Drownsman (2014)

Madison has an acute fear of water, and worries that a vengeful spirit is coming for her. One of her friends admits to another that she has a mental problem. Probably best, then, that these ‘friends’ get together and create a mock séance and challenge any spirits to send a sign that they mean Maddie harm. When a definite sign is sent that harm IS meant, what is the next thing this group of geniuses decide to do? Carry on with the séance, and lower her into a tub of water – where she is grabbed by an unseen spirit that tries to drown her.

In the continuing face of her misery, more people – professionals, this time, and the father of a former victim – tell her her fears are all in her mind. Such stupidity gets instantly frustrating. The darkened creature known as The Drownsman thinks so too, and slowly he begins to attack Madison’s group of friends.

The trouble is, due to his nature, The Drownsman dispatches all his victims in the same manner, so instead of his crimes being depicted as brutal and terrifying, they are rather more relentless and repetitive. Also, Maddie’s extreme aqua-phobia clearly doesn’t extend to an ability to wash herself – she, her clothes and hair are spotless at all times. It’s impossible not to notice this.

This is a competently made, unambitious picture, content to model its scares on the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ franchise, with the titular fiend appearing to a group of intense young pretties mainly through their unconsciousness, always involving water. As the creature’s success with claiming the young troupe continues, his original favourite Madison continues to evade him long enough to find out a little of the Drownsman’s past; the ‘terrible sick monster’ was a rapist, who raped Maddie’s mother, which resulted in … Maddie.

There’s a notion that The Drownsman might have been waiting for Maddie so she can take his place, but this is only vaguely hinted at before the credits come crashing in and, in all honesty, it’s difficult to be overly concerned with a character (or characters) who spend most of the film’s running time screaming instead of developing any discernible character.

30. Apr, 2016

The Confines/The Abandoned (2015)

It is just possible that in Security Guard Cooper, Jason Patric plays one of the most obnoxious characters in modern cinema. He plays it to perfection - as he ‘welcomes’ new security guard Julia Streak (a fine performance from Louisa Krause), you are waiting for whatever dark creatures that may lurk in the shadows of the apartment complex they are patrolling to come and do their worst to this embittered, annoying wheelchair-bound character. He even suggests Streak change into her uniform in front of him, revealing a certain deviance.

He is such a vile personality that it is almost a pity when he appears to soften as the various apparitions of scary faces in the darkness become more prevalent, especially as, at least initially, they aren’t terribly frightening. His judgement appears to over-ride hers when a homeless man (Jim, played by Mark Margolis) begs to spend the night in the building, fearing he will die in the storm outside. Against Cooper’s express wishes, Streak allows him into one of the vacant rooms.

Luckily, there is a recorded documentary available for Streak and Cooper to watch, which explains how the building was a ‘dumping ground’ for deformed, mentally disturbed children many years ago, operating under-funded, by doctors who were being investigated for malpractice. As Streak threatens to close the place down, believing the spirits of the children are still present, Cooper reveals he knows her secret – she is mentally unstable and on a course of tablets: she should not be working in a high security job such as this. He handcuffs her to the cupboard in the observation room: perhaps he has not softened after all.

The ending contains a twist. Freeing herself and travelling to the mysterious room where the children are sent as punishment, Streak confronts a young girl with a facial deformity – she hugs her and tells her “It’s not your fault,” which doesn’t seem to signify anything. The doors open and appear to free Streak from the building. In what is a massive SPOILER (so beware): we then find that Streak has actually been in a coma all her adult life, and has just died. She is lying on a hospital bed. Her father is played by Jason Patric (who appears to have a security job, judging by his uniform). As the camera pulls away from her lifeless body, we see she has a facial deformity identical to the young girl in what appears to be her ‘dream’. Outside her room is another patient, played by Mark Margolis.

Was the ‘not your fault’ line directed at Streak’s younger self, signifying she was abused by her father, or does the remark somehow refer to her deformity? Whether it all fits together with what we have seen and forms a satisfying conclusion is upto viewer discretion. Possibly it asks more questions than it answers. That revelatory confusion put to one side, this is an otherwise solid horror film, with some pedestrian scares and a fairly touching finale.

29. Apr, 2016

Audition (1999)

Seven years after the death of his wife, Shigeharu Aoyama (an excellent performance from Ryo Ishibashi) is urged by his son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) to start dating other women. After the tragedy of his wife’s death, the film then becomes almost a light comedy, as the two of them (and the dog, Gangu!) attempt to match-make the clearly floundering Shigeharu. After seeing a parade of women as part of an ‘audition’ to be his next wife, the stunning, demure (and a very young looking 24 years of age) Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), dressed entirely in white, utterly beguiles him, and it seems as if the feeling is mutual.

Shigeharu is a well-meaning, otherwise contented man with a genuinely warm-hearted family. Asami was a ballet dancer but damaged her hip, and yet otherwise seems very enigmatic; she lives alone in a flat with a phone and a curiously omnipresent sack … that moves. Shigeharu’s investigations lead to a morass of deepening mystery regarding all who knew Asami – at the dance studio she claimed to frequent is a man with prosthetic feet, the owner of a bar where she used to work was murdered (his recovered body was recovered alongside extra fingers, tongue and an ear, which fuels Shigeharu’s nightmares).

The contrast between the increasingly bizarre snapshots of Asami’s life and the pleasant mundanity that is Shigeharu’s life give a deliberately disjointed sense to the film: truly, we do not know where (if anywhere) the narrative is going, and what is going to happen next. Which is probably just as well.

Asami’s sack contains a dog-like creature missing the body parts found by the police following the death of the bar owner; she sits alone and silent awaiting his every phone call. Perverse and abusive flashbacks that may be dreams show the girl tortured and abused. When one day he doesn’t call, her anger takes on excruciating levels.

In a finale that will stick in the mind of anyone who has seen ‘Audition’, Shigeharu is drugged and falls to the floor of his living room, unable to move. Gangu is killed, and the warmth of the Aoyama family home is corrupted as Asami emerges, dressed in long leather gloves and apron, carrying an array of needles and torture implements. Very slowly and methodically, she inserts needles into his eyes and begins to cut off one foot, before moving onto the other. The delicacy and deliberation with which she carries out these paralysing punishments are filmed in meticulous detail and the results are painful even to watch. He is paying the price for not devoting himself entirely to her, as others have done in the past (‘All words are lies, pain doesn’t lie').

The film has been heralded for inciting the ‘torture porn’ style of projects like ‘Saw (2004)’ and ‘Hostel (2005)’, and yet remains more effective than any of them for not giving any clue or indication as the depths of the depravity unleashed toward the close. Truly shocking, hauntingly beautiful and not easily forgotten.

28. Apr, 2016

The Hallow (2015)

Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle) is a bull-headed British conservationist. Despite pleas from his wife Claire (Bojana Novakovic), he refuses to meet with the perpetually angry local Colm, (who warns that the surrounding woodland is a dangerous place) and instead leaves her alone in the house to face him when he calls – and then loses his tempter when his wife suggests leaving. His solutions to the growing unease often worsen the situation – and yet without such a headstrong (and sometimes misguided) character, there would be nothing to fuel the spiralling nightmare that makes this film so enthralling – and it is fair to say, he pays for his stubbornness.

The Irish setting is beautiful and expertly shot; it’s surprising how somewhere so idyllic can be made so menacing. There is an overuse of ‘baby’ in this – fair enough, the ‘faery’ creatures have reputations as being baby-stealers, but there’s a serious over reliance on baby chirping/grizzling/squealing here. If you are not enamoured of infants– as I am not – then this could serve to undermine some scenes.

The bulk of the tragedy befalls Adam’s charming wife, and she spends most of her time trying to protect her admittedly cute son Finn from the many and varied threats to snatch him by briefly glimpsed creatures from The Hallow, which is what the superstitious villagers call the surrounding forest. The special effects are extraordinarily good, but are never – whether CGI or otherwise –allowed to overtake the very human horrors that gradually unfold.
The acting is excellent, not a wrong note throughout. Michael McElhatton is very good as Colm Donnelly, not once falling into the stereotype of the ‘superstitious villager’, just someone who is fearful of the real danger surrounding them all. It’s surprising how small the cast is – it is mainly a two-hander involving husband and wife (with an appearance from Michael Smiley as a reassuring policeman). And when Adam himself shows harrowing signs of becoming afflicted by the encroaching mud and mutation prevalent in The Hallow, things become progressively more desperate.

And yet, it is when the infant is infected that true horror manifests. Possibly one of the things that made ‘The Exorcist (1973)’ so notoriously disturbing was that demonic events happened to a child. When you see a baby become fiendish and wraith-like, it’s surprising how it disturbs. This film knows how to push the right buttons and does so very well.

27. Apr, 2016

Paperhouse (1988)

‘This looks like a really skill place to play hide and seek,’ says our heroine about a deserted railway station at one point. Why don’t people talk like that anymore?

Troubled youngster Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke) is suffering from persecution at school, feinting fits and a mother who displays some of the most stilted acting in the film. Anna has glandular fever, and miserable and bedridden, she hears from the doctor about another of her patients, a little boy. Bored, she draws the boy inside a house – a picture that, try as she might, she cannot erase. Her addled mind appears to bring the house into reality through her dreams, and there she meets the boy, Mark (Elliot Spears), whose similarities with the doctor’s other patient indicate that the dreams of the two children might be shared.

Anna’s dad (Ben Cross) works away a lot, and this puts a strain on the family. In her dreams, he is a frightening ogre, a scribbled picture (again, one she cannot erase) come nightmarishly true. This leads to many frightening images that blur between reality and dreams.

Anna is by turns precocious and affable. Occasionally, her irrational behaviour lapses into juvenile whining (never more so than at the protracted finale, which is otherwise very effective), but Burke never gets as annoying as many more ‘saccharin’ young leads can be. Ben Cross and Gemma Jones (as Anna’s sympathetic doctor) in particular are very credible, as is young Elliot Spears, who tragically died five years later.

The imagery is the winner here though. The stark simplicity of Anna’s drawings come to life – the featureless, improbable house, a burning, fragmenting landscape and Dad’s shadowy, dead-eyed brutality – takes the viewer back to the nightmares of childhood, and the comforting formative world of clean sheets, warm drinks and bed. The swirling, delirious story premise swims from tragedy to child-nightmare to life-affirming, with only occasional moments where the sometimes awkward acting prevents things from becoming as emotionally moving as they might have been. A nicely directed dark fantasy.

26. Apr, 2016

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

By 1948, Universal’s monsters had come to the end of their tether. A mixture of production-line film series, diminishing returns and lack of imagination had done for the classic monsters three years before. A script called ‘Brain of Frankenstein’ had originally been suggested as a serious entry into The Monster’s film series, before being rehashed into this vehicle for Abbott and Costello, a hugely popular comic duo whose star was also beginning to wane.
‘Abbott and Costello’ was a huge hit, but while the two comics found a temporary new lease of life, it was the last gasp for their three classic spooky co-stars.

It’s charming the way that Lon Chaney’s Larry Talbot, being the wolf-man, constantly has knowledge of the activities of the other two titular monsters (Bela Lugosi as Dracula, and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster), who are currently exhibits in a horror museum (Talbot’s role here is the sensible, level-headed custodian over the hair-brained pursuits of the other monsters and their unlikely plans for villainy). Chaney once said that featuring alongside A&C was career suicide, but the fact is, their goofy routines are genuinely brilliant. Perfect comic timing, a fine balance of wise-cracking and humility that rarely dates, and some terrific lines that never, ever laugh at the horror co-stars, but with them. Of course, by this stage, the monsters have become so familiar they rarely truly frighten, but this is a respectful comedy show, and all the better for it. Also, it appears to have a generous budget – there are model shots, animation effects, spacious sets and some elaborate set-pieces for the time.

As for the monsters – Larry’s looking a little more haggard than usual, but remains otherwise unchanged. Glenn Strange gets more screen-time here than in both of his previous Monster excursions put together and acquits himself well with his few lines (I love the fact that the Monster is frightened by Wilbur’s (Lou Costello) appearance). Bela Lugosi, whose career had floundered somewhat by this time due to the unprincipled nature of film producers unable to see beyond his seminal vampire performance, finds the perfect balance between the solemnity of Dracula’s reputation and interplay (often very physical) with his co-stars. In fact, that accolade can be shared amongst all three, and for the Universal horror ‘style’ that is faithfully recreated here.

There is a real sadness knowing that The Wolfman and Dracula toppling into the sea, and The Frankenstein Monster’s fiery pier-side demise, truly spell the end for three horror characters that had been so effective and carefully written for early on in their careers. Their reputations would endure however, often after the actors had passed away, to this day. Lugosi, in particular, is still held in fascination for horror fans, and it was Glenn Strange’s Monster (as opposed to Karloff’s) that adorned most of the Frankenstein merchandise released subsequently. The classic monsters never truly die.

23. Apr, 2016

The Ghoul (1975)

This film by Tyburn is a clear imitation of the style Hammer had become known for. Peter Cushing, Veronica Carlson, make-up man Roy Ashton, Director Freddie Francis and screenwriter John Elder – all names associated with Hammer are here. In 1975, however, Hammer horror had virtually shut up shop.

Since the early 1970’s, Peter Cushing had been putting in some of my favourite performances; his turns in ‘Twins of Evil’, ‘The Creeping Flesh’, ‘Tales from the Crypt’, ‘Asylum’ and here are exemplary and heart-breaking. Here he plays another deeply flawed, tragic, fragile man who has led calamity overtake his life. He is in good company. Ian McCullough plays the kind of headstrong hero he would perfect in the BBC television show ‘Survivors’, and a young John Hurt is very good as the twisted gamekeeper Tom Rawlings. The Ghoul is played by Don Henderson, briefly glimpsed and often obscured, but making a very effective appearance.

As part of a drunken dare, four upper-class twits embark on a road race. They get lost in the fog, and Daphne (Carlson) takes refuge in a creepy house owned by the maudlin, softly-spoken lapsed clergyman Doctor Laurence (Cushing). Their first scenes together are steeped with menace – we are introduced to Ayah (Indian for ‘nurse’, Daphne notes, and looking at some of the photographs which adorn the mantle, asks if Laurence’s son is still as good looking now he is older. Sticky question.), played by Gwen Watford. Many mournful looks from Ayah, and nervous glances … upstairs, from Laurence.

I feel ‘The Ghoul’ is somewhat unappreciated. It never seems to receive rave reviews, even in these days of re-appraisal, and yet I find it thoroughly enjoyable. It has a macabre and melancholy atmosphere and creeping sense of dread. There are some nice gory moments and some spirited performances with a satisfying grisly end, where most of the cast end up dead.

23. Apr, 2016

The Owlman/Lord of Tears (2013)

The opening quick-cut myriad of imagery to ‘The Owlman’ is so bleak you can almost taste it. Rain, biting winter, frost, landscape, a dark figure in the trees – these things come together so beautifully that the film looks set to be something special. When the actual story begins, some of the initial acting makes the heart sink a little – the low-budgetness of it all seems suddenly apparent.

James (Euan Douglas) inherits a sprawling mansion in the Scottish Highlands from a mother he hardly knew. Her letter insists he never returns there, having suffered a breakdown there as a child. So, naturally, he feels he has no choice but to return, to see if he can identify what troubled him so.

Once there, he suffers increasing nightmares, glimpses of a strange owl-like creature, discarded feathers in dark places. He makes friends with Eve Turner (Lexi Hulme), a mysterious, beautiful American girl living in nearby renovated stables. (“What do you do here?” he asks. “Don’t spoil it,” she replies – shades of 2015’s ‘The Last House on Cemetery Lane’). SPOILER: The fact that Eve isn’t ‘real’ is no huge surprise, nor I suspect is it meant to be. She is presented and played as larger-than-life, enigmatic and deeply eccentric, especially in contrast to James’ more sober bearing.

James is in regular contact with his friend Allen Milton (Jamie Gordon), who also appears to be afflicted with nightmares, and that of his father’s seemingly incurable illness.

Steadfastly, James learns his parents worshipped Moloch, a Canaanite god, and provided it with sacrifice. Unable to bear offering their son, they contracted a nanny and killed her instead. Eve is a manifestation of that dead girl. Once that connection has been made, Eve (and the narrative) take on more traditional horror film territory, jumping from MR James to David Lynch (not a bad combination). Eve’s extravagances are suddenly not charming anymore, but ghost-like and terrifying. Watching it all is the Owlman (who appears to be the physical manifestation of Moloch), promising foul things to avenge the girl.

Later, as James is telling his story to Allen, it appears Allen also worships Moloch and sacrifices his friend in order to save his father, seemingly condemning James to be the ghost who inhabits the estate instead of Eve.

It doesn’t matter that the acting is not always stellar. The story, the mood, the atmosphere, the location, the direction are all stunning, resulting in an extremely effective ghost story/tragedy. ‘The Owlman’ is the directorial debut of Lawrie Brewster, a name to watch out for. It won two awards at the 2013 Bram Stoker International Film Festival – one, an audience award, and the other for Lexi Hulme’s performance. Highly recommended.

18. Apr, 2016

Descendents/Solos (2008)

This post-apocalyptic Chilean film begins in an interesting way. Instead of showing the decimation of the world as we know it into a zombie-strewn, blasted wasteland, the terrible events are told through the narration and drawings of a child; the end of the world seen through a child’s eyes. Except this child (Camille, played by Camille Lynch), and a handful of others, have been born with gill-like marks on their necks, making them immune from zombie bites and the sickness that accompanies them.

When the film proper begins, it becomes apparent that this opening narration isn’t an introduction to the story being told - it IS the story. What follows is a series of images, relentlessly punctuated by flashbacks (often the same flashbacks, repeated), of a group of children – each one displaying no acting ability whatsoever – either playing happily on swings, being chased by the living dead (from whom they have nothing to fear because of their ‘gills’), or chased by soldiers eager to learn more about their immunity. And that is it. Story-wise, nothing happens until the end. Worst of all, the viewer is not given any inclination to care.

Visually, things are more interesting. A lot of the colour has been bled from the images, and we are treated to a kind of sepia world, with only rolling contaminated orange skies and the bright redness of blood to enliven the vistas. The zombie transformations are effective, but undermined each time by the juveniles’ utter lack of reaction to them – they are immune, so why should they worry?

The children reach the ocean, and the swelling of triumphant music tells us this is a good thing, even when a giant digital octopus emerges and destroys a helicopter full of ever-present soldiers. The youngsters’ transformation is complete, it seems, as Camille turns to the camera and reveals fully matured gills and webbed hands.

18. Apr, 2016

The Mad Ghoul (1943)

It’s entirely possible I am over-familiar with Universal’s better known horror films from the 30’s and 40’s, so watching one for the first time is a doubly pleasurable experience. Tremendous actors like George Zucco, Evelyn Ankers and Turhan Bey often play supporting characters, but in this they take centre stage without a Chaney or a Karloff to share the limelight with. And it impresses what a huge amount of dialogue they are given in each scene, and how convincingly they convey it. Lesser-known David Bruce is the titular creature here, playing Ted Allison, who becomes a slow thinking, shambling zombie-like henchman for Zucco’s Alfred Morris and his nefarious activities, a ghoul who is reliant on the life-force from human hearts to avert his death.

The film itself is slim, never designed to be a blockbuster, and comes complete with typical wisecracking cops and journalists, luckily only featuring briefly. And so it is Morris we are captivated by, and his machinations. His idle playing of the piano waiting for his student to fall under the power of the deadly steam in the next room is a good example of his evil – he craves the love of Isabelle (Ankers), Allison’s disillusioned beau. The 32 year gap between them was more acceptable then than it seems to be now – and Allison is a likeable character, not saddled with the bland smugness of hero-types of the time. However, when Morris discovers Isabelle has eyes only for her pianist Eric (a slick and fascinating Turhan Bey), he instructs Allison’s alter-ego to kill ‘the Turkish delight’, as Bey had been dubbed due to his suave ways (at only 21 years old, he was the baby of the picture).

‘The Mad Ghoul’ is reminiscent of ‘Man-Made Monster’ from a couple of years earlier, wherein Lionel Atwill conducted similarly debilitating experiments on Lon Chaney.

The finale, when it comes, is solid and includes just desserts for Morris, who succumbs to the lethal Mayan gas. He transforms into a shambling ghoul and is last seen clawing at a grave in a bid to find a vital life-giving heart, but runs out of time. His death is cut off too quickly by the over-zealous end credits.

12. Apr, 2016

Jeruzalem (2015)

The opening scene from this Israeli film is quite frightening, depicting as it does an eerie, brutal exorcism. What immediately follows, however, is more scary. ‘You are stupid, but beautiful’ intones the sinister proprietor of the hotel at which three young travellers – Rachel (Yael Grobglas) and Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) (who refer to each other as ‘bitch’) and Kevin (Yon Tumarkin), the young man they immediately pick up, his good looks and charm influencing the girls to change their plans and travel to Jerusalem - are staying. After immediately mocking the superstitious locals, they make the acquaintance of Omar, a confidently westernised regional guide, after discovering their common interest is smoking weed. After all – this is what they DO.

The found footage genre takes a lot of criticism, but I think it is an entirely legitimate way of telling a story, if it’s done well. This is so reliant on that style that it plays like a computer game. The technology is impressive, but the plaything of the two girls is banal and irritating in comparison. The big American curses of typical ‘f*** you, a*****e’ and ‘m*****-*****r’ are slung about relentlessly with little regard as to how offensive to the locals such expletives are – but hey, that’s okay, because the locals are portrayed as menial cretins. Much more discerning is the myriad of grinning faces, gurning ‘hi’ to whoever is watching or indulging in some (always unfulfilled) casual sex with others equally vacuous. Waiting for the monsters to come is an excruciating experience.

Apart from the location, which is stunning and nicely shot, this is a trying film. The characters are stultifyingly stupid and irritating: giggling, horny, chirpy, shallow and banal. When the winged CGI-enhanced creatures come, their presence initially mistaken for a terrorist attack, they are seen and heard through a blur of ‘ohmigods’ and interruptive onscreen ‘webcam’ digital distractions – rock music, message alerts and ‘comedy’ adverts. The attacks from the creatures is briefly effective, and things become exciting towards the end, but the dross you have to sit through to get to these moments makes it hardly worth your while.

9. Apr, 2016

Eden Lodge (2015)

Adam Michaels (Ben Gardner Grey) and his determined-to-be-miserable wife Rachel (Cyd Casados), along with baby Alfie (Georgio Costa Houtris) stay the night at Eden Lodge, unaware of the slate of carnage that erupts around the place. A rambler is killed, her friend is imprisoned and tortured – and shortly after this everyone the couple meet are either dismembered or killed. The only two other survivors appear to be lovely landlady Mrs Wilkes (Ellie Dickens) and her reserved son David (James Killeen).

From the offset, Wilkes is represented as deeply religious, which appears to earmark her for suspicion. David is an awkward, ungainly fellow, and so he, too, should be considered a suspect.

Although highly likely to be red herrings, it materialises toward the end that they must be guilty, because everyone else has been killed. Except there is a twist – David committed suicide ten years ago, and his mother is the only one who sees him. Rachel discovers the real David is a long-dead cadaver safely tucked up in clean sheets, in the top bedroom of Eden Lodge.

As is often the way with these things, there are plot questions. It is ten years since David’s death – are we to suppose that his mother has only now decided to carry out her twisted revenge – and if so, why the wait? If not, and she has been making these seemingly arbitrary killings, what has happened to the various corpses - at least five people die within the few days in which ‘Eden Lodge’s’ events take place, so by that reckoning, a large amount of corpses would have built up?

Presented as a slightly more-grisly-than-usual television horror drama, some of the acting is occasionally stilted. What gore there is, is effectively conveyed and, although it never intends to stray too far from standard horror, this is nevertheless a competent and enjoyable film. One online reviewer has compared it favourably to the films of Pete Walker, with Mrs Wilkes being an ideal part for Sheila Keith. It hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s a convincing point of view.

5. Apr, 2016

The Battery (2012)

Initially, the world following a zombie holocaust (which is never really explained – they are just there, and have been for some considerable time) is almost an idyllic one; this story is set entirely in the country, where the creatures are less likely to frequent, according to Ben. He and Mickey are two young men who have been thrown together as a result of the catastrophe, and have formed a spiky, yet amusing friendship, and the lack of structure society now has allows them time to appreciate nature, to go about things at a leisurely pace. Only occasionally, when a zombie is discovered in a car they want to use, or a building they enter, do things become unpleasant – but Ben in particular, has become so casual about the creatures, he will shoot them amidst a conversation with Ben!

There are many set-pieces here that offset the horror with the darkest humour: Mickey awoken from his slumber in the car to find an ‘attractive’ young female zombie attempting to get in, and being unable to resist a round of masturbation as she rubs herself against the window – only to be shocked out of his pleasure as the woman is shot by Ben, who then disappears into the woodland howling with laughter; Ben equipping the sleeping Mickey with a baseball bat as he lies in the bedroom of a house they’ve commandeered and then pushing a zombie into the room and holding the door shut, in a bid to force his friend to overcome his aversion to killing; there is radio contact made with other survivors, but in a cruel twist, these people want nothing to do with Ben and Mickey. The final set-piece is the biggest – trapped inside an immobile van surrounded by zombies. These undead creatures are less violent than in many other films, but the fact remains their bites are deadly, and they never tire – so when hours turn into days for Ben and Mickey’s incarceration, surrounded always by rasping, moaning creatures dolefully attempting entry, it is only a matter of time before a decision has to be made (when we last see him, Ben is staggering away from the marauding masses who seem incapable of catching up with him, with begs the question – why didn’t the two men make a run for it earlier?).

Jeremy Gardner, who writes and directs, is Ben – outwardly a laconic layabout but actually a methodical thinker mentally the stronger of the two; Adam Cronheim plays Mickey, who reveals himself to be finding it more difficult to cope with what has happened and has a longing for female company – indeed, it is that longing that helps cause their downfall. The relationship between the two is the main focus of ‘The Battery’, and they hold attention throughout, whilst the zombies are deliberately kept in the background, their existence commonplace. It presents a different take on familiar backdrop and contains little in the way of blood and gore. With that in mind, it is hugely recommended viewing.