Spoilers follow ...

6. Jul, 2016

New Terminal Hotel/Do Not Disturb (2013)

The first time we see writer Don Malek (Stephen Geoffreys – who bears a resemblance to actor Andy Serkis), he is brutally torturing his boss Stanley Glissberg (Anthony Colliano), who is bound and naked in an ice filled bathtub. We’re not sure why this is happening. The accompanying soundtrack sounds like the swarming of a hundred electronic bees.

Malek stays at this hotel because the ambience is beneficial to his writing. His agent is Ava Collins (Tiffany Shepis) whose every sentiment is littered with so many profanities, she (possibly inadvertently) provides this strange, dark film with its few moments of raw humour. As time goes on, she is revealed not to be quite the stabilising influence on Malek she initially seems.

The small budget and direction conspire to give the hotel a pleasingly run-down atmosphere. The walls are permanently stained and there is clutter throughout, and Malek’s neighbour Spitz (Ezra Buzzington, who would give an effective performance in 2012’s ‘Lost Lake’) is a rampant sexual, permanently furious paraplegic.

Corey Hiam, who died in 2010, also features as a drunkard called Jasper Crash, inexplicably with a (bad) British accent. Other than that, he is surprisingly effective, Crash’s wrecked disposition sadly reflective Hiam’s own at that time.

This collection of grotesque characters helps imbue ‘New Terminal Hotel’ with a heightened sense of the macabre, so much so that the characters, no matter how finely explored, remain raw and enigmatic. This gives the film a truly odd, skewed sense of horror that is commendable for resulting in a production unlike anything else. Definitely an acquired taste, and deserving of more than just one viewing.

3. Jul, 2016

Dracula 3D (2012)

This sweeping take on the vampire story has some stunning scenery, some impressive direction, lukewarm acting and a plethora of astonishingly bad CGI effects. To be honest, that is the review in a nutshell, but to expand …

Actors range from German, Italian, Spanish, and the Netherlands giving the production an expansive, truly European flavour. Rutger Hauer is probably the best known name here, playing Van Helsing in a typically under-written part – there is no question of engaging with any of the perfunctorily written characters. Vampire Tanja (Miriam Giovanelli) is perhaps the most striking character; her sensuality and smouldering looks bringing a real presence to the character.

The problem here is that for the most part, the long film is extremely dull.

Dracula has a cunning way of disguising the bite marks on his victims by biting them on the back of the knee, at least in the case of the ravishing Lucy (Aria Argento – the director’s daughter).

There is an impressive effect sequence where Dracula (played with quiet menace by Thomas Kretschmann – sometimes too quiet, as his whispering is sometimes inaudible) forms into physical being from swarming flies, followed by a slow motion close-up of a man blowing his brains out, under the Count’s spell.

The castle, the village and locations are all extremely well shot, but as soon as a CGI effect is added, the whole spell is squashed, which has the curious effect of rendering the production a very expensive look that also appears to be incredibly cheap, all in the space of one scene. Quite an achievement.

A positive is the haunting musical score by Claudio Simonetti, a moody, heavily synthesised soundtrack augmenting a string section that provides a truly wistful feel to the various set-pieces.

About 45 minutes from the end, the campiness of Dario Argento’s directorial colours and camera swirls begins to become enjoyable (a campiness exemplified by a European power ballad used as the closing theme). Once the fact that the film is a colourful, cheesy extravaganza has been established, it draws you in. By the time Dracula has transformed into a billowing mass of ashes that suddenly looks like a wolf, the production has taken a hold – just in time for the end credits to roll.

26. Jun, 2016

What Became of Jack and Jill? (1972)

Amicus, who had a strong run of anthology horror films by this time (and would continue to have more throughout the ensuing decade) released this film two years after its completion. Its minimalist approach was difficult to market and it sank without much fanfare, and is now extremely rare. It concerns the machinations of Johnnie and Jill, indulging in some bizarre ‘young versus old’ theatrics (with imagery of teens dressed as Nazi soldiers, gunning down a truckload of pensioners, who are herded like cattle) to frighten Johnnie’s rich Gran to death.

Vanessa Howard plays Jill with all the hallmarks of a 1970’s wrong ‘un. Chewing gum, slightly cockney, indulges in casual sex – definitely bad news. Howard plays her convincingly. A dark dreamer, she wants a better life than the one which currently traps her. And it does trap her. Her boss casually gropes her as a matter of course, and the locations where she lives are dank and littered with grim perpetual winter’s drizzle.

Jack is played by Paul Nicholas, who went on to become a successful pop singer – one of his biggest hits was called ‘Grandma’s Party’. He doesn’t want to work (‘9-5? Who needs a bloody job?’ he asks himself) and provides a comparative voice of reason between them both.

Gran, Alice Tallent, is played by Mona Washbourne who refuses to portray her as the sweet, docile old girl this film seems to cry out for. Instead, she is more real, grounded, and not afraid to tell Jack a few home truths now and again. But when she breaks down and declares, “You’d think it was a crime to be old. We can’t help it,” whilst facing the brunt of Jack’s continued lapses into passive aggression, your heart breaks for her.

Like ‘Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1971)’, the star of this particular show is Vanessa Howard, who is ice cold throughout but still has some wonderful lines (her departing words to her former employer: “Book yourself a nice cruise, right up your own back passage!”). All performances are terrific, especially when the two youngsters are written as such wholly unlikeable characters.

The story is slow and mostly uneventful, enlivened by the characters and their mounting arguments when their carefully laid plans come to nothing in their drizzly lives of 70’s drudgery. The film certainly doesn’t deserve it’s mostly forgotten status. Whilst hardly a straightforward horror, the concepts are certainly brutal and the slight humour that embraces them is dark indeed.

26. Jun, 2016

Lady of Csejte/Blood Countess (2015)

Two gypsy children captured for stealing are taken into the custody of the Countess Bathory, a feared and legendry lady who lives in a huge impressive castle. While the younger brother Mischa (Lucas Bond) makes awkward acquaintances with other juveniles who live in the castle grounds, the young girl Aletta (a tremendous performance from Isabelle Allen) becomes friendly with the countess herself and her many serving women. The girl’s impudence is well matched against the Countess’s regal bearing and they grow close, Bathory dressing her in Riding Hood Red.

Visually, this is a wondrously epic fairy-tale of the darkest kind. Colours, costumes, locations and design are truly faultless. Vibrant warmth glows from crackling torches and illuminate the interiors and provide a contrast to the increasingly cold, stark exteriors. A collection of European actors head the cast, and help give a sense of other-worldliness to the proceedings. Only the story itself lets things down; it really is paper thin, and tends to drag – although the visuals ensure this is not as much of a hardship as it would otherwise be.

Bathory, reputedly responsible for the deaths of 650 children as the opening credits tell us, is written as little more than a Wicked Witch despite the delicious playing by Svetlana Khodchenkova. Her two closest serving girls Dorata and Ilona, elegantly bedecked in royal blue, are my favourite characters. They are wonderfully arch, bitchy characters, terrifically played by Lia Sinchevici and Alexandra Poiana respectively.

Although darkness pervades this gothic tale, the most gruesome moments are reserved for the very end, as Aletta recounts the fate of the various characters four years later.

24. Jun, 2016

The Mummy's Ghost (1944)

Jaunty music accompanies cartoon style credits over a backdrop of hieroglyphics, which indicates this is not going to be an exercise in particularly dark horror. We open with a clip from the previous film in this series, of George Zucco, his back to the camera, travelling up many stone steps to a secret temple. As it is, for the purposes of this film, we are required to believe it is actually John Carradine’s Yousef Bey ascending the stairway. George Zucco is actually inside the temple, his character Andoheb explaining the Mummy’s story from previous outings, with the help of further repeated clips from those excursions.

The sequels to the original mummy (1932) are so similar they fall into ‘this is the one with …’ categories. ‘The Mummy’s Hand’ ‘was the one with’ Tom Tyler in the titular role, and its follow-up ‘was the one with Lon Chaney Junior’s first outing’. Sadly, this one is ‘the one with’ Robert Lowery as the ‘hero’, Tom Hervey: truly the most objectionable, obnoxious character in any Mummy film up until the Brendan Fraser caricatures begun their spiel in 1999. What a cocky, arrogant fellow he is. This member of the audience is instantly on the side of Kharis, who is resurrected once more, without much fanfare to stumble through Universal’s backlot to find his Princess Ananka (Ramsay Ames).

I sound unnecessarily harsh towards ‘The Mummy’s Ghost’, but despite the above (and the reuse of stock music from other Universal horrors/clumsy day for night shooting), its familiarity is reassuringly enjoyable. We know what we’re going to get from a Mummy film by this time – and we do. Of Chaney’s outings as the monster, this may be his most powerful. From behind Jack Pierce’s mask and wrappings, he injects some emotion into his hated Kharis (although Pierce’s mask crumples like a Cabbage Patch Kid when the monster is seen to scowl). It is rumoured during Kharis’ raging attack on the night-porter (Oscar O'Shea) in the Scripp’s museum, that Chaney actually slammed the old man into a real pane of glass, smashing it and injuring O’Shea. Alcohol has not been ruled out.

There’s an amusing bit of business where the locals, lead by Barton MacLane’s cranky Inspector Walgreen, cunningly fashion a disguised pit in which to topple the Mummy, who doesn’t even notice and (slowly) walks straight past!

Cocky Tom’s girl Amina (Ames) is slowly transforming into the putrefying Ananka, which is a welcome inclusion into the plot, but the gradual whitening of her hair goes unnoticed by others throughout, stretching credulity somewhat. Her total transformation into a Mummy as Kharis carries her into the swamp at the end is a certain highpoint, and a surprising unhappy ending, although at least she has been spared a life of married bliss with Hervey.

24. Jun, 2016

Unconscious (2015)

Wes Bentley plays an unnamed man who regains consciousness behind the steering wheel of a car after a crash. He has no memory of what has happened except for a few sporadic flashbacks of a teenage girl in the back seat, and the blurred figure of a woman – presumably his wife – approaching him through the haze.

Kate Bosworth plays the finely chiselled, perfectly poised wife (also unnamed). Her emotions are in constant check and she barely speaks above an unobtrusive whisper, which is somehow suggestive of both kindness and hidden mystery – she is surely too good to be true? And what of the girl in the back seat? When the man reawakens some time later, bathed in cool sunshine, recovering from his ordeal, the girl is suspiciously absent from the spacious family home?

There is a certain intrigue here, and it is thinly spread. The wife’s obsession with cats, and her habit of littering conversations with random facts to keep her husband’s brain alert, his realisation that there is nothing wrong with his ‘broken’ ankle … all these things pepper the story with an increasing strangeness.

As if the husband’s suffering is not enough, nice Dave the postman is soon dispatched, a sudden unveiling of the woman’s insanity. Shashawnee Hall as the detective only appears to take an interest once things have reached a critical stage. ‘The daughter’ AudreyOlivia Rose Keegan, has been a ‘bad girl’, and is revealed to be kept in a cage. She will be released when the woman is made pregnant, as is the wife’s insistent wish.

In a satisfying twist, both the man and the woman are guilty of kidnapping young Audrey in order to raise money to pay for the wife’s ‘treatment’ – she might even have caused the crash that caused her husband to lose his memory. As he escapes her clutches and ends up in the unsympathetic care of the hospital, a nurse walks in following this revelation, and switches off the life support system, ending his life. It is the wife, and last thing he hears are her words, ‘I put things to sleep for a living, and they don’t wake up.’

This is an enjoyable mystery/lightweight horror with the final twist handled skilfully enough to make sense. The story isn’t quite as gripping as it would like to be. The performances are uniformly good, especially from Hall – the characters remaining icy and detached throughout.

22. Jun, 2016

Zombie driller killer/Dark Souls/Mørke Sjeler (2010)

I was first alerted to this film by spotting it on the CV of musician, Wojciech Golczewski, whose incidentals had added so much to the evocative atmosphere of ‘We Are Still Here (2015)’. Here, his menacing strings accompany casually stunning jogger Johanna (Johanna Gustavsson), alerting us to the fact that, as she runs through sunny glades, she’s in imminent danger. As the film’s title suggests, it’s only brief moments before a masked man in industrial overalls holds her down and forces a drill into her head.

Despite dying, she is soon back at her father’s home. Breathing, but with no pulse, she is somnambulistic, only rousing to vomit black putridity over her father. Meanwhile, the driller killers (for there are several) claim more victims – discarding any males and concentrating on females.

This story concentrates on Johanna’s father Morten’s (Morten Rudå) attempts to look after his deteriorating daughter. Watching as he tries to persuade others that the blackened, vomiting creature will ‘soon be better’ is deeply harrowing. The bemused apathy of the police is similarly distressing.

Shot like a documentary in grainy images, the effects are probably the weakest link here. Whilst an abundance of black tar-like substances oozing from hair and bodies is pretty revolting, the execution of the illness belies this Norwegian film’s lack of budget. The tone is refreshing, however, and doesn’t always take itself too seriously, while certain moments recall the work of David Cronenberg and the rotting, limping, back-haired ghosts of ‘Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)’ and similar Asian films.

It is unconventional also that a middle aged man should emerge as the hero of the piece, his vigilante actions uncovering a dark governmental secret, and distinctively so. As a whole, though, ‘Zombie Driller Killer’ doesn’t really live up to either its title, or the promise shown in early scenes.

21. Jun, 2016

The Hotel/The Damned Thing (2014)

Anthology films are somewhat scarce recently, although ‘Little Deaths (2011)’ and ‘ABCs of Death (2012)’ have been the more notable exceptions. And so to ‘The Hotel’, which features three stories within a framing narrative concerning paranormal investigator Eddie Osbourne staking a hotel with his new videographer. It’s worth pointing out that this strand features the least effective moments in the film.

The first tale concerns newlyweds Michael and Lana (Carson Nicely and Miranda Parham) moving into a house that appears to possess them. Nothing new in that, but it is played in engaging fashion by the two leads, and contains a few sinister moments before a weak ending.

Retribution plays a part in the second piece, a Jason-like story about a bullied child dressing up as a clown and getting his own back on his childhood aggressors.

An astonishingly dim film crew of three decide to record a hoax documentary concerning ‘Bigfoot’, and actually record themselves creating fake footprints in the foliage! A real life cannibal, played by Rodney Osborne takes advantage of the three youngsters’ stupidity by eating them …

… so it’s no surprise to find that Eddie is himself a revealed to be a cannibal who has lured Will to the hotel in order to eat him – however, in a terrifically unexpected reveal, the killer clown from story two turns up for the finale. The message is that if you surround yourself with negative energy, it will soon consume you.

This is good fun, obviously filmed on a micro-budget, and contains a vein of dark humour that makes up for any acting/production short-falls. The camera turns away from any gore, but there are some frightening moments – the shadow man from story one, the physically intimidating clown from story two, for example. There is an abundance of atmospheric from Director/writer Derrick Granado.

20. Jun, 2016

Les Amants Criminels/Criminal Lovers (1999)

Alice is inconsistently perverse. She doesn’t mind seducing and killing, and can even fall asleep next to the body of the victim, murdered Said, whilst waiting for her partner Luc to provide her with a getaway car. She’s not bothered about robbing a shop in broad daylight – but when Luc runs over a rabbit in the road, she’s devastated.

This is a French film about two impetuous youngsters who, whilst burying the deceased Said in a forest, get lost and take refuge in a cottage, where a hermit called Karim takes a fancy to Luc and has an intense dislike for Alice. At first, it is assumed Karim is feeding Luc because he wants to eat him. He says he prefers his women ‘dry’, hence Alice is kept in the cellar, starving with the rats. But it soon becomes apparent the recluse has more intimate designs on the boy.

It is an obvious declaration to make, but there is always a feeling of the (excellent) actors knowing far more than the viewer. Alice’s jealousy of Karim and Luc’s relationship mirrors Luc’s similar feelings when watching Said and Alice earlier on – but who is Luc jealous of? Whatever the answer, the intimacy between the two men awakens Luc’s sexual desire (at last) towards a grateful Alice, which is granted following their escape.

Finally, the heavy-handed police capture Luc and kill Alice, presumably for Said’s death (Alice wrote her murderous exploits in a diary, left with Karim) – and then Karim himself is arrested, with Luc proclaiming the man’s innocence whilst being driven away in a van.

The meaning behind this curious tale is left to the viewer. There is a certain adult fairy-tale quality to it. Certainly the forest where they end up has a mythical flavour, with hedgehogs and foxes scampering around as the youngster consummate their relationship. ‘Criminal Lovers’ is odd and unfathomable, unyielding and tremendously well-acted.

19. Jun, 2016

Jean Rollin: Le Rêveur Égaré/The Stray Dreamer (2011)

This is a French documentary on the life and films of Jean Rollin, low-budget producer, director, writer and actor, who left behind an impressive body of work that stretched from 1968 until his death in 2010, three months after completing his final film.

It would have been nice to get more interviewees (including one or both of the Castel twins ideally), but we are spoiled with whom we do have. Actress and Director Ovidie (star of ‘Night of the Clocks’), actors/assistants Jean Loup Philippe and Nathalie Perrey; Journalist and critic Jean-Pierre Bouyxou (who says that watching a Rollin film is like being on acid. Bouyxou co-wrote two of Rollin’s biggest - and goriest - successes ‘The Grapes of Death’ and ‘The Living Dead Girl.’); journalist Caroline Vie, writer Pascal Francaix, and artist (and chain smoker!) Philippe Druillet. UK writer, director and erotic vampire fan Pete Tombs explains that Rollin doesn’t write films for you, he writes then for himself, which is a sentiment frequently expressed by the man himself. The mighty and pout-some Brigitte Lahaie recalls how her involvement with pornography made her feel alienated during her fine appearance in ‘Grapes of Death’ – she went on to become one of Rollin’s best-known actors, and subsequent filmic appearances were a lot happier.

After the violent reaction to ‘Viol’, Rollin wanted to get another job but didn’t know what else to do. He remembers this with a great sense of generosity and humour. He laughs about his perceived failures, an honesty that is admirable, although that merriment must disguise a certain degree of heartbreak. His experience with the box office failure ‘Lips of Blood’, and its subsequent re-working as a hard-core pornography film must have been particularly gruelling for him.

Bouyxou says Rollin’s films aren’t unrealistic, they are ‘anti-realistic’, which is very accurate, whilst Druillet compares him to Cocteau. There is no sycophancy here whatsoever – this is an honest appraisal of Rollin and his work. Ultimately, we get to know Rollin more through his very personal films than through his own cheerful self-deprecation (‘Zombie Lake’ is a ‘terrible film’, he insists – it’s true that it isn’t his greatest work, but I certainly enjoyed it).

His work on ‘Little Orphan Vampires’ and his biggest budgeted production ‘Dracula’s Fiancée’ were blighted by his ongoing illnesses and kidney dialysis requirements – he was literally risking his life to make these pictures. Whilst this documentary doesn’t touch upon his lesser known films, there is an abundance of observations and anecdotes to enjoy here for anyone who likes Rollin’s work, and plenty of clips.

18. Jun, 2016

The Old Dark House (1963)

JB Priestley’s 1927 novel ‘Benighted’ was adapted very loosely into 1932’s classic ‘The Old Dark House’, which was directed by James Whale in his own very distinct style. This in turn has been adapted equally loosely by Director William Castle for Hammer films.

‘The Old Dark House’ stars Tom Poston, an American actor with a wonderful permanently harassed expression as Tom Penderel, a car dealer who delivers a car to a large mansion for Casper Femm, whom he subsequently discovers is dead. He meets Cecily Femm (Jeanette Scott) who warns him to leave before ‘the family’ find him. ‘The family’ are spoken of in dread tones.

The worst excesses of this production are demonstrated with the arrival of Fenella Fielding’s Morgana. As she floats down the stairs to greet Penderel, the ‘comedy music’ (an unnecessary irritation in my view – if something is funny, the audience will laugh; if we need music to tell us something is funny, there is something wrong. Here, it works directly against any dark vein of humour events may be trying to evoke) accompanies the camera’s lingering obsession with her breasts. A sign of the times of course, but worlds away from the original Universal version.

There are positives and negatives about this, but the overall effect is disappointing. The cast is made up of uniformly excellent, eccentric performers that seem curiously underwritten. The story is a drawing room mystery, and I have no problem with that, but it is ‘enlivened’ by comedy routines so pedestrian (although enthusiastically played) they hardly fulfil the promise of the publicity that ‘you’ll die laughing.’

If the flamboyant cast had been directed by an equally unconventional director, things could have been pushed into a less in-house style. Having said that, William Castle went onto produce the acclaimed ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ five years later.

12. Jun, 2016

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

Starring Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee (with support from Barbara Steele and Michael Gough amongst others), and written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, who introduced The Yeti to television’s Doctor Who – this has all the hallmarks of being a classic. The results, however, are average.

‘Curse…’ opens with a brave and bizarre fetishist torture scene, which recurs throughout in various dream sequences (with some unnerving sound effects – a kind of backward tape loop used as disorientating background noise). The hero of the piece is Richard Manning (Mark Eden) who is sadly less interesting than most of the other characters. He’s searching for his missing brother, but succeeds only in revisiting nightmares and tales of witchcraft whilst staying in a sprawling mansion at the generous behest of Lee’s Morley. It is revealed that Manning is the direct descendent of the judge who condemned a witch to death many years earlier.

Despite labelling the film ‘dreadful’, Christopher Lee puts in what I think is one of his best performances. Understated and absolutely convincing as a man unable to help Manning locate his brother, whilst concealing darker motives. It’s just possible he is the living reincarnation of witch Lavinia Morley (otherwise played by Steele in a green-faced make-up) although this is not explained.

Despite a fiery climax, ‘Curse…’ never escapes from the dullness of its direction. Vernon Sewell also directed Tigon’s ‘The Blood Beast Terror’ the same year with an equally staid lack of ambition.

11. Jun, 2016

Phobia/Alone (2013)

‘Count the Miles’, a song written and performed by Graci Carli, opens and closes this film in a breezy, slightly fey manner. By the time the same song is used on the closing credits, it has assumed a certain poignancy due to the harrowing events that have happened in between.

We first see Jonathan MacKinlay (Michael Jefferson) as he regains consciousness following a car crash, his bloodied, dead-eyed wife next to him. The accident, and especially his sense of guilt, have tormented him to the point of agoraphobia: most of the story takes place in his house, which has become his prison. Two people - his friend Taylor (Andrew Ruth) and would-be photographer Bree (Emma Dubery) - occasionally enter into his life.

I don’t suffer with agoraphobia, but this seems a pretty convincing depiction of the gruelling, relentless effects of the disease, and Jefferson plays this brilliantly: the frustration, the boredom, the paranoia are acutely portrayed. And yet ‘other things’ happen too. He sees the barest glimpses of other people, his dead wife amongst them. In the spirit of ‘hauntings’ films, the blur between what is real and what is not gets increasingly frayed – and yet Jefferson’s perceived instability is refreshingly presented. Even at the film’s close, we don’t truly know how far his delusions have spread. The finale would suggest that his ‘illness’, or the power the manifestations have acquired, may be passed from person to person.

Rory Douglas Abel, who wrote, co-produced and directed this, has created an interesting and enjoyable, intimate story which provides a number of possibilities: MacKinlay’s guilt may have unleashed a powerful and deadly force, his home might already have been infested with some deathly latent power triggered by his sensitivity, or perhaps MacKinlay has been turned into a delusional killer by his car accident. Whilst answers don’t come freely, it is a premise that stays long after ‘Count the Miles’ brings the curtain down.

8. Jun, 2016

Xmoor (2014)

We’ve hardly got to know American documentary makers Matt (Nick Blood) and Georgia (Melia Kreiling) before they are set upon by two shady looking characters late one night, as they are driving down a rainy road in North Devon. They are responding to an award of 25k to capture proof of wild big cats that have been roaming the area, and a petrol bombed car is presumably some local deterrent.

As is often the case in Irish films like this, the location is wonderful. Bleak and rainy farmhouses filmed in gritty imagery, and endless roiling, grassy landscapes never fail to impress, and events become very interesting when tracker Fox (played by the excellent Mark Bonnar) is introduced and acts as a guide for the two across the moorland, immediately dismissing the ‘big cats’ theory. As Fox’s impetuous nature increases along with the rising body count, the reactions from Matt and Georgia are hilariously real – although this is far from a comedy. The bodies have had their hands tied, and they realise that the true serial killer is human. Could it actually be Fox?

The negatives of Xmoor: Firstly, some of the night-time scenes are simply too dark. Rather than conveying a feeling of panic and disorientation, it is just annoying that we cannot always make out what is going on. Secondly, why do the two leads have to be American? I ask this purely because the actors are not and, whilst both do a fairly good job, it is still noticeably feigned.

Sadly, despite a promising start, things deteriorate as the finale draws closer. The second half of the film attempts to pile twist upon twist in a bid to constantly pull the carpet from under the audience’s expectations. A couple of these are fine, but it becomes too much, a muddy series of shrieking and mild gore (getting rid of Fox, the most interesting character, so early on, is questionable).

6. Jun, 2016

La Comtesse Noire/Female Vampire (1975)

Opening with Daniel White’s immediately inappropriate romantic music, the beautifully bodied Lina Romay sweeps out of the mist toward the camera – and then into it (after Director Jess Franco and his lens have lingered over her inguen). Clearly an exploitation film from the offset, these opening moments are nonetheless extremely evocative and mysterious. Romay’s unblinking stare alone is more than enough to entice and her Irina Karlstein is a true siren; within seconds she has seduced and claimed her first victim.

There are many different versions of this film. The storyline, such as it is, involves Countess Irina, last in the line of a family of vampires. After a series of conquests both male and female, she finally finds someone she cares about, only to drain him of his life fluid just as she did with her other victims.

An atmosphere of horror is difficult to sustain in blazing Spanish sunshine, the awkward dialogue issued through a fog of unconvincing dubbing. And yet, with scene after scene featuring softcore scenes of near naked Lina Romay indulging in sexual acts, I am shallow enough to ask, who cares?

Even that wears thin after a short while. Of course there is an erotic charge here, but very little else. There were plenty of ‘exploitation’ pictures released during this period – even Hammer films weren’t immune to such titillation – but most at least fed the explicit sexuality with an equal measure of horror, complimenting both styles and pushing the vampiric genre into a convincingly explicit arena. ‘Female Vampire’ appears mostly to be softcore purely for the sake of it, often ineptly shot – and always accompanied by the same music. The few moments of Irina drifting through foggy woodlands, sometimes accompanied by an equally naked conquest, comes close to the kind of dreamlike mystery mastered so regularly by Jean Rollin – but you have to endure a great deal of monotony to find them. Largely unwatchable, I am sorry to say.

4. Jun, 2016

Encounter (2015)

Possibly the least welcoming landlord ever, Jim (Don Scribner), shows a likeable newlywed couple Lauren (Andrea Nelson) and Ted (Justin Arnold), around his spacious house. They are renting a room from him, he tells them they look like good kids and that his family is dead. To him. In the way of such things, the couple are not tempted to take back their deposit and find somewhere - anywhere - else, and Ted’s studies into ‘orbs’ necessitate he decks the area out with cameras, Paranormal Activity-style.

When the inevitable strange sounds keep the couple awake at night, Ted has a word with Jim, who is sitting in silence in the kitchen, cleaning a shotgun. Still the newlyweds are disinclined to leave, even after Jim’s later suicide attempt.
The acting here is exemplary. Nelson (who bears a marked resemblance to Elsa Lanchester in certain scenes) and Arnold display a believable chemistry, with Ted’s usually placid personality stretched to the limit. Lauren is more pragmatic. She suggests a séance, which appears merely to exacerbate the hauntings.

Only when both of them have been marked with the same sign that afflicted the departed Jim does Ted look up the residence on the internet to find strange things have long since been happening – cattle stripped of their reproductive organs, tongues etc. We then appear to come full circle, with Lauren waking up in darkness, in a field, in a scene which opened the film (the rest happening in flashback).

A weird dislocated scene in which shadowed aliens appear to be delivering Lauren’s child aside, there are no special effects here. Illogical events like their decision not to leave, and the impossibility of some climactic scenes being filmed (when until that point, the film is very much of the found-footage school) never fail to rankle, yet much else about ‘Encounter’ is extremely good – the claustrophobic setting, the performances, the gentle ramping up of strange happenings. The ending, which is open-ended in the extreme, is either exasperating, or highly powerful, depending on your point of view. In a reversal of ‘The Blair Witch Project (1999)’, interviews with residents, shedding possible light on events, appear at the close, rather than at the beginning, providing a retrospective assessment of Lovecraftian possibilities. Very enjoyable.

4. Jun, 2016

The Devil Within/The Devil Complex (2016)

One of the things I like about the found footage genre is evidenced at the beginning of ‘The Devil Within’, when the camera remains locked onto a character as he conveys all kinds of emotion to the viewer without the help of moody lightning, artistic cutting or indeed anything to enhance the performance. The actor therefore has no choice but to play everything completely naturally because the unforgiving nature of an unedited shot would betray any lapse.

That’s the first impression I got from the opening moments as Professor Popescu (Adrian Carlugeo) warns us how terrible are the events we are about to see. He is wrong, unfortunately, for what follows is three actors with very little chemistry traipsing around the tremendous snowy Hoia Bacui Forest in a shockingly dull, blatant recreation of events in ‘The Blair Witch Project (1999)’ – inferior in every way, sadly. They get lost, argue and nothing happens. The discovery of the dead body of their erstwhile companion, the ferociously bearded Mr Dogaru (Bill Hutchins) fails to invest any scares into these uneventful wanderings: ‘What happened to him?’ ‘He’s f****** dead, that’s what happened to him,’ – all lines delivered with all the conviction of characters not remotely bothered.

Rumour has it that for ‘Blair Witch’, the director left his cast alone for most of the time in the unforgiving location, only to creep up on them at night and scare them – this produced a very real, wearied, raw set of performances. Here, the terrain is even less hospitable, but there are no scares, no tension whatsoever – any energy is drained from the young cast producing beleaguered dramatics in a disappointingly uneventful picture.

29. May, 2016

Doctor Mabuse (2013)

Is the good Doctor’s name pronounced Mab-yuse, or Mab-oose? Certainly, this film doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind.

This is an extremely stylised production. The ultra-low budget is used to its fullest advantage to produce a highly personal vision for director Ansel Faraj – at least for the most part. The occasionally uneven sound levels betray the lack of finance in a negative way. Everything else is deliberately and convincingly noir-ish, unconventional and dream-like, bringing to mind ancient films, especially ‘Vampyr (1932)’ and ‘Nosferatu (1922)’.

The word ‘pretentious’ has been bandied about in reviews (although the reception this film has received is mainly positive), a seemingly damning condemnation, and yet I’ve never understood how it is meant to insult. Here is an abstract world of dark shadows (!), studio-bound sepia cityscapes and the unspecified threat of some eternal damnation via Jerry Lacy’s magnificent portrayal of Mabuse, where no effort is made to allow the production to flow smoothly or naturalistically – but why is this pretentious? It is what it is, far from the norm, featuring heightened performances, theatrical dialogue, all geared to immerse the viewer in its sinister unreality.

Apart from Jerry Lacy, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker (also from classic television show ‘Dark Shadows (1966-71)’) feature, and enter entirely into the weirdness of the piece. Quite why Mabuse was exiled by the time of the beginning of this story we don’t know. His powers aren’t really elaborated upon other than wanting to rule the ‘ashes of this city’, (with Inspector Carl Lohemann (Nathan Wilson) to ultimately take his place), but such is the powerful intensity of Jerry Lacy’s performance, we have no doubt he can achieve this.

To use a word I hate, ‘jarring’ is how I would describe my initial feeling about ‘Doctor Mabuse’ – from the beginning, it doesn’t compromise its bygone sense of surreality and that takes some getting used to. But after watching many horror films, it is delightful to find something so different, produced and played so convincingly, and the stark imagery truly creates scenarios of which true nightmares are made. A wonderfully immersive production. I look forward to its sequel, ‘Etiopomar (2014)’ very much.

26. May, 2016

The Tall Man (2015)

Cold Rock is an aptly named town. Jobs have evaporated, and the people live an isolated existence where they take the law into their own hands. It is a town that has died – everywhere is streaked with rain and oil, the townsfolk are permanently bedraggled, their faces bleached of colour. Sometimes children are born in Cold Rock that are not wanted; often, these youngsters simply disappear. Someone is taking them.

In young David, we have a genuinely appealing child. With a head full of crayons and castles, he is ripe for kidnap by the fabled Tall Man. Julia (Jessica Biel), who looks after him, has a bloodied confrontation with the indistinguishable figure – despite my initial thoughts, The Tall Man is not a spectral, superhuman figure, but a real, physical threat. And yet when Julia is brought to the café which seems to be a meeting point for the locals, their hostilities are directed towards her.

Rather than a full-blooded horror, this film is about a handful of people who make the most extraordinary sacrifices to remove the many children from their stultifying life in Cold Rock – or presumably any other similarly perverse and hopeless community – in order to place them in surroundings with a better future, or any future at all. I would have preferred it if the writing had not been quite so oblique concerning this fairly important revelation. In view of the extraordinary sacrifice this handful of people make in delivering children with no future into the hands of The Tall Man, the reality of what they are doing might have been more clearly defined. As it is, the brow-beaten, teary-eyed staring into space from characters like Julia could have been better explained.

Do money and respectability necessarily ensure a child has a better life? That seems to be the message here. Social commentary given the trappings of a potential horror film – beautifully told and acted, incredibly well directed. At its core, the story itself seems judgemental.

21. May, 2016

Love at First Bite (1979)

Strains of disco/organ music accompany the first glimpse we see of Castle Dracula, with lightening and plenty of dry ice; the children of the night providing harmonies to Dracula’s organ playing is dismissed with a curt ‘Shut up!’ Dracula’s slave Renfield chuckles a very Dwight Frye-sounding chuckle. It is clear from the outset, this is a light-hearted homage by a production team clearly in love with vampiric cinema.

The mighty George Hamilton, perma-tanned and pearly of tooth is perfect in the role of The Count. His delivery is more reminiscent of Bela Lugosi’s accent even than Martin Landau’s award winning performance. Hamilton is more talented than he is often given credit for, I think.

One of those words that doesn’t really mean anything, ‘schmaltzy’, seems to describe the worst excesses of this; the greatest crime is its dated-ness. Comedy is notoriously difficult because it is so subjective, but at its heart ‘Love at First Bite’ is a well observed (even Hamilton sauntering down a street in downtown New York is reminiscent of Bela Lugosi’s sojourn down the streets of Universal’s ‘London’ from the 1931 classic), surprisingly well-played comedy, in which Count Dracula’s long lost love is Cindy Sondheim (Susan Saint James), a famous fashion model. The Count’s journey to find her takes him through various modern day nightmares; his bewilderment when encountering disco music for the first time is entirely understandable. Equally, his crumpled expression when Sondheim sees him initially and assumes he is a waiter is a highlight. Sondheim’s psychiatrist Jeffrey Rosenberg (Richard Benjamin) is The Count’s protagonist, and it is telling he is viewed as the befuddled ‘bad guy.’ Rosenberg is a distant relative of Van Helsing. Michael Pataki, who fleetingly played Dracula in ‘Zoltan, Hound of Dracula’ the year before, appears in a brief scene in a lift.

As the film goes on, the various homages to earlier Dracula projects give way to more knockabout comedy fare. Just when the joke is in danger of wearing thin with a car chase, Sondheim finally decides to become a vampire and the two bats are last seen wobbling towards Jamaica, where The Count’s coffin has mistakenly been taken.

16. May, 2016

World War Dead (2015)

A troupe of highly argumentative film-makers travel to the Somme to record a documentary. Their internal disagreements are interrupted by figures in the distance that suddenly disappear. Similar events occur within and around ‘Devil’s Wood’, scene of one of the most central WW1 Somme battles.

Professor Brian Lock’s (Robert Bladon) facts are subject to ‘artistic embellishment’ by a clearly underwhelmed Marcus (Ray Panthaki), who is trying to spice up his documentary. Although his arrogance is legendary among his fellows, it’s easy to sympathise with Marcus’ point of view. Very little actually happens for a long time, but he decayed cadaver of a Rhodesian soldier dragged from a misty river threatens to liven things up, especially as he appears to have swallowed a black magic amulet – it’s apparent power involves bringing the dead back to life.

For a found footage film, there aren’t many attempts to keep it strictly realistic; too many camera angles for the available equipment to actually record, and the addition of evocative ambient incidental music at crucial moments (music that isn’t interrupted by the constant – and annoying – times when the camera breaks up and crackles in the way of this style of film-making). That’s not a particular problem for me: we know this isn’t an actual documentary; the days when an audience wondered if a found footage film was a drama or real life ended with ‘The Blair Witch Project’ sixteen years earlier.

Of the characters, Marcus is perhaps the best defined. He does his best to be irritating, but is very well played and emerges being strangely likeable long before his elevation to apologetic hero towards the end.

This isn’t the greatest film of its kind, but it features a good cast and an excellent location. The fusion of World War and zombies continues apace, with once again bunkers and trenches and murky fields providing an excellent backdrop for the activities of the living dead.

15. May, 2016

Wrong Turn 6: The Last Resort (2014)

One of the first things to strike me about this latest (possibly last?) ‘Wrong Turn’ sequel, apart from the astonishing 11 years that have passed since the original, is that the sex quota has been pushed to the fore. Whereas the original had suggestions of love-making as a pre-cursor for the characters’ inevitable destruction, now the flawless (and charmless) young cast only climb off each other long enough to exchange worried pouts at the sound of distant hillbilly giggling before a great deal of blood accompanies delightfully grisly absurdities. What has made the fairly modest original endure for so long?

A young couple are dispatched pre-credits, but don’t worry: equally characterless cyphers are right behind them. This bunch are making their way to Hobb Springs Resort - a huge mansion inherited by Danny (Anthony Ilott), the one member of the hapless crew to possess any modicum of personality - where immediately the brother and sister caretakers (Chris Jarvis and an impressive Sadie Katz) are involved in minor jealousies concerning flirting with members of the decorative clique. But this is just power for the course; it is window dressing that wastes time before The Inbreeds attack. I’m not sure it is possible to make these people any less appealing – the males are the kind of hugely arrogant, meaningless beefcakes it is best to avoid in real life, and their girls are achingly sensible and concerned and impossible to tell apart, but at least have the advantage of feeling horny most of the time.

The acting is strictly of the over-intense daytime soap variety. The caretakers Jackson and Sally are in league (indeed vaguely related) with the cannibals, the deformity the cannibals have is the ‘price of purity’ – it is when Danny is told he is part of their bloodline that things become interesting. As his friends are tortured in a brutal initiation process, it is quite satisfying that Danny appears to turn away from his former drab coterie. However filthy his ‘new’ family is, they are massively less irritating.

There’s no doubt that this film picks up greatly once the cast stop posturing and begin dying, and events take on an ethereal, savagely erotic tone as the cannibals attempt to continue their bloodline at whatever cost, but up until this point, ‘Wrong Turn 6’ is straight-to-DVD in its ambition.

12. May, 2016

The Forgotten (2014)

This is a really enjoyable slow-burning ghost story, which utilises elements I really like. An abandoned tower-block, familiar surroundings given a very sinister leaning, social decay, understated performances and no reliance on special effects. Instead, the story – a not totally original one, involving the spirit of a murderer inhabiting a derelict building – is leisurely paced, letting us into the lives, strengths and weaknesses of the characters before placing them into convincingly staged dark jeopardy.

Elarica Johnson plays Carmen, initially hardened and distant; Clem Tibber plays Timmy, a sensitive loner living in a rough world; Shaun Dingwall plays his father Mark, forever up to no good; Lyndsey Marshal is Timmy’s mum Sarah, who is either mad, or the sanest one of them all. One thing many of the players have in common is their incipient monosyllabic, basic communication, as if the act of speaking is a weakness that needs to be completed as quickly as possible. The jerky secrecy of their every brief conversation eventually gives way to a more comfortable discourse, as familiarity sets in – but with Timmy especially, it was difficult to tell if he is played by a stilted actor, or he’s very convincingly playing a social inadequate (or rather an over-adequate in a world in which he does not fit in).

Another factor in Timmy’s shyness is his guilty talent – he is a proficient sketcher. His picture of Carmen, with whom he strikes a very poignant friendship, is used very well in the deliberately muddy finale. It is this ‘muddiness’ that helps make the story’s resolution lift the film up beyond even its own impressive earlier stages. The frustration of not knowing – and the characters not knowing – what has happened to Carmen reminds us how sensitively the character is played, and the sadness outlives the horror. As Carmen mellows, Mark becomes darker, with dire consequences.

Many of the events take place in near silence, with little more than the ever present low moan of night breeze echoing through the ruined corridors. This is a tremendous exercise in minimalism and intimacy, and works really well on both levels.