Contains spoilers ...

31. Dec, 2016

El Buque Maldito/The Ghost Galleon/Horror of the Zombies (1974)

This film's trailer severely undersells it. In it, a bevy of shrieking young ladies are endlessly faced with stumbling hordes of skeletal, cowled zombies. The truth is, there is far more to the film than that.

Having said that, there is a collective of briskly-dressed girls paraded before us, rarely more so than in the opening shot of three models enduring a photo-shoot orchestrated by a woman in the most extraordinary trousers. She conducts the session whilst smoking, reminding/informing us that little takes place in the 1970s without the accompaniment of a cigarette.

Noemi (Bárbara Rey) is concerned about her missing friend, who is on an engaged in a secret publicity stunt on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Having been made aware of this, Noemi is kept prisoner in a bunker until the stunt is over, and she proves to be one of the most wonderfully uncooperative hostages ever. President of the company responsible for all this is Howard Tucker, played by Jack Taylor, who would feature the following year in Franco’s ‘Female Vampire’. And yet the story mainly concerns that friend, Lillian (Maria Perschy) who, whilst looking for her departed companion Lorena (Margarita Merino) discovers a deserted galleon in the midst of the ocean fog. The galleon is represented by the most charming model, draped in dry ice. It is easy to notice the ‘limitations’ of special effects from a film from this time, and yet despite that, there is a genuine feeling of unease as the creaking old vessel is explored in a seemingly alternative world of perpetual darkness.

Thanks to the trailers, the creatures – the Blind Dead, or Knights Templar – are hardly a surprise, and yet remain hugely effective and creepy, with their withered claws, rotting cowls and dead-eyed skulls. Resting in dusty caskets, their appearance is often enhanced by ghostly chanting on the soundtrack. Filthy, decaying cadavers, they remain unglamorous frighteners to this day – and there are loads of them! There is no escalating tension to their scenes, indeed apart from the monk-like accompaniment, there is no thumping score to accentuate their menace – instead, their relentlessly sluggish deliberation is conducted in silence, creating a very ethereal style of torture and death – if there is such a thing!

This is the third (and strangely, the least successful) of four Blind Dead films that form a loose series. Inspired in part by the success of 1968’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’, these films were part of the Spanish horror boom of the early 1970s.

30. Dec, 2016

The Survivalist (2015)

Not that it matters, but I’ve found it very hard to stick with a horror film longer than 20 minutes of late. A possible mixture of over-familiarity and the relentless ‘getting-to-know-you’ set-up of characters that are difficult to care about has seen to that. ‘The Survivalist’ is thankfully entirely different.

Martin McCann plays the unnamed titular character who is seen meticulously tending to the allotment surrounding his remote shack. The world’s economy has stopped, society has imploded, and this results in a back-to-basics culture for the few remaining. Occasionally, a glimpse of an ideal world is apparent – all the trappings of modern day culture gone, The Survivalist’s solitary nature is stripped back to the bare essentials. Memories of a brother long dead, a photograph of an unspecified girl kept for masturbationary purposes – all this is shattered by the arrival of Kathrine (Olwen Fouéré) and her daughter Mia (Mia Goth). These two, despite their good deeds, are rarely entirely trustworthy, but a relationship is built – initially on Mia being a bargaining chip in exchange for food, and ultimately on something approaching mutual friendship.

This is a bleak film, but not quite as grim as it may appear. There is no soundtrack other than the beginning and end theme. We hear the irresistible crackling of fires, the plaintive tweeting of the birds, and still feelings of fear, apprehension (but never jollity) are communicated to the viewer. Perhaps those directors who smother their films with mass orchestrated musical stings and bangs and whistles designed to instil fear should take note!

The Survivalist has been nominated for, and won, a variety of awards, for Mia Goth and Director/Writer Stephen Fingleton. Well deserved. The fall and further fall of these characters is compelling viewing.

30. Dec, 2016

After Effect/Patient Z: The Infected (2013)

Of all the gratuitous scenes of gore horror has provided us with, there’s little that makes me wince more than a close-up of a needle going in to someone’s arm and drawing blood. This and other tests are carried out on hard-up student Lucie Donovan (Tuckie White) as she applies to be accepted in what appears to be Top Secret research tests. She meets others in the group who are made up of the usual mix of agreeable and wince-inducing in manner. One by one, they are called into the relevant surgery for ‘treatment’ … and don’t come out again. Naturally, Donovan is left till last, sitting on her own.

The reactions to the resulting degradation and horrors are sadly expected. A torrent of ‘WTF, man?’ and testosterone-flooded males squaring up to each other. Whether this is the results of the treatment, or whether they are just resorting to base alpha-male instincts is unclear, but it doesn’t make riveting viewing.

The military experiment results in the various victims bleeding profusely and becoming ‘zombie-lites’. And ‘lite’ describes this film really. It is played well enough but there is nothing here that hasn’t been seen before, and often without the playground histrionics of many of the characters.

24. Dec, 2016

Silverhide (2015)

At a top secret military base, three young reporters are determined to uncover the nature of various tests being carried out there. Sinead (Kelly Wines) especially has reasons of her own to find out what is going on – her father, she suspects, was killed by officials who thought he ‘knew too much.’ Laura (Lucy Clarvis), who is in financial trouble, and her partner Marty (Jordan Murphy) have also agreed to be part of the investigations. Camped out amidst rolling Welsh countryside where sheep are being viciously killed, it is clear something nasty is out there in the gloom.

And gloomy it is in this low-budget conspiracy horror. Whilst there is a good sense of remote unease and isolation, things are sometimes too murky to make out clearly. This unfortunate side-effect of the film’s low budget is coupled with another blemish representative of such projects – some of the dialogue (especially that of the photographer Sinead meets, played by whispering Matt Brewer) is often impossible to make out.

Against that, Sinead and the photographer, who also has his own reasons for wanting to find out what’s happening, are caught in the impossible and tense situation where, if the ‘Silverhide’ creature doesn’t get them, the military who are determined to preserve the top secret nature of the project, certainly will.

As things roll on, revelations come thick and fast. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with events, but it becomes clear who the real enemies are. There’s more to the creature than ‘just’ a wolf-man type. In fact, it is a shame we don’t see much more than brief glimpses of eyes, snout, talons because the effect of the werewolf (notoriously difficult to realise convincingly) is good. However, due to the spectral talents it possesses, the audience probably sees more of the animal than the soldiers do …

This is a flawed but interesting film with a good twist. It won’t satisfy everyone and the plotting is sometimes hazy. But it emerges as a very interesting and enjoyable project.

23. Dec, 2016

Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Opening with the least horrific music you could imagine, it seems as if this parody-sounding film could lean towards the comedic. Luckily, however, it isn’t long before bright red blood spatters one of the many posters offering rewards of £200 for capture of the Whitechapel Murderer, a top-hatted fiend who carves up the bodies of prostitutes.

Wearing long hair that would be deigned decidedly foppish for the Victorian period, Ralph Bates is terrific as the driven Jekyll. His caddish friend, hopeful womaniser Professor Robertson (Gerald Sim) and a scowling Welsh cockney Philip Madoc underused as the low-life Byker flesh out interesting supporting characters in a story that not only acknowledges RL Stevenson’s original tale, Jack the Ripper and Burke and Hare too! What drives Jekyll here is the knowledge that his good work will be curtailed by his own eventual death, and so sets about discovering the elixir of life. For that he needs body parts, and therefore the services of the two lecherous scallywag grave-robbers.

This is rich, confident story-telling. It is also Director Roy Ward Baker’s best work for Hammer in my view. His sprawling depiction of fogbound London is all the more impressive when one discovers the entire project was filmed in the studio.

Of the female performers, Bates’ future wife Virginia Wetherall plays typically doomed prostitute Betsy, and Susan Brodrick portrays the neighbour who has a crush on Jekyll, Susan Spencer. Brodrick is delightful in a role that could have been irritating and obsessive. Instead, she is appealing and simply naïve, leading to some terrifically witty scenes with the woman she assumes is Jekyll’s wife – but who is really Jekyll himself. The mighty, sultry and magnificent Martine Beswick is electrifying as his female alter-ego, the unexpected side-effect of his experiment. The transformation scenes are simple but cleverly effective, achieving the first change in one single take. That Howard Spencer (Lewis Fiander) is instantly besotted with her is entirely understandable (leading to an awkward later meeting between Howard and the male version of the doctor). His/her delight at his/her new body is fabulous, as is Susan’s crushed response to hearing ecstatic female laughter coming from Jekyll’s room.

So enjoyable are the lead performers that it is a true shame they are so inherently evil and therefore doomed. There is a scene when Bates is sweatily hacking away at a new corpse in a backstreet, entirely unaccompanied by anything other than the sounds of distant industry, which is very effective.

This remains one of my favourite Hammer films. It is beautifully written by Brian Clemens, played by actors with a slight hint of irony, but emerges as a tragic tale. The inevitability in which evil-doers must die especially when their evil is so entertaining is a necessary evil in itself. Whilst not really frightening, ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’ is steeped in atmosphere, has some pleasantly gory moments and deserved a vastly more widespread reception at a time when Hammer films weren’t attracting the crowds they deserved. If it had been released during the company’s heyday, it would have been a monster.

22. Dec, 2016

Lisa and the Devil (1973)

If you are of a certain age, you may remember Telly Savalas as the hugely popular, lollipop sucking detective from the 70s/80s series ‘Kojak’. If you happen to be from the UK, you may also remember Elke Sommer from 1975’s ‘Carry On Behind’ as the genuinely funny Anna Vrooshka. It is no spoiler to say they star as this film’s title characters, for, five minutes in, Lisa sees the image of Savalas’ Landro as ‘the Devil’ on a wall mural in Tuledo and keeps running into him, often as he is carrying a suspiciously lifelike mannequin. Suave and charming (he’s even sucking a lollipop here too – a contractual clause?), he nonetheless exudes a palpable sense of threat.

Lisa, and the audience, then meet a succession of suspicious characters. Not quite grotesques, but a menagerie of people flawed in one way or another, so that a collection of them helps to sustain the feelings of unease. One such character is the ostensibly fey Max (Alessio Orano), who expresses feelings for Lisa. All kinds of horrors are thrown at Lisa, and it seems for a time that Elke Sommers’ is merely required to look as terrified as possible as the weird and the apparently dead line up to shock her.

Savalas is excellent as Landro. Occasionally carrying scenes alone and talking to himself, a lesser actor would not be able to make such a natural job of it. With Savalas, talking to himself seems simply an extension of his eccentric oddness. His scenes with the many mannequins creates pleasingly perverse overtones.

Whilst this a good, unusual horror, the actual scares are pretty tame, despite Sommer’s enthusiastic reactions. Methodical, solid and weird, with the overall effect although playful, is sadly lacking in genuine tension.

17. Dec, 2016

The Atticus Institute (2015)

Much of this documentary-style horror is filmed in flashback. The recreation of the world in 1976 is supremely handled, from the grainy filmic imagery to the fashions of the day to the laboratory equipment being used.

This is as near as what would actually happen should someone be tested for some kind of demonic possession. When someone becomes too uncontrollable and is seen to exhibit such power, governments would have to gain authority over events. And with human beings what they are, corruption is never far away.

Attempting to harness her power for political gain, Judith is told to reveal secrets held by rival governments, especially the Russians, who had previously exploited a telekinetic sensitive of their own.

Beneath all the testing, the electro-convulsive therapy, the bullying, the attempts at control, is the possessed person. Judith was of no concern to her ‘captors’, and for that, the demon inside her gains a kind of empathy with the audience. You want it to emerge and punish the narrow-minded officials. Only a handful of the original scientists (mainly head man Henry West played by William Mapother) exhibit any kind of sympathy, understanding – even acknowledgement – of the punishment being meted out. And yet as the story reveals, the creature is in control the whole time, influencing what her captors say and do.

The acting throughout is excellent. Although ‘The Atticus Institute is as convincing a depiction of supernatural events in the hands of officials as I’ve ever seen, this results in a lack of pace and spectacle – but that’s fine when the results are this good. The ending is low-key, the subtle, enigmatic nature of events in-keeping with the rest of the film. I found this thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, although the excellent Rya Kihlstedt (as Judith) was reduced to convulsing and shrieking throughout the dramatic middle portions of the story, which robbed us of her meticulous attention to shuddering and twitching detail which made the earlier elements of her possession so effective.

16. Dec, 2016

Godzilla Resurgence/Shin Gojira (2016)

The Japanese ‘Gojira’ made his first appearance in 1954, was re-edited for an American (and subsequent worldwide) market and became a huge success. Since then, 28 sequels and two American films have come and gone, taking the Big G through dark, political thrillers, camp cartoon fluff for children, repeated monster team-ups, cheap Saturday morning fillers and high-tech special-effects-laden epics.

The Godzilla story finally seemed to have come to an end in 2004 with ‘Godzilla: Final Wars’, in which a Matrix-inspired series of punch-ups involved Godzilla facing almost every outsized enemy he had ever encountered – including a version of the creature from the less-than-critically-acclaimed 1998 Hollywood version (and making very short work of his name-sake). However, with the huge success of 2014’s American version, Toho films have once more wheeled out the legendary lizard.

Whereas the recent American version is a mix of special effects never before granted a Godzilla project together with the usual wholesome blandness of the hero, the Japanese films – for all their miss-steps – have nearly always had the ability to surprise, to go in unexpected directions.

‘Shin Godzilla’ opens with a strident thematic rhythm that could either be the beating of militaristic drums, or the approaching foot-falls of the main man. Familiar build-ups techniques are employed – the pounding of unexplained noises, glimpses of a dorsal fin in the sea, the usual disruption – and these are jerkily interspersed with political meetings of earnest Government ministers that are by contrast methodical and sceptical, dithering about credibility and finance whilst the threat spreads before them. “What a waste of time that was,” says one exasperated minster after the latest meeting at which nothing is decided. Whilst there is a lot of talking, the characters represented are more real and easy to relate to than in many Big G films, where the human beings are either comic foils or cyphers. The dullness of the continual meetings, where ministers slowly work out ways of attacking Godzilla are superficially enlivened by the presence of stunning Satomi Ishihara as no-nonsense Kayoko Ann Patterson.

Our first glimpse of the monster is not what we may expect. Comical, button-eyed and wobbling, more like a baby Aguirus than the Godzilla we know. The soundtrack exemplifies this weirdness with zingy rhythmical stings before launching into echoes of previous themes as he makes his expanding presence felt.

As for the ‘Giant Unidentified Life Form’ – he evolves throughout into at least four forms. As he gets bigger, his movements across cityscapes is agonizingly slow, his every footfall causing buildings to collapse. Skeletal and with rivers of red running through him, pop-eyed and with tiny, bony arms, this is a hellish new take on the big lad. Like the film itself, it’s not quite what we expect, but it is hugely impressive and very convincingly realised. The repeated attacks on him, accompanied by jubilation from those who continue to believe the creature has been destroyed beneath a hail of firepower, take on an extra level of satisfaction when the monster emerges from it all completely unscathed, occasionally lobbing some destroyed roadway towards his adversaries for good measure. His radioactive breath, a staple of previous films, takes on an extra vomit-like aspect, necessitating Godzilla to seemingly dislocate his jaw to allow for the evacuation. The results of this, and other new deadly emissions, push things over the top. And yet, as the varied signposted scenes of buildings smouldering under the radiation show, the devastation is enormous. The very real feeling is, that if Godzilla can do this in his present evolutionary regeneration, what will he be capable of if he evolves further?

Considering Toho’s Godzilla franchise has been sleeping for 12 years, this is a thundering return. Looking at the box-office returns, ‘Final Wars’ managed 1 million tickets sold in Japan in 2004, and ‘Shin Godzilla’ has brought in 5.6 million, making it the fourth most successful film in the series so far. Events in this latest instalment are far from stabilised at the film’s close, so I certainly hope this kick-starts a new series from Toho.

15. Dec, 2016

Luna de Miel/Honeymoon (2015)

We’ve all been attracted to an unattainable someone. It can’t just be me. Jorge (Hector Kotsifakis) is likeable, presentable, respectable and lonely. He spies local girl Isabel (Paulina Ahmed) and contrives to continually run into her in shops, while she is out jogging etc. We’re not sure whether she has been made aware of him or not, but there is a hint of knowing in her eyes as he attracts her attention once again, this time whilst pretending to tend to his car.

Sadly, it is too late by then, for pretty soon she has been tranquilised and tied to a chair in his cellar, miles from where anyone can hear her screams. As you may imagine, she goes through several humiliations as Jorge’s spiralling instability continues to make itself known. Apparently while filming, Ahmed would remain tied to the chair between takes, so as to allow her performance a sense of reality.

Jorge is at odds with most horror madmen. He is perfectly calm and composed virtually throughout. Even his attempted suicide attempt is approached without fanfare. Yet Isabel’s ordeal becomes ever more tortuous and is difficult to watch. As an audience, we are willing her on to gain revenge.

Even I am not going to spoiler the outcome of this. It could be said that reading up the DVD packaging etc, or IMDB tells you all you need to know about the kind of film this is, but it is played so realistically (with Ahmed in particular turning in a powerhouse performance) and events are staged so methodically by Director Diego Cohen that what emerges is wince-inducing and compelling.

14. Dec, 2016

The Dead (2010)

Like its sequel The Dead 2: India (2013), Directors Howard J. and Jonathan Ford expertly refine the balance between impressive masses of the living coming at you relentlessly, and the expanse of isolated landscapes – in this case the wilds of Africa – that alternate between stark beauty and deadly wasteland.

Lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman), sole survivor of a plane crash, survives meetings with many staggering blank-eyed members of the undead, and is rescued by initially resentful Sergeant Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), whose lone mission is to locate his son, lost in the zombie-strewn wilderness.

It is impossible not to get drawn into this maelstrom. How the zombies ever came to be is only fleetingly touched upon. It doesn’t really matter – they are there, and there are loads of them.

There were many behind-the-scenes problems when filming, doubling the initial six-week schedule. Most severely, Rob Freeman contracted malaria and was placed on an IV drip in a local hospital, which saved his life. That this critically acclaimed project was finished at all, never mind with such impressive results, is hugely impressive.

The storyline, again like its sequel, is simply around 100 minutes of what often seems like a doomed attempt to escape walking cadavers. There’s no machismo posturing, no smartass comments as yet another shambling wreck has its head blown apart. It meanders a little in the middle, but every step is taken to make sure full advantage of the landscape is used to full advantage and what emerges is very satisfying indeed.

10. Dec, 2016

Deadly Manor/Savage Lust (1990)

A group of teens … well, that’s a less than promising start. Vest-sporting, gum-chewing and riddled with hormones and attitude, I find such characters far more terrifying and off-putting than any demonic forces they will probably bluster into. This bunch are just exactly that – impossible to like and pure fodder for ‘whatever is out there’, hopefully to be despatched in the foulest way possible, and yet this cast lack the confidence and assuredness to keep their characters from attaining the true heights of swaggering numb-skullery of other ‘teen’ ciphers. To coax me out of this uncharitable view is the fact that this is directed and co-written by José Ramón Larraz, the man behind 1972’s legendary ‘Vampyres’.

The one character who emerges from the melee of manicure and highlighted hair is a comedy stout fellow Peter (Jerry Kernion) who quotes scenes from famous horror films much to the amusement of his cohorts. “At least it’s dry,” says one hunk as they enter an abandoned building in which they feel compelled to shelter from the storm. “I hear coffins are dry too,” he replies. When it eventually happens, his demise is the goriest and most effective of them all.

Unusually for Jarraz (this was his last horror), there is little sex or gore. When such scenes do come around, however, they are powerfully staged. Two of the group are having sex, and the beautiful young woman featured in many unnerving photographs hung on the walls appears to be watching them. Interspersed with other photographs, this time of corpses and disfigurement, the scene is one of quiet, effective horror.

Hitch-hiker Jack – a dreadful Clark Tufts – looks like he may be responsible for the deaths, when they eventually happen. In an arena where most performances are static, his awfulness excels.

This is not unenjoyable if you don’t take it too seriously. It is impenetrably under-lit during some key scenes, and is sprinkled with moments of spectacle, but is too slow for its flashes of inspiration (the climactic crumbling wall spewing out corpses for example) to raise it from clichéd, horror melodrama. Jarraz’s penchant for doomy atmospherics only occasionally materialises and the resulting whole makes it seem as if the slasher genre – already dying in 1990 – perhaps wasn’t really where his heart lay.

10. Dec, 2016

Witchcraft (1964)

This is a solid horror film directed by Don Sharp, who directed some of Hammer’s less spectacular projects in the mid-sixties. It is probably best known now because of the involvement of top-billed Lon Chaney as the monumental Morgan Whitlock, who delivers a big performance for his big character. Often one-note furious, Chaney casts a large shadow over his more mannered co-stars – it is unusual to see him surrounded by British faces (including ‘Plague of the Zombies’s Diane Clare), in the same way that seeing Boris Karloff onscreen with Christopher Lee in ‘Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)’ is a slightly surreal experience. Horror stars from different eras meeting has a charm all its own, and Chaney’s presence in picturesque, misty country scenes are pleasingly odd.

At this stage in his career, Chaney had a reputation for causing problems due to his excessive drinking. Apparently Sharp was very sympathetic to this and coaxed the best performance as he could from the veteran actor. Apart from addressing the character of Todd as (his girlfriend) Amy, Chaney is very good in a larger-than-life way.

My other favourite performance would have to be that of Vanessa Whitlock (Yvette Rees), the resurrected witch. She is creepily effective in all her scenes, particularly her first, when her appearance is slowly revealed as she is unearthed. Up until that point, this is quite a straight-laced film (in which Chaney’s performance stands out as being unrestrained) seemingly un-influenced by the blood-spattered horror revolution caused by Hammer in the late 1950’s. As events continue, however, things become progressively more manic folding with a spectacular finale.

9. Dec, 2016

Darling (2015)

Opening with some stunning panoramic shots of New York City, all crisp skylines and looming buildings, this film could have taken place in any era. Although there is no specified time in which these events are set, the style of décor and clothing seems to indicate anything from the 1930s to the 1960s. Filmed in monochrome, this provides a timeless and stylish David Lynch-ian study into madness.

In the middle of all this, little Lauren Ashley Carter as Darling is about to take on a job as Caretaker of a mansion. As soon as Madame says, “I really shouldn’t tell you this, but…” the scene is set: the previous caretaker has met with an untimely demise … but Darling is assured she has nothing to worry about. No matter how artistically shot this is, and how wilfully playful some of it may be, an opening like that never fails to sound clunky.

And so, to the accompaniment of shrieking violins and jumping, jerky camera movements, we are invited to observe Darling very convincingly succumb to madness. And that takes up the bulk of the film – often without dialogue and very ably played by Carter, there is nevertheless a sense of ‘is that it?’ Even as she goes to great lengths to end the life of her new guest (played by Brian Morvant) and then nervously heaves his corpse into an empty bath, it becomes clear Darling’s instability is all we’re going to get in terms of story-telling.

Darling’s alienation and severance from the rest of the bustling society is palpable, and Carter retains great presence as she continually slides further into her isolation (her eyes almost take on a performance of their own), the overall effect is one of intimate turmoil which appears to manifest from building itself.

To further distance itself from the trappings of normal filmed story-telling, this is split into six chapters – Her, Invocation, THRILLS, Demon, Inferno and The Caretaker.

2. Dec, 2016

A Candle for the Devil/Una Vela Para el Diablo/It Happened at Nightmare Inn (1973)

Uptight Marta (Aurora Bautista) is in a dilemma. Fresh faced Laura Barkley (Judy Geeson) has arrived to stay and only minutes earlier, Marta had caused the death of her sister. Marta’s own sister, the much less puritanical Veronica (Esperanza Roy) has been stealing money from the safe and carrying on with young general help Eduardo (Víctor Alcázar).

Despite being fairly central to the plot, Laura doesn’t feature as much as you might expect. Her new friend, obnoxious Helen (Lone Fleming) is the next one to be despatched. With people dropping like flies around her, Laura’s suspicions grow.

Initially, I sympathised with Marta’s thinking – the character of Helen for example wasn’t so much sexually provocative, but a thoroughly obnoxious character. Whilst her fate was abhorrent, she was advised several times to leave the hotel and was aggressively petulant in her defiance. As time goes on, however, Marta either becomes more twisted, or the depths of her instability becomes more and more pronounced to the viewer. This is demonstrated never more pleasingly when ‘the eye of a young woman’ is found staring out of someone’s hotel dinner. Although, considering the film’s title is ‘Candle for the Devil’, these events are a little small-time; I expected something a little more demonic.

The story ends on an uncertain note. Either the sisters’ deadly exploits are about to be exposed to the mad-eyed authorities, or the whole town is in on it. Revelling in the kind of intrigue that made ‘Psycho (1960)’ such a huge success, ‘A Candle for the Devil’ seems under-developed. It would have been more satisfying had it been made clearer if the entire district condoned, or was involved in the cover-up of, Marta’s blatantly murderous actions.

26. Nov, 2016

Vampyr (1932)

How to go about talking about Vampyr? This is a film that was made in 1932, but could almost be ten years older – it is mainly silent, with sparse moments of dialogue. Sometimes events seem deliberately obfuscated. There are also intertitles that relay moments and goings-on that might otherwise not be clear.

But little is clear. The main character is either referred to as David or Allen Gray. He is played by Julian West, who bears a resemblance to HP Lovecraft and is really named Nicolas de Gunzburg. The film’s critical mauling on release (after the more successful and ‘sophisticated ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’, both 1931) caused Director Carl Dreyer to suffer a nervous breakdown. And yet what might he have expected? The picture is surely a deliberate exercise in weirdness.

It is an unrelenting cacophony of suffering, dying, silhouettes, grainy rooms, and creeping grotesques. Gray’s role is seemingly to wander through it, reacting to all that goes on around him. He is me, he is you and he is caught in a spiralling nightmare. That’s what this picture is – the most genuine depiction of a nightmare.

Played by Sybille Schmitz, the character of Léone’s apparent transformation into a vampire is eerily effective - simply a lowering of the eyebrows and the curl of an evil smile. This causes her sister, lovely Giséle (Rena Mandel) to elicit Gray’s help, and courtesy of a book called Vampyrs, he identifies her symptoms.

Gray himself appears to either be a ghost, or dreams he is a ghost, leading to another of the film’s frightening highlights. As a ghost, or an astral projection, he observes himself lying in a windowed coffin, apparently dead. We see him in the coffin staring up as other sinister observers peer in.

The eccentric doctor who has been observing proceedings comes to a horrible end, suffocated in a flour mill. Dreyer’s camera is preoccupied with this, and returns to his hopelessly flailing body and reaching hands long moments before he finally dies.

It isn’t always easy to stay glued to this because not only does it not really follow a pattern, but the style of weirdness gives no assurance that events are ever going to become any clearer. And yet the imagery rewards – the one-legged policeman, the inexplicable deformed old man, the scythe-wielding peasant (Death?) on a ramshackle boat, and Gray and Giselle scampering through the sepia summertime. It is horribly haunting and not easily forgotten.

24. Nov, 2016

Satan's Blood/Don't Panic/Escalofrio (1978)

Possibly the reason why this film isn’t better known is the title – well, one of the titles. ‘Satan’s Blood’ is as generic-sounding as it gets, and there are many other horrors with similar monikers. It would be a shame if this has stifled its reputation, because this is very enjoyable.

A young couple Ana (Marianna Karr) and Andres (José María Guillén) are apparently recognised by some old school friends. Although this second couple Bruno (Ángel Aranda) and Berta (Sandra Alberti) don’t register, the foursome agree to return to Bruno and Berta’s isolated country house. The house manages to be magnificent and oppressive at the same time. And that is when the fun really begins.

Ana is pregnant in this film. This is mentioned a couple of times, although she shows no signs of her four-month gestation. There is a moment when, sharing a bath, Andres asks if the child is still ‘in there’ – at least, that’s what the subtitles tell us; I’m not sure they’re reliable. In any case, the pregnancy is never alluded to again.

Terrible things happen. Satanic rituals, elongated trance-sex, foursomes, murder and the creepiest china doll you may ever have seen. The doll in particular is featured in a very frightening way – sitting in the background in many early scenes, a slightly out-of-focus third person in many early two-way conversations. When it is eventually revealed fully, it is that much more sinister because we are familiar with it without really being aware of it. That and the needle-like mechanical sound effects that accompany it, make its brief appearances the most memorable in a film ripe with startling imagery.

From the outset, Bruno and Berta are clearly malevolent. When not indulging in satanic worship, they are snuffling from dog bowls or committing atrocities on Blackie, Ana and Andre’s pet Alsatian, with graphic resulting scenes that will send any dog-lover scurrying from the room.

‘Satan’s Blood’ is a terrific ride, a well told tale with only the inevitable lingering sex-scenes slowing things down and threatening to puncture the atmosphere. Taken as a whole though, it wouldn’t be as effective a film without the moments of ‘euro-sleaze’. Recommended.

19. Nov, 2016

Misery (1990)

James Caan plays writer Paul Sheldon. When he crashes his car in a ferocious snow-storm, it proves to be a very bad day for him. For Annie Wilkes, it proves to be an improbably good day, for not only does she find and rescue him from the wreckage, but the situation allows her to look after a hero of hers – she is an his ‘number one fan’ – as he convalesces in her spacious home.

Every actor in this small cast has been blessed with a wonderfully expressive face. Director Rob Reiner seems very happy to film a lot of moments in close-up. This leads us to appreciate every raised eyebrow, every wistful look into space and to determine exactly the kind of mood Annie happens to be in on her latest visit to Sheldon’s sickbed. The camera often almost zooms into her face as she walks into a scene – most effectively following the film’s most harrowing scene which guarantees more than a wince, when she coos ‘God, I love you.’

She has his books set aside as soon as they are released, she has a documented – notorious even – history of violent, murderous behaviour, she walks around town with her pet pig and is clearly a tolerated local eccentric. And yet it takes local Sheriff Buster – yes, that’s right (Richard Farnsworth), forever to conclude she may have something to do with his disappearance. Farnsworth has also been blessed with eloquent features, and we immediately warm to Buster’s kindly ways. Which is just as well, because otherwise our patience would be sapped by his inability to recognise the blatantly obvious.

So while the story takes a lot of investing into – the coincidence of Annie’s hero falling into her proverbial lap, and the Sheriff’s hopelessness – the cast and stark direction gives the production its legendary status.

17. Nov, 2016

The Scarlet Claw (1944)

Opening with mist-shrouded streets and the sound of the church bell mournfully ringing through the night, we are introduced to the character of Potts (Gerald Hamer), who makes his way through a wonderfully atmospheric Inn, full of smoky wide-eyed locals and superstitious townsfolk. When Potts speaks, it is with that familiarly conflicting mixture of Received Pronunciation and cockney, Universal films’ gleeful interpretation of how working class fellows enunciate.

This is directed by Roy William Neil, who oversaw ‘Frankenstein meets the Wolfman’ two years earlier. He was, and would remain, the man behind the Universal Sherlock Holmes series starring the unsurpassable Basil Rathbone as the shrewd investigator, and Nigel Bruce as Watson, whose occasional drifting into the befuddled realms of buffoonery has caused his interpretation to meet with mixed reactions. My views on Bruce are far more favourable – he does what he does exceedingly well, and is a vital identification figure for an audience to whom Holmes is too distant to relate to. If Watson was more the equal of Holmes, then we wouldn’t see the softer more humorous side to the great detective that proved so pivotal to these films’ success. The affection between the two leads is a definite highpoint.

There are a couple of minor oddities about this production. In one scene, Sherlock is putting on his coat, but only manages to get one arm into the sleeve, with the majority of the unfurling scene spent with the coat flapping behind him. Also, the ending features Holmes soliloquising; Watson interrupts to ask whom he is quoting. After replying ‘Churchill,’ Holmes clearly continues his speech, but his words are muted and he quickly fades away as the end credits roll in. Strange.

Of all the films in this series, this is saturated with the Universal horror treatment more than any other. Gruesome murders, rich performances, frightened butlers, and at the heart of it, a good old fashioned whodunit. When we find out who in fact has ‘done it’, the results are mixed – the actor in question isn’t really strong enough to adequately convey the necessary evil relish that befits the nature of his actions. And also, a few cheats have been employed to ensure we would never guess the killer’s identity. However, the whole exercise is carried out with such atmospheric expertise, by a cast and crew now adept at such murky horror trappings (as well as moments of reused music from their Frankenstein/Mummy series), that the results are impossible not to thoroughly enjoy.

16. Nov, 2016

Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970)

For some years, Christopher Lee had expressed a disenchantment with Hammer films’ variations on the Dracula theme. In 1969, he explained to his fan club that he was shortly to embark on a film for Jess Franco which promised to be a most authentic version of Bram Stoker’s novel. This is the result.

For anyone familiar with Franco’s films, this contains no real surprises. The storyline is laboriously told, but at least – thanks to Stoker – there is a storyline. Amidst the many zoom-ins (some of which work – for example, Renfield’s delirium is communicated well by their inclusion – and some of them don’t), much of the running time focusses on Dracula’s possession of Lucy, who we never get to know before his involvement. Therefore, we are not sure whether her robotic manner is the result The Count’s mental grip, whether she has always been that way, or Soledad Miranda – who looks stunning, of course - is delivering a performance so understated as to be somnambulistic.

Alongside Lee, we have Klaus Kinski, who could have made a memorable Renfield, but is given little to do other than eat the flies he keeps in a box hidden in the latrine! Herbert Lom is a splendidly solemn Van Helsing, and Fred Williams is a fine Jonathan Harker. It is worth mentioning that Dracula, in the novel from which this is apparently closely adapted, had an abhorrence of mirrors and would not allow them in the castle. Here, Harker has barely walked through the impressive main door when he and The Count are confronted by a massive wall mirror revealing, of course, that the earnest host casts no reflection. It seems as if Dracula is advertising the curse of his vampirism.

The locations and buildings are mostly suitably austere and impressive. There is a scene where the vampire hunters appear to be attacked/mesmerised by a menagerie of stuffed animals coming to life. This is either very effective (the camera swoops in close for us to see their glassy eyes and unmoving slavering jaws) or laughable if you make the mistake of presuming the director intends us to think the animals are real.

Christopher Lee is not aided by the direction in the way he was by Hammer’s crew, and without careful camera angles and lighting, is occasionally exposed as giving a hammy performance. That said, his strength of presence imposes nicely. His demise is fumbled – it serves to be both anti-climactic and poorly realised. Buried beneath flames, his despatch seems to be a direct influence to John-Forbes Robertson’s final fate in ‘Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).’

It would be unfair of me to express the opinion that this lacks the polish of even Hammer’s weakest Dracula outing (‘Scars of Dracula’, made this same year), because there is a deliberately different ‘feel’ to this. It meanders, parts are under-written and there is clearly very little budget. But it is pretty accurate to Bram Stoker’s novel and is enjoyable on its own merits. A flawed but enjoyable, very worthy addition to the many Dracula adaptions.

10. Nov, 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941)

Filming styles and techniques may have changed in the (as I write this) 75 years since this Victor Fleming directed (very loose) adaption of RL Stevenson’s famous story was released; the soft-focus, dough eyed matinee melodrama with clipped accents and chirpy cockneys may now seem something from a bygone age – but, good grief, what a timeless cast.

Three acting legends head the list. Spencer Tracy uses only a modest amount of make-up to transform him from opinionated but kindly Dr Jekyll into snarling, crouching Mr Hyde. Lana Turner steals every scene she is in as the cheeky but enraptured Beatrix, his fiancé. And Ingrid Bergman (originally cast as Beatrix, but happy to play a role that gave her a break from her ‘goody two shoes’ roles) is a compellingly intense presence as rough Ivy, the passionate but mannered strumpet who appeals to Jekyll’s baser instincts. With such a mighty trio, any other cast members might have been drowned out, but the supporting players are every bit as effective as they can be in MGM’s lavish adaption of a story still in the minds of the audience in the form of 1935’s extravaganza which earned Fredric March an Oscar in the pivotal role.

Hyde’s hold over Ivy happens a little too quickly, her chirpy demeanour replaced by un-questioning compliance occurs almost from one scene to the next. It is also surprising she doesn’t note the similarity between Jekyll and Hyde – so much so that she comes to Jekyll to seek treatment for the wounds inflicted on her by his alter-ego (although her performance allows her a few subtle double-takes which indicate she may suspect a similarity). Rather than casually take his frustrations out on anyone who got in his way, in this version Hyde focusses his loathing mainly on Ivy in a way that reminds me of the 1944’s ‘Gaslight’, also starring Bergman, in which a woman’s spirit is almost completely crushed by a vindictive ‘control freak.’

This is a lively, lavish production that doesn’t feel the need to stay too faithful to the original source material which was seemingly overshadowed by the monumental 1935 production. Once out of the shadow, it can be appreciated for merits all its own.