Spoilers follow ...

14. Mar, 2017

Chi l'ha Vista Morire?/Who Saw Her Die? (1972)

George Lazenby, in one of his first acting jobs since his solo stint as James Bond in 1969, here looks about ten years older, a lot thinner and less well-groomed. He is excellent as Franco, father to a little sweetheart called Roberta who is murdered. Lazenby has to share the spotlight with the sumptuously filmed streets of Venice, where most of the film is set, and Ennio Morricone’s relentless and sinister chanting soundtrack. The detailed, ornate architecture and glistening misty streets (also used to such good effect in ‘Don’t Look Now (1973)’ and 1989’s ‘Vampires in Venice’) make this one of the most atmospheric of giallo films. The cast of eccentric characters also add to the sense of heightened reality.

As a heterosexual male, I must point out Anita Strindberg (as Elizabeth Serpieri) and especially Dominique Boschero (as Genevra Storelli) as being stunning additions to the cast. It’s difficult to express an opinion on physical appreciation in what is in many ways an exploitation film without being seen to condone such exploitation. I would argue (at tedious length) that exploitation has existed sfor some time in virtually every film – especially mainstream, where anyone under the age of, what, 40 is invited to at least partially undress without unduly bothering any plot-line. Whether or not the approach to displays of flesh differs ‘now’, as opposed to ‘then’, is probably subject for a discussion elsewhere. In ‘Who Saw Her Die’, amongst other films, I like it.

This isn’t flawless – as often happens with giallo films, the pace slackens in the middle, but Lazenby’s increasing desperation keeps things ticking along. The unmasking towards the end and the reveal of the mysterious killer’s identity is satisfying. Recommended.

11. Mar, 2017

Salem's Lot (1979)

Way back on Monday 7th September 1981, amidst the police and hospital dramas, the light entertainment comedy shows and wildlife documentaries, the BBC transmitted the first of a two-part American TV Movie based on a story by Stephen King. I don’t know what its viewing figures were like, I am not aware of how critically acclaimed it was, but the following day, virtually everyone I knew was talking about it and how frightening it was. Two days later, after the final part aired, it was the only thing people were talking about. It was, as I remember, a phenomenon.

The story: The Marsten House, reputed to be haunted, has long been a source of morbid fascination for writer Ben Mears (an intense David Soul). It is based on the outskirts of the small town of Salem’s Lot, where Mears has returned after many years to write his latest book. Immediately he strikes up a closeness with Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) and gets to know the characters who frequent the community, their relationships with one another and the stories they have to tell. Their lives are so meticulously intertwined that we are easily allowed into their world, into which enters Richard Straker, who is about to open an Antiques Shop there. Straker is played by James Mason, an actor of immense power. Charming, affable, elegant and capable of great evil, Straker is played to perfection. His partner, Mr Barlow, is spoken of in hushed tones, but never seen. Straker observes the peccadillos of the townsfolk from an amused distance, for he has bigger plans.

The first part of ‘Salem’s Lot’ puts the pieces into place. In the second, most of the characters die in a series of expertly handled horror set-pieces. The outbreak of vampirism results in wild-eyed, fanged children floating outside the window begging to be let in; a sick hollow-eyed gravedigger, Mike Ryerson (an incredibly sinister Geoffrey Lewis) falling from an upper story window and never hitting the ground; people rising from their graves with a familiar sickly pallor. It is difficult to imagine any of these set-pieces being handled better. Director Tobe Hooper keeps things sinister and uneasy, taking the situations from King’s book and transferring them seamlessly to screen.

When we eventually meet Mr Barlow, actor Reggie Nalder’s cadaverous features are well and truly plastered under whitening contact lenses, vampire teeth and Nosferatu-like prosthetics. He is a snarling, inhuman monster, used sparingly – perhaps too sparingly – but never without great effect.

‘Salem’s Lot’ is a triumph on every level and still packs a punch today. Only Marc Petrie (Lance Kerwin) threatens initially to irritate – but then, he is something of an outcast, a bowl-haired horror ‘nerd’ and monster-kid academic. Really, that should endear him, but it doesn’t somehow. Yet his swottish leanings are essential in battling what becomes a town of slavering undead, which he does with considerable expertise.

Barlow’s major scene, where he and Straker gate-crash a Priest’s visitation on the Petrie family, where he rises from a black cloak to about 7 feet tall, is one of many highlights. Straker’s patronising name-calling of ‘holy man’ and ‘shaman’, faith against Barlow’s blue-skinned, heavily-veined face, with crucifix proving frighteningly ineffective – all add up to a set-piece of immense proportions, which, like Barlow’s involvement, is over far too soon.

10. Mar, 2017

Busanhaeng/Train to Busan (2016)

This begins with one of the best pre-credit scenes I’ve seen in a while, featuring a deer knocked down and apparently killed by a flustered van driver. Moments later, the crumpled body in the road judders back into life, struggling to stand. As it does so, we see its eyes – dead and milky. The creature has joined the ranks of the living dead!

Next we meet sulking child Soo-an (Kim Su-an), who is upset because her father Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) works all the time and spends no time with her. I have a problem with this kind of thing, and other similar scenes in other films. Perhaps the child would be less brattish if the parents gave up work and instead of a WII (or two) to play with, she had a stick and a clementine. Hardly! “Dads get all the bad rap and no praise,” says big soft husband Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) at one stage. Seok-woo, however, has his own story to tell …

Anyway, this distant father and child are but two passengers who board the train to Busan, amid news reports of violence and rioting in the streets, and also a wayward passenger exhibiting symptoms of a strange and deadly disease.

And we’re off. Whilst the rapid transformations of many passengers into zombies relies perhaps too heavily on the actors’ facial mannerisms and comes across often as ‘over-enthusiastic’ acting, there’s no denying the effect of an enclosed body of people reverting into killers in some tensely choreographed scenes.

My favourite character might well be Michael Ripper-like Yon-suck (Kim Eui-sung), self-serving CEO who does everything, and betrays everyone, in order to survive amidst the spitting, fast-moving zombie creatures. In one of my favourite scenes, the ringtone of a mobile phone in another carriage is used to successfully deflect the attentions of the ravenous pack. Watching them charging as one toward the source of the sudden, tinny music, is very effective.

Every possible drop of tension is wrung out into the running time. For a while whilst watching ‘Last Train to Busan’, I felt there was something holding it back from greatness. Brilliant direction, acting and urgent pacing – however, I couldn’t get completely immersed in it. And then, somewhere along the way, that changed and I was hooked. The tension is impossible to resist. What a journey!

9. Mar, 2017

31 (2016)

He gets a lot of stick for his style of horror films, does Rob Zombie. It is heartening in many ways, to find he appears not to care, and continues to release projects in his own raw, coarse style. It is no surprise to find wife Sheri Moon pretty central to the plot here; no surprise either that she goes through a pretty punishing time.

She (as Charly), alongside a Carnival van-load of other horny, chain-smoking Rob Zombie (RZ) staples, find their rock’n’roll lifestyle interrupted by a gang of organised game-hunters who insist they play the game of ‘31’ (this is set in the 1970s when a rock and roll lifestyle actually existed). Zombie stalwarts Malcolm McDowell and Judy Geeson star alongside veteran Jane Carr as the powdered and coiffured ringleaders of these ‘games’, seemingly set in some improbable palace with an interior comprised of dripping corridors and warehouse-sized killing grounds.

The killers are lazily-named Sick-Head and Doom-Head etc. Schizo, Psycho, Death and Sex make up some of the other Heads. All unable to growl through a sentence without at least a handful of ‘f*****g’s’ therein, they present a destructive, unhinged ensemble not dissimilar in personality from our alleged heroes. Pretty soon, we are knee-deep in campy, OTT gore, shrieking and black, tar-like blood, where the identity of the characters all melt into a melee, and come a distant second to the graphic killings. I certainly have no problem with this if in the right mood, just as I had no problem with RZ’s re-imagining of the ‘Halloween’ franchise – those films remain underrated in my view. Equally, his earlier ‘The Devil’s Rejects (2005)’ is somewhat over-rated, and it is this film with which Zombie compares ‘31’.

The problem with this for me is, after a while it ceases to shock and just becomes monotonous. Even the introduction of a German-growling fellow in a tutu attempting to club someone to death isn’t as much fun as it sounds. All the characters seem to have the same character, any lines are screamed and littered with so many profanities it goes beyond parody, and everything … just is. There is no lead-up to speak of, each violent act is loud, in your face and the familiarity with this repeated approach quickly wears thin.

I enjoy RZ films for their mad violence, wall-to-wall grotesques and graphic horror, but when that’s all there is, the results are a little wearing, but too loud to allow you to drift off.

8. Mar, 2017

Spasmo (1974)

A lurid title, day for night filming, a young couple indulging in some tepid sex venture, the discovery of what appears to be a corpse; all of this leads into some instantly lovely title music and leaves us under no illusions – this is giallo territory!

Brusque, humourless, hunk-cake poser Christian (Robert Hoffman) and his girlfriend discover an unconscious girl, Barbara (Suzy Kendall) on the beach and before long, she and rakish Christian have fallen in love. Soon, an intruder interrupts their courtship – before accidently getting killed with his own gun. His corpse however, disappears …

It’s madness, I tell you. And yet it moves briskly, has a typically addictive soundtrack (usual suspect Ennio Morricone, not quite firing on all cylinders but as always, providing an elegant score) and contains more intrigue than you could shake a stick at. ‘Spasmo’ is a lot less ludicrous than the trailer (an urgently choreographed selection of scenes with an actor yelling the title over and over in an increasingly feverish manner), but also a lot less fun. Tell-tale bloodstains, espionage, the main man’s miraculously self-cleaning clothes, corpse-like mannequins strewn about the place – all these things would add layers of intrigue if only the plot was more comprehensible. Someone seems to be out to drive Noel Edmonds-lite Christian mad and goes to extraordinary lengths to do so. He doesn’t make it difficult, driven as he is by his libido making him an easy target. Simply engage him with a woman almost as beautiful as he is, and away we go.

Eccentric in its story-telling to the point of delirium, it’s impossible not to at least partially enjoy this mad-fest. Not the greatest giallo, it nevertheless takes a while to leave you.

4. Mar, 2017

Hollows Grove (2014)

With their tongues firmly in their collective cheeks, a crew of television ghost hunters (lead by the diminutive and highly irritating Tim Royce, played by Matt Doherty) are reluctantly given permission to investigate an abandoned children’s orphanage.

One of the benefits of this style of found-footage stories is that, as the characters acquaint the viewers of their filmed footage with information about the building, we – the audience – are also being fed information that feeds our own feelings about the scenario. Equally useful is the less-than-serious attitude of the characters; when strange things begin to happen, they all assume one of their number is responsible. After all, they are filming a ghost-hunting entertainment show. The creaks and shadows are probably the work of their resident effects man, Bill (an underused Lance Henriksen) … well, aren’t they?

No matter how puerile their humour is to begin with, the crew’s hi-jinks serves a purpose too. The contrast between that and their more panicked, more real reactions later on is marked. And matters do become persuasively creepy. ‘Grave Encounters’, a similar project from 2011, seems to have been set up as a benchmark for this kind of film, and there are pleasing similarities – with a TV crew in an old abandoned building, there are bound to be.

The cast is very good. Only the breath-taking Bresha Webb as producer Julie fails to convince, although there is a post end-credits sequence that redeems her performance somewhat.

You’ll probably have seen this kind of thing before, but not always this enjoyable in the execution.

3. Mar, 2017

Suspiria (1977)

Baby-faced student Suzie Bannion (Jessica Harper) travels to a German dance-school which becomes a living nightmare for her. A selection of disco-lit killings take place before a peripheral character explains the origins of the place, and why it has become such a location of terror.

The unforgiving rain, faces staring, the darkness of night - all these things and more are accompanied (or drowned out) by the relentless, driving musical score. When the soundtrack is not present, it comes as a relief. So huge and all-encompassing is this crashing music that it all but smothers everything, especially the performances. And when something truly dramatic and horrific happens, the accompaniment storms back once again bringing with it an overpowering effect that works against proceedings rather than enhancing them. Equally the sets, so rich in colour and pattern clearly win the fight with the actors in arresting the attention – sometimes effectively, providing a lush, poetic, dreamlike environment, and others simply far, far too decadent not to work with the soundtrack in inducing a migraine. I can understand the intention to make everything heightened and not-quite-real, but whilst it sometimes works, often it is too loud and too much.

The character who does the most to make an impression amidst all around her is Miss Tanner, formidable gravel-voiced dance-instructress. Croatian actress Alida Valli plays her with a prison-officer deportment and ensures Tanner is every bit as fearsome as her reputation within the school suggests.

I’ve seen this described as a terrifying masterpiece of Italian cinema, but the overall effect, although commendably original, is mostly lost on me. Perhaps I prefer something slightly more subtle. That said, the last 15 minutes racks up the horror content rather and ensures that the experience at least ends on a high.

2. Mar, 2017

Il Tuo Vizio è una Stanza Chiusa e Solo io ne ho la Chiave/Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)

After a title sequence featuring credits superimposed over blurred copulation, this wonderfully titled production features a graphic orgy in which the host, the deeply unpleasant Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli) seems intent on publically humiliating his wife Irina (Anita Strindberg). Thus the tone is set for this fairly sexually charged giallo horror romp. In fact, the erotic content clogs up much of the tension the story brings, especially once Oliviero’s niece, stunning Floriana (Edwidge Fenech) arrives and seduces half the cast.

As the debauchery becomes entwined with murder, the presence of a black cat becomes suspicious by its ubiquity. Acknowledged as inspiration in the opening credits, Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Black Cat’ has a lot to do with the lustrous feline, named Satan, looking wide-eyed but unconcerned amidst various gory and bloody scenes. After its pop-eyed demise, the resultant spectre of the creature seems to become a supernatural catalyst.

Amidst the passions of the ever-horny characters and the growing amount of murders, Oliviero remains unconcerned, which seems to indicate he may well be the culprit. And yet, his apparent guilt is plastered too thickly for him not to be a red herring. Or so you might think.

As much a dark and occasionally grisly whodunit as a horror, Poe’s influence becomes more effective and apparent towards the finale. As ever, the scenery is breath-taking (when not bathed in darkness) and Sergio Martino’s direction takes full and impressive advantage of this. Bruno Nicolai’s score joins the ranks of must-have available soundtracks.

2. Mar, 2017

Doctor Mabuse: Etiopomar (2014)

At first I had misgivings about Nathan Wilson taking over the role of Mabuse. Jerry Lacy was such a powerful performance in the first film that any less screen time involving him seemed to indicate a retrograde step. However, not only is Wilson very good in the role, but Lacy still features every bit as much as he did before; this time he is more of a side-lines observer, swapping apocalyptic pronouncements with the two brilliantly bickering witches played by fellow Dark Shadows stars Lara Parker and Kathryn Leigh Scott.

This sequel opens things up beyond events in the previous film. The city of Etiopomar is represented by a larger, Caligari/Metropolis-styled visuals and the cast is slightly larger. That is not to say that we are suddenly treated to any that betrays the tiny-budget appeal and style of the original. Direct Ansel Faraj’s blue-screened anti-reality is still very much in evidence here, and usually that works to the film’s weird advantage. The idea of automatons bringing down the city is realised with uneasy effect with a skilful economy of effects and the talents of the cast.

Dark Shadows’ Christopher Pennock is a welcome addition here, playing the marvellous eye-rolling Professor who steals Mabuse’s doctrine, with a zeal only matched by Dane Corrigan as Rotwang, one of the maddest mad scientists you will ever witness (based on the character from 1932’s ‘Metropolis’). Added to this a noir-ish quality that makes no concessions to the limitations of realism.

Now, if only the cast could agree on how to pronounce Mabuse!

25. Feb, 2017

The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962)

This is a cheap and cheerful horror entry from 1962 that could easily have been made twenty years earlier, where huge swathes of conversational plot contrivances are passed between static characters in virtually blank sets. With echoes of Frankenstein, this story alerts us to the experiments of accomplished Doctor Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) who may or may not have been stealing amputated limbs from the hospital in which he works, to further his mysterious efforts. When his fiancé appears and pours herself all over him (still in the same scant hospital set) and says “There is nothing that can keep us apart,” you hope against hope that nothing disastrous will befall the young couple.

Yet, the plot is cruel, and pretty soon an appalling and awkwardly (cheaply) staged car crash occurs that tragically separates Jan’s head from the rest of her. Worry not, for love conquers all and soon, her bandage wrapped head, fully made-up you understand, is brought back to life while Doctor Bill finds her another body.

My tone is glib, of course. And while I am a nobody who will never amount to anything, the people behind this film have recorded something that will live on on celluloid – however, the tone here is never entirely serious. Although it is played straight – possibly too straight – and the imagery is occasionally gruesome (indeed, this was completed in 1959 but claims of its ‘tastelessness’ delayed its release for three years), there is a drive-in Saturday afternoon, tongue-in-cheek quality to this designed, it seems to me, to make teenagers groan and roll their eyes whilst enjoying every earnest moment.

23. Feb, 2017

Frankenhooker (1990)

With 'Frankenhooker', chances are you get what you expect. ‘Trash’ and ‘screwball’ describe the knockabout humour on display here as Jeffrey (James Lorinz) brings back to life his decapitated fiancée by ‘building her a new body of Manhatten street prostitutes’.

A lot of the first part of the film relies on Lorinz, who is required to carry scenes by himself. He is somewhat expressionless but enters into the spirit of the proceedings with little inhibition. The second part is indebted to Patty Mullen as Elizabeth, parading under patchwork prosthetics, being seduced by a selection of horrendous macho 1990’s muscle men. Her jerky wide-eyed movements recall a certain sense of Elsa Lanchester from the original ‘Bride of Frankenstein (1935)’.

There’s plenty of flesh, lots of rubber limbs and some fairly graphic titillation on offer. Only when Elizabeth regains her memories does the grotesque humour make way for actual emotion, but that’s fine. “There wasn’t enough left of you to fry an egg with,” explains Jeffrey in one of his final pronouncements.

An acquired taste, especially now its garish, coarse visuals have a very dated quality, this is what it is. Deliberately goofy, wobbly, sleazy, popcorn nonsense worth a giggle.

22. Feb, 2017

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Tigon films never made a secret of being inspired by the larger Hammer horror company: this film is perhaps most indebted to their rival. It stars Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and briefly Michael Ripper, and the story’s Victorian setting is familiar to Hammer fans. I don’t know how successful this was upon release. It was actually Tigon’s final horror outing, the company having all but ceased by the time of the film’s release, having been rebranded as the very different The Laurie Marsh Group. I have a feeling it would have been more lucrative had it been released ten years earlier, when such a style of story-telling was in its prime.

Cushing plays Professor Emmanuel Hildern, first seen (minus toupee) alongside elegant actor David Bailie in an almost psychedelic, featureless laboratory set relaying the story we are about to see. Lee is typically and masterfully cold and officious as brother James, whose ambition far outweighs any loyalty to his sibling. The charming Lorna Hailbron is Emmanuel’s daughter Penelope, stoically attempting to keep the family home alive despite debilitating finances brought about by her father’s experimentation into the dawn of creation. Emmanuel is fiercely over-protective of his daughter following his wife’s descent into madness; he fears the condition may be hereditary. As it is, his deception is the instigator of Penelope’s rapid decline. Too rapid, in my view – for years she has been the most sensible family member; suddenly she is certifiable.

Such experiments regurgitate the skeleton of a previously unknown, outsized monolithic humanoid creature. The interesting thing is, unlikely as it may seem, any contact with water puts flesh back on the bones and brings the old boy to life! Energised by this revelation, Emmanuel removes one of the creature’s fingers in order to investigate further (some suggest a certain phallic similarity with the outsized digit, which in the hands of lesser an actor than Cushing, could result in chortles from the audience during his examination of the prop). We are treated to many close-ups of the dormant monster, as if he is observing throughout.

This is lovingly, sedately directed by Freddie Francis and seems to be well budgeted. James’ asylum setting is impressive, as is the lively plight of escaped inmate Lennie (Kenneth J Warren), although this entertaining side-step has little to do with the plot.

A word for Cushing’s performance. It’s a given really, that he always puts in a fine performance, but this fragile, broken soul is amongst his best. The ending, and the lead-up to it, is true classic horror with the creature finally animated and seen in restrained long-shots. Cushing sobbing and defeated after the creature has come to claim its revenge, is heart-breaking.

18. Feb, 2017

Aaaaaaaah! (2015)

Well! Two casually dressed men walk into a rainy woodland. One of them, Smith (writer and director Steve Oram) extracts a photograph of a woman in a wedding dress, possibly his wife, weeps and throws it into the bramble. Sobbing, both men then proceed to urinate on the picture before turning and pointing triumphantly at the city on the distant horizon and march off purposefully towards it, communicating only in grunts as they go.

Aaaaaaaaah! is a most acquired taste to watch, but a delight to review. It removes itself from any definition, featuring an entire cast of present day, well-dressed Neolithic-style throwbacks. It is many things, and as it features an absurdist extreme portrayal of the human condition, why should it not also be seen as horror? Some have called it a kind of mirror to the ‘Planet of the Apes’ films; instead of civilised primates living in uncivilised conditions, here we have city-dwellers with modern amenities portrayed as base animals. Any scenes of strived-for humour centre around the penis, defecation, violence and sex. Is it a comment on the decline of society? Who knows! And yet any comedy is reflected purely in the characters - the actual playing, although absurd, is approached with commitment. This grotesque ‘parody’ is serious business.

Lucy Honigman (as Denise) and, yes, Toyah Wilcox (Barbara) live with, provide for, but are repulsed by, their husbands. Honigman has a secret friendship with Jupiter (Julian Barrett), who lives in the garden (in flashbacks, we are given the impression that Jupiter was the head of the family at one time, but has fallen from grace). Noel Fielding, the other half of ‘The Mighty Boosh’ duo, also has a small part which doesn’t last long. If you’ve seen his scenes, you’ll know what I mean.

When Smith and his ‘number two’ Keith (Tom Meeton) arrive, Smith and Denise appear to get married. And it is Smith’s new found dominance over the group that seems to thread any storyline this might offer. I quite enjoyed it. I don’t know what it is trying say, but it has inspired me to write these words about it, and you to read them. Bless you.

18. Feb, 2017

Beneath (2013)

Attractive blonde Samantha Marsh (Kelly Noonan) joins a group of miners on a dig 600 feet below the surface on her father’s (Jeff Fahey) final day as foreman for the group. Today is the day in which something goes spectacularly wrong. Wouldn’t you just know it? And so, the group of hardened men and a capable but frightened woman are trapped as a mine collapses and air, putrid as it is, is starting to run out.

You have to be in the right mood to enjoy a film full of panicking people trapped in a punishing environment, as with anything really. What ‘Beneath’ does, it does very well, and you really do get a sense that the hugeness of their subterranean is made persuasively close and claustrophobic.

Among the ‘god-damns’ and the beautiful capped teeth is a real sense of there being something ‘out there’, because if the situation was not bad enough, there is also some (sadly unexplained) spiritual presence sharing the space with them, which makes its presence felt at the least welcome times.

This is a well-played, tense underground horror.

16. Feb, 2017

La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono/The House of the Laughing Windows (1976)

In a sea of disconcerting images, the most unpleasant must be the fridge full of snails, bathed in their own excrement. It is something that happens without fanfare and is treated without hysteria, either by lovely new teacher Francesca (Francesca Marciano) or hero Stefano (Lino Capolicchio). There are quite a few disconcerting images like this, some occasional gore and an overriding atmosphere of perversion and unknown horror.

The story involves Stefano’s deployment to an isolated village (always the best kind) to restore a decaying mural in the local church. He takes up residency in the house owned by the original, deceased artist’s two sisters. Whilst carrying out the restoration, his casual investigations reveal that the original artist was an insane murderer, who used his nefarious activities as ‘inspiration’ for his art.

Amidst the chilling night-time whispers of ‘purify’ and the eerie dilapidation of the titular house, Stefano’s affair with doe-eyed (yet hirsute) Francesca is a welcome touch of tenderness. You just know that something unspeakable is going to happen to her.

It’s a heady concoction of sinister characters and unnerving set-pieces. The surprise revelation at the end of the film is very satisfying and in part, pretty gruesome. Although the film may never quite live up to its glorious title, it provides an entertaining edition to the Italian ‘giallo’ cinema.

15. Feb, 2017

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

A sequel to 1958’s seminal ‘Dracula’, without Christopher Lee as the main man, could very well have been doomed to failure. Initial signs weren’t promising. When offered to return as Van Helsing, co-star Peter Cushing turned his nose up at the script. The subsequent various tweaks and three credited writers improved things sufficiently for him to agree to do it, but the re-writes resulted in a few flaws in an otherwise flawless film – just who was the Man In Black who ensured Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) was abandoned at the inn (and where did he go)? Why did Marianne swiftly agree to marry Baron Meinster after previously being made very aware of his atrocities, and if Meinster could turn into a bat at will, then why was he shackled by the ankle unable to escape? Also, what happened to the vampire ‘brides’ at the film’s close?

I had, and have, the biggest crush on Yvonne Monlaur as Marianne. Her air of innocence, naivety and elegance (the character was playing a teacher of deportment after all) made a ridiculous impression on me when I first saw ‘Brides’ in 1980. This fact has no bearing on my opinion of the overall brilliance of this early Hammer success. Before we’ve begun proper, we’ve had stalwart Michael Ripper as a coach-master tearing through a classic, misty, desolate wilderness. We’ve had superstitious locals desperately afraid for their new guest, Marianne. We have the imperious, mighty Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) initially frightening everyone before revealing herself as a terrified, tragic figure – and her ward Greta (Freda Jackson) is wonderfully (and persuasively) deranged whilst showing unswerving loyalty to her mistress. The performances here drip with a genuine class and confidence that we actually don’t actually miss Van Helsing, who doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the film.

In the absence of The Count, we need a nemesis for Peter Cushing’s immaculate, masterly vampire Hunter. Whether Sir Lee was approached or not remains unknown, but David Peel, shorter and wearing a blond wig, more than makes up for his absence. Incredibly, Peel gave up acting after this, which is a shame. Here, he is noble and aristocratic, seductive and deadly, of imperious gaze and an intoxicating voice. Billed in America as a ‘teenage vampire’, Peel was actually 40 years old during filming. He is utterly brilliant in this, and his scenes are all electrifying. Only his eventual demise is slightly disappointing– no slow-motion disintegration effects here, but we do get a spectacularly over-the-top special effect when the sails of a windmill are turned (by Van Helsing in Errol Flynn mode, naturally) to form the shadow of a massive crucifix that finishes off the injured Baron.

This remains a firm favourite of mine, and something I never tire of watching. The sets, the lighting, Terrance Fisher’s uncluttered but inspiring direction, the cast (honourable mentions for Andree Melly and Miles Malleson), the story – it all offers something new every time. And let’s not forget Meinster achieved something Dracula never did – he actually ‘put the bite’ on Van Helsing. His antidote to the curse still makes me wince.

Lovely, stately horror from Hammer at their peak.

14. Feb, 2017

Voodoo Possession (2014)

One thing worse than being a patient in an understaffed, dilapidated mental hospital in Haiti is to be visited by a group of quick-talking, squabbling young hacks determined to uncover the institution’s secrets whilst dishonouring local beliefs, moaning about the lack of a Starbucks, and shoving their cameras into patients’ faces.

Hunky main man Aiden (Ryan Caltagirone) has also come here to search for his brother, and is alarmed to find the place possessed by some demonic force. Hence the film’s title. Splendid-faced Danny Trejo, who is perhaps best known for his appearances in three ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ films (as well as a plethora of others) appears briefly as Billy Cross. Other characters are sadly so flat that they barely register.

We have to trust that the asylum is in Haiti, as everything occurs indoors and the simple sets betray the low budget on offer. “I’m having trouble processing all this crazy shit,” fey Duane Dubois (Abe Spigner) remonstrates at one stage, which gives you some idea of the level of erudition on display here – but he has a point. The story, other than an asylum possessed, is a jumble and so flat are the scares (although the climactic effects occasionally ascend to the impressive) that the effort required to work out what exactly is going on doesn’t seem worth it. Even the music score (usually a dependable way of enhancing mood) is underwhelming, all but disappearing at moments of tension.

Ultimately, this emerges as yet another badly made unengaging horror attempt with screaming passing off as emoting (with Caltagirone the main culprit): daytime soap opera drama interspersed with wailings of demonic forces. The ‘touching’ ending featuring (‘SPOILER’) the two reunited brothers sobbing and telling each other how much they love each other is particularly nauseating. Why would a supposed powerful spirit spend so much time concerning itself with this bunch of shallow show-offs is anyone’s guess.

11. Feb, 2017

Plan Z (2016)

As plans go, Plan Z isn’t the greatest. It consists of stocking up on supplies and then staying indoors until the food runs out before heading off to ‘somewhere quiet.’ It deals, of course, with a zombie outbreak, illustrated economically by scenes of the slowly staggering Living Dead smeared with blood amidst a few overturned cars.

The decision to leave for the countryside occurs 28 days after the initial outbreak (as an onscreen caption tells us) which makes it pretty clear where this film’s influence comes from. ’28 Days Later (2002)’ was a ground-breaking UK success, which this clearly does not have the budget to emulate. And yet, by confining much of the initial outbreak to the area surrounding Craig, a very isolated man, we are treated to a very personal, even intimate vision of the apocalypse that negates cities bathed in CGI twilight and hordes of decomposing trouble-makers. Craig is played by Stuart Brennan, whom also wrote and directed this. His sole friend for the first half is Bill (Paul Mark Wake).

Much fleeing from underwhelming cadavers ensues, often to the music of a soft-rock music soundtrack. As they travel to the Isle of Skye, they meet up with a few more people including Seren (Victoria Morrison), who has the annoying habit of chuckling after every pronouncement. Sadly after this time, such a story as there is has run out of steam. Listening to the characters’ earnest strategies and travel arrangements punctuated by curiously gore-free zombie attacks soon becomes, if you will, pretty lifeless. It is as if the crew suddenly lost interest and decided to end production as soon as they could.

Good bleak landscapes evoke a feeling of desolation amidst this minimalist outbreak, but ultimately ‘Plan Z’ doesn’t have much of story to tell.

10. Feb, 2017

Rings (2017)

“Life sucks when you can’t sleep.” “Yeah, tell me about it.” “Sometimes it helps to talk about it.” Story of the videotape that kills you, communicated from slick jawed ‘cute’ guy to meticulous, concerned girl. And this new chapter of ‘The Ring’ cycle begins.

1998’s Japanese original ‘The Ring’ was a fine film, and despite Naomi Watts’ attempts, so was the 2002 remake. And yet the story was always pretty thin. This needn’t matter if there is enough imagination floating around the production team to create an atmosphere of unease, characters you care about and exciting situations. Guess what? ‘Rings’ has none of these things. Of course, it brings back the old routine with some good effects – oily black water, upwards rain, the child-voice whispering ‘7 days,’ and yet these brief moments exist in isolation.

Self-assembly teens with choreographed intensity and catwalk emotion, dull as can be, pretty as paint. Can you act? Hell no, but if I smother my face in make-up and raise the occasional eyebrow, no-one will care. What about the dialogue? Shall we have any jokes, any natural discourse, any emotion? Nah, just spout some perfunctory slang, and add a bit of sexless titillation. We’re so pretty, we don’t need anything else.

It’s galling to read reviews that proclaim a certain film as the worst ever made. This isn’t the worst film ever made. But it’s the worst I’ve seen for a very long time. It’s competently put together, had a few million dollars thrown at it, and a soundtrack desperately trying to tell us something of worth is happening. And yet everything that made the original so unsettling has been reduced to diva teen drama, acting strictly confined to the school of daytime soap, the anaemic kind of thing you’ve seen many times before and will probably see many times again, as long as there is popcorn and boredom.

Even the much maligned ‘Ring 2’ (both Japanese and Hollywood versions) possessed at least an extension of the sinister spirit of Samara and her tragic evil. Here, whatever she has become is just another standard lurking presence. Her appearance stirs the dullness around it, rather than lifts it.

Usually, there is something of merit in a film. Even if there is perilously little, I still recognise that someone, somewhere, has probably lavished time and thought on the project and that is always worth consideration. I can’t imagine anyone involved in this giving two hoots, other than to justify a pay-packet.

There are rumours Ring films could become the ‘new’ annual Halloween release, like ‘Paranormal Activity’ and 'Saw' before it. If this Scooby-Doo-without-humour bore is anything to go by, it might well be better to forget it. If only I could forget watching this. Absolutely dreadful.

9. Feb, 2017

Late Phases: Night of the Wolf (2014)

Compared to zombie and vampire films, the curse of lycanthropy is under-represented at the box office. Perhaps this is due to the perceived need for a budget big enough to provide convincing man-to-wolf transformations. And yet micro-budgeted UK project ‘Silverhide (2015)’ and this prove that, with imaginative storytelling, the curse of the werewolf can still provide solid entertainment.

Immediately, this story is interesting. Characters are funny and rounded, with blind Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici) and his over-cautious son Will (Ethan Embry) winning instantly the interest. Ambrose handles the clumsy way the good folk around him overcompensate for his blindness with amusing bluntness (“We’re the police, sir.” “Yeah, I can smell the doughnuts.”). That’s where the secret lies, in my view, of good fiction – if we care about the characters, find them in some way empathic or appealing, then we’re with them when the drama begins.

And it isn’t long before a huge shaggy creature, only partially glimpsed, destroys the lives of many of the characters we care about. Looking as if it has strayed from the set of ‘Dog Soldiers (2002)’ – there’s a lack of CGI here – the creature mainly impresses with blurred and brief imagery. These scenes contrast well with the over-riding atmosphere of late-summer contentment in this picturesque community.

As to who is the actual wolf-man, the suspects are effortlessly presented. It seems any resident in the otherwise quiet retirement community is a possibility. They all seem good natured, wholesome people, but occasional furtive glances, asthmatic conditions resulting in heavy breathing similar to that which Ambrose heard during his initial meeting with the creature, indicates that none of the quirky characters is above suspicion.

There is a transformation scene here, and Director Adrián García Bogliano captures it very effectively, with a swooping camera that gives the impression of the entire scene being one continuous take. When seen in all their glory, the resulting creatures are more rubber-looking than the previous brief glimpses lead us to believe. However, in classic style, we are by this time so caught up in the compelling and original treatment that it really doesn’t matter. Pleasing to see that, although there is much humour within the character interaction, the horrors are treated entirely seriously. Music is provided by the excellent Wojciech Golczewski, who so memorably went on to score ‘We Are Still Here (2015)’