Spoilers follow ...

2. Aug, 2017

The Corridor (2010)

This is a curious film that seems to be about many things, at least initially. Tyler (Stephen Chambers) sees his mother dead on the landing of his family home. She has overdosed on pills apparently, and the realisation sends him on a nervous break-down. When his friends come round, he is hiding in a cupboard. When they try to help him, he attacks them with a knife.

A while later, Tyler has seemingly recovered, helped by a course of therapy. To build bridges, he and his friends agree to meet in a snowbound retreat for a ‘boys’ weekend’. They seem to be a tight group, and soon, Tyler is back at the heart of the friendship – only Everett (James Gilbert) seems to want to scupper things; he seems determined to ply him with alcohol, which is inadvisable given Tyler’s course of medication.

Big lad Bobcat (Matthew Amyotte) sports a bald plate that is never, ever convincing. It is a curious directorial decision, but made so we can hear dialogue about baldness keeping him virile and ‘having the kids to prove it’ (which is an unknowing dig at Jim (Glenn Matthews), who is secretly impotent). All this spurs on further antagonism later.

So when Tyler, outside in the wastes alone, finds what appears to be a corridor in the middle of the woodland, he feels his sanity crumble. And yet he proves to be the only one who can see through the violent chaos that ensues between the group.

Sadly, at least for me, the latter half of the film dissolves into a trippy mesh of special effects and shouting. This would appear to be a logical progression from the enjoyably illogical events that lead up to it, but I found these developments less satisfactory, although Tyler’s story at least achieves a sense of closure within the chaos.

29. Jul, 2017

Contracted: Phase 1 (2013)

Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is a somewhat prickly, somewhat supercilious, usually unimpressed party girl who only has eyes (and smiles) for assured posh girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman) – who is even less pleasant that she is! After being stood up at a party, Samantha has unprotected sex with BJ (Simon Barrett) – who may or may not have spiked her drink - only deciding against the idea once he is on top of her in the back of his car, the windows having had time to heavily steam up.

Seemingly as a result of this, Samantha begins to suffer a series of increasingly harrowing afflictions – heavy loss of blood, tinnitus, disorientation, cramps, heightened veins, hair-loss etc. Despite Samantha’s lofty characteristics, Townsend plays her very well and it is impossible not to empathise with her when her illness spirals out of control. What helps our empathy is the furthering reveal of Nikki’s character as utterly self-absorbed, and try as she might, Samantha will never figure in her life because she (Nikki) is always entirely preoccupied with herself and her sexuality.

To discuss the character of BJ– ‘Contracted’ opens with a scene of him having sex with a corpse in the mortuary where he works. It’s actually quite difficult to work out what is happening, which is a shame as the whole reason for Samantha’s decline is based on this detail. It is interesting that, for all his notoriety, we never clearly see his face (in the sequel, he is even played by a different actor).

Another slight issue I have is that the unfortunate girl’s physical decline is not always entirely consistent- sometimes her teeth are blackened, sometimes not; her eyes deteriorate into whiteness only to improve before deteriorating in the next scene. This isn’t a major problem by any means; it just means her transition from living to ‘other’ isn’t always a smooth one!

As a diary of what happens when pretty people are not so pretty anymore, this is interested and wince-inducingly watchable. It reminds me of 2012’s ‘Thanatomorphose’, which also features a young woman becoming increasingly decomposed and attempting to handle the situation alone. Here, the attitude of Samantha’s unsympathetic doctor (who judgementally suspects an STD) and mother appears to explain her reticence to seek further outside help.

Written and directed by Eric England, the first sequel (‘Phase II’) was released in 2015, and a further instalment is due for late 2017. I thoroughly enjoyed this, not ever knowing where the story was headed – instead, just ‘enjoying’ Samantha’s turmoil. Whether any explanations as to the nature of the malady will be revealed doesn’t really matter as long as the story is this horrifying and enjoyable.

28. Jul, 2017

The Wolf Man (1941)

Lovely big smiley Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney), the unlikely son of diminutive Lord John Talbot (Claude Raines), returns to his vast family home in Llanwelly, Wales, to commiserate the death of his brother John. Whilst idly toying with the magnificent and outsize telescope, he spies Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who runs an antique shop. In an act of astonishingly stalker-like blatancy, Larry is quite brazen about his spying activities and uses it to chat up intelligent, no-nonsense Gwen, who is engaged to dapper Frank (Patrick Knowles). Larry’s not put off by this and continues to pursue Gwen, becoming – in my view - a first class pest in the process.

This is Universal films’ Wales, of course – why a Welsh location was decided on, I don’t know; there’s not a single remotely authentic accent to be heard. But who cares? My sneering attitude does ‘The Wolf Man’ a disservice. This would be Universal’s last A-list chiller. I always think the 1930s were the time of the horror film; in the 1940s (due to changing styles and budgetary considerations), they became monster movies; child-friendly creature-features that are utterly brilliant, but not quite the carefully constructed, intricate exercises in horror from the previous decade. ‘The Wolf Man’ contains a little from both worlds, but for all the light of the full moon, I cannot find the titular creature frightening, unlike his stablemates Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula.

Despite Lon’s best efforts and some gruelling transformation scenes, the wolf man remains a lumbering, furry Airdale on two hind quarters. The scary qualities this film possesses are in the legends around the shaggy old snarler. Classic Universal’s best autumnal woodlands and sinister town square, pumped full of dry-ice fog and smoke, magnificent Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, the Gypsy Fortune Teller: smaller than anyone, yet the most authoritative. Also, Bela Lugosi in a criminally small role as gypsy Bela, with his own tragic story to tell (Lugosi makes a big impression in what is little more than a cameo). Frank Bellamy plays his usual solid slab of unmemorable beefcake decency, in the character of Colonel Paul.

There’s an incongruity – Bela becomes a werewolf, but when we see his alter-ego, it’s an actual real wolf. When Larry, who is inevitably bitten and receives the curse, he sprouts fur and fangs (and the cutest Hobbit-feet and button snout) but retains his human form.

As the net closes in on Talbot, his cheery demeanour slowly becomes enshrouded in uncertainty and furtive misery, which he retains through several sequels. Lon’s acting attracts much comment, some favourable and some unfair comparing with the very different styles of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and others; but he never fails to invest his all into Talbot, his ‘baby’, a finely nuanced, progressive character about which he remained justifiably proud.

27. Jul, 2017

The Haunting of Marsten Manor (2007)

This low-budget project features Brianne Davis as feisty Jill, who gives her obnoxious lawyer short shrift when he attempts to patronise her when revealing the contents of his recently deceased aunt’s will. Jill is blind and is still coming to terms with people’s reactions to her. A possible stroke of good fortune comes about when it is revealed her estranged aunt has left her home – a spooky old mansion.

I mention the low-budget production values because this can put some viewers off. I bore people rigid by saying that independent films are only constrained by their lack of finance, and better that than to have the project diluted by the creativity-sapping, restraint-soaked wishes of more mainstream organisations. And yet it is true. If you want spectacular stunts and humanity-stripping CGI, this won’t be for you.

If you wish to look beyond superfluous production gimmickry, there is much to enjoy here. Writer/director David Sapp makes the most of his locations and particularly the Manor itself. The three main players Davis, Ken Luckey and Christine Woods (as Jill’s two good friends Rob and Erika) are terrific naturalistic and unaffected performers. Above all, their friendship is real and we can relate to them as people. When Jill starts seeing apparitions, she optimistically believes her eyesight may be returning.

The pace doesn’t pick up, but neither does it falter and there are a few decent scares. The most effective for me concerns Jill’s audio diaries – when playing back her latest entry, there are other noises in the background. Of course, people being people, an element of distrust grows amongst Rob and Erika, and for a time it is entirely possible (though unlikely) that one of them is deliberately trying to unnerve poor Jill.

The end is satisfying. And no, Jill does not magically recover her sight. She does, however, become more accustomed to her situation. Ultimately, ‘Marsten Manor’ is a decent chiller and well worth your time.

26. Jul, 2017

Ritual (2013)

A young lady called Lovely (Lisa Marie Summerscales) is being chatted up at the seaside. She’s coy, all smiles. The next thing, we hear her disembodied voice on the phone crying, pleading for help. When her estranged husband Tom (Dean Cates) turns up to see her at a seedy hotel, he greets her desperate cries with all the sympathy of a sledgehammer. We soon see why. There’s a corpse in the room with her, covered in blood. Apparently, ‘this kind of thing’ has happened before.

Summerscales (who bears a resemblance to Billie Piper) is excellent in this, which is a role that really requires her to react to increasingly panicky situations. She’s never unbelievable or unsympathetic – even when the ‘corpse’ turns out to have secrets of his own.

Despite the leads’ unwillingness to call the police (although looking back, it’s just as well), I found myself fully invested in this. The performances are all strong, the atmosphere and music genuinely getting more and more unsettling. The direction is first rate – the hotel room, already seedy and unfriendly, takes on a more sinister tone when bathed only in the blinking static light from the television. The isolated nature of the location is powerfully utilised – poor Lovely’s predicament becomes increasingly hopeless.

There isn’t much gore, and very few special effects to speak of. None of this matters when a story is told this strongly – in fact, sparingly used as they are, the effects depicting Lovely’s deteriorating situation are all the more teeth-clenching. The setting, the 1950s, is effective and rids us of the convenience of mobile phones and the like.

Director, writer and ‘excited Cultist’ cast member Mickey Keating has provided a terrific debut with this slow burning, often deliberately muddy production (we don’t know much about the cultists and exactly what their ‘mission’ is, but that really doesn’t matter), which continues to restore my faith in modern horror somewhat. At times it seems as if events are passing too slowly, but there’s always a twist or a shock that makes sense of the decision. A dark, creepy, often claustrophobic story which remains compelling and unpredictable right until the end. Unnerving!

23. Jul, 2017

Red Silk (1998)

I am a huge fan of the eccentric films of Jess Franco, and a defender and admirer of the work from his later years. Far from comfortably sliding into respectability or mainstream, he became possibly more perverse, more extreme and as a result, more ‘niche’. ‘Red Silk’, a sex farce starring crew-cut Lina Romay and Christie Levin as Gina and Tina, a pair of flirtatious detectives, is, however, pretty dreadful.

There are many elongated sex-scenes accompanied by Casio-style Bingo Hall music; there’s a character who IMDB lists as Kalman (Paul Lapidus), a young man dubbed unconvincingly by the elderly, virtually toothless Jess; the accents are very thick and at times impenetrable. And yet, all this wouldn’t really matter if there was a spark of something vaguely arresting, or frightening … or even a storyline. But there is nothing.

Usually, a Franco production will display at least a few moments of eccentricity, of weirdness, a set-piece or location, which lifts you out of the superficial micro-budget world on offer and invites you to see things through Franco’s eyes. There’s nothing to dissuade you to view this as an ‘outsider’ would view it, nothing to draw you beyond the point of a first-time Franco-viewer and see before you only what there is: a bad production. Bad dubbing, incoherent storyline, unengaging situations, and nonsensical performances: the list goes on.

It gives me no joy to say this, but at the very best, the constantly horny twosome’s perpetual giggling at anything suggestive is irritating; at worst, it is a Spanish-accented Benny Hill mentality way past its sell-by date. At least Lina shines as she always did, and is the best and most talented performer here.

Jess Franco made many, many films and I’ve enjoyed all of them to varying degrees. This, however, is the exception. At least it is cheerful, I’ll give it that.

22. Jul, 2017

Home Sweet Home (2012)

Cash-strapped Gwen (Alexandra Boylan) has no choice but to return to her isolated family home, but finds Kristi (Raquel Cantu) is living there and has no intention of leaving. We know Kristi is bad news when we see, in the introduction, her robbing a grocery store with her beau Van (Christopher Dempsey) and treating the event as a joke.

‘Home Sweet Home’ is an intriguing curiosity. For once, the attractive blond girl isn’t the victim but the frightening casual, sexually provocative home invader who seems always one step ahead. Aside from turning in a terrific performance, Boylan co-writes this, and Director John K.D. Graham gives it an at times unusual visual flair that belies the low budget.

As with many things in life, there are occasional gaps in logic. Just while the two aggressors do what they do is unclear, other than they’re crazy and they want to keep living in Gwen’s deceased parents’ house – and neither is the fact that, believing the two are outside in the grounds somewhere, Gwen decides to sleep in the un-curtained living room with the lights on (not that Gwen’s to know, but Kristi and Van appear to already be inside anyway).

Kristi is a wonderfully evil creation. She gets a sexual thrill out of her villainy but gives not a jot when Van is of no further use to her. The ending, slightly confused though it is, suggests that her allure is still not without its uses …

21. Jul, 2017

Blind Target (2000)

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this has benefitted from a slightly higher budget than Jess Franco’s other One Shot Productions projects. The whole enterprise is still recorded on video, most of the dialogue has been redubbed in post-production (occasionally in what sounds like a rest room) and the acting is distinctly amateur. Latter-day Franco regular Rachel Sheppard is substantially less charismatic than co-star Tatiana Cohen (Bea), and luckily Lina Romay (clothed throughout!) is on hand to liven things up.

And one thing this ponderous story (based on real events) needs is livening up. Boasting some beautifully scenic locations, this nevertheless has the look of one of those 1990s American day-time soap-operas like ‘Days of our Lives’ or ‘Sunset Beach’. Maria Beltran (Sheppard) emigrates from San Hermoso to the US, where she becomes a successful author. She returns home to publicise her book, exposing San Hermosa as politically corrupt, and unsurprisingly is met with a less than friendly reception. Maria meets Tora (Romay), whose voice gives her away as one of the masked duo who her attacked her as soon as she arrived. Seemingly oblivious to the unrest that surrounds her, Maria continues to enjoy herself.

Possibly the most effective and horrific scene is when Maria’s niece is wheeled into her hotel room, tied up and gagged in a wheelchair, her face spattered with blood. Other than that, this is strictly a thriller/espionage fairly free of tension but boasting more technical prowess than most other One Shot Productions I have seen (none of those very dated digital video effects that proved such a garish distraction in other offerings). It is also one of the less interesting – restrained by Franco’s standards, yet at least offering a coherent storyline, which actually gives Maria a happy ending with ex-husband, bland hunky Greg (Oliver Dennis). Interestingly, Steve Barrymore plays a character called Howard Vernon; Vernon was a veteran of Franco’s films and died four years before the release of ‘Blind Target’.

A troubled production, apparently. ‘Blind Target’ was originally written to star Michelle Bauer and took several years to complete, requiring Franco to return to the project again and again. There’s an accompanying DVD-on-demand documentary about the making of this, called ‘Antena Crminal’, which gives a fascinating insight behind the scenes. It is especially evident that Lina Romay was invaluable at this time – always there, always cheerful and hardworking, even consoling Franco privately when he became (understandably) frustrated about one amateur actress’s inability to say a line.

20. Jul, 2017

Vampire Junction (2001)

What do we have here then? A Jess Franco vampire Western, shot in Spain on a micro-budget. Lina Romay plays Alice Brown, a journalist who travels to Sh*t City in search of someone called Frank Spencer (Steve Barrymore). He warns her that the town has been taken over by vampires. Spencer’s initial voice-over compares the town to an old stage set, and even mentions Universal mummy actor Tom Tyler.

As with all One Shot Productions’ collaborations with Franco, this is shot entirely on video and features many outdated digital effects. It plays like an elongated music video from the early eighties. The vampire attacks, dreamed of by a naked sleeping Romay, are as thrilling as they could possibly be under the circumstances. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that stutter-motion punk-vampires baring their fangs under a cloud of harsh video lighting are far more effective in their own way, than an over-priced CGI bloodbath. Stylish and sophisticated it isn’t, but there are raw and savage chills here. And then, with typical Franco unevenness, this is followed by an intimate shared shaving scene that achieves nothing and goes on long enough to bore rigid even the most committed viewer (although I have seen reviews that touch on this scene as a highlight). The delirious riot of sensuality that can accompany the vampiric act can be a very evocative thing to explore, but really, was there really no-one around to trim this segment (no pun intended)? Other scenes, like the two half-naked vampire lesbians enjoying each other, to the sound of pouring rain and the relentless windscreen wipers on Romay’s (clearly static) car, are strangely effective and hallucinogenic – especially as their lovemaking is next to a window letting in glaring sunshine. Somehow, it works.

Other scenes, like Romay being arrested in her car by a voiceover, are definite one shot productions.

When she is eventually seduced by the two, they move in an eerie and unnatural crab-like contortions. The resulting scenes achieve little than remind us that Romay is a good 25 years older than her attackers.

Another riotous mixed bag from latter-day Uncle Jess. There are good scenes and moments here, but you may have to fast-forward through the static erotica to find them.

19. Jul, 2017

The Amitivylle Asylum (2013)

Despite a disastrous interview, young Lisa is delighted to gain employment as cleaner at the High Hopes Hospital. After meeting head Doctor Mixter (Jared Morgan), the chief (only?) cleaner Delaney (a curious Welsh/Russian hybrid played by Lee Bane), she is introduced to some of the patients, including one played by a terrifying Eileen Daly (who also sings the end theme). The first thing that strikes me about this Andrew Jones produced film is how empty the asylum is. Granted, Lisa is working the night-shift, but there is no background noise, nothing. Also, the location of ‘Amityville’ is something of a mystery. Lisa and the security guard are American, Delaney could be from any number of places, the young female reporter is Welsh and Mixter is decidedly English.

I’m a big fan of Andrew’s work, but assigning his low-budget, tightly shot styles to the Amityville series (this is the tenth film in the run) is a curious decision. Having said that, the sequels had become so far removed from the style of the original film by this time, perhaps Jones’ slow-burning style isn’t that jarring. The idea of High Hopes Hospital being built on the land where once stood the Amityville House is curious – Amityville was a residential area, and this institute would appear to be in the centre of it, not that we are afforded any establishing exterior shots, or barely any outside shots at all – which is why I am never convinced we are actually anywhere near America at any point (we aren’t – this was filmed in Wales).

UK born Sophia Del Pizzo plays American Lisa, her accent sounding perfectly convincing to my equally UK ear – although American viewers may disagree. As is often the case with Jones’ films, we care about his main character, so that when she begins to doubt her own sanity, we are wishing her well.

Sadly, this isn’t Jones’ finest hour. Possibly because the link to Amityville is so tenuous, possibly because the coldly-lit slow-burning style isn’t what we expect from an Amityville film, possibly because unfortunately it is a very plodding affair … all of these things together are never convincing and rarely frightening. Which is a shame, because the cast try hard, especially Pizzo and Daly, to inject some life into the proceedings.

“Get your hands up, you sick f***!”
“I see we’ve dispensed with the usual pleasantries.”

18. Jul, 2017

Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula/Eight Legs to Love You (1998)

Jess Franco and comedy isn’t necessarily a combination that easily comes to mind, but here we have an example of just that. Lina Romay, sometimes in a Candy Costa styled wig (possibly less convincing than ever), plays a punk stripper called Tarantula whose act combines sexual antics on outsized spider webs. This gives rise to the usual plethora of soft and not-so softcore sex scenes and dated digital video effects on which the bare bones of a story is hung.

You may be, as I was, puzzled as to what was happening during the introduction. A voice-over explains how a pregnant woman has been raped, and entered by a spider. The accompanying scene, difficult to make out, is supposed to be filmed looking out from inside the vagina. Alright?

The poor production values and audio remind us that Franco cannot possibly be concerned about any audience much beyond his hard-core niche admirers – of which I am now one, I’d say. And yet even to one used to his output over many years, this sex comedy with gruesome undertones is unique. I love that Franco continued to escalate his own personal style in his later years, and I love it that Romay was right there with him until the very end; here, she enters into the spirit of it all and delivers a fine and enthusiastic performance (in some ways, possibly her best – imagine her rendition of Tarantula in a more professional project), and others including ‘Lust for Frankenstein’s’ Michelle Bauer (as the sexy Sheriff Marga) and nubile Amber Newman (Amy) are decent – and yet others, especially Martin King as Jonathan, are atrocious on every level.

The tarantula scenes, using a mixture of a real spider, a model with Romay’s head digitally added, and an always unconvincing prop, have a kind of nightmarish zeal, a psychedelic and absurd gratuity, about them. If the tarantula was in any way realistic, it would be out of place here.

Franco and Daniel White have created a fine musical soundtrack, with a reliance on the sitar that brings back memories of the heady days of ‘Vampyros Lesbos (1971)’ and the like.

Protracted and unfavourably persistent views of 44 year-old Romay during her sex acts will numb your mind. This is strictly bargain basement, frequently incoherent and hallucinogenic; it nevertheless features Franco’s eccentricities in a manner that combines awfulness with fascination. You can’t look away for long.

15. Jul, 2017

The Devil from Akasava (1971)

This is the nearest thing to a checklist of Jess Franco trademarks as I have ever seen. So – a wall-to-wall sitar-spangled jazzy soundtrack (heard before in ‘Vampyros Lesbos’), familiar faces (Soledad Miranda, Howard Vernon, Fred Williams, Ewa Strömberg, Paul Muller and Franco himself), plenty of eye-watering locations, lots of zoom-ins (which, after seeing a number of Franco films, I am learning to love rather than tolerate) and a hurried, garbled finale. The only two elements this lacks to allow for a Full House are stablemates sex and horror, which are there, but only very briefly.

Franco, as he often did, casts himself in a particularly thankless role. At one stage, his character Tino offers to buy Jane (Miranda) a drink. After she looks him up and down, she declares, “I hate Brilliantine,” and flounces off.

The story is tighter than on some other occasions and strays into thriller/espionage territory, with Miranda stealing every scene as Jane Morgan. There are some scenes set in London, which have charms of their own. Introduced by a sweeping panorama courtesy of an aged film-reel taken from elsewhere, the subsequent locations are as blatantly Spanish as you could wish.

With the notion that a mineral can turn humans into zombies, you may imagine such creatures play more of a role here. Never a fan of the walking dead, Franco uses the idea as a background piece, and only featuring any living cadaver twice throughout (in disappointingly subtle make-up). The rest of the time, we are concerned with Morgan and handsome Fred Forrester (Williams) and their various misdeeds and adventures.

14. Jul, 2017

Welp/Cub (2014)

A couple of unpleasant pack leaders are preparing a group of unpleasant Pathfinder cub scouts for a camping trip. Sam (Maurice Luijten) isn’t unpleasant, but he is late for their briefing, which earns him fifty press-ups whilst wearing his back-back. When they reach their intended camping site, the group run into two even more unpleasant youths with a grudge, racing around on a go-cart. This encourages the Pathfinders, who are also cowards, to camp somewhere else … deep in the woods.

The two arrogant leaders Chris (Titus De Voogdt) and Peter – or Baloo (Stef Aerts) – are joined by the only female of the group, chef Jasmijn (Evelien Bosmans). Jasmine and Chris go some way to curbing the Pathfinders’ bullying ways towards Sam, but the young outcast is more concerned with strange moving shapes in the trees and the legend of a local werewolf called Kai (Gill Eeckelaert).

The idea of Kai is a strong and appealing one. A feral child-creature living out in the woods. The more that is slowly revealed about him – and his father – slowly erodes the sinister mystique, which is a shame. And once we learn more about him, the horror aspects become less spectral, and more like solid slasher fare. And yet the twists and turns never stop until … well, even I won’t spoil that!

This Belgian horror is a terrific production; it contains effective characters, fine set-pieces and some nicely contrived death scenes. For all the killings brought about by a selection of cruel and carefully set traps throughout the forest, the real monster here for me is Baloo. Titus De Voogdt instils him with relentless, cowardly spite and bullying ways, we truly cannot wait for his come-uppance, which can never be horrible enough!

13. Jul, 2017

Robert (2015)

Jen Otto (Suzie Frances Garton) isn’t well, she isn’t happy and she isn’t finding much support from husband Paul (Lee Bane). Their son Gene (Flynn Allen) has been given a doll, a bug-eyed grinner called Robert, by recently sacked family cleaner Agatha (Judith Haley). Robert will be Gene’s best friend forever, promises Agatha. This is writer/director/producer Andrew Jones’ first foray into Robert’s world – the doll is an enigma he would return to more than once.

From then on, strange and unaccountable things begin to happen in the family house. Naturally, poor Gene gets the blame for this, but he’s adamant the doll is responsible. If only mum and dad would pay a bit of attention to the evidence. When Jen’s painting is daubed with red paint, the doll’s shoes are covered with red. Wouldn’t there have been a few footprints? The situation is fairly unreal, but that doesn’t mean that a certain logic should be ignored.

Where the film scores though is in the characters – Jones always writes really well for his characters, and you feel especially for Jen’s plight: she is mentally fragile anyway, and the more outlandish things happen, the more likely it is to everyone else that it’s all in her mind. The doll, however, sits and leers through it all, as relationships reveal their strained nature and resentment bubbles to the surface as a result of Robert’s interference. It is pretty creepy stuff, but rather less so on the occasions when the prop is required to move.

I don’t often comment on other reviews but a lot of online viewers have been negative about this and I truly don’t know why. A horror story about a malevolent doll (based on a true story, apparently – according to IMDB, Robert Eugene Otto (Gene) was first given Robert the Doll in 1906, when he was just six years old, by an angry Bahamian servant with an interest in black magic and voodoo) can either make you laugh or scare you: either way, you’re going to be entertained. Perhaps the lack of humour, no knowing wink to the audience, aggravates them. Perhaps the leisurely pace of proceedings (a trait of Jones) is to blame. Surely people aren’t shallow enough to criticise a low-budget project for having a low budget? This isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster and has no intention of being. A pity that people can’t enjoy these films for what they are, rather than when they’re not.

I enjoyed ‘Robert’, as I have enjoyed all of Andrew Jones’ output. The ending, open to interpretation, is particularly effective.

12. Jul, 2017

The Curse of Robert (2016)

You may be familiar with ‘Chucky’, and ‘Annabelle’ too – murderous dolls who seem to take on a life of their own. This is actually a sequel to the earlier ‘Robert (2015)’, although it works perfectly well viewed in isolation.

Pretty young Emily Barker (Tiffany Ceri) begins a nightshift as a cleaner at East Falls Museum, which takes on an eerie atmosphere in the darkness, what with its mannequins, human-like dummies, and an allegedly ‘haunted’ doll called Robert. He’s a creepy looking toy, with his mismatched eyes and permanent sneer/grin. As grumpy Security Guard Stan (Christopher Hale) soon finds, Robert is also a dab hand at murder. Luckily for Emily, handsome nice guy Kevin (Jason Homeward) is also on hand.

This is another project from the horror stable of Andrew Jones, and contains a subtle reference to his earlier ‘Poltergeist Activity’, which also featured a malevolent doll. As productivity increases, Jones’ films show signs of getting better all the time – for example, the standard of acting and sound quality is much better than some of the earlier offerings. One constant that remains, happily, is Jones’ skill at writing his characters – there are no stereotypes here (not even Stan), no petulant bored teens or posturing cardboard, one-dimensional characters. Here are likeable, relatable, real people placed in a very unreal situation. Therefore, we like them and feel emotion when events conspire against them.

The low-budget notion of a malevolent toy coming to life is as frightening or as ridiculous as you would wish it, but Robert’s appearances are brief enough to avoid unintentional hilarity. The spirit of Robert Crow, murdered by his father, inhabits the little bloke, and the owner of the museum (Nigel Barber) knows this – and with the intimidating lack of non-co-operation from the police, Emily and Kevin take events into their own hands.

This all depends on whether you find dolls frightening. If so, this works well – everything is employed to make their broken little porcelain faces, their sightless glassy eyes and their leering grins as unnerving as possible. Lee Bane, without whom no Andrew Jones film would be complete, plays the Toymaker. Sadly, his ‘old man’ make-up is less convincing than anything Robert or his friends bring to the table.

8. Jul, 2017

Poltergeist Activity (2015)

It is not often the case that a teenager is presented positively in films. They are usually deeply unpleasant in a variety of ways, so it is refreshing to see Natalie Martins playing the very convincing and appealing Katherine Prescott, teenage daughter of David (Lee Bane), who is not only grieving for the death of her mother, but also looking after dad who, by his own admission, isn’t handling being a single parent as well as she deserves.

This is another offering from the stable of writer/director/producer Andrew Jones who has produced, and continues to produce, a steady stream of micro-budget horror films. Some are put off by the lack of spectacular set-pieces and effects. What do they expect from a project with such limited financial backing? Not that the low-budget defines the ultimate production – rather the stories these films tell are smaller and more intimate (and to me, far more human and effecting) that some superficial mainstream blockbuster.

In a big spoiler, the two of them move into a secluded Welsh farmhouse and are menaced by china doll Otto, who refuses to stay in the attic/under the bed/in the dustbin. I mention this immediately because, bless him, Otto is rarely convincing. He’s a spooky doll operated off camera. Rather more effective are the life-size versions of Otto – cherubic, blank faced creatures in robes that, if you look carefully, have sparkling eyes beneath the mask hollows.

The sound quality here, which has held back scenes in previous Jones films, is much improved, and we are treated to a number of heartfelt speeches – the most impressive from David, lamenting his shortcomings as a parent to a sleeping – or is she? – Katherine. Regular Jared Morgan is terrific also, as an eccentric, disillusioned paranormal investigator called Hans Voltz.

My only issue with this is the lack of a conclusive, or even satisfying, ending. A séance brings forth the strongest manifestations of evil yet. Father and daughter flee - and that’s that. It would have been interesting to at least see something of what happened to the other cast members, and repercussions thereof. Ah well, at least in the post-credits sequence, it seems the trouble is not quite over yet.

6. Jul, 2017

The Possession of Michael King (2014)

This contains a very good central performance from Shane Johnson, playing Michael King, who gets … you guessed it … possessed! After his idyllic life is shattered with the death of his wife, he and his two young daughters try continue with their lives. Michael decides to make a documentary, using himself as guinea-pig, to prove there is life after death, while his daughters’ grieving is ignored. After various experiments involving characters of varyingly dubious quality, it would seem that a demon has gained possession of the rapidly degenerating Michael. Understandably, the daughters leave. Less understandably, despite Michael’s frighteningly upsetting behaviour, it is a very long time before anyone comes to see what all the noise is about. By this time, the house is a bloody wreck.

This is good, quite unsettling story-telling. Events happen at a brisk pace, and we lurch with Michael, from one horrific incident to the next. Johnson is excellent throughout, and it is just as well - you do get the impression the entire film hangs on his acting at times.

During one of the hallucinatory sequences that may be a dream, a very curious thing occurs. Scenes from Richard Driscoll’s notorious 2008 film ‘The Legend of Harrow Woods/Evil Calls: The Raven’ are inserted for no reason whatsoever. Featuring characters and events that have absolutely nothing to do with anything – which could arguably said about their context in their original surroundings – the effect is so jarring (probably because I am so familiar with the Driscoll film) that I suspected a possession on behalf of my DVD player! It is a very strange occurrence, and I would love to know why such scenes are included here – mind you, if it provides funds for a further Driscoll project, then all the better.

Director David Jung does a good job with the jump scenes, and the more subtle effects are highly successful (an ant crawling out of an eye at an unexpected moment, etc), but one gets the impression that the price paid for such slick pacing is that once King is possessed, there’s nowhere for the story to go other than repeatedly perverse stunts for the unfortunate titular character.

5. Jul, 2017

Conjuring the Dead/Valley of the Witch (2014)

Featuring some of the cast and crew of Andrew Jones’ earlier ‘Theatre of Death/Midnight Horror Show’ from the same year, this low-budget horror doesn’t quite embrace the unnerving intimacy of his earlier film. This is a tale of Londoner Kristen Matthews (Rachel Howells) moving into an inherited house in Wales, where she meets with a small coven of white witches.

Impressive Jones regulars Lee Bane and Jared Morgan star as Detective Jim Eckhart and Father Bill Jennings respectively. All the cast deliver reasonably believable performances, and yet sound issues common with low-budget ventures often render Bane’s dialogue in particular sometimes hard to catch. Ross Owen Williams also makes a good impression as Richard.

A local spate of suicides (which turn out to be fairly superfluous to the story) in the Welsh village find themselves puncturing Matthews’ dreams in such a way she believes she may have some connection with them.

The storyline is pretty thin (and doesn’t stand up well under close scrutiny), but the pace rarely slackens. That’s not to say this is edge-of-the-seat stuff by any means, but that isn’t its mission. It is a solid, atmospheric slice of rural folk-horror. By opening up the locations, as opposed to keeping things tight as in ‘Theatre of Death’, some of the weirdness that made the earlier film so attractive is missing, and open air locations lessen the control Jones has over them compared to more claustrophobic surroundings, and whereas ‘Theatre…’ created its own world by odd, close-cut angles and sickly lighting, this is more prey to real weather conditions. I compare this to the earlier film so much because so far - along with the gently impressive ‘The Last House on Cemetery Lane (2915)’ - these two projects are all I have seen from the ever growing stable of Andrew Jones’ films. His North Bank Entertainment company produces a regular horror output and despite the results here being good rather than great, there is a definite love and feel for the kind of horror I enjoy: understated, low budget, sincerely played and quietly unnerving.

4. Jul, 2017

The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism/Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel/Castle of the Walking Dead (1967)

Handsome, big, strong Lex Barker – my favourite Tarzan, for what it’s worth – hadn’t played Edgar Rice Burrough’s tree-swinging hero for ten years, but he is still every inch the hero here. Not perhaps the most personable actor, he has a magnetic presence that dominates the screen (as a personal aside, I’m a big fan of comic artist Mike Ploog, who drew many horror strips for Marvel in the 1970s – Barker is like one of Ploog’s drawn heroes come to life). The same may be said for Christopher Lee as the evil Count Regula, whom we first meet facing the prospect of being publically quartered for his crimes. Karin Dor plays Baroness Lilian von Brabant, damsel in distress with the heaving bosom, who takes an instant liking to Barker’s Roger Monte Elise.

There are rumours, 35 years after his gruesome death, in which Regula still somehow lives. The search for him, with burning torches, through the impressively gothic and labyrinthine passageways of the castle threaten to become a little tedious. Hand in hand with the Countess, Elise stoically isn’t put off by gory entrails or threatening voices. It is here any tedium ends, with a wealth of pits, scorpions, snakes, leering faces and the like looming out of the shadows and the rank, dripping tunnels.

“The blood is the life,” says Regula (echoes of Dracula) to those who have witnessed his resurrection, who are in fact ancestors of those who had him put to death. It is here at last Poe’s ‘Pit and the Pendulum’, which had been credited as inspiration for this, makes a spectacular appearance, as Elise is tortured in a bid to fill Brabant with enough fear so that her blood may allow Regula eternal life … or something like that.

Director Harald Reinl and composer Peter Thomas conspire to produce something highly enjoyable, very colourful, gothic and dripping with wonderful horror atmosphere. Great fun.

1. Jul, 2017

Al otro lado del espejo/The Obscene Mirror (1973)

As this is a Jess Franco film, it isn’t surprising to learn that there are at least three versions. French, Spanish and Italian. In the Spanish version, the always excellent Howard Vernon plays Ana’s father, and it is his spirit that leers through the mirror. In the French version, Vernon all but disappears and scenes featuring Lina Romay replace Vernon’s death throes, and it is her spirit – that of Ana’s sister Marie – that causes all kinds of hallucinogenic problems.

Ana Cohen is played by wonderful Spanish starlet Emma Cohen. A musician and singer, Ana provides an innocent presence, which is a rarity in a film at this stage of Franco’s career. This makes her descent into that of a mindless killer more pronounced.

Of the two variants I have seen, I prefer the Spanish ‘director’s cut’ version. It undoubtedly flows better, and we get a much sharper sense of horror with Vernon’s suicide (complete with bulging eyes and protruding tongue) and his subsequent calling to her, seemingly from beyond the mirror. I can understand Franco’s decision to replace this with images of Romay (I wonder how Vernon felt about this?): firstly, his fascination with her (which is understandable), and secondly as a means to attract more exploitative interest (which is useful – although Romay’s scenes aren’t restricted to titillation; they are fairly graphic and intrusive). And yet Romay, wonderful though she is, provides a distraction away from the story and although her scenes are inserted with smoothness, she nevertheless exists on the periphery, so we don’t feel the sense of closeness between her and Ana like we do with Vernon.

All that aside, this is quite a haunting piece of work, occasionally poetic by Franco’s standards, although afflicted with his heavily meandering directorial style at times. The rolling gardens and spacious rooms offer us a chance to buy into Ana’s serene surroundings and upbringing, whilst her scenes in a jazz band could have done with a lot of pruning.

The inevitable smashing of the mirror is far more interesting in the Spanish version seeing, as we do, the final image of a hanged Vernon caressing his naked daughter, followed by the inexorable splintering of glass. In the French version, of course, Vernon’s character never hung himself and therefore the climactic scene had to be shorn of 80% of its impact.

The Obscene Mirror then: difficult to find, sometimes heavy-handed in its direction and overlong in places, but beautifully acted (especially the baleful Cohen) and rather haunting.

30. Jun, 2017

Rak ti Khon Kaen/Cemetery of Splendor (2015)

I love it when a film comes along that changes the perceptions of how a story should be told. Apart from being entertaining in its own right, it shakes up (to a limited extent) the tired, tried and tested mainstream diet of CGI, diluted scares and catwalk model actors with identi-kit personalities. ‘Cemetery of Splendor’ couldn’t be further than that style of blandness. And yet in rejecting everything stale about traditional storytelling, it sadly creates a blandness all its own.

A school in Northern Thailand has been turned into a makeshift hospital to house soldiers who have been afflicted by an unexplained sleeping sickness, which renders them comatose for vast periods of time, punctuated by periods of awakening.

Volunteer Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas) strikes up a friendship with patient Itt (Banlob Lomnoi) during his few hours of wakefulness. There is speculation that the school was built over a cemetery and the dead are feeding off the minds of the sleeping soldiers. Jenjira also becomes friendly with Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), who claims to have some rapport with the sleepers.

That is about all as far as a story is concerned, and it is stretched far, far beyond interest to fill the 2 hour running time. The frustration I felt watching is that anything else dramatic was not likely to occur grew the further in I ventured. There’s no need for scenes of so little happening to last so long, one after the other. All these elongated moments are deliberate artistic decisions, and so cannot be brushed away by budgetary or lack-of-time reasons. And the film has attracted a mass of critical acclaim – so clearly, I just didn’t ‘get’ it.

The camera is primarily static. People wander in and out of shot just as they would in a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Sometimes you only see the back of a character’s head throughout the scene. In true documentary style, the acting is very naturalistic and the characters very believable. While I would commend director/writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul for refusing to utilise anything traditional about this project, and am glad his work has attracted the commendations of critics, this is so uncommercial, it is sadly deeply un-enthralling.