Spoilers follow ...

31. Aug, 2017

The Invisible Ghost (1941)

Since his ground-breaking turn as Count Dracula in what I think was the first talking horror film ten years earlier, Bela Lugosi had endured peaks and troughs in his professional life. The ban on horror films in 1936/7 all but wiped out the career of a man who seemed every inch the star. After the resurrection of Universal Films’ horror output with ‘Son of Frankenstein (the 1939 chiller in which Lugosi all but stole the show as disfigured Ygor)’, he was soon appearing in low-budget ‘quickies’ like this for the Monogram company.

Let’s get the screamingly obvious out of the way first: there is no ghost here, unless it truly is invisible and no-one knows about it! You could be forgiven for thinking there is an invisible ghost however, for Bela, as Doctor Charles Kessler, addresses his dear departed wife regularly. “You are looking more beautiful than ever,” he addresses an empty chair. Oh dear, the old boy’s clearly as mad as a sponge. But kindly, it seems.

His daughter Virginia is concerned, as is the maid. “This is a crazy house,” she says. “And what about those murders? Jools says there’s been a lot of them.” Jools the gardener is more concerned with stealing scraps of food and wine, which he takes to the garden shed - a place where it seems no-one else ever seems to go. Inside, resides Doctor Kessler’s wife, alive but mentally broken. Her distraction is worrisome, but quite why she is kept willing prisoner here presents a mystery (Jools clearly feels he is protecting her). All this happens in the first ten minutes!

When Mrs Kessler (Betty Compson, who is extremely good in a baffling role) leaves the shed and goes for a little walk past her husband’s window, the sight of her puts him in a strange trance. Her words “I can’t come home; he’d kill me. He’d kill anyone,” turn him into exactly the kind of sneering killer Lugosi excels at, before he returns to his kindly self, with no knowledge of what has happened. It makes no sense, but the scenes are quite effective and well played. Shockingly, Virginia’s beau Ralph is found guilty of the murders, and executed. Soon, his brother Paul turns up vowing revenge.

Ralph and Paul are both played by John McGuire. It would be unnecessary to put forward the opinion that McGuire’s talents, bless them, were sorely stretched playing one character, let alone two. Luckily, apart from having different names, they are utterly identical. Twins, you see.

Evans (Clarence Muse) is spared the usual wide-eyed eccentricities most black butlers from this era are afforded. He emerges as possibly the best played character, and rather than being a comedy foil, is the one who stumbles across various killings.

Director Joseph H. Lewis keeps the pace running briskly during the first half. Understandably, things slow down after this as the police arrive and try to catch up with events we already know. Lugosi is very good in this, communicating Kessler’s confused state, as well as his befuddlement and longing when he spies his dishevelled wife. He only lapses into ham when stalking the house under her influence, arms outstretched. The ending is quite tragic, although in-keeping with the spirit of the preceding 66 minutes, could have benefitted from some extra explanation. As Kessler is lead away by the police, try not to imagine how the bizarre evidence will be presented against him.

31. Aug, 2017

Sadist Erotica (1969)

With a director who provokes such extreme reactions as Jess Franco – he’s often either revered or reviled – the truth concerning the quality of his output is usually somewhere in the middle. In my view, the appeal of ‘Sadist Erotica’ drifts closer to the ‘disappointing’ end of the spectrum. The fault does not lie entirely with Uncle Jess – both the English version of the script and the dubbing itself are pretty appalling, and any attempts at humour are truly squashed by this double-barrelled attack.

Comedies are not really Franco’s forte. Or perhaps I should simply say that this style does not appeal to me. I would count his latter day ‘Red Silk (1999)’ as amongst his worst and, I’m sorry to say, this exists in a similar league. Having said that, it is easier to watch this once you have got used to its limitations, which hit you from the very start.

‘Sadist Erotica’ works best as an exercise in nostalgia, a time of unconcerned casual sex and no repercussions. Main players Jeanine Reynault (as Diana) and Rossanna Yani (as Regina) form the Hot Lips detective duo. Two strong-minded, independent women who nevertheless spend most of their time fantasising over men. As detectives, it is difficult to imagine a squad less likely. Their ‘kooky’ sixties lifestyle is appealing and carefree, and the locations in which they live are rarely less than charming. The story soon becomes lost in the sea of extravagant characters and unengaging performances, but it seems a growing number of attractive models are going missing. The culprits may be hard-to-kill werewolf-like Morpho (Michael Lemoino) and his shady Master (Adrian Hoven).

A definite positive is the soundtrack, Jerry van Rooyen’s jazzy soundtrack sweeps alongside the eccentric series of events and scatty set-pieces. The whole is a bizarre and vaguely appealing mess of ideas and tones, veering from lazy thriller, tepid horror and badly translated comedy. Whilst more than a sum of its parts, ‘Sadist Erotica’ is nevertheless not Jess Franco’s most engaging production.

“I really think it’s time to bring this farce to an end,” to quote one character, is a little harsh perhaps, but a point of view that does provoke a certain sympathy.

30. Aug, 2017

Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?/The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)

The music of the magnificent Bruno Nicolai ushers us into a busy street scene in which young blond is travelling across town to meet a friend. An elevator. A gloved figure dressed in black. A knife. A spattering of bright blood. And we’re off …

Lots of scantily clad girls. A camp photographer. Edwige Fenech. An audience of men politely denying a challenge from a dominating model Mizar (Carla Brait): “Let’s you and I do it.” She’s issuing a challenge for a 3-minute wrestling match, of course, and naturally, she wipes the floor with any who accept her challenge. She is not quite so successful when pitted against the mysterious murderer, however …

Fenech plays Jennifer Lansbury, estranged wife of aggressive swinger Adam, who demands she returns to him and his polygamous lifestyle. Too obvious to be the killer, attention then turns to Lansbury, who is used as bait to trap the killer by Commissioner Enci (Giampiero Albertini).

There are some effective set-pieces, my favourite of which is the demise of playful scamp Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) in the middle of a bustling street. As she clutches at the blood gushing out of her stomach, no-one appears to take any notice, or are too busy to care, before she collapses in the arms of handsome Andrea (George Hilton) – who becomes yet another suspect.

There’s an elderly eccentric (and horror comic addict!) who is discovered to be hiding her deformed son David. Naturally, being scarred, he is also a sex fiend (!) with designs on Lansbury. Could he be a further possible felon?

Whoever the murderer is, and I’m not telling, Fenech is the star and quite rightly her character is central throughout (Producer Luciano Martino and Fenech were an item at the time). She is not only a sublime actress that oozes a genuine charisma, but alongside Rosalba Neri, I would say she is one of the faces of giallo. When the tension is ratcheted up toward the end, there’s genuine concern for her. My favourite giallo featuring Fenech continues to be ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971)’, but ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris’ occasionally approaches a similar standard.

29. Aug, 2017

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Down the main road that runs alongside the home of pompous local Civil Servant and critic George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) runs a delivery van – Shakespeare’s Deliveries, of course. Maxwell is immediately a caricature of authority; self-important, arrogant and very easy to manipulate. His ego is massaged sufficiently by a call from the local police to help rid a doomed warehouse of a gang of meth drinkers and vagabonds. The first glimpse we see of the mighty Vincent Price is behind a heavy moustache and police uniform, as he ushers Maxwell towards the unsightly crew of grubby tramps. Clipping them with his umbrella and advising them to leave the vicinity immediately, Maxwell finds the atmosphere quickly turns sinister as bottles are broken and the sneers and gurgles of the incapacitated characters are directed towards him. The two policemen stand by as the vagrants rip him to shreds. An exaggerated establishment figure he may be, it is nevertheless very satisfying to see his pomposity pricked like a balloon as it slowly dawns on Maxwell he is beyond help.

Maxwell is part of a group of similarly snotty art critics who have all savaged the career of hopeless Shakespearian ham Edward Lionheart (Price), who apparently killed himself as a result of their hostile reviews. Even his apparent suicide is an embarrassing over-the-top performance (the final goodbye to his critics is greeted by cruel sneers and jibes as, tortured by his own madness, he throws himself into the sea). Yet, he still lives, and with the aid of his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg, unconvincingly disguised as a male throughout – I mention that not as a criticism; she is an extension of her father’s lack of subtlety after all), aims to kill every one of the group utilising scenes from Shakespeare’s finest.

And what a group they are. Among the many elaborate and memorable deaths, Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe) is beheaded as he sleeps next to his wife. The maid comes in with the breakfast, screams as she sees the blood, which wakes Mrs Sprout (Joan Hickson), allowing the dismembered head to roll onto the floor, giving her convulsions. Later that morning, Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) idly retrieves the milk bottle from the front step only to find Sprout’s head wedged onto one of the bottles. Later, Robert Morley’s camp dog-lover Meredith Merridew (and his beloved poodles) appears to win a celebrity competition in which he is treated to a painstakingly prepared delicacy, lovingly crafted by a disguised Lionheart and his crew. Naturally, Lionheart’s chef is a ham with an awful accent, casually plucking hairs from Merridew’s dinner. That he is eating his own dogs may not be a huge surprise, but the revelation is horrifying and utterly repellent (“Pity. He didn’t have the stomach for it”).

It is difficult to name a favourite film from Vincent Price’s incredible career. For my money it comes down to his restrained performance as the cruel Matthew Hopkins in ‘Witchfinder General (1968)’, and this, the opposite extreme and a gift of a part for Price’s finely honed excesses. Often caked in the grotesquery of theatrical make-up, his playing of OTT Lionheart allows him every opportunity to give the largest of performances, whilst always remaining in character. And yet such is Lionheart’s self-belief and misplaced dignity, he becomes far more than a hopeless ham: he is a truly tragic, misunderstood figure, so engulfed in his theatricality that he is little else without it. His loyal daughter adds to this awful nobility, as do his audience of the meth-drinkers we saw at the start (they pulled him from the stagnant waters after his elaborate suicide). They applaud his over-acting in return for the coins he throws benignly toward them. Douglas Kickox’s tremendous direction adds further colour to this, closing his cameras tightly on Lionheart’s performances, barely containing them, and then zooming out slowly to find it being paraded in the isolation of an abandoned and ramshackle theatre. What an incredible creation Lionheart is.

With a cast including further veteran stalwarts as Joan Hickson, Arthur Lowe, Jack Hawkins, Dennis Price and Diana Dors, this is as great a horror film as Lionheart perceives himself. The finale is spectacularly sliced grand-guignol, with Rigg imploring the band of stoned vagrants to help her doomed father before being killed herself, leaving him trapped, totally deranged and beyond hope, in his burning theatre. This time, there is no mockery or sneering at his final performance. Hendry’s admiration for him is so grudging, however, it makes us wish he too had been one of the victims. An outstanding film.

28. Aug, 2017

5 bambole per la luna d'agosto/Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)

Possibly a little groovier than many giallo films from this period, thanks to Maria Bava’s direction fused with an exotic score by Piero Umiliani, ‘Five Dolls’ opens with a swinging, debauched party culminating with a delightfully dishevelled Edwige Fenech (as Marie Chaney) faking her own bloody death. Those crazy kids.

We are introduced to a plethora of characters involved in a confusing myriad of affairs and casual romances, all acting like moustache-twirling villains. Taking time out from their lives to relax on a sumptuous, sun-kissed island, their vacation is marred only by the presence of a murderer in their midst. As they try unsuccessfully to find out about the mysterious Professor Farrell and his secrets in a series of playful, titillating asides and clandestine meetings, things become pretty complicated fairly quickly. Murders, missing money and ‘formulas’ … it all gets a bit much. In fact, it’s tempting not to worry about all that and concentrate instead in the visuals which are often breath-taking. There are various scenes held on the beach at night; I’m tempted to think a blue filter was applied to the camera during a sunny day to achieve the effect, but whatever, the results are visual indulgence – stunning. Umiliani’s bossa-nova score, with thick and chunky organ rhythms enhancing scenes in which characters search amidst lowing palm trees on the isolated beach for the latest corpse – rarely has the macabre looked and sounded so incredible.

Whilst I think it is fair to say the result is definitely a case of style over substance (lots of people you don’t really like coming to blows in very sixties’ locations reminiscent of the model sets used in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series), there is much to enjoy. The images of the growing number of corpses being bagged up and hung in the cooling room amongst the animal cadaver food supply is delightfully sinister.

27. Aug, 2017

The Wicked (2013)

This reminds me very much of the Nancy Drew television series from the late 1970’s, but with a sprinkling of sporadic gore. Panic sets in in a small town when a little girl is taken from her bed late one night. Legends of a witch (Cassie Keller) living in the woods abound, so it probably isn’t wise to go searching for that very house – especially if you’re ‘a group of friends’ who think it might be a good idea to throw stones through the windows.

The teenage ensemble are less obnoxious than similar teen-casts, and the performances are quite good. There’s even a suggestion of diversity, when one girl (Sammy, played by Diana Weston) is rumoured to be a lesbian – she isn’t. The ‘scares’ are pure cut-price CGI Disney, despite some spookily set-up scenes.

Late on, when the witch captures some of the youngsters, their fate is more than faintly bizarre and might succeed in raising a smile rather than have you fearing for their lives. Looking like a cowled Darth Maul before slowly becoming more beautiful (and far more effective) the more her victims are drained, her reveal coincides with events succumbing to the familiar slasher format.

It’s a very odd project, is ‘The Wicked’. It’s a horror film, but seemingly made by people who have no idea what makes horror work. It isn’t down to a lack of budget, as apparently $1.5 was spent on this. It’s a world where the law enforcers are blatant pantomime bad boys, where there is plenty of dry ice and sinister music but absolutely no atmosphere and despite the characters screaming and panicking enthusiastically, it isn’t in the least bit frightening. Not without merit, this doesn’t really deliver the goods as the horror film it sets out to be.

26. Aug, 2017

Paula-Paula (2010)

Making sense of Jess Franco’s ‘Paula-Paula’: should I attempt to make sense of it? What is sense? What is ‘Paula-Paula?’

I digress. The credits offer this project as a version of ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde’, which is a similarity successfully obfuscated until possibly the very end. Watching this ‘audio/visual experience’ is a trip, with LSD-inducing visuals and very occasional dialogues. It isn’t as explicit as other some productions from Franco’s prolific output, there are no invasive, gynaecological shots, but this could be seen as a celebration of young, beautiful, female physicality. Future ‘Alligator Ladies’ (who would feature in Franco’s final films) Carmen Montes and Paula Davis cavort in a variety of lingering slow-motion set-pieces, often given extra psychedelic (and quite unsettling) prowess by kaleidoscopic split-screen video effects. Davis in particular joyously treats the camera like a post-coital lover, and it is difficult to deny an overpowering erotic charge.

The music is, as ever, seemingly inappropriate. A jazzy/flamenco saturation, it nevertheless succeeds in taking every scene out of itself. And yet the majority of the scenes in question simply feature Montes and Davis making out very slo-o-owly. What accompaniment should they need? The comparatively fast-moving jazz doesn’t enhance anything, but perhaps that’s the point.

In some Franco films, I’ve often found some of the elongated sexual content distracts from the mood, rather than enhances it, yet have told myself that such indulgences are probably at the insistence of producers and money-men enforcing titillation on Franco’s vision in order to get more bums-on-seats. And yet here, when Franco is surely calling the shots, such intimate scenes ARE the backbone of the film and are more prevalent than ever.

Filmed almost entirely in Franco’s home, with just a few grainy location shots, ‘Paula-Paula’ is probably most notable for featuring Lina Romay’s final performance (she died two years after this was released). Little more than a cameo, she is a police inspector or a social-worker questioning a distraught Paula (Montes) about the murder of Paula (Davis) and disappears before the imagery that makes up the rest of the 66 minutes running time kicks in. With an abundance of billowing foil walls providing the sets, the two Paulas are, as you may expect, the unquestioned focus-point.

25. Aug, 2017

La morte accarezza a mezzanotte/Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

This giallo features more cigarette smoking than in any other I’ve seen. Never a scene goes by without someone lighting up, putting one out or going about their business with a casual ciggie clinging determinedly to their lips. Also, as is often the case for this genre, the females are not only the victims, but are also far more decent and respectful than the men – certainly Stefano (Pietro Martellanza) is brazenly patronizing and awful to Valentina (Nieves Navarro, or Susan Scott for English audiences) at every opportunity, and his male co-stars aren’t much better. I really hoped I wasn’t going to be asked to believe in him as any kind of hero. The best of this rotten bunch is probably Gio (Simón Andreu), another chain smoker notable for constantly running out of matches.

Valentina, with her incredible mane of red hair, whilst under the influence of an experimental drug, has a vision of a young woman being brutally murdered by a villainous-looking character with a spiked glove. This shades-sporting felon appears to her from then on, many times. Is it a product of her addled mind, as bone-headed Stefano arrogantly suggests, or is the truth more sinister? One thing is certain – any answers don’t come easily in this convoluted, beautifully shot Italian thriller.

In a way, you hope that the villain is purely in her mind. The alternative, of a highly suspicious mac-wearing effeminate looking man in outsize sunglasses always lurking in an almost pantomime manner, not being seen by anyone but Valentina, becomes absurd.

Also absurd, in a thoroughly appealing way, is the somewhat formulaic way the villain (or villains), when unmasked, then take the time to gloat and explain how they got away with their fiendish plan. Here, these revelations precipitate a glorious climactic physical fight that only ends after a series of last-minute, life-saving shocks and surprises.

A little slow in places, and possessing some appallingly chauvinistic behaviour, this is nevertheless great fun and another pleasing addition to the genre.

23. Aug, 2017

Wind Walkers (2015)

Seven friends venture into the wilderness for a hunting trip. They are fairly dour bunch most of the time, which is something of a relief when one considers a young ‘group of friends’ are usually represented as permanently drunk/stoned/horny, obnoxious and arrogant. Their world, as represented here, is small-town Florida, full of local stores and local outskirt communities, gatherings, cheroots and respectable upbringings. Sonny (Glen Powell) is the only character who seems to have his own agenda.

As their collective hunt continues, it seems there is ‘something’ out there in the Everglades, leaving a slew of butchered animal cadavers in its wake. One of their number, wistful soldier Sean (Zane Holtz) remains troubled by his experiences during active service, and the sense of impending doom isn’t exacerbated when his friend Matty’s mother senses the ‘call of the wind walker’ through what appears to be the spirit of her son, who is currently missing.

I am no expert on Native American history or culture, but there are suggestions of a wendigo spirit, of a shaman, as well as a generous sprinkling of subtle gore. The threat seems to be deliberately vague anyway, which will frustrate some. A mix of ‘The Thing (1982)’ styled spiritual possession and cannibalism is skilfully scattered throughout the mystery – unfortunately laced with an unnecessary rock music score which often succeeds in undermining the mood – but it works for me, mostly. It is good, spooky, potent, slow-burning story-telling.

When Sean promises Lexi (Castille Lanon), “I can kill this,” no-one is hugely confident because, whereas we meet several carriers of the virus itself, we witness nothing tangible controlling them. However, a hurried explosive climax delays – rather than destroys – the problem.

Intriguing rather than essential, a mixture of certain styles and inspirations rather than focussed, this is a recommended horror.

19. Aug, 2017

The Entrance (2006)

Directed with assurance by writer Damon Vignale, ‘The Entrance’ is a true gem. To review it in any way, it is unavoidable to include some spoilers which will affect your enjoyment!

Ryan James (Michael Eklund), drug dealer, is alone and afraid in a multi-storey car-park. With the aid of the Janitor (Ron Sauvé), he flees. He is interviewed by Detective Porhowski (Sarah-Jane Redmond), who explains he has been kidnapped with four others. The others have been killed, all of them having dark secrets (rapist, child abuser etc). Porhowski, meanwhile, is considering quitting the police force to work with her businessman father (Bernard Cuffling).

Driving home, the detective is held at gunpoint by an escaped James who explains he had been set free by ‘the Janitor’ only if he provides another life to take – and Porhowski will be his replacement. Soon, she is in the thrall of the possessed Janitor and the Devil (one assumes), where they try to convince her to shoot the man who raped her six years before. It seems she needs to have a dark secret of her own to join them. She resists.

Later, she is once more confronted by Ryan James, now possessed by the same spirit that inhabited the Janitor (revealed by the passing on a circular tattoo on the hand). It seems James has caused her father to succumb to a fatal heart attack. As the spirit within James laughs hysterically, Porhowski aims her gun at him, seemingly intent on killing him.

This is where the story ends. My take is that the action of her shooting James would provide the spirit with the means of possessing or recruiting her to his minions. The whole production is left beautifully open ended in a way that is purely open to speculation.

Made on a low budget, ‘The Entrance’ is compelling, a series of twists and turns every step of the way. Some are explained, some left deliberately vague. The cast are superb throughout, especially Redmond. It has a similarity to parts of the ‘Saw’ franchise, but is a superior horror/thriller in its own right, and strongly recommended.

17. Aug, 2017

Amityvile Playhouse (2015)

I wasn’t expecting to like this. In my view, the original Amityville film was a distinctly average entry into the haunted house trend that seemed to be prevalent in 1979. Several sequels later, I wasn’t hoping for much. Usually under such circumstances, I’m more predisposed to find merit, especially when the reviews seem particularly harsh. However, watching 'Amityville Playhouse' - and there's no getting away from this - is a chore.

As grieving Fawn Harriman, Monèle LeStrat injects her role with a consistent disinterest. The flatness of her every delivery is Gielgud-ian when compared to ‘bad boy’ boyfriend Kyle (Linden Baker) and the other three young people who accompany Fawn to investigate the abandoned playhouse she has been left by her recently deceased parents. As a plus, the wooden performances at least aren’t assured enough to adopt the posturing swagger the script seems to want them to possess, and some of the put-downs between the alpha-males might, in more capable hands, be quite amusing.

Interestingly, this is filmed in Canada and the UK, giving at least a feel of variety in location. The conversations between all the characters we meet is purely to provide backstory for each other. With the preliminary scenes so clumsy and hackneyed (much conversation seems to concentrate on the peaks and troughs of being a ‘douche’), one would hope when the scares begin – because there have to be scares don’t there? – that things might improve.

Things don’t improve. In addition, nothing of any note occurs. A spirit appears to be in possession of the playhouse and the kids meander throughout it all, listless and bored. Any sliver of atmosphere or creepiness is completely out of the question, but while the location is shot quite well, ‘Amityville Playhouse’ is guilty of the worst crime of any sub-par production – it is rather boring.

Unhappily for urine fans, about three quarters of the film elapses before someone has to inevitably ‘take a pee’ (although as it’s butch Jevon (Logan Russell) who is caught short, he’s taking a ‘p**s’). You would hope this might sign-post as if often does, something creepy happening. You would hope. Meanwhile, Fawn’s English geography teacher spends the entire running time haplessly researching Amityville’s local history. By the time he makes any progress, sadly, I had long since lost interest.

16. Aug, 2017

Una lucertola con la pelle di donna/Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)

How can there possibly be anything comforting about a giallo film, that cold, ruthless and brutal world in which ‘Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ is a shining example? Could it be the haze of nostalgia for the period in which such films were made, the lush and vivacious production values that belies the lack of a huge budget? Could it even be the game of spotting the actress uncomfortable with cigarettes playing the part of an awkwardly casual smoker? Whatever it is, ‘giallo’ is a fairly stylised genre that straddles murder/thriller/horror with much success.

Familiar British face Stanley Baker here plays Inspector Corvin. Baker gives his usual exemplary performance (Corvin’s habit of – dubbed - whistling isn’t convincing, however), despite this being a period in his life when his own financial challenges required him to appear in films that diminished his star-billed status. His son Glyn later described ‘Lizard…’ as ‘a movie which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.’ Stanley himself declared that he enjoyed everything he worked on, ‘including the bad pictures’.

I love the look Director Lucio Fulci gives this. Trippy psychedelia contrasts with some very sombre, often rainy locations to great effect: the false sense of safety in the warmly lit indoors, fighting with the sinister frostiness outside. The comfort of sex against some truly disturbing, if not always convincing, special gore effects (a shocking sequence involving dismembered canines required the makers to prove no real animals were hurt at the time). These things conspire to transport the audience into a dangerous world that is rarely quite real, and all the more effectively unnerving for that. This dreamy, druggy atmosphere doesn’t serve to make the complex plot any clearer, however!

As is often the way, revelations come thick and fast during the latter moments, and whilst it is true to say that another viewing may well help me make total sense of developments, the finale is a visual tour-de-force and stays in the mind for a good while after the credits have rolled. A word too for Ennio Morricone’s score; whilst it is a given that he produces some incredible melodious soundtracks, this has certain similarities to my favourite of all his works, that of his music for ‘Maddalena (1971)’. Beautiful.

15. Aug, 2017

Cypress Creek/Lake Fear (2014)

Four wide-eyed girls bid farewell to their parents as they embark on a trip together, promising to be good. As soon as their parents are out of sight however, rock music hi-jacks the soundtrack, off come most of the clothes, their walk turns to a swagger: instant transformation! They’re not such good girls after all.

They have names, but that’s all that separates them. This important character-establishing time is taken with sardonic asides and pouting. When a lot of attention is devoted to ramifications of the inevitable ‘I have to go pee’ line, you know development is hardly at the forefront of the minds of those who filled their time writing this.

Technically, the blurring and cutting off of voices and soundtrack are so glaring, they appear to be an artistic decision. In no time at all, their stay at a cabin in the woods has become a series of grunts, modulated and looped shrieks, incomprehensible and occasionally creepy images and repeated scenes, often too dark to make out. The girls, in their tiny shorts, react and become more entwined with the growing evil.

This is nearly an interesting exercise in nightmare – in the kind of delirious, unnerving crash-chaos and gory hellish manner as practiced by ‘Evil Dead (1981)’ or ‘The Grudge (2002)’. Although the tumbling into spiralling horror is frightening in its turgid confusion, and indeed tries to emulate effects on moments from the afore-mentioned films, sadly, it succeeds mainly in testing the patience.

I think the problem – and I do salute director and writer Michael and Gerald Crum for attempting an ongoing fevered nightmare that defies structure – is that there is no middle ground. One minute, we are in the bland land of badly-defined sexualised teen-girls rebelling – the next, and with no preparation, we are given all-encompassing noises and images and incoherence only to be found in the depth of nightmare. What characters there were become garbled mannequins, their unfathomable plight only scattered with occasional meaningless dialogue. The ending, when it comes, happens mid-sentence. Perhaps a little less trying to be weird and a little more help for the audience to know what it is supposed to be afraid of would help ‘Cypress Lake’ communicate the scares it batters us over the head with, with more success.

12. Aug, 2017

Snakewoman (2015)

This One Shot Production appears to be once again shot on digital video, which robs the sumptuous scenery of depth. And yet it is true to say also that the rawness of video heightens the colours, and the almost dazzling contrast between them. As a result, scenes look stylised, but stylish too.

This partial reimagining of ‘Vampyros Lesbos (1971)’ – one of Director Jess Franco’s most highly regarded productions – is my favourite One Shot Production. Technically, it is on a par with ‘Blind Target (2000)’, but benefits from a far more interesting, although stretched-out, storyline. Uncle Jess’s belief on the DVD packaging that ‘Snakewoman is among the most sincere and creative films of my career’ is … admirably enthusiastic.

The ‘Snakewoman’ is played by Carmen Montes, complete with fangs and a body-straddling snake tattoo. Her nakedness beneath a black cloak recalls ‘Female Vampire (1975)’, or even Brigitte Lahaie in Jean Rollin’s ‘Fascination (1979)’; it is a memorable and effective look. There’s even a ‘Renfield’ character in the form of Christie Levin’s very effective Alpha, who glides from being a victim to being pretty unnerving in her own right. In fact, the acting is uniformly impressive. A fully clothed Lina Romay makes a couple of fleeting appearances (her character’s name appears to be Van Helsing), and looking elegant and dapper, Franco regular Antonio Mayans – or Robert Foster as he’s sometimes credited – plays the doctor, or ‘Nostradamus!’

Of course, you would expect plenty of skin and elongated sex scenes, and you wouldn’t be disappointed - often to the sound of jazzy piano music and some fairly copious amounts of bright red blood. Some scenes are seen from the victim’s point-of-view, with blood falling from the attacker’s lips onto the camera lens. A simple but effective trick, used by Chris Alexander in his 2012 ‘Blood for Irina’ to great, and gross, effect.

Not a classic, but many steps up from other One Shot Productions, and one of Franco’s more stylish and enjoyable latter-day offerings.

11. Aug, 2017

Night has a Thousand Desires (1984)

The early Eighties saw Jess Franco returning to Spain to take advantage of the newly relaxed censorship that had for so long caused him to pursue his film-making elsewhere. The dreamlike plotting to this is not dissimilar to ‘Macumba Sexual (1981)’, with Lina Romay playing a character (Irina), who once again comes under the spell of a distant voice calling her. She is sensitive, telepathic, and this forms part of a stage act.

Much use is made of sound in this film. Unless the delirious qualities are alerting me to it more than usual, it seems the incidental music (the usual heady cocktail of jazz and more ethereal ‘scapes) and the sound of the sea are meshing to produce something almost hallucinogenic. I also notice musical cues from other films, even Daniel White’s pieces for ‘Zombie Lake (1981)’ reappearing here. White and Franco himself are quoted as providing the music, as well as writing and directing. Franco even has a couple of brief appearances in the film, as Psiquiatra (uncredited). This, and other editing roles, seem to indicate this really was a labour of love for him.

As ever, his choice of locations is exemplary, and his blurring/soft-focus camera habits truly do evoke a trippy atmosphere. In many ways, this film could have been made twenty years earlier. It works hard to draw you in, yet I remained unmoved for a lot of the time, and I’m not sure why. Rather like being the only sober member of an inebriated group, somehow I felt somewhat excluded from the party. Perhaps because, apart from a disembodied voice, there was no palpable threat, at least not one that was revealed until the last five minutes. The finale, in which some explanation is given to events – and the twist – seems rushed.

In all, I preferred the ‘easy’ seduction of ‘Female Vampire (1975)’, or the more frightening ‘Macumba Sexual’. These films didn’t seem to work so hard at being immersive experiences, and yet somehow succeeded in ways ‘Night Has a Thousand Desires’ doesn’t. Not that this isn’t enjoyable, especially if you like Franco.

10. Aug, 2017

Paranormal Island (2014)

Get a group of males together round a table, give them a pack of cards, and they think they’re Al Capone. In a flashback to 1927 and a lengthy gambling session, the owner of the island on which their den is based, gambles the entire property away and then, pretty unhappy with the situation, shoots himself. Subsequent shadowy noises suggest his spirit remains, however.

Back up to date and much of the interest the story has thus far garnered evaporates sharply with the seemingly inevitable introduction of the standard ‘group of friends’ – and yet these ‘standard’ people have no names; instead they are all ‘dude, bro, man or chicks (plural)’ – or occasionally ‘a**hole’ (one of them is called Mike, played by someone called Randy Wayne unsurprisingly; as the sensible one, he may be slightly less moronic than the others). Not one of them isn’t punch-able. Blemish free, horny, rock kids with no personality but the ability to remind you at every turn, that if they really existed, you’d cross the road to avoid them. You just know there’ll come a time when one of them ‘has to pee’ – and sure enough, that box is ticked too. Lance Henrikson, who is a universe better than this party-fuelled shallow mid-island sweaty nonsense, makes a few appearances. But we don’t see much of him – there is so much more happening, man: the kids are getting drunk and stoned.

What on Earth makes directors/producers (Marty Murray) feel the necessity to clog up their projects with a host of personality-free, manicured non-descripts and drag their work down to the same level as every other such film? The quest to attract the opposite sex knows no bounds here. Powder-puff catwalk girls look coy as hunky males eye up their ‘candy asses’ (everybody probably works out when not copping off). Guys brag about chicks checking them out and pout sulkily when other chicks dismiss the idea due to jealousy. This pristine bubble of a world is crying out to be punctured.

Back in 1972, low-budget exploitation guru Pete Walker produced ‘The Flesh and Blood Show’ for about a fraction of the time and budget it took to cobble this shallow nonsense together. It wasn’t perfect, but made much better use of an isolated seaside theatre for some good creepy moments.

Although some effort is clearly made towards the end to inject some excitement into the proceedings (there is an effective moment when an army of ghosts watch the departing survivors from the water, but even the ghosts are good looking!), this is mainly dross – a routinely constructed tension-free horror with a cast of posturing cretins, scarce chills, and is ultimately a slick waste of time that leaves you gagging for it to end long before events stutter to a dribbling climax and soft-rock at last brings down the curtain.

9. Aug, 2017

Bait (2014)

This is a hidden gem of a production directed by Dominic Brunt, who in his ‘day job’ plays Paddy in missable UK soap opera ‘Emmerdale’. He has directed a number of horror films, and this one concerns two brassy market stall girls and what happens when they are blackmailed.

To begin with, this runs as a convincingly comedic venture with Bex (Victoria Smurfit) and Dawn (Joanne Mitchell) trying to keep their market stall afloat whilst fending off coarse but pretty hilarious amorous advances of low life customers (including eccentric oddball comedian Charlie Chuck as Nev). They also need to escape the extortion racket carried out by local villain Si (Adam Fogerty). Jeremy (Jonathan Slinger), a smiling charmer enters their lives and appears to have the answer to their problems.

Events twist and the reveals are rarely less than disastrous for the two leads. It seems extreme measures are needed.

The comedy just manages to stay the right side of reality – Bex and Dawn are necessarily sharp-talkers, living in an area crawling with men who simply want them for one thing. They have become ‘master of the put-down’, and they are extremely witty. When events become darker, and their families (including Dawn’s autistic son and eccentric mother played by Rula Lenska) are threatened, it is impossible not to wish Si and his blackmail racket a bloody, gory destruction. Whether or not that happens, is not for me to say – but there’s an animated sequence following the end credits that is not to be missed.

Great fun.

5. Aug, 2017

Al Pereira and the Alligator Ladies (2012)

2012. Soledad Miranda was no more, neither was Howard Vernon. Lina Romay was also gone, and yet Director Jess Franco – near the end of his life - continued making films. His collaborator here is Antonio Mayans, who had acted in a number of Franco productions, and this celebrates 40 years of their association. Mayans co-writes this and stars once more as titular investigator Al Pereira, a role he had previous played a number of times for his director friend in the 1980s.

This, Franco’s final completed film, stars Mayans – who is sometimes credited as Robert Foster - as Pereira, who is suffering from bad dreams. Soon, we see near naked females, the Alligator ladies (Irene Verdú, Carmen Montes and Paula Davis), playfully cavorting and exhibiting carefree and uninhibited sexual abandon to the sound of jazz music. Two of the girls are the daughters of Fu Manchu, no less, harkening back to the Franco-directed projects from the dawn of the 1970s. Production wise, this is substantially better than anything I’ve seen by One Shot Productions – sound, music, lighting and acting are all as impressive as anything Franco had achieved in his later years.

Plot-wise of course, this hurtles towards the end of the road and is just as incomprehensible as anything the director has done. Halfway through a striptease, one Alligator Lady moves to the side to reveal Jess Franco himself in the mirror, directing the scene. This continues for some time, before the flamenco guitar ushers in more gyrating. So what seems to be happening is that this young lady is lap-dancing for Uncle Jess in front of a mirror, and he’s recording himself filming it. Franco makes more than one appearance in this manner. He looks very frail, but certainly in better spirits than he seemed to be during the making of ‘Blind Target (2000)’.

The three Alligator ladies are frequently delightful, and appear to be having a great time making this, especially Davis, who’s natural exuberance and addictive laughter seemed to be paving the way to becoming a Franco regular. Art director Luisje Moyano also plays a variation on Franco’s simpleton character, Sal Pereira, in the second half. By the time of his appearance, enthusiastic though it is, the appeal of this bizarre project is wearing thin. 81 minutes this may be, but it could have done with some pruning. Or could it? Who am I to suggest such things? Jess Franco did things his way, uncompromising and crazy as can be, right until the very end.

4. Aug, 2017

La felicita nel peccato/The Hot Nights of Linda (1973)

… otherwise known as ‘But Who Raped Linda’, this Jess Franco directed film is a joy. If you like Franco, that is. Marie-France (Alice Arno) accepts a job at the estate of an eccentric family. There, she meets Olivia Steiner (Lina Romay, who I don’t think has ever looked more sultry), hunky dim-witted houseboy Abdul (Pierre Taylou), father Paul Steiner (Paul Muller) and invalid Linda (Verónica Llimerá). Their estate is situated amidst some truly breath-taking locations and surroundings and as ever, Franco takes full advantage of this, making this a most attractive production.

Of course the plot meanders, and many scenes play without dialogue. Of course the camera takes on a life of its own and explores obscure bits of the scenery and location, zooming and soft-focusing. Of course there are, as the title would suggest, plenty of skin and sex scenes, but Franco holds back from the really intrusive shots he sometimes finds it impossible to resist. So what we have here are scenes that have an erotic charge, rather than having to balk at their explicitness. This helps the mood remain titillating rather than ‘full on’, and enhances, rather than hinders, the overall dream-like atmosphere. There is no-one, no-one at all, that east a banana like Lina Romay.

Great attention is paid to Lina’s eyes. Often the camera will linger of a close-up of her magnificent stare – the top half of her face will fill the screen. In fact, there is much focus on the eyes of other cast members too.

To break, or balance out, the mood, we’re also asked to tolerate the antics of a pair of comedy journalists who are observing the family and their increasingly dark business (“What? You’re crazy! Ooh, my back,” is dubbed dialogue unlikely to have anyone rolling in the aisles). Truth is, alongside the restraint shown with sex, there is a disappointing lack of virtually any gore.

The other ‘disappointment’ (I use quotation marks because Franco’s films are so devoid of rules that anyone else’s disappointment is entirely due to their own expectations – nothing to do with the director) is the finale which could well be considered anti-climactic. But then, to close the film in a way that makes any kind of sense of the ongoing dreamscape that makes up the running time would never do it justice.

3. Aug, 2017

Demonic (2015)

After a terrific opening involving a charismatic cop Detective Mark Lewis (Frank Grillo) investigating a houseful of apparent corpses, we flit back in time to find out how the tragedy occurred. Here, my heart momentarily sank, as it seemed we were to be treated to the dreaded ‘group of friends’ prevalent in films like this: fast-talking picturesque teens all bitter and moody because of some banal relationship disaster (one of the number, Michelle (Cody Horn) is secretly pregnant). But luckily, ‘Demonic’ only flirts with such soap-operatics to establish the characters before flitting back and forth to an interview with the only survivor, John (Dustin Milligan). Such back and forth shenanigans ensure you have to pay attention, which is of course, No Bad Thing. John, the poor sap, is being interviewed by psychologist, Dr. Elizabeth Klein (Maria Bello), who informs him he may go to jail as a result of the carnage and no other suspects.

I enjoyed this for many reasons. It’s dark and gritty, like a supernatural version of something like CSI and other punchy police dramas the US do so well. It is also set in Louisiana, a locale that brings happy memories of ‘The Mummy’s Curse (1944)’ – it may be by the Kharis association, but the raw, humid, swampy location seems to work well with this kind of horror. Also, the acting is universally good, with the young cast soon shaking off the shackles of initial worries concerning precocious, bland stereotypes. The production as a whole is polished and foreboding, faced-paced and atmospheric. Will Canon does an excellent directing job; all scenes are packed with visual interest that highlights every cobweb and speck of dust in the ramshackle house.

As the title suggests, demonic rituals appear to have been carried out at the remote house the five friends investigate. Unwisely, a séance is carried out which appears to unleash all kinds of spirits, none of them you would want to share an elevator with. Familiar jump-scare-tactics – upturned crucifixes, slamming doors, hideous faces in mirrors, use is even made of found-footage filming to confound what we think we know – all of these are used restrainedly and against a backdrop of convincing grit and gloom. There’s even a twist ending.

‘Demonic’ doesn’t set the world on fire, but is a fine, solidly produced way of spending 83 minutes.

2. Aug, 2017

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

This follow-up to the ground-breaking film that introduced many of us to the Found Footage concept is a ‘fictional re-enactment of events following the events of The Blair Witch Project.’

It starts promisingly, with Burkittsville residents being irritated and financially bolstered by the notoriety their town has attracted. Some dialogue is rank, (“There are always naysayers who come here and say … nay.”) and the characters are pretty unlikable and stereotypical (we are introduced to Kim (Kim Director) lying back on a grave, smoking, dressed all in black and daubed with heavy make-up – so she’ll be a goth then). Erica (Erica Geerson) is a Wiccan and therefore sensitive to whatever ‘curse’ may or may not be out there. They seem to be a bit stoned and listen to rock music and might possibly have just stumbled off a catwalk. Text book, picturesque teens. A disappointing development after the realism displayed by Heather, Mikey and Josh from the original.

This is a major flaw. Main character Jeffrey (Jeffrey Donovan) has a history of hospitalisation and is victimised by the local Sherriff (who seems to have strolled straight out of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’). And yet because of his uncharismatic, postured playing, it is impossible to sympathise with, or feel anything for him or his plight. Tristine (Tristine Ryler) is really the only sympathetic, or realistic character present …

And yet, this sequel is undeserving of the critical drubbing it has received. It has some great unnerving moments: the stuttering doll-like creature Tristine sees in the hospital, the image of her drowning her dead, bloodied baby in a stagnant pond (would anyone who suffered a miscarriage during such an unnerving trip seriously then consider continuing with that trip?), the slow drifting into delirium … and the ending, where the group watch the recording they made of themselves and it contradicts their memory of events is a pretty neat way to wrap things up.

The temptation could have been to produce another docu-drama, but events here are deliberately stylised in such a way, the audience is in no doubt it is watching a professional production.

The locations are excellent and the whole production is very well shot, but I think ‘Book of Shadows’ is a (perceived) failure because while it is good, it isn’t brilliant – and it needed to be brilliant to match the virtually insurmountable success of the first.

“She’s a witch, maaan!”