Friday, 20 January 2017

Varieté (1925)

“Big Top Melodrama”

German film-maker E A Dupont’s smash hit 1925 silent melodrama gets a dual format release courtesy of Eureka.
Boss Huller (Emil Jannings) runs a carnival with his wife (Maly Delschaft). They have a baby. One night, a crusty old seadog comes to Boss with a mysterious girl called Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) who has been named after the ship that brought her to port. Boss takes her in and, after witnessing several of her exotic dance routines, decides to dump his wife and child and relaunch his career as a trapeze artist with Berta.

Don't even think of stealing this man's wife
They head to the big city, where they join up with the 1920s trapeze-artist equivalent of Dave Vanian, who soon has his own designs on Berta-Marie, which she’s happy to encourage. Can any of this end well? It’s highly unlikely, especially as the movie is bookended by scenes in prison, although we don’t get to see who the prisoner is who’s telling his story until the end.

…who happens to look like this
The melodramatic tale of love and lust under the big top was a popular mainstay for all kinds of pulp entertainment, from penny dreadful short stories through to EC comic strips and beyond. It’s not surprising that Dupont’s film was such a success when it was released, and the film still stands up pretty well today. It's of interest for a number of reasons, not least that the characters that take up most of the running time are all amoral, and it's difficult to know where our sympathies (if any) are supposed to lie. The 95 minute running time hardly flags, Jannings (the Laurence Olivier of his day) gives a riveting performance and goes full Bela Lugosi for the end as he metes out his revenge. Until now I had only known him as the actor playing the lead in OTHELLO (1922) in the clip that features in the opening credits of Douglas Hickox’s THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) but it turns out he was the winner of the very first Academy Award for best actor (he’s still the only German to have done so, apparently).

…not even if you're a trapeze artist, or the lead singer of The Damned
DP on VARIETE was Karl Freund who would go on to shoot Universal’s DRACULA (1931) and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) before directing their version of THE MUMMY (1932) and MGM's brilliant MAD LOVE (1935). His style is evident here, with some interesting camera tricks and uses of multiple, kaleidoscopic imagery.

The first filmic record of unicycle hockey!
Eureka’s disc comes with three score options - one by Stephen Horne, another by Johannes Contag, and the third by a group called The Tiger Lillies which is quite different and is probably worth listening to after you’ve seen the film at least once as it's a bit distracting. You also get the American version of the film which is shorter and scratchier but has a great organ score that’s also worth a listen. You also get an image archive and new writing on the film in an accompanying booklet. 

E A Dupont's VARIETE is out on dual format DVD & Blu-ray 
from Eureka on Monday 23rd January 2017

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Black Society Trilogy (1995 - 1999)

Three grim and unrelenting crime thrillers that make up what is known as director Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy get a Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films.
The films don’t have any continuation of plot or characters, by the way. The reason they get grouped together is because they were his first films for a major studio and the first to be made specifically for cinema release (his previous movies had been in the direct-to-video world of Japanese ‘V’ cinema).

The movies do boast a consistent set of themes, though, ones that recur throughout the director’s work, so if you want to get a real feel for what Takashi Miike is all about, this is the place to start.
Arrow gives you the three films spread over two discs. Disc one kicks off with SHINJUKU TRIAD SOCIETY (1995), in which a mixed-race cop (Japanese father and Chinese mother) becomes involved in illegal child organ trafficking. Both the triad and the yakuza are involved, with the matter more complicated because the cop’s brother is the lawyer for the triad group. 

RAINY DOG (1997) flips things around by having its main character a Yakuza member who gets fired and finds a new occupation working as a hired assassin in Taiwan. Once again things get complicated when family issues get mixed up with business.
LEY LINES (1999) is probably the best and most accomplished of the three. Once again we have the mixed race theme as we follow three Japanese lads of Chinese descent who leave their semi-rural surroundings to seek their fortune in Tokyo, only to end up in trouble with a local crime syndicate.

Violence and urban squalor in LEY LINES
Each of these films offer little comfort, instead suggesting that society is corrupt and that everyone is corruptible. Scenes of sudden and over-the-top violence alternate with in-your-face sexual unpleasantness. The cold grainy photography makes these movies look as if they were shot twenty years earlier than they actually were, and even the most hardened of film fans might find it a struggle to watch all three through in one go. 
           Arrow’s new set offers new audio commentaries on all three films, as well as trailers, optional subtitles, and new interviews with director Takashi Miike and Show Aikawa who stars in RAINY DOG and LEY LINES. If, like me, you’re mainly familiar with Takashi Miike’s work from AUDITION and *that* episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, the Black Society Trilogy offers you a crash course in what’s going on inside his head. 

Takashi Miike's Black Society Trilogy is out from Arrow on Blu-ray on Monday 16th January 2017

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Metropolis (2001)

“Spectacular Anime”

With only the loosest connection to the Fritz Lang 1927 original, this rather spectacular-looking anime based on Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga comes to Blu-ray in steelbook format (the dual format release is coming a bit later on) courtesy of Eureka.

We’re in one of those massive futuristic cities that you cannot help feel Godzilla would love to smash to bits with some of his friends if he had the chance. Duke Red has just unveiled his new building, a ziggurat that has great big lasers in the top floor, and a throne for whoever is presumably meant to control them, but who is it to be?

The answer lies in the bowels of Metropolis, where mad scientist Dr Laughton has been put to work by Duke Red creating a robot daughter for him called Tima. Duke Red has special plans for Tima, but he reckons without a private investigator and his son who have been employed to find Laughton, and Red’s own adopted son Rock, who hates robots with a vengeance and shoots any that he can. The lab gets destroyed and Tima ends up on the run, with everyone in hot pursuit. But what will happen if / when she gets to sit on that throne?

The background art in METROPOLIS is stunning. You could quite easily sit through the entire film ignoring the plot and characters and treat it as a glorious picture book of high definition art. For no other reason than this I found myself glued to the screen.

The animated characters are a bit different, and how you react to the way they are designed will probably influence how much you like this. Rock is presumably intended to be a cool villain but he looks about six years old. Most character designs seem to expand as you go south, with recurrent ‘Popeye’ syndrome in people’s legs and calves that are wholly out of proportion to the rest of their bodies. It’s not enough to spoil the film but if you’re not that familiar with this kind of thing (the last time I saw this sort of animation was probably Battle of the Planets back in 1978) then it’s a bit distracting.

Eureka’s Blu-ray comes with both Japanese and English dialogue options, both in either stereo or 5.1. The 5.1 mix is excellent, with explosions and gunfire echoing all around. There are three (!) English subtitle track options - US original, original Japanese translation, and newly commissioned subtitles. You also get a making of, interviews with the film’s creators, multi-angle animation comparisons, and a trailer. 
         When it was released, Roger Ebert apparently called METROPOLIS the best animated film he had ever seen. I can easily see where he was coming from. It has dated a tiny bit, but there’s still nothing quite like this out there. If you’re new to anime, this is a good place to start. Fans will be getting this anyway. 

METROPOLIS is out as a Blu-ray steelbook from Eureka on Monday 16th January 2017. The dual format DVD & Blu-ray release is out on 13th March 2017

Friday, 13 January 2017

Blair Witch (2016)

“Lives Up to the Comparison to Friday the 13th Part V on the Box”

Of course it had to happen. After the somewhat scrappy and uninspired remakes of HALLOWEEN (2007), FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009) and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010) it was only fair that young moviegoers of the twenty-first century also got to have their own remake of the most successful horror film of 1999. Directed by horror’s own ‘King of Swingers’ (of the camera that is), Adam Wingard’s BLAIR WITCH is getting a digital, DVD and Blu-ray release from Lionsgate.

It’s kind of a sequel as well as a remake, in the way that films that are anxious to cover all the bases in a desperate attempt to appeal to as many people as possible are. James Allen McCune plays James, whose sister Heather (nudge nudge) disappeared in the woods around Burkittsville when he was four years old. Convinced by some dodgy video footage that she’s still there, he sets off with some friends on his own ill-advised and ill-equipped journey into the Heart of Found Footage territory.  

BLAIR WITCH received decidedly mixed reviews on its cinema release last year and it's not difficult to see why. If you're a fan of the found footage subgenre this hits all the bases (not much happening for the first thirty minutes, followed by lots of frantic running around and wobblycam, brief glimpses of things towards the end). If you're not then you probably aren't going to watch this anyway, as, sadly there's nothing in BLAIR WITCH to distinguish it from the plethora of BLAIR WITCH wannabes from five years ago you can probably still find down the pound shop.

And that’s a great shame, because there are a couple of supremely scary and unnerving ideas here in desperate need of a proper film to be made about them. The group seem to get trapped in a time vortex, where a night can last five days. The drone they bring with them, in a nice touch, reveals from the air that the forest has changed and all paths leading out have vanished. 

None of this is used to any effect, however. Instead we have Mr Wingard using his ‘swing the camera around as much as possible' style that has marred pretty much everything he’s made except THE GUEST (I’m beginning to think that’s his LORDS OF SALEM as it’s the only thing by him I really like). The sound design is horrible, veering between people whispering and then SHOUTING VERY LOUDLY or people mumbling and then ROCK MUSIC PLAYED AT AN ABOMINABLE VOLUME. It’s all profoundly irritating, uninspired, and very annoying. It also made me feel old - make of that what you will.
            Lionsgate’s DVD and Blu-ray release comes with a Wingard commentary, plus a number of making of featurettes and a special ‘low sound option for late night viewing’. 

Adam Wingard's BLAIR WITCH is out from Lionsgate on digital platforms from 16th January 2017 and it gets a DVD and Blu-ray release a week later on the 23rd. 

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Satanic (2016)

“Decent retro-styled drive-in fare deserves better title”

It does, because Jeffrey Hunt’s SATANIC, getting a UK DVD release courtesy of Soda Pictures, isn’t bad at all, especially if you fancy a modern version of an early 1970s exploitation picture about devil worship and teenagers bound for misadventure.

Four friends decide to spend their spring break visiting sites of ‘occult interest’ in Los Angeles. These include Anton Lavey’s Church of Satan, which looks more like Betty Crocker’s Eggshell Blue Bungalow of Lovely Cakes from the outside, and the site of the Manson Family murders. Heading downtown they pop into the local shop of Black Magic and Occult Paraphernalia and make an enemy of the bald-headed proprietor who has an inverted cross tattooed on the back of his scalp.

         Because they are American movie teenagers they exhibit the classic characteristics of not just being Annoying but being Unwise as well, they decide the best way to handle this fracas is to wait until the shop closes and follow the chap and his friend in their pickup truck to their Deserted Barn Location of Satanic Worship.

They peek through the window to witness a scene that I hope is a tribute to Jack Starrett’s 1975 RACE WITH THE DEVIL. They even interrupt it and end up the next day having fizzy drinks with the intended sexy naked teenaged sacrificial victim. She has clothes on by now, of course. Being true to their Unwiseness, the teenagers offer her a place to stay but unfortunately she turns out to be even more raving bonkers than the people back at the barn. 

         Horror ensues, and the teens find themselves on the run from something so terrifying we never really get to see it, but that’s okay, because the ending is sufficiently well shot and lit and with enough of a punch at the end that you don’t mind that too much.
         SATANIC really isn’t bad at all. Imagine the kids wearing flares and this could easily be the kind of thing Jack Hill was making in 1973. It's a sad thing to say, but these days it’s actually a  delight to see a competently made low budget film in this era of got-camera-make-DVD-budget-rubbish. The one quibble I would have is that something like this really shouldn’t be shot in 2.35:1 with crisp digital photography. SATANIC would be so much more effective (and far more terrifying) if we could have it in grungy grind house 35mm, preferably in 4:3 and transferred to VHS. There are no extras. SATANIC is by no means as good as Mike Flanagan’s OUIJA 2, but if you fancy some devil worship stuff with a similar retro feel, then it's pretty good fun for 80 minutes. 

Jeffrey Hunt's SATANIC is out on UK DVD from Soda Picture from 2nd January 2017

Monday, 2 January 2017

Somnus (2016)

“Not as good as BLAKE’S 7”

Not by a long way. Chris Reading’s slick, posh-looking, low budget, high concept, UK-made SF movie that sadly gets too many vital things wrong gets a DVD release courtesy of Soda Pictures.
We kick off with a charming prologue set in 1952 that looks as if it was shot on the Severn Valley Railway. There’s a train and a scientist and a mysterious book that we assume will figure prominently later on.

Three hundred years later. The crew aboard a commercial spaceship are starting to have problems with their on-board computer, Meryl, who has developed a distinct case of the HALs. While she’s busy bumping them off the ship itself develops a few problems and has to land on a remote asteroid called Somnus that houses a former penal colony, the few remaining members of whom have gone a bit nuts. Somehow that book from 1952 figures in that. Don’t ask me how. It gets even more confusing before the film stops.

I can’t decide if SOMNUS is admirably ambitious, but saddled with a director who hasn’t a clue how to tell a story properly, or if it's actually a shamelessly derivative rip-off of someone’s favourite scenes from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, ALIEN, DARK STAR and (yes) BLAKE’S 7. All of those did a far better job of telling the story I think we have here than this. Mind you, even RED DWARF could have done a better job with the central idea in 25 minutes than the 83 minutes we have here (including the obligatory interminable end credit crawl to pad this thing out to something resembling feature length).

It’s a shame because I really wanted to like SOMNUS. The effects and model work are very good for such a low budget, and you could definitely have got away with the level of acting we see if the story had been better presented. All that means SOMNUS is House of Mortal Cinema’s first infuriating film of 2017. Extras include a trailer and a director’s commentary.

SOMNUS is out on DVD from Soda Pictures on 2nd January 2017

Monday, 26 December 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2016

For the fifth year running it’s time for me (and everyone else who runs one of these things) to list my favourite new movies of the year. As always, this list is entirely personal and culled from various festival screenings, disc premieres and new cinema releases. I’ve done my best to stay away from films that were in the multiplexes for weeks because chances are you’ll already know if you want to see those. Likewise there are some films I have yet to catch up with (THE WAILING and THE HANDMAIDEN being the most obvious two) and some that people will consider glaring omissions that I just didn’t think were that great (for example I didn't think RAW was anywhere near as clever as it seemed to think it was). 
As is tradition, before we get to my top ten we have, for your delectation and amusement, my bottom five. Again, there are no special elements that qualify a movie for ending up on this list other than they made me feel stupid for having stuck with them to the end (and in one case not even that). Ok, here we go!

The Five Worst Films of 2015

5 Downhill

The one film I watched this year that I couldn’t make it to the end of, electing instead to leave the screening and get some lunch. From the director of the only slightly better (and no more watchable) HIDDEN IN THE WOODS this kicked off with some devil worship stuff, and then followed it with half an hour of some folks on bikes while the camera leered at the female characters in the most unsavoury way. All horrible.

4 Abattoir

Great premise. Screamy sweary leads. No sense of coherent narrative. Ridiculous ending. Confusing rubbish. Winner of the ‘Is This Still On?’ award of the year.

3 The Pack

Back in March I called this ‘A cheap and completely unrewarding waste of time, assuming audiences will put up with any old shit’. I don’t want to write any more about this. My full review is here if you want it.

2 Shark Exorcist

Winner of Most Inept Film of 2016.  The main 'feature' runs around 58 minutes and makes no sense at all, then after the end credits you get a very odd and disorientating bit involving plush toy cuddling that's so brain-numbing in its mundanity that I might actually have nightmares from it. The spirit of Ed Wood definitely lives again in SHARK EXORCIST. Oh, and if you think the cover image happens anywhere in this (or indeed that there's much sharky action at all) rest assured that the 67 minutes of unrelenting incompetence on the DVD has no such drama. If SHARK EXORCIST were even slightly better than it is I might be praising the chutzpah of the publicity team for coming up with the box art, but it isn’t. It isn’t even really a film, more a random, amateur sequence of scenes cut together that make no sense.

1 Ghostbusters

Because being a big budget multiplex monstrosity doesn’t get you out of THIS list, and because, after the (irrelevant) gender politics controversy whipped up to give it some desperately-needed publicity, this was bloody awful. Funny right up until the opening credits came on, the GHOSTBUSTERS remake quickly became excruciating, with everything feeling so strained you wonder if on-set enemas might have helped. The ending was so poke-in-the-eye tedious Stephen Sommers must have been grinding his teeth with jealously that someone had managed to come up with a hollower, emptier, more superficial piece of tedium than he could ever hope to. All I wanted was this to be reasonably funny and have ghosts. It had ghosts. The House of Mortal Cinema Film of Shame for 2016.

Right that’s enough of the rubbish. After much deliberation (there were 33 films on this list that could have easily ended up on it, it’s been that good a year) here is my Top Ten of 2016:

10 The Lighthouse

It’s been a great year for Welsh horror and fantasy, with both THE LIBRARY SUICIDES finally getting a DVD release, and the Machenesque CROW premiering at Frightfest. Best of the Welsh bunch was this, a tale of madness and death in a Welsh lighthouse in 1801. Coming across like a William Hope Hodgson story this one was actually ‘based on real events’ but certainly doesn’t need that qualification to recommend it. My full review is here.

9 The House on Pine Street

An early finalist for the list (this one got its UK DVD release in January) and it stayed on it right till the end. My review is here, and re-reading it has made me want to watch this one again. The styles of Mike Flanagan and Lucio Fulci (without the gore but with the weirdness) collide in this immensely satisfying, unsettlingly strange film that’s refreshingly cliche-free. The only bad thing about this one is the box art - ignore  it and enjoy this one.

8 Ouija 2

Mike Flanagan scores with a sequel to an original you don't need to see. Instead get stuck into the OCULUS and ABSENTIA director’s latest, proof that all you need to make me enjoy a tired and worn-out crappy old horror subgenre is a director who actually knows what he's doing. Admittedly, if Blumhouse is the new AIP then Mike Flanagan really is more of an Amicus director (like Peter Duffell or Kevin Connor) - able to craft a fine sense of suburban dread from just knowing how to light a room and then move the camera properly and oh-so-slowly. There are some (probably studio imposed) shouty jumpy bits, but for the most part sit back and revel in something well made, with atmosphere, and a pleasingly retro feel right down to the reel change marks on the print from time to time. Oh, and good understated music score too. I really like Mike Flanagan.

7 Darling

Mickey Keating made the quite good POD and the really good this. ‘A bit of late-night messing with your mind’ is how I described it in my review here in a movie that references both Polanski and David Lynch but is still very much its own black and white, claustrophobic, weird exercise in celluloid. Oh, and Lauren Ashley Carter is terrific in the lead. Let’s have more of her, please.

6 The Boy

There were some pleasingly retro-style projects in 2016 - THE PURGE 3: ELECTION YEAR was a great Enzo G Castellari-wannabe and THE REZORT was like a well-made and extremely entertaining British version of a Umberto Lenzi zombie picture. By far the best of the retros, however, was this. William Brent Bell previously made a great werewolf picture in WER and a deliriously daft possession picture called THE DEVIL INSIDE. This year he gave us THE BOY, a film that feels like a Hammer or Robert Lippert B movie of the 1960s. Nicely photographed and acted, and with a denouement some hated but which I think is absolutely in keeping with the rest of the film (I’m not giving it away) THE BOY is highly recommended, Mr Bell cements his reputation as a director to watch, and the icing on the top of this cake goes to:

House of Mortal Cinema Best Score of 2016 - Bear McCreary

(because I can’t stop playing it). 

5 The Similars

So loud it woke me up at the late night Frightfest screening. So mad it kept me glued to the screen for its entire running time. So good I want to know why it hasn’t had a disc release yet. Why are the people convening on a remote bus station during a rainstorm all growing beards and turning into the same man? Is it the rain? A government experiment? Something to do with aliens? THE SIMILARS is a deliciously raving mad Mexican film with a thunderous music score (you get the runner up for best score, Edy Lan!) and a healthy sense of genre heritage. See it when / if you can.

4 Director’s Cut

The horror comedy of the year, and a splendidly original and clever piece of film-making full stop. Adam Rifkin’s movie tells the story of what happens when a lunatic crowd funder grabs the film he’s funded, recuts it, adds a commentary track, and then kidnaps the lead actress to film his own ending. Often hilarious and managing the difficult feat of pulling off three different narratives (the movie, the re-edited movie, and the commentary) with tremendous skill, this is a very funny satire on the nature of low budget moviemaking that often had me laughing out loud.

3 The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Yes it's from the director of TROLL HUNTER and no, it's nothing like it but I suppose they have to put it on the posters. In Virginia, the investigation of a suspected multiple homicide at a family home uncovers the body of an unidentified young woman buried in the basement. She's taken to Brian Cox's mortuary for an autopsy where, as each incision is made and each organ is taken apart, he and his son (played by Emile Hirsch) find things becoming very odd indeed. Not fair to tell you anything else but this is really, really good - virtually a two hander in a single location, making it feel like a TWILIGHT ZONE or Amicus episode but not in the least bit padded out. Filmed in the UK, not that you would ever have guessed it, and out on general release next year. Catch it when it is.

2 Train to Busan

Everyone loves this and rightly so. Criminally denied a decent cinema release in the UK, TRAIN TO BUSAN is one of the best films of this year in any genre, the best fast-moving action zombie picture ever made, the best train-set horror picture ever made, and the best film ever to close Frightfest. If you haven’t seen it yet it’s coming out on Blu-ray (hooray!) on 27th February 2017 from Studio Canal.

1 The Neon Demon

Because, of all the films that came out this year, only one paid homage to the films of Euro-sleaze kings Jess Franco and Joe D’Amato, only one managed to be a slick, stylish hymn to some of the most twisted exploitation classics of the 1970s, only one managed to be both sexy and sleazy, both horrific and beautiful, both mesmerising and bewildering, and only one managed to do this while very much retaining its own (and the director’s own) unique visual style. I love this film because I love D’Amato’s BUIO OMEGA and Franco’s CHRISTINA, PRINCESS OF EROTICISM and Refn’s VALHALLA RISING. I love it because I usually love films filled with plot and action but all I wanted to do here was soak up the images. I love it because it’s bizarre and horrible, because there’s nothing else around these days that compares, and because there should be more films like it but I know there won’t be. 

So there we are - a list culled from watching 600 films this year and formally reviewing over a hundred of them on here. You can’t list everything you loved in a top ten, and this year the list threatened to become hugely unwieldy, so I’m sorry if your favourite isn’t on here and it doesn’t mean I didn’t love it.

Ok that’s it. As always I’d like to offer a huge thank you to everyone who has visited the site & enjoyed one of my reviews. Also thanks has to go to all the film and PR companies who have sent me discs and to the lovely, lovely people whose hard work goes into organising festivals like Frightfest and Abertoir. Thank you everyone. House of Mortal Cinema will be back in 2017. Take care, keep being nice to each other, and I'll see you then. Oh look, THE WAILING has just dropped through the letterbox...