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Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Requiem for a Vampire

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Requiem for a Vampire is arguably one of the best of Jean Rollin’s horror & sex epics.  Most of those films were vampire movies that really brought the sexy vampire into vogue.  Without Jean Rollin there is most likely no Daughters of Darkness, no Hunger, no Buffy, no Edward.  Although Rollin’s film were never mainstream blockbusters, they affected the genre greatly and their influence can still be felt today.

From the opening shot of beautiful girls dressed as clowns shooting out the back of a car involved in a Bonnie and Clyde style car chase through the end every scene of this surreal masterpiece has all the logic of a fever dream and is just as captivating.  There is only enough plot as is necessary for Rollin to stage his set pieces in which he gets the most from his two major assets;  beautiful girls (Marie Pierre Castell & Mirelle D’Argent) and the fabulous locations in rural France.  Images from the film stay with the viewer.  The absurdity of the whole affair is heavily offset by the striking imagery of some scenes.  There is a real artist at work in the midst of all the gratuitous  nudity, sex, bloodletting and striking that imagery abound in Rollin’s work.

This new DVD from Salvation Films puts their previous release to shame, and there wan’t anything wrong with it.  The new disc has a stunning 16:9 transfer that looks good for a new film much less a 38 year old French sex vampire film.

The Escapees

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

The Escapees is essentially a Jean Rollin vampire movie, without the vampires or any other supernatural baddies.  The plot is there basically to string surreal set pieces together and of course to show off beautiful nubile girls.  The Escapees is now making it’s American video debut in any format thanks to this DVD release from Redemption Video.

Marie and Michelle are patients in an insane asylum that they seem to be the only inmates.  Michelle is a tough rebel and Marie is nearly catatonic speaking to no one and spending her days in a rocking chair on the lawn.  Michelle enlists Marie’s aid in geting out of her straight jacket and enabling her escape.  Marie speaks for the first time in years telling Michelle that she wants to go with her.  Michelle reluctantly agrees and thus begins a female mix matched buddy road movie.

The pair travel though some truly odd locals including a burlesque show for sailors in the middle of a junk yard, bizarre dive bars, and various docks and shipyards.  The pair of befriended by a leather clad pick pocket who ultimately arranges for the girls to set sail for the Leeward Islands.

The girls are never really in any danger and little is made of their apparent mental problems apart from a truly strange scene on a closed ice rink when Marie dressed in skates and ice dancing dress realizes her breakdown was caused from exhaustion due to competitive skating, or something, nothing is very well explained.  Ultimately things go terribly wrong as the girls’ escape to freedom comes near, with tragic results.

The film is rather entertaining even without the delirium of most of Rollin’s vampire films and has decidedly less sex and violence than one is accustomed to.  One would also expect some trippy hallucinations from a story about asylum escapees, but no such garishness on display here.   The acting from the leads is rather good although some of the smaller roles range from good to laughably bad.  The video looks surprisingly good although there are some lengthy passages with annoying vertical lines, but nothing to get too concerned about.   Extras include and interview with Jean Rollin and some trailers.

Succubus: The Demon

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Very often styles of horror films are geographically based. American, Italian, British, Japanese, even Mexican horror films often have a distinctive style that is heavily influenced by the culture and history of the filmmaker’s home country. I suppose the same could be said for Finnish horror, if I had seen more than one Finnish film, horror or otherwise. That lone example of the cinema output of Finland is Sami Haavisto’s Succubus: The Demon.

Following the sudden death of his beloved bride just weeks after their wedding, Henri has spent the last two months in despair.  His entire life has stopped as depression and drinking have take over, until the  visions start.  The visions which may or may not be dreams start Henri looking for answers to his wife’s death.  When the normal course of inquiry fails Henri turns to the occult for help.  As Henri delves deeeper into the occult he discovers more about his late wife and her death, as he looses more of his soul and humanity.

One name kept creeping into my head while watching Succubus; Ken Russell.  Director Sami Haavisto seems to be heavily influenced by the British director of The Devils and Altered States.  It is only a shame that Haavisto in nowhere near the visual director that Russell is and the entire production has an amatuerish feel to it.   The film isn’t bad but pales in comparison to almost any contemporary product from anywhere in the world.  The gore effects are not likely to impress anyone who has seen any horror film made in the last 40 years.  But despite all of it’s flaws, Succubus:  The Demon has an earnestness that keeps the viewer watching through the film’s heart breaking climax.

The DVD reelase from horror and exploitation masters Redemption/Salvation films is the quality that one expects from this label.   The film looks nice with a widescreen transfer and is accompanied by several featurettes that actually enhance the appreciation of the film.  There are also the customary still galleries and Redemption trailers.

Beyond the Beyond

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Wow! The Beyond has for ages been one of my favorite horror movies. I mean what’s not to love? Loads of gore, torture, man eating spiders, zombies, evil books, haunted hotels, gateways to hell, and virtually no plot getting in the way of the story. Decades after first seeing it on video, the surreal horror masterpiece still holds it’s power.

There really is no way of describing the story of The Beyond as there scarcely is a plot. The film exists almost entirely in dream logic, and trying to describe it in any meaningful way is like telling your dream to someone and we all know how interesting that is! There are major visual moments that act as plot points including the crucifixion of the painter in the opening scenes of the film. The sudden appearance of the blind psychic Emily, standing with her German Shepard guide dog on the middle of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in New Orleans, is one of the more jarring, non gore moments of the movie. The city of New Orleans with it’s raised tombs and wrought iron architecture of the French Quarter and Garden District lend a great deal of atmosphere to the proceedings.

The Beyond is actually one of the best H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, even though it isn’t actually based on Lovecraft. It does dabble in Lovecraftian mythology (as did Fulci’s earlier Gates of Hell aka City of the Living Dead). The setting is New Orleans replacing New England, but the huge house with it’s hidden secrets, the gateway to hell and the Book of Eibon all point to Lovecraft as does the whole feel of the film.

Lucio Fulci sometimes gets a bad rap for being merely a gore director. True, his horror films certainly push the vomit levels, but you often can sense something stronger than merely bloodletting in his approach, be it with Zombie 2, Gates of Hell or Manhattan Baby. The Beyond is where he finally puts it all together and creates fascinating piece of visual cinema, unencumbered by the necessity for coherent plot. It is easily his best and most important contribution to modern horror cinema.

Like some other Lucio Fulci films, The Beyond has had a spotty record on home video. A heavily censored version called Seven Doors to Death have floated around for years, and pales in comparison to the proper version. Of course this isn’t nearly as bad as the infamous swapped reals in some video versions of Fulci House By the Cemetery. Parts of the film were mastered out of sequence so people who had died earlier in the film suddenly showed back up with no explanation, causing the film to be thought of quite poorly. Of course this new deluxe edition of The Beyond suffers from none of that nonsense. A very sharp widescreen transfer is graced with stereo and mono English audio, Italian audio, and a really rollicking commentary track with stars Catriona MacColl and the late David Warbeck. The disc also has interviews, music videos, alternate scenes, and trailers.

The Last Man on Earth

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend has officially been made into three movies. 2007’s I Am Legend being the most recent, 1971’s The Omega Man being the most famous, and 1964’s The Last Man on Earth being the best of the three. This isn’t to say it is a great film, but it is quite entertaining and very influential.

The Italian made film The Last Man on Earth stars Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, a solitary man who lives his life alone, following a worldwide plague that has some how missed him and killed the lucky ones. The unlucky ones are turned into vampires. Morgan spends his days searching vainly for other survivors and killing vampires. He spends his nights barricaded in his house, drinking, while the vampires attack his house and taunt Morgan. This goes on and on until one day he sees a woman walking about in broad daylight. Morgan eventually finds her again, thrilled to no longer be alone, but all is not as it appears!

The Last Man on Earth, directed by Ubaldo Ragona, is quite visually striking, especially considering the miniscule budget the film was shot on.  There are gaping plot holes, but Ragona keeps the action moving at a brisk pace so you don’t have a lot of time to dwell on them.

Vincent Price gives one of his better performances as the determined and desperately lonely Robert Morgan.  Just going through his daily routine you can feel the despair, boredom, and loneliness.  The widescreen compositions aid tremendously in showing the emptiness of Morgan’s existence.  The film when cropped to 4:3 becomes nothing but VIncent Price closeups.

The film has had a lasting influence on the world of horror and science fiction cinema as George Romero was heavily influenced by the scenes of Morgan waiting out the Vampires in his boarded up house when making Night of the Living Dead.

Legend Films has a new DVD of Last Man on Earth.  Despite a misprint on the DVD cast the film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  If you’ve only seen this on TV or public domain video, then you really haven’t seen it.  I was really taken by how much was truly missing off the screen in the dark, cropped transfers that are floating around out there.  The disc has both colorized and black and white versions of the movie, but I recommend the original black and white version.

As far as extras on the disc, there are some trailers for other Legend DVD releases and a half hour TV show called It Happened in Hollywood.  The show appears to be a look at the making of different genres of film.  The show is hosted by Vincent Price, and the episode is about westerns.  There are lots of clips from unnamed, ancient, westerns, and really rudimentary inside information about back lots and stunt work, but the real treat is to see Vincent Price dressed as a cowboy!


Friday, October 31st, 2008

How I managed to make it to 2008 without seeing Pieces is really beyond me. I’m a huge fan of early 80’s slasher films, and a fan of Pieces director Juan Piquer Simon. But there it is, I let one get by me but I can now start to make up for lost time.

The film opens with a prologue set in Boston, 1942. A young boy is studiously doing a jigsaw puzzle in his room as his mother comes in. She see that the puzzle is of a nude woman and freaks out beating the child and cursing his dead father. The boy kills her with an axe, rather than have her get rid of his porno stash. The film then jumps forty years into the future to a supposedly large college campus. The characters keep talking about how large the school is, but there only appears to be about a dozen students and five teachers. Co-eds begin meeting grisly ends and the police are called in to investigate. Detective Bracken (Christopher George) and his sidekick played by Frank Brana start the investigation. Their investigation basically consists of having faculty and students investigate for them. One of their main helpers is Kendall, who looks like a cross between Screech and Horshack and has every girl on campus hot for him. Detective Bracken has Kendall looking for suspects, helping his partner go through faculty files, even asking his to protect undercover cop/pro tennis player Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George). This stuff gets laughably bad as they do everything but give the kid a gun. The grisly murders continue. Body parts are being taken from the victims, and the police have no leads. Mary Riggs goes to interview the dean of the college as Kendall and the detectives realize he may be the killer and rush to save Mary from being the final piece of the homicidal puzzle as they discover the dean is the boy from the prologue and he is assembling a new “mother” out of various body parts.

The plot, such as it is, zips along at a fast pace but without much mystery. It’s pretty obvious to everyone that the dean is the killer. There are a number of red herrings, including a camera mugging Paul Smith (Dune, Return of the Tiger) but none of them are dangled with much conviction. The film is quite gory, but really pretty tame by contemporary standards. The real joy of the film is how damn goofy it is. The whole thing is just silly by any standards. It starts with the absurd anachronisms in the 1942 prologue including an obviously early 80’s nude model on the puzzle, a push button telephone, and a New England Patriots pennant (the Patriots didn’t become a team until the 1960’s). The unnamed college has virtually no students or staff, and in fact was filmed in a villa and it’s grounds. Of course the most absurd is the geeky ladies man Kendall and the supreme faith the police have in him. Pieces boasts some laugh out loud dialogue. One amazing scene involves the killer sneaking onto an elevator with his victim by hiding his chain saw behind his back. The end of the film really grabs your…attention as well. Through it all the film is very likeable and infinately watchable, a near perfect midnight movie.

The film has had a pretty bad time of it on home video with this being the first authorized release on DVD. The disc from Grindhouse Releasing looks amazing with a hi-def transfer and anamorphic widescreen. The DVD contains three very different viewing experiences with the different audio tracks available. There is the standard English dub, the Spanish language track with subtitles with less laughable subtitles and a better musical score by Librado Pastor, and finally the Vine Theatre track which was recorded live and includes a large audience and all of their laughing, screaming, and cat calls.

I wish the disc had a good commentary, but the extras are all superb including a long interview with director Juan Piquar Simon and another with Paul Smith. There is also a short bit with Piquar showing off bits of memorabilia from the film including the infamous puzzle and the test shots of the model the puzzle was made of. It is a bit surprising to see such an odd little film get the super deluxe treatment, but really cult films benefit the most from such packages as they are so important to the people who love the films.

Paging Doctor Lugosi

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Poor Bela Lugosi. His entire career was and always will be linked with Boris Karloff. He was forever in Boris’ shadow and could never quite measure up. Even when it came to playing vampires, Karloff’s turn as The Wurdalak in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath bested Lugosi as Dracula. In fairness Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula is one of film history’s great icon yet Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster is even more iconic.

The one place where Lugosi may have had the upper hand on Karloff was playing mad scientists. Karloff played many a mad scientists, but they were never that mad, more misguided. Lugosi’s mad scientists were wild eyed, English butchering, lunatics. He could pump life into any poverty row quickie. He could be creating an army of supermen, or scaring the Dead End Kids, Lugosi did it with flair and gusto.

Two new DVDs are out that showcase two of Lugosi’s best deranged docs. Dr. Paul Carruthers in The Devil Bat and Dr. Eric Vornoff in Bride of the Monster.

Jean Yarbrough’s The Devil Bat (1940) made by Producers Releasing Corporation was nowhere near the low point of Lugosi’s career but was quite a come down in quality from the films he was making at Universal. Lugosi plays Dr. Paul Carruthers, a chemist for a cosmetics company who feels slighted after his work makes the company’s owners wealthy and he is given a pitance in return. In his secret labratory he is experimenting with raising giant bats that will attack on command by honing in on a special scent he has formulated into an after shave lotion. The after shave makes certain that the bat will attack the wearer’s scent. People keep coming to the labratory to see if the good doctor has any information on the mysterious deaths and he keeps having them try his after-shave. Typical of films of this time a hot shot reporter and his wise acre photographer are out to solve the mystery and by the end of the tidy 68 minute running time Lugosi gets the after shave on him and is bat attacked to death.

Lugosi is classic in this otherwise routine B-Grade thriller as he stares through small windows at his giant bats and rants about how he has been done wrong. “That’s your money doctor they gave you doctor. Like a bone thrown to a faithful dog!” Lugosi fumes after being given a $5,000. bonus.

A decade later, this performace would seem restrained as he would don the lab coat to play Dr. Eric Vornoff in Edward D. Wood Jr.’s dubious classic, Bride of the Monster.  Lugosi’s Dr. Vornoff uses his hulking, mute assistant, Lobo to abduct men for experiment on in order to create a race of supermen.  He also has a giant octopus that makes a dandy watch dog.  Bela is given free reign to over-act and he does so with glee.  He anguishes each scientific failure, he laugh maniacally at helpless victims, he goes on long tirades about those who “do not understand” his vision of atomic powered supermen.  He even gets to mercilessly beat Lobo with a whip!  By the time he falls prey to his giant octopus, one realizes we may never see a scientist this mad ever again.

Of course this is an Ed Wood film so there is a school play cheapness to the whole affair.  All of the elements are right, but there are just so clumsily executed, but in a fascinating and charming manner.  It is a terrible film, but totally enjoyable, and worthy of repeated viewings so you are able to catch more silliness.  The making of the film was well documented in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).

Both The Devil Bat and Bride of the Monster have been newly restored and released on DVD by Legend FIlms.  Bride would have seemed a great choice for a MIchael Nelson commentary, but even without that for under ten bucks a piece you can get really nice version of these films that have too long suffered through shamefully poor public domain video releases.

Phantom from Space

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Phantom from Space has nothing to do with ghosts, but does involve an invisible extra terrestrial.  According the the very helpful and nearly constant voice over narrator a meteor has fallen off radar tracking and presumably crashed south of Santa Monica, California.  Special agents driving Packards with televison antennas mounted on the roof are in hot pursuit and soon they are on the trail of the alien throughout the afternoon, I mean night, i mean…geez, the day for night photography is Ed Wood bad.  If the characters didn’t keep saying it was night, who would know.  I mean even the colorization artists put blue skies in certain scenes.  Anyway, the alien soon ditches with space suit rendering him invisible.  One problem he can’t survive long on Earth without his suit and helmet.  The invisible E.T. decides to lock himself in a room at an observatory with a beautiful lab assistant (Noreen Nash) to try to tell her what he needs through code.  She can’t decipher the code, but does determine that the alien can be seen under ultra violet light.  More scientists try to help but the code goes un-decoded as the alien dies and briefly becomes fully visible before disintegrating.  Huh?  That’s it?  Actually that is probably closer to what would actually happen with an E.T./human contact.  I mean Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese have nearly insurmountable communication difficulties, I don’t think that creatures from Saturn are going to quickly pick up English.  Still it isn’t quite satisfying dramatically.  If maybe we knew the alien had the key to world peace or the cure for cancer the ending might have had poignancy but as written the film just stops and feel terribly amateurish.  The film is not a total waste and up until the end it was pretty entertaining in a people talking in wood paneled room sort of way.  Not a classic, but fun in a Saturday afternoon monster movie sort of way.

Phantom from Space is available in nicely priced edition from Legend Films.  The disc boasts a restored black and white print and a newly colorized version.  No extras beyond some Legend Films trailers, but with a price point under ten bucks, who needs extras?

The Skull

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

No duo has starred together in as many horror films as the legendary duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The pair starred in dozens of films from the 1950’s into the 1970’s. They played friends, rivals, vampire and vampire hunter, even monster and creator. No matter the quality of the material they always managed to bring it to a higher level, and had great chemistry whenever they were on screen together.  Freddie Francis’ The Skull is no exception.

Based on a story by Robert Bloch, The Skull opens with a grave being robbed for the skull of the departed.  The thief takes the skull home to clean it while his mistress waits impatiently on the bed. She sees smoke coming from under the bathroom door she bursts into the bathroom to see her lover dead and a gleaming skull on the counter.  We cut to the modern day of mid 60’s London where friendly rival occultists Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) and Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) are bidding on occult items for their collections. Maitland notices Phillips odd behavior as Phillips wildly overbids for a set of statues. When pressed for the reason Phillips has no idea why he even wanted the statues.

Some time later, Maitland is offered the chance to purchase the skull of the Marquis De Sade.   Maitland is urged by Phillips to not buy the skull as it hold a malevolent power over whoever possesses it. When pressed Phillips reveals that he once owned the skull and it was stolen from him.  He admits that the skull’s power was responsible for his actions at the earlier auction.  Even before he acquires the skull, Maitland begins having vivid dreams that may or may not have been just dreams, and once he has the skull he begins to be compelled to aid the skull in dark rituals and even kills to protect it. When the skull wants Maitland to kill his wife Maitland resists, but forfeits his own life

There is so much to like about The Skull, it is a shame that some of the hokier elements including the skull floating around mid air and POV shots of the skull are allowed to mar what could have been a fine occult thriller in the Dennis Wheatley (Devil Rides Out) vein. It just all get to be a bit silly, bordering on William Castle type gimmicks. Still there are nice performances especially by Cushing. (If you’ve even wanted to see the usually stoic actor lose it on screen this is your chance.) There is some great widescreen camera work, which is remarkable as the whole film is basically shot in interior sets and at times feels a bit claustrophobic. There is also a human death by falling through multistory stained glass that was undoubtedly an inspiration for Dario Argento when he made Suspiria.

The Skull is now available on DVD from Legend Films featuring a gorgeous 2:35 widescreen transfer. It’s the first time I’ve even seen The Skull not pan and scanned and I barely recognized it. The cropped version of the film is just close ups on faces and skulls and is maddening to watch. I was impressed by the visual feast on display in the proper aspect ratio.  You can also really see Peter Cushing work on screen.  There are so many long passages without dialogue where Cushing and his famed business on screen can truly be seen and appreciated.

31 Days of Horror: Night of the Lepus

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

Night of the Lepus is easily the greatest giant killer rabbit movie of all time.  Ok I realize that list isn’t too long but I defy you to name a better one!

One nice thing about 1970’s drive-in movies is you would sometimes get fading stars in the movie instead of a parade of no names.   Night Of the Lepus stars Stuart Whitman, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley, and Janet Leigh, none of which were at the high ebb of their career.

The plot about mutated rabbits growing quite large and wreaking havoc in a small southwestern town dates back to the 1950’s with giant bug movies like Them and Tarantula, but made extra scary by having cute little bunny rabbits turned ointo blood thirsty killers.

The whole thing become unintentionally funny by the serious acting mixed with the cute, I mean scary, bunnies.  Things are taken up another notch of absurd as there is a disconnect between the script and the special effects as the characters keep referring to “rabbits as big as wolves” but on screen they are more like the size of Volkswagens

The trailer for the film also makes it seem like a real horror picture, but there just isn’t a way to make the bunnies frightening.

Looking for a fun and funny party movie, then Night of the Lepus would be a great fit.  Surely the RIfftrax guys will record something for this film as it was sadly missed during the heyday of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Night of the Leups
is availabe in a bare bones DVD from Warner Home VIdeo.