Monday, 7 April 2014

The Asphyx

After spotting apparent photographic anomalies that occur at the point of a subject's death, two scientists embark on a journey to capture the mystical being responsible (dubbed the 'asphyx') that theoretically captures the escaping soul.  Their aim is to ultimately prevent death itself - if they can stop the asphyx from taking away an individual's soul then it could be the case that the individual themselves could attain immortality.

A leisurely paced UK production from around 1973, The Asphyx was directed by veteran camera operator Peter Newbrook.  It's not considered a classic but it is surely a carefully crafted and eloquent production that does explore some interesting concepts.  I think what holds this one back from more widespread appeal is the lack of dynamism - Newbrook hardly takes things forward with energetic zeal.  However, it's an exquisitely shot piece of work with some dark moments that can yield rewards for the patient viewer.  The beauty of the film should come as no surprise when you realise that its cinematographer, Freddie Young, won several Oscars for his work.
I'd only ever seen the UK 86 minute 'theatrical' version of this film - it had been widely available on VHS and DVD for years but old reviews dangled a carrot suggesting that the longer 99 minute US version was a better way to view the film.  Odeon Entertainment have in recent years released a two-disc DVD containing the extended version but that has since been bettered: a welcome entry into home video was Redemption's Blu-ray, which contains both versions of the film.  The standard cut is fully mastered (from the negative I believe) in HD and looks stunning.  Fully scoped (as shot in Todd-AO) the detail is amazing for a film of this vintage, and really shows what can be done with older stuff.  The longer cut is featured as an extra (and has to be accessed, as such, from the bonus menu).  This cut is taken from an inferior source mastered in standard definition.  Redemption could have done the lazy thing and just included this as is, but they've retained the HD footage where possible and inserted the extra material where it should be, meaning you're still watching the bulk of the film in HD if you choose to watch the longer version.  I don't mind this, because the periodic quality shift reveals exactly what they decided to remove, presumably in the name of brevity.  There is also a slight ratio shift from 2.39:1 to what must have been the only thing available for the extra material, 1.85:1 approximately, although this is 'window boxed' to prevent too much of a visible jolt for the viewer.  Personally I think the excised material is of some value as there is greater exposition on some of the themes explored, plus additional characterisation.

Other extras include some trailers and a photo gallery, but really this remains an invaluable acquisition because this disc means we can choose whether to watch the shorter or longer cuts completely (in the former case) or mostly (in the latter) in full HD.  If you like the film, or have a fondness for Hammer-era horror, the Redemption Blu will sit comfortably on your shelf.  The gorgeous presentation of the HD transfer enhances one's appreciation without a doubt.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Hellgate

After discovering an ancient crystal that possesses mysterious life-returning qualities via a laser shock, a disgruntled father uses it to bring back to life the daughter that was accidentally killed by a bunch of unruly bikers.  This rather sexy walking corpse periodically picks up 'strangers' who wonder too close to their town (dubbed 'Hellgate') with the intention of knocking them off, until one of them reawakens her affections.  I think that's what it's about anyway!

Tagging onto the tail end of the eighties video revolution Hellgate is a periodically silly horror comedy with a mishmash of ideas that somehow seems recently to have unfairly been labelled as the worst film of all time by newcomers to the genre, who I can only guess don't seem to understand eighties horror sensibilities.  Of course, it's no fantastic piece of work, but as something that entertains on at least an occasional basis, it certainly not a pile of steaming turd either.  It actually, I would argue, has a few things going for it.  Aside from the pretty cruddy crystal laser, the special effects (which include a nifty reanimated turtle and an exploding goldfish) are pretty impressive whilst not necessarily winning any Tom-Savini awards.  It also contains a touch of nudity and gore, and even a few laughs, not too far away from the territory of many other American eighties horror comedies really.  If I would level any criticism at it, it is that the acting can leave a little to be desired, plus the main characters are not as charismatic as, say, the posse of punks in Return of the Living Dead.  And then there is that rather screwy stage host that appears for a couple of minutes before a surreal dance show.  But really, people, it aint that bad.  And I'd rather stick this on than much of the PC dross that drips forth from Hollywood anyway, to be honest.
Arrow's Blu-ray/DVD combo is limited to 1000, probably realistically given the small target audience for something like this.  But grab it quick if you want it.  Transfer-wise it is excellent, looking a million times better than you would ever expect something like this to.  Audio quality is delivered via uncompressed stereo but limited by its 1989 origins - still, it sounds okay.  You also get towards an hour's worth of featurettes (slicing out a good portion of that for unnecessary integrated film clips), something of a surprise for a low-key title such as this.  There is also some nice new art on the cover, and original video art on the reverse if you're not keen on that, and even a booklet containing an essay.  As is often the case these days, Arrow have delivered a fantastic package for a title that you would never have guessed would ever get it.  Definitely one for fans of American eighties horror.

P.S. At time of writing it was still available direct from Arrow, so before you go and pay some profiteering nincompoop on Amazon or ebay, check there.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Schoolgirl Hitchhikers

If this title makes you think that this film should be banned then you're probably expecting a bit too much!  The narrative follows a couple of wandering young women ('natch - this is a Jean Rollin film after all) who look a little older than schoolgirls to me, although would still probably pass for university students.  Milling through the beautiful French countryside they discover an apparently abandoned chateau where they decide to spend the night exploring each other's bodies, etc.  They don't realize that a gangster is sitting around downstairs waiting for a couple of colleagues, but when one of the girls does bump into this guy she uses the opportunity to explore his body as well.  However, when the other gangster shows up with some sort of mistress who seems to run the show, they find that their pick-up - some expensive thieved jewels - are missing.  Immediately they suspect the two girls, so they go off to capture them (they left the same morning), bring them back and torture them into talking.  One of them escapes and acquires the 'skills' of a bungling local private detective and before long everybody is mixed up in a mystery of missing jewels, exposed flesh, and misunderstandings.
I wanted to see this one for years, ever since I read about it in a 90s copy of the essential obscurity review magazine Is It Uncut?.  It goes without saying that this film (known in French as Jeunes Filles Impudiques and directed under his porn pseudonym of Michel Gentil) abandons the horror elements of Rollin's better known work but remains undeniably a product of his eccentric imagination.  During the mildly titillating lesbian activities early on it looks like it could get boring - 80 minutes of sex is not of much interest to me in a film.  But fortunately Rollin brings in lots of idiosyncratic plot quirks that keep boredom at arm's length.  There are some mild elements of violence although I was surprised to find one aspect of the torture scenes had me looking away from the screen, and it wasn't even gory!  One of the main girls is Joëlle Coeur, a tarty but attractive young thing who also turned up in Rollin's Demoniacs.  The other actors here are typical props in the Rollin universe - functional without ever straying into award-winning territory (or anywhere near).

I picked up Redemption's US Blu-ray of Schoolgirl Hitchhikers with some hesitation after reading about cine-wobble.  Unfortunately it is present and quite distracting although thankfully not for the entire film, which would have made it completely unwatchable - I'd say it makes up around 40% of the shots at an estimate, and takes the form of a slight frame-to-frame jittering that is noticeable (and probably discounts trying to view this on a very large screen).  It's a terrible shame that this couldn't have been corrected (I suspect it would be either too time consuming and/or expensive for something with minimal target audience) but I am still glad to own this one.  There is occasional print damage, which I've no problem with personally, and the colours are washed-out/pasty, but these factors at least give it that currently in vogue grindhouse feel.  The film is presented in full HD at around 1.66:1 and detail is pleasing.  The French language mono audio is fine and English subtitles are good (I much prefer watching foreign language films on Blu-ray because subtitles actually look like normal text rather than Spectrum graphics!).  Nothing else is really provided as extra material except a few trailers (no booklet like the other Rollin releases) so this is fairly bare-bones all round.

This film has a little bit of a sense of humour (especially once the idiot detective and his strangely young pig-tailed female assistant are introduced), with a couple of fairly attractive lead girls and an intertwined plot about gangster theft and a mistress that seems like she wandered out of Fascination.  It's not a bad little piece but receives a frustratingly inconsistent disc release from what is otherwise one of my favourite companies.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Incredible Hulk

I'm currently working my way through the Hulk TV series, and am compiling a blog entry for each episode over at a new page here on Blogger; take a look if you get chance.  Happy New Year!

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Seventh Victim

Val Lewton’s 40s genre productions have become much more renowned thanks to Warner putting together their fabulous DVD collection of his work quite a few years ago now. But long before that his pictures for RKO studios were considered quite special, formulating as they did quite chilling little tales of the morbid without resorting to overt manifestations of the supernatural. This was always a pleasing contrast to the output of Universal and helped to push forward the idea that the genre didn’t really need inhuman monsters to succeed critically and commercially. In fact their conception was partly the result of the failure of the mighty Orson Welles productions so we could say we have Citizen Kane to thank, as if its legacy hasn’t snowballed enough. The Seventh Victim begins with young college student Mary being called up to be informed that her Manhattan-based sister, Jacqueline, is no longer paying her tuition fees. In fact nobody can seem to get in touch with Jacqueline so Mary packs up and heads off to the great city of NY to find out what’s happened to her older sibling. First stopping off at the restaurant once owned by Jacqueline, Mary finds out she was seen at a local boarding house and goes off to enquire. There it seems the missing woman has hired a room - seemingly not to stay in, rather it’s there as some sort of haven for a potential suicide that forces Mary to realise her sister‘s situation is much more sinister than the innocent youngster‘s mind would like to have contemplated. She comes into contact with the man who loves Jacqueline and with the help of a private investigator (who is soon murdered for his curiosity) they delve deeper into a plot that leads to a satanic cult that has drawn Jacqueline into their macabre world.
A very noir-esque atmosphere is established once Mary arrives at the city: shadowy streets, darkly lit corridors, harsh contrasts (cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was clearly an expert technician and artist) - it’s an ideal world to conceal the goings-on of a group of devil-worshipping people. In fact the cult reminds me of the sinister neighbours that later turned up in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and are quite a creepy bunch considering this was the forties. Mary (Kim Hunter’s feature debut, amazingly the same woman who went on to play Zira in the first three Ape movies) is lovely and innocent, making her treacherous journey a tad more engaging as she stumbles into a threatening city that could almost consume her, though it seems as though something is watching over her shoulder as more harm comes to those around her than to Mary herself. An interesting moral seems to have been wound into the narrative that makes itself apparent by the end, and one which possibly reflected the way Val Lewton pondered upon his own existence (a cardiac illness was making itself known at the time, this eventually leading to a premature demise): humans may at some point, or with eventual inevitability, come to question whether they wish to continue living and both angles are represented by two characters. Jacqueline herself (resembling Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction) evidently possesses a fixation with her own death, perhaps fantasizing about suicide itself until it becomes an on-going obsession, whilst crossing her path is a woman who is terminally ill but would prefer to avoid death - one person is living but wants to die, the other is dying but wants to live. Indeed the opening statement of the film (about running to death but death meeting one just as fast) suggests to me that the story is ultimately an exploration of man’s relationship with death, something which underpins all of horror in some ways. This gives what once began as B movie material (in fact, just a title really) a certain degree of greater depth than what might have been anticipated by the funding studio (the last thing they wanted was conceptual depth after Orson Welles had drained them of cash). Along the way we come across a number of smartly thought-out sequences; Mary and the PI standing at the end of a dark corridor, both afraid to advance before she persuades him to effectively walk to his doom, Mary’s subway ride where three ‘drunks’ stumble on to the train only for the hat to fall from the one being carried revealing him to be the very PI that was murdered earlier - his body obviously in the process of being disposed of, and not least the shower scene that surely must have influenced Hitchcock years later, such is its similarity to Psycho's most famous murder sequence. The Seventh Victim is a movie than can be appreciated by both fans of the macabre and noir alike.

Warner’s 1.33:1 black & white transfer was exemplary given the movie’s 1943 period of creation, and it came accompanied with a highly informative 53 minute documentary on producer Val Lewton. Perhaps some of the interviewees (the likes of William Friedkin, Joe Dante, etc.) go a little overboard in their praise, as is often the case with back-slapping Americans, but appreciation for Lewton will certainly flourish as a result of viewing this comprehensive piece. There’s also a feature commentary from historian Steve Haberman that is sometimes a little quickly spoken, though this also means that there’s a large amount of information and considered opinions divulged. He discusses an omitted subplot concerning Tom Conway’s character as well as the critical and commercial response to the film following initial release, among many other things. One thing Haberman drew my eye to during listening to the commentary was the point when Mary is offered the bad news by the school’s headmistress - watch her silent assistant who is staring at Mary throughout the dialogue, it’s a pretty creepy image as she continuously looks Mary up and down in far too suggestive a manner. The region 1 disc could be picked up as part of the superb boxed set that came with Lewton’s other RKO genre productions - note, a later release of this also includes a Martin Scorsese documentary as an additional bonus.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Voices From Beyond

One of Lucio Fulci's very last efforts, this one reflects an undeniable decline that had occurred in his directorial work from around the mid eighties onwards.  Shot in 1990/1 for Executive Cine TV from one of Fulci's own stories, Voices From Beyond (or Voci dal Profondo / Voices From The Deep to take its original title) is a mystery horror tale about a rich man whose premature death leaves his spirit lingering around while his body rots.  Due to supernatural laws unknown his daughter has the same amount of time it will take his corpse to completely decompose in order to discover who was responsible for his death, and there are a number of suitable suspects, from a mistress to an estranged wife, all of whom were treated badly by the old man.  Feeling quite padded at just over ninety minutes there are nevertheless a number of points that will interest fans of the macabre and Lucio Fulci in particular.  Having acquainted himself with heavy gore towards the end of the seventies, Fulci appeared to feel obliged to wander down the same path in virtually every venture since, and Voices... is no exception - there's a gruesome autopsy scene, plenty of shots of the rotting body beneath the ground (covered in maggots, 'natch), and even the stabbing of a young boy!  There is also a fair bit of nudity for the body-conscious amongst you.  The dream sequences are adeptly executed, generally providing the film with most of its horror content (in fact, without them it would be significantly less interesting I think).  No doubt the best of these is where one character wanders through a claustrophobic morgue consisting of increasingly closed-in walls, before the tombs break open at the hands of the living dead.  Stelvio Cipriani's music is very good in places (Fulci had a knack for embellishing his films with excellent scores), while the hazy cinematography elicits a dreamy feel.  My personal favourite sequence is the funeral of the old man, where his enemies drop wreaths on the coffin one by one as they re-live some of the terrible memories they have of him, all backed by grooving beat.
I did have this on video cassette a long time ago and it was difficult to appreciate the film's strengths on such a medium - needless to say it eventually ended up in a car-boot sale.  Not well touched on DVD anywhere, Code Red announced a while back a US release of a newly scanned transfer on both DVD and Blu-ray!  This has finally come to fruition after what seems like quite a long wait.  The (very) old EC DVD was severely limited in terms of translating the soft-focus image to standard definition (albeit in widescreen), with an equally limited mono audio track (English language).  I haven't seen Code Red's DVD, and don't intend to, but their Blu-ray is an attractive option.  Similarly presented in widescreen - full HD at 24 frames per second - the colours are very strong, grain is present, and detail enhanced.  The relaxed focus of much of the source (surely an artistic choice, given the ghostly nature of the story?) is evident of course, but the film here looks possibly as vivid as we will ever see it - especially some of the harder-focussed exterior shots.  The Dolby TrueHD-encoded audio (still in English, and as atrociously dubbed as ever - I know of nothing that provides an Italian audio option unfortunately and am unsure if such a track even exists) is stronger than before, with the music finally given chance to be assessed with some clarity.  Oddly, there is no menu on the disc - the film starts immediately upon entry, and ceases after the credits on your player's own menu.  There are, however, ten chapter stops, but nothing in way of chapter naming.  Neither are there any extras, but really, who is going to track down ageing participants for a lower-key movie such as this?  Limited to 1000 at the time of writing, and available only direct through Code Red (see my links/escape routes above) this Blu-ray is, despite the film's shortcomings and the discs lack of bonus material, the best way to experience the film and a desirable collector's item for fans of Lucio Fulci.

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Wolfman

Responding to the unexpected disappearance of his brother, stage actor Lawrence Talbot returns from America to (Victorian) England to pay familial respects and find out what happened. At the old family estate Lawrence is reunited with his apathetic father, both of them still haunted by the horrible suicide of their mother/wife when Lawrence was a toddler. After Lawrence befriends his brother’s fiancée in the woe of their mutual concern, he heads out one night (against his father’s ominous advice) to a passing gypsy camp to investigate an amulet that may have some relevance to his brother’s case. His enquiries are suddenly cut short when the camp is attacked by a swift and indiscriminate beast - panicking victims are torn apart amidst spiralling chaos prompting Talbot to pull out his rifle to take pot shots at the creature. Getting a little too ambitious for his own good he’s attacked himself, saved from a near fatal wound by another armed man, and a subsequent amateur operation to seal the torn flesh. Recovering at the estate from the attack, Lawrence attracts the somewhat hostile attention of the local police inspector, but this is the least of his problems when it becomes apparent at the next full moon that he has become infected by a werewolf, himself now a carrier of the curse.

Taking many elements of the screenplay of Universal’s classic 1941 monster movie The Wolf Man and mirroring them fairly respectfully, this remake injects a dose of contemporary violence and shock cutting to bring it in line with the expectations common in today’s audiences. However, to suggest those are the only elements that make this worth watching is something of an injustice. The film doesn’t exactly appeal to the most commercial of sensibilities: firstly, it is largely a slow moving exploration of the denizens of an almost fairy tale world, with sombre pacing periodically punctuated by brutal and quite exciting action. And secondly, the design of the titular creature is something of a throwback to an era I had long considered dead - quite brave and at odds with the genre’s cinematic context of today. In fact, the creature isn’t too far removed from that of the original film, aside from the much needed enhancements to special effects, make-up, and its ability to stride at a much greater speed (thereby multiplying its threat tenfold). Taking up the reins of the consistently forlorn Lawrence Talbot is Benicio Del Toro: apart from possessing a melancholy appearance surprisingly akin to that of Lon Chaney Jnr. (the star of the 1941 movie), the actor brings a distinctive quality to the role, maintaining an air of solemn believability throughout and contributing quite skilfully to the tragic nature of the character - he demonstrates an amazing look and presence. One cannot help but feel a twinge of disturbed sorrow during his utterly miserable incarceration and torture at the asylum following his arrest (don’t fret too much - this act concludes with a beautiful payoff!). Strong acting remains a staple of the production for its duration, a particular favourite performance of mine arriving in the form of persistently odd Hugo Weaving as the sharp minded inspector. All of this brings verisimilitude to the more complex (than the original) characterisations and relationships established throughout the story, and whilst it is overall quite faithful to its source there are one or two twists along the way to keep things interesting for fans such as myself who know the original movie reasonably well. And enormous appreciation must go to werewolf aficionado Rick Baker and the special effects team (CGI or otherwise) for creating what must be amongst the most effective transformation sequences either side of the perennially stunning experience that is An American Werewolf in London.

The strong gothic backdrop to the scenario is embellished by delightfully crafted compositions of near achromatic cinematography, something I wouldn’t have anticipated from a director as seemingly nondescript as Johnston. The cinema screening I originally attended was unforgivably marred by a slight but perceivable out-of-focus projection, a factor that thankfully does not afflict the Blu-ray, which (containing both the theatrical and extended cuts) presents the film in full HD at 1.85:1 with a lovely artistic image and noticeable (on a very large screen) grain retention.  The DTS-HD MA audio track particularly shines with the deep and emphatic orchestral arrangements, giving you an appropriately cinematic experience if you have surround kit.  The steelbook, which I acquired soon after its release, is very attractive, albeit plain on the inside.  The Wolfman was unfortunately plagued by a troubled production so it’s pleasing to find a gloomy, morbid, violent, and bewilderingly traditional horror story that may not please those accustomed to more conventional modern cinema but will tap some of the right nerves for a few.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Stagefright

Originating from a background where he was surrounded by creativity it’s perhaps no accident that Michele Soavi wound up in constructing images himself of some kind - early on as a painter but after developing an interest in cinema he moved on to acting and, later still, assistant directing. It was from many of cinema’s veterans that he learnt most of his behind-the-camera skills, people like Dario Argento, Aristide Massaccesi, Lamberto Bava, and even Terry Gilliam. His own directorial debut came together, therefore, quite late in his career. Owning it on Avatar’s video cassette for a few years I once thought Stagefright (sometimes known as Aquarius or Deliria) was a fairly average slasher, but at the time I was a lot less informed and less educated in the darker genres than I am nowadays. Viewing it now is a different matter. It outlines a simple scenario but one that’s nonetheless powerful in many respects: a theatre director who’s obsessed with extracting the best performances from his actors is selfish in the extreme, displaying little or no concern for the welfare of the people if the production is suffering. Alicia, one of his leading ladies, damages her leg in rehearsal and she heads out the back door to seek some medical advice at the first place she and her friend come across - a psychiatric hospital. Whilst obtaining a personal touch from one of the doctors there the two girls don’t realise that one of the inmates has overcome a guard in his escape, only to hitch an unexpected lift back to the theatre with them. Going back to the car in the storm Alicia’s friend is butchered by the lunatic before he apparently disappears. The body is found (pick axe nicely implanted through her gaping mouth) before the police show up to investigate and subsequently keep watch. Spotting an opportunity for some media attention the director decides to rename the killer in his play after the lunatic who’s responsible for the real-life murder, and persuading his actors that it will be beneficial to their career he gets one of the girls to lock the door and hide the key. Of course the killer hasn’t disappeared but rather hidden himself inside the place and the only person who knows where the key is quickly becomes the second victim: now they’re all trapped in there and the killer has free pickings of the bunch while a rain storm rages on outside.
The premise itself is exciting - a group of people locked in an inescapable building with a stealthy and insane murderer, and it’s largely on that that the success of the film rests. The opening of the film once comprised my principle memory from the video days and it’s surely one of the corniest openings in cinema history, and not a good advertisement for what’s to come or what Soavi is really capable of. Having been cut in the UK (by the original distributor I believe) the film in its uncensored form is also much more violent than I was previously aware of, some of the attacks almost inducing a wince in more mature viewers. The movie doesn’t follow all of the conventions of giallo but there’s enough there to consider classifying the film as such, although we don’t delve too much into the history of the killer or why his mind is so irreversibly twisted, the explanation of which usually constitutes a giallo’s final act. It might be more accurate to describe the result as a slasher movie, though the two sub-genres have always been close cousins in reality anyway - one a more psychodynamic, stylistic precursor to the other. Soavi does go unnecessarily overboard during the film’s final ten minutes or so, including a pretty silly final shot, otherwise aside from that and the embarrassing opening there’s a lot of material here that would highlight Soavi as the new talent to watch in Italian splatter at the time. He later compounded this auspicious promise with The Church, The Sect, and Dellamorte Dellamore, but would subsequently all but recede from the eyes of the fans. Utilising his acting abilities briefly, he also makes an appearance as one of the police officers in Stagefright; Soavi was a recognisable face in Italian genre movies. The score itself really picks up the pace of some of the chase sequences, however Demons fans might notice a remarkable similarity to the second instalment of Lamberto’s franchise - that’s because composer Simon Boswell was the primary driving force behind both soundtracks. The Stagefright score is not a direct rip-off from Demons 2 but the style is unmistakably the work of the same man. Boswell has since proved himself to be a highly prolific and talented artist, later enhancing many films through his music compositions, for example Shallow Grave and Dust Devil. John Morghen fans will be pleased to know he appears in Stagefright as an amusing stereotype gay - plus he’s brutally murdered yet again, as in just about any of his genre appearances - City of the Living Dead’s drill through the brain anyone? For a thrill trip through homicidal violence and cat/mouse chase sequences this film should provide a good evening’s worth of mayhem.

In the UK the first home video release came from Avatar and was superseded ten years or so afterwards by an uncut tape from Redemption. I believe Vipco may have got their dirty hands on distribution rights some time later too. Released on DVD by Anchor Bay in the US several years later, this Blue Underground edition is basically a direct port of the AB disc, offering a very average picture that lacks real depth and detail. Colours are a little wayward and overall the presentation could and should have been improved for this (admittedly cheap) re-release, so I’m a little disappointed by BU’s laziness. The Dolby EX track has some bite but keeps most of the activity down the front - there’s less to complain about here than with the image although I‘d really like to hear an Italian language track at some point, if possible. There was an EC disc (presented open-matte with a theatrical matte viewing option available) released just prior to the first AB outing - it’s difficult to get a hold of nowadays anyway so the BU is currently the easiest way to check the film out.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre had a seriously problematic history in Britain, it’s no secret, and it’s this BBFC-induced reputation that’s helped to tarnish fair opinion of it in many ways: commonly acknowledged as a ‘banned’ film it immediately attracted a certain kind of film fan (and I was that kind for a while), interested in gore and that which is forbidden. There wasn’t too much gore in the film; on the contrary there was hardly any, but one walked away with the impression it was much bloodier than was truthfully the case. Eventually it received a legitimate release in Britain and suddenly attracted another kind of viewer: the average Joe who’s heard about the controversy and wonders what all the fuss is about. Placing a metaphoric ten foot barrier in front of themselves while watching they invariably walked away without having flinched and thinking there was a big fuss for nothing. Unfortunately people’s self-erected barriers these days are so impenetrable it’s almost impossible to shock, plus the controversy itself overshadows the quality of the 1974 film and suddenly a notorious classic becomes a forgotten relic. Fuss aside, the original film is one of my favourites and something that I connect with on a level that’s difficult to describe to those blinded by surrounding politics and expectations, but I’m not particularly concerned because I can always go back and enjoy that amazing piece of cinema. So why remake such a revered (in some quarters) and overwhelmingly known film? Perhaps it was a drive to redress the balance and shock those who are otherwise unshockable. Perhaps the idea was to make a seventies low budget horror accessible to those who can’t sit through something made before they were born. Or maybe it was just a cynical way of making a few million out of a pre-established franchise. Either way the project was something I avoided like the plague for several years until a friend told me it was actually pretty good and I saw it in Birmingham's Music Zone (now closed) for a few quid on DVD.
For a while it follows a very similar path to Hooper’s film: a group of kids are travelling in a small van (to Mexico) for a road holiday when they pick up a hitchhiker that causes them some concern with visible behavioural difficulties. An isolated house is discovered by a couple of members of the group and it’s found to be populated by a retarded family whose homicidal tendencies are inflicted upon the kids. The narrative quickly begins to deviate slightly from the original’s plot specifics with the hitchhiker they pick up, a girl who blows her own head off in front of them rather than playing Army with a knife (the new film being heavier handed no doubt, reflective of the sledgehammer approach of modern genre films). Beyond that, Marcus Nispel's remake zigzags around the original storyline changing a few details to keep us on our feet whilst effectively remaining a retelling at its core. Initially I thought the kids this time around would be irritable, as they often always are in modern slashers, but once their bubble of optimism is burst by the hitchhiker’s suicide things tense up and they become quite realistic in their responses to their very threatening situations. Or at least as realistic as you can imagine people being when confronted with problems such as this - it’s difficult to predict how people will act of course. The family of creeps is realised effectively, topped by a fantastically sinister turn by Lee Ermey as the sheriff - he’s actually quite restrained compared to appearances in the likes of Full Metal Jacket but he’s so convincingly inhuman in his treatment of the kids you can barely prevent yourself from being glued to the screen. His presence is one of the primary factors contributing to the film’s success. The remainder of the cast are usually functional or above so there are no real complaints; in fact I was surprised by the intensity of Jessica Biel’s effort as the equivalent of Marilyn Burns from the original film - whilst not screaming to the point of excess she conveys a believable torrent of unleashed terror, another key to success in a film such as this it goes without saying. Naturally the make up and special effects are utterly gruesome whilst violence and outright sadism top the original in spades. The flesh-clad Leatherface has been developed visually without betrayal of the source ideas (reportedly derived from the exploits of serial killer Ed Gein) and is all the more enhanced for it, similarly the production design is of a high standard and helps draw you into the nightmare. Overall the visual design has amazing impact - style of cinematography is artistically beautiful despite the nastiness that pervades the screen. A level of tension is reasonably well maintained for much of the running time and the result appears to be far from the gratuitous exercise is pointless ostentatiousness it could have been.  My only complaints really are reserved for the final segment, which push it into contrived territories that are somewhat unnecessary.

Entertainment in Video released this on DVD on behalf of New Line over here in the UK, granting us with a smart extra-packed two disc set too. The anamorphically enhanced, correctly framed image was very good for standard definition, ably backed by strong surround DTS and Dolby Digital audio tracks.  I've since picked up the Blu-ray, which improves on the DVD in several key areas.  The visual transfer is immaculate, embellishing the gorgeous colour schemes of the film which mostly consist of green and brown palettes, and containing mountains of detail.  I would suggest the colour is more accurately rendered on the Blu-ray, whilst definition is moderately superior.  Pleasingly, grain levels are intact on the Blu, allowing you to experience a cinematic feel with this disc.  The Blu also runs at the correct speed of 25 frames per second (as opposed to the PAL-sped-up 24 of the DVD), and receives a bump in sound quality via DTS HD Master Audio.  The ratio is 1.78:1 (DVD is 1.85:1), though via direct comparison it looked to me like the frame had been opened up slightly at the top/bottom, rather than being cropped slightly at the sides.  It doesn't especially make a noticeable difference (though EIV could do with swotting up on their ratios - both the DVD and Blu state 2.35:1 on the rear of the box).  A great set for a remake that’s not destined for the dustbin, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Adopting a virtually identical plot to the 1931 version (review here) there are a few differences in the 1941 remake that are worth noting. Spencer Tracy's Hyde bears a more realistic appearance and comes across as a much calmer but calculating individual, speaking in a lower rasp than Frederic March’s raging animal. There’s a long, philosophically engaging conversation over dinner early on where upper-class friends discuss the ethics and validity of Jekyll’s theories (these were outlined in a university lecture in the Mamoulian film) and the film is less daring in a number of ways despite being made a decade later. Whilst it’s clear that Jekyll’s unsatisfied libido plays a large part in his motivation there is less emphasis on the sexuality that otherwise reveals itself to the doctor and viewers throughout (though the hallucination sequences touch on it in a fetishistic manner with Jekyll whipping horses that reveal themselves in a subsequent shot to be the two women in his life: village tart, Ivy, and Jekyll's fiancée, Beatrix). While I very much admire a large portion of Ingrid Bergman’s film acting I think her casting (the role specifically requested by her) was a small mistake - Ivy does come across as a little corny and her odd Swedish-Cockney accent just doesn’t work. Saying that, she does manage to convey dramatic feelings of fear as Hyde’s sadistic hold over her strengthens.
Hyde’s make-up is better but special effects had hardly progressed since the early thirties and the transformation itself is actually less impressive (on several occasions the 1931 film made innovative use of filters to give the doctor’s face the appearance of changing without dissolves or cutting). The movie as a whole comes across as a bigger budget effort, boasting fantastic cinematography, but falls into a shadow when comparing the brutality and sexiness of the 1931 equivalent. It is, however, an accomplished and enjoyable piece.

Packaged with the earlier film the Warner DVD is an excellent buy which you can‘t go far wrong with. 4:3 framed, Black and White picture quality is even better here, featuring remarkably sharp details, near perfect greyscaling and well balanced contrast levels with very little print damage. Sound is as clear as it should be. The only extra for this film is a trailer that’s included on the other side of the disc with the 1931 version.