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Film7070 Week 6: 1961 & 1990

1961: Tierra Brutal aka The Savage Guns

I had high hopes for Tierra Brutal. It’s a film that’s not easy to find, but, being a fan of Richard Basehart since watching him as Admiral Nelson in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as a boy, the prospect of seeing him take the lead in what I’d heard described as a proto-spaghetti western (it was filmed in Spain) was hard to resist. So perhaps my expectation were a little high when I finally tracked it down. I was hoping to unearth a hidden gem, what I got was a fairly standard B western that has little of the style of the spaghetti westerns that were to come a few short years later.

Perhaps this lack of continental flavour shouldn’t have come as a surprise, the film was directed by an Englishman, Michael Carreras, a name that’s more familiar to horror fans than western aficionados. Michael was a producer and director with Hammer Films and the son of the studios founder Sir James Carreras. Not the sort of background you’d expect for a western movie director but he does a competent, if decidedly unspectacular, job.

Basehart does well as the gunfighter who’s looking for a place to hang up his guns (yes that old chestnut) but finds it’s never that easy to escape your past. The rest of the cast is made up of minor American actors, attractive Spanish ladies and a presumably hard up Fernando Rey. All of which leads to a frankly rather dull 90 minutes.
[rating:2]

1990: The Reflecting Skin

Philip Ridley is a director who divides audiences, is he pretentious and deliberately obscure or a visionary filmmaker who gives us a quirky, and often bleak, view of the world? After watching The Passion of Darkly Noon I was leaning more towards visionary than pretentious and The Reflecting Skin has pushed me further that way.

Told from a child’s perspective but with little of the happy nostalgia such films usually foster, this is a bleak look at depression era rural America. The film lacks any characters you can really identify with, everyone is a little weird, not least our central character, ten year old Seth Dove, and they’re not very sympathetic either. The film has a very dark tone and yet it’s also strangely beautiful, there’s some gorgeous cinematography.

It isn’t without it’s weak points – Jeremy Cooper, making his screen debut as Seth, isn’t a strong enough actor to carry the film and the pace at times is too slow, although whenever you feel your attention starting to wander the film throws another level of weirdness at you that pulls you back in.

I don’t want to give too much away, I knew very little about the film going in and I think that worked in its favour. It’s a hypnotic, at times deeply disturbing drama with some strong supporting performances, Duncan Fraser as Seth’s Father being worthy of special mention, as is Sheila Moore as his tyrannical and mentally unstable Mum. It’s not a film that’s quickly forgotten, there is at least one truly horrifying moment and enough disturbing images for a few nightmares but there’s also the question of what Ridley was trying to say with his portrait of this truly dysfunctional family. Ridley’s view of childhood certainly isn’t the rose coloured golden years that the movies often promote it as. The superficial beauty of the setting contrasting with the dark secrets that all the characters have.
[rating:3.5]

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Film7070 Week 3: 1970

1970: The Dunwich Horror

This early attempt to bring the work of H.P. Lovecraft to the screen owes as much to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as it does to the master of cosmic horror. There’s little of the Old Ones here, the focus of the movie is Wilbur Whateley’s attempt to seduce innocent Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) over to the dark side and in so doing put a devilish bum in her virgin oven.

Producer Roger Corman may have been the antecedent of Asylum, modern purveyors of direct-to-dvd knock-off trash, but at least when Corman did it he did it with class. He also knew talent when he saw it, with many great filmmakers getting their start with him and The Dunwich Horror features an early screen credit (as writer) for future Oscar winner Curtis Hanson.

The Dunwich Horror is no classic, but it does have some things to enjoy. Dean Stockwell’s creepy Wilbur (could there be a less menacing name for a villain?) ranks at the top. There’s a perverse malevolence to Stockwell’s performance and he’s always good value for money in villainous roles.

Another plus is the films restraint when it comes to showing Wilbur’s monstrous sibling. Rather than show the obligatory craptastic monster, it keeps it hidden, either offscreen or behind a very sixties psychedelic light show, making the viewer add the details from their own imagination. Whether this is down to a stylistic choice by the filmmakers or to the fact the monster was so bad they dare not show it I don’t know but it definitely works in the films favour.

I can’t say I’d recommend The Dunwich Horror to any but the most diehard horror fan, there have been far better Lovecraft adaptations since (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Shatterbrain and Dagon come to mind) but there are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
[rating:2.5]

For more Film7070 check out Jordan McGrath’s review of the classic 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident

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Film7070 Week 2: 1978

1978: The Shout

What to make of The Shout? Well this late seventies attempt at art house horror was, for me at least, a disappointing failure. It doesn’t lack for quality acting talent, Alan Bates is as broodingly demonic as only Bates can be, while John Hurt does a decent job as the philandering husband who’s household Bates insinuates himself into, although sadly the late Susannah York’s talents are underused, she’s little more than a symbol for the two men’s power struggle and not a fully fleshed out character. The concept is also not uninteresting, Bates character utilising mystical powers he’s learned while living with the Aborigines in the Australian outback to exert his influence over York and Hurt.

Or does he? The structure of the film leaves you wondering just how much of what you’re seeing is actually real, the film being told by Bates while an inmate in an asylum. This too works in the films favour, giving it an element of mystery that means you’re never sure where the film is heading, always a plus in this age of by the numbers plotting.

No, what ultimately disappointed me was the films climax, for it felt as if not only did the viewer not know where the film was heading but neither did the director. After a slow and purposeful buildup the film hurries headlong into a frenetic, madcap and, frankly, downright silly final ten minutes. It felt as if all concerned had grown bored with the films concept and decided to wrap things up as quickly as possible. While there were certainly things I enjoyed about The Shout, ultimately it’s the feeling of dissatisfaction the ending engendered that has stayed with me and it’s left me with little desire to seek out any of Jerzy Skolimowski’s other films.
[rating:2.5]

I’m already behind on these write-ups having just started week 4′s viewing, so I’ll try and get week 3 done this week as well, which will feature the rather less highbrow Roger Corman production of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror.

For more Film7070 check out EatSleepLiveFilm.com and Movie Waffle

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The Friday Night Fright: The House of Whipcord

This sleazy little film was a lot more enjoyable than I was expecting. Director Pete Walker generates a fair amount of tension early on, and populates the film with some entertainingly bonkers characters, plus plenty of naked female flesh.

When the appropriately named Mark E. Desade picks up a young French model, Ann-Marie (played, with a surprisingly decent French accent, by Penny Irving) he soon displays a perchance for the perverse but it’s only when takes her home to meet his mum and dad that things really get interesting. Dad’s a demented old judge and mum’s a sadistic ex-prison warden and they’ve set up there own correctional facility for wayward young ladies, where even the simplest crime results in the ultimate penalty. The prison is staffed by a pair of matrons, one a butch older woman with lesbian tendencies, the other getting her pleasure from torturing the inmates.

It’s more thoughtful than you might think though, David McGillivray’s script portraying the would-be defenders of morality as the real perverts. Most of the torture isn’t explicitly shown and while early on some of the nudity is pure titillation, there’s little to get you excited once the story moves to the prison (unless of course you’re as twisted as the people who run it). It also displays a ruthless efficiency with its characters, leaving you wondering if anyone will survive to see the credits.

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The Friday Night Fright: The Eye

I’ve a lot of time for the Pang Brothers, their films are visually stylish but not at the expense of character and they’ve managed to avoid getting pigeonholed as horror directors. The Eye is probably their most well known film, and also the most successful, spawning two sequels, but I found it a little disappointing and not particularly original.

A cornea transplant patient starts seeing dead people and the mysterious shadow figures that come to take them away. Sound familiar? The Eye borrows a lot from The Sixth Sense and doesn’t do a very good job of hiding it.

The pace of the film is quite slow, not uncommon for Asian horror films, and adds to the feeling of mounting tension and there are some very creepy set pieces. Angelica Lee is excellent as Wong Kar Mun the woman who regains her sight after being blind since she was an infant but the love story angle of the film, that sees her doctor falling for her, doesn’t work and feels superfluous.

The film seems to lose its way at the end, with the reason behind the visions more tragic than terrifying, something the Pang’s must have realised as they seem to rush through this part of the film in order to get to the Hollywood style explosive climax, which put me in mind of The Mothman Prophecies, a film that was released a few months before The Eye. I can’t help wondering if this ending was a late addition, something the brothers came up with after seeing Mothman but regardless, it feels at odds the with quiet chills that are generated throughout the rest of the film.

For all its faults it’s well worth a look and I’ll be surprised if the American remake manages to improve on the original.

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Comic Tales: Fantastic Four

Anyone expecting the serious minded superheroics of X-Men, or the angst-ridden thrills of Spider-Man would perhaps have been a bit disappointed by Fantastic Four, but for me it does a decent job of capturing the fun tone of the original comic. The X-Men are outcasts from humanity, Spider-Man is a masked vigilante who does what he does out of guilt over the death of his Uncle Ben, the FF on the other hand are public figures, they don’t hide their identities behind masks, they’re celebrities and the film portrays them as such, or rather there evolution to celebrity status following the accident that gives them their powers.

The film’s heart may be in the right place, but its casting is a hit and miss affair. First the misses – Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards/Mr Fantastic and Jessica Alba as Sue Storm/Invisible Woman. Gruffudd lacks the presence for Reed Richards, the part calls for someone who can command the screen, whereas when Gruffudd’s with the other three he’s the last one you look at.

I like Jessica Alba, she’s undeniably beautiful and a capable enough actress given a part that plays to her strengths, said strengths not including playing a technobabbleing scientist. The film tries to get around this by that old standby when depicting intelligent characters – have her wear specs. Sadly this ruse doesn’t work, and Alba only gets to make an impression in the scene where she suddenly becomes visible in her undies. That she and Gruffudd have little onscreen chemistry doesn’t help matters.

Still, if half of the four miss the mark, the others makes up for it. Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm/The Thing is the grumpy old man of the team, tortured by his disfigured appearance and the fact that, unlike the others, he can’t turn his power on and off at will. Yet for all his soul searching Grimm is the source of much of the films (and comics) humour, and Chiklis gets the balance right between tortured monster and comedy ogre.

It’s Chris Evans though who steals the film, could there be a more perfect actor to play Johnny Storm/Human Torch? The Torch is the one member of the team who relishes his new powers right from the start and Evans shows us that youthful exuberance and recklessness. He’s the member of the team the audience can best identify with; after all wouldn’t it be cool to have superpowers? Evans and Chiklis work well together, far better than Gruffudd and Alba, and do a credible job of bringing one of comics great double acts to the screen, in fact it’s their relationship that captures the essence of the source material best.

Julian McMahon, as the villainous Victor von Doom, doesn’t feel quite right. The character is far removed from the tyrannical despot of the comics, being instead a superpowered executive with a strop on, while the scorned lover subplot between him and Alba does nothing to strengthen either character. Plus I’ve always though of Doom as having a European accent but McMahon goes for an American accent (at least I think it’s meant to be American, although there are times he may be trying for English).

The film has a couple of decent action sequences but never really sets the screen alight. Even the climax is a little underwhelming, just when you think we’re going to get a real superhero/villain donnybrook its game over. Of course this is partially down to budget, with the film costing half what Spider-Man 2 did, but I think it’s also due to the lack of experience and talent of the director, Tim Story. He may be an enthusiastic comic fan but he’s not a great action director.

For all it’s faults Fantastic Four is an entertaining film, one that occupies that middle ground of comic book movies – between classics like Spider-Man 2 and X2 and stinkers like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The Friday Night Fright: Feast

This is the small-group-of-people-in-a-confined-space-trying-to-keep-the-monsters-out style horror movie that has an obvious appeal to those with a limited budget. We’ve seen it so often, in everything from Night of the Living Dead to Dog Soldiers, yet, if it’s backed up by a clever script and a director who knows what he’s doing, it can still be extremely effective.

The writing team of Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton know their horror movies and take great delight in turning the genre conventions upside down. To say too much would be to spoil the surprises, but it’s fair to say that very early in the film you’ll realise it’s not going to be easy to predict who will still be standing at the end of the film.

Director John Gulager manages to create plenty of tension and some cool action set pieces as well as showing a commendable talent for early Peter Jackson style gross out humour. He may have lacked for money but blood definitely isn’t in short supply.

The cast is made up of mostly unknowns with a few familiar faces here and there. Balthazar Getty, Henry Rollins, Jason Mewes and the director’s dad, Clu Gulager, are the familiar faces. Mewes isn’t around for long and Getty seems to be playing Charlie Sheen but Rollins is great fun playing against type as a gun hating coach who’s in the bar when the shit hits the fan. As for Clu Gulager, for a guy in his seventies he’s looking pretty good and it’s nice to see the old pro getting stuck in to the action.

The film did well enough to spawn two sequels, both currently in post-production but it’s the writing team who are the films biggest success. Apart from scripting both Feast 2: Sloppy Seconds and Feast 3: The Happy Finish they’ve also done Saw IV and V and the forthcoming Hellraiser remake while Dunstan has also tried his hand at directing with The Midnight Man.

Feast’s aim is to give you a gore filled good time and send you away with a smile and a little blood on your face and it does exactly that. It’s hard not to like a film with a line like “Monster cock stuck in the door!”

The Friday Night Fright: Grindhouse

In a break from routine this week’s Friday Night Fright was seen on the big screen. The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino Grindhouse project is on tour at selected cinemas around the UK in its original form, complete with fake trailers, and I caught it last night at the Vue in Leicester.

I’d previously seen Rodriguez’s Planet Terror segment, along with the fake trailer for Machete, at the FrightFest All-nighter back in November but it anything I enjoyed it more second time around. It’s an insanely gory and utterly demented homage to trashy zombie flicks that totally embraces the Grindhouse concept. Hilariously bad dialogue, over the top performances, a crazy and completely illogical plot and more gore than you’ll see in the rest of this year’s movies combined add up to a thrill ride that doesn’t pause for breath until THE END appears on screen and we hear the last notes of the greatest score John Carpenter never wrote.

High points? Josh Brolin’s mad doctor is a superb scenery (and thermometer) chewing performance. It’s also nice to see Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey in something other than the straight-to-DVD trash they’re normally wasted in these days. The films only weak performance comes from Naveen Andrews, maybe it’s because I’m so used to seeing him as Sayid in Lost, but he seems out of place here and doesn’t really get into the real grindhouse spirit of things.

Next it was time for the three spoof trailer – Werewolf Women of the S.S, Don’t and Thanksgiving. All three are great fun, Rob Zombie almost made me forgive him for Halloween with his ‘tribute’ to the Ilsa films, while Thanksgiving is by far the best thing Eli Roth has done (yes I know that’s not saying much but it really is pretty good). My favourite though was Edgar Wright’s Don’t, a clever pastiche of all those‘70s/’80s movies with Don’t in the title that, at the same time, managed to look like it would be a fun to watch.

So could Mr T top Planet Terror? The answer is yes and no. No, he didn’t top Rodriguez for trashy grindhouse fun, nor does he top him for over-the-top gore or hammy performances. But he has made the better film, and the more enjoyable one. So while Death Proof doesn’t really adhere to the initial concept as well as Planet Terror, it is a thrilling ride.

It’s much slower than Planet Terror to get going, full of the usual Tarantino talkiness with the difference here being that, instead of his usual male interplay, we get to listen to a bunch of women. It’s occasionally amusing, though perhaps not as much as QT thinks it is, but only two of the characters come off as likable – Rose McGowan’s Pam and Vanessa Ferlito’s Arlene.

Things pick up when Stuntman Mike arrives. You know this is one mean badass because he’s got a nasty looking scar down one side of his face and he drives a scary looking black car (when he asks Arlene if his scar scares her, her response is “It’s your car”). Russell gets a lot of mileage out of a look and a few snippets of dialogue, managing to turn in a commendably menacing performance that dominates the film while getting much less screen time than the girls.

I won’t go into what happens next but the films second half introduces a second set of girls, and like the first set they get plenty of Tarantino dialogue, full of the usual pop culture references and punctuated with expletives. At this point I was starting to think “oh no, here we go again” but then, thanks to some very good acting from all four ladies, I started to like this bunch. Maybe it was Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe’s love of Vanishing Point but I started to connect with them, even with ditsy but cute Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) so when they are put in jeopardy I was rooting for them (whereas previously I’d probably had more sympathy for Stuntman Mike).

The last half hour is one long chase sequence that features some of the best car stunts I’ve seen for years, maybe ever. It also sees Tarantino doing away completely with the grindhouse look (damaged film, choppy dialogue) as he puts on film an action sequence that had my eyes glued to the screen and left me breathless and exhausted (although that could have been because the film finished at 2am). It really would have been a crime to mar this footage and Tarantino must have felt the same.

Special mention should go to Zoe Bell who plays a part that requires her to be both actress and stuntwoman.  Luckily she proves more than capable of both tasks and nearly steals the film from under Kurt Russell’s nose.

At the end of Death Proof I was left with the urge to watch Vanishing Point again (and had it not been so late/early I no doubt would have). So Grindhouse gets a big thumbs up. It may be self indulgent but it’s also great fun and it’s nice to see it on the big screen as it was originally envisaged.

Tarantino seems to be rebelling against the early critical acclaim he received for Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, steering clear of ‘serious ‘ films and instead paying tribute to the films that inspired him with both Kill Bill and Grindhouse. Inglorious Bastards looks likely to follow that trend (if it gets made) and after seeing this I can’t wait.

For a full list of where the film is showing look here 

The Friday Night Fright: Maléfique

Set, for the most part, in just one cell in a French prison, Maléfique has an intensely claustrophobic feel to it. The lead character is Carrère, a white collar criminal doing time for fraud. Sharing the room with him are some very eccentric characters – Marcus, a transvestite muscleman, Paquerette, a retarded young man who grew up living with pigs before eating his infant sister and Lassalle an intellectual driven mad by too much knowledge who murdered his wife at breakfast one morning.

When these odd and decidedly unpleasant characters stumble on a book hidden in one of the walls, written by a serial killer at the start of the twentieth century, things start to get a little weird. For as well as being a serial killer, Danvers, the books author, was also adept in black magic. When they realise that the spells in the book really work they see it as a way to escape their prison, but will it lead them to freedom or to eternal damnation? To call this Hellraiser meets Cube in a French prison would be oversimplifying things but there are certainly elements of those films present. It’s to the writers’ credit that this never feels like a rehash of old ideas.

I’ve never come across any of the cast before but they are uniformly excellent. With such an enclosed environment the interaction of the characters is very much to the fore, and it’s down to the playing of these four actors that the film is so successful. While director Eric Valette cranks up the tension admirably and there are some extremely effective gory set pieces it’s the characters that will stay in your memory.

This was Valette’s calling card to Hollywood but sadly all they found for him to do was another tired remake of an Asian horror (One Missed Call). On the strength of Maléfique I’d say he deserved much better.

The Friday Night Fright: The Devil’s Men

Prior to The Devil’s Men in 1976 Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence had appeared together in three classic productions – the 1954 BBC TV adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, the Burke and Hare tale The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) and From Beyond the Grave, one of the best of the Amicus anthology films, in 1973. Given that, I had high hopes for this US/Greek co-production. Silly me.

Pleasance hams it up as an Irish priest convinced the Devil is up to no good in a little Greek village, while Cushing gets too little screen time to do anything with the part of Baron Corofax, the Devil’s right hand man. The actors portraying the young tourists captured by the Minotaur worshipping cult were obviously picked for looks and a willingness to get their kit off rather than any great thespian ability. Unfortunately it fairs no better at titillation that at terrifying the audience.

From a historical perspective the film is probably most noteworthy for having a score by Brian Eno. While not his best work it’s a cut above the rest of the film, although, as you might expect from such an avant-garde composer, it sounds dated now.

Even for a diehard Cushing fan like me this was a chore to sit through, so unless you‘re a Cushing, Pleasence or Eno completist I’d recommend steering clear.