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The Day of the Jackal (Blu-ray) 09/10/2017

Fox on the run

The Day of the Jackal (Blu-ray) This blu-ray release from Arrow is about £15 on amazon and in HMV at the moment. This is a classic movie based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel about an assassin’s attempt to kill President de Gaulle. The director, Fred Zinnemann, hailed from the classic days of Hollywood, where he was generally known for worthier fare (High Noon, a suspense movie that is really about the evils of McCarthyism; the snoozefest that is From Here To Eternity; Oklahoma; that film where Audrey Hepburn played a nun; A Man For All Seasons). You really wouldn’t have thought he’d have something like this in him, but it’s a cracking good thriller; if it only shaved 15 minutes off, would be up there with the all-time greats. De Gaulle was a great hero of the French Resistance during the war. He escaped to Britain and pretty much appointed himself alternative head of state in opposition to the Nazi collaborationist regime of Pétain. However, when he found himself president of France in the late 50s, there was a war of independence raging in the French colony of Algeria. De Gaulle outraged the French right (and many French who were resident in Algeria) by granting the colony independence. This made him the target of several assassination attempts by the OAS, a French terrorist organisation. Year: 1973 Director: Fred Zinnemann Stars: Edward Fox More information at: IMDB user rating: 7.8 Day of the Jackal is an account of what might have happened had the OAS hired an ...

Starcrash (Blu-ray) 02/10/2017

The stars are clear. The planets shine.

Starcrash (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray is currently £10 on amazon. There were lots and lots of Star Wars rip-offs released in the late 70s and early 80s, desperately trying to replicate George Lucas’s success on a fraction of the budget and with barely any of the creativity. Flash Gordon aside (I will actually murder anyone who says a word against Flash Gordon), they’re pretty much all dreadful. Most of the famous Star Wars imitators are American, and are either pretentious (Black Hole, Battlestar Galactica) or cheap and cheerful Corman-produced dreck (Battle Beyond the Stars etc). But inevitably the Italians had a go as well, just as they did with any passing exploitation genre. And amid a whole load of genuinely unwatchable dross, they made Star Crash, which is… watchable. Just about. Year: 1978 Director: “Lewis Coates” Stars: Christopher Plummer More information at: IMDB user rating: 3.9 Stella Star is a… well, I’m not sure actually. Some kind of sexy space thief. She flies around the galaxy with her assistant/navigator Akton, and we have to assume they commit crimes, although we never learn much about them. They’re arrested close to the beginning of the film by a couple of space cops – bald Thor and robotic L – and thrown in space jail. Then they’re released and sent on a secret mission by the emperor of the first circle of the universe to track down the secret base of the evil warlord Zarth Arn, who is planning to take over the galaxy with his Doom Machine. ...

The Deadly Affair (Blu-ray) 25/09/2017

Carré on spying

The Deadly Affair (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray and DVD set from Indicator is £15 on amazon or in HMV. In spite of the lurid title, this is actually an adaptation of John Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, a rather downbeat spy story which introduced the character of George Smiley to the world. The 60s were the great decade for spy movies, with the Bond series proving insanely popular. Le Carré and Len Deighton provided a more grimy, realistic alternative, with Deighton’s Harry Palmer providing a popular antidote to Bond. Le Carré’s first great novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was filmed very successfully in 1965. The Deadly Affair was presumably made to cash in on that. Year: 1966 Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: James Mason More information at: IMDB user rating: 6.8 A foreign office civil servant, Fennan, apparently commits suicide following an investigation by the security services, who were anonymously tipped off that he was spying for the communists. But Charles Dobbs, the man who interviewed Fennan, smells a rat, and starts investigating. Meanwhile, Dobbs’s serially unfaithful wife has begun an affair with one of Dobbs’s old agents, an Austrian named Dieter. One thing you’ll notice is that no one in the film is called ‘Smiley’. This is because the rights to the character were owned by a different film studio – he appears fleetingly in Spy Who Came in From the Cold. ‘Dobbs’ is Smiley renamed. Some other characters are also renamed. Otherwise, though, ...

Touch of Death (Blu-ray) 11/09/2017

Glass half Fulci

Touch of Death (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray from 88 Films is £15 on amazon and at HMV at time of writing. Lucio Fulci had been a mildly interesting jack-of-all-trades Italian director during the late 60s and 70s (he made a couple of good gialli), but he only really came into his own in the early 80s, when he discovered the zombie movie. His squelching, abrasive, nonsensical zombie flicks are essential viewing, and they sparked off the last great wave of Italian horror. By the late 80s, though, the Italian film industry was tottering, and so was Fulci. His last little cluster of films, many of them made for TV, are dismal, trying in vain to replicate the shock tactics of a few years earlier, and all-too-often falling back on witless humour. The only film from the era that offers even a modicum of enjoyment is A Cat in the Brain, a very silly compilation of murder scenes from other films (including this one). But Cat aside, Touch of Death is probably the best known of these late efforts. And that’s because it’s one of the films that is offered as evidence that Fulci wasn’t wildly fond of women. Violence against women is a staple of horror films, of course (so is violence against men). But the 70s and 80s offered a strain of horror that went a lot further in its depictions of what you might call gendered violence than had previously been the case. In Fulci’s oeuvre, the 1982 giallo The New York Ripper had featured some of the nastiest, most explicitly misogynistic violence seen on film so far, and is the ...

The Handmaiden (Blu-ray) 21/08/2017

The hand shandy

The Handmaiden (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray currently costs £15 on amazon – a two-disk ‘special edition’ is only one pound more expensive. This is a Korean adaptation of Fingersmith, a novel by Sarah Waters, which moves the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea. It’s directed by Park Chan-Wook, who became famous about ten years ago when he directed the violent revenge thriller Oldboy (still an amazing film). Since then he’s made a decent vampire movie, Thirst, and tried to make it in Hollywood with Stoker (which I’ve not seen). Year: 2016 Director: Chan-wook Park More information at: IMDB user rating: 8.1 Sook-Hee has been raised to be an accomplished pickpocket and fence in a Korean city. She is chosen by the crooked Count Fujiwara as his accomplice in a scheme to seduce and marry the naïve Lady Hideko for her fortune – Sook-Hee must pose as Hideko’s handmaiden and ensure that she falls in love with Fujiwara. But all is not as it seems, to put it mildly – Hideko is forced to read pornographic literature to her vile uncle and his aristocratic friends, and she and Sook-Hee soon become very, very close… Fingersmith is a terrific novel, and one that was crying out for an adaptation. The BBC had a go, but the problem with the BBC adapting Sarah Waters novels is that posh actresses trying to do Victorian-urchin accents always put my teeth on edge. Although the film keeps some of the crazy plot twists that make the novel so much fun, it does simplify the story quite ...

2019: After the Fall of New York (Blu-ray) 14/08/2017

The year after next is looking grim…

2019: After the Fall of New York (Blu-ray) This 88 Films Blu-ray only costs about £10 at the moment on amazon and at HMV. Post-apocalypse films were big in the 70s and 80s. The Cold War loomed large, and while 70s films tended to be a bit more bleak and depressing, by the 80s things had lightened up. Plenty of films imagined a surprisingly fun post-nuke world of battling mutants, desert combat, urban gang warfare and mullets. The key films were John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, and the Australian Mad Max films (especially the second one, which was hugely successful in the States). And where American genre cinema went, Italian exploitation cinema soon followed, the proverbial low-budget seagull following the Hollywood trawler. An incredible variety of popular genres were imitated by the Italians, most famously Westerns and zombie movies. They made loads of post-apocalypse films, and one of the most enjoyable is 2019 After the Fall of New York. Year: 1983 Director: Sergio Martino More information at: IMDB user rating: 5.7 The planet has been devastated by nuclear war (20 years before the film, so 1999; I guess Nostradamus was still popular back then). The survivors are infertile, with no new people having been born for 15 years. New York is a rather shambolic urban hellhole full of gangs of variously mutated survivors, who are regularly captured by the evil Euraks for their fertility experiments. The Confederacy (which seems to be the remnants of the USA) learns that the ...

Hitler - The Last Ten Days (Blu-ray) 07/08/2017

The banality of Alec

Hitler - The Last Ten Days (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray is currently £10 on amazon or at HMV. This is a bit of an oddity, and a surprising film to see getting a Blu-ray release. The film’s title pretty much tells you what to expect, and I guess spoils the story. If you’ve seen the German film Downfall (probably most famous for the ranting Hitler video meme), then this is kind of the same. But it’s cheaper, and instead of a Swiss actor who actually looks a bit like Hitler, it stars Alec Guinness. It’s hard to express how weird this is – Guinness was going through a barren patch at the time, with few of his films since the mid 60s having made much of an impact. Within a few years, he’d make Star Wars and Tinker Tailor, which are my favourite things he’s in. But to see him playing Hitler is… well, quite a surprise. (Guinness is not actually the least likely Hitler I’ve seen – that honour goes to Derek Jacobi in a TV miniseries of Albert Speer’s memoirs.) Year: 1973 Director: Ennio De Concini Stars: Alec Guinness More information at: IMDB user rating: 6.7 The story holds no surprises. Hitler sits in his bunker in Berlin as the Soviet armies close in, ranting and fantasising to his loyal retainers and increasingly harried generals. It all ends exactly as you’d expect. The main question is, who on earth was this aimed at? It’s too low budget to be an effective war film. I guess it was just a vehicle for Guinness, an actor who seemed to love showing off his versatility. Actors like ...

Batman Returns (Blu-ray) 24/07/2017

Burton returns

Batman Returns (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray is less than a fiver on amazon at time of writing. The sequel to 1989's mega-hit, Batman Returns was presumably intended to sell lots of cinema tickets and shift a lot of merchandise, just like the first film. But - presumably as a reward for making so much money the first time round - director Tim Burton was promoted to producer, and now had a lot more creative input. While the first film feels rather like a corporate box ticking exercise (origin story: check, romance: check, wonderful toys: check), the second has a bit more of Burton's personal aesthetic behind it. I'm not really sure how good an idea this is. Burton is often praised as some kind of visionary genius, and I've enjoyed some of his films (Ed Wood is excellent). But his goth-y whimsy and obsession with lonely outsiders gets tired quite quickly - there are only so many 'dark fairytales' a man can take. And Batman Returns is very much a typical Tim Burton film – just listen to the soundtrack. Danny Elfman returns, and reprises some of his themes from the first one, but adds in a whole lot of bibbly-bobbly choral rubbish that was probably left over from Edward Scissorhands. Year: 1992 Director: Tim Burton Stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny De Vito, Michael Keaton More information at: IMDB user rating: 7.0 Having seen off the Joker and won the trust of police and public in the first film, Batman now has to tangle with the Penguin, a deformed creature who lives in ...

The Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection (Blu-ray) 17/07/2017

Mummy ache

The Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection (Blu-ray) This blu-ray boxset is currently £25 on amazon. The Mummy is one of Universal’s less well known classic horror franchises. The original Mummy movie, from 1932, is quite famous, but the four sequels, made more than a decade later, are a lot more obscure. And the Mummy was never invited to any of the monster mash-up movies Universal made later, like House of Dracula, or Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. I’d never seen any of them apart from the original, so was happy enough to invest in this set, even though my expectations were low. The Mummy (1932) This is one of the earliest Universal horror movies. Archaeologists in Egypt find and accidentally revive a mummy named Imhotep. He decides that a young woman in Cairo is the reincarnation of his Ancient Egyptian love, and things go from there. Ancient Egypt was fashionable in the early 30s (although its modish heyday was in the 20s, just after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb). And mummies had already featured in horror literature – Conan Doyle wrote a couple of short stories, for instance. So it was natural enough for Universal to turn to mummies in their hunt for new horror properties. The film is primarily a vehicle for Boris Karloff, Universal’s premiere horror star. He’s only seen in the bandages for a few minutes at the start of the film – afterwards, the unwrapped mummy poses as Ardath Bey, an aged Egyptian. This was Karloff’s first Universal movie with dialogue – he’d previously only played mute monsters – and he ...

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (Blu-ray) 03/07/2017

Every body has a secret

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray is £12 on amazon and HMV at the moment. So this was a surprise. The director of Trollhunter, a Norwegian knockabout found-footage horror film about guys hunting trolls, has now made a really creepy little movie about morticians in Virginia. There’s been a very welcome resurgence of genuinely good horror movies in recent years, and while this isn’t the best I’ve seen, it’s well worth a look. Year: 2016 Director: André Øvredal Stars: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch More information at: IMDB user rating: 6.8 The police find a house full of dead bodies. Most are clothed and have obvious causes of death. But in the cellar, partly buried, they find the naked corpse of an unidentified young woman. The sheriff takes the body, called ‘Jane Doe’ in accordance with tradition, to father and son morticians Tommy and Austin, who begin the autopsy late one evening. And, er, things don’t quite go to plan. This manages the impressive feat of being both horribly gruesome and a slow-burn scare movie. Autopsies by their nature are viscerally grisly, and we see Tommy and Austin finishing off a previous autopsy, of a hideously burned corpse, before the sheriff arrives. When they get their hands on ‘Jane’, things get quite nasty, but also increasingly weird. Her skin is unblemished, but her ankles and wrists are badly broken, her tongue has been cut out, and her internal organs have been horribly damaged. And as the evidence from the corpse gets ...

Phenomena (Blu-ray) 26/06/2017

Bored of the flies

Phenomena (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray boxset from Arrow is currently £45 on amazon – it might have gone out of print. Dario Argento is revered among certain horror fans, many of whom believe he represents the genre’s artistic high watermark. I understand why people feel that way – his films are always very polished and have a visual stylishness that is missing from most horror movies. Also, he’s Italian, and so are Fellini and Antonioni, so… yeah. Certainly compared to other Italian exploitation directors, Argento seems to be operating on a different level altogether. Personally, though, I’ve always found his films a bit alienating and self-important. His early gialli Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red are his best films, with Suspiria and Tenebre providing some decent moments. As with most important horror directors of his vintage, his work post-80s is indefensibly poor. But I find most of his 80s films irritating too – Opera is dull, and Inferno is interminable. The only one I hadn’t seen until recently was Phenomena, often regarded as Argento’s last decent movie. Year: 1985 Director: Dario Argento Stars: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence More information at: IMDB user rating: 6.9 Someone is murdering girls at a boarding school in Switzerland. New girl Jennifer starts getting psychic flashes about the killings, usually while she’s sleepwalking. She also has power over insects, just like all American teens. She and an ageing Scottish entomologist ...

Hardcore (Blu-ray) 19/06/2017

"Oh my God, that's my daughter."

Hardcore (Blu-ray) This blu-ray release from Indicator is £15 on amazon and at HMV. This is a very entertaining but extremely silly film about LA’s seedy porno underbelly. It was written and directed by Paul Schrader, who ensured his film immortality by writing Taxi Driver, but whose efforts outside of Scorsese’s shadow have been – to put it mildly – ‘mixed’. They range from an embarrassing sexed-up remake of Cat People to The Canyons, the film that put Lindsay Lohan in a threesome with a porn actor. Hardcore feels like Schrader decided to take the most memorable scene in Taxi Driver – where Travis drives around New York’s porn district monologuing about rain and stuff – and spin it out into a film of its own, but set on the West Coast. Year: 1979 Director: Paul Schrader Stars: George C Scott More information at: IMDB user rating: 7.0 (this is a very overrated film generally) Jake is a successful small-town businessman and an extremely devout Calvinist. His daughter goes away to some kind of religious camp over Christmas, and promptly vanishes. Frantic with worry, Jake hires a seedy private eye to track her down. It is quickly established that the daughter, Kristen, has appeared in a porno film, and Jake descends on LA like a Biblical plague, determined to find his daughter before she… um… makes more porn, I guess. So it’s kind of a less action-y version of Taken. It says a lot about how attitudes have changed that appearing in porn was literally the ...

Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection (Blu-ray) 12/06/2017


Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection (Blu-ray) This is currently £30 on amazon and in HMV. It will come down in price in a couple of months, though. This is a blu-ray collection of Universal’s classic Dracula movies from the 30s and 40s, one of several classic horror collections they’ve released in the last few months. Dracula was more-or-less the first supernatural horror movie made in the US. In silent horror films (before the phrase ‘horror films’ had even been invented), seemingly magical/ghostly events always turned out to be the work of humans, as in Phantom of the Opera or The Cat and the Canary. Dracula was a bit of a gamble, as no one knew if an American audience would take to an actual, honest-to-goodness vampire. Universal acquired Dracula as a vehicle for their silent horror legend Lon Chaney. Unfortunately, he died. So the studio hired Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian star of a successful stage version of the story. Tod Browning, the top American director of sort-of horror movies in the silent era, was loaned from M-G-M. Ultimately, Dracula was so successful it spawned an entire cycle of early-talkie horror movies at Universal and other studios. It is, in many ways, the first true American horror film, so has a special place in my heart. Dracula (1931) The film itself is a disappointingly mixed bag. It follows aspects of the novel, although it swaps some of the characters around. The first 20 minutes – when Renfield the estate agent visits Castle Dracula – are very good. There’s an uncanny stillness, and the ...

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (Blu-ray) 05/06/2017

'Beyond describing'

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (Blu-ray) This BFI release is £25 on amazon at the moment. It feels a bit dumb to try to give a star rating for a film like this – watching it is not enjoyable, but the film works very well, was released with the best of intentions, and has historical importance. I’ve given it five stars for that reason, but whether I recommend it is a different matter. The specific criteria really don't apply - I only filled them in because I had to. The film This is a difficult film to watch. It’s a British documentary that was partly made in 1945 from footage shot by Allied cameramen as they liberated concentration camps in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Poland. It consists of some of the most horrifying material I’ve seen. The film was intended to act as a record of what the Allies found, and also to shame the German people into rejecting Nazism. It wasn’t completed in 1945 – it was decided that it might alienate the German population, who were needed to help rebuild Germany. The beginnings of the Cold War meant the Brits and Americans were keen to get the Germans on their side. The film was shelved, and was only completed a couple of years ago by the British Film Institute and Imperial War Museum. Publicity for the restoration focused on the fact that Alfred Hitchcock had a fleeting involvement in the film, but producer Sidney Bernstein (later founder of Granada TV) seems to have been the main creative force behind it. The decision was made to present the documentary as closely as possible to ...

Batman (1989) (Blu-ray) 29/05/2017

Bat rubbish

Batman (1989) (Blu-ray) This Blu-ray is a few years old now, so should be quite cheap – amazon says £8, but second hand sellers have it for more like £3. So having recently read a cultural history of Batman, I decided to revisit the Tim Burton movie for the first time in many years. I probably shouldn’t have bothered. This was the most successful film of all time when it was released (although that’s not saying much, as records like that get broken on an almost annual basis). Its popularity is absolutely baffling to me now. It is not a good film in almost any way. I liked it when I was 15, but I liked a lot of things back then that wouldn’t pass muster now, like Transvision Vamp, and self-abuse. Year: 1989 Director: Tim Burton Stars: Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Michael Keaton More information at: IMDB user rating: 7.6 (crazily high) The story is pretty familiar – a rich guy, Bruce, dresses as a rubber bat to fight crime at night because his parents were murdered. He romances a journalist called Vicki, and squares off against the Joker, a criminal with a clown-like face who tries to poison Batman’s hometown, Gotham City. The oddest thing about the film is that it was perceived at the time as having obliterated the legacy of the camp 60s TV show. Because, frankly, it’s almost as camp and over-the-top as the Adam West version, but not nearly as likable. This isn’t the dark and gritty Batman everyone said it was – it’s a short guy in a rubber suit fighting a ...
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