Sunday, July 4, 2010

Celluloid Horrors Movie Reviews




Hammer Films: The Icons of Suspense Collection

review by Shaun Anderson

Sony Pictures continue their timely and impressive plundering of Columbia’s vaults with this latest collection of obscure Hammer titles from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Building on the two earlier sets Icons of Adventure (which featured The Stranglers of Bombay, The Terror of the Tongs, The Pirates of Blood River, The Devil-Ship Pirates and was released in June 2008) and Icons of Horror (which featured The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, The Gorgon, Scream of Fear and was released in October 2008) comes Icons of Suspense which is easily the best of the lot. All six films illustrate perfectly the extent to which Hammer were trying to diversify in the early 60’s and the films couldn’t be more different from the lurid and sublime gothic horror for which they were internationally known. To the best of my knowledge all of the films are presented in their correct aspect ratios with prints that are crisply presented.

Three genuine classics emerge from this collection - Cash on Demand (1960), These are the Damned (1963) and Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960). The latter is a thought provoking tale of an aged child molester in a small Canadian town. The film deals with the subject matter with sensitivity and intelligence rather than exploitation and sensationalism, and bravely opts for a strategy that eschews cheap moralising. .This is perhaps the most disturbing and chilling film Hammer ever produced due in no small part to the recognisable world that the filmmakers conjure up. This is a monster too whom we can all relate, who exists within a familiar vision of community and not some mid-European gothic never land. The cinematography by Freddie Francis is a delight, and the direction by Cyril Frankel is solid and trustworthy - but does reach an apex of suspense in a late scene in which the two children are stalked in the woods.

Cash on Demand is a delightful reinterpretation of Dickensian morality and features one of Peter Cushing’s greatest performances as the fussy bank manager Fordyce. Fordyce is a man of impeccable manners and timing whose world is dominated by his job. When he is blackmailed into robbing his own bank by a dashing and charming gentleman thief played by Andre Morell he must learn lessons of humility and respect for his staff, and open himself up to the realisation that he needs their friendship and charity. The origins of the film lie in television and the single setting doesn’t require the greatest of cinematic exploration by director Quentin Lawrence. But this is a film about performance, dialogue and character interaction and works remarkably well. The Christmas season is beautifully rendered and it’s a pleasure to watch the icy demeanour of Fordyce thaw.

These are the Damned is an unusual film for Hammer because at its heart is a major political statement. It is of course possible to discern political messages in many Hammer films, but this is often achieved through metaphor and allegory. This particular film, which was directed by Joseph Losey, is up front about its stance on the future of the human race and the uncertainties of the nuclear age. Losey is very suitable for this bleak message which uses a leather clad motorcycle gang as a mirror for the group of children born into the world radioactive. The true nightmare aspect of this scenario is the manner in which the authorities and the scientists behave in order to further an idealistic crusade that has no certainty of materialising. The Weymouth setting with its coastal roads, cliff edges and large open vistas is effectively utilised, and the strong and committed performances by all the cast make this a very powerful and devastating science-fiction parable.

The other three films that make up this collection are lesser works, but still maintain a curiosity value. The Snorkel (1958) is an intriguing early attempt by Hammer at the psychological horror film for which Jimmy Sangster would become well known in the 1960’s, and explores a young girls suspicions about her stepfather. Stop Me Before I Kill (1960) likewise continues to map out territory which Hammer would have greater success with later in the decade. This film follows a racing driver’s attempts to piece together his shattered psyche after a road accident, and then piece together a mystery involving the disappearance of his wife - a disappearance he is the number one suspect in. The final film Maniac (1963) is a French set and rather pedestrian psychological thriller about an escaped lunatic. These three films are still worth a look, but are uneven and weak compared to the three heavyweights mentioned above. The films are excellent but the layout and packaging of this collection leaves a bit to be desired. The six films are spread over three discs, the only special features are a trailer for each, and there is no accompanying booklet to offer contextual information. These are minor grumbles though, because the films are all enjoyable, and three of the six are true Hammer classics.

--Shaun Anderson








Hammer Films: The Icons of Horror

review by Shaun Anderson

For some time fans of Hammer Film Productions’ output bemoaned the fact that so many of the films that were distributed by Columbia Pictures in the 1950’s and 1960’s remained in DVD limbo. Fortunately Sony Pictures has been slowly rectifying this with several excellent compendiums which highlights the diversity of productions Hammer were pushing out in their heyday. In total Sony have put out fourteen Hammer films over seven discs in the last two years. Although Icons of Adventure, Horror, and Suspense are bereft of extra features, the print quality is unanimously impressive (which is more than can be said for a number of the films on Optimum’s Region 2 Ultimate Hammer Collection box set). Icons of Horror appeared in October 2008 and although the overall quality isn’t as impressive as Icons of Suspense, it does help to fill some important gaps. The films presented here are The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), Scream of Fear (1961), The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) and The Gorgon (1964).

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll is an interesting take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s legendary source material. A stronger emphasis is placed on the repressed sexuality of Jekyll, who spends his days totally obsessed with his work, and utterly ignorant of the desires of his bored wife. Fortunately for her Christopher Lee is on hand to attend to those frustrations. As Hyde he is able to find his social footing and becomes an extroverted man about town, he still lacks charm and social grace, but the screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz creates a well constructed statement about the pitfalls of solitary scientific endeavour and the need for social interaction. Paul Massie shoulders the burden of the dual role and at times it seems a burden too much, but he is ably supported by a gallery of wicked and self-centred characters, only concerned with gaining the material wealth that Jekyll dozily gives away. Terence Fisher brings to life the moral and sexual hypocrises of the Victorian age with his typically understated method of direction. This is a surprise highlight of the package.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is easily the weakest film to be found here - my full review for this can be found here. http://sonofcelluloid.blogspot.com/2010/05/curse-of-mummys-tomb-1964.html It suffers from a slapdash approach to plot construction and the general laziness of any follow up to a successful film. Only on occasion does the film reach the atmosphere of The Mummy (1959), and the set designs and badly painted backdrops are as lifeless as the ancient cadaver that goes on the rampage in London. The direction by Michael Carreras is particularly insipid and devoid of imagination and the film suffers from a lack of star power resulting in unmemorable and uncharismatic displays from second string players. This one I’d have happily left to gather dust in the Columbia vault.

The Gorgon is the centrepiece of the set, and a film that was highly anticipated by fans of Hammer. It just about lives up to its billing, even if it somewhat lacking in drive and pace. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee lend their names to the marquee, but both are somewhat subdued. The Gorgon itself is a notorious disappointment, but the effect of her baleful glance is impressive. Like most Terence Fisher directed Hammer films this is a film about the repression of desire, and the focus of the film lies with the character played by Barbara Shelley. The film is unusual in its depiction of the ineffectuality of patriarchy, masculinity instead providing a barrier to closure rather than heralding it. Ultimately though the conservatism of Hammer and Fisher win through and the conclusion predictably maintains the status quo. This is easily one of the most beautiful of Hammer’s gothic horrors, with excellent set design and art direction contributing enormously too an all pervading atmosphere of evil. But I have to admit to being somewhat under whelmed by the film.

The film that closes out Icons of Horror also happens to be the best film of the package. Scream of Fear is however somewhat misplaced and would be more usefully contained within Icons of Suspense. This was the first of many films written by Jimmy Sangster that derived their plot mechanics from Les Diaboliques (1955) and their commercial impetus from Psycho (1960). Susan Strasberg plays the innocent who returns to her father’s isolated house in a mountainous region of France. From the moment of her arrival strange things are afoot and she must contend with questions over her own sanity as the plot spirals towards a twist climax. Christopher Lee offers support as a sinister Doctor replete with a dodgy French accent, and Seth Holt directs efficiently, making excellent use of his claustrophobic gothic setting, and building up the tension in a most enjoyable manner. The black and white cinematography adds a great deal of resonance to this psychological thriller which stands head and shoulders above the other films on this release. For a full review of this film please visit - http://sonofcelluloid.blogspot.com/2010/02/taste-of-fear.html

Icons of Horror is a somewhat uneven and patchy affair, and while fans of Hammer will defend this collection simply on the basis that the films have been released, the films themselves, with the exception of possibly two, do not represent the pinnacle of Hammer’s production output. Nevertheless the films are well presented over two discs, even if we are once lacking a booklet or onscreen contextual notes. At times Icons of Horror as the feel of being for the purists only - I cant see many casual horror fans getting hysterical over The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll or The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. But for those looking to complete their British horror library this is a vital addition.

--Shaun Anderson












Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973)
(aka "Revenge of the Living Dead" - USA (reissue title) and "Things from the Dead" - USA (reissue title))

I saw this back in the early 70's at the drive-in and I loved it, I was one of “those” kids. I watched it the other night and couldn’t believe what we actually wore back in the 70’s. The story is about an acting troupe that is threatened with unemployment led by Alan (played by Alan Ormsby) that goes to an island of the coast of south Florida(Miami) to desecrate a graveyard and cast some spells. Unfortunately they actually throw incantations better than they though and bring the dead back to life. Before this reanimation-fest takes place, Alan being the pompous ass he is, takes an unhealthy liking to Orville, a corpse they dug-up earlier, who he decides they need to bring back to a house they found with them for a little disrespect for the dead. There's two gay guys in the troupe (Roy and Emerson) that dress as ghouls to add a bit of comic relief too. They were "planted" by Alan before the others arrived to scare the hell out of at least one of the newcomers. The dead begin to rise and this becomes standard "Night of the Living Dead" schlock. Overall it's a classic zombie movie that has the look and the feel that makes it a classic horror movie with a sense of impending doom.

Similarly “The Evil Dead” that would also feature a group of foolish kids awaking evil forces with the aid of an old book could have been called a better “remake” of “Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things.” Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things was directed by Bob Clark who also released the moody, ‘Monkey's Paw' inspired Dead of Night. After co-directing Deranged with his co-star of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Jeff Gillen, Allen Ormsby went on to screenplay the Cat People ('82) and silly Popcorn ('91). Before Clark moved on to comedies like A Christmas Story and Porky’s, he directed Black Christmas ('74) and Murder by Decree ('79).

In my opinion, a true fan of old horror can’t hate this film. This predates John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and most other popular horror directors of today. It may be difficult to watch with the apparent low budget, with lighting that is worse than the movie itself and the laughable dialogue. Ormsby himself has said that he's barely able watch Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things anymore as he hates himself acting in it, but admits that it does have some appealing attraction, hence the cult following.



--Carey Copeland









Rampage (2009)
Director: Uwe Boll
Cast: Brendan Fletcher, Shaun Sipos, Michael Paré, Matt Frewer, Lynda Boyd and Robert Clarke

Uwe Boll has made a decent film. Not just good in comparison to the rest of his filmography, but a good movie in its own right. Rampage isn’t based on the 1986 Midway arcade video game no King Kong, no Godzilla, although you might assume so since Boll is involved in a lot of video game adaptations such as the suck-ass interpretation of House of the Dead and Blood Rayne. It seems like Boll tried to make a Peter Jackson-ish film with Dungeon Siege-In the name of the King, or something like that. He had Jason Statham, Leelee Sobieski, John Rhys-Davies, Ron Perlman, Kristanna Loken, Matthew Lillard, Ray Liotta and Burt Reynolds star in it for credibility but I can’t really remember too damn much about it. Oh wait! I fell asleep watching.
Hey, thanks, Uwe.
Anyway about Rampage. Brendan Fletcher plays Bill, a young man who plans a killing spree, possibly the largest in history, gunning down innocent people in a small town. Instead, we see the mass murder spree from the point of view of Bill, who you will sometimes find yourself relating to, especially in the early minutes of the film before the killings. This film is similar to “Falling down” with Michael Douglas and that is why this film works When Bill walked into a bingo hall with hundreds of old men and women you thought he was going to take these poor people out of their miserable existence.
You watch this film and think these are innocent people, in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is a movie that makes you think and decide on a moral stance. You think to yourself, who the hell would make a movie like this especially with this same shit going on in the world. Boll shot the film using handheld cameras that give you a car sick feeling. With the camera movement I was having flash-backs of Quarantine. It was probably a 6 out of 10 but don’t let your sociopathic friends see it. Emos be warned.





--Carey Copeland










ALBERT FISH: IN SIN HE FOUND SALVATION (2007)

Reviewed by Brian M. Sammons

Director: John Borowski
Cast: Tony Jay, Oto Brezina

I’ve always had a fascination with serial killers. No, I don’t collect the serial killer trading cards and I don’t own a Charles Manson t-shirt, but something about these horrible men keeps drawing me back to them. I think it’s because they are monsters every bit is horrifying and disgusting as werewolves, zombies, and vampires, only that they are real. Whatever the case, I do enjoy learning about these real world horrors.

I first became aware of documentary filmmaker, John Borowski, a few years back when I stumbled upon his excellent doc on H. H. Holmes. Holmes had always been one of the sick psychos that I was most interested in. He is not only arguably America’s first serial killer, but he built an entire hotel/murder funhouse, complete with hidden doors and rooms, gas chambers, and acid vats, all just to help him live out his demented fantasies. Yet despite all that, most people, even those people who are “in to” serial killers, don’t even know his name. Well Mr. Borowski knew him and he put out one of the most informative, and oddly entertaining, documenters on Mr. Holmes ever.

So when I heard that Mr. Borowski did another doc on a classic killer from the “good old days” I was very intrigued. That movie is ALBERT FISH and it came out a few years back, but it completely slipped under my radar. So I figured, if it could slip by me unnoticed, and I’m a huge horrorhead who is not only interested in documentaries on killers, but someone already familiar with the films of John Borowski, then it could have easily slipped past many of you. So to correct that injustice, allow me to tell you about this doc on one of the sickest, vilest, most disgusting and perverted animals to ever walk the Earth.

I won’t go into all the details here because you really need to see this film, also I’m sure that I would be nowhere as thorough as the doc, but in short, Albert Fish, who looked like everyone favorite grandfather, was one sick son of a bitch. While he professed to be a devout Christian, his real religion was pain, which was a “blessing” he was only too willing to both give and receive. His favorite hobby was to kidnap children and torture them in every conceivable way before eventually killing and eating them. But in an effort to practice what he preached, Albert also enjoyed shoving roses up his penis hole then eating them, sticking alcohol soaked cotton up his rectum and lighting it on fire, whipping himself with a cat o’ nine tails or a paddle studded with nails, and shoving pins and needles into his groin and abdomen. In fact, when he was finally apprehended for the kidnapping, murder, and cannibalism of a little girl, he was X-rayed and it showed that twenty-nine pins and needles were still inside him.

This film starts off with Albert being arrested for the cannibal murder of his most famous victim, young Grace Budd, then goes back in time to give you a portrait of the man-monster as a young child and the things that made him the elderly nightmare the rest of the world would one day lose lots of sleep over. To tell this macabre story, writer/director Borowski has the great voice of Tony Jay doing the narration and several actors reenacting some of the most memorable, and horrible, bits of history. The actor playing Albert Fish, Oto Brezina, really shines as the aged sadomasochistic cannibal, pedophile, murderer. The man absolutely oozes creepy menace one moment and then grandfatherly warmth the next.

In addition to the Grade A documentary, the DVD comes packed to the gills with extras and various goodies. There are interviews with the writer/director, a real life cannibal from Paris, and oddly, with a member of a death metal band named MACABRE. There is a featurette on the history of the electric chain, the very device that sent Mr. Fish to hell. There are also the more usual outtakes, deleted scenes, trailers, a still gallery, and some good behind the scenes moments as well.

If you are as fascinated by human monsters as I am, then you simply must get this film. If you’re just a fan of very well made documentaries, then you simply must get this film. If you just want to learn about a real life horror show…well then you know, GET THIS FILM. I can easily and highly recommend this documentary, at least to those with strong stomachs and steady nerves.



--Brian M. Sammons










MARTIN (1977)

By: Brian M. Sammons

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest

In this day of friendly vampires, sexy vampires, sparkly vampires, and vampires bemoaning their lost humanity, isn’t it odd that they all get shown up by a young little blood sucker who’s not even a member of the undead? Further, is it strange that a low budget flick made in 1977 and shot in Pittsburgh is far more horrifying than the vast majority of Hollywood’s big budget, modern vampire movies? Well it might be, but when you consider that this little movie was written and directed by the man who brought the undead into the modern age, yeah I’m talking about George A. Romero, then it all makes sense. The vamp flick in question is MARTIN and it is out on a brand new DVD from the British disc masters, Arrow Video, but is this DVD worth all the extra trouble of getting it sent from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean (at least for us North Americans)? Well let’s find out.

The movie follows the exploits of a young man named Martin with a slight problem; he’s a vampire. Or at least he thinks he’s a vampire. Where would he get such a wacky idea? From his fresh-from-the-old-world family, they all think he’s a vampire too. So what’s a confused boy to do? Well start killing people so he can drink their blood, naturally. MARTIN is one of the most original vampire stories ever put to film. It’s part splatter goodness, part detective procedural, and all around great. Well acted and well directed, this movie is a must see for horror fans looking for a break from the bland, the teenage targeted, and/or the endless remakes that comprise the modern horror genre.

Now this is the part where I tell you all about the extras, and boy do I have a lot to tell. Little things like double-sided cover art (thereby giving the disc owner the choice of how to display it), a seven page booklet written by Romero, a double-sided wall poster, and six poster art postcards are just the icing on this wonderful cake. As for the extras, well first this is a two disc DVD set, so you know there’s going to a lot of them. Audio wise, the sounds come in both stereo and a 5.1 Dolby Surround sound, not to mention an commentary track with Romero, makeup special effects master Tom Savini, the producer, composer, and the director of photography. The featurettes include a making of documentary, a European doc on Romero, and audio files of Romero, Savini, and others. Then there’s the usual suspects like movie trailers, a photo gallery, and TV and radio spots. However, where this disc goes far beyond the norm is the inclusion of the Italian version of the movie (called Wampyr) with English subtitles and soundtrack by Goblin. Yes, Arrow Video puts a whole other version of this film onto the DVD just because it’s got a killer soundtrack. That right there illustrates why I love these British disc masters so much; they are obvious fans of the movies they put out and they have nothing but love for other fans of classic horror movies. Just like this movie is a breath of fresh air in the modern emo vampire world, the fact that Arrow Video goes to such lengths on a DVD, while so many big Hollywood studios are content to put out bare bones DVDs, saving all their extras for the Blu-ray version of their movies, is yet one more example of how these guys get it and how business of putting movies out on disc should be done.

If you are a fan of this groovy, truly unique vampire film then this is the version of the movie you’ve been waiting for. You can order your copy today at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk and I highly suggest that you do so.



--Brian M. Sammons






Contact (2009)
Director: Jeremiah Kipp
Cast: Zoe Daelman Chlanda, Robb Leigh Davis, Katherine O'Sullivan, Tom Reid, Danny Lopes and Alan Rowe Kelly

Review written by Steven M. Duarte

The short film Contact brings forth weary nightmarish dreamscapes accompanied by good cinematography and a pumping industrial ambient soundtrack to complete the package. The dialogue is kept to a minimum as the scenes paint a picture of a descent into a bad drug trip.

In the film we follow a couple who purchase drugs from an odd looking drug dealer. The dealer advises the couple that they should take it together. That’s about all we get for spoken dialogue. From there on were treated to a David Lynch like spiral through a bad acid trip. The couple begins seeing worm like creatures come out from their mouths. The end of the film takes us back to the safety of the protagonist’s parents, or at least we think that’s safe haven for her. I anticipate seeing more nightmarish visions from the mind of Director Jeremiah Kipp.

--Steven M Duarte

(To help spread the word on this fantastic indie production by a talented genre director, please visit his official movie website: http://www.contact.shroggle.com/Home)

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