October 19, 2007

Good night, Deborah Kerr...

A colour publicity still for the black-and-white film,
The Innocents

Here’s a farewell I’ve been dreading for years, the lovely Deborah Kerr has passed away. I was aware that she was unwell and liked to avoid the public eye, but had heard little else recently.

While many obituaries focus on her famous roll in the surf with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, and her dancing with Yul Brynner in family favourite The King and I, I’ll also remember her for the extraordinary performances in weirder movies, to be enjoyed down here in the Black Hole.

She could easily play a pillar of virtue, a beacon in the dark. In Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947), where she has to wrestle with another nun’s failing faith as they are both tempted by sins of the flesh… There are many reasons that this sumptuous sixty year old film still plays today, and Kerr is definitely one of them.

Despite being typecast as the voice of reason, Deborah wasn’t afraid to play against type, notably her guardian in Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), whose wavering sanity threatens the very children she’s supposed to be caring for. It's another extraordinary role, so complex, that viewers are still unravelling whether the film is actually a ghost story, or a portrait of madness...

Another cult horror that is less remembered, is Eye of the Devil (1966). But it's thick with atmosphere, and watchable for the cast alone, that also includes Sharon Tate, David Niven and David Hemmings. The film's theme of satanism proved to be a premonition of Tate's ghastly fate...

Lastly, the crazy sixties psychedelic James Bond comedy with a huge budget. I always look forward to Deborah's segment in the first Casino Royale (1967), also playing against David Niven (as Sir James Bond). Her character has a Scottish accent, some lively physical comedy, and even sends herself up, as she again appears in a nun’s habit…

Beyond being a great actress, she helped create memorable characters that continue to intrigue and impress, long after the films are over.

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October 13, 2007

GHOST IN THE SHELL - A phenomenal overview

(2003, Japan, anime TV series)

If you feel deprived of intelligent sci-fi, or are a big fan of Blade Runner, or want to try out an anime series that's not about children with magical pets, this could be the one for you. Until Akira was released in the UK, I'd not seen any adult anime. Then there was a gap of a few years while I struggled to find anything nearly as good. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex boasts spectacular action, a peek into a likely future, must-have robots and major babe Motoko Kusanagi - she's all android...

First, I'll attempt to summarise the various incarnations on DVD
, because there's an awful lot of Ghost in the Shell out there...

GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995) - the anime movie

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Com
plex (2003) - anime TV series (26 x 30 minutes)

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (2004) - second anime movie

Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd Gig (2004) - the second TV series, (26 x 30 minutes)

Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society (2006) - the third story for TV, is a single feature-length episode

GHOST IN THE SHELL - the beginning
Masamune Shirow (also the author of Appleseed) first wrote and drew the obsessively detailed manga in 1991. It described the adventures of Section 9, a heavily armed secret police force in a near-future Tokyo.

The squad is headed by a brilliant political strategist - 'old man' Aramaki. He's supported by Major Motoko Kusanagi, a completely synthetic super-soldier, disarmingly disguised as a sex-bomb. She is the poster girl for the entire franchise, and the most obvious requirement of an anime nominally aimed at teenagers. Her closest ally is the mostly-human Batou, his steely eyes betraying that he has been partly cyberized (a process equivalent to bionics).

There's also a brainy bearded super-hacker and a token all-human policeman. They're all connected by internally-installed audio-visual communications, that looks like telepathy to outsiders.

The manga inspired the influential film, directed by Mamoru Oshii, which in turn eventually lead to the TV series, which explores an alternate timeline to the film.

I’ve just finished rewatching the first TV series (a term that doesn't do it justice). It's an epic achievement from the Japanese animation house Production I.G. It looks like a big-budget showreel and was created entirely on computer, when most anime was either still painted on cels, or too electronically 'video' a look (like Ghost Stories). It was recorded on High Definition masters, following the one-off experiment Blood - the Last Vampire. Again, the animation is state of the art for TV, 2D characters successfully mixing with 3D vehicles and robots.

Besides the cutting-edge production techniques, the story-telling is just as intricate and pitched at adults, without surrendering to excessive gore or nudity. There are pure sci-fi concepts, intricate plots, predictive designwork, and hard-hitting action.

Watching the series is like looking into the future, seeing technology that will exist one day, and the programme creators are already wrestling with the sociological problems that will arrive with it, as well as making it all look good!

Anyone who gets cybernetic brains or eyes could be also be online... and therefore hackable. Other individuals won’t trust these artificial body-parts, however advantageous. And how will people cope when they become emotionally attached to completely lifelike androids…

The feelings of artificial humans have been a prime concern to Japanese storytellers for decades, particularly in the Astro Boy series. In the Ghost in the Shell stories, the Major (and the tachikoma) are constantly aware of the differences between them and humans. The crux of the matter is if they can have a spirit, or 'ghost'.

The non-humanoid A.I. devices are more expendable than soldiers, but how sophisticated can the A.I. be allowed to get? The totally robotic tachikoma droids for instance, that assist Section 9, are slightly too intelligent and prone to individuality. They are impressively designed and are the most likeable characters, possessing mischievous child-like innocence.

Besides an almost unfathomable series-length story arc, about a kidnap plot involving a faceless hacker, there are many single episode stories that are easier to grasp, each tackling a techological theme as well as telling a 'stand alone' story.

An amazing amount of research and design-work goes into the hardware on display, even if it's only seen in a couple of shots. The implications of many designs is almost mind-expanding. Though it remains a puzzle why the ghastly 1980's mullet hairstyle is back in fashion.

The series has been sold in a variety of DVD sets around the world. I opted for a region 1 set, to avoid standards conversion artefacts. There's also a special edition available with DTS audio, rather than just 5.1. Both series were produced in a 16:9 aspect ratio, like most big-budget TV anime is now.


The second TV series was just as long and complicated, Ghost In The Shell SAC 2nd Gig. I didn't enjoy this story nearly as much - the scale of the plot got way too big, the issue being a burgeoning civil war with an unhappy immigrant workforce. The focus shifted from the problems of future technology, to possible political situations, something too huge and messy to be solved by even a crack team of cyber-police. I will rewatch and reappraise it, because I love the characters, but it didn't feel as much like a 'ghost' story.

After the second series was over, the first was boiled down to make a single straight-to-video feature, focussing on just the story arc. Called Ghost in the Shell - The Laughing Man, it has had additional scenes to bridge gaps in the narrative, and has had some animation reworked for continuity purposes. For instance, the Major's hairstyle 'evolved' during the lengthy 26 episodes. Her look was standardised for this cutdown version.

The Laughing Man is now available on DVD in the US and the second series has been given a similar treatment. Called Ghost in the Shell - Individual Eleven. This should be available on DVD in the US in December.

With the spectacular second film, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, not scoring a hit, even in Japan, despite being a visual masterpiece, no further G.I.T.S. feature films are currently likely, so I hope that the TV projects continue.

The third TV incarnation - Solid State Society, is a straight-to-video feature-length episode, that is now available in the UK and US.

There are also rumours of a live-action American remake of the first film – this would need a lot of money, but could it succeed where Aeon Flux failed? I’d rather see new stories as anime, rather than dumbing down the original story for a mass market.

A phenomenon like this spawns goodies. Lots. Here's a few of my faves:

Essential was the series guidebook, Ghost in the Shell - Stand Alone Complex: Official Log (Volume 1), which helps list and explain some of the background details in each of the first 20 episodes of the first series. Unfortunately, the second volume has yet to be translated into English. A DVD is included that groups the behind-the-scenes interviews onto one disc, as well as featuring a fantastic showreel for the series, with montages on vehicles, weapons and practically all the action scenes.

The most creative spin-offs from the series have been the many CD soundtracks. Besides writing the usual fast-paced electro background music, composer Yoko Kanno collaborated with a variety of artists to produce futuristic music and a unique theme tune. Her first, with Russian singer Origa, backs the impressive opening sequence.

After years of waiting, the tachikoma robots have finally been released in the form of intricately jointed and detailed 'toys'. There are plastic and die-cast versions of these cleverly designed robots.

And of course there's the manga stories, still being translated into English, video games, novels, action figures...

October 07, 2007

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) - finally on DVD

(UK, 1972)

Updated November 2007
One of the best Amicus films and certainly the most consistent 'portmanteau' horror from that period. Thankfully, there are no 'comedy relief' segments included here - just solid non-stop scares.

The film's five tales are all based on stories from the original EC horror comics Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Linking the tales is Sir Ralph Richardson as the first screen incarnation of the Crypt-keeper. His piercing and accusatory questioning suitably transfixes the five tourists lost in his catacombs. As the Crypt-keeper asks each lost soul why they have come here, they tell their stories in turn - tales of deception, murder and life beyond death...

Among the cult British cast are Patrick Magee, (shortly after his appearance in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange), Roy Dotrice, Ian Hendry and Joan Collins. The film's standout performance is from Peter Cushing, playing a victimised widower - it's very sad to watch him here, as he had recently lost his own wife. He won one of his few awards for this role and, without spoiling it too much, this is also a rare occasion when Cushing appears in 'monster' make-up, sparingly but brilliantly applied by Roy Ashton. The brief scenes of his 'little walk' provided some of the best publicity stills.

Cushing's role typifies the film's approach - to turn characters that were originally comic strip stereotypes into real people. In addition, the pervading grim atmosphere makes this 'compendium' horror far more successful than Vault of Horror or The House That Dripped Blood, both of which have comedic episodes.

The poster for the film also included my favourite scary movie skull - it was also on the cover of the paperback novelisation - the only merchandise from the film. The skull warns potential viewers of the pervasive atmosphere of premature death and is a visual link with the deathmask motorbike rider in 'The Monkey's Paw' segment.

It's been released on a double-bill with another short-story structured Amicus film, Vault of Horror, which is also widescreen, but unfortunately censored. Tales of the Crypt on the other hand, is not only the first time on DVD, but also the first time uncensored on home video.

An original trailer for Tales from the Crypt...

Here's the cover of the novelisation, and the 1964 paperback of EC Comic reprints which luckily includes four of the five stories adapted for this film!

The movie's opening theme is Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue in D minor' - this was a much overused tune in the horror genre - the most likely music to be played by any villain who owns a church organ - but this is my favourite rendition.

Presumably the delay getting Tales From The Crypt onto DVD was because of conflicting rights issues? Surely there was enough leeway not to confuse it with the nineties movies and the TV series?

Coincidentally, both the 1972 and 1989 films start off with an adaption of the same 'psycho-Santa' story ('And All Through The House'). You are therefore invited to make a side-by-side comparison and choose whether you like your EC horror played straight, or for laughs...

October 05, 2007

Not on DVD: MADCHEN IN UNIFORM (1931) decades ahead of MEMENTO MORI

(1931, Germany, Girls in Uniform)

This isn’t the kind of film that I normally mention in the Black Hole, but by the end of it, I felt like it was worth mentioning for the similarities with Memento Mori (reviewed here), which I’d also seen recently.

In both films, the setting is a girls boarding school, the story never leaves this location, the girls (and presumably the filmmakers) have anti-establishment sentiments, there’s a pivotal lesbian relationship, attempted suicide (also by jumping from a great height), overly strict teachers, and a hysterical-schoolgirl chaotic climax.

All that’s missing is the ghost story. And for a 70 year-old German film, it’s so ahead of its time that it’s still progressive today!

In fact, more progressive than the South Korean Whispering Corridors series, where the lesbian subplot could be read as causing the deaths and unhappy hauntings. In Madchen in Uniform, the other girls don’t even give them a hard time, but rally round in defence. When one girl is victimised by the headmistress for declaring her love, the rest of the dorm propose to help her - using a boycott, going over the head’s head to complain, and finally an all-out revolution!

For the most part it’s a mix of humour and drama, centred on the girls and their relationships with the different teachers, particularly their favourite who many of them have a crush on. A new girl, Manuela, has something more than a crush… When her feelings are discovered, scandal rocks the school.

Today, I guess there’d be much more focus on the motivations and consequences of the teacher, who kisses all her girls goodnight, and counters the headmistress's wishes by treating them all humanly and fairly.

The head is in favour of strictness, discipline, and getting the girls ready to make lots of babies strong enough to be soldiers! Considering that this is Germany before WWII, it’s prophetically worth rebelling against!

There have been a variety of stories about the German censors insisting on a fatal, unhappy ending for the film, but I’ve not seen this confirmed satisfactorily.

Gay-themed movies in early German cinema were allowed to be astoundingly open before Adolf rose to power. As early as 1919, Conrad Veidt (star of Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and The Thief of Baghdad) appeared in Anders als die anderen (Different from the Others) about gay blackmail – 40 years before Britain dared tackle the subject in Victim. Also, the first film version of Victor and Victoria was made in Germany in 1933, fifty years before Julie Andrews put trousers on in Victor/Victoria.

Considering the historical importance, and the fact that it’s still both powerful and entertaining today, makes for another not-on-dvd mystery. The last home video releases I can find are on VHS in both the US and UK (both pictured). It's not even on DVD in Germany! But the 1958 remake is (starring Lilli Palmer and Romy Schneider), which I'm looking forward to watching soon...

If you want to read a lot of academic exuberance about the 1931 film, try this article on Jump Cut.

OK, don't worry, now I'll go back to films with blood and ghosts...

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October 04, 2007


(2001, South Korea)

Frustrating and not recommended

To complete my reviews of this haunted schoolgirl series, I’ve watched the third Whispering Corridors film, Wishing Stairs. It was a real slog to get through this one. There's some nice touches, but there’s too much wrong with it to recommend it to anyone but completists.

The actual pivotal setting of the wishing stairs (a similar location was glimpsed in the first film) is a reasonably spooky premise. If you wish hard enough as you climb the 28 steps, the 29th will magically appear and your wish will be granted. Of course, you’d expect that nothing like this in a horror film is without a price, and when the DVD has a spooky cover you’d expect the price to be something nasty.

But what actually happens in the film is very tough to follow - not because of an innovative narrative structure, like Memento Mori, but because the storytelling is quite poor. There’s a long slow build-up as we meet several schoolgirls, two of which are vying for a single place in ballet school. So-hee and Jin-sung are very close friends (but not that close). The other main character is an eccentric, overweight girl seemingly unconnected to the ballerinas. The overplaying of both her eccentricities and fatness for comedy effect, really doesn’t work.

For nearly half the film, all we get is several feeble scares, all caused by the girls creeping up on each other. Then the supernatural element finally kicks in - or does it? The fat girl suddenly loses weight after saying that she used the wishing stairs, but we only have her word for it, and we also see her gobbling diet pills.

One ballerina wishes for first place in a competition (to win the place in ballet school) and shortly afterwards an accident cripples her main rival (again this is not a supernatural incident). As she uses the stairs, she appears (from a distance) to hover on the non-existent 29th step – which has been portrayed, in posters, as a girl hanging from a tree at the top of the steps, or a noose, but these doesn’t appear in the film).

Then, confusingly, and offscreen, her friend dies. But we only see the body in a nightmare – we’re not even sure it happened.

It's not until the fat girl takes centre stage and wishes for the dead girl to return, that something definitely spooky happens, I think. But during this wish, the 29th step appears to be real and not invisible. The resulting haunting could also be a result of her dementia.

The continuously baffling storyline, and the feeblest motivation for a murder (“you’re in my chair!”), made me suspect that we were in the hands of inexpert filmmakers. With important events not being shown, choppy editing, particularly towards the end, all topped off with a painful rip-off of the TV scene in Ring, indicated a script scrabbling for ideas.

Looking around for help from other reviewers to explain the plotline confirmed this. There was no one who could describe the story precisely, step by step, it's so muddled. The only person I could find who was able to explain the characters’ motivations was someone on IMDB who’d watched all the extra documentaries on a DVD! But the film should tell the story, not the bonus material.

It’s a shame that this is easily available on DVD in the US and UK, but Voice (part 4) is not. Possibly the poor returns from 3 has made 4 a harder sell.

So, please, watch all the other films in the series before going near this one. As I've said, you can watch any of the films on it's own, and in any order. South Korean sequels are apparently related by theme, rather than storyline (like Chan-wook Park's Vengeance trilogy).

WHISPERING CORRIDORS - Black Hole review here
MEMENTO MORI - Black Hole review here
VOICE - Black Hole review here

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October 03, 2007

New VIDEO WATCHDOG out now - dammit!

Just when you think you've seen it all, the writers at Video Watchdog unearth not just obscure films of interest, but whole genres.

Issue 134, explores Germany's Edgar Wallace 'krimi' films boxsets. The article compares this genre of lurid, creepy, violent crime dramas to the Hammer films being made in the UK at the same time, and also looks for cross-influences with the Italian giallo movies, makes them sound pretty essential. Plot descriptions, tempting photos and full details of what's on the DVDs are all in the huge centrepiece article.

The additional attraction of these films, is the understandable yet loopy situation where they were shot in Germany, based on English stories, and set in a London where everyone speaks German! Some of them were dubbed into English for other countries, too.

Besides which, there's DVD reviews that make you want to go shopping for films you've never heard of (Don't Go In The House), and recent films you didn't think you wanted to see (the Black Christmas remake).

It's always been a definitive guide to rare genre films from around the world. A movie magazine that has nothing to fear from the internet. I've been hooked from the start, when it demonstrated that the films I'd always wanted to see, were actually out there... but sometimes on strange new video formats, and available in unexpected countries.

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October 01, 2007

THE WARRIORS (1979) the 'Ultimate Director's Cut'

(1979, USA)

Another example of preserving a movie… from its director…

In the mid-seventies, by the time I was old enough to see A Clockwork Orange in the cinema, director Stanley Kubrick had withdrawn the film from circulation. My first experience of the story was therefore from Anthony Burgess’ novel, and then the illustrated screenplay from the local library. It wasn’t until 1989 that I finally saw the film on a bootleg VHS. (It then officially re-emerged in Britain in cinemas, DVD and TV, after Kubrick’s death in 1999).

So back in 1979, I was expecting The Warriors to be the next best thing. A near-future metropolitan tale of gang warfare. Once again, the film was preceded in the UK by newspaper stories about gang violence in cinemas. But unlike A Clockwork Orange, the gang members aren't amoral, and the establishment is always one step behind. As for the ultra-violence that I was expecting, the gang fights were edited and staged Peckinpah-style as entertainment. Rather than the realistically shocking scenes also depicted that year, in Scum.

In any case, I was still impressed, and looked forward to future projects by Walter Hill. But for years afterwards, The Warriors was misrepresented on home video. The VHS releases had a re-edited music score, changing some of the songs used on the mysterious radio station. Then the DVD release only had a mono soundtrack, despite the importance of music to the film. The early DVD release was presented in widescreen, but non-anamorphic.

In 2005, when we finally get it in stereo, 5.1 even, it’s a version of the film called the ‘Ultimate Director’s Cut’, without the option of seeing it in the original form. This remastered version is substantially the same as the original. There’s now a tacked-on introduction, that looks like video rather than film, but all of the original scenes are still present in the new cut. There are also no new ones (despite a sticker on the DVD packaging promising seven new scenes!), making it unremarkable as Director's Cuts go, ultimate or otherwise.

There’s still a glimpse of the originally-filmed prologue in the accompanying documentary, but this scene was removed before the film was exhibited. It showed the Warriors’ leader Cleon talking to his girlfriend (who never appears again) in the Coney Island fairground in the daytime before it all kicks off. This was never officially part of the film, even though it appeared in a British 'Moviedrome' TV showing, presented as ‘the original version’. The producers correctly removed this scene so that the film started at night-time, and not showing daylight until the end of the story.

To replace the exposition from this removed opening scene, the director shot extra scenes and intercut them into the title sequence. These flashbacks, the subway train at night, the graffiti-like opening titles, all mesh to become the exciting, hit-the-ground running start to the story. The Director's Cut adds a narrated prologue about a Greek warrior who also fought all odds to get back to the sea. Where are the producers to lop off slow-moving introductions when you need them?

The Greek influence is there in the story anyway, and didn’t need highlighting again. Some of the characters’ names (taken from Sol Yurick’s novel) also hint at the Greek legend. This new prologue does nothing but derail the start with an unenlightening subtext.

My other gripe about this Director's Cut is the only other change that’s been made. From out of nowhere, the director now presents the film as if it was a comic strip. With newly-created comic book frame transitions between scenes. Hill now admits he’s embarrassed by the simplistic premise of the film, and compares the characters to those from kids' comics. He points out the lack of damage that the heroes suffer in a fight with baseball bats as evidence. But unrealistic violence happens in most adult action thrillers and this realisation isn't where his intentions were when he made the film - it's a retrospective fix. A redux. Not his original cut. 

If he wanted to be more accurate, retrospectively, I would have thought that the scenario more closely resembles a video game – with the low numbers of New Yorkers on the streets, a dot-to-dot story, and easily recognisable goodies and baddies.

These changes are annoying but not too damaging. The qualities of the film are still on show. Particularly the impressive opening scene, as every gang in New York meets to plot a lucrative team-up, united by the charismatic leader, Cyrus.

Planning a movie shoot where hundreds of gang members begin organising a Manhattan crimewave, at the same time as asking the Mayor of New York for dozens of location permits, seems ridiculous. But they were allowed to shoot almost all of the film on location all over New York, and extensively on the subway.

The episodic action set pieces, iconic characters, wry dialogue, terrifying gangs... all make for a unique experience. Especially the Baseball Furies with their bats, 'Kiss' make-up, and nightmarish, tireless running. But real-life fighting in cinemas damaged the success of the film and turned it from hit to cult.

Inner sleeve of the vinyl soundtrack

For a while, the only legacy of the film was the snips of dialogue, used in the soundtrack album, making them instantly accessible for sampling. Specifically, Cyrus’ inspirational speech (“Can you dig it?”), the Riffs leader (“Who are The Warriors?”), and Luther’s wavery psycho taunts (“Warriors, come out to plaaay-ee-aaay!”). The songs on the soundtrack are actually soft rock (including a memorable closing song from Joe Walsh) and only Barry De Vorzon’s driving electro score totally fits the atmosphere. His music opens the film and plays behind the pivotal fight scenes.

Although Walter Hill originally wanted a primarily black and latino cast, the movie sidesteps a racially-divided gang culture, by mixing up the members in each, right down to the skinhead gang.

Also to avoid controversy, the Warriors are very moral. Despite having the opportunity, these guys don’t harrass helpless women, they fight only in self-defence, and as a last resort. The violence isn't realistic either - the only blood that’s drawn is when a policeman hits someone who’s already in handcuffs. Sneaky.

The best thing about the Ultimate Director's Cut DVD, is the documentary with it. Like watching The Monster Squad special edition on the same weekend, it was sometimes painful to 'catch up' with people after several decades. The Warriors' leader Michael Beck is barely recognisable. One suspects that starring in Xanadu was not a good way to build on his success, and this is the first time I’ve seen him in anything in 25 years.

For fans of the film, there’s some great behind-the-scenes stories, and it’s good to see Deborah Van Valkenburgh (also in Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire), David Patrick Kelly (Commando, Twin Peaks) and other gang members again. Though only James Remar (as Ajax) seems to have worked solidly since.

The Warriors is still highly recommended, but once again, the Director's Cut isn’t the version that was originally shown in cinemas. For the moment, it’s another instance of a new release unable to replace the old. I'm hanging onto this one (above) thank you very much. The new cut is available on DVD as well as HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, dammit.

Do you want to know more?

There's a HUGE British fansite devoted to the film, just click here.

2013 update:
A superbly thorough three-part guide to all The Warriors' filming locations around New York City on Scouting New York, here...