November 30, 2008

DVD UPDATES - the best region 1 news

Over the next few months, there are going to be a few DVD releases that I can only describe as 'ABOUT BLOODY TIME'! The wishlist they were originally written on is so old, it was made of paper! Out of everything new on DVD - here's what I'm excited about... two classic slasher movies, a vintage Dario Argento thriller, and an unusual epic from the silent era...


FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971)
Finally, finally, finally, on February 24th is the home video debut of Dario Argento's early psycho-thriller. The third of his stylish giallo murder mysteries, with outrageously choreographed death scenes, has been missing from all our Dario collections. Until now. Whatever legal wrangles have been keeping this movie out of circulation must now be over. It's being released by Mya Communications. Watch out for that lorry...
Good news courtesy of
DreadCentral.com.



MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981)
To coincide with the cinema release of the new remake, the best news is that the original haunted mine, pickaxe slasher is finally being released uncut. The 2002 DVD release was disappointing for being digitally remastered from the familiar censored cut. Ever since gorehounds were first teased with photos of bloody make-up effects in the (then) new magazine Fangoria, we've been waiting decades to see several climactic moments to this lesser-known atmospheric slasher. I'm pre-ordering it - I've waited too long to see this!
Exciting news courtesy of DreadCentral. Cover art previewed on Fangoria.com.


FRIDAY THE 13th (1980)

Another remake has prompted an uncut overhaul of the original for DVD - but again no cover art yet for this February 2009 release from Paramount Home Video. This will be the US DVD debut of the uncensored version. Admittedly the cuts should only amount to a few seconds, but for a cornerstone of the slasher genre, it's a very welcome release. It will also be available on Blu-Ray, and there'll be a deluxe array of extras.
More details from ClassicHorror.com. Cover art and specs from DVD Active.



J’ACCUSE (1919)

Completely new to DVD is this epic anti-war movie from legendary French pioneer Abel Gance. I've only just caught his 1939 remake and can't wait to see the silent movie original, meant as a plea for 'no more war' just after the so called 'Great War'. The movie is of genre interest because of it's astonishing resurrected war-dead finale. Screengrabs and a review of this 2-disc special edition from silent movie specialists Flicker Alley, can be found on DVDtalk.



GAMERA THE BRAVE (2006)

New to the US is the latest Gamera movie - I reviewed the film here. It's angled more at children, but serves as a good temporary fix for all those giant monster fans who are missing Godzilla at the moment. Arriving to flatten a city near you at the end of December, from Tokyo Shock.



THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (2008)

Lastly, I don't normally herald new Hollywood films, but this is coming to DVD and Blu-Ray on Feb 17th. Based on Clive Barker's short story from the very first of 'The Books of Blood', this is cult Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura's American debut. Despite mixed reviews and a faltering cinema release, I still want to see anything by the director of Azumi, Versus and Godzilla Final Wars.
(Release news courtesy of DreadCentral).


November 26, 2008

TO THE DEVIL... A DAUGHTER (1976) - hard-hitting Hammer horror


TO THE DEVIL... A DAUGHTER
(1976, UK)

Unfortunately, the first Hammer film I ever saw in the cinema was also the last Hammer horror film that was produced. I saw it only a couple of years after its release in an all-night horror show at a local suburban cinema in Ewell. I’d gotten used to the Hammer style of lush-looking gothic dramas on TV, and was rather surprised by the ultra-modern looking psycho-logical satanism that is To The Devil... A Daughter. Through the years, it’s endured as a unique and earnest attempt to visualise the modern practice of black magic.

Through the early 1970s, Hammer Studios were continuing to move forward and experiment with the genre, but not quite fast enough for the plunge into gore and sensationalism. The wide-angle cinematography borders on experimental and the subtle, cold lighting makes for a gritty and realistic look. The far-from-stagey acting is helped enormously by the star, Richard Widmark’s performance. The nudity and violence is still eye-opening today. It’s not wall-to-wall, but when it happens it doesn’t pull any punches. For instance, the birthing scene isn't explicit, but it is painfully nasty.


The unusual story structure initially presents a string of unexplained events. For once, the baddies are one step ahead of the goodies, as well as the audience. We have to be patient as the plot gradually takes shape. Widmark plays John Verney, an occult expert called on to look after a young nun, by her father (Denholm Elliott), who hasn't told him the whole story about her value to an underground band of satanists. The depiction of various black magic rituals and their effects look very real, and the story starts to convince that it might all actually work...

Hammer regular Christopher Lee is for once a very human monster - posing as a priest. Lee is in his prime here, desperate to do his beloved author Dennis Wheatley justice. The mainly British cast includes Anthony Valentine (Tower of Evil) and Honor Blackman (Goldfinger, The Avengers) as a normal couple,dragged into extraordinary circumstances, much the same as Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson's characters did in The Devil Rides Out (1968), Hammer’s earlier excursion into Dennis Wheatley’s satanic novels. Denholm Elliott (The House That Dripped Blood) is the rightfully paranoid informant, mirroring David Warner’s frightened retreat inside the pages of the bible in The Omen, the same year.


And of course Nastassia Kinski, in an early role, plays the nun at the centre of the deadly chess game. Her full-frontal scenes, at only aged seventeen, mirror the sexuality at the heart of the decade's wave of sexual explicitness in horror films. Using those stills as publicity for thje film shows a huge lapse of taste, only possible in that very different time. I also can’t remember whether she was dubbed for this role by another actress. While German actors were no doubt part of the deal, in this a German co-production, Kinski is perfect in the role.

The only drawbacks to the solid and gripping story, are towards the finale, as an unconvincing demon animatronic effect intrudes poorly into two scenes, and the ending is a famous anticlimax, thankfully discussed in the extra documentaries on the recent Optimum DVD in the UK. The film is also part of the massive 21-movie Hammer Horror boxset/cube.


There are filming locations in Germany and around London, indeed the whole film looks like it was shot outside of studios and sets. Widmark’s flat and several scenes take place just next to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge - the site is now now a huge, boring block of offices, but back then a maze of locks and canals.

The Optimum DVD extras include several interesting and frank interviews including Christopher Lee himself. The late veteran stuntman Eddie Powell also describes the danger of his main stunt, the first British 'full body burn', as well as an unusual assignment doubling for Lee…

There's a trailer here on the revived Hammer Studio's new website.

November 22, 2008

RING (1998) - watch it, I dare you

RING
(1998, Japan, IMDB: Ringu)

Much, much much much, has been written about Ring. But I still don’t meet many people who’ve actually seen it. To honour it’s tenth anniversary, I’m revisiting it. This is after reading the books it was based on, reading the manga it inspired, and seeing the many alternate versions of the story. (More about the Ring phenomenon here). How will a trip down the well stand the test of time?

Ten years on, there’s several Ring movies, lost in a sea of rip-offs in the Asian Cinema and Horror sections. No longer the one and only, the first J-horror film. Many have only seen the American remake. Why see the original?

People easily get drawn in by the premise – a cursed videotape that kills you seven days after you watch it. Sounding like a typical urban legend, this is enough to interest new viewers, as long as they read subtitles (this is where the potential audience branches between the Japanese and American versions). While the video curse is central to the story, it’s also rewardingly complex, and many strands of the plot offer room for discussion. It also presented a new monster and a new horror mythology that didn’t follow the cliches of western horror.


The opening sets up the curse without giving much away. Two teenage girls are at home, the parents are out. They’re talking about a story going round at school about a cursed videotape. One of them jokes that she’s seen it, and when she leaves the room, her friend gets a nasty scare. The scene has a mild pay-off but certainly kicks off the mystery. The unsettling atmosphere mainly generated by the deafening telephone. But the cosy modern setting in a typical home sets the mood. This is a horror film set in the here-and-now – you’re not even safe sitting around watching TV.

The story rapidly gets creepier as Reiko, a journalist, is researching a story about the cursed videotape at the school. She’s investigating the case of two students who were found in a car, both dead from natural causes. She then attends the funeral of her niece, only to discover that all three teenagers coincidentally died at the same time.

As she gets deeper into the mystery, Reiko discovers a weekend hideaway that the teenagers all went to, finds the cursed videotape and watches it. If the curse is to be believed, she only has one week to live. Everything about the case feels like a real threat. She teams up with her ex-husband, Ryuji, to try and beat the curse…

I enjoy every scene in the film, how the mystery is unveiled, how it constantly raises as many new questions as it answers. The curse worsens, getting increasingly more threatening as she gets in deeper. There are a few shock moments, but it’s not long before I start getting the creeps.

A sort of metal squealing sound signals that the curse is spreadind. The background music is tonal and unsettling, rather than musical. The camera only gives away glimpses of ghosts and shadows. Something is nearby, but we can’t see what. The camerawork is very still, always waiting for something bad to happen.

As Reiko watches the cursed videotape, we realise that we’re watching it too. The weird assembly of seemingly unrelated nightmare images, provide more clues for her and Ryuji. Leading them both to the distant Oshima Island, in search of a psychic who could predict volcanic eruptions.

The journey to the island helps reinforce the reality of their situation. Nothing in the whole film looks like a set. It all looks like it was shot on location. Similarly, the video and a key flashback scene really look as if they were really made forty years earlier. It all looks real.

For those who haven’t seen the film, I still can’t spoil it. But keep your eyes on that video - each time you see it, it changes a little. Brrrr.


Ring is a very, very tightly-constructed mystery, a classic ghost story with great hair-raising moments as well as jolts. A complete contrast from the gore we’re wading through at the moment. It’s a testament to the writer, producer and director, that the film improves on the book. The sequels would then feed off both this film and the other books to create several parallel stories riffing on the same themes. A videotape. A well. And a girl called Sadako.

Although influenced by the ghost stories and older horror movies of Japan, the image of a vengeful ghost, a woman in a floor-length white dress with long black hair covering her face, is now a new horror icon. But besides the way she looks, the way she moves is just as scary…

Of course, the first time I watched Ring was the best. Electrifying. Now, it’s still creepy but no longer full of surprises. But it is still very watchable - for the story, the atmosphere, the impeccable acting and meticulous directing. But apart from the centre-stage videotape, the film hasn’t dated at all. It’s a true classic, an essential film to help horror buffs make sense of half the horror films that have been made since, indeed most of the ones to come from the east.


Needless to say, after the worldwide success of the story, Hideo Nakata, the director of Ring has been busy ever since. His other horror stories include Dark Water, Death Note and most recently Kaidan. He directed the American sequel The Ring Two and is currectly lined up for The Ring Three, according to IMDB. His earlier movie ghost stories are interesting, but not scary - Don't Look Up (Ghost Actress) and Curse, Death & Spirit.

Presumably Nanako Matsushima, who played Reiko, wanted to distance herself from horror after this. Hiroyuki Sanada, who played Ryuji, has also kept a high profile rather than a low-budget horror one. He starred in the excellent drama The Twilight Samurai, and has appeared in US films The Last Samurai and Speed Racer.

Ring was initially released by Tartan in the UK with poorly legible subtitles from a weaving, scratched print. It's since been remastered in the UK, but only in a boxset of all three Japanese Ring films, plus Hideo Nakata's non-essential, non-horror, children's film Sleeping Bride. The film is singly available in the US as Ringu, and in a boxset with the two Japanese sequels as Ringu: Anthology of Terror.


I'm currently exploring all of the films in Ring mythology - the overview, and links to other Ring sites and reviews, is all here.

November 21, 2008

RING - ten years of the J-horror phenomenon


2008 marks the tenth anniversary of the J-horror phenomenon.

OK, it should have really been a little earlier in the year. January 31st, 1998 was when Ring first hit cinemas and became the most successful Japanese horror film. It started off my enthusiasm for Japanese horror films and reignited a love of being frightened. In London, Ring returned for a Halloween run at the ICA cinema, a longtime haven for Japanese cinema.

For me, it should have been the first review on this blog, and not the 350th. The original books about Sadako and the Ring curse have lead to many film and TV adaptions, and they’re still being made. At the moment a third US film is being planned. Ring is simply dormant, waiting to re-emerge...

Ring inspired the name of this blog, the black hole refers to looking down the scary well. I always write about the films in the Black Hole soon after I’ve watched them, and I haven’t rewatched Ring since I began writing here, so its appearance is resultingly overdue
.

Back in 1999 my interest in horror films had been overtaken by Japanese monster movies. I’d not had a good scare in ages and actually thought that I’d seen it all and they couldn’t scare me anymore. Sure, movies could still make me jump or wince, but my favourite horror movie thrill is skin-crawling terror. Anyhow, I was in London’s Chinatown scouring the VideoCDs (the predecessor to DVD). It was a cheap option of getting hold of Japanese films and TV without paying $60 a pop for Japanese laserdiscs. They were also more likely to have English subtitles on them.

My first Ring video - a Hong Kong VideoCD

Occasionally I’d find a Godzilla movie, sometimes a good anime, but usually it was episodes of Ultraman (Tiga or Dyna). But this one day, I saw a cover with this huge scary eye peeking through ratty strands of long black hair. Was it a film, TV, rock videos? The writing on it was all in Chinese. I asked the owner of the shop what it was. In cracked English I got “You like scary movies? This very scary. From Japan. Very big. There are three.” A Japanese horror film that already had two sequels and I knew nothing about it? She only had the first two for sale, the third was yet to be released. What I’d found was Ring and Rasen, its first sequel, misleadly labelled as Ring 2.


Free Sadako stickers with the Ring VCD!

I watched it at home, late at night. There were no English subtitles. But the camerawork was spooky, the music was creepy and the climax made my skin crawl with terror. Bingo! A horror movie that actually horrified. So began my long, extensive descent into J-horror.

Watching Rasen, otherwise known as Spiral, I was more clued in on the events of Ring. There wasn’t much about it on the net, nothing in English at first. Like the characters in the film, the more facts that were uncovered, the more horrible the story became.

Ring became a big subject for me, huge. Besides trying to understand what actually happens in the stories, much of the actual horror is implied, it's taken me until now to track down all the different Japanese versions. I've also been trying to keep track of the other scary movies from Japan, earlier horror films, Korean horrors, Thai…

It's since influenced many, many films, but I’d like to look at how the original story of Ring grew - originally filmed many different ways in a short period of time.


It started in 1991. The story of Sadako was first told in three novels by Koji Suzuki, Ring, Spiral and Loop. Thankfully all have now been translated, together with Birthday, a collection of short stories. Like Dracula and Frankenstein, the movies then added to the mythology and assured their success. The many adaptions have mutated the story, much like Chinese whispers or an urban legend.


Before Hideo Nakata’s 1998 runaway hit film, the story had already been made into a TV movie, usually refered to as Ring: Kanzenban (1995), which had been shown in Japan without a hint that the story would later become a success. The cinema version was released in Japanese cinemas in 1998, as a double-bill with Rasen, an adaption of Suzuki’s second book, Spiral. But while Ring became a worldwide phenomenon, Rasen was quickly forgotten, even though it continued the story.

By the time Ring had been released in a few UK cinemas in 2000, there had already been two more Japanese movie sequels, Ring 2 and Ring 0: Birthday, plus a remake in South Korea, Ring Virus (1999). Japan had also made two TV series, loosely based on Ring and Spiral! The UK then got a subtitled DVD release in 2001.

Later still, Gore Verbinski’s remake The Ring was released in the US in 2002. It wasn’t until 2003 that the original Japanese version was officially released on DVD in the US. A five year delay. Hideo Nakata himself directed the US sequel, The Ring Two, and is currently involved in The Ring Three which is reportedly in production now.

Like I said, it’s a big subject. The many interpretations change elements of the story, like Sadako's fate, and who her father is. Other elements remain the same, like the video curse - a subplot so potent, it’s almost become an actual urban legend.


Every element of Ring has been copied by other horror movies, trying to catch similar success. But none of the constituent parts, or even any creative talent, can guarantee a hit. The director doesn’t frighten me with his other ghost movies, Ring 2 being the exception. Having a ghost with long black hair doesn’t make your film a hit – and there’s been dozens of those…


So, I’m going to start reviewing each film and series. One character. 7 films, 25 TV episodes...

RING: KANZENBAN - the TV movie (1995)

RING (1998)
RASEN aka SPIRAL (1998)
RING 2 (1999)
RING 0: BIRTHDAY (2000)

RING – the TV series (1999)
RASEN – the TV series (1999)

RING VIRUS - South Korean remake (1999)

THE RING - US remake (2002)
THE RING 2 - US sequel (2005)



More Sadako info...


The Ring Cycle - an alternate look and another welcome Japan forum.

Very informative, especially about Ring's western horror inspirations - Denis Meikle's marvellous Ring Companion guidebook.

November 16, 2008

THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967) - atmospheric thriller - now on DVD



THE SHUTTERED ROOM
(1967, UK/USA)

Very sixties, not very Lovecrafty, but a little Straw Doggy

As part of a short thread on early H.P. Lovecraft movies, I revisited this movie last year. This has been a favourite of mine ever since I got a special dispensation from my parents to stay up late to watch horror films on TV in the mid 1970’s. But despite my nostalgia, I’d say it’s still holding up strongly.

The Shuttered Room takes its name from H.P. Lovecraft, but is really only a distant relation, based on one of the ‘joint’ stories that August Derleth wrote from Lovecraft’s unfinished notes after his death. Though there are namechecks of Lovecraft favourites 'Dunwich' and 'Whately', there are few other nods to its origins. But once we’re past the disappointment that it's not very H.P. Lovecrafty, which is how most people discover the film, it’s still a strong and original horror thriller.
Sarah (Carol Lynley) brings her husband to visit her childhood home on a remote island. Even though the Old Mill is legally hers, the islanders try and warn her away, saying that the building is cursed, and anyone who goes in there is savagely attacked by a demon… But because Sarah is young and attractive, some of the young men, including her cousin (Oliver Reed) don’t mind if she stays a little longer. If only her husband (Gig Young) wasn’t around… The hostile, closed community of the island, and their menacing treatment of outsiders is a weighty subplot to the story of the thing in the attic.





Watching it again, the film strongly reminded me of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) with it’s central theme of the threat of sexual assault in a remote village. Also shot in the UK with an American lead, Straw Dogs caused a storm of controversy with it’s heavy-handed use of sexual violence.

B
ut The Shuttered Room isn't nearly as sexually obsessed as Straw Dogs, with most of the action serving the story. That's not to say that there isn't any gratuitous violence, or that Oliver Reed isn't gratuitously filling out his exceedingly tight blue jeans with a rolled up sock. Seeing it again, the film made a very strong impression as experimental in many ways. The cast is fifty percent of the film’s success. The music, location and photography makes up the rest. 



The beautiful Carol Lynley appeared in much American TV but not many films - but it was always a treat when she appeared. To me, her best roles were as damsels in distress, as also seen in The Night Stalker pilot movie, The Helicopter Spies (a Man From UNCLE movie) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

The camera just has to point at her, wandering around with the sun in her hair, and movie magic is happening. Her performance occasionally shows a little strain, especially when she’s under duress. But that’s understandable because she’s on a set with Oliver Reed on heat.



She seems almost too young to be playing Gig Young’s wife – there’s more than a touch of Baby Doll about her look - but the two work well together. Young shows a genuine rapport with Lynley, defending her with what looks like karate, as he convincingly tackles the local bullies head on.


Gig Young’s screen career peaked shortly afterwards with an Oscar win for They Shoot Horses Don’t They? playing an alcoholic, which wasn't much of a stretch for an actor actually in decline. Even in one of his last roles, as Robert Culp’s dapper sidekick in Spectre (1977), his performance was likeable and witty. Sadly, he committed suicide the year after.

Oliver Reed was still playing mostly supporting roles in 1967, his confidence severely knocked by the extensive scarring to his face from a pub brawl (he had been ‘glassed’). With his popularity rising, this was the last horror film he had to appear in until Burnt Offerings. That is, of course, if you don’t include the films of Ken Russell, like his barnstorming performance in The Devils. One possible distraction here could be Reed’s American accent, which sounds okay, but it’s not for me to say. Yes, although the film is shot in England, it’s supposed to be set in Lovecraft’s usual New England. Many of the supporting British actors do their best accents, but it also looks very English. 

After a pre-credit sequence that makes you think you’re going to get a traditional horror film (something ghastly living in the attic), the title sequence takes you somewhere else. With constantly crossfading shots of Lynley's face shot through the reflections on a car windscreen. Together with Basil Kirchin’s freewheeling jazz score – the effect is quite ethereal. Besides the jazz cues, Kirchin also delivers some brooding menace with the familiar ‘bass string plucking’ that added menace to his score for The Abominable Dr Phibes.

The photography includes some expert handheld work, back when the camera was only handheld when it was someone’s (or something’s) point-of-view. The use of extremely wide-angle lenses, together with the fast moving camera, make for some dizzying views.




With extensive location work, cinematographer Ken Hodges takes the opportunities to connect Carol Lynley with the countryside where she grew up, fleshing out the plot by suggesting her strong ties with her family house, just by showing her hanging around.

The 'Old Mill' was an actual millhouse near Norwich in south-east England. It was a huge, fantastic-looking building, the type of architecture that lingers in nightmares. Similarly, the lighthouse (see below) also looks like a character in the film. There’s an
amazing watermill website that chronicles the old mill's history and even has behind-the-scenes shots of the film being made, though it does contain photos of a major plot SPOILER!



UPDATE, November 2013:

The lighthouse seen in the film (pictured above, as the home of Flora Robson's character) recently went on sale as part of an estate. There are several lighthouses in South Foreland, but this particular one is called the Lower South Foreland Lighthouse. More photos and details here on The Steeple Times.




Released on DVD in 2008, on a double-bill with the Roddy McDowall golem horror IT! (1967),  this was the first ever release of The Shuttered Room in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen.

Avoid any alternate version of the film going under the title Blood Island (an old US VHS release), because it’s been edited down to a much shorter running time.




November 15, 2008

LE MAGNIFIQUE (1973) super spy spoof... with splatter!

LE MAGNIFIQUE
or HOW TO DESTROY THE REPUTATION OF THE GREATEST SECRET AGENT
(1973, France/Italy)


I was and am a fan of the pulp novels of Doc Savage - Kenneth Robeson's 200-novel odyssey. I was and am a fan of the films of George Pal - having been awed and amazed by The Time Machine (1960), War of the Worlds (1953) and When Worlds Collide (1950) on TV in the 1970s. So when Doc Savage - The Man of Bronze was released, produced by Pal, I had to see it! (I'm talking London, in 1975.)

Astutely tuned in to the tongue-in-cheek nature of this whiter-than-white hero movie, the British distributor paired the film with this French spoof of James Bond movies. I’d seen the star, Jean-Paul Belmondo in thrillers on TV (like The Burglars) and knew that he was an actor who performed many of his own stunts, from library books on the history of stuntwork. It was because of Belmondo’s range as a both a dramatic actor and a comedian, a glamorous star and a stuntman, that made him huge in France and even some of his movies were even dubbed for international release.

Le Magnifique, ambitiously retitled How To Destroy the Reputation of the Greatest Secret Agent, is a real treat - there's nothing else like it. Besides spoofing the smugness of the Bond image (the guy's so vain he carries a comb in his swimsuit), the gadgets, the casual violence, the way he woos women… it’s also one of those films that shows the fictional creation at the mercy of its author - as we cut from super-smooth Bob Saint-Clair enjoying the sun (and Jacqueline Bisset), to the struggling writer Francois in his tiny Paris apartment, trapped only by pouring rain. His alter-ego can shoot four men out of a tree with a single bullet, while he can’t even get his electricity fixed. But as a hapless author, at least he can write the people he hates into his story, and then despatch them however he likes.


Like Billy Liar (1963), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and Tarsem Singh's The Fall (2006), we watch the fantasist and the fantasy. The characters’ stories start to run a close parallel as we discover that the heroine of his latest book is also his upstairs neighbour. But will she be as impressed with a middle-aged hack in a cardigan...

The story is a delight, the many scenes of Bond spoofs are spectacular, funny and astonishingly bloody, as director Philippe de Broca also targets Sam Peckinpah’s exaggerated slow-motion death scenes. These were obviously heavily cut in the cinema, to suit a children’s double-bill, but the DVD has everything intact, including a head shot that pre-dates Scanners… The excessively bloody take on the Odessa Steps scene from Battleship Potemkin has to be seen to be believed…

The comedy sub-plot of the author vs his boss is quite broad, as is the depiction of 'pulp novels versus literature' subplot, from a time when even paperbacks were frowned upon. But it's very different from the movie spoofs which happily cashed in with their version of Bond (like the Derek Flint and Matt Helm films) rather than this very savage lampoon on spies and movie violence.

There’s even a gag that reappeared in Top Secret (1984), of someone crushed in a car into a metal cube, but still alive. Top Secret takes it further (a spoof spoofing a spoof?) but Le Magnifique has a car-crusher built into the back of a lorry! Impressive, if such a vehicle really existed.


Lobby card image from the Cinedelica website

Belmondo is superb, looking the part of a super-sexy super-spy, as well as the author struggling with his deadlines and smoker's cough. I’d love to see more of his thrillers and comedies – of course, he’s still acting today. As is Jacqueline Bisset, who was soon to be mega-famous as eye candy in danger in The Deep. She'd already been in the notable Airport, Truffaut's Day For Night and Bullitt.


An international cast in a French/Italian co-production ineviatbly means that there's no version of this film where one of the major characters isn’t dubbed! Much like the spaghetti westerns. Belmondo talks French, Bisset English and Vittorio Caprioli (as his bullying boss) is Italian. The French DVD, from Studio Canal, has a choice of English or French audio, and though I’m not a fan of dubbing, the English dub is still very funny, Bisset’s voice is her own, and the actor voicing Belmondo is a treat.

Inevitably, Doc Savage couldn't really match the antics of Bob Saint-Clair, but it was certainly a top-value double-bill.


I’d still like to see the film in French, but only the out-of-print American DVD from Image Entertainment, had subtitles for the French audio version. If you just want the English dub, all of the current European DVD releases appear to include it.

Respect also for Claude Bolling's witty soundtrack, which was released on CD in Italy a few years ago.

For a taster, the French trailer is currently on YouTube...





November 13, 2008

DVD UPDATES - region 2 releases

I was annoyed that Dario Argento's DVD debut of Profondo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975) from Anchor Bay, was a latter day 'Director's Cut' with English and Italian scenes mixed together - like one restoration of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. For years I'd enjoying each version separately, albeit squeezed onto VHS and differently censored. Now a Scandinavian release has both versions in the same set on two discs. Should be ideal, so I'll be getting a copy soon. Scandinavia is PAL and region 2.


I really enjoyed the 2004 Japanese girl-power comedy Kamikaze Girls (reviewed here) and am looking forward to Memories of Matsuko from the same director. Both films should be coming to the UK early in 2009, released by Third Window Films. Thanks to 24 frames per second for the news - and why not check out his newly revamped site?


Not for the faint-hearted, Wes Craven's 1972 Last House on the Left (reviewed here) has an Ultimate Edition 3-DVD set out in the UK, from Metrodome, including previously unseen scenes and a new cut. The third disc includes the excellent 2006 genre overview Going to Pieces - The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film feature-length documentary (reviewed here).

Lastly, belatedly, I really like the artwork for the UK release of the 1970 Brit psycho-thriller And Soon The Darkness (reviewed here), released by Optimum Home Entertainment.

THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) - a giant among disaster movies


THE TOWERING INFERNO
(1974, USA)

During my Earthquake review, I hinted that The Towering Inferno was the mother of all disaster movies, certainly in the seventies cycle. It was exciting to see this in the cinema in 1975 (the UK got most films about six months later than the US), and it still stands up very well today - not something you can say of all Irwin Allen's movie productions. The non-CGI stuntwork and big-name cast is hard to beat. I’d finally got it on anamorphic widescreen DVD earlier this year, and Paul Newman's recent passing prompted me to finally watch it.

Most disaster movies can only be enjoyed with more suspension of disbelief than usual – how often do ocean liners capsize, how often do bees attack? But skyscraper fires are all too plausible – though I admit that at the time, I thought it was another over-the-top impossible Hollywood fantasy. Watching it now, it’s hard not to think of 9/11. When the World Trade Center was on fire, I was naively expecting all the rescue attempts that I’d seen in The Towering Inferno to be rolled out. I wondered why the nearby helicopter rides weren’t airlifting people off the roof. It’s beyond ironic that the filmmakers had the newly-built Twin Towers in mind when making The Towering Inferno. The film was intended as entertainment, but also acted as a vivid reminder of the dangers on the inadequacy of tall building fire regulations and building standards.


Although it now reminds me of the tragic end of the Twin Towers, the film rises to this retrospective challenge and still holds up today, showing the realities of big fires, and depicting the fire department’s heroism. Admittedly, there are a few too many explosions to pump up the visual excitement, but for Irwin Allen this is restrained. From the promotional films (available on the second disc of the special edition) and the garish gory pre-production art of various overly inventive death scenes, one can only presume that other producers and saner heads managed to tone down the bodycount in favour of good taste.


When starting work on the movie, one of those periodic Hollywood coincidences cropped up - two film studios had the same idea at the same time. In fact, two studios had bought books about skyscraper fires, The Glass Inferno and The Tower. With the WTC newly up, this was not an uncommon worry in America, or even worldwide at the time. The studios, for once, combined efforts and scripts to make one huge movie. One wonders why they haven’t done it since - with the various Robin Hood, Christopher Columbus, meteor’s hitting Earth, head-to-head box office clashes.

Inferno is the best of the disaster movies, with the great cast, grand scale, and a tight story delivering continuing logical peril, and a quite terrifying situation. Faulty wiring sabotages the opening ceremony of the tallest skyscraper in the world. As the guests celebrate in a party at the top of the tower, little do they realise that a fire halfway up the building is closing in on them. As the fire department works slowly up the building, various risky rescue methods are needed to try and get everyone out – including the architect, the Mayor. With so many characters, the story takes a while to tell, but the time flies by. In the cinema, this even had a half-time intermission.


It’s a very special cast, with the late Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and William Holden all expecting top billing. Faye Dunaway (The Eyes of Laura Mars, Network, Bonnie and Clyde) adds frosty sex appeal and additional suspense as she tries not to pop out of her evening dress. Wrinkly but still perky, dancer Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones (A Portrait of Jennie) are the token oldies. Richard Chamberlain (Dr Kildare, The Three Musketeers), Robert Wagner (The Pink Panther) and Robert Vaughn (The Man From UNCLE) are the younger things. O.J. Simpson (Capricorn One) plays the head of security.

McQueen chose the fire chief role thinking it was the best part, but he spends all his time dashing around, ridiculously doing all the toughest rescues himself, reminiscent of T.J. Hooker ignoring all his younger staff. I remember his (very brief) swearing in the film was new to family certificated films back then. Paul Newman gets far more acting time and comes off as a more real and likeable character.


The fire-fighting scenes look genuinely dangerous, setting a high standard of spectacle and stuntwork unequalled until Backdraft came along in 1991. The superb 100-foot high model looks all the more spectacular for largely being shot at night, as does the back-projection and compositing work. Even the model helicopters smoothly intercut with the real thing. The gigantic and fully-functional sets put the money up on the screen. The streets of San Francisco take a pounding from having dozens of fire tenders speeding to the rescue.

British director John Guillerman directed the non-action sequences – getting sobering and dramatic performances out of a great cast. This is one disaster movie that doesn't feel padded out with melodrama. The film's success must have lead to Guillerman being invited to make another event movie - the remake of King Kong (1976).


There's an early pre-Jaws score from John Williams, illustrating how much of his early career was with Irwin Allen - from the theme tunes for TV shows like Lost In Space and Land of the Giants, and into the big time movies with this and The Poseidon Adventure, all produced by Allen. The album was my first of many Williams soundtracks, though naturally it was on vinyl. The score was expanded and released on CD back in 2001, but is out of print now.

Last year, we took time to visit the Bank of America building in San Francisco, used as the main shooting location in the film, as the entrance plaza to 'The Glass Tower'. Unfortunately, nowadays the public aren't allowed inside. However, the suspenseful glass elevator scene was inspired by the wall-hugging elevators at the nearby Hyatt Regency. The spectacular hotel lobby, and its elevators, briefly appear in the film and are well worth a visit. It also served as a pivotal location in Mel Brooks' High Anxiety.

I watched The Towering Inferno on the region 1 DVD special edition (pictured at the top), which includes a second disc full of original promotional featurettes and a very interesting gossipy TV special about the making of the film and the on set clash of personalities of the mega-cast.


I'll also mention the DVD of The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen as an excellent documentary career overview of all his iconic films and TV shows, full of rare footage and insightful interviews. But "Danger, danger", it might make you buy a lot of DVD boxsets...

There's more about Irwin Allen here, and a huge marvellous site dedicated to The Towering Inferno here.