January 29, 2011

THE BRIDGE (2006) - suicide is painful

(2006, UK/USA)

The Bridge begins with an extended montage of scenic views of San Francisco's beautiful Golden Gate bridge and the people who enjoy it. Driving over, walking over, sailing under or just enjoying the view. But then one of these 'scenic views' captures someone ending their life. And one of the many people walking across stops, gets over the railing and jumps. After that, it's compelling to watch and listen very intently, horrified by what might happen, while listening to the possible reasons that these people ended it all.

Certainly not a subject for everyone to want to watch, but an insightful, fascinating, carefully structured and tense documentary.

Director Eric Steel filmed the bridge for a year, shooting with long lenses from up to a mile away. He, like the bridge authorities, were on the lookout for potential suicides, preventing them whenever there was enough time. But as you see in the film, it can only take a few seconds to get over the barrier and over the edge.

The film recounts stories from the two dozen fatal leaps that happened over the year. It struggles with the reasons that people pick the bridge, especially when the 25-storey drop into the water isn't a surefire or painless way to die. One of the 'jumpers' even survives. His interview providing insight into what makes anyone contemplate and attempt what should have been suicide.

Families, friends and passers-by can only guess what finally pushed these souls to climb over the edge, describing how there can be few warning signs from even the most desperate. But with each new story, you never know which of the many possible outcomes it'll lead to.

Afterwards, I remembered one of the most famous San Francisco movies, Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), had a suicide scene by the bridge. But that was a thriller, a dark fantasy. I'd never considered this wonder of the modern world to be a real suicide spot.

While the startling footage of actual suicides is the kind of mondo video clip that's specifically hunted down online, this film is very different because it provides so much context. Backstory, aftermath and implication. This is all provided from interviews, and not dictated through captions or voiceovers.

The Bridge is a valuable and astonishing film for talking at length about suicide and the widespread problem of serious mental illness.

The original 2003 New Yorker article 'Jumpers' is here.

January 25, 2011

THE GREEN SLIME... finally on widescreen DVD!

(1968, Japan/USA/Australia)

Greeeen Sliiiiiiiiime!

There was something of a geek-frenzy when this debuted on DVD last year, so I'm sure you know about this already. But I couldn't not have Green Slime somewhere on these pages.

A one-eyed, tentacled monstrosity unafraid of a spaceman's raygun. Even as a black and white photo in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, this was already one of my favourite movie monsters. But it was twenty years before I saw it in action on a Turner movie channel. It's been another fifteen years before this widescreen DVD release from Warner Archive. I think they've been surprised at quite how popular the response has been to this nutty monster movie, proving there's gold in them thar archives...

The story predates several familiar sci-fi action films. A space probe lands on a distant asteroid and unwittingly picks up a parasite that multiplies tribble-like when the probe docks in Earth orbit with a military space station, (the flimsy-looking Gamma 3). As the aliens' number increases, the space soldiers have to fight this bizarre deadly menace both inside and outside the satellite station...

The Green Slime begins by scampering through the plot of Armageddon (1998) in under thirty minutes - with a desperate mission to save Earth by landing on the asteroid to plant explosives.

The story then morphs into Alien as one of the demolition crew unwittingly picks up a strange slimy lifeform. It then shifts into Aliens as the soldiers have to tackle the multiplying threat in their orbiting base.

Originally an adult-only 'X' certificate in the UK, there's little here that would scare the average Doctor Who fan, but its generous with bloody make-up jobs and close-up electrocutions. It's the super-serious acting when faced with rubber monsters and furious pacing helps make this so enjoyable.

The aliens' blood is dangerous, as are their electric tentacles, but these monsters often look far less threatening than their publicity photos as they casually stomp around.

The tempo of the soundtrack rarely accelerates beyond weird space atmospherics - a fast-paced action theme would really have helped the frantic (and bizarre) outer space battle. The most memorable music is of course the blistering acid rock theme, belting out the immortal chorus "Greeeeeen Sliiiiiime".

This was an unusual Japanese/American hybrid production, with a solely western cast (the only Japanese actors are inside the monster suits). Richard Jaeckel (Grizzly) and Robert Horton are a treat to watch, butting heads over Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball) who has little to do besides add a ton of glamour. While Jaeckal adds gutsy realism to his heroics, Robert Horton plays an incredibly bullish commander, consistently and unpleasantly pulling rank.

With no Japanese actors, and substandard model work (the space rockets, satellites and launchpad all look tiny), there's really little to betray that this was filmed in Japan. Made by Toei Studios, the director was no less than the Kinji Fukasaku - the genius who gave us Battle Royale (2000).

The Green Slime has been available widescreen on laserdisc and DVD in Japan, but the Japanese version was 15 minutes shorter than the US, Japan opting to prune back the dialogue scenes to keep the action moving. Added to this, the Japanese home video releases didn't have English subtitles or language tracks, despite totally being filmed in English.

Released at the end of 2010,
the new Warner Archive DVD (pictured at the top) is special for being digitally remastered, and for making the 2.35 widescreen of the US cut finally available. For years, The Green Slime has been seen on TV (and VHS) as a cramped 1.33 pan-and-scan version, making the space battle climax a confusing mess. Well, even more of a confusing mess.

I'm still a little nervous about shelling out full price for a DVD-R. Hopefully Warner Archive's best-sellers will eventually get normal factory-pressed DVD releases. Maybe even special editions? But for now, I'm just thankful it's been remastered, and I had the chance to see it properly.

If the trailer doesn't make you want to see it, you're already slimed...

January 21, 2011

Three flies in wide aspect - CURSE OF, RETURN OF, THE FLY (1958)

A very watchable trilogy, the first three films of The Fly...

David Cronenberg's infamous 'body horror' The Fly inspired vomiting over your food and a sequel, The Fly II. They revolve around unlucky experiments with a teleportation device. Like any brand new scientific device in a horror film, there are only the worst possible results. Especially when two lifeforms are accidentally transmitted together, and merge...

Nearly thirty years earlier, the original film spawned two sequels. All of them released before the Star Trek crew started their own catalogue of transporter malfunctions.

(1958, USA)

The Fly wasn't the first ever tale of teleportation, but it certainly brought the concept into the public's imagination, first as a short story, then as a hit film starring Vincent Price. Famous for a grisly opening sequence, where a woman squashes her husband in a mechanical press. The mystery being, why she did it twice...

The brother of the dead scientist tries to find out why she would kill, and if she should be executed for murder. As her story unfolds, it could be that she's completely mad. She claims Delambre was experimenting with a matter transmitter in the basement. Starting with crockery and family pets, he decided to test the machine on a human subject. If only there hadn't been a fly in the laboratory that day...

Filmed in vivid Technicolor (especially effective for gratuitous blood smears and the purple neon equipment in the lab) and 2.35 Cinemascope, both unusual for 1950s' sci-fi, this is a mad treat from over fifty years ago.

Strangely, Vincent doesn't play the mad scientist, instead it's the role of sympathetic detective. This was just before his image was totally synonymous with horror and villainy in a stream of William Castle and Roger Corman horror films. Price often told the tale about how he and Herbert Marshall had immense trouble taking the film's closing scene seriously. Horror with a Mickey Mouse voice...

David Hedison is the scientist, also making a creditable romantic lead. But despite an action role in The Lost World (1960) remake, he found lasting fame through TV, as Captain Crane in four years of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. He was also the first actor to play James Bond's American contact, Felix Leiter, more than once (in Live and Let Die and Licence to Kill).

(1959, USA)

Again in 2.35 widescreen but not in colour, the sombre grey palette adds to the depressive and more violent atmosphere of this sequel. Thankfully, Vincent Price is back, the only original cast member to return.

Return of the Fly
begins with a dirty Alien 3 trick, killing off a likeable character that survived the previous film. Downer. It's 15 years later and Delambre's son is continuing his experiments to commemorate his father's work. Understandably, he's still very nervous about flies, an obsession that will threaten his life when an industrial spy wants to steal the discovery.

The sequel delivers more of the same head-swapping thrills, but adds new twists and new animals. There's more of the fly monster, now with an impressively larger head, but there's little life in the mask. Gone are the twitchy mouth and nervously darting head moves. It looks fantastic in publicity photos though.

The memorable moments of the original are replaced by a higher body count, and it's fun to watch new ways that matter transmission can go horribly wrong. Some of the optical work used to create new 'hybrid' visual effects is both simplistic and utterly bizarre.

(1965, UK)

Shot in Britain, the second sequel adds three more mad scientists to the Delambre family. Again it's 2.35 widescreen and black and white, and the experiments are going more and more wrong.

Curse also belongs to the genre of 'the heroine is recovering from a nervous breakdown in a creepy house where everyone is lying to her'. Patricia (Carole Gray) breaks out of an asylum, in her underwear, in slow motion. Subtle. As bad luck would have it, she runs into a handsome young Delambre (George Baker) who marries her and takes her back to his large creepy house. There he tries to keep her from discovering his work, as he experiments in transmitting people long-distance between Canada and England. But she has secrets of her own...

As Patricia sneaks around the old creepy house, she discovers the depths that scientists will sink to in order to succeed. The proof lies out back, behind four doors. Four experiments that went very wrong...

While there are no weird animal hybrids in this instalment, flies included, the teleporter has a new slew of nasty side-effects. One disaster is almost Cronenbergian, and a close-up of that monstrosity has noticeably been removed from this British print (on the UK release DVD).

There's a meandering and confusing start, in a Canada that looks like West London, with Canadians that sound like Brits, and a Delambre family tree that doesn't quite hook up to the previous stories.

While the plot is scatty, the special make-up work is effective, mostly variations of melted flesh. Brian Donlevy gives a remarkable performance as a bullying, headstrong inventor, intent on results at absolutely any cost. Remarkable partly because he slurs his lines and staggers about, almost certainly drunk on duty. Donlevy was in a far better state as the first movie Quatermass in Hammer Film's first two film adaptions.

Playing his son is a young George Baker, who later had a key part in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) in which he dubbed George Lazenby's voice as he impersonated a very English heraldry expert to infiltrate Blofeld's mountaintop lair. Despite a dodgy North American accent, Baker continually makes his character sympathetic, despite the most outrageous lies to his new bride, and his dedication to bad science. The Delambres' crimes against humanity are some of the worst I've seen since Frankenstein did volunteer work in a hospital...

As his new wife, Carole Gray has the hardest job, being scared, naive and confused for most of the story. Her acting career was very short, despite her skill and tremendous appeal. She appears here between The Young Ones opposite Cliff Richard, and Island of Terror opposite Edward Judd and bone-sucking silicate monsters. I can't honestly decide which is the more terrifying.

I watched the US region 1 double-bill DVD of The Fly and Return of the Fly. Both widescreen transfers are anamorphic 2.35 widescreen and it includes both trailers.

Curse of the Fly was first released on DVD in the UK in 2006, as a bare bones' edition without even a trailer. But it was the DVD debut for the film in widescreen.

The latest release in the US has all three films as 'The Fly Collection', which adds a commentary track from David Hedison to the first film, and an extra DVD of documentary material. Full details and great screengrabs here at DVD Beaver.

January 19, 2011

A new way to watch new Japanese horror films

I like to plug movies rather than companies, but this brand new label is specialising in recent Japanese cinema, including horror films. I'm still a big fan of J-horror and it was always frustrating to hear about new films coming out in Japan, only to have to wait four or five years for a US or UK distributor to release it on DVD with the all-important English subtitles.

Japan Flix have the potential to be faster in making translated J-horror films available, and have some from 2009. Their label may also signpost the future of home viewing - the films will initially only be available to either watch online, or buy from iTunes in HD. An American firm, they hope to expand into the UK.

What immediately caught my eye was the debut of the latest in the Tomie series,
Tomie vs Tomie (reviewed here) (made in 2007, also called Tomie x Tomie) which hasn't been available in the US before. It's on Japan flix here. While low-budget, it's one of the better sequels. It's not good news that Robogeisha director Noboru Iguchi is hoping to make the next Tomie instalment.

Japan Flix also have two new horror films directed by Koji Shiraishi, who last year caused controversy when his extreme Grotesque was banned in the UK. When usually his horror films are the typically spooky Ring-like urban legends, like Noroi: The Curse and
Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (reviewed here).

In the same vein are his two Teke Teke films,
both available with Japan Flix. Shiraishi playing it safe with schoolgirls, urban legends, and a shot-on-video Tomie/Grudge vibe. The creepy killer creature scuttling around in the dark is effective, but the witless Scooby duo on its trail (above) make the detective work hard-going, even for a short film. Japan may still have a hundred urban legends, but it may have run out of inventive ones.

This tale is bloodier than most, the creature enjoys cutting its victims in half. I'm still interested in where the story goes next in Teke Teke 2.

Trailers for all their films are on the Japan Flix website.

January 18, 2011

TRON: LEGACY (2010) - a look back

Revisiting a place I've never been...

I'm continually fascinated with the way movies present us with places that never really existed, but we get to know so well it's as if we've been there. Many recognisable locations that appear in films can become enduring tourist spots, but some of our favourite places might only have existed for a few days.

Movies show us rooms that were only ever sets, and buildings that were only facades. Editing and visual effects weave them together into a convincing structure. But once filming is over, everything is destroyed or revamped. All that's left are the images that can live on in our imaginations and memories.

The Psycho films explored the Bates Mansion so thoroughly that I'm sure I could draw a good floorplan of the whole house. But it's not an actual house - the exterior has no recognisable interior.

Good production design can convince us that these places are real, even if they're in the future or the past. For example, the detailed sets in Blade Runner looked lived-in and totally functional. The same year I first saw that, I also saw Tron and kept going back to it through the years. In the story, Jeff Bridges' character has a home where he also works, Flynn's video arcade.

Watching Tron: Legacy, I was shaken by an unexpected return visit to this non-existent place. I got to see Flynn's again, 28 years later. The coin-op video game arcade (how I miss those early machines) was laid out the same way, but sadly covered in dustsheets.

Flynn's quarters overlooking the games room still had the same furniture in it. The sight of the corner couch actually hit me with a heavy pang of nostalgia. It was also under plastic sheets, but I was suddenly glad to see it again. The 3D experience in the cinema was similar to looking through a huge glassless window. A portal that had opened up again for a few minutes.

This attention to detail, and of course the casting of Bruce Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges as their original characters, is faithful to the continuity of the story, but also to those who remember the original Tron. It must be the longest gap there's been between a movie and a sequel. Long enough for producers to decide to scrub the past away and invent whole new characters for a sequel. It would also have been simpler to remake it. For an audience who were mostly new to the story it wouldn't matter.

But those of us who recognise the remainders of the original world of Tron, it was good to see it respected after all this time. After this early scene at Flynn's, knowing that Tron: Legacy hadn't discarded the original Tron, I was far more excited by it. More welcome. Without this new film, nobody would be talking about an old Disney movie that I thought had been forgotten. The characters, the designs, the concepts, the building. The old place has a new lease of life.

January 11, 2011

LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1989) - Hugh Grant vs the snake vampires

(1989, UK)

Cheeky horror spoof mixes Hammer with Carry On...

This is a lot of fun and doesn't take itself toooo seriously. Director
Ken Russell decorates the story with hints of history, if only to justify some outrageous dream-imagery, graphically pitting paganism against Christianity. He also mixes in vampirism, in a nod to Bram Stoker's far more famous novel, Dracula. One of the publicity stills shows a half-naked nun impaled on a stake, a reference to Vlad The Impaler, though I didn't spot it in the film. The legend of the D'Ampton worm, quoted in the film, is an actual English legend. Russell points out that an older derivation of the word 'worm' could also mean serpent or dragon, alluding to the British legend of St George.

All that backstory and a very impressive cave location should be enough for a good horror film, but Russell is more interested in the sex. Anyone familiar with
his other movies will be unsurprised. While Roman soldiers ravaging nuns looks more like a cheap spoof of The Devils, the antics of the sensual villain (Amanda Donohoe) are comparatively subtle. She's especially good at the serpentine double-entendres hinting at what's to come.

The minor amount of gore occasionally shocks and there's an good monster considering the budget. The climax is all the more impressive for being shot in forced perspective, sidestepping the need for obvious visual effects compositing.

Altered States (1980), Russell's trademark imagery is relegated to wild hallucinations, mixing up snakes, nuns and fire. These were realised using electronic bluescreen on video transferred to film. Derek Jarman also used this method for several of his later films. (Jarman also worked as production designer for Russell's The Devils). The visual texture is suitably different to the reality of the rest of the story.

Simply put, an archaeologist (Peter Capaldi) discovers a monstrous skull on the site of an old temple, on land owned by a local Lord (Hugh Grant). The discovery is of great interest to the mysterious Lady Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) and provides a clue in a string of local disappearances near a dangerously deep cavern...

Although tongue-in-cheek, some unintentional humour can be had from some of the 'northern' English accents on offer. Sammi Davis' accent is distracting and Catherine Oxenberg sounds like she's been completely redubbed, sabotaging much of her performance. She was the most famous cast member at the time, presumably chosen to stir up controversy in the newspapers. Oxenberg is related to British royalty, had played a Princess on Dynasty and even starred as Princess Diana in a US TV movie. Russell was playing with her Diana image by cheekily sexualising and terrifying her character.

Hugh Grant is effortlessly upper-class here, very early in his movie career, five years before his breakthrough hit Four Weddings and a Funeral. Not yet a buffoon, his character has far more steel than in later comedy roles.

Another young performer in the film who has since hit his stride is Peter Capaldi (seen here with Sammi Davis), the cruel backbone of In The Loop and The Thick of It, only known back then for his supporting role in Local Hero (1983).

It's a shame that Amanda Donohoe's sensational and memorable performance didn't keep her in higher profile roles. She enjoys the punny dialogue and doesn't overplay it. Before providing most of the outrageousness by running around completely naked, painted blue, sporting the hugest fangs this side of Fright Night. She'd again court controversy by giving American TV an early lesbian kiss in the hit series LA Law. Coincidentally, Donohoe and Oxenberg both recently appeared in Starship Troopers 3 (2008).

After Gothic (1986), Ken Russell made this as part of a three-picture deal for Vestron Pictures, along with Salome's Last Dance and The Rainbow (a prequel to his earlier hit, Women In Love). But this was the last time he was allowed a creative spurt in the cinema. The three films shared many of the same actors and even a few overlapping themes, worth viewing together as a very diverse trilogy.

After these, Russell only made one more film, Whore, before being tossed back into TV, and making video projects in his garage with friends and fans. At least there was The Girl With Golden Breasts, a suitably bizarre segment for the horror compendium Trapped Ashes (2006), which showed that his titular obsessions and humour are still rampant.

Russell's golden days of big budgets were the 1970s. His seriously horrific The Devils (1971) would have made The Exorcist (1973) look relatively tame had it been given a wide and uncut release. It continues to be controversial today, still missing from DVD
(review and more details here).

The Lair of the White Worm is fun as a comedy horror and a fair introduction to this uniquely cheeky director. The last time the film appeared in the UK was on VHS (at top), though it's been on DVD twice in the US, both times in anamorphic widescreen. My 1999 Pioneer Special Edition DVD also has an amusing and brash commentary track by the director.

There are other fans of the film out there - witness this screengrab-heavy review from
The House of Self-Indulgence.

The original release trailer is clumsy, unsubtle, full of spoilers and presented here in washed-out full-frame. The DVD looks much better than this...