May 27, 2011

DOCTOR BLOOD'S COFFIN (1961) - now on DVD


DOCTOR BLOOD'S COFFIN
(1961, UK)

Zombie or Frankenstein story? You decide...

I enjoy this more each time I see it. Originally sought out after seeing a spooky photo of a man fighting something moulderingly undead in Denis Gifford's Movie Monsters. Seeing it, at first on late-night TV, the story was disappointing in that the punchline doesn't appear sooner. But a recent less-cut version on TV added just enough to make this a low-budget b-movie nasty, with the spectacular Hazel Court sealing the deal for fans of sixties Brit horror.

A string of disappearances from a small village in Cornwall. The local police are stumped but we can easily guess what's going on, even though the assailant attacks from the shadows, the bloody title completely gives it away. Doctor Blood is up to no good.


Yes, it's Kieron Moore (he doesn't smile like this in the movie) who usually plays a shouty, grumpy, no-nonsense hero, more realistically cast as a shouty, grumpy, no-nonsense villain. (You're all wrong, I'm right, I can do what I like. To hell with medical ethics and human lives...)

Before even the opening titles, only thirty seconds pass before Kieron starts shouting. This isn't to say I don't find him watchable, this lack of charisma in a leading man is as unintentionally entertaining as it is a mystery. Here he's a serial murderer who radically experiments on his subjects while they're not only alive, but still awake! The clumsy storyline reveals his morally-bankrupt identity before he starts wooing the heroine. How are we supposed enjoy their romantic day out? It's not played as suspense, like Hitchcock would have done, but as a budding new relationship.


There's another amusing mis-step when one of the kidnapped spends a long twenty minutes clawing his way out of a subterranean surgery. The narrative keeps returning to the crawling character like a running gag - nope, still not getting anywhere. In addition, if this had been a Roger Corman flick, the abductees would be the scantily-clad daughters of the village, not a bunch of wheezy old extras.


The bad doctor is so focused on his 'work' that he doesn't even widen his hunting ground, leaving the police in a spin as to which kidnap victim they're supposed to be looking for. Also, anyone who gets in his way quickly winds up in Dr Blood's coffin. He never thinks through the details, like alibis. His trail of clues is clumsy and inefficient, much like his wooing.

The picturesque Cornish locations make a welcome change from Black Park and the suburbs of London and, despite the interiors being shot in Walton Studios, the sets all look authentic and blend in.


There's blood and even a little gore, which would have leapt off the screen in Eastmancolour at the time, presuming it wasn't snipped by the censor. The special make-up for the result of Blood's experiments (above) looks really very good, more convincing than anything that later appeared in Night of the Living Dead, and it was duly splashed across the publicity art.


To compensate for Kieron Moore's heartless lack of charisma, Hazel Court amply warms up the screen as Nurse (Nosey) Parker. The late actress is so utterly professional that she can answer the phone with, "Dr Blood's surgery", without a hint of camp or irony. Court appears here just after starring in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein and The Man Who Could Cheat Death, and just before a winning run of American horrors, appearing in three of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe cycle - The Premature Burial, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death.


Interesting to see future director Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now) rise from camera operator on Doctor Blood's Coffin, to director of photography on The Masque of the Red Death three years later. Visually there are a few interesting slants - low camera angles, deep focus, peeking through things and sometimes tilting the action (known as 'dutch angles'). Director Sidney J. Furie repeated and exaggerated this style for his best movie The Ipcress File (1965).

Dr Blood is one sick little bunny - you don't see everything he gets up to, but he's a sadistic, vengeful, oblivious fan of human experimentation. He's nastier and less likable than many of the movie Dr Frankensteins. His carelessness indicates he's more psychopathic than calculating. While the direction and script are slack, there's enough here to make it worth a look.


Update November 2011: MGM made-on-demand service have released it on DVD-R. Full review shortly! I'm certainly not recommending the Alpha Video release in the US. It has also recently aired on TCM and Netflix in the US.


This fantastic French poster is from sci-fi/horror poster site Wrong Side Of The Art.

An original movie trailer on YouTube...




May 22, 2011

VANISHING POINT (1971) - a high speed trip


VANISHING POINT
(1971, USA)

He's delivering a Dodge Challenger to San Francisco. The owner is gonna be pissed...

Barry Newman appeared in two very different action movies, both involving extended tyre-ripping car chases.  Fear Is The Key and Vanishing Point kept re-appearing in cinemas throughout the seventies as welcome supporting features and I was lucky enough to catch it on the rebound. Its images lodged in my subconscious, but I wasn't sure whether I'd still enjoy it 25 years later.

As a teenager I accepted many films at face value - either they were entertaining or they weren't. A movie that was one long car chase was certainly entertaining, Kowalski, the guy being chased by the police, was obviously the guy whose side I was on. I wasn't analysing it all for subtexts or reading any of the characters as metaphors for facets of society - a friendly biker, a madman in a sports car, a church of Jesus in the middle of the desert...


So what on Earth did I, as a young teenager, make of the drugs, the music and the naked girl on a motorbike? As far as I recall, I completely missed the drugs reference, enjoyed the music, and simply assumed that some people in the American deserts ride around naked. This was still a time when peaceful counter-cultures and hippy ideals were frequently presented in mainstream movies. The bikers, the music, and the mind-blown vibe helped teach me more about the anti-establishment than the establishment, and the wilds of Nevada looked like a better place than deepest, darkest suburbia.

But as a result, I didn't want to try drugs, drop out, live in the desert, get a bike or even drive a fast car, but I was certainly open to the laidback attitude and, well, just how friendly everyone could be. That is, except the racist rednecks, the police, and the villainous homosexuals. The positively bizarre gay characters are necessary for a plot point, but they don't need to be gay. They certainly don't need to wear pink shirts, act like nellies or carry handbags (give me a break). The celebrated documentary on gay representation in cinema, The Celluloid Closet, heavily criticised the scene. I can't wait to hear director Richard Sarafian talk about it on the commentary track...


Vanishing Point is an example of an 'arthouse' movie that can be exciting and entertaining. Could you get a wide release of a movie like this today? It's certainly 'of its time', an experimental story - an example of a road movie that you can join for the ride and see what happens.

The other comparable title that springs to my mind is Jack Cardiff's Girl On A Motorcycle, which is more like a travelogue. It also ducks out of the journey into multiple flashbacks to hint at the character's backstory. Vanishing Point improves on it in many ways, making it a high-speed chase rather than just a trip from a to b. It also looks like Barry Newman is actually driving, which Marianne Faithfull never did. It also removes the never-ending prose, as we hear her thoughts spelling out bloody everything.


I'm less familiar with Easy Rider, which Girl On A Motorcycle also predated. Easy Rider hasn't got the constant pursuit driving it, and the soundtrack wasn't as appealing to me. While it's easily the most famous of this 'genre', I'm more devoted to Vanishing Point and Electra Guide In Blue, which I'll revisit soon.

The music, the characters, the cinematography make this an experience, and of course there's the driving...


A regular component in car stuntwork in sixties and seventies cinema is Carey Loftin. He worked on this, Bullitt, Duel, The French Connection, Fear Is The Key, Grand Prix, Diamonds Are Forever, The Getaway and even The Love Bug. Wow. His specialty seems to be not just stuntwork, but really high speeds. The cars drive fast, there's no sneaky sped-up filming - what you see is what you get. Blistering handbrake turns, near misses, leaps, side bumping, chopper chases...


There are some spectacular wipeouts along the way but, A-Team style, there are no casualties. The police don't have much on Kowalski but they chase him to the state border anyway - like Smokey And The Bandit, literally on speed.


Barry Newman is Kowalski, a character sat halfway between straight society and a hippy commune. Strange that the actor should star in two movies then move back to TV for two seasons as a pro-active lawyer in Petrocelli. His blissed-out vacant look from behind the wheel is haunting. Also check him out as a tough guy in the action thriller Fear Is The Key (1972).


Kowalski is championed and guided by 'Super Soul', a blind DJ (Cleavon Little, before Blazing Saddles) who warns him about 'the blue meanies' over the radio. Theirs is the strongest, almost telepathic relationship in the story. If Little hadn't been an actor, he'd have been a storming DJ. In the rest of the cast, one of the nastier cops is played by Paul Koslo, who was also dependable 'Dutch' in The Omega Man, filmed the same year. In the desert, there's an almost unrecognisable Dean Jagger (the quasi-Quatermass of X-The Unknown).


On the soundtrack, among the country music names I didn't know, are Kim Carnes, Rita Coolidge and Burt Reynolds collaborator, the late Jerry Reed. This isn't my kind of music, but I still enjoy the soundtrack. Coincidentally, it's been recently released on CD from Harkit Records. The original vinyl front and back covers are shown above and below.


After watching the UK DVD (below), the sights, sounds and stunts have inspired me to upgrade to the blu-ray, which also offers the longer US cut which features Charlotte Rampling in the additional scenes. I'm also looking forward to the making-of documentary, and hearing the director's commentary track on the blu.


Here's an original trailer on YouTube (the DVD and blu-ray is presented in 1.85 widescreen)...


I'm not even going to mention the 1997 TV movie remake with Viggo Mortensen and Jason Priestley...

May 21, 2011

One Million Hits A.D.

This week Black Hole Reviews blogsite had it's millionth hit on the steady old Hit Counter (bottom of every page). To mark the occasion, and by way of a totally self-indulgent thank you to all visitors to these pages, here's something from my archives.

It's a scratch video to an obscure early-80s band called The Sleeping Lions. I used to edit bits of favourite films, recorded off TV, to new songs for a closed-circuit student TV station, to promote new music which I didn't have promo clips for.

This was really enjoyable, editing moving images to music - I didn't synch images to lyrics very much, usually just riffing on the title of the song. I'd edit two or three of these every week, but tried very hard to synchronise movements and edits to the music as often as possible, with non-frame-accurate equipment.

Edited on low-band u-matic and archived on trusty old VHS, this includes clips from TV showings of The Killer Elite, Moonraker, Rollerball, the first trailer for The Empire Strikes Back, preview clips of Blade Runner, Fantasia, and a making-of Raiders of the Lost Ark special effects documentary.

Bear in mind, this was made in February of 1983...


Thank you!

May 20, 2011

Woody Allen's early funny ones


My article about six of Woody Allen's earlier, funnier, practically slapstick comedies is up on the Park Circus blog. With his new one Midnight In Paris just premiered at Cannes, and a Blogathon kicking off today, hosted over at Cinema_Fanatic, it's a good time to enjoy a Woody.

Park Circus is an international sales and distribution company with a huge movie archive. Freelance writer Jonathan Melville invited me to contribute some appreciations of Park Circus' older classics as a guest blogger.

Follow the link for my overview of Casino Royale (1967), What's New Pussycat, Bananas, Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex, Love and Death and the sci-fi comedy Sleeper here on Park Circus.

May 15, 2011

ANIMA MUNDI (1992) - a short addition to KOYAANISQATSI


ANIMA MUNDI
(1992, USA)

Like a missing chapter from Koyaanisqaatsi, director Godfrey Reggio assembled this film from stock footage, again commissioning a soundtrack from Philip Glass and again angling for an underlying theme of the natural world against mankind. If you've enjoyed the 'qatsi trilogy', this closely follows their template.


Commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, (the original WWF), the remit was to present the diversity of animal life - ugly and beautiful, peaceful and aggressive, microscopic and huge. It's an intense montage of spectacular footage without any voiceovers or captions. In turns funny, eerie and astonishing, but with fewer surprises for anyone who watches a lot of animal documentaries, it's the music that makes this a hypnotic experience, despite its relatively short running time.


The repeated images of animals in close-up, staring straight at the camera, at the viewer, intercut with decimated rainforests, hits harder than the voiceovers that often wrap-up nature documentaries. After the smouldering levelled forest, we're face to face with a tiger or a chimpanzee. They look intelligent but helpless, weary of the destruction, patiently waiting for it to stop. Anima Mundi may best be watched as a support feature for Koyaanisqatsi.

Apparently this was only once released on DVD in 1998 (pictured at top), an all-region NTSC release with non-anamorphic 1.85:1 letterbox widescreen. The transfer isn't the highest quality, possibly only from an analogue source, and the compression is particularly poor for the first few shots of the film. But after that it's perfectly watchable and good enough to engross. But only 28 minutes long with no extras.


The best-known remnants from this project are two tracks from Philip Glass' score which were repeated in The Truman Show (1998), which also recycled cues from his Mishima (1985) and Powaqqatsi (1988) soundtracks.

My review of Koyaanisqatsi (1983) is here.

Notes on Anima Mundi on Philip Glass' website here.



May 14, 2011

I, MONSTER (1971) - Cushing and Lee do Jekyll and Hyde... in 3D


I, MONSTER
(1971, UK)

Amicus Studios try horror in 3D...

The title is presumably a pun on Roger Corman's I, Mobster, missing out on the opportunity to sell the movie as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in a classic horror tale, with Lee adding to his formidable gallery of monsters. Besides the veiled title, the central characters' names have been changed from Jekyll and Hyde (to Marlowe and Blake), but Robert Louis Stevenson still gets a screen credit - a strange case indeed.

Lee enjoys the dual role, but plays Dr Marlowe (Jekyll) as uptight and boring, whereas Fredric March and Spencer Tracy played the character as relaxed and normal. As Blake (Mr Hyde), his appearance degenerates, bordering on comical. Perhaps it's the nasty teeth or the nasty wig. The transformations are mostly cheated, either instantaneous or seen only as shadows. This is disappointing because it's the most anticipated part of the story. More interesting is a 'no-face' make-up (below in a scene not in the final cut) used only in a nightmare.


Peter Cushing is excellent as always, though he could easily have managed the reams of dialogue pointlessly handed over to non-actor Mike Raven (Crucible of Terror). Stephen Weeks was only 22 when he directed this, but made a much better job of the eccentric Ghost Story (1974), recently reissued on DVD. The producer, Milton Subotsky, cheekily blamed all the shortcomings of this film on him.

There are some slight twists in this version. Marlowe is a Freudian psychiatrist rather than a medical doctor. Instead of drinking his experimental drugs, he injects them into a well-used vein, getting addicted in the process. But the story is overly simplified by removing the character of Dr Jekyll's wife, making his midnight wenching hardly transgressive at all. Any new angles in the script aren't as important as the way the story was filmed.


The production was originally designed to be released in 3D, using a lesser-
known process which didn't need special cameras (and therefore cheaper to make). Instead it was the camera moves and layers of action that were orchestrated to trigger 'the Pulfrich effect'. This method of 3D has occasionally been used on TV in the past, long before the new specially-built screens. All that was needed to view the action in 3D were glasses with the right eye slightly darkened. The cheapest Pulfrich glasses would be a pair of sunglasses with the left lens popped out.

When the producers looked at the rushes during the filming, they didn't think the 3D effect was working and abandoned the idea of releasing it 3D. How many scenes were actually shot for Pulfrich 3D has long been debated or dismissed. To me, a majority of the film was shot for 3D and can still be enjoyed. The few static 'flat' scenes start appearing about half an hour into the running time. The three basic types of 3D scene are as follows...

Basically, any time a character (or object) moves left-to-right across a static background, it will pop-out in Pulfrich 3D. Even if you just watch the film 'flat', you'll notice a dozen scenes of characters walking down the long corridor to Lee's study, moving left to right. The whole title scene is also filmed this way. There's even a bizarre scene in a pub where Lee is talking to a potential wench in a pub and the crowd is jostling them along the bar from left to right. The complex choreography of the scene is all for the 3D.

If the camera circles around the scene from right-to-left, the 3D works very well. The most spectacular 3D is in the daylight scenes (a misfire because most of the film takes place in the shadows of night and Lee's dingy house) when the camera circles a huge birdcage in a park. A variation is where the subject spins around - like the scene where Lee holds the mirror up to look at himself.

The third main example is Dr Marlowe's study, dominated by a long desk stacked high with a wall of chemical lab equipment - this layer of glass between the actors and the camera is the central example of the layered, deep-focus sets, carefully laid out for Pulfrich 3D. Any movement between the subject and the camera (like a knife) will 'kick out' in 3D.


While there's plenty of 3D around at the moment, I've been particularly interested in the 3D effects in I, Monster because they're the only example of British horror in this period to be shot this way, and certainly an unusual treat for fans of Cushing and Lee. Much has been written about what everyone involved thought of the 3D process, but I've not seen any writers trying it out for themselves. To me, the 3D works well for most of the film and brings many scenes to life, which the movie certainly needs.

The Optimum DVD from the UK in 2007 (pictured at top) is a sharp, clean-looking anamorphic widescreen presentation. This version was longer than my TV recordings of the film, adding several early scenes of Dr Marlowe in his study and some of Mike Raven's pontificating.

But many of the night-time scenes have been transferred far too darkly. All of Blake's night-time shenanigans are crushed into darkness compared to the TV version I was used to. When Blake stalks the wench emerging from the pub, the cobblestones are completely invisible in the shadows. This darkening of some of the film's action, also diminishes the 3D effects in the film. Perhaps we'll never see the day where I, Monster gets released with 3D glasses.


If you want to see it properly, Pulfrich 3D glasses are available online, for instance here...

May 09, 2011

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD (1975) - special screening and UK DVD


A truly underrated horror gem is getting an uncut DVD release in the UK - its digital debut here. Eureka Video is set to release the DVD at the end of the month. Better still, there's a special midnight screening of the film this Saturday at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, London. Details here from Cigarette Burns. Seems the queue is starting already...


My non-spoiler review of the film, written when the US DVD was released, is here. I'll update that article when I've compared the UK DVD as well.

Narciso Ibanez Serrador also directed La Residencia (The House That Screamed), which I reviewed here. Another extraordinary horror, it starred John Moulder-Brown (Vampire Circus) who is currently getting press coverage again, now that the BFI has restored and released Deep End, in which he co-starred with Jane Asher.

May 07, 2011

AMERICAN - THE BILL HICKS STORY (2009) - the fearless, insightful, dead comedian


AMERICAN - THE BILL HICKS STORY
(2009, USA)

This recent documentary encouraged me to again soak up a load of Bill Hicks' wit and wisdom. I listened to the CD of his Shock And Awe performance for the first time. Particularly great for me because there was so much material about his visits to England. I was crying with laughter for the first time in ages. Maybe not the ideal thing to listen to in the car.


I've revered his stand-up routines ever since we were lucky enough to see two of his performances on TV in the UK. But despite being one of the most acclaimed comedians ever, his material was too fearless and angry for American TV. Besides the swearing and subject matter, he was critical of much about modern society, particularly America. He was talked about in all the press, but you could only really get to see him on stage as he toured endlessly around the States, and occasionally abroad in Britain (where he enjoyed huge audiences) and Australia.


Despite performing stand-up comedy for 16 years before his cruelly premature death at 32, there wasn't much of his work to see on home video or hear on record. Only when we realised what we'd lost, did more DVDs and CDs get released, not all of them professionally recorded. His routines are treasured by fans, studied with awe by other comedians, documented in several biographies and celebrated in a recent documentary, American - The Bill Hicks Story (2009).

The evolution of his career started early as he sneaks out of the house to perform comedy at an 'open mike' comedy club on a school night. An instant hit, his work evolves as he moves around the States and lurched in and out of excessive drug-taking and drinking.


But what makes his comedy funnier, angrier and unique is the research, attempting to educate and encourage his audiences to think. He regularly offers up examples of disparity, how we are manipulated by politicians, media and marketing for their own profit. My first thought on hearing about his death was that he had been assassinated. I actually thought that he was getting through to people so successfully, that he had been taken out.

Something the documentary misses entirely was his appetite for books and newspapers, and how he tried to rationalise injustice, greed and bad logic in the world. Coupled with a fearless attitude to taboo subjects and a confessional honesty about himself, he's as thought-provoking as he is funny. His concise, intelligent, shocking satire prefigured South Park and was often more controversial.


While I enjoyed learning more about his life, as told by his friends, family and fellow stand-up comedians, I wouldn't recommend American as an introduction to his work. It's great for finding out about the man behind the comedy, but first treat yourself to one of his shows. I didn't feel that any of his best routines were showcased, they were used to illustrate the story. Fine if you're familiar with his comedy, but not the best way to start with Bill.

He was passionate about musicians passionate about music. He contrasted his hatred of manufactured pop with his admiration of Hendrix, who played with supreme skill, emotionally involved and enjoying what his craft. Bill Hicks was and is the Jimi Hendrix of stand-up comedy.