June 29, 2011

47 RONIN - an epic story, revered in Japan

The Japanese samurai legend being remade with Keanu Reeves

This story is highly revered in Japan and has repeatedly been adapted for TV and film (reportedly 80 times). Its wintry climax has made it a regular part of Christmastime in Japan. Only a handful of the movie versions have been released in the west, but I wasn't aware of the story until I saw an exhibition of 19th century woodblock prints at the Royal Academy last year. Really.

The cinematic look of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's work, and the repetition of his depictions of the story and the characters impressed me that this was a big deal in Japanese culture. It actually took place, but I've no idea how much its been skewed from historical fact into legendary heroism. The actual graves of the 47 ronin are still revered and honoured today.

After the Kuniyoshi exhibit, I looked up the film adaptions. After I'd picked up two of the available movies, the story was announced for a Hollywood remake to be called 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada (Ring, The Twilight Samurai, Speed Racer) and Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer, Gohatto). Expected in cinemas in 2012, it'll be in 3D... (news report here from Metropolis Tokyo). So, as usual, I'll try not to spoil too much about it.

Set around 1702, in and about various castles, it starts with an indiscretion that leads to an outrage. An elaborate revenge can only be mounted with extreme patience and utmost secrecy, sworn by dozens of loyal samurai. Well, disowned samurai are called ronin...

(1958, Japan, Chushingura)

Respectful adaption from Daiei Studios that emphasises the impact of the ronin's revenge

Lord Kira's continual taunting of Lord Asano in his own castle pushes him to breaking point just as an imperial delegation arrives. His punishment sets his loyal men adrift without a leader, but they refuse to give up their castle. Their stubbornness causes rifts with their families and loved ones, while society waits for them to show some self-respect and avenge...

At the core of the story are the very strict codes of the imperial courts, the shogunate and their samurai, at a time when etiquette and dress code were extremely precise. The hierarchy of rank and the value of family name were rigidly defined. Within these almost invisible constraints, the ronin try to prove themselves with unending loyalty and extremes of emotional endurance, led by the stalwart Oishi (Kazuo Hasegawa).

This is primarily a drama, rather than an action film, over its three hour running time. The fight scenes are well orchestrated, but it's distracting not to see any blood after so many slashes from samurai swords. Much like old westerns never show any bloody wounds on even the whitest shirts, presumably the norm for this era of cinema. Seppuku (ritual suicide) is similarly tastefully dealt with, off screen.

As a drama it's impressive and the story kept me gripped till the end, bearing in mind that this was the first version I'd seen, with no idea how it was going to play out.

This is a faithful and straightforward account of the story. This DVD edition from AnimEigo has been praised for its accurate subtitle translations which optionally include extra historical explanations during the film, and in the DVD extras.

A fuller review of The Loyal 47 Ronin, with spoilers, from the Shogun's Mansion.

(1978, Japan, Ako-Jo danzetsu, The Fall of Ako Castle)

Bloodier, action-packed, sloppier version from Kinji Fukasaku

Another epic offering, this time from samurai specialists Toei Studios, boasting Sonny Chiba in the cast, but it must be stressed that he's not the star. The story has a lot of characters! Sonny gets some action of course, but Tetsuro Tamba and Toshiro Mifune are also in there. Again, Oishi has the central role, played here by Kinnosuke Nakamura. Kinji Fukasaku directs, halfway between giving us The Green Slime and Battle Royale...

While The Loyal 47 Ronin (1958) was successfully dramatic, Fukasaku delivers more action and certainly much more blood. This isn't excessive considering how many swords are being waved around, and he shows admirable restraint in the film's most powerful scene, a seppuku...

Other aspects of this very 1970s update are less successful - the opening title music is just plain wrong. It sounds more suitable for a sleazy detective thriller. Thankfully the music during the rest of the film is less jarring, though it rarely enhances the visuals.

The drama is amped up to over-acting and shouting, which often reaches laughable levels. It made me appreciate the acting in the 1958 film more. The story wastes no time and gets straight into the crucial incident which started it all off, with notably more blood than the 1958 version. It never reaches the spurting extremes of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch or the Baby Cart movies. There's an awkward jump cut in the film that I guess was a censor cut, removing a scene of seppuku (during the hair-cutting shot).

With a faster pace, and even voiceovers to keep the exposition rolling along, this still doesn't manage to be much shorter than the 1958 film at 160 minutes long. While the narrative is faster-moving, more and more complex action scenes have been included.

But this is where it falls down for me - the story of the 47 ronin hinges on a long and complex fight. The contemporary use of handheld camerawork made the action harder to follow, because it wasn't particularly good handheld work. I'd even say it's so 'loose' that it misses some of the action. This may be forgivable for viewers who know the story well, but it's a challenge for newcomers to understand what's happening. Handheld camera also intrudes into some slower dramatic scenes, further marred by wobbly zooms.

Swords of Vengeance is an epic showcase for the genre and the era, but the story deserves reverence rather than excess. It's worth seeing for the scenes that really work well, but it's not the best representation of the story.

The DVD from Adness has good subtitles, but the anamorphic 2.35 widescreen picture looks slightly too squeezed throughout.

A much fuller review of Swords of Vengeance here at Wild Realm, full of spoilers, as well as details of many other movie adaptions of the legend of the loyal 47 ronin.

June 28, 2011

KING NARESUAN (2007) - Thai epics finally hit America as KINGDOM OF WAR

(2007, Thailand, King Naresuan)

It's been a long wait for these two historical epics to get English-subtitled releases in the west, while many more recent Thai movies like Tony Jaa's and various Thai horrors have wasted no time. King Naresuan parts 1 and 2 have presumably been waiting to tie-in with the delayed release of part 3, which premiered in Thailand in March this year. Raising the unprecedented budgets for these films has been a battle in itself, relying partly on the director's connections with the royal family.

The whole story tells of the birth of Thailand's fight for independence from it's neighbouring countries and brings to life a famous period of history. But if it's epic war action you want, I'd reluctantly advise you to skip to Part 2. If you want the whole story and to wallow in the sights and culture of 16th century Thailand and Burma, then start with Part 1. The events of these films even follow on from the same director's earlier epic Legend of Suriyothi (2001), which was presented in America by Francis Ford Coppola in 2003.

The DVD and blu-ray releases have been retitled as Kingdom of War for the US release by Magnet. Be careful not to confuse it with the Donnie Yen epic, An Empress and the Warrior (2008), which was also renamed Kingdom of War in some European countries.

I reviewed both films after seeing them in the cinema in Thailand in 2007. I'll report back on how the blu-ray compares.

June 24, 2011

THE IPCRESS FILE (1965) - stylish Michael Caine spy thriller

(1965, UK)

My name... is Harry Palmer

A taut thriller that's about stylish visuals as much as plot. This carefully paced Cold War spy story, based on Len Deighton's bestseller, is given an edge by pushing the camerawork into oblique compositions. These aren't the same techniques used by Hitchcock, who precisely placed his camera to optimise the storytelling, infer insight into the character or offer wry comment. Instead this is style over content... that works. The camera simply won't conform to the norm and constantly uses unusual angles, as if it's playing cat and mouse with the subject, peering over objects in deep focus, spying through phone boxes, carefully-composed dutch angles...

Camerawork is currently all about movement, twitchy and handheld, even when the subject is static. The camera in The Ipcress File is mainly static, but the compositions are dynamic. It's visually exciting and finally, finally, finally seeing this in 2.35 widescreen was really rewarding after decades of cramped TV screenings.

The Ipcress File was originally sold as a realistic alternative to the Playboy fantasy action/adventure espionage lifestyle that James Bond represented. It was released earlier in the year to the exceptionally lavish Sean Connery outing, Thunderball, the fourth in the series. In contrast to 007, author Len Deighton's realistic cold warrior, Harry Palmer, is a badly-paid civil servant. He may have a licence to kill and luck with the ladies, but he also has a tiny flat, cooks for himself, keeps a cat and, gulp, wears glasses. No glamorous international jetsetting, he's trapsing around London (all shot on location). His spy work includes days of listening to phone taps, boring stakeouts and scrabbling in filing cabinets for clues. When he finally gets a lead, is the danger worth the money?

Hedging their bets, this very un-Bond spy movie has many of the regular creative talents from the Bond franchise. Producer Harry Salzman, production designer Ken Adam (just as happy visualising shabby bedsits as he was designing gadget cars and villainous volcanoes), editor Peter Hunt (who pioneered the fast-cutting action for the franchise and soon started directing Bonds), and of course composer John Barry.

While he'd also scored From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, this doesn't sound like a Bond score at all. A slow, brittle theme that gets inside your brain with repetition, is similar to the simple theme from the The Third Man (that was played on an echoey zither). This dramatic low-key score established Barry as a movie composer with an impressive range, ensuring a ridiculously busy schedule for decades to come. The soundtrack is as famous as the film.

Sidney J. Furie directed this prestigious project after an eclectic mix of British films. Horrors Doctor Blood's Coffin (reviewed here) and The Snake Woman, and two successful Cliff Richard musicals wouldn't have made him an obvious choice. But courtroom drama The Boys and widescreen 'kitchen sink' biker tale The Leather Boys must have helped.

While I've enthused about the aesthetics, the script and the cast are just as impressive. This was Michael Caine first starring role and he concreted his star power with another success in Alfie the following year. He's passed from department to department by his superiors, playing a deadly game of chess with their staff. The twists and turns of a simple case explore the confusion and endless subterfuges of the many players in post World War 2 European espionage. The mystery is to find out what 'Ipcress' is all about. All I'll say is that it sounds like an evil Tardis...

Guy Doleman, who was about to play a minor Bond villain in Thunderball, is superb as Harry's long-suffering chief. Nigel Green is more terse - he often played steely authority figures and police inspectors, and is my favourite incarnation of Inspector Nayland Smith, in The Face of Fu Manchu. He also took on super-spy Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew, embraced Countess Dracula, and brought the house down in The Ruling Class.

Sue Lloyd provides intelligent glamour - the actress usually got stuck in comedies and TV secret agent action. A memorable departure was the early slasher shocker Corruption in which she played Peter Cushing's disfigured wife. Here she looks like she could have beaten Jill St John to the role of Tiffany Case, though her accent is irresistibly British.

The success of The Ipcress File and its characters quickly lead to two more sequels, Funeral In Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967), then two further tired ones in the 1990s produced by the late Harry Alan Towers, Bullet To Beijing and Midnight In St Petersburg.

I last tried to watch this on TV when it had been cropped to 16:9 and found it no more watchable than the 1.33 pan-and-scan cropping it used to have - the camera compositions are so carefully balanced you need to see the whole picture. The region 1 anamorphic DVD from Anchor Bay that I watched (above) was its 2.35 widescreen debut, and there's a director's commentary on there as well, but the release is marred by very busy video compression artifacts, especially in low-light scenes.

This problem is worsened by the original negative being grainy - it was shot 'two-perf' 35mm (Techniscope) effectively halving the quality of 35mm. So I'm now going to double-dip for the ITV blu-ray transfer in the UK, which also offers a 5.1 mix (and lousy cover art). A quick look confirmed that the compression artifacts are absent, though the grain is more noticeable. I'm happy that the grain hasn't been digitally lessened - if a negative is grainy, that's how it's always been seen in cinemas.

DVD Beaver compared the UK special edition (with a bonus disc of extras) to the UK blu-ray, with a generous selection of spoilery screengrabs.

My review of another Harry Palmer movie starring Michael Caine - Billion Dollar Brain, directed by Ken Russell.

June 17, 2011

The Ghouls: Book Two - more inspiring horror stories

The Stories Behind Classic Horror Films

The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Beast With Five Fingers by W. F. Harvey
The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury
The Fly by George Langelaan
Viy by Nikolai Gogol
An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce
The Colour Out Of Space by H. P. Lovecraft
The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade by Robert Bloch
The Oblong Box by Edgar Allan Poe

In the first volume of The Ghouls editor Peter Haining collected short stories that inspired horror films from the 1890s to the 1940s. This second paperback involves more familiar films, from 1945 to 1970, the idea being a sequential look at the history of horror films. Published in hardback in 1971, I bought them as paperbacks in 1974.

Here's the remaining nine stories and the films they inspired...

(1945, USA)

Based on The Body Snatcher (1884) by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Stevenson is well known for the novels Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. His short story The Body Snatcher is about the relationship between Dr MacFarlane and a medical school friend of his, Fettes, who both studied under Dr Knox (the real-life surgeon who employed the graverobbers Burke and Hare). Both copies I have of The Ghouls have all references to Knox obscured to read as 'K----', presumably to sidestep an old legal issue, even though it was written over fifty years later.

The film expands on Stevenson's story adding layers to the characters. Stevenson portrays the doctor and the body snatcher as scheming partners-in-crime. The film adds a middle-man, Fettes (Russell Wade), studying under an upright Dr MacFarlane (stony-faced Henry Daniell), while Gray (Karloff) is the more obvious villain. The script cleverly, slowly implicates MacFarlane as being equally responsible for Gray's crimes, adding shades of self-delusional morality to his character. The student Fettes is attracted to MacFarlane's immense knowledge and skill, but hesitates to chase after medical advances with such freshly obtained 'research material'.

This is a different angle from the subsequent adaptions of the 'Burke and Hare' story in that it portrays that characters that knew them rather than following the original events. For an American production, it displays enough authentic detail to represent the Scottish locations.

The Body Snatcher is a jewel of 1940s horror, as you're no doubt aware, it's one of Val Lewton's productions for RKO. While the budgets were low, the directing, lighting and acting were all superb. The scripts had psychological layers, moral ambiguities and regularly challenged 'untouchable' authority figures (notably in The Ghost Ship). Lewton's works are the 'films noirs' of horror.

Gray is a purely evil role for Karloff (also detestable as the asylum owner in Lewton's Bedlam), when the actor usually gave his mad doctors and monsters a sympathetic angle. Even here he initially throws us off guard by being friendly to a little girl. Compared to Karloff, Lugosi's role is tiny, with scarcely any dialogue (though the posters and trailers made it look like they were the two stars). I love their confrontational scene - it symbolically brings their much-publicised 'rivalry' as horror actors to a definitive end.


Based on The Beast With Five Fingers (1928) by W. F. Harvey.

The story of a disembodied hand haunting the nephew of the dead owner is given a slightly more logical basis in the original. Because Adrian Borlsover is blind, but very good with his hands - he can read braille, feel his way around, and as he's slipping away, develops the talent for 'automatic writing', jotting down thoughts when he's unconscious. In this way, his hand changes his will and requests its freedom after his death. The hand then starts causing trouble in the library...

The movie dispenses with the blindness, making the hand's many skills more mysterious, but adds the Uncle's skill of great piano-playing. This is used to great effect in a key scene where his nephew (Peter Lorre) hears music when there's no-one sitting at the piano... But is Uncle exerting some kind of power over his legacy from beyond the grave, or is it all his nephew's paranoia?

The studio wanted this to be a comedy as much as a horror thriller, watering down the film's original dramatic intent. The film lurches between romantic comedy and gothic horror, at its most potent in the hallucinatory death scene - a disorientating, lurching camera and distorted music made all the more intense by Max (King Kong) Steiner's soundtrack.

Peter Lorre (The Raven, M, Maltese Falcon) is acting his heart out as the librarian on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is cruelly interrupted by Robert Alda (MASH actor Alan Alda's dad) pursuing a light-hearted romance, and J. Carroll Naish spending too much time making a joke of everything in a hokey Italian accent. This spoils what it could have been, but the antics of the hand, running around behind the books in the library (an idea from the story) and locked in a safe nailed to a block, make it strong enough to seek out. I was thrilled to see another hypnotic performance from Victor Francen, who was beyond excellent in the sound version of the extraordinary anti-war movie J'Accuse (1938).

The story was plundered by many other films, especially a great episode in Dr Terror's House of Horrors, with Christopher Lee being terrorised. The central uncertainty of whether Lorre's character is imagining the roving hand was also exploited in Oliver Stone's horror The Hand (1981). But the first 'nod' was the most popular - the character of 'Thing' which made itself so handy around The Addams Family TV household (1964).

While this was included in William K Everson's Classics of the Horror Film, The Beast With Five Fingers has never been released on DVD, but it's out there somewhere, maybe hiding in your bookcase...

(1953, USA)

Based on The Fog Horn (1951) by Ray Bradbury.

This very short story, first published in a newspaper, describes one evening where two lighthouse keepers see something in the stormy sea attracted by their fog horn.

Written by his childhood friend Ray Bradbury, this single scenario grew into the basis for Ray Harryhausen's first chance to work on his own movie project, setting a template for many more in which he had huge creative input, but without actual onscreen credits for script, producing, or directing. He created spectacular results on low budgets for his fifties sci-fi movies, practically single-handed. The lack of money isn't even that noticeable, especially compared to many other monster B-movies then and since. Even the scenes of panic in the streets were memorably done.

Testing nuclear bombs in the Arctic activates and releases a frozen dinosaur (whoops). It decides to rerun to its old haunts which are, unfortunately, where Manhattan presently is. Cue mass panic, a useless army and navy and a mad old professor trying to save the citizens of New York...

I still marvel at how Harryhausen integrated the animated model of the monster into footage of the streets in a daytime scene. Matching the lighting on the creature to the sunlit street scenes even makes frame blow-ups look good today. This rampage was a step up from the nocturnal metropolitan exploits of the giant monsters seen in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).

The monster's visit to Coney Island is admittedly at night, but that's mainly to show up the flames, when a wooden rollercoaster is burnt down. I believe this location is still there, though the rollercoaster is long out of use. There's another smaller rollercoaster still operating at the Coney Island fair - just as terrifying as any modern ride, because it's old, creaky and wooden.

The success of this movie, and particularly the idea of a radioactively reactivated dinosaur, directly inspired Japanese producers to make the first Godzilla (1954).

(1958, USA)

Based on The Fly (1957) by George Langelaan.

Playboy isn't just about the bunnies and the centrefolds, it has articles, interviews and short stories. This is how The Fly first appeared, nestled between the delicately touched-up breasts in Hugh Hefner's groundbreaking magazine for men.

The story reads much like the film, starting with the mysterious murder of Andre Delambre by his wife, with a steam hammer. We know whodunnit, but why did Helene kill him, and why use the hammer twice when his head was crushed the first time?

Andre's brother Francois and the police talk to Helene about her husband's experiments, wondering why she's so fraught whenever there's a fly in the room. It turns out he was experimenting with matter transportation and something went terribly wrong...

The highlight of reading the story again was discovering that the family cat, Dandelo, is actually accounted for... though it's not a happy ending (in the film he simply disappears into an other-worldly meow). Mostly, the story and the characters are very closely adhered to - if it's not broke, don't fix it. Though the ending was tweaked to adhere to the motion picture code.

The 1958 version is completely different from the Cronenberg remake. It's much like the experiments of many other white-coated scientists in the sci-fi boom of that decade. A close comparison would be Leo G Carroll's storyline in Tarantula (1955). The addition of widescreen, vibrant colour, and a good cast set it above many contemporaries, and the concept of teleportation still fascinates.

The scene of the monster's unveiling is a genre highpoint, but I'm equally unnerved by the scientist hiding under a black veil, unable to talk to his wife, his humanity ebbing away.

Vincent Price isn't the mad scientist here, it's nice to see him as a sympathetic character for a change. It's Patricia Owens (as Helene) who has the task of carrying the whole fantastic story in and out of the flashbacks. David Hedison (as Andre) may have thought this was going to be his most unbelievable role, not realising he was about to enter Irwin Allen's lost world, and endless voyages to the bottom of the sea. 

This original version of The Fly spawned two sequels - detailed here in my the trilogy of Fly films.

(1967, Russia)

Based on Viy (1835) by Nikolai Gogol.

Horror stories used to be rare in Russia. This tells of a hapless philosophy student who gets cornered by ancient witch. Trying to repel her advances, he kills her and abandons the body. In death, she appears young and beautiful... 

When he hears of the death of a rich Cossack's daughter in a faraway village, he sees the chance to earn a little for reading scriptures over her as she lies in state. Hitching a lift cross-country, he strikes a deal to to be locked in their old church for three nights with the recently deceased girl, while he recites blessings over her. But on the first night, he discovers that somehow the witch may yet have her revenge. She unleashes a vast array of powers to attack him before his task is over...

For the introduction to this story, Haining enthuses over Black Sunday (The Mask of Satan), Mario Bava's celebrated Italian horror. It's a must-see for horror fans, for Barbara Steele's haunted performance, the stunning monochrome photographic effects and an example of how much more violent European cinema was in comparison to the UK or US in 1960.

But. Black Sunday bears only a slight resemblance to Gogol's story, except for the idea that a witch/vampire is getting her revenge. A much closer adaption of the story is Alexander Ptushko's colourful and imaginative Viy: Spirit of Evil (1967). Russia's very first official horror film, it's a cross between a medieval fairy tale and The Exorcist! While the story's descriptions of the witch's night-time assaults are vague, the film attempts to depict them as three distinct set-pieces, using in-camera shock tactics as old those used in Nosferatu, others using free-roaming imagination... 

While the philosophy student resorts to excessive drinking before being forced back into the church has a humorous slant (his visions of demons are blamed on his drunkenness), his overnight vigils get increasingly nightmarish.

The film predates The Evil Dead with increasingly frantic, fast-cutting surrealist horrors inside a rundown wooden building. It even matches many South East Asian horrors with a twitchy, floaty, lank-haired, white-skinned, vengeful young witch.

(1962, France, La rivière du hibou)

Based on An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (1890) by Ambrose Bierce.

This very old and very short story was perfect for The Twilight Zone and could easily have influenced several dozen plotlines of the classic TV series. It paints a simple tableau - a traitor in the American Civil War is about to be executed by being hung from a high bridge over a river. The meticulous preparation draws out the suspense and presumably describes the authentic military ceremony for an official hanging. The fate of the accused seems completely hopeless, but at the crucial moment he has a surprise...

This was faithfully adapted into a short French film in 1962, which expanded the story slightly. With very little dialogue, it's a dream-like experience, beautifully-shot and observed.

Unusually, it was then used as a fifth season episode of The Twilight Zone (airing in 1964) as An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. It was slightly re-edited to be included as a special episode, ensuring that the film still remains accessible.

(1965, UK/USA, also called DIE, MONSTER, DIE!)

Based on The Color Out Of Space (1927) by H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft's nameless shapeless horrors lurch into the realm of sci-fi here with a meteor crash-landing on an old estate in the fictional New England city of Arkham. For once there's a scientific reason for the horror, radiation from space causing extensive mutations in plant and animal alike... The escalating scale of the problem depicted in this early hybrid of sci-fi and horror is ripe for a more faithful adaption.

The movie mostly retreats from showing these horrors and falls back on rather dated gothic chills (a shadowy mansion, walking around at night with candlesticks). But the deteriorating characters and the glimpses of mutation lurking in the shadows make for fascinating monsters in this classic horror setting rather than the bright light of the irradiated deserts of American nuclear sci-fi (Tarantula, Them!).

Boris Karloff is joined by Nick Adams (Invasion of the Astro-Monsters) looking like a tough guy detective and Suzan Farmer (Dracula - Prince of Darkness) as the damsel in distress. How she keeps up with the latest fashions in the middle of nowhere isn't explained.

Director Daniel Haller was obviously a Lovecraft enthusiast, he'd been production designer on Corman's The Haunted Palace and soon directed The Dunwich Horror for the psychedelic era.

My full review of Die, Monster, Die is here.

(1965, UK)

Based on The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade (1945) by Robert Bloch.

Bloch's short stories are as impressive as his novels. Here he realistically described an obsessive collector of occult curiosities. Like in 'The Man Who Collected Poe' (expertly adapted in Torture Garden) you can tell that the details about Poe and De Sade were all accurate. Bloch presents a pair of ghastly characters, the collector and his favourite 'dealer', as they bargain over the actual skull of the man who 'invented' sadism.

Their relationship remains in the film, but the characters are softened, particularly Peter Cushing as Maitland (a popular name for characters in Amicus horror films). Cushing makes him sympathetic by being academically engrossed in the occult, rather than morbid and unhealthily interested.

Patrick Wymark (Repulsion, Witchfinder General) makes the most of the slimy trader who brings black magic plunder to Maitland's door, but he's repulsive in the story. Christopher Lee has a couple of scenes but is far less interesting than Wymark. To expand the story to feature-length, Maitland now has a wife, a rare horror role for celebrated stage actress Jill Bennett (The Nanny). Also features Nigel Green in yet another of his detective roles (the same year as he made The Ipcress File), and Patrick Magee (Asylum, Tales From The Crypt, A Clockwork Orange).

A good cast and a good idea still presented a huge challenge to director Freddie Francis, who had to derive a movieload of chills from a small solitary skull. He largely succeeds, using innovative point-of-view 'skull-vision', and eerie nightmares. This will please fans of Cushing, Lee and psychological horrors, though the lack of blood and 'skull on a wire' special effects won't hold modern attentions.

After seeing so many scary black-and-white photos for The Skull, when I finally saw it I was surprised that it was not only in colour, but also 2.35 widescreen. The Skull recently debuted on DVD and has just been released on blu-ray as a double-bill with The Man Who Could Cheat Death, with which it has nothing in common except country of origin.

(1969, UK)

Based on The Oblong Box (1844) by Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe's tale is a mystery set aboard an ocean liner, another of his pioneering sleuth stories. A passenger is trying to solve the sleeping arrangements of his neighbours onboard and why they have a huge box in one compartment. It takes a disaster to answer his questions...

But the film has nothing to do with the tight little story, apart from using the title and featuring a large box in a completely different way. Instead it starts in colonial Africa, following two brothers back to their estate in England. One is hideously disfigured, forcibly kept in a locked room and going stir-crazy. This rich foundation for horror dissipated by tedious discussions interrupted by short outbursts of unconvincing violence.

The confusing multitude of characters takes time to pay off, though many excellent actors are in the cast. It's disappointing that Christopher Lee and Vincent Price share so little time onscreen together. Fun that Price appears here again with Rupert Davies and Hilary Dwyer, both from Witchfinder General. Shocking to see Dwyer genially playing Price's wife.

But The Oblong Box is a poor example of 'classic horror' for The Ghouls to close with.

Collecting the inspirations for horror movies into volumes of stories was a great idea that sadly didn't catch on, or was too costly to pursue. Usually a single famous short story is enough to carry a collection of less interesting fiction, justifying eye-catching movie photos on the front cover.

While it's often impossible to condense and represent a novel when adapting it into a movie, short stories can just as easily provide the basis for a script. They make for interesting comparisons, but like I've said, finding specific old short fiction isn't easy.

Good stories, however brief, used to become instantly popular by appearing in high-circulation newspapers and magazines. Movie-makers would snap the rights up because the public were already interested in the story. Hitchcock had his people scouring for new stories for his movies and TV shows. But currently short fiction is a rarity in modern publishing, meaning scriptwriters have to find their inspiration elsewhere.

You can read the first review of this collection here - The Phantom of the Opera, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Magician and more in The Ghouls: Book One.

The superior cover art for both paperbacks was painted by John Holmes. For volume 2 of the 1974 Orbit paperback (at top) he combined a skull, a fly and a female vampire into a single striking vision. More of his gruesome and surreal cover art can be viewed here on British pulp horror fiction site The Vault of Evil. (A big thank you to Johnny Mains, of Noose and Gibbet Publishing for the info.)