July 30, 2012

LUCKY LUKE (2009) - Jean DuJardin, hero of the wild west



LUCKY LUKE
(2009, France/Argentina)

Cowboy spoof, action comedy, more fun than The Artist

Lucky Luke, cowboy, sharpshooter, drifter, do-gooder... Renowned for his heroics across the wild west, Luke is summoned by the President of the United States to help unite the country by clearing the last obstacle to the trans-American railroad - the lawless Daisy Town. But this may prove too big a job for just one cowboy...

Like Tintin, Lucky Luke started as a Belgian comic strip. First appearing in 1946, the character became hugely popular across Europe, but not so much in the UK or US. It spawned cartoon series, two live-action movies (1991) and a TV series (1992) aptly starring spaghetti western veteran Terence Hill (They Call Me Trinity).


Also like Tintin, the cartoon character has had to move with the times. But the movie playfully references many of his earlier traits, like the cigarette that used to hang from his mouth... Writer/director James Huth also humorously turns many movie western cliches on their heads.


At times, he uses brash colour schemes, like early comic books, for certain scenes and even single shots, making it look almost experimental at times. Comic book humour extends to visual gags as wild as the silent movies. I loved the President's train carriage with it's thick, static ceiling of smoke, and the population of terrified townspeople hiding and moving around in upturned water barrels.


The range of bizarre characters and offbeat approach to the cowboy genre, where half the population (somehow) have hearts of gold, reminded me of Gore Verbinski's similarly enjoyable Rango. Calamity Jane looks more cowboy than cowgirl, Billy The Kid is a childish adult and Jesse James is a failed actor, with a magnificently overlong longcoat. Even Luke's horse is a character.


The desert location work (shot in Argentina) and impressive scale of the film makes this one very overlooked movie. For me it was a far more rewarding experience than The Artist, perhaps because that was overhyped and this was underhyped. This is funner, but not Jean DuJardin at his funniest. You need the two OSS 117 films, Cairo - Nest of Spies (2006) and Lost In Rio (2009) to see his full comic range.


The cover art for the UK DVD sneakily presents DuJardin in black and white, alluding to The Artist, but this movie is totally drenched in colour. It's presented in French with English subtitles and no extras. If Amazon.fr is to be trusted, the Blu-ray sold in France also has English subtitles on it.

Lucky Luke comics website (in  French).


July 21, 2012

THE HITCHER (1986) - road movie, horror movie

THE HITCHER
(1986, USA)

Memorable shocks in the intelligent, original road movie horror

A young man (C. Thomas Howell) is making some extra cash by delivering a new car by driving across several states. In a torrential downpour, he obligingly picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer). As they start chatting, the details of the hitcher's stranded story don't quite add up. So he ditches the stranger as soon as possible. But this chance meeting leads into a nightmare of murder and unrelenting paranoia...


While 1980s horror films were awash with breakthroughs in prosthetic gore and wise-cracking paedophiles from hell, the most shocking moments in those films were often censored for both the big screen and the small. Watching horror movies on home video rarely delivered shocks based on explicit violence because those moments had been edited down (or completely cut out).

One movie that still made an impression was The Hitcher. Despite being panned and scanned from 2.35 widescreen in the cinema down to 4:3 on videotape (the way I first saw it), the story's power was increased by deliberately avoiding always showing the gore while suggesting very violent scenes. Aided by the suspense and emotional impact on the characters, the film was memorably surprising and chilling without troubling the censors.

Between a truck and a hard place
The simple premise is elaborately crafted by scriptwriter Eric Red, who seemed to specialise in mixing the horror genre up with car action (see also Near Dark and Body Parts). Although he delivered a violent story with a high bodycount, director Robert Harmon then had to reassure ace cinematographer John Seale (Witness, The Perfect Storm) that he wasn't out to make gory exploitation, and intended to use a subtler approach to horror and an attempt to shoot action scenes in more unusual and original ways.

Revisiting this on DVD, an overdue chance to see it widescreen, I was rewarded with a horror film that was an old friend, as well as a worthy road movie, with dreamy atmospheric cinematography and suitably muted moody music (from Mark Isham) that befits the genre, beauty and isolation of wide open spaces.



In the cast, a sad reminder of the early promise of C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders) before he became synonymous with direct-to-video. Rutger Hauer elevates the film as the enigmatic murderer - a villain of the most dangerous kind, fiercely intelligent. Anyone wanting more of the Hauer we got in Blade Runner will enjoy this.


Along the way, a young woman inevitably gets drawn up in the events, played by a young Jennifer Jason Leigh (Single White Female, The Hudsucker Proxy) we benefit from getting a tough, cautious, realistic character rather than an annoying love interest.

There's not a weak link in the cast, and I retrospectively recognised Jeffrey DeMunn from The Walking Dead as the confused Police Captain trying to pick through the carnage.


I watched this on a US DVD (pictured at the very top) and then checked the UK 2-disc Special Edition (above) which added a great making-of documentary, with interviews with most of the principal cast and crew. But this newer transfer was marred by a standards-conversion that kept adding annoying 'kicks' in the long smooth camera moves. It looked like the film had also had some 'restoration' - so now there are compression problems from digital video noise reduction fighting against the film grain, as well as the rain and smoke in some low-light scenes. Until a Blu-ray happens, I'd favour the older US release, which happily is also anamorphic widescreen.





THE HITCHER II: I'VE BEEN WAITING
(2003, USA)

I was interested in seeing the grown-up C. Thomas Howell in the belated sequel, but was immediately was daunted by the opening credit 'Home Entertainment Production', indicating that this was primarily made for home video. The very opening scene with a CGI plane in a CGI rainstorm also unimpressed. 


C. Thomas Howell's character is now an adult, obviously haunted by his bad experiences with road trips. Despite the lesson he learned the hard way, he winds up picking up another hitcher with plenty of baggage.

The story adds some new twists, racks up a high bodycount and some impressively staged stunts. But with a story that keeps quitting the road, and a numbing fast-edit approach to action scenes, it's more action than horror. It should be so very easy to make Jake Busey into a memorable psycho, but this somehow doesn't manage it.



THE HITCHER
(2007, USA)

Won over by Sean Bean's rounded performance in Game of Thrones, I even tried out the recent remake.

Whereas the original movie took a more oblique approach to the gore and the stunts, the remake takes a hard line on getting the most violence and suffering out of the plot, but only as far as the 'R' rating will allow. The action and momentum of the story is more straightforward than the meandering sequel, but less complex and less mystical than the original. And Sean Bean is no Rutger Hauer. He a plot device propelling the movie, rather than a believable antagonist.


There's still much to enjoy, with new twists and turns in the road, and some fantastic shock moments that ejected me from my seat. Great to see the amazing car stunts being done for real rather than cheated with CGI.

 

The underused Neal McDonough carves an interesting role out of very little as the police captain in charge of the chase. When he gets angry, it occurred to me he'd have made a far more interesting Hitcher than Sean Bean.

But! It took a while to impress. For the sake of an elaborate long tracking shot, the opening shot uses CGI animals. I then didn't connect very well with the two young leading actors. Perhaps I was distracted by the opening half hour of the movie using a barrage of forgettable soft rock music.

Worse still, using that Nine Inch Nails track that backed the opening titles to Se7en is the clunkiest way to spoil the best action scene in the film. The soundtrack abruptly opts out of Steve Jablonsky's score like a bad playlist.

Also, the editing and staging of two of the stunts sequences included shots that completely 'crossed the line' (a basic rule of visual editing). I was so confused about 'who was going where' that I had to backtrack to get my bearings. Action on a long straight road shouldn't be that hard to follow.


Overall, a good-looking, action-packed shocker. A very different film, less elaborate, less atmospheric than the original. But more brutal rather than more cleverer.
I watched the US version on an HD/DVD combo disc. Looked good, with some interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes.

July 04, 2012

BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958) - a choice of DVDs



BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE
(1958, UK)

Hammer films opened the bloodgates of sadistic melodrama!

(updated in April 2014, to include French Artus DVD release)

A heartless doctor is using his 'lunatic asylum' patients for merciless experiments – trying to separate human blood types into categories in order to perfect successful transfusions, utter madness!

This doesn't rate as a horror movie by modern standards, but pushed the boundaries to their limits in a different era. It's a fascinating look at the changing perception of movie violence. This was once a censors' nightmare, but now appears on DVD uncensored and PG rated. Does that mean in fifty years time the shock value of Hostel and Saw will be treated just as lightly?

For fans of early Hammer films, this is a must-see, especially as it's written by Jimmy Sangster who scripted many of the first successful Hammer horrors, helping launch the studio worldwide. While this doesn't have the supernatural atmosphere (or the incisive direction), it's an interesting comparison. 




This could be classified as an Eros Film, the distributor used by this production team (Monty Berman and Bob Baker) who also made lower budget horrors The Trollenberg Terror, Jack The Ripper (1959) and The Flesh and the Fiends before successfully producing most of the jewels of ITC's TV hits like The Saint, The Champions and The Persuaders. There's no nudity in Blood of the Vampire (just suggestive leering and manacling), but the following year Jack The Ripper would include topless shots, allowed only in the continental versions (my comparison of those scenes is here). 

My opinion of the film has changed now that I've seen a decent remastering of the film. On DVD it looks better than it ever has, less seedy, poorly framed and grainy than it appeared on VHS and old TV screenings. Now it looks closer to an expensive production, with lavish sets (far roomier than Hammer) and impressive matte paintings. The amount of bloody violence makes this a worthy companion to Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, whose thrills it carefully emulates (a gunshot in the eye and a head in a jar, like Curse, a bloody staking like Dracula) presumably to sneak as much past the censors as possible ('you let them show it').



The story is even a mix of Frankenstein and Dracula, played as a nasty adventure in medical experimentation. OK, we now know he wasn't a mad doctor, he was on the right track. But his methods are a little unorthodox...

Sir Donald Wolfit (who you can also see in Lawrence of Arabia!) took a break from performing Shakespeare in British repertory to play the obsessive Dr Callistratus. He’s far better here than he was in the first colour version of Svengali (1956) and certainly makes this more enjoyable.

He's upstaged by his psychotic hunchbacked assistant, providing comedy actor Victor Maddern with a chance to both evoke sympathy and overact wildly. The hunchback provides a chronological bridge between between Bela Lugosi’s Ygor (Son of Frankenstein, 1939), and Richard O’ Brien’s Riff Raff (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975).

Besides Wolfit, the best reason to see this is Barbara Shelley, one of the most accomplished actresses to appear in Hammer Films. Particularly Dracula Prince of Darkness (1966) and Quatermass and the Pit. She hasn't much of a character here, but ably endures many difficult scenes, being ravished and ogled by the bad guys.




The original publicity photographs have long teased horror fans since they appeared in 1960s' monster mags. The photo of the flogging victim was strong stuff even in black and white. But some of these images were from censored scenes, resulting in disappointment when we eventually got to see it. Over recent years, through a progression of three DVD releases, these scenes have all re-emerged from the darkness...






Blood of the Vampire first surfaced on DVD in 2006 as a region 1 US release (from Dark Sky) a double-bill with The Hellfire Club. It includes some censor cuts (not seen on British TV), but they are jumpily integrated into this print. Besides film weave and an unavoidably grainy image, this version is compromised by a zoomed-in image on several scenes, that crop the lower edge and sides of the picture. For the most part, the framing is acceptably tightened to 16:9 from 1.66 (the original ratio shown in the opening titles).


Some of the additional shots (that I hadn't seen on earlier TV screenings) reinstated the head in a jar (!) and some spurting blood being decanted during a transfusion (this glimpse is still cross-faded out in the UK DVD).

There's also a jovial and informative commentary track, Hammer historian Marcus Hearn getting the most out of writer Jimmy Sangster and producer Bob Baker.






A young Barbara Shelley and Sir Donald Wolfit
Then there was the region 2 UK DVD from Simply Home Entertainment in 2007. The image quality is similarly grainy but has slightly more depth to both detail and colour. While the image suffers a little too much digital scratch-reduction on both the US and UK discs, I'm not expecting a practically unknown film to look any better without a ton of far more expensive restoration work.

The UK version is better framed overall, with none of the strangely zoomed-in scenes of the US DVD. Though the opening scene and titles are better presented, full height and less cropped, on the US disc. Both DVDs are presented anamorphically for 16:9 screens. 



Barbara Burke on the slab - a scene missing from the US DVD
The UK DVD has an entire extra scene with the housekeeper strapped to the operating table, though nothing scandalous happens. The censor seemed preoccupied with what was being infered. As far as I could tell, the other cuts have been restored, apart from the blood spurting into the jar.

The UK disc also lacks any extras, and is sadly missing the commentary track. But most of the information that was discussed is included in a packed colour 16-page booklet of posters and photos.

For frame grabs from the US and UK DVDs, and an alternate opinion of how they compare, see this page from Mondo Esoterica...






Finally in 2013, there is this 'Version Integrale' region 2 DVD from Artus Films in France, announced as the complete version. Sold as Le Sang Du Vampire, it not only contains the spurting blood and the head in a jar (from the US DVD) and the housekeeper scene (from the UK DVD) but also the long lost manacling of Mary Marshall (as seen below)! We've been discussing that scene in the comments (at the end of this post) and it's a relief that I've finally seen it. The capper is that this restored scene shows not just two, but four women chained to the dungeon pillars! The quality of these long-censored scenes is notably poorer, scratchier than the rest of the film. There's a clumsy transition (a crossfade) during the tracking shot from the severed head, between a bad and good film element.


Mary Marshall (right) only seen in the French DVD
Gushing and spurting blood was a whole new problem for censors, now that it could be seen in colour. These censor cuts are now more fascinating than the slim story, in what was a pivotal year. Also in 1958, Hammer's Dracula was censored (scenes that have only just been reclaimed) and Horrors of the Black Museum was released. That has a far more sensational reputation, but shows far less than Blood of the Vampire

The manacled maidens scene was presumably more problematic because of the lascivious look in Victor Maddern's remaining eye! The Artus DVD also restores and extends a few additional scenes or leering and bloodshed, none of which would increase the certificate from PG if it were ever to be released in the UK.

The French DVD is presented widescreen anamorphic with English and French audio options and removable French subtitles. It also looks slightly more colourful than the UK DVD, which was my previous favourite version. The extras are an appreciation (all in French) an extensive montage of posters and lobby cards and a trailer.






More examples of the fantastic Blood of the Vampire lobby cards, here on Four Color Comics...





July 01, 2012

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) - Roger Corman's colour-coded Poe

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH
(1964, UK)

Gorgeous, colourful, complex, bloody, Roger Corman adaption of Poe


The Masque of the Red Death is a costumed ball held in a castle fortress for the rich landowners, while all around the villagers are dying of a mysterious plague. With a captive audience, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) can indulge in a wild party and even a little black magic without anyone complaining. Spurning his beautiful wife (Hazel Court), he kidnaps and attempts to lure a young christian (Jane Asher) to defect and worship Satan...


Roger Corman directed a series of the best ever adaptions of Edgar Allen Poe, while remaining true to his stringent budget guidelines. How he successfully managed to sell these movies to teenagers at the same time as the beach party films, I'm not sure. Poe's poems and short stories needed expert scriptwriters (such as Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont) to remain true to the gothic sensibility while expanding the material to feature-length. The themes of plague, evil, class and religion make for a rich set of subtexts for a period horror film.




For the first time, Corman increased his budgets in order to get colour cinematography for these Poe films. The rich look was complemented by Daniel Haller's imaginative and psychological production design. The casts were usually headed by Vincent Price, grateful for material with some literary kudos.


For newcomers to these films, I wouldn't start with Corman's first Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher. The Poe films shot in America are characterised by endless creeping around cobwebbed corridors waiting for Vincent's dead wife to pop up. The Pit and the Pendulum is my favourite of these, for the magnificent finale and the dark presence of Barbara Steele. But Corman shot two Poe films in England, resulting in lusher and more ambitious productions. The Tomb of Ligeia even has exterior locations, at odds with the usual claustrophobic atmosphere of the series. The Masque of the Red Death is therefore my recommended starting point.


It has intertwined subplots, making for repeated payoffs, gets more than a little violent and subtly focusses on the battle between satanism and christianity. Prospero's repeated blasphemies are veiled in fancy words, but even the current home video version is missing gobbets of dialogue based on past censorship cuts. The oblique references to the outrageous sexual behaviour of his guests remain.




The production is entirely set-bound, but this is the best-looking Roger Corman Poe. The colour-coded sets, costumes and death scenes still look gorgeous, in no small part due to cinematographer and future director Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth).




Vincent Price is once again matched by a strong female lead, the late Hazel Court  (The Curse of Frankenstein, who looks rudely ravishing, and relishing an evil role (rather than her usually cheerful romantic lead). She'd previously appeared opposite Ray Milland in Corman's gloomy adaption of The Premature Burial. and his Poe spoof, The Raven.




The rival of her affection is played by a young Jane Asher (here aged about 18) surrounded by professional thespians and having to do nude scenes. She'd later appear in Alfie (1966)and star in the recently restored Deep End (1970). She'd already been a child actress, unrecognisable as the little girl who meets the monster in The Quatermass Xperiment(1955).




The large cast is bolstered by many other British actors, best of all Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange, Tales From The Crypt) as the queasily curious Duke Alfredo. Skip Martin gets a meaty role as Hop-Toad the vengeful dwarf - who also appeared in a string of horror movies (Vampire Circus, Horror Hospital, Corridors of Blood). For added gravitas, there's Nigel Green(The Ipcress File, Jason and the Argonauts)in a too-small role.


 


For years I watched The Masque of the Red Death with the sexual and violent scenes cut out, with the 2,35 frame cropped savagely to fullframe 4:3. It's now on anamorphic widescreen DVDs in the UK and US, but it's been noticed that some older censor cuts are still in place. The film was last spotted uncut on TV in the 90s, with a couple of extra short scenes (the two little people discuss running away, and when Asher says she "slept badly"), extra blasphemy (Asher calls to God and Price assumes she's addressing him), as well as a glimpse of nudity (Asher being thrown in the bath). This BBC showing was of a print that started 'Anglo Amalgamated Presents' and had George Willoughby credited as producer, rather than Corman. To my eyes, the 'dream sequence' that Hazel Court endures was also a notably different colour, much more blue than the greener hues of the DVD transfers.


More details about the various versions here on the Classic Horror Film forum.




 


These cuts are annoying but negligible (Skip Martin's scenes with his love interest are unintentionally creepy as she's played by a little girl, her voice dubbed in by an adult (unconvincingly). The veiled, blasphemous dialogue remains mostly intact, as are the scenes of violence. Of the two DVDs, I'd recommend the US DVD (the MGM Midnite Movie double-bill) for having richer colours, which this movie definitely needs. The low-light scenes with mist and smoke still struggle desperately with the DVD compression and it screams for a Blu-ray release. The MGM UK 2005 DVD is also anamorphic but doesn't include the trailer.




Here's Jane Asher's own website!