December 31, 2007

Have a Happy New Year!

Take care on New Year's Eve...

...and I wish you all the best for 2008
(hope it's not too strange... in a bad way).

Not on DVD: WILLARD (1971)

(US, 1971)

Recommending seventies horror films to a modern audience isn't easy, even harder when it's one of hundreds of films not on DVD. I’m fond of this one because I saw it on TV when I first started watching horror movies, but I’d still only recommend it here if I think it can still interest or entertain.

Ironically, half of the films available in horror sections in stores, I wouldn’t recommend to my worst enemy (if I had one). The selection on sale aren’t the best horrors ever made, they simply want you to buy them.

Willard was an early ‘animal attack’ movie, which used to be a very small genre before Jaws swam along shortly after. Beforehand, I can only think of Eye of the Cat, Frogs, Black Zoo, Moby Dick, and Naked Jungle off the top of my head. But rats on the attack are a little more plausible and certainly more horrifying than trying to make pussycats look like killers.

Willard doesn’t have a cast of teenagers - there are old people, some very old, lots of them. The action isn’t non-stop, but slowly and carefully staged, gradually unfolding. Similarly, the violence doesn’t hit you in the face, it serves the story - and doesn’t involve much blood at all. But, you don’t need blood to make a horror film work, just fill a cellar with hundreds of rats…

Based on Stephen Gilbert’s novel, Ratman’s Notebooks, this used to be a well-known horror tale. Young Willard has dreary life full of problems. His ailing mother is practically bed-ridden, he has no friends because he works so hard, he hates his boss and the feeling is mutual… His life is getting worse and worse until a young pretty temp starts working at the office, and he makes a new friend in his back garden – a large brown rat. Feeding and training the rat, who he names Socrates, he discovers that he can effectively communicate with it and it’s growing number of friends.

If you like films in pigeon-holes, you could call this a rat-attack movie, but it’s secondary to it’s value as a psychological thriller. The pressures mount on Willard till he cracks, notably from bullying by his boss. But instead of going spree-killing with automatic weapons, he uses the rats to cause trouble, steal, and then attack… all without having to appear in person, almost a perfect crime. The book went one step further than the film by having Willard disguise himself as a giant rat for his night attacks. A headline in the film alludes to this subplot from the novel.

Bruce Davison’s performance is the reason for seeing this now. Davison (who more recently starred in X-Men and X2) is excellent as the nervous mother's boy, resembling a lost teenager rather than a 27 year-old. Usually when actors talk to themselves onscreen it’s because it’s the only way we can hear their thoughts, but Davison realistically portrays someone stomping round a big empty house, ranting to themself.

His mother is played by Elsa Lanchester, then still famous as a ‘horror star’ for having been the monster’s mate in Bride of Frankenstein back in 1935. Ernest Borgnine, halfway between The Wild Bunch and The Poseidon Adventure, believably plays the scheming bully who is Willard’s boss. Sondra Locke is suitably innocent as the temp, but she was soon to make more of an impression in many of Clint Eastwood early movies.

On a sour note, the musical score by Alex North (Spartacus), schizophrenically veers between menacing and cute. As Willard trains the rats, the music sounds more like a Disney real-life adventure. An almost romantic theme over the opening shots of the steel mill (where Willard works in the office), I thought I was watching an advert for the US steel industry.

There’s no real sudden shocks, but even knowing that rats don’t normally attack people and are shy and highly intelligent, seeing lots and lots of rats make me feel very uneasy. There’s no trick photography, just a lot of rats. But they are well-trained, Moe and Nora Di Sesso are credited as the trainers. They also worked on the sequel and trained the dogs in The Hills Have Eyes (1977)! The Humane Association were also on hand to monitor the faked rat cruelty (but where were they on Food of the Gods?), which is just as distressing to watch as the suffering of the human cast.

But why else would this film disappear so efficiently for so long, not even getting a DVD release when the remake arrived. All you can get now a dark, crushed transfer on VHS if you’re lucky.

Willard successfully lead to a sequel the following year, Ben (which I’ll watch again soon). Recently there was the remake with Crispin Glover which is worth a look, but not nearly as memorable. CGI rats…

- - - - - - -

December 28, 2007


(US, 1982)

Now available on DVD, HD-DVD, Blu-Ray

Five-film boxsets include the original US version, the International version, the Workprint (all 1982), the Director's Cut (1992), and the new Final Cut (2007).

Well, wow. It’s about time I talked a little about my favourite film. The perfect opportunity has arisen with the new boxset releases that include a new Final Cut of the film. It's not a review of the film, but thoughts on the new version.

After a delay of five years for legal haggling, the 20th anniversary release has become a 25th anniversary. While the wait has been unbearable, hopefully the extras have had time to be almost perfect! But I was expecting more of a fanfare, aside from all the advertising. The tenth anniversary gained a wide theatrical release, and this version is much more different than the so-called 'Director’s Cut'.

For years I’ve been fuming about the Director’s Cut eclipsing the original International Version that I first saw in 1982 (a much more violent version than was seen in the States). The Director’s Cut lost the violence, the narration and the happy ending. But it was little more than an intermediate edit for the new Final Cut and deserves to be ditched in the scheme of things as little more than a castrated reissue. Of course, it’s now had a shelf life of 15 years and been the only version ever available on DVD, versus the original’s 10 year reign which only made it to VHS panned and scanned, only ever widescreen on laserdisc. The Director’s Cut has been the most seen, but least interesting version. The unicorn shot was the only additional footage, lifted from out-takes from Legend (which was filmed after Blade Runner, fuelling rumours that Ridley had made up the scene afterwards).

I’m obsessed with many films, but this one has preoccupied me the most. It’s so dense, layered in meaning, visuals, music... I love the production design of the film, the cast, the special effects, the accurate-looking future, the emotions, the richness of the cinematography… I could go on.

It was released at a time when journalism was starting to provide accurate behind-the-scenes coverage about film production, and here was a subject that deserved to be written about, most notably the Cinefantastique double issue and the Cinefex issue dedicated to the special effects. When the Directors Cut was released, the crucial Video Watchdog article listed the differences between all versions and highlighted the Workprint as being far more interesting – finally we can see that too in the 5-disc disc release.

Entire books have been devoted to the film, best of which was an authoritative expansion of the CFQ article written by Paul Sammon – Future Noir. Though it's likely to have been pillaged for all the best anecdotes to go into the extensive documentary and DVD extras.

Added to this, along the years, several indepth websites continued to update props whereabouts, interview the cast members, log alternate early scripts, and even post missing chapters from the Sammon book.

So after pouring over images of lost scenes, sounds and anecdotes, we finally get to see an update of the film, with the most annoying special effects and continuity errors of the film corrected digtially. Wire removal now makes the full-size Spinner car fly, a stunt woman in a bad wig has now morphed back into Joanna Cassidy, Deckard’s tell-tale bruise has been removed (it appeared beofre his fight with Leon because a dialogue scene got the number of surviving replicants wrong). Countless other dialogue tweaks in the soundtrack explain the unexplained, yet the much talked about narration remains missing, leaving the film treading water in places. I liked the narration – I miss it’s poignancy as well as background exposition – it still echoes in my memory as the new versions of the film play without it.

Anyway, hopefully there’ll be no more variants. Besides the fixes, there is little additional footage - three scenes are very different, jarring to someone who’s seen it many times – the unicorn, the dove, the hockey masks...

The whole debate about Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, being an artificial replicant like the ones he’s hunting down, is a complete red herring, but it's the storypoint that everyone now talks about. Scott fixed it in the Director’s Cut to lead us towards that conclusion (why didn’t he do that originally?). He’s now nailed it in interviews, but in the film the unicorn scene and it's pay-off are oblique references open to interpretation. To me, Deckard is more human than the replicants, he loses every single fight with them, even the pleasure model! The story has him teaching a non-human to love – that scene is meaningless if he too is artificial.

One scene has his eyes subtly ‘glow’ the same way as the replicants – I always thought that was a clever red herring placed halfway through the story to send the audience in the wrong direction. Harrison Ford didn’t play Deckard as artificial, while the other actors take great pains to portray something child-like and different in the replicants. Zhora’s killing machine anger and strength, Pris’s four-year old vulnerability, Leon’s twitchy ignorance, Roy’s race against the clock – all masterly performances of replicants, very different from Ford’s.

The film for me is about the contrast between human and artificial human. The irony, the humour and even the plot falls falls down if he’s one of them too. It’s a cheap twist ending, more abrupt and “huh?” than the original ‘happy ending’ which I prefer. In the Channel 4 documentary, many other members of the cast and crew were equally divided about this point – it should be open to opinion, not ‘fixed in post’.

But now on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, an impeccable futureproof 4K telecine transfer now gives us a glorious new version to be studied, rendering far more background detail – sometimes too much. Spinners can now be seen flying around in the far distance of the cityscape – an astonishing detail.

To me there’s little that dates the film. The themes of genetic replication, overpopulation, artificial intelligence, fucked weather, are all as relevant as ever. The vision of a future that will be mucky, wet, and dangerous and that humans will escape and discard the dying planet to look for new ones seems more likely than ever.

For me, the future hasn't arrived until we get flying cars.

Now for the other four discs...

- - - - - - -

December 18, 2007

Christmas is a time for... Cat People!

Seasons Greetings to all visitors to Black Hole reviews.

Curse of the Cat People (1944) - a Christmas movie with a difference. Why not invite Irena into your home?

- - - - - - -

December 06, 2007

FREEDOM (2007) - a 21st century Akira

(2007, Japan)

Dazzling anime debut, that should really dazzle more...

US NTSC region 1 DVD/HD-DVD (Honneamise)

There was considerable excitement that Katsuhiro Otomo, the writer/director of the groundbreaking anime movie Akira (1998), was again heavily involved in a futuristic anime. His last animated movie, Steamboy (2004), failed to catch the same attention, despite a huge budget and long development. Since then he's directed the live-action movie of Mushishi, but is now back on more familiar ground.

Though Freedom is directed by Shuhei Morita (Kakurenbo), the characters, machines and many aspects of the story are heavily reminiscent of Otomo's Akira. While Akira was made with painted animation cels, Freedom is rendered in a complicated 3D computer-graphic process, that eventually looks like the old 2D characters. The project retains the look of traditional anime, and the artists can still express emotions the traditional way, but the characters can interact with dynamic 3D camera moves and backgrounds.

This is all very exciting, but not totally new. The crew that produce Appleseed have achieved similar results, with slightly more realistic human figures. But have now made three movie this way - we are just about to see Vexille and Appleseed 2. It's great to see what looks like a next generation Akira - maybe they could produce a remake this way, rather than in the rumoured live-action?

But for me the downside of the Freedom project, having only seen the first episode, is that the story is far from cutting-edge. The animation is magnificent, and the intricately designed moonbase and interiors are a peek into the future 300 years from now, but the characters are pretty standard and the story doesn't hit the ground running. We get action instead. It feels like there's big money riding on this, and the producers are playing safe with the story.

Even the theme tune is a years old Utada Hikaru hit. This is disappointing - good as it is, as I'd expect brand new music for a project like this.

Further disappointment came from the realisation that the action in episode 1 looked very like the pod race out of Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace. The recent anime series IGPX had already done something more exciting in this vein, why doesn't Freedom?

The spectacular pod races dominate the first episode, but have little bearing on the plot. Three teenagers wander around the huge interiors of the moonbase, and out on the surface (in suitably Otomo-styled spacesuits). We learn little more than the Earth is no longer habitable, and that the three young men are always in trouble, probably not heading for citizenship that will enable their freedom in a few months time.

Anime fans in the west will know the anime term OVA, but have rarely encountered it in practice. Original Video Animation, refers to an anime series that is released on video in episodes, funded only by the video sales. We normally have the luxury of purchasing entire OVA series after the Japanese fans have 'paid' for it. We're not used to waiting for the next episode to be animated! The first OVA was Dallos, directed by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) in 1983, heralding a new way that animators could experiment free of network TV confines and censorship, catering for adult storylines.

My first OVA was Blue Submarine no 6, which like Freedom was released in single episodes on DVD in the US. That tale of undersea mutations battling land-dwellers in a flooded world, with then cutting edge 3D vehicles mixed with 2D characters has aged very well, particularly for the vehicle designs, thundering action scenes and challenging storyline - more exciting, it must be said, than Freedom's first episode.

Freedom is a hard sell in the west, only 25 minutes of episode per DVD, without the advantage of the heat of the multimedia publicity campaign that they had in Japan, where a long campaign of TV ads for pot noodles, were set in the Freedom universe. These same Cup Noodle products are also noticably placed in the episodes.

The US DVD release of Freedom episode 1 was unusually ahead of the Japanese launch. It's also on a rare format - a single-sided dual-layer twin format disc that plays in both DVD and HD-DVD players. The extras on the DVD are a preview of episode 2 and an interesting work-in-progress version that can be viewed alongside the finished episode in various configurations - enabling viewers to pinpoint the high number of computer-generated sequences.

I'll still be getting further episodes. This is superior animation from some of the best talents in Japan, but I was expecting to be really impressed. Hopefully episode 2...

Do you want to know more?

Japanese Freedom website

US Freedom website

English language blog by one of Freedom's animation staff

- - - - - - -

Books about movies. Yes, books.

Don't worry, there are loads of pictures...

I haven't read these yet, but they are already favourites on my bookshelf. When I get round to them I'll tell you more, but I just want to tip you off about these before Christmas strikes.


For Gerry Anderson and Supermarionation fans, this new book is packed with colour and black and white photos from the behind the scenes of the special effects Century 21 Studios, who worked for the sixties TV productions UFO, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and Thunderbirds (including the two feature films).

Author Alan Shubrook worked in the model studios and had just bought a new 35mm SLR camera. His photo collection show some breath-taking moments of classic children's TV being filmed. For example, on the cover, you see Thunderbird 2 taking off. The book is available paperback and hardback.


Queen of Japanese Movie is all about a 'tough-girl' cycle of seventies movies that mixed bad girls with fashion and music in a whole new way. The cycle starts with the Stray Cat Rock movies that launched Meiko Kaji as the ultimate in resilient women anti-heroes, before she became Female Prisoner Scorpion or Lady Snowblood. The genre simultaneously promotes women as resourceful survivors, at the same time exploiting them erotically. While some characters could be feminist role-models, they also spend a little screentime topless - the photos in the book reflect both aspects of the films...

Although mostly in Japanese, there are English synopses as well, but the majority of the book is colour photos and posters from the films. A great way to navigate the next wave of vintage cult Japanese cinema to hit the west. The book also contains a CD of music from the movies.


American author August Ragone spotlights the special effects maestro who first brought Godzilla to the screen, as well as pioneering the TV studio that brought us, and still brings us Ultraman. The photo on the front is of him working on the very first episode, back in 1966. The book is heavy on photos, and is already selling well. Good to see Tsuburaya-san finally getting more recognition.

Although Eiji Tsuburaya is no longer with us, his legacy is still going strong - his film and TV work continues to be released on DVD, and the characters he brought to life are constantly being revived. In 2004, I was lucky enough to visit a museum in his home town that celebrated his work and the fiftieth anniversary of Godzilla films.


This was actually published in 2005, but I've not heard enough praise about it. Again it's heavy on photos and posters, focussing on the most entertaining US movies of the seventies. The text is a mixture of information and irreverant interviews designed to remind you or inspire you of the best and funnest movies of the decade.

The title is of course a line of dialogue from Airport 75, a classic and silly disaster movie that almost sent itself up before Airplane got to it. The book is an easy read, a great volume to dip into, and the photos are rare enough for even collectors of the genre.

- - - - - - -