December 31, 2008

An idea for the new year...

Donor cards!

This is an 1980s postcard that always tickled me. I even bought an extra one with the intent of cutting it out and carrying around in my wallet... or would that be a bad idea?

December 27, 2008

RING 2 (1999) - what Sadako did next...

(1999, Japan)

This is part of a series about the Ring phenomenon, with a review of the second in the Japanese film trilogy.

The story follows on only hours later than the events in Ring. The police are still looking for the surviving characters, as well as sorting out the bodies... Mai, a minor character in Ring, (Professor Ryuji's assistant), steps up as the leading investigator in Ring 2, pursuing the mystery of the cursed videos. Crucially, the VHS tapes left around from Ring are carefully tracked down. Sadako's brother is again quizzed for clues, while also seeking closure for crimes against her.

Even Masami - the girl who survived Ring's opening scene - is revisited, though she's now in a psychiatric ward, carefully avoiding TV screens...

Okazaka, a reporter colleague of Reiko, (the heroine in Ring), has meanwhile interviewed Kazae, a new schoolgirl interviewee for the 'urban legend' story, has found another copy of the tape (but I'm confused as to where she got it).

Koji Suzuki's original Ring novels took a different direction than Ring 2, and there was a movie adaption of this alternate timeline, Rasen (sometimes called Spiral). I'll cover the movie of Rasen later, but this 'forgotten' sequel was the first to be made, but failed to capture audiences' imaginations.

Ring 2 had some powerful scares in it when I first watched it, even more than the original film. But watching it again, it's lost its hold on me, and the piecemeal plot delivers only a few memorable moments. Hopefully it can still deliver fright to first-time viewers who loved Ring.

It's certainly enjoyable for Ring fans to find out what happens next - to learn more about Sadako’s horrifying life and see a little more of her than in the first film, though she disappointingly has less to do. Every surviving witness, any connection or, gulp, videotape is explored further.

Though the messy climax is as unscary as it is unscientific. Denis Meikle's book The Ring Companion pins the blame on director Hideo Nakata taking his his inspiration for Ring 2 from Exorcist II: The Heretic(1977), a disastrous sequel to a classic horror movie... The only visual evidence of this appears in one scene where characters get their heads hooked up together by electrodes. I was reminded more of Brian De Palma's The Fury (1978), where psychic characters have vivid and frightening telepathic flashbacks when they have physical contact.

It's a fascinating follow-up for those gripped by the original, but not a classic story in itself, with few memorable scenes that come close to Ring.

Like the first film, the initial UK DVD release of Ring 2 wasn't in great shape (cover art at top), with poor picture quality and subtitles. However the newer UK and US DVDs are a vast improvement.

Do you want to know more?

My introduction to the Ring phenomenon is here.
My review of Ring is here.

December 24, 2008

Christmas in the Stars - if you must

Back in the infancy of Star Wars merchandising, there was an album of truly appalling Christmas carols duetted by C-3P0 and R2-D2. Though of course R2 can't sing, making this a twittering Anthony Daniels' Christmas album for the very, very young.

Here's the best of the worst... Happy Christmas!

December 23, 2008

Recommended anime series - FLAG, LAST EXILE, GHOST HOUND

Three anime series, for your consideration...

FLAG (2006)

This is about a photographer documenting the lives of soldiers on the front line of a modern day war, but while resembling the warfare in Iraq, Flag avoids getting bogged down in the specifics of politics, race and religion by setting it in a fictional country and switching the rebel faction's core religion to Buddhism! Chosen because she took an iconic photo of a sacred flag during a key moment in the county's revolution, a photographer is invited to record life on various secret missions, as an international peace-keeping force tries to prevent a civil war from escalating.

What instantly drew me in was the unique narrative technique - the story is told by a journalist sifting retrospectively through her photos, video recordings and interviews. It's easy to shoot this as live action on a video camera, cheap too, but in animation it's very hard to give a realistic handheld feel, though Flag has managed it. The 3D animation for the military vehicles at times approaches
photo-reality, it's so expertly done.

Anime normally chooses far future war or fictional planets as settings for war stories. Here, the likeable but realistic characters, in hard-edged settings also made this appealing for a more adult audience. It just about fits into the anime sub-genre of 'mecha' due to the futuristic walking war machines that are eventually introduced into the story, but everything else about it could easily be set in the present.

Currently available in the US, with all 13 episodes spread over 4 DVD volumes, there is also a re-edited, alternate storyline, movie-length version available in Japan on Blu-Ray (pictured).


This series seems to have banked on Katsuhiro Otomo's epic anime movie SteamBoy being a big hit, which it wasn't. Last Exile is set in an alternate timeline where old technology is mixed with the new, resulting in aerial dogfights and Phantom Menace pod racing, in vehicles that look more like cars from the 1920's.

Gonzo animation has excelled itself with lush animation and a fast-moving story, full of dynamic action scenes. Though the characters are familiar, the imaginative sights of 19th century styled airborne battleships, anti-gravity racers, and starfish-shaped walking warplanes, all compensate.
This is available on DVD in the US and UK as single volumes or as a boxset. There are 26 episodes altogether.


A very unusual murder mystery from Japanese animation house Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell) who produced this as their 20th anniversary project. 22 episodes in all - this is only officially out on Japanese DVD so far, I'm guessing that the Hong Kong release is a bootleg.

I'd been waiting for another anime similar to the startling Serial Experiments Lain, an intelligent series where science invades reality in an almost supernatural way. After Lain, director Ryutaro Nakamura made Texhnolyze which looked great, but I couldn’t understand it at all, and gave up on it. Now he's teamed up with Lain scriptwriter Chiaki J. Konaka and Ghost in the Shell author Shirow Masamune for a murder mystery series full of mind-expanding surprises.

Three schoolboys living in a remote mountain village, each with a suppressed, traumatic event in their past, are drawn back into an old unsolved murder case. Half-memories trouble their dreams and then start triggering vivid out-of-body experiences! New abilities might actually help the boys discover what happened in their pasts, and what's still going on... Oh yes, and they start seeing giant creatures from other dimensions...

This psychological drama mixes Japanese spirituality with cutting edge scientific views of the true potential of the human brain. Partly, loosely inspired by Twin Peaks, Ghost Hound uses advanced animation techniques for the p.o.v. out-of-body flying, as well as transparent ultraviolet ghostly creatures. These flourishes, coupled with the Lain-like approach to the inner workings of mind and memory, make this a stretch to follow, but still very rewarding.

Although there are a few school scenes with the usual teen subplots of bullying, cliques, and how to deal with girls... it also has extensive scenes of presumably accurate psychoanalytic methods and lectures on the structure of the brain!

Ghost Hound feels unique - a dark often deeply scary murder-mystery, that's also a transcendental fantasy. Brave narrative twists, a little adult content, a little comic relief and the teen characters hardly spend any time in the schoolroom.

There are echoes of Lain throughout Ghost Hound, mainly because of the the alternate reality, but also the occasional obliteration of dialogue by sound effects. Dynamic animation also lifts everyday situations to the spectacular, and often attempts to portray the impossible - like thought processes, blocked memories, and other dimensions... There's a more linear narrative approach than Lain, and in places, it's even more nightmarish.

The only official DVD releases so far are in Japan, but they have no English subtitles. This is a series that I'd love to have. Sometime. Soon. Please.
But, don't ask me why it's called Ghost Hound...

December 18, 2008

BARBARELLA (1968) the Ultimate Guide - Part 1: Review and Overview

Barbarella is definitely a cult film. It wasn't designed to be a cult, like some films, it was made to make money. But like Blade Runner it was rejected by the critics. who were especially harsh, and the film continues not to be taken seriously as sci-fi, or even a comedy! But despite being ignored, it still finds a following - a cult film. It's at the top of my top films, not because it's an underdog, but because I genuinely love it and haven't tired of it in thirty years. I first saw Barbarella at midnight on TV in a double-bill with This Island Earth. I love the look, the story, the characters, the cast and the intent.

A recent announcement that Barbarella would be remade by Robert Rodriguez was good news, even if it would only inspire a DVD special edition of the original. Most cult movies get special editions, right? The project is still alive, but nothing has been announced as yet.

(1968, France/Italy)

"The Universe has been pacified for centuries..."

Barbarella started life as a French comic strip, written and drawn by Jean Claude Forest. Barbarella had similar adventures to another comic strip hero, Flash Gordon, travelling around the galaxy and meeting new futuristic species while fighting a common foe. But unlike Flash, she could sleep around - Barb was often naked and used sex to save the Universe, all very 1960s, and very much the age of 'free love'.

The comic strips first appeared in French magazines and were very popular, soon reprinted as books of complete adventures - early 'graphic novels' before the phrase had been coined. The first volume became the basis of producer Dino de Laurentiis' 1968 movie.

Creator Jean Claude Forest was brought in as an adviser, helping make it a faithful adaption. For whatever reason, there are also a raft of scriptwriters credited in the movie's titles, though the end result is remarkably smooth. The original trailer lists only one writer, the celebrated counter-culture author Terry Southern, who had co-written the screenplay for Kubrick's Dr Strangelove. Southern later worked on the script for Easy Rider, and his novel The Magic Christian was adapted as a Peter Sellers comedy.

It's easy to see elements of Southern's titular character Candy (also filmed in 1968) in Barbarella, but there's nothing that wasn't already in Forest's original comics. Both stories are variations on Alice in Wonderland with added sexuality and recreational drug use. My guess is that Southern provided much of the witty dialogue and added many of the double-entendres, like Barbarella's translator device, the 'tongue box'. References to the World President selfishly hanging onto his defence forces in times of interplanetary peril, and to the continuing existence of the poor, both hint at his subversive wit at work.

The story is set ridiculously far into the future, around 40,000 A.D. War no longer exists, the Universe is unified and all about love - again, very 1960s. The Earth President asks Barbarella to pursue a mad scientist, Durand Durand, the inventor of a doomsday weapon.

She sets off in her spaceship, Alpha 7, and heads for Planet 16 orbiting Tau Ceti. She crashed during a magnetic storm, and accidentally discovers Durand's wrecked ship, Alpha 1. There she assesses the lay of the land, trading sex for information that could lead to the scientist. The trail leads to a place of evil and depravity, the sinful city of Sogo (a pun on Sodom and Gomorrah). She encounters evil children, killer dolls, leather robots, a maze full of disintegrating outcasts and finally, the voracious consorts in the palace of the Black Queen.

The winding, cliffhanger plot, places the heroine in constant peril. A running gag is that Barbarella keeps losing her clothes, necessitating a string of outlandish outfits. Indeed, the opening credits are a zero gravity strip-tease, where she loses her spacesuit. She falls into sexual encounters with every unusual character she meets - whether male or female, friend or enemy. Though there's no explicit coupling (excepting the bizarre hand-to-hand future-sex), there is occasional nudity, enough to warrant an 'X' certificate in the UK.

The film was also trimmed down to get an 'R' in the US, when a (mild) lesbian love scene was excised. I assume these cuts weren't necessary in the more liberal European countries, but have found no evidence that there were longer, alternate versions that included this scene. The only existing variation I've seen, is the brief full-frontal nudity in the opening striptease - older TV prints showed the words of the opening credits differently animated over Jane Fonda's nudity.

It's both space adventure and satirical comedy. Fonda plays it straight-faced, though much of the dialogue is ridiculous and tongue-in-cheek. It's a companion piece to the style of Batman (1966), where comic strip hero ethics were also sent up, in the sense of no-one could be that virtuous. The debt to the original 1930s Flash Gordon comic strip was repaid when Barbarella heavily influenced De Laurentiis' later movie adaption. Though Flash Gordon (1980) lacks the nudity, psychedelia and drug references that put Barbarella into a relatively small genre of adults-only fantasy.

The special effects have dated, though the use of front-projection originally allowed for a startling new look, where shifting colourful patterns expand bare sets into looking huge and unworldly. The name of the liquid monster living under the city, has even been used as the name of UK lava lamp manufacturer, Mathmos.

The projections were used extensively in the flying scenes, the aerial battle, the Chamber of Dreams and the journey through space. It looks obvious, but is at least imaginative and fascinating. The modelwork is bizarre - from Barbarella's triple-throbbing spaceship to the spidery city of Sogo. The sky-ships of the Black Guard look like they've been built by breast-obsessed fashion-designers, rather than aviation engineers. The fantastic streets of Sogo look more like modern art than anything recognisably functional.

Unusually, the entire film was shot on a sound stage - not many other movies have been made like this so consistently. Everything had to be designed and built from scratch, giving the whole movie a pure fantasy feel. The sets and costumes are far-out, sexy and stylish, and the influence of the film has been huge but largely unrecognised. Some of the only acknowledgements that Barbarella has received were from the makers of The Fifth Element and Demolition Man (the latter also had a hand-to-hand sex scene, and was set in a future where weapons were history).

Barbarella was one of the first VHS tapes that I bought. Home video releases have always called it Barbarella - Queen of the Galaxy for no logical reason. I waited for a 2.35 widescreen version for many years and it finally appeared on laserdisc. I was asked to write
the sleeve notes for the UK release and these were later reprinted as a DVD insert. I've also managed to see it in a cinema. The wider aspect ratio revealed many new details, like the large blue rabbits and other live animals used to populate the corners of the sets.

Paramount have yet to add any extra DVD material besides the (pretty poor) original US trailer (see YouTube clip below). Jane Fonda should at least be grabbed for a commentary session, especially now that many of the cast have passed away - most recently
John Phillip Law. There was a great behind-the-scenes featurette that has some great behind-the-scenes footage, even showing Fonda at home cooking for husband Roger Vadim, the director of Barbarella. The DVD has been mastered from fairly scratchy film elements, and the colour isn't as vivid as it could be.

With an international cast, many have quite thick European accents, and even Fonda's voice is occasionally lost in the mix. Only by looking at the comic book, the script, or the very useful DVD subtitles, can you appreciate every line of dialogue.

In the future I want to talk more about the cast, characters, costumes, missing scenes, publicity posters, magazines... so stay tuned.

And remember... LOVE!

The Ultimate Guide continues with...

Part 2: The movie's cast and characters

Part 3: Barbarella's many costumes

Part 4: Missing footage from the movie

Part 5: Set designs

Part 6: Movie posters

Most other Barbarella fansites are either very small or out of date. But this Italian site
has great photos, and is the only one I can recommend.

CATCH-22 (1970) - spectacular, gutsy anti-war satire

(1970, USA)

I remember this on TV as much for the shock moments, as for the black humour and the heavyweight cast. But only after seeing it in widescreen for the first time (on DVD), could I fully appreciate the huge scale of the production, especially the ambitiously long takes during the film’s most spectacular scenes.

After two massive Hollywood hits (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate), director Mike Nichols secured a huge budget for an anti-war film. He could afford to assemble a dozen fully-operational WW2 bombers, and an extensive location shoot in far-off Italy. He was of course attempting to live up to expectations and make a great film of Joseph Heller’s great book.

Although set in World War 2, the sense of place and time is played down, so that the madness feels like any wartime, rather than a specific war. Yossarian (Alan Arkin) flies dangerous bombing missions - the more times he goes up, the less likely he is to come back alive. He wants to escape by pleading insanity to the USAF doctor (Jack Gilford). But the Doc says only a sane man would want to save his own life, therefore Yossarian can't be insane... this is one of the many paradoxical 'catch-22s' that occur in the story. His fellow airmen escape the madness in a variety of ways, but not always alive.

The film's approach is unusual in many ways. The structure occasionally dips forwards and backwards in time, and we're disorientated by Yossarian's recurring dream of an injured airman. The satire isn't aimed at the loss of life, like most anti-war movies, but the enforced lack of logic, and its motivations...

There's an extraordinary cast, headed by Alan Arkin (Gattaca, Edward Scissorhands, Wait Until Dark), who at times emits sounds like a stressed-out Pee Wee Herman. He's the only character who reacts to the ridiculousness happening around him. The rest of the cast are playing eccentrics who act as if nothing is wrong. While the characters may not have existed, Heller based the novel on his experiences on an airbase that was aiding the American forces to pacify Italy.

The legendary Orson Welles has an impressive cameo. It's also fun to see Anthony Perkins and Martin Balsam reunited in a film, ten years after their intense head-to-head scene in Psycho. A young Martin Sheen tries to kill a colonel, a coincidental practice run for his later role in Apocalypse Now. Other fresh-faced youngsters in the cast include Jon Voight (Angelina Jolie's dad), Art Garfunkel, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, all displaying sharp comedic skills.

The insanely complex, long, single takes mix important members of the cast together with all the planes taking off en masse, as well as dozens of buildings exploding in a night raid. Two major scenes strengthened by their complete lack of fast editing or camera trickery.

Catch-22 is a more savage satire than M*A*S*H and is just as funny, but has been pretty much eclipsed by it. Both films emphasise the blood and guts spilled in wartime. But while Catch-22 starts off more as a black comedy, the humour gives way to harsh reality by the end.

Mike Nichols recently directed Charlie Wilson's War, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, another mix of humour and a true-life war story. He certainly hasn't lost his touch.

December 16, 2008

RESISTANCE - FALL OF MAN on Playstation 3

Not enough hours in the day...

The main reason I've been watching fewer movies over the past year, is this
Playstation 3 game, Resistance: Fall of Man.

You play as this character, British soldier Nathan Hale, and run around in the rubble of 1950s Britain frantically trying not to get killed in an alien invasion.

I wasn't initially interested in the PS3 - just another video game machine, I thought. But after seeing the quality of the latest leap in high-res graphics and processing power, I got hooked... again. The immersion factor, coupled with the huge detailed landscapes, an intricate scenario, a mixture of destruction and tactical problems, hours of exploring, plus a high repeat factor... have kept me returning to the game too.

Running around Manchester Cathedral backwards fending off dozens of huge scuttling spider-crab monsters was just one of many challenges. Bringing down huge Sentinel crab robots, fending off zombies, ducking energy-weapons that penetrate walls... and just when you think you're winning, fresh platoons of nasties arrive from the skies in dropships.

It has soaked up a substantial amount of late night spare time. I'm fairly addictive when it comes to video games, and since 1978 when I started bringing down Space Invaders and blowing up Asteroids, every few years I've been drawn into a new generation of video games. The latest lot can deliver heart-pounding excitement and sudden scares that give any action movie on Earth some severe competition.

Admittedly not many of the PS3 games have attracted me. I've tried out a lot of demos and not found many others that enticed me - only Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction and Bioshock so far. I'm hard to please - I don't want to shoot humans (Resistance has really ugly, vicious aliens called Chimera), I don't want to spend a whole game destroying stuff (I like exploring and problem-solving too), I like to see places and characters I haven't seen before (it's set in Britain, but many places have had gigantic otherworldly makeovers), I like variety (loads of different levels) and I like a challenge (four levels of difficulty).

So, only a few games, but that's all that's needed - they can be so vast and repeatable. Two games have kept me going all year. I've just completed Resistance at the hardest level, though I've not yet explored the many online multiplayer areas, also accessible with the game by going online. And the sequel, Resistance 2, has just hit the stores. An item that could single-handedly obliterate my spare waking hours throughout 2009...

"Resistance 2... INCOMING!"

December 14, 2008

Happy Birthday, Janette Scott

Wishing you a happy 70th birthday!

If you ever see a DVD or VHS of the movie The Day of the Triffids (1962), it's Ms Scott on the cover.

This year, she returned to the big screen after forty years absence, appearing with Simon Pegg in How To Lose Friends & Alienate People. I've not seen it yet, and therefore still think of her looking like her 1960's persona, when she was often a damsel in distress.

She was a good screamer, perfect for the Hammer films Paranoiac and The Old Dark House, and disaster movies like Crack In The World. Maybe she's still got another Hammer film or two to stick on her resume in the near future? Or maybe even a cameo in the forthcoming 2009 BBC TV series, when they produce another version of The Day of the Triffids.

December 12, 2008

Movie books and horror comics

This awesome Frank Frazetta tableau has been reprinted in the first of a series of hardback volumes re-releasing Creepy back into the world. In the same vein as EC Comics' Tales From The Crypt et al, but for a slightly older 1970s audience, Creepy was a large-format magazine full of high quality black-and-white artwork, all terror-filled tales with twists in the tail.

Volume One is out now, made up of the first five issues, with Volume Two due out soon.

The impressive highs in the career of movie producer Michael Deeley is documented in a new book. Anyone who has worked with Nicolas Roeg and Sam Peckinpah, and on films such as Blade Runner, The Deer Hunter and The Italian Job (1969) deserves a book. I hope he also talks about one of his earliest assignments, The Case of the Mukkinese Battlehorn - an early classic Peter Sellers short!

Good information on filming locations is hard to find. IMDB naming the countries where movies were shot doesn't give travelling film fans much to go on. I'm therefore looking forward to getting this guide, published earlier this year.

Christopher Frayling's 2005 book on production designer Ken Adam, The Art of Production Design was all about one of my favourite movie visualists, but I was disappointed that the book was very short on illustrations.

In 1999, I went to an exhibition of Adam's original artwork at The Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, and was impressed at how many classic sketches, stretching back to the 1950s, were still in existence. Sketches of sets from Night of the Demon, as well as the original art for James Bond's tricked out Aston Martin DB7, classic set designs for the hugest James Bond and Stanley Kubrick films, all deserved a coffee table book. Now there is one. If it's not in my stocking on Christmas morning, Santa's a dead man. You hear me, Santa?

December 10, 2008

DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1971) - extraordinary Lucio Fulci thriller

(1972, Italy, Non si sevizia un paperino)

After watching Mike Baronas' Paura DVD tribute to Lucio Fulci, I was hungry for some of Fulci's films that I hadn't yet seen. I'm very glad I started with this one.

With the customary oblique title, I'd assumed that this was a typical Italian slasher, with half-naked models being terrorised and creatively knocked off. I was surprised when Don't Torture a Duckling turned out to be as good as the early Dario Argento thrillers, with a unique setting and an uncomfortably edgy plot that's still topical and challenging today.

In a remote hilltop town in southern Italy, seemingly ignored and bypassed by a new motorway, a series of child-murders turns the local people into a lynch mob. The victims are all young boys. The police have plenty of suspects, but little evidence, and so the killings continue...

The ancient hilltop sun-bleached town is a great-looking location. Carefully but dynamically photographed, Fulci tells his story with long, precise shots, using the zoom lens like a highly-trained sniper.

Barbara Bouchet is the only face in the cast I recognised - this beautiful actress gets a far better part here, than when she played Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond comedy, Casino Royale (1967). Here she appears unnervingly confident during an extended nude scene with a young co-star. In fact the whole cast work admirably well in a variety of intense scenes, even the child actors, who Fulci has no problem getting performances from.

While this is essentially more a murder mystery than Fulci's later supernatural horrors, a couple of startlingly vicious scenes pushes it firmly into horror territory, topped off with a voodoo doll motif. A prolonged and nasty chain-thrashing pre-dates the opening scene of Fulci's The Beyond (which is newly released on DVD).

The child murders are comparitively restrained, but obviously shocking. The thankfully unrealistic use of dummies lessens a couple of nasty moments, but elsewhere, the make-up effects look painfully real.

Fulci appears to be attacking small town mentality, the police and the church, but his messages aren't heavy-handed or intrusive, just playfully subversive if you dig into the subtext!

Altogether, this is a unique story, in an unusual setting, with some inventive surprises for the genre, all beautifully shot and slickly told. My only reservation could be that the dialogue is dubbed into English (when most of the cast are Italian). But in the 70s, dubbing was widespread and far more skilfully done than it is today. It's also typical for the period.

This recent DVD release from Blue Underground appears uncut, and is presented in a beautiful 2.35 widescreen transfer. What are you waiting for? Yeah, I know it isn't very seasonal.

Do you want to know more?
More about Lucio Fulci films here...

December 09, 2008

Vintage horror on the big screen - two Dr Jekylls

Over the next few weeks, the BFI Southbank in London is showing the 1931 and 1941 Hollywood versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. These were the first two film adaptions of Robert Louis Stephenson's novel to be made with sound.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)
starred Fredric March
and Miriam Hopkins. Director Rouben Mamoulian's extraordinary version, equating Mr Hyde's animal behaviour with Dr Jekyll's suppressed violent urges, heavily hints at his unspoken sexual desires. For this reason, the film was censored, even before the Hays Code had started incurring it's huge list of cinematic taboos. It's subtle by today's standards but still definitely adult-themed - like Jekyll's encounter with a 'woman of the street' that hints at his being sorely tempted, despite being a respectable doctor, engaged to be married.

At present, the only DVD of the film (a US double-bill of both these versions) is still a censored one, though uncut (or less cut) prints occasionally play on British TV. There are some startling publicity photos that indicate that additional scenes were shot and then censored, or not used - like the monstrous Mr Hyde catching and eating a pigeon, and another of him stamping on a small child in the street! No footage of these scenes has emerged as yet.

Not only is the subject matter ahead of its time, but the film-making is still interesting today
, demonstrating how early sound cinema took the new technology in its stride. Considering how much bulkier early movie cameras were when they were sound-proofed, the point-of-view tracking shot that introduces Jekyll through his eyes as he goes to work, is impressive.

Starring as both leading men, Fredric March was better known for light comedic roles, but you may know him from the original A Star is Born (1937), I Married a Witch (1942) which is very much a prototype for Bewitched, Inherit the Wind (1960) or as the US President in Seven Days In May (1964). He won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde, citred as the first ever awarded to an actor in a 'horror' role.

The film gets a deserved extended run in London, showing daily from December 12th to January 1st. Details here.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941)
starred Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman
. It's more restrained than the earlier version, though the cast may be more familiar to you. Spencer Tracy takes on the main roles, though is somewhat miscast, and far less make-up is used for his violent 'alter ego'. The furious Freudian symbolism in the dream sequence is quite over-the-top, verging on funny. Ingrid Bergman famously took on the role of the 'bad girl', while Lana Turner played the virginal fiance, both actresses playing 'against type'.

Director Victor Fleming's impressive previous credits include no less than
Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, though this film isn't in colour, which begs the question, why remake a ten-year old movie? It still makes an interesting comparison to the Fredric March version.

It will be shown at the BFI London on January 6th and 10th only. Details here.

December 07, 2008

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) - the nastiest of witch hunts

(UK, 1968, also called The Conqueror Worm)

How do you know she's a witch?

Finally, I can say I've seen a good presentation of one of Britain's best horror films. I'm going to talk longer than usual about its DVD releases, because it's a highly regarded film in British cinema, as well as horror history, and there are a few ‘restorations’ out there... I'm late to this particular party, these DVDs have all been out for ages, but I've only recently watched the film again and cross-compared.

Based on a factual but rather dry historical account of the real-life Witchfinder General, written by Ronald Bassett, director Michael Reeves’ film aims for realism in both period detail and the depiction of violence. Because it stars Vincent Price, it’s therefore classified as a horror film. But only as much as Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter are horror films. They show the horror of war and torture, and are based on real events. Witchfinder General could only really be classified as horror if it hadn’t happened.

The Civil War in 17th century Britain, when Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads were fighting King Charles’ armies across the country. Amidst the chaos of warfare, Matthew Hopkins, a legally-appointed witchfinder was entrusted to root out, torture and execute anyone suspected of practising witchcraft. Just after a young soldier in Cromwell’s army gets engaged, his fiance and her father cross paths with the witchfinder and his thuggish assistant, Stearne. Can the soldier tackle Hopkins and win? Can he avoid being hung for desertion from the army, as well as outwitting the deceitful and ruthless official?

Behind the scenes -
Kine Weekly, January 6th 1968

Ian Ogilvy (star of The Sorcerers and Return of the Saint) plays the driven young soldier - his best ever performance. Vincent Price also won great reviews for underplaying as Hopkins - whereas his usual horror roles were lightened by his humour and theatricality (like in The Abominable Dr Phibes and The Pit and the Pendulum to name but two). Here he's a ruthless and grim character, deliberately ignoring the suffering he inflicts for personal monetary gain. Hilary Dwyer (Cry of the Banshee, The Oblong Box) plays the fiance Sarah, also underplaying as a likeable and realistic character.

Half-page ad in Films and Filming, July 1968

It benefits from being shot almost totally on location. The English countryside helps us to imagine what it was like over 300 years ago. Some of the Norfolk and Suffolk locations that were used had actually been visited by the real Hopkins. The village square in the burning scene isn't a set - some of the buildings would have been around when Hopkins was there. It couldn’t look any more authentic.

In the book, the torture scenes require imagination. But the pain is fully described in the film, made even worse by the twisted injustice of the rules. Once accused, the ‘witches’ have no chance of survival, whether they co-operate or not.

The film was heavily cut on its original release, but not because of explicit special effects – there’s no prosthetics, rubber limbs or even spurting blood. The violence was far more effectively portrayed than usual, by using a realistic amount of stage blood, true to life performances and a lot of screaming. The loud and extended use of screams make it uncomfortably real and all the more horrifying. Besides the censor cuts to reduce the amount blood, there were cuts to reduce the amount of screaming.

After decades of watching this on TV, when it was always a cut version, the VHS debut in the UK turned out to be less cut, but with alternate scenes of nudity from the Continental version. This wasn’t the version I wanted.

In the US, the film had been re-edited and re-titled as The Conqueror Worm for the cinema release, to fool audiences that this was another of Vincent Price’s Edgar Allen Poe films (the series of adaptions directed in the UK and US by Roger Corman). But worse still was the US VHS release, with Paul Ferris’ haunting orchestral score replaced with electronic music.

Subsequently, each time I saw Witchfinder General, there was a little bit more to see. With a string of TV restorations, and finally an 'uncut' widescreen UK DVD release in 2001, from Metrodome. But this debut on DVD was compromised by having the restored violence sourced from a low-quality VHS. Every restored cut was also incorrectly aspected (4:3 vertically squeezed) and sometimes intercut with film elements midshot. Even so, this rough restoration has played on TV. While the new shots were a revelation to see, the presentation was regularly jarring. DVD Beaver, the best site for DVD comparisons has as yet only reviewed this version, though it has some useful screengrabs.

Metrodome gained bonus points for the DVD extras, including an in-depth documentary with some of the original film-makers. It also has a ‘branching’ option to see the Continental version – using alternate takes of topless bar wenches, originally shot for Europe's less prudish audiences. There is thankfully the choice to see it with the clothed scenes intact. But both versions on the DVD include the low-grade VHS censor cuts.

Finally there are now two more DVDs to choose from. The 2007 MGM 'Midnite Movies' release in the US, which Tim Lucas recommends here, and the same restoration on a 2005 French DVD that I’ve only just seen. The two DVDs run at slightly different speeds, as is usual with PAL and NTSC transfers, but appear to be exactly the same version.

Based on a French online film-forum comparison, I bought the French DVD release from Neo Publishing, titled Le Grand Inquisiteur. The onscreen titles and credits are all in English, and the French subtitles can be turned off. I’ve compared it side-by-side to the UK Metrodome release, and the French DVD beats the look of the UK DVD in almost all departments. The restored cuts blend perfectly with the rest of the film, and even add a couple of powerful moments not previously seen. Two scenes run a little longer - the end of Stearne's dungeon interrogation scene runs an extra two slaps and screams, and the climax runs for two extra whacks of the axe. Both scenes now feel like they run to a natural conclusion.

The print, or maybe the film-to-tape transfer, used for the French DVD also improves the crushed, darkened look, where many filmed details were lost in the shadows. Conversely, some day-for-night shots that were too light, that even had blue skies in supposedly night scenes, have been corrected. With more detail on display, and flawless restored footage, this is now a treat to watch.

While the French DVD is by far the best version I've ever seen, I still have a couple of notes. It starts with a slightly yellow bias to the colours, skewing the lush green of the grass, as seen in the UK transfer. The DVD also seems to suffer poor compression at the start, with subtle but visible patterning in the skies of the opening scenes. Both these faults disappear after the first five minutes of the film. It has all the restored footage of the UK DVD, except the first pricking shot for some reason.

The MGM release also marks the home video debut of the original soundtrack in the US. Tim Lucas notes the loss of the 'Conqueror Worm' version opening and closing footage, which I’ve still not seen. This indicates possible material to be included in a future special edition. The MGM DVD has the documentaries but adds a unique commentary track, from the star Ian Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove.

This article was inspired by this French page that demonstrated the advantages of the French presentation over the UK. I couldn't have found out about it without the fellow obsessives on the MonsterKid Classic Horror Forums. The French article has very useful comparison framegrabs of the UK and French DVD releases.

There's also a interesting interview about the MGM restoration here at DVD Talk.

Vincent Price talks about his cruellest of characters
in Photoplay Film Monthly, July 1968

Lastly, there's a full CD release of Paul Ferris’ soundtrack now available and reviewed here...