August 25, 2009

STARCRASH (1978) - enjoyably bad STAR WARS rip, with Hasselhoff

(Italy/USA, 1978)

Immediately after Star Wars (1977) there was a (meteor) shower of 'sci-fi' movies. By sci-fi I mean 'space fantasy adventure', the sort with goodies, baddies, plastic ray-guns, wise-cracking robots and not a lot of science.

Gone was the intelligent sci-fi that had ruled the decade, following the lead of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. The dystopian eco-disasters, the mistrust of androids, the predictions of where humanity was heading - Westworld, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Silent Running...

But after 1977, everything had to look a lot like Star Wars. James Bond had to go into space in Moonraker (1979). TV had to go into space with Battlestar Galactica (1978) and Buck Rogers (1979).

But space adventure movies need a lorra cash for sets, costumes, and most importantly special effects. The big budgets rolled out in 1979 - Disney threw expensive old-style FX at The Black Hole. Ridley Scott was inspired to switch from a medieval fantasy and make Alien instead. Star Trek returned a decade after cancellation for the first movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Flash Gordon arrived in 1980 - it was the film that Lucas had wanted to make, but couldn't get the rights.

But at the same time, there were the low-budgets, a raft of cheaper cheekier awfuller Star Wars-a-likes. Italy moved in quick with the truly terrible The Humanoid (1979) and Starcrash, serving a space-hungry public, getting in quick before Lucas could sort out a sequel. While I still find The Humanoid unwatchably awful, still smarting from a wasted Saturday night thirty years ago. Richard Kiel should never be given lines, let alone carry a picture.

On the other hand, Starcrash is growing on me. Not because its good, but unrelentingly enjoyably bad. Laugh out loud bad.

The plot is somewhat familiar, about an evil baddie who wants to rule the universe and a band of goodies trying to stop him. There's robots, ray-gun shootouts, space battles and a lot of Italian stuntmen.

Part of the joy of it is how consistently and creatively bad it is in all departments - acting, special effects, dialogue, editing, modelwork... Even John Barry's score, a spacey soundtrack from before Moonraker and The Black Hole, actually has several memorable tracks, but they're used on a loop until they're over-familiar.

There's mostly American and British stars in the cast: good actors being bad, bad actors being bad, and Christopher Plummer being so very very professional that his performance and sincerity are hilariously out of place, especially in the silly silver clothes and sub-Barbarella furnishings. Plummer (Dracula 2000, Dragnet, Dreamscape) plays the benevolent Emperor as if he's going for an Oscar.

Joe Spinell (Maniac) as baddie Zarth raises the roof in a pantomime performance that fits the daft dialogue, e.g. "By sunset, I'll be the master of the whole universe!" There's no sunset, Zarth, you're in space. Even better: "Activate the doom machine!", a line straight out of Invader Zim. His greasy hairstyle and mini Princess Leia buns are bizarrely contrary to his bad cop/Bronx hoodlum/serial killer image. He's over-dubbed by a suitably over-enthusiastic mid-Atlantic voice that sort of works.

Hammer heroine Caroline Munro (Maniac, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Dracula AD 72) aims her performance at six year-olds, while her costumes are obviously intended for those ten years older. She's enthusiastic, but unable to refuse the stupidest lines.

Marjoe (Food of the Gods) Gortner and (Yes!) a young David Haselhoff duel over who's got the biggest space perm. The Hoff isn't famous just yet, and not on top of the bill, but his presence here almost single-handedly makes this a must-see. For no good reason, he and all the other actors wear mascara. Does it look futuristic? No.

The story structure is just as lacking as the judgement of wardrobe and make-up. By the final big battle, all our heroes are simply hanging back, watching the troops slug it out on a big screen! The decisive laser-gun shootout takes place in what looks like a big white plastic lounge with broken windows, which should really be a major drawback out in deep space.

The special effects aren't. The compositing work is really obvious, part of the picture is far more blurry than the rest, and there's a simple straight-edge dividing theme. The stop-motion model animation (ripping off several Ray Harryhausen characters, like Talos) is poor by even 1930s standards.

There are many, many spaceships slowly flying past the camera, just like the opening shot of Star Wars, but the small scale and lack of detail is pretty poor. What they lack in model-making skills, they make up with colour. One model looks like it's lost a game of paintball, and even the stars look like M&M's.

But I can't say there's ever a dull moment.

Out of all the cheap and fast Star Wars rip-offs, this could be the worst-made but the most entertaining. What you see is exactly what you get. There's no movie magic at work here. Disbelief refuses to be suspended. But it's entertaining rather than logical. Hilariously bad, with the acting and dialogue sealing the deal.

At the very end, Chris Plummer looks to the camera and ad-libs a single-take, long goodnight speech worth its weight in dramatic improvisation. A genuinely magical moment, against all the odds!

We're lucky that something so bad is out on DVD, but only in France at the moment (pictured above). There's English, French and Italian audio tracks, the only drawback is the opening story-so-far scrolling text is in French. It's anamorphic widescreen and there's an original trailer. The scratched print could look better, but it's an improvement on the square, fuzzy VHS transfers out there on bootleg. There's also a French double-disc special edition set, which includes Starcrash 2! I can barely imagine what that's like... Anyone seen it?

Some nutter has built a well-illustrated website devoted to Starcrash with a little on The Humanoid too! We are not alone!.

Anyone name any other bad Star Wars rips worth seeing?

In the meantime, here's a Starcrash trailer on YouTube...

August 22, 2009

20TH CENTURY BOYS - Part 1 (2008) - Japanese HEROES without superpowers

20TH CENTURY BOYS - Chapter 1
(2008, Japan, 20-seiki shônen: Honkaku kagaku bôken eiga)

Hmmm. There's a lot of hype around this trilogy of Japanese films, but I'm here to help reset your expectations. Japanese films have far smaller budgets than American ones, and while the first 20th Century Boys looks good, it resembles an expensive American TV mini-series.

The story starts when Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa) reluctantly attends a school reunion. He discovers a link between a series of murders and kidnappings, with the innocent fantasies of his childhood gang of friends. As the grown-ups struggle to remember the details of their young imaginary adventures, the modern-day chaos starts to escalate.

The viewpoint expertly flips between their present and their childhoods, centred on a 20-year old mystery, reminiscent of the intrigue in Watchmen. As the middle-aged gang remember that they once made up a series of prophecies about an evil enemy terrorising Japan, the race is on to prevent it becoming reality. The suspense of an impending disaster reminded me of the first season of Heroes.

But the difference is that the 20th Century Boys have no superpowers. Kenji runs a convenience store - his life seems to have peaked early when he used to be a rock star! The others have various low-key jobs and one of the boys is a girl - at least she knows judo!

My biggest problem was that it took a long 90 minutes before anything vaguely epic happened. Then the last half hour suddenly changed gear, plunging straight into the long-awaited doomsday mission. Despite having weeks to prepare, the characters seemed poorly prepared, yet able to make a difference by relying on coincidence and luck.

While the length of the story is epic, the first part feels too long. The US DVD have truthfully announced it as "a live-action manga", which seems very honest. It feels like an adaption that refuses to condense the original work. Having said that, there are several confusing leaps in the narrative. These felt like the leaps made between TV episodes, or like an advert break has been edited out. Perhaps the project would have been better off as a mini-series, despite the occasionally impressive special effects, it doesn't really feel like a movie.

While the story intrigues, when you see what the various pay-offs are, there'll be no need ever watch it again. There are some great moments, but again nothing impressive enough to revisit.

I bought Chapter 1 on DVD, which seems to have different titles in different countries, and there's a two-disc set in the UK, evidence that they have high hopes for this series. I'm vaguely interested in seeing what happens next - but there's not much of a cliffhanger to lead into the forthcoming Chapter 2.

The first four volumes of the twenty-two original manga have been published in English and volume five is on the way.

Am I missing something? Anyone out there who's seen it, think the 20th Century Boys are awesome?

Trailer on YouTube for 20th Century boys: Chapter 1...

August 19, 2009

MANSON (2009) and his HELTER SKELTER (1976)

MANSON (2009, UK documentary)
HELTER SKELTER (1976, US TV movie)

Real-life horror as entertainment

I just had a depressing week looking into the Charles Manson murders. While he's not convicted of committing any, he incited his followers to torture and slaughter two households on consecutive nights in 1970. Living outside LA in a sort of hippie commune, his 'family', Manson had failed to get anywhere with his band and was running out of money. He planned to take revenge on the society that excluded him by inciting a race war, the prophesied 'Helter Skelter', by murdering respected and influential white people, and leaving clues that incriminated radical black groups.

The first attack was on a house being rented by Roman Polanski and his new wife Sharon Tate. Polanski was away on business but Sharon and three friends were all tortured and killed in a frenzy. Sharon was eight months pregnant. The murderers were three women, one man, all aged about 20, Manson wasn't with them.

Watching two different accounts brought home the emotional devastation to the families and friends, and the panic that hit L.A. in 1970 when suddenly faced with random murderous assaults in the home. Like any big news story, the documentaries and dramatic reconstructions soon followed after the case was closed. American TV waited a fairly respectful six years before making Helter Skelter, and made extra money by releasing it as a film overseas. As recently as 2003, The Manson Family recreated the murders again and there was an American TV remake of Helter Skelter in 2006. Last week, a new documentary aired on British TV.

(2009, UK)

Neil Rawles' new two-hour programme mixes dramatic reconstructions, a little archive news footage and a long interview with 'family' member Linda Kasabian. She gives eyewitness accounts of both the infamous Manson 'family' murders. Everyone else who was there are still serving life sentences.

The reconstructions are OK, but while the actor playing Manson looks the part, he didn't impress. The actress playing Kasabian was far better, adding reality to her reactions as she watches the murders. She also evokes sympathy and generates suspense as she tries to escape Manson's clutches without meeting the same fate.

The saddest part of the doc was the actual crime scene photos, which I'd not seen before. These brought home how brutal and tragic the murders were, and should derail any anti-hero status of Manson and his followers. The case was all the more newsworthy because one of the victims was a Hollywood actress - Sharon Tate had starred in The Valley of the Dolls, Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (Dance of the Vampires) as well as the offbeat horror Eye of the Devil.

The documentary focuses on the events leading up to the murders, including a torture scene that puts Reservoir Dogs in the shade, with Manson wielding a sword. It skips the lengthy court case, which many other programmes have detailed. While Manson is a good documentary to start with, it's a huge subject. A look at Manson's life would be a story in itself, as he seems to have spent much of his life drifting, causing plenty of other mayhem. Not that I want to become an expert, but I'm still not clear on how on Earth he could influence his gang to such extremes.

(1976, US)

I then went back to see how this TV movie compared to the new account. Helter Skelter was mainly based on the transcripts of the court case, where Kasabian was the star witness, so it's not a very different story, but a very different approach. Even though it was sold as a horror movie, it's mostly a courtroom drama, the emphasis being on how the prosecutor can make a case against Manson stick, even though he hadn't committed any of the murders.

It begins with the discovery of the bodies at Sharon Tate's house, a scene made all the more painful by the reactions of Polanski's agent as he identifies them all. From the documentary crime scene photos, the bodies are even laid out accurately.

Despite two more murders the next night, the police still don't have any conclusive evidence and only by a stroke of luck, months later, inside prison, do they get the lead they need...

For a TV movie this has more good performances than bad. But as a movie, it's lacking stars, recognisable faces even, or glossy production values. It looks like TV, but the subject is far more gruesome than any other seventies TV movie.

The actors playing 'the family' are all pretty good, but the prosecutor and defender annoyingly try to outshout each other in court, and there's no insight into them as people or even lawyers. George DiCenzo as Vincent Bugliosi is also lumbered with several speeches and the movie's 'voice of the establishment', verbally slapping Manson down after final judgement has passed.

To hint that this is a horror film, the star of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Marilyn Burns no less, plays Linda Kasabian. She gets to do her frightened, crying bit as she relives the flashbacks of the murders. The Sharon Tate murder is noticeably not recreated though.

It's Steve Railsback who makes this the best Manson movie. His chilling, staring portrayal was his career-defining role. Since then he was an unlikely romantic lead in The Stuntman (1980) and had a recurring role in The X Files TV series before another chilling role as inspirational psycho Ed Gein (2000).

I'm guessing that the international cinema release of Helter Skelter was a 'harder' version with swearing and more violence shown, as well as being cut down to under two hours. This is the version that was released on VHS (the UK cover art is pictured at the top). But it was originally made for TV as two 90 minute episodes and has no swearing and less blood, to meet TV guidelines. I think that this longer version is the one currently available on DVD in a 2 disc set.

August 17, 2009

THE HAUNT OF HORROR #1 (1973) - love that cover!

THE HAUNT OF HORROR - issue 1 (June, 1973)

One of my favourite pieces of cover art adorns this early incarnation of Stan Lee's The Haunt of Horror. Before the pulp magazine became a comic strip, it started as a collection of short stories. Robert E. Howard (author of Conan and Solomon Kane) provides 'Usurp The Night', Fritz Leiber has 'Conjure Wife' (filmed as Night of the Eagle) and Ramsey Campbell (currently writing for Video Watchdog) has 'Night Beat', among others.

This mag also has sentimental value because I bought it brand new in the lobby of the Hotel Commodore, just down the avenue from Grand Central Station, on a family holiday to New York in 1973.

The cover painting is by the late Gray Morrow. I love the realistic death's head and the varied, very dimensional creatures dragging the nubile to her doom... I didn't see any other issues of this back in the UK, and have only recently seen mention of the magazine as a comic, similar to Creepy and Eerie (which Morrow also painted covers for), a large format black and white strip full of short tales.

August 15, 2009

BODY PARTS (1991) - action/horror/gore genre mash-up

(1991, USA)

Twisted bloody tale from the writer of The Hitcher

This belongs in the sub-genre of 'action horror' (for want of a better name) - a mixture of classic scares and stunt-heavy action, usually involving car chases. 'Scary car' movies started with Duel, but I'd include Death Race 2000, Race With The Devil, The Car and the Phantasm movies. The genre peaked with The Hitcher (1986) and the Maniac Cop films. However, recent additions include Joy Ride and Jeepers Creepers. Anyone think of any other horror films full of scary auto action?

I first saw this 1991 gem Body Parts on TV. It was so enjoyable that I tracked down the laserdisc in order to see the whole 2.35 widescreen image. It was a surprise that such a well-made film, well-written, action-packed and bloody horror had passed me by on its cinema release.

After a challenging chat with a serial killer, a prison psychiatrist (Jeff Fahey) starts losing faith in himself and then loses an arm in an accident. Luckily for him there's a new experimental procedure in town that can give him a brand new arm. But as he's taken into the operating theatre (in a nightmarish scene as he slips into unconsciousness), h sees another patient surrounded by armed guards with shotguns. Seems the reluctant donor is a homicidal maniac whose being terminated and cut up for spares...

After a successful transplant, the new arm brings strange new dreams, nasty violent ones. Investigating the history of the arm's donor he discovers that other patients have received limbs and similar nightmares. When he hits one of his kids in anger, he suspects that he's been given the arm that did all the killing...

This is far-fetched fun that should have been a far bigger hit. Without the necessary starpower, it must have just snuck out. Jeff Fahey peaked the following year when he starred in The Lawnmower Man (billed higher than Pierce Brosnan). He was also memorable in the underrated Psycho III (1986) and stole many scenes in Planet Terror(2007). Fahey is also due to be in next year's Grindhouse spin-off Machete.

Perennial eccentric Brad Dourif is always excellent, but again not famous. His roles are usually awesome cameos like in Alien: Resurrection and Dune. But he also shone in more substantial roles such as The Exorcist III and as bad haircut Billy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975). I always get his roles in Body Parts and Dario Argento's Trauma
(1993) mixed up.

Lindsay Duncan, as a benevolent modern day Dr Frankenstein, normally does TV drama but has risen to the top of her field - notably in the Catherine Zeta-Jones role in the original TV version of Traffik (1989), which is recommended more highly than the film version of 2000, and more recently in a British TV movie as Margaret Thatcher.

Body Parts has a tight script by director Eric Red, but the story has quite a history, being based on the novel Choice Cuts by Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac. These Frenchmen also wrote the novels that inspired Hitchcock's Vertigo and the original Les Diaboliques. They also worked on the script of the haunting Les Yeux Sans Visage (1959, Eyes Without A Face), one of the only French horror films before this recent glut of gallic torture-tainment. Their novel Choice Cuts is in turn a twist on an even older short story filmed twice as The Hands of Orlac (1924 and 1960) and famously as Mad Love (1935, from which there's also a great visual quote in Body Parts).

Eric Red honours the story's heritage while updating it and adding all the ingredients befitting a horror or an action movie of the time. He also wrote Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel (1989) and Near Dark (1987), two of her best films. He directed a few films, including this one. The only misstep is an absolutely ridiculous car chase where two people are handcuffed together while sitting in different cars!

At the time, Body Parts made the front cover of Fangoria. The prosthetic gore fx are creative, nasty but gratuitously necessary to the story. The gothic soundtrack reminds me of John Williams' The Fury crossed with Bernard Herrmann.

This was on DVD but is now a sought-after OOP disc. A reissue must be on the table soon, please?

There's a great career interview with Eric Red here.

Here's another review, but full of spoilers and many tasty/tasteless screengrabs.

A short YouTube trailer, cropped to 4:3...

August 10, 2009

SWAY aka YURERU (2006) - intense Japanese mystery

(2006, Japan, Yureru)

This year Japan won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with Departures, as if proof were needed of the high quality of the country's cinematic output. But it's not the only film to be highly-praised in recent years.

Yureru is hard to categorise exactly, part drama part mystery... I was expecting more of a thriller and it is, kinda sorta, but very well-produced. With an unpredictable story, it also avoids using cliches.

Takeru is a successful Tokyo photographer with a racy metropolitan lifestyle. When he returns to his small hometown for his mother's funeral, fame holds no sway - he's just another local boy. He's back to arguing with his father, feeling sorry for his older brother and his regular job at a petrol station, and still fascinated by a local ex-girlfriend. On a nostalgic day trip, past tensions erupt and everything changes.

While Yureru starts off as a quirky family drama, carefully contrasting city and smalltown life, modern ideals with traditions, the tone brilliantly shifts to something far more serious. Everything that seemed to be smalltalk and inconsequential detail in the opening now becomes crucial to the outcome of the story.

Very interesting to see part of the story take place in a Japanese courtroom. Not something I've ever seen before. Coincidentally as I write this, the procedures are already out of date, now that Japan has (just last week) re- introduced the jury system for the first time since World War 2.

The acting here is so good that it's unnoticeable. I felt that I was watching the characters and not actors. Joe Odagiri (Mushi-shi, Shinobi, Azumi) is a natural choice as the trendy Takeru. Teruyuki Kagawa (star of Tokyo Sonata) plays his long-suffering brother, Minoru. Again a very convincing and natural performance. Yoko Maki (The Grudge - US version, Kansen) gets the enviable role of Chieko, the object of Takeru's affection.

Further down the cast I'll make a completely misleading connection with two actors I recognised from the world of Sukeban Deka, the schoolgirl yo-yo cop! An altogether different style of entertainment, dependent on action rather than acting! It must be stressed that they're both excellent in Yureru. Masato Ibu who plays the father, was the arch-villain in Sukeban Deka - The Movie. twenty years ago. A very watchable and ersatile actor, I last saw him in the time-travel comedy Bubble Fiction. Also, as Osamu the lawyer, Keizo Kanie once played Saki Asamiya's controller in the second TV series of Sukeban Deka.

Yureru is a tense story, full of rewarding detail, with restrained realistic performances. A refreshing change from giant robots, ghosts and monsters, instead a look at two colliding aspects of modern life.

Very glad to see that this has had a recent US DVD release.

If you see it, let me know if you can tell where the bus in the final scene is going... Is the destination on the front important to the story...? My Hong Kong DVD had no subtitle for the sign on the front! The cover art misleadingly excludes everyone else from the cast except Joe Odagiri. He's a star of the film, not the star.

August 09, 2009

CALTIKI - THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (1959) - the Italian Blob

(1959, Italy, Caltiki - il mostro immortale)

How many Blob movies have you seen where someone loses an arm?

This is an update of my 2006 review, now that I've watched the region 2 Italian DVD from NoShame. This is Caltiki's first time on an official DVD release. I was hoping that the 50th anniversary would yield a release in the USA, but it's looking unlikely...

Each time I watch Caltiki - The Immortal Monster, I'm astonished that it hasn't had a better history on home video – it’s one of the best black and white horror films, indeed sci-fi films, to come from Italy. It’s firmly in the genre of 1950s American monster movie, strongly reminiscent of The Black Scorpion, short on science and long on fiction...

On an expedition in Mexico, a team of scientists discover a lost cave uncovered by a volcanic eruption. Deep underground is a statue to the immortal god Caltiki. Nearby is an undergound lake containing the immortal god Caltiki! As the huge slimy blob makes a break for freedom, the party discovers that it has touch like acid, as one member loses an arm and another loses face (reminiscent of a similar scene in Hammer Film’s blobby X-The Unknown from 1956).

The Prof gets a sample off his best mate's disintegrating arm and takes it back home for closer study. He stores it in a goldfish tank in his basement! As the danger grows, you at least wish he'd put a couple of heavy books on the lid. There it starts to grow, putting the Prof’s wife and daughter in deadly danger, not to mention the rest of the world!

The plot takes a few amusing wrong turns: coincidence dictates that the scientists discover Caltiki's secrets just as it wakes up for the first time in 1300 years. Also, during the hero’s final race to the rescue, the police arrest him for speeding and throw him in jail! The film grinds to a halt as he tries to talk his way out.

But it’s not the plot that’s interesting, the blob looks fantastic! There’s some amusingly cheap miniature work, (despite the darkness of night-time scenes) including some toy tanks that wouldn’t even get into a Godzilla film. But the blob on the attack is sensational. It’s movements are fascinating, and the face-dissolving effects almost belong in Cabin Fever – goodness knows what shock effect they had on audiences 50 years ago.

Similarly shocking is a scene where a dancing girl amuses a lucky crowd of Mexicans in a woodland campsite. Besides her sultry and athletic dancing, her incredibly short tattered skirt does little to cover her up, leaving little to the imagination. The 1960s were fast approaching...

Famously, future horror maestro Mario Bava created most of the special effects and completed the direction of this film – the year before his masterpiece Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan) propelled him and leading actress Barbara Steele to success. Bava’s ambitious, low budget, special effects make the story look a hundred times more interesting than it could have been. Like I said, some of the miniature work doesn’t stand up today, but the majority of it is marvellous, giving us horror-fans plenty of blob action. I’m assuming that Tim Lucas, the editor of Video Watchdog, goes into more detail about the making of the film in his gigantic book about Bava.

I recognised the lead actor, John Merivale, from the wonderfully sleazy Circus of Horrors, made the following year. It adds to the madness of the production that an Englishman starred in an Italian movie partly shot in Mexico…

The non-blob scenes are just as watchable because of the amusingly cliched emotional dramas and the hysterical acting. The two female leads are suitably overdramatic, trapped in a complex love quadrangle with the Prof's best friend, Max. He's played by Gérard Herter, who almost climbs the walls as his blob-infection cranks him up into psychotic madness. He also does some amusing 'head acting' snuggled up in a hospital bed.

Pacier, gorier and better shot than many of Hollywood's 1950s sci-fi monster movies, this was finally made available in both the Italian and English-dubbed version on an Italian DVD. Though John Merivale has been looped by an American actor for the English version. This region 2 DVD is anamorphic widescreen, whereas all previous TV versions notably cropped the sides of the picture considerably. This is the clearest version I've seen, but there are stil some severe problems with contrast in the early day-for-night scenes, huge clouds of darkness sometimes swallowing parts of the image. The intricate matte paintings in the Mexican scenes lose detail in the darker shadows. These are probably film faults on the original print, maybe even the negative, but I guess an Italian release is as close to the source as possible.

The original Italian titles are at the start, but the US release title sequence is also available as an extra, as well as a US trailer giving away all the best shots. The interview with Luigi Cozzi is unfortunately not subtitled, and the accompanying booklet is all Italian text too. The cover art uses the original Italian poster art (above).

I'm just happy to finally have a widescreen DVD of this classic early monster.

DVD Talk reviewed the DVD when it was first released. It's hard to get hold of now, but if you're good at Italian,
try here...

PUFNSTUF - THE MOVIE (1970) - dazzling debut on DVD

(1970, USA)

Guilty pleasure - Witchiepoo's finest moment of hippy gothic...

This was one of the first films to go on the Black Hole NOT ON DVD list nearly four years ago. At last it's been released in the UK and US. The 1969 TV series has been out awhile on DVD, titled slightly differently as H.R. Pufnstuf, but this feature film is far funnier and, well, more 1960s than the series. Faster-paced, better music, more gags for adults, and better looking. I'd send new viewers to this before recommending anyone try the TV series, which is strictly for the very young or the very nostalgic.

The creatures of living island are all played by a mixture of actors in oversized suits, and primitive puppets. Anyone familiar with The Banana Splits will know what to expect, producers Sid and Marty Kroft designed and built those costumes too. It's a far cry from anything that the Muppets did, far more low-tech, resembling a pantomime show. If the creatures were anything realistic, they'd have been too scary. I don't think the Nazi Rat sidekick, dressed in a thinly-veiled SS officer's uniform, is quite as funny as it used to be! What is funny are the disastrous landing technique of the goofy bat, and the many ways Seymour the Spider and Orville the Vulture managed to get clobbered by the Witch. All the creatures are voiced by experts in children's cartoons (including Scooby Doo himself, Don Messick), rather than the actors inside the costumes,

Pufnstuf - The Movie (1970) was released after the TV series. Like Batman (1966) and Munsters - Go Home (1966), this was cashing in on the success of the TV series. It's not a sequel though, it goes back to the very start and retells the story of how Jimmy gets to Living Island and meets Mayor Pufnstuf, the talking dragon. A few jokes are recycled from the series, but mostly it's all new stuff. Jimmy tries new ways to escape the island, but the wicked witch Witchiepoo thwarts his attempts. She wants to get his magic golden flute, in time for when all the witches in witchdom arrive for a convention in honour of their leader, Boss Witch!

The UK DVD boxset of the TV series

The series went out a couple of times in the UK, but the movie was more often repeated in summer holidays, which is where I first enjoyed it. I think it's still funny, and the sixties mentality is interesting in the context of a children's show. There's trippy colour effects injected into the musical numbers, fast and needless cross-cutting and even continuity-defying jump cuts. Jimmy offers the peace sign (with two fingers) when hailing the Hippy Tree, and the grooviest witch ever is played by Mamas and Papas singer Mama Cass. She belts out a wonderful song 'Different', that you don't hear anywhere else. It should really have been included in the soundtrack to Beautiful Thing. The soundtrack has other catchy songs, all far better than the series. The score by Charles Fox sounds like he's still in the mood for Barbarella (1968). The use of fuzzbox guitar is especially familiar. Fans of Jack Wild from his role in Oliver as the Artful Dodger, are treated to him singing two songs.

Top honours go to Billie Hayes' performance as the outrageous Witchiepoo. She’s working it every second she’s on! Every movement and word gets 100% effort. She's not overplaying, because she's basically a pantomime witch, and not many people can play this big with so much energy and invention. I'm very surprised and disappointed that she didn't get more comedy roles off this. It's a powerhouse performance in physical comedy and timing, with an extraordinary vocal range that can switch in an instant from sickly sweet to furious bellowing.

For the film, even more little people were brought in. In the series, Felix Silla (Twiki the robot sidekick from TV's Buck Rogers) and Angelo Rossitto (from Freaks to Mad Max 3) took turns playing all the small creatures in the series. But for the many crowd scenes and new characters, Billy Barty (The Wizard of Oz) also appears, in animal costumes and even made up as a female witch. Coincidentally, the producers freely admit that the world of Oz was a huge influence on the series.

The new DVD looks spectacular, restoring the detailed image and bright colours that makes it really look like a feature film. The witch make-up and the costumes are notably more intricate, the sets are larger and more expensive. It's been remastered digitally and in widescreen, adding more picture area than before. I've never seen Pufnstuf look so good. Metrodome have gone as far as to spread the extras onto a second disc, which is very flattering, but barely necessary. Apart from a great selection of photos, the interview material has already appeared on the TV boxsets. The UK artwork is a revamp of the original movie poster, far better than the kiddie approach of the US DVD (at top). But I'm glad that a great-looking widescreen DVD is finally widely available.

Don't forget that the CD soundtrack is also available. It's a remastered version of the original vinyl album and uses the same cover art. You might just recognise stars Martha Raye and Mama Cass in their witchy make-up.

This article is respectfully dedicated to Jack Wild, who passed away in 2006 aged only 53.

August 05, 2009

DARK WATER (2002) - more ghosts from Hideo Nakata

(2002, Japan, Honogurai mizu no soko kara)

From the director of Ring, from the writer of Ring...

I recently read Koji Suzuki's Birthday, which I didn't know was a collection of short stories. I then read his Dark Water, which turned out to be the same. This helps explain why the Japanese movie Dark Water feels a little insubstantial. It's not based on a novel, but a rather brief tale. That's not to say that it's not good, but it's rather simple.

Yoshimi is going through a difficult divorce and is forced to find somewhere new to live. She's also trying to retain custody of her little girl, Ikuko. She finds an inexpensive but slightly run-down apartment to rent. But no sooner does she move in and start to look around for work, the history of the building starts to invade her life. On top of everything else, she's rather highly-strung. Nervous of noise, people and even rain... which seems to be dogging her life. Water, water, everywhere...

As the two of them settle into their new home, dripping water coming from the ceiling is the least of their problems. It sounds like there's a little girl running around in the apartment above. The estate agent hasn't told them everything about the recent history of the building - they're finding out the hard way. Why does she keep seeing a distant shadow of a little girl in a raincoat...

While the mystery of the haunting is easy to figure out, it's interesting to see how it develops. I even thought that the scares started too early on. The first time Yoshimi looks round the apartment, a ghost follows her up in the lift - before she's even moved in! Considering how sleight the story is, padded out by the divorce case, I was surprised that the supernatural didn't appear more gradually.

Director Hideo Nakata had tried to stay away from horror and ghosts, fearing that he would get typecast after his huge hit with Ring (1998). He was lured back to make the sequel Ring 2, but also made Chaos and Sleeping Bride. With Dark Water, he shows that Ring was no fluke, and easily conjures up scares with a minimum of effort. What initially disappointed me was that the climax was not only predictable, but fell far short of the shocks of Ring. In fact, the eventual climax felt weak - just the opposite of what I expected. I certainly liked Dark Water far more on a second viewing. Just forget the hype on the DVD cover and don't expect another Ring.

The producers were obviously trying to monopolise on the link with Ring, even using actors from the Ring universe. The nervy Yoshimi is played by Hitomi Kuroki who also starred in the first Ring TV series. She's in the current 20th Century Boys trilogy and Hideo Nakata's recent Kaidan.

The distinctive-looking Isao Yatsu, as the ancient building superintendent, had been in Ring 2 and later appeared in Takashi Shimizu's Grudge movies. A great face for haunting horrors.

Once again, Nakata gains an excellent, natural performance from the young actress playing six-year old Ikuko. More recently, little Rio Kanno was in another horror, Noroi The Curse.

Dark Water is available in the UK and US on DVD, but it's easily confused with the 2005 American remake of the same title. The English translation of the book is available in hardback and paperback.

I'm curious, but I haven't made a priority of seeing the remake, even though I like Jennifer Connelly. Anyone out there seen it and thought it was worth a look?

August 04, 2009

WOLFEN (1981) - a murderous predator in New York

(1981, USA)

1981 was the year of the wolf. You've probably seen An American Werewolf In London or The Howling from that year. But there was also the release of this big budget horror/thriller set in New York. The mystery lies in the identity and species of the murderer. Is it man, animal or a shape-shifter?
The premise is quickly established. Why would anyone ambush a wealthy couple in the middle of the night, slaughter and dismember them... but leave their jewels and money. Then cross the river to a desolate suburb and murder a homeless junkie and eat his brains? Rogue detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is brought back into the force for the case. But strictly sticking to the clues logically leads him to some unbelievable conclusions...

Bearing in mind this is based on a book by Whitley Strieber and directed by Michael Wadleigh, you might be better prepared for a less conventional story. Strieber later wrote Communion in which he described his own alien abduction experience. Director Wadleigh's only other film was the music festival Woodstock. Into a fairly simple plot, the two pack in layers of interesting ideas and details hinting at the displacement of wildlife, the poverty gap and native American mythology. It's not preachy, more like a trickle of ideas hinted at by the detailed close-ups he uses in each scene. Some of which makes you think the story is leading in a different direction.

A drawback for today's viewers is the slow story development, with the detectives lagging far behind anyone who knows the title of the film. This isn't straightforward horror like American Werewolf or The Howling, nor quite as gory. It's more of a 3.00 in the morning movie, where the visual experience is as important than the story. It's very well acted, suspenseful, and looks and sounds unusual too.

After seeing it on first release, Wolfen has remained a memorable and repeatable experience. As much for the gritty approach (the matter-of-fact pathology lab scene is full of edgy moments) as the locations and ideas. Like a leftover eco-thriller from the 70s, a Soylent Green set in modern day.

The startling locations are all within a few square miles of the southern tip of Manhattan, starting with a murder in Battery Park, then the questioning of maintenance workers on top of the Brooklyn Bridge (a terrifying scene which could only have been shot by actors Finney and Olmos actually being up there), to a horrifying vision of the Bronx as it was at the time. Trapped in limbo between total demolition and reconstruction. It looked post-nuclear, only a few trashed buildings left standing. Of course, shooting a film around this area at this time can't help include many ironic shots of the World Trade Center, a counterpoint to the desolation and poverty of the Bronx.

Wolfen was originally presented in 70mm and surround sound, the then-equivalent of IMAX, but sadly this audio hasn't yet been remixed into a 5.1 track for the DVD. Which is a shame for such an aural experience - there are extensive visual effects to denote when we're looking through the creature's eyes, there's also extensive audio effects to represent how they hear. Technically, the cinematography was quite startling at the time, demonstrating the relatively new steadicam camera harness to the full, as the roving point-of-view camera acts just like a beast on the prowl, stalking it's characters. Steadicam's inventor, Garrett Brown, was the main camera operator for many of those scenes.

In the cast, you may recognise Albert Finney under the wild shaggy hair, from Miller's Crossing. I think his American accent is pretty good here, but what do I know, I'm also English. In the UK, he's better known as an angry young man from the 1960s new wave of actors with working class accents. He later won an Oscar for starring in Murder on the Orient Express, as French master detective Hercule Poirot.

Battlestar Galactica's Edward James Olmos is almost unrecognisable, even compared to his role in Blade Runner the following year. As a (very, very) angry Native American bridge worker. Even when he's running around naked, he looks totally dangerous.

A young Tom Noonan (Manhunter, The Monster Squad) gives a typically intense performance as another wolfy suspect... The late Gregory Hin
es (The Cotton Club, Eve Of Destruction) gets an icky role as an adventurous pathologist.

The soundtrack is an early score from James Hor
ner, back when most of his music echoed Alien. It's good, but distractingly derivative. Maybe something to listen to once you've run out of Jerry Goldsmith soundtracks.

If you want a less traditional monster movie, served up with your body count, the sights and sounds of Wolfen could be for you.

It has been out on DVD in the UK and US in 2.35 anamorphic widescreen. But only in two-track stereo so far. With An American Werewolf In London coming to Blu-Ray soon, and Benicio Del Toro becoming Wolf Man next year, maybe it's time for a Wolfen reissue?


PSYCHO (1960) - original music still not on CD

PSYCHO - the music

The mother of all horror soundtracks is still not available on CD

I think this music is in my blood. My mother told me that she went to see Psycho at the cinema when it was first in London. She was pregnant at the time... Yes dear readers, I experienced my first horror movie... WHILE I WAS STILL IN THE WOMB! (Shrieking violins...)

I just want a Psycho soundtrack CD. I listen to a lot of soundtracks, including horror, but I can usually tell if it's a re-recording. That is, what's on the CD isn't what was used in the film. This is quite common with older films where the tapes have been lost and a modern orchestra re-records the music. Fair enough. But I know that the elements for Psycho are still out there. Second-best maybe all that's possible for lesser known soundtracks, but c'mon. It's Psycho. It's a movie classic, not just a horror classic.

The best horror movie soundtrack ever made? That's a matter of taste. But what's the most influential horror movie soundtrack? I'd say we're talking Jaws, Alien and Psycho. The music that's most likely to be plundered for inspiration and temp tracks. While Jaws has had a digitally remastered CD re-issue, the Bernard Hermann Psycho soundtrack has never officially been on CD.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of soundtracks that have 'paid homage' to the Psycho score are out on CD. Including Danny Elfman's recreation of the score, recorded for Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake in 1998.

The Herrmann CD sounds lush, but it's a re-recorded version (artwork above). But just compare the tempo of the first track, the title music, you'll notice that it's considerably slower. It sounds urgent, but not frantic. It's definitely not the recording used in the film. There are several other CDs out there (like the artwork at the top), but none are the original.

It has been available, sort of, included as a music-only track on the huge laserdisc boxset, unfortunately on an analogue track. So at least the elements still exist. But what about a digitally remastered release? Sometime?

If I'm wrong about any of this, and there has been a CD out somewhere, please let me know. My main source of information here is Soundtrack Collector who list the only truly original CD as a bootleg. I'm guessing that it was made from the laserdisc, which was a very hissy analogue source. And it's a bootleg. So it doesn't count.

August 01, 2009

GOBLIN: the sound of Argento - live in London

GOBLIN in concert, London, 2009

Anyone who's seen Dario Argento's horror films Suspiria, Tenebrae or Deep Red have heard the music of Italian prog-rockers Goblin. The band also composed and played most of the music for Zombies: Dawn of the Dead (1978). The soundtrack for Suspiria is a prolonged and uniquely scary experience. Wide stereo sighs and whispers surround the unusual strings and pounding percussion.

I've not stopped listening to the Suspiria and Zombies albums for thirty years now. So I'd have kicked myself, viciously and mercilessly, if I'd missed this concert (thanks for the last minute tip, Tony). Goblin played their first ever London gig on July 27th in The Scala, near King's Cross. It's been twenty years since they last played in the UK. Back then, The Scala was my favourite cinema. one that played cheap double bills of 'alternative' movies and lotsa horror films. The programming choices were superb. Where else in London could you see Batman - The Movie (1966) with Barbarella (1968) on a big screen, Frank Henenlotter double-bills, and even John Waters triples, if you were brave enough. You could drink beer in the cinema and put your feet up on the seats. I loved the place.

Seeing it transformed into a concert venue for the first time was weird. The layout inside the main auditorium has changed a lot, but is still recognisable. The stage is roughly where the old screen used to be. While I watched the support band, I realised that it was at The Scala that I'd seen many of Dario Argento's films for the first time. As Goblin played two tracks each from Zombies: Dawn of the Dead, Suspiria, Tenebrae and Deep Red, I was flashing back to seeing the films in the same cavernous room.

I didn't take many photos. If I concentrate on the camera, I'd miss the concert. I also don't use flash, it wipes out the atmosphere, so these photos are the best of the lot.

To say it was a memorable concert is an understatement. They played most of their new album, Back to the Goblin, but the audience whooped when they started with the old favourites. Re-edited clips from the films were projected behind the band. The same images that played on a much larger screen. A few feet further forward, two decades back.