November 28, 2009

BERSERK! (1967) - circus horror with Joan Crawford and Michael Gough

(1967, UK)

I think he got the point...

This isn't as complex or as successful as Circus of Horrors (1960) but it does have the hook of being a whodunit and an early serial killfest. Both familiar traits with other Herman Cohen productions (like Horrors of the Black Museum) and those German Edgar Wallace krimis. It was also one of the first late-night horror movie experiences that I had as a teenager, making quite an impression. So much so that, every Friday night, I have an urge to watch Berserk!

Berserk! isn't a 'must see' classic from horror history, but there's enough here to please fans of Joan Crawford horror (Straitjacket, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?),
Michael Gough (Konga, Batman Returns), and sixties Brit horror. It's interesting to see a 'creative serial kill' horror with so little blood in it, considering what would happen a few years later...

The curtain opens on a huge circus that's down on its luck. That's until high wire act Gaspar the Great takes his last gasp and is hung by his own tightrope. (In the height of bad taste, his swinging body swings across the screen to reveal the title of the film!) Further accidents in the circus (involving knives, tent pegs and circular saws) prove morbidly good for business, so who could be benefitting from the murders?

There are two main elephants, sorry, elements that prevent this from any wider cult fame. Too many scenes of circus acts used to pad out the running time and reduce the intricacy (if I dare use that word in this context) of the plot. The footage, actually of the famous real-life Billy Smart's Circus, serves only to remind us of when circuses were all about rare, endangered species of animals doing silly tricks for laffs. This is great for kids, but really bad for an adult horror.

Then there's the bloody awful 'comedy song' from the circus 'freaks'. These freaks are unspectacular in both freakiness or acting ability, contrasting sharply with a coachload of British thespians, fronted by Robert Hardy, who can at least breathe life into the stilted and childish dialogue. Try not laughing as you listen to Crawford announce, "Phyllis Allan and her Intelligent Poodles!". An Oscar for OTT horror-acting should also be awarded to the murderer, for the fantastic final freakout - a shrieking schizoid performance that still reminds me that it shocked me as a teen.

Unintentional amusement comes from Joan Crawford's neck always being in shadow, no matter where she's standing. Ty Hardin keeps getting shirtless, a reminder of what passed for beefcake back then. This is balanced by young women in colourful corsets, no mean feat for an already chubby ex-starlet Diana Dors.

Joan Crawford is the star, but was winding down her acting career, dividing her time between lower-budget horrors for Herman Cohen and William Castle, and an increasing amount of TV (The Karate Killers, Spielberg's pilot episode for Night Gallery). Her next film with Cohen and Gough would be her last... Trog. This was my introduction to the films of Joan Crawford - a cruel way to start, considering she had started in silent movies and become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

Robert Hardy, as the police detective investigating the circus, is still acting (Cornelius Fudge in several films of Harry Potter). Joan Crawford's junior love interest Ty hardin was in I Married a Monster From Outer Space. Ex-saucepot Diana Dors plays a nosey troublemaker and later appeared opposite Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood. Young Judy Geeson became a welcome fixture of seventies TV and cinema (Star Maidens, Hammer's Fear in the Night, and the Alien rip-off Inseminoid).

Last released in America on DVD-r (by WarnerArchive above), Berserk! is also on a region 2 PAL DVD in Spain (cover art below). Besides Spanish, there's an English audio option without subtitles, but the aspect is 1.33 fullframe, where as the Warner disc is advertised as 1.85 anamorphic widescreen. 

It would would blend in perfectly to an all-nighter of Trog, Circus of Horrors and the Black Zoo! 

Some great behind-the-scenes photos from Berserk! can be found on

A big thank you to Miles for the info and the Japanese poster art.

November 25, 2009

THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939) serial killer Karloff

Part of the Boris Karloff Blogathon organised by The Frankensteinia Blog.

I can't enter the blogathon without taking time to just talk about Boris. There are some actors who I will watch literally anything with them in. They're always good, even if the film isn't, but a lion's share of Boris career were at least half decent horrors, no mean feat for such a long career in the genre. He somehow made the films better, or maybe made bad dialogue sound believable. Maybe he had the power to change things (like dialogue or his character) for the better. He always changed his appearance - hairstyles, colours, beards, moustaches, scars - you can easily name a Karloff film from photographs of his character. For instance, in The Man They Could Not Hang, his shock of straight white hair and dark eyes is instantly recognisable from this film only.

The actor I most compare him to is Peter Cushing, another brilliantly intensive actor who could make corny sound good, the unbelievable sound real - a real talent in surreal and supernatural horror. Perhaps they were too similar to appear together, they certainly had the opportunity when Boris returned to England at the end of his career, when British horror was still flourishing. They were both British, both mainly in the horror genre, both gentle gentleman offscreen. Unafraid to do horror for fear it would damage their career, they recognised that typecasting was a good, steady earner.

I had a shock the day I saw a Boris and Bela movie at the Castro Cinema in San Francisco, I think it was 1998. It was a very rare chance to see a vintage horror,
The Black Cat (1935), on a huge screen. As Bela Lugosi's name came up at the start, there was a cheer and applause. When Boris' name came up there wasn't a single sound from the audience. I was so shocked. The supposed rivalry between the two actors was still being fought in the magazines of horror fandom. I know that Bela was very much seen as the underdog of the two. But for a horror audience to snub Boris like that, so unanimously, I assumed it was some sort of anti-British sentiment. How rude!

To me his career eclipsed Lugosi's in terms of creativity, range, longevity and sheer quality. Lugosi usually played the same character and rarely changed his appearance, not even for Dracula (White Zombie and Dead Eyes of London are the only exceptions I can think of). He repeatedly picked dreadful projects, even early on in his career when he was world famous. Don't get me wrong, he's a huge part of the horror genre and I love watching him, but if you ask me to choose between his films and Boris, there's no contest.

(1939, US)

This starts like a typical Karloff 'mad doctor' yarn, but takes an interesting sharp turn halfway, into the world of creative serial killings!

Characteristically, Boris plays a scientist tinkering in medical experiments, until the lawmen bust in and ruin everything.
In the courtroom, the jury are intent on sending him to the hangman, rather than considering the scientific facts of the case. Angry that his breakthough work to help humanity has been mistaken for murder, without the chance to clear his name, he turns a vengeful eye on the judge and jury, threatening them to an early grave, despite his impending execution...

The court scenes and the climax in the mansion are in handsomely constructed sets, the courtroom filled with extras. A larger budget is also in evidence compared to many of his later mad doctor 'b' movies. The well-defined black and white camerawork also implies that there was time to light the scenes carefully and creatively. There's even an unusual tracking shot that tilts out of a dutch angle as it pulls back.

The story is an early example of a madman working his way through a well-prepared shitlist (like the Vincent Price classics The Abominable Dr Phibes and Theatre of Blood). It also verges on the teritory of The Cat and the Canary as his intended victims are assembled together in an old dark house and told the order that they will die (a trick of Dr Fu Manchu). There's even a murder method that was repeated decades later in Dr Phibes Rises Again

Fast-moving and visually rich, this is one of Karloff's best thrillers which didn't rely on movie monsters. The story is dramatically strong enough to sustain the scientific shortcomings at the centre of the plot. The lively and convincing cast are consistently good, though short of familiar faces. And I always love it when the dead return to torment the living...

After a long exile on VHS, this film is newly out on DVD - the pick of the 'Icons of Horror Collection' boxset
, (pictured at top).

For those in the mood for more Karloff, there's a rare screening of The Man Who Changed His Mind a 1936 mad doctor movie made in Britain, also starring the spunky Anna Lee (Bedlam and In Like Flint). At London's BFI SouthBank on Thursday, December 3rd.

The lobby card above is from the excellent The Walter Film Gallery.

More thrills with Boris can be found in my extensive look at his much later Die Monster Die (1965).

November 21, 2009

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970) quite a scream, actually

(1969, UK)

I was buying horror film magazines before I was old enough to see the films. After seeing the photostory in For Monsters Only magazine (really great photo spreads) and reading the Peter Saxon book The Disorientated Man, I was oh so very ready to see Scream and Scream Again when the opportunity arose on late night TV in the late 1970s.

I wasn't disappointed - dismembered body parts, gallows humour, nudity (well, that dodgy 'naked young woman on a mortuary slab' nudity) and an essential cast. Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, sorry, Sir Christopher Lee and Vincent Price all in a movie together (but not all in the same scene though).

The unusually splintered storyline is carried over from Saxon's novel. A runner clutches his chest and passes out in the street, only to wake up in a strange hospital room where he discovers he's now missing a leg. A rogue general is murdering his way into power in a takeover bid of an unnamed Eastern bloc country. A serial rapist who murders his victims and drains them of blood, is loose in London, preying on young women he picks up in 'happening' nightclubs. Three isolated storylines that gradually intertwine.

The story structure leaves the audience scrambling in the dark for clues for much of the film, also trying to follow a large cast of characters. But it's fun, fairly vicious for the time, and it eventually starts to make sense.

The three giants of horror, Cushing, Lee and Price, later appeared onscreen together in The House Of Long Shadows (1983). Any of them in a film usually makes it worth seeing. But besides the big three, there are other familiar faces for genre fans - keep an eye out for Peter Sallis (Wallace & Gromit, Taste The Blood of Dracula), young blonde Yutte Stensgaard (Lust For A Vampire), young blond Christopher Matthews (Scars of Dracula, Blind Terror), Michael Gothard (The Devils, Lifeforce) and the deadpan wit of Alfred Marks - an unusual straight role for this expert comedy actor.

When the film eventually hit VHS, and even for a while on TV, it had a re-scored soundtrack, with groovy library music replacing songs by The Amen Corner (the nightclub band) and a less effective synthesizer score replacing the original. The same problem that Witchfinder General had until very recently. Thankfully the original music was restored and the picture remastered in widescreen for MGM's DVD double-bill with The Oblong Box, which is also well worth seeing. The film is in anamorphic widescreen and includes an original trailer (chock full of spoilers, mostly using shots from the climax).

If you want a slightly mad, fast-paced, seventies mystery with outbursts of violent horror and a screeching car chase, here it is. You'll even see that most cliched of sexual symbolism, the suggestive fondling of the sportscar gearstick...

For Monsters Only cover courtesy of Monster Magazines blog (because I can't lay my hands on my own copy right now). Once again the cover art was by Gray Morrow.

November 18, 2009

MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933): pre-code horror finally on DVD

(1933, USA)

I don't write as often as I should about vintage horror. Even though I regularly watch and enjoy many of them, they're harder to recommend to a potential new audience, without explaining and excusing the history of movie production, acting techniques and, er, history. But I'm delighted when any good horror film finally becomes available again, after too long an absence - this has only just been released DVD. It's one of my favourites and can even be enjoyed by today's horror standards.

It contains two of my favourite shock moments in horror cinema, one of my favourite horror stars, and is a prime example of pre-code movies.

'Pre-code' was a period of American cinema where horror movies, dramas and thrillers were pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in an entertainment that was unregulated and open to all ages. In 1935 the Hayes Code clamped down on what could and could not be shown in movies, an overly restrictive and puritanical wad of rules that even dictated the movies endings. The code wasn't successfully challenged until the 1950's.

The UK had had a hugely negative influence on horror films in the mid 1930s. The British market was a major source of income for Hollywood, but was attempting to ban and boycott sadistic horror films. A major reason why subsequent horror films were more humorous, more supernatural and more watered-down for many years.

Pre-code movies are cherished as being from a brief period of early sound films that dealt with tough subjects, demonstrating that drugs, sex and violence are certainly nothing new in entertainment. Without them there's a false impression that everything loosened up in the 1960s, not the 1920s and '30s.

Murders in the Zoo starts with a startling scene where Atwill is dealing with an amorous admirer who's been seeing his wife. He ensures that it will never happen again, and that the unlucky fellow never gets a chance to brag about it either... Collecting wild animals for the zoo, he's about to return from the forests of Southeast Asia, where the laws of the jungle are on his side.

Back in the USA, his wife (Kathleen Burke) continues to lead him into trouble, meaning that he'll have to commit a string of perfect murders where the animals take the blame... With lions, tigers, crocodiles and poisonous snakes around, how hard could it be?

I was delighted to see this on late night TV in the mid-1980s with a group of friends. While we'd been expecting a fifty-year old, polite, palatable, creaky old horror film, we were surprised at its brutality. The cold-blooded and surprising murders are capped with the use of actual dangerous animals. One scene couldn't be done today, when the cheetahs, lions and tigers all start fighting with each other - no way of faking that! What also adds to the film are the leading actors interacting with the animals, not always using stand-ins. The story still holds up today with it's clever 'perfect murder' method...

The villainous Lionel Atwill isn't as well known as Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, but starred in many horror films of the period and is still much loved by fans of vintage horror. His talent lay in playing professionals with an alternate sinister side, though he played a goodie in his first horror movie Doctor X. He made two more horror films with Fay Wray (the star of the original King Kong), but as the villain - in The Vampire Bat and Mystery of the Wax Museum. The last of which was later remade in 3D and in colour with Vincent Price recreating Atwill's role, House of Wax (1953).

After Mark of the Vampire (the remake of Lon Chaney's lost London After Midnight), Atwill joined the Universal Studios 'team-up' horror sequels, where the paths of Dracula, the Wolfman, Dr Frankenstein and his creature kept on crossing. Starting with Son of Frankenstein (1939), in which he created an indelible characterisation of Inspector Krogh, the one-armed policeman who'd fought the creature and lost. Kenneth Mars spoofed him and his wooden arm brilliantly in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974).

It's good to see Randolph Scott in a suit for a change. Most of his long career was played out in westerns, even getting a namecheck in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles (1974). It takes a little getting used to, seeing him in a horror film - like getting John Wayne in Psycho. Though Scott did star in a another big fantasy film, as the love interest for She (1935). Here he plays a veterinary scientist, meaning he has to wrangle some pretty large snakes - very impressive, Randolph.

Playing Atwill's wife, Kathleen Burke is instantly recognisable for her huge eyes. She'd debuted as the 'Panther Woman' in another Pre-Code classic The Island of Lost Souls the year before, another influential horror that's still without a DVD release.

But top of the bill is Charles 'Charlie' Ruggles, a comedy actor whose long career endured on into the 1960s, appearing in many classic TV series (Bewitched, The Munsters, The Man From UNCLE) and Disney films (The Parent Trap, Son of Flubber). While he doesn't get too much in the way, his not-very-funny business is at odds with the rest of the film, and is probably the reason that this horror isn't as highly regarded. But without him, the film would be well under an hour!

Murders in the Zoo was later remade by Herman Cohen in one of his best British Michael Gough horrors The Black Zoo, aka Horrors of the Black Zoo (1963). This hasn't had a home video release either, despite ranking alongside other similar productions like Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga that are rarely out of circulation.

Murders in the Zoo was missing from home video since the US release on VHS in the 90s. Only last month was it remastered and released on DVD from the TCM Vault in association with Universal Studios, in a similar service to the recent Warner Brothers Archives releases, where a limited number of DVDs are manufactured, just to see what the demand is. More news on these titles here. I'd be disappointed if this new approach isn't successful, and that there are only a handful of people left in the world who want to see these films - a scary prospect that too few people are interested in vintage horror.

There's another opinion of Murders in the Zoo at 1000 Mis-spent Hours and an amusing scientific analysis from And You Call Yourself A Scientist.

Here's a quick starter guide and a list of Hollywood's daring Pre-Code movies over on DVD Beaver.

November 14, 2009

BARBARELLA (1968) the Ultimate Guide - Part 2: Cast and Characters

Further to my first posting (an illustrated introduction and review) on the 'way out' 1968 movie Barbarella, here's a look at the main characters and the actors who played them...

Barbarella (Jane Fonda)

Barbarella is sent out alone on a mission, with the Earth President confident that her skills as both an astronaut and a resourceful adventurer can single-handedly take on an unknown planet and the Universe's most destructive weapon. Though she appears to be a typical blonde (certainly in the comic strip), her naivety is shared by all Earth people of the 40th century, in a society where there is no war, and sex is now cerebral and not physical. She flies her spaceship, Alpha 7, alone - she's a top-level astronavigatrix. Though unused to fighting, she adapts quickly to using weapons from Earth's Museum Of Conflict. Like the hippy children of the sixties, she's open-minded and not judgemental of the debased inhabitants of the strange new planet she explores. She has no problem having sex with anyone she's only just met. Just as well, because this frequently happens.

Jane Fonda is fantastic as Barbarella - the role called for a beautiful, sexual actress who excels at both drama and comedy, and could walk the fine line of space adventure and tongue-in-cheek! By the time the film was released, Fonda had rebelled, against America's involvement in Vietnam and for feminism. This was of course at odds at Barbarella's publicity campaign, monopolising on Fonda's near-nakedness and the character's knack for being exploited by almost everyone she meets.

The film marked an end to Fonda's lighter, comedy roles. She pushed immediately towards tougher parts, with the depression-era They Shoot Horses Don't They?, then the hard-edged thriller Klute, where she played a prostitute. Beginning a period where she distanced herself from the "pornographic" comedy. She continued with a mix of political (Coming Home, The China Syndrome), dramatic (Julia, On Golden Pond) and back to comedy films (Fun With Dick and Jane, California Suite, Nine To Five). Nowadays Barbarella is a long, long way from scandalous, and Fonda talks about it like just another one comedy.

Jane Fonda is still acting (Monster In Law) but is also an active blogger, and Tweeter! If you want to know more about her very full life, ensure you read her autobiography 'My Life So Far', and not any of the many unauthorised biographies.

Pygar (John Phillip Law)

Barbarella's main ally is Pygar, a blind angel, an ornithanthrope (part man, part bird). He's trapped in the Labyrinth that surrounds the city of Sogo, because he's lost the will to fly. Like Barbarella, he's sexually attractive but also naive to the evil forces of the City of Night.

John Phillip Law doesn't overplay Pygar's blindness or his innocence. He spends the whole film dressed only in a feathery loincloth and a huge pair of wings (a heavy attachment that could actually flap). Law was cast while shooting Hurry Sundown with Fonda, after a string of supporting roles in Hollywood. Immediately after Barbarella, Dino De Laurentiis cast him as another comic strip character, Italian this time, as the lead in Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik. Apart from Barbarella and Diabolik, he's best remembered as Sinbad in Ray Harryhausen's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. His acting career lasted till the very end, when he sadly passed away last year.

The Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg)

The Great Tyrant rules the city of Sogo with a leather glove. Her citizens are dedicated to committing evil acts for sexual and violent pleasure, feeding the Mathmos with negative energy that powers the city. A very green source of energy, if you think about it. Her Black Guards (made only of leather) suppress any opposition to her rule. She likes to disguise herself as an ordinary citizen and 'play' with her subjects. She also has a fondness for doubling up words, calling Barbarella "Pretty-Pretty".

Anita Pallenberg's performance sounds better than it looks, even though her outfits are just as seductive and spectacular as Barbarella. Pallenberg famously had her voice overdubbed by another actress, who makes her sound sensual, suggestive and far more expressive. One of the few good articles ever written about the film appeared in Video Watchdog #23, a review of the laserdisc edition. Italian movie expert Tim Lucas named the voice artist as Fenella Fielding (the villainess in Carry on Screaming), so I doubt that it was the similar-sounding Joan Greenwood, who is credited on IMDB.

Pallenberg's other famous role was as Mick Jagger's girlfriend in Performance, reflecting her famous dalliances with the members of the Rolling Stones. Never serious about movies, she's now a fashion designer.

The Concierge (Milo O'Shea)

The Black Queen's right hand man (here he is, putting his right hand to good use) is the Concierge. He dishes out extra special punishments and tortures to the most difficult of the Great Tyrant's enemies. His specialties range from the high-tech Excessive Machine (a musical prison that lethally amplifies orgasms) to the good old-fashioned whip. He can be recognised from his cummerbund that looks like the Sydney Opera House!

The Concierge is played by the villainous-looking Milo O'Shea, an esteemed Irish actor who made his name on the stage and in high-powered dramatic roles, like the adaption of James Joyce's Ulysses, but ended up being well-known for comedy on TV and film (like the inspector in Theatre of Blood). He initially underplays his villainous role, but easily hits the heights when he needs to.

O'Shea recreated the role, years later, in the video album Arena for 80s pop band sensation Duran Duran. A specially re-edited compilation of the band's promotional videos, supplemented by specially shot linking material. Clips from the film were also used in this moneyspinning, straight-to-video extravaganza directed by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, Razorback) who shot many of the bands most famous and expensive videos.

Dildano (David Hemmings)

Dildano hides in the bowels of Sogo, plotting a revolution against the Black Queen, while not quite having enough resources or organisational skills to pull it off. He's passionate about his cause, but inept, forgetful and accident-prone. At least he knows how to make love the new-fashioned way...

David Hemmings was a late addition to the cast, when a key comedy scene was reshot (more about that in my forthcoming article on missing scenes). At the time, Hemmings was internationally famous from his role in Blow Up. But after a spate of starring roles, he shifted into directing, including a movie adaption of James Herbert's The Survivor (1981), and then many TV episodes (all on film), including The A-Team, Airwolf (in which he also starred in the pilot as Airwolf's creator), Magnum P.I. and Quantum Leap. He ended his career by returning to acting, appearing in Gladiator, and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, before passing away in 2003.

Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau)

Professor Ping is the unofficial leader and advisor in the Labyrinth, cheerfully helping the exiled as they disintegrate into nothing, or integrate with the rock walls of the maze. While brainy enough to fix Barbarella's spaceship, it takes him a while to deduce that she's of female origin...

Bizarrely, it's a verbose role for the world's most famous ever mime, Marcel Marceau. He had a brief spate of speaking roles in movies, including William Castle's Shanks. and Mel Brooks' Silent Movie! Ironically, Marceau is dubbed by another actor here, I think it sounds like the versatile voice actor Robert Rietty, or maybe Ping lookalike Geoffrey Bayldon (Catweazle, Asylum).

Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi)

The Catchman is a hairy wanderer of the ice and forests of Weir, the snowy wilderness not far from Sogo. The habitat shows that Planet 16 isn't one of these Star Wars planets that has the same climate all over (a scientifically inaccurate whimsical throwback to Flash Gordon's Universe). The ice sheet contrasts with the balmy and arid labyrinth, hot enough to grow orchids. Here Mark Hand nets roaming wild children to provide unwilling slaves for Sogo. He mentions this all very calmy as he's chatting up Barbarella. He's also not great at repairing spaceships, though his self-propelled sailboat is still running smoothly.

Ugo Tognazzi plays this cameo role, in a cast that mixed Italian and French actors with English and American. Again he's an actor who could ably play drama and comedy. The only other film I've seen him in was the original French movie of La Cage Aux Folles, where he played the bisexual lead, a role replayed by Robin Willams in The Birdcage.

The President of Earth (Claude Dauphin)

Finally Dianthus, the President of Earth, gives Barbarella her mission via a video screen communicator at the start of the story. He's enamoured with Barbarella and looking forward to meeting her in the flesh, though not worried enough about her safety to spare her any assistance (like his own security force) for the dangerous mission. What he says goes, but it doesn't always make sense.

The last star in our line-up was the celebrated French actor, Claude Dauphin (Grand Prix, Phantom of the Rue Morgue). I'm assuming that his performance as the Earth President was dubbed into English by another actor, despite his many international roles. He's now buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in the outskirts of Paris.

Of all the above actors, only Fonda, O'Shea and Pallenberg are still around. Lower down the cast, the credits are still incomplete for the many actors who dubbed the film for the English-language version. Like who did Barbarella's spaceship computer Alphy? Or the cool calming voices of the Chamber of Ultimate Solution - the forerunner of Futurama's suicide booth?

My next article about Barbarella will be an illustrated guide to her many costume-changes, a running gag throughout the film.

Part 1: My review and overview of the Barbarella phenomenon

Part 3: Barbarella's many many outfits
Part 4: Missing scenes
Part 5: Set Designs

November 06, 2009

Universal Studios unlocks the movie Vault

In a similar arrangement to the flourishing Warner Brothers 'Archive' collection, where rare movies have been made available only from an online store, the WB Shop, Universal have started a similar arrangement. Teaming up with Turner Classic Movies, the first five releases in the new 'Vault Collection' are rare black-and-white horrors, including the must-see Murders In The Zoo (1933), a favourite of mine which I'll review shortly after another viewing.

Other good news is that both collections now appear to be available for purchase outside of North America. Initially, the Warner Brothers Shop wasn't open to international customers, but this restriction appears to have been lifted. is now selling these Warner DVDs and the TCM online store is also open for business outside of the US, but the $12 shipping fee (for one DVD) drives the price of these titles up considerably. Conveniently, TCM online also offers the Warner Brother Archive titles.

Warners continue to add titles to the Archive catalogue (which I previewed here), and I'm attempting to updated my older reviews to indicate that their 'Not On DVD' status has been revoked. For instance the movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, in my overview of TV horror. This unusual creepy nightmare, starring Kim Darby (who shone in True Grit) was last seen on home video on VHS.

November 04, 2009

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962) - an influential British apocalypse


(1962, UK)

An appreciation of this Technicolour nightmare

A classic British sci-fi horror film, based on John Wyndham's influential novel, starts with his hero waking up in an eye hospital to discover London in chaos, having to figure out an adequate post-apocalyptic survival strategy, while fending off an army of killer plants. The global scenario of doom has been repeated in dozens of projects since, not least in 28 Days Later which starts off much the same, in the same city too. But the original threat wasn't fast-moving zombies, but large walking plants...

Bill Masen misses out on seeing a spectacular meteor shower that blinds most of the world's population, leaving them at the mercy of the mysterious triffids (hinted at also being extraterrestrial in the film, but not the book). These plants can uproot themselves and kill with a whiplike stinger. Bill meets another sighted survivor and leaves the chaos of the city and England behind, heading south in search of refuge from the growing threat...

The scenes of a devastated city were particularly shocking to this young Londoner when I first saw them. Though the special effects are variably successful through today's eyes, they were convincing for many years. London in flames, the carnage from train and plane crashes and the ensuing panic is still unpleasantly real. Added to this are the creepy sounds of the triffids, lurking in shadows and fog to strike down and feed on human victims. While slow-moving, they provide a similar suspenseful threat as oldschool zombies. They're
rarely seen in strong light or extended close-ups and it's hard to get a clear idea on their exact biological shape. Their scariest feature is what passes for a head, and a nightmarish face. The early scene during the meteor shower, in a huge shadowy greenhouse in Kew Gardens, masterfully uses vivid primary technicolor for atmosphere and shock effect.

Famously, after initial filming had finished, the feature's duration was still short of usable material, and director Freddie Francis was drafted in to add the memorable lighthouse scenes, without getting a credit. These new scenes, interspersed throughout the story, added co-stars Kieron Moore and Janette Scott (also seen together in Crack In The World), a larger horrific triffid, and a stirring new climax. The best publicity stills ended up being taken in these lighthouse sets too, Janette being menaced by a triffid in the shadows.

Howard Keel, as Bill Masen, is convincing and steady as a rock in the centre of all the havoc, halfway in his career between Hollywood musicals and endless TV episodes of Dallas. Mervyn Johns has a short role as Coker - the actor was a long-standing torch-bearer for classic British horror, having appeared in the ghost anthology Dead of Night (1945). It's a memorable role, showing a deft touch for sympathetic and believable characters. Yet Johns could also portray madness to an astounding depth, playing the witty serial killer in My Learned Friend, and part of the eccentric family in William Castle's The Old Dark House (1963), which is newly available in a William Castle Collection DVD Boxset.

Janina Faye, playing a cheeky schoolgirl sidekick, was fresh from a string of child parts in British horror films, most touchingly Horror of Dracula, when she's wrapped up like a teddy bear by Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. She'd also been in The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll and Never Take Sweets From A Stranger (a daring Hammer Films paedo-thriller, hopefully on DVD in the US soon), and The Hands of Orlac remake. She later had a more substantial role in The Beauty Jungle (1964), a light expose on the tough world of modelling, opposite Janette Scott.

Look out for Carole Ann Ford in the film, appearing here the year before she played the Doctor's grand-daughter, Susan, in the very first episode of Doctor Who, when it began in 1963.

So far, the DVD releases of The Day of the Triffids have been well-framed 2.35 widescreen, but never anamorphically presented. The source material has been a scratchy print with faded colour. This is poor treatment for such an early widescreen colour sci-fi film. It's also a noticeable standards conversion from NTSC. The various DVD and laserdisc releases seem to have all been sourced from this one analogue master. So far, an entertaining trailer has been the only DVD extra.

What's needed is a digital remaster from a decent print, or dare I say negative? And in a fantasy world I'd love to see some of the film's deleted scenes. For instance, the stills below, from sixties monster mags, hint at possible missing scenes from the airplane sequence. In the finished film, there are no triffids on the plane, but here we see one among the passengers and in the cockpit (killing the radio operator).

Recently over on the scholarly Classic Horror Film Board, there's good news that a new restoration could be nearing completion, overseen by Ignite Films in the US. Hopefully the project will eventually hit DVD.

I'd also love to have Ron Goodwin's pounding soundtrack! That's looking very unlikely, but an excellent re-recording of twenty minutes of the score have been released by Monstrous Movie Music on their This Island Earth CD release. Considering Goodwin also provided eerie scores for Village of the Damned and it's sequel, his fantasy soundtracks are sorely missing from our CD collections. The liner notes include the most extensive information I've ever seen about the making of The Day of the Triffids.

I've never cared much for the 1981 BBC TV series, despite the more faithful approach to the book. It's far too light on devastation and triffid action. The recent mini-series veered further away from the book, and the triffids.

Other John Wyndham novels have been adapted as films and TV, one of our most influential sci-fi writers since H.G. Wells. Most famous are 'The Midwich Cuckoos' (inspiring Village of the Damned) and Chocky. Though I'd love to see an adaption of his 'The Kraken Wakes', an invasion of Earth from beneath the sea...

November 01, 2009

THE VANISHED (2006) - Japanese horror that's hard on the kids

(2006, Japan, Ame No Machi)

The horror genre of 'killer kids' is popular again, with recent movies like Them (Ils), The Strangers, Orphan, It's Alive and The Children. This Japanese horror is now a few years old, but I've only just found it subtitled. Far less gory than western horrors, it adds a little more creepiness.

Starting with some convincing shocks, where a little boy is stalked by a madman with a shovel. A sack is placed over the child's head - a visual reminder of The Orphanage, but this is a misleading similarity, capitalised on by the publicity art.

The boy's body floats away from this remote village and is discovered miles downstream. An autopsy shows up some bizarre results. Gutter press journalist Sota is sent to check out the story and hype up the supernatural angle, even if there isn't one. But for the first time in his career, he sees something genuinely uncanny. Not the least of which is a corpse with the insides of what looks like yellow cheese.

Tracing the body back to a remote area in the forest, he teams up with Fumiyo, a local journalist. She takes him to one of the few families left in a severely haunted village, where the local children, aren't really children at all...

Believability is strained early on as Sota sneaks some photos of the body in the morgue, using a noisy flash camera without the attendant noticing, eben though they're in the same room. It also unfortunately looks like Sota wants naked photos of the kid, rather than of the clues. Later on, further poor staging means that the heroes fail to notice a dead body in a small room.

The bizarre situation could also do with more backstory. Where in Japanese mythology are there vampires made of cheese? It's all creepy enough, but nothing is as strong as the opening scene. The eventual ending is drawn out and failed to chill.

Toshihiro Wada doesn't make the most of his character Sato, leaving various plot points rather muddled (like his attitude to the newspaper he works for). But Yoko Maki makes Fumiyo a more believable character, unfortunately completely underused, disappearing soon after she's introduced. The actress also made a lasting impression in Sway (Yureru), and the US version of The Grudge.

The Vanished is likeable for the unusual theme, and the potential of the story rather than where it ends up. The Malaysian DVD (from PMP) is widescreen but not anamorphic. English subtitles are rather stiffly worded and felt inaccurate in many scenes. Better translations would help it considerably, and I'd certainly reassess my opinions if there was ever a release in the West. It's also out on DVD in Hong Kong (cover art pictured at top).

A trailer (including plenty of spoilers), is here on DailyMotion.