March 27, 2012

TOMIE: UNLIMITED (2011) - she keeps coming back!

(2011, Japan)

This J-horror franchise has longevity, just like Tomie...

No matter how awful her predecessors have been, I can't resist seeing her again. I must see her again. It's obsession. No matter how hard I try to erase Tomie from my memory, new versions keep springing up. Just when I thought I'd never see her again...

Junji Ito's female nightmare began life in his horror manga, becoming an early recurrent subject. His artwork portrays fright to the highest level of hysteria. Some pages of his stories Uzumaki and Gyo literally give me the chills, usually something only movies can manage. The difficulty lies in filming 'visual hysteria', as well as convincingly portraying distorted human forms. Uzumaki made a fantastic film, but falls very short of the epic scale of the manga. Gyo, a tale of sea creatures on the attack, has just been made into a (short) feature-length anime that I'm really excited about. But the premise of Tomie is potentially endless.

Tomie is a simple but unique monster - a supernatural, psychic sado-masochist. A personification of the problems of obsessional love. A likely predecessor could be Kumi Mizuno's character from Matango: Fungus of Terror (1963). A femme fatale with a monstrous secret.

Miu Nakamura is the new Tomie
You'll be relieved to hear you don't have to watch any of the previous eight Tomie 'episodes' to understand Tomie: Unlimited, the story isn't a saga. More like a string of serial killings. Her methods and motives are consistent, she just keeps finding new victims...

The story starts with a bang (the scriptwriter must have been really impressed by the original version of The Omen) and Tomie is soon up to her old tricks. This time, the focus of her attention is a small Japanese family, in particular a teenage schoolgirl. Tomie usually picks men as her prey, and her victimisation of her younger sister also involves her father and the boy she fancies.

Tomie is also a glutton for punishment and keeps coming back for more, no matter what her loved ones do to her. Her method, divide and conquer.

All I'll say is that this film delivers plenty of body horror, but more in the style of Frank Henenlotter than David Cronenberg. I was initially alarmed that the director of RoboGeisha and Machine Girl was tackling this, because I hadn't enjoyed either of those. They were visually inventive but were overplotted, had too much cheap CGI and not enough laughs. But here he's consciously aiming for a horror film, with fairly restrained CGI in favour of practical prosthetic effects, though they're low-budget enough to look retro.

It begins as dark as any Tomie, creepy and psychotic, but then tips over-the-top to a frenzy, almost resembling a Re-Animator comedy for a few scenes. This is a shame, because it then regains its creepy balance for a very dark climax. Overall, this is the best Tomie for years, and certainly a good start for those who dislike their horror slowly-paced.

One of director, Noboru Iguchi's, aims with the film was to visualise ideas from the manga which had previously been too difficult to film. He's succeeded in bringing many more of Tomie's wildest talents to the screen, while other scenes are simple and effective evocations of Ito's 'hysterical horror'. One involves Tomie's hair...

The UK DVD and Blu-ray have a simple but extended interview with the director. At first glance, it's a little round man sitting by an office window, but the revelations about his start in the porn industry are both fascinating and beguiling, because of his honesty. Talking about his non-porn films, I was intrigued by the mentions he makes about not being able to show blood in his films, even recently. Presumably this has been a big problem because of mainstream Japanese film censors. But something must have just changed because this Tomie is incredibly bloody. Very, very.

Iguchi mentions that the actress playing Tomie's victim, Moe Arai (above), is a major pop-star from the J-pop girl-band AKB48. Only in Japan could a fifteen-year-old girl be cast in such a warped horror film and directed by an ex-porn director. (Enough hyphens for ya?)

He talks about his serious approach to Tomie and also about the films that have impressed and influenced him. He saw Jigoku (1960) and Hausu (1977) at an impressionable age. When asked about his favourite American films I nearly fell off my chair. The Devil's Rain, Flesh For Frankenstein, Who Can Kill A Child?, Dead And Buried, Zombie Flesh Eaters... Surely he can't like all the same films as me? I almost suspected that he'd picked this list to appeal to horror fans. Otherwise he has great taste... in films. As fanboys go, he actually deserves to be called anal-obsessive...

Here's my look at the first Tomie (1998) and links to reviews of the first seven sequels...

Here's a roughly-subtitled trailer...

"Goodbye for now..."

March 25, 2012

PUPPET ON A CHAIN (1971) gets a widescreen DVD in the US

I'm delighted that this brash, brutal action-thriller has finally been remastered widescreen and released on DVD in the US by Scorpion Releasing. Previously only available around Europe in full-frame, I'm hoping this will find a new, wider audience.

Follow the links below for more details:

I've updated my review of Puppet on a Chain here, including the original trailer

DVD Talk have this review of the new DVD

Scorpion have also released the atmospheric teen survival chiller Humongous (1982) and then, in April, the Australian plane crash horror The Survivor (1980).

March 24, 2012

Peter Cushing as DOCTOR WHO for Amicus Films

From Dr. Terror to Dr. Who...
With talk of an impending Doctor Who movie, it's worth remembering that two feature films have already spun off this BBC TV series that first appeared in 1963. Two stories from the William Hartnell era (the very first doctor) were each made into 2.35 widescreen colour movies, when TV was still shaped 4:3 and in black and white.

'The Daleks' was the second ever Doctor Who story and ran seven episodes starting at the end of 1963. 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' ran six episodes and transmitted at the end of 1964. These TV scripts were then adapted into two brisk storylines for the cinema.

The films have always played on British TV, but would perhaps be better known to cult movie fans if they were explicitly credited as Amicus productions, one of Hammer Films main rivals in creepy horror. But the 'AARU' production credit hides this, because producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky didn't want to confuse audiences that they were getting horror.


(UK, 1965) 

In Dr Who And The Daleks, one of the Doctor's granddaughters brings her boyfriend home to the Tardis, a police phonebox. Inside he finds himself in the time machine of Dr Who. By accident, they're whisked far into the future to a distant planet that's been decimated by nuclear war. The time travellers befriend the peace-loving, shiny-haired Thals but soon encounter a huge metal fortress inhabited by the fearsome and hostile Daleks...

Peter Cushing and Roy Castle starred in Dr Who and the Daleks the same year they appeared together in Amicus Films' Dr Terror's House of Horrors (also written and produced by Milton Subotsky). But of course both actors tune their performances for an audience of young children, the main fans of the Daleks on TV. Cushing does a great 'kindly old grandfather' turn, similar to his Grimsdyke in Tales From The Crypt, and a forerunner to the more scatty Dr Perry, in At The Earth's Core (1976).

Roy Castle had mainly been a musical entertainer (hence his trumpet-playing in Dr Terror), but soon demonstrated an empathy with younger audiences in the long-running children's TV programme Record Breakers. His accomplished gifts for dancing, acting and physical comedy made him a natural choice for light entertainment but strangely not many more film roles.

Roberta Tovey plays the Doctor's younger granddaughter - none of the actors in the TV version appear in the film adaptions. She later cropped up in bit parts in Beast in the Cellar and Blood on Satan's Claw (with another early Dr Who companion, Wendy Padbury).

Jennie Linden as elder granddaughter (a change from the TV character), was drafted in as a romantic foil for Roy Castle, but was usually in far more adult material, as the star of Hammer's psycho-thriller Nightmare (1964) and later starring in Ken Russell's controversial Women In Love (1969) opposite Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson.

In this concentrated form as a single short film, the story betrays its debt to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. The peaceful Thals, like the Eloi, are exploited by the ruling Daleks who, like the Morlocks, live locked away from post-war radiation in a windowless stronghold.

The movie version breaks a cardinal rule by referring to the title character as "Dr. Who", when on TV he's called "The Doctor". Aside from this, Subotsky abbreviates six episodes into a snappy adventure, with one of the best-looking Amicus films dominated by the giant Dalek city sets that contain a host of surprises, including lava lamps.


There aren't many dated special effects other than a few matte paintings, but unintentional laughs may arise from the Thal men wearing silvery wigs and a lot of make-up. The young might find the Daleks as scary as ever. Or funny. Find some children who've seen it and ask them.


Composer Malcolm Lockyer provides the air of menace for this inhospitable planet, later scoring two more Peter Cushing horror films Island of Terror (1966) and Night of the Big Heat (1967). For this and Island of Terror, Lockyer also used Barry Gray to supply electronic sound effects, even though Gray was an accomplished musician himself (composing for most of Gerry Anderson's series and movies). Both Dalek movie soundtracks have recently been released on CD (above), providing a close substitute for the Island of Terror score which I'd still like to have. 


This adaption by David Whitaker of the TV story 'The Daleks' was re-released in 1965 to double as a tie-in for the films, hence the obscuring of the Doctor's face. The first Doctor Who paperback, it includes a number of black and white illustrations. It was several years later that novelisations of other stories began to regularly appear.

Doctor Who
 was originally aimed at children, shown between the Saturday afternoon sports programme, and the evening's adult entertainment. The response from young fans was huge, Daleks soon appearing in children's comics and toyshops. The tone of the first film is of a slightly scary fairy tale, while the second film is more bitter and adult-oriented.

(UK, 1966)

This second Doctor Who movie quickly followed, aimed more at adults and teenagers. There's more action, young trendy rebellious Ray Brooks, lots of fighting, explosions and an unsubtle World War II motif - a dark fantasy of England if the Nazis had won.

Again the movie begins in England, present day. This time a hapless police constable stumbles into the Doctor's police box and the gang are whisked forwards in time to a post-apocalyptic London. Among the ruins, they find a resistance movement against the Dalek invasion. If anyone is captured, they'll be robotised into remote control zombies. But while the resistance is being kept under control, the Daleks' actual mission on Earth is far more deadly...

While I've always thought that this scenario is more exciting than the first film, and I'd never pass up the chance to see inside a Dalek spaceship, the story attempts to summarise all seven episodes of the TV series, rattling through all manner of subplots and minor characters, often not involving the Doctor or the Daleks. On reflection, the first has a tighter storyline with the best characters driving the action. Set in outer space, it feels more futuristic than the many building sites and quarry locations of the second. I confuse the ending with the Bond film, A View To A Kill...


The cast keep it watchable, with angry rebel Andrew Keir stalking London's rubble ahead of similar scenes in Quatermass and the Pit (1967). To his credit, this is a markedly different character, reckless, impulsive and downright rude! A great contrast to his portrayal of the professor.

Andrew Keir and Roberta Tovey
Again, Peter Cushing plays the Doctor, Roberta Tovey plays his granddaughter. But Jennie Linden's young female second fiddle is now played by Jill Curzon, and Roy Castle's comedy relief provided by another popular children's entertainer, Bernard Cribbins (below left). Cushing and Cribbins had just appeared together in Hammer Film's remake of She. Cribbins continues to appear in the present TV incarnation of Doctor Who.

The cast is further bolstered by Ray Brooks (Pete Walker's The Flesh and Blood Show), the late Philip Madoc, and Sheila Steafel (who also popped up in Quatermass and the Pit). Christopher Lee's regular stuntman Eddie Powell performs a nasty fall early in the film, a stunt in which he broke his ankle. There was one take and it's in the movie! Powell later performed many difficult scenes as the creature in Alien (1979).

Strangely, considering the huge popularity of Daleks and Doctor Who at the time, this didn't do financially as well and a third film was scrapped. I think I remember seeing the first film in the cinema, but definitely not the second. Did parents think it looked too violent for kids?
While Amicus Films initially shunned the idea of confusing children's films with their house style of adult horror, the two Dr Who movies led to them making a successful run of family-friendly adventure films throughout the 1970s, including three based on Edgar Rice Burroughs novels - The Land That Time ForgotThe People That Time Forgot and At The Earth's Core.

The Dalek Pocketbook was a fun Dalek tie-in. Also published in 1965, it was written by Dalek creator Terry Nation and while it features the movie Daleks on the cover, mostly delves into the fantasy world he elaborated on in comics, of the Daleks on their futuristic home planet of Skaro. It makes an apt companion for the 2002 Dalek Survival Guide.


The two Dr Who/Dalek movies have been re-issued several times in the UK and Australia, always in good-looking 2.35 widescreen transfers and often as a 2-DVD double-bill pack. The Anchor Bay DVD releases for the USA are long out of print though.


More Dalek movie posters here at Wrong side of the Art.

March 08, 2012

TOMMY (1974) - Ken Russell visualises rock opera

(1974, UK)

Ken Russell passed away on November 28th last year. His death was unexpected, catching me out just as I was preparing this review of Tommy. How dare he. Hopefully he'll still haunt a few projection booths where they show silent movies and play old classical records. Maybe scare some BBC executives into letting some young auteurs have free range of their facilities...

I won't attempt a full tribute, there are already several books on the subject, some of them by Russell himself. But it's my pleasure to continuing to highlight his films on these pages. You can always look at the many obituaries and tributes signposted on his Facebook page. But it was sad to have to say farewell to the film-maker who helped visualise and influence my own small teenage rebellion far more than punk rock did. Besides feeding my brain at a tumultuous time in my formative years, he was belting out movies that annoyed my least favourite people.

Tommy makes the front page for the UK release

It helped that many 'messages' in his films weren't hidden under layers of cryptic metaphor or obscure satire. If he wanted to say something, it was shouted from a mountaintop by a female stormtrooper in leather fetish gear, or screamed by a dozen naked nuns, or projectile-vomited from a television set. It wasn't subtle, but it was very accessible. Much more than most other 70s arthouse. It was symbolism that anyone could understand. That is, I understand what's being said in individual scenes - TV advertising is hard sell, don't buy crack off Tina Turner, Marilyn Monroe was bigger than Jesus... But with Tommy, I still don't quite understand the main thrust.

Tommy is a child of World War 2, but just as he's born, his air force father is shot out of the sky. His mum (Ann Margret) brings him up alone until she meets a cheeky wide boy (Oliver Reed) at a holiday camp. But after a childhood trauma renders him deaf, dumb and blind, his mum and new dad give up on him as a hopeless case. While they enjoy themselves, they leave Tommy in the care of various unsavoury friends and untrustworthy relatives (Paul Nicholas, Keith Moon, Tina Turner...).

But when Tommy discovers an astonishing mastery of pinball machines, his parents are delighted that his miraculous popularity could be hugely rewarding to them all...

Tommy isn't Russell's best film (I honestly think it's The Devils), but it was his most financially successful. For me it's a musical equivalent of Zardoz. Mad, mystifying fun that I enjoy without fully understanding. I thought it was my young years to blame for being confused by this at a midnight cinema showing. But years of TV and video revisits have left me none the wiser.

I'd suggest Tommy as a parallel with Pink Floyd The Wall (1982) which I also don't fully 'get'. I know they're both concept albums angry at something, or a lot of things, both topped with a pop star with too much power. The central characters both have problems relating to the world, one is cut off from his senses, one cuts himself off from the world.

The difference is that The Wall is full of anger, hate, and so much negativity that some critics confused its Nazi-imagery with, well, Nazism. I can understand Pink's anger at his mother, teacher, judge, the war, but not Pink's transformation into a drugged-up hate-monger. The film and the music are memorable, but not enlightening. A dark vision of a young musician descending into a complete mental breakdown, in an England that could easily be nudged into fascism. Like Tommy, I understand which institutions he's angry about, and the subject of each chapter of the story, but not where it's all going.

Tommy offers a few similar observations on the power of pop idols, but as a much lighter morality play re-written by the Carry On team. Oliver Reed provides seaside humour, and the nightmarish interludes are played for cruel laughs. I'd rather watch Cousin Kevin torturing Tommy and Uncle Ernie fiddling about as visualised by Ken Russell, rather than Alan Parker. It's still startling enough without shocking us into stark depression.

Russell has the hefty task of visualising every song before the vocabulary of the pop video had even begun. The crash zooms, lightning edits, costumes, sets and production design can still sufficiently blow your mind, with a fair few unintentional laughs (do gangs of bikers really find hang-gliders awe-inspiring?).

I really have no clear idea what Tommy is ultimately getting at, but at least Russell remains faithful to the text - the lyrics of The Who's original album - rather than trying to impose his own storyline. But this seems to be a story without a clear target. Organised religion? But is Tommy so oblivious that he's being organised? He seems really happy about it all.

A large part of the pleasure is the cast of familiar faces doing extremely unfamiliar things. There's Roger Daltrey acting and running around half-naked. His acting debut is earnest but not very special, but his tanned muscular physique is quite astonishing.

Meanwhile, Hollywood sex kitten Ann Margret is sensational - she can sing up a storm, dance like a wild thing, and can rock a huge chocolaty phallic symbol like no other. She gets full marks for apparently doing whatever the director suggested, in whatever clothes were provided. Her various transformations throughout the story demonstrate an impressive range of many talents.

Russell-regular Oliver Reed can't sing or dance to save his life, but he can act his way through it all. Elton John can't act, but famously sings a great rendition of 'Pinball Wizard'. Incidentally, The Who's original album doesn't sound nearly as special without all these guest vocalists, like Tina Turner (as the freaky, frightening Acid Queen).

Jack Nicholson surprises simply by appearing in this at all, but also by giving an understated performance, in a Ken Russell film of all things. And he sings. In a convincing English accent. And he's just so damned handsome. And he knows it.

Like the other unrestrained 1970s Russell films, like the less-successful Lisztomania (also starring Daltrey), Mahler, The Devils... it helps if you lean back, enjoy the ride and let the madness just play out, as if your screen has just vomited baked beans all over you, but it's alright because you really like baked beans.

1969 album review of The Who's original album in The Observer
Bizarrely, the day after watching Tommy again, my Dad gave me an old newspaper cutting on the back of which was this album review.

Tommy - the soundtrack album, with much less Who
Vinyl double-album interior photo-montage

I watched this remastered region 2 UK DVD (above) which looks and sounds fantastic but is very short of extras compared to the earlier 2-disc release, which includes a documentary I'd like to see. It does still however have Ken Russell's commentary track. Pretty hateful cover art though...

For those who want the best sound and vision quality, there's also a Blu-ray release in the USA (which I've yet to see). Again apparently short of extra materials.

A wealth of photos from Ken Russell's movies on this picture-heavy blog devoted to him...

JOHN CARTER OF MARS - usually sold with sex

While I'm fully expecting Disney/Pixar's John Carter to be family fare, the story has often been sold using similar themes as, say, Conan The Barbarian. One man can sort everything out, and needs a sword far more than he needs clothes. The new movie will be the first time in decades that the story hasn't been sold with flesh as well as fantasy.

1917 - John Carter already sporting a daring mini-skirt

Frank Frazetta paperback cover art, 1970 
Another Frazetta, carefully depicted Barsooms
Mid-1970s UK paperback

1990 Marvel Comics adaption

1996, Dark Horse sends Tarzan to Mars

2012, Dynamite puts back the 'graphic' into graphic novels

Indeed, the current Dynamite Entertainment adaptions are now subject to a lawsuit for both the use of the character and it's pornographic representation. Presumably they missed Frank Frazetta's earlier works...

Large collection of cover artwork from a hundred years of reprints of John Carter novels on this FlickR account.

Much more about the many incarnations of John Carter here at the Barsoomia Wikia...

March 07, 2012

JOHN CARTER OF MARS in the 1970s

I'm looking forward to see Pixar's live-action adaption of John Carter this weekend, after first encountering the character in the 1970s when the eleven book series was reprinted.

1975 UK paperback, cover art by Bruce Pennington
Edgar Rice Burroughs first started writing the John Carter stories in 1912, but they blended into the 70s' sci-fi publishing boom despite being more about science-fantasy. New English Library used striking cover art for all their publications, making them look brand new.

New English Library also celebrated their artists with a large-format magazine, Science Fiction Monthly, which alongside short stories and articles, presented textless cover art and original sci-fi themed paintings that could easily be used as posters. The tabloid-sized magazine wasn't held together with staples, so it was easy disassemble.

DC Comics, 1973
DC Comics also ran these adaptions, half about John Carter of Mars, the other half about Pellucidar, another Burroughs' fantasy about a prehistoric 'cavemen and dinosaurs' civilisation at the Earth's core. The comic only lasted a dozen issues, but the epic story of John Carter has been tackled in several comics since.

Three Michael Moorcock novels, written as an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells, were first published in 1965 but reprinted in 1971 by NEL, when I first read them. I mention them here because they've a very similar premise and style to the John Carter books. A young scientist, Michael Kane (!), who just happens to be an olympic swordsman, is sent by matter transmitter to the planet Mars many eons in the past. There he fights hostile Martians and fantastic animals using only primitive weapons and his wits. I enjoyed Moorcock's 'Martian trilogy' immensely as a teenager, though I never finished the John Carter novels...

Again the cover art, particularly for 'Masters of the Pit', captured my imagination in that it looked like a modern, photo-real image. Unlike many of the illustrations on John Carter novels and comics, the hero is bravely portrayed as naked, as described in the Moorcock novels. This artwork also appeared in an issue of Science Fiction Monthly magazine, without the text.

As a result, I still confuse the story of John Carter of Mars with this potent homage.