February 24, 2013

SKY RIDERS (1976) - finally widescreen on DVD

(1976, USA)

What's the most dangerous method for liberating hostages?

Definitely a 70s action movie, centred around a fad that's not related to disco or skateboarding. With a great cast and a Lalo Schifrin score, shot in 2.35 widescreen, I think this tough action movie still flies today.

A gang of Baader-Meinhof (style) terrorists, disguised in hockey masks, invade a wealthy industrialist's home and kidnap his wife (Susannah York) and their two kids. For a lot of money and ammunition he can buy them back, but the Greek police (led by Charles Aznavour) won't give in to their demands. So while her husband (Robert Culp) is dealing with the police, ex-husband (James Coburn) plans to sneak into the baddies' hideout, high in a mountain-top monastery, and free the hostages himself. How on earth is he going to do that?

With hang gliders! For a short while these were everywhere. James Bond even used one for a stunt in Live and Let Die (1973). But the film that top hang glider experts recommend is Sky Riders for some of the best and most dangerous footage of the sport in its early days, before the fliers wore parachutes!

The skateboard movie 'genre' was aimed at kids and teens (encouraging them to try dangerous stunts like riding under moving lorries on their skateboards). But this pitches itself as a tough, adult thriller, completely contrary to the serene feeling of flying high in the sky without an engine. Hang gliders as action vehicles are also limited by their close resemblance to sitting ducks.

The opening kidnap is dramatic enough, then there's a slow build as the rescue mission is planned out and the police investigation fouls up. It's fun to see the experts pretending to glide badly, doubling for Coburn's character as he's learning to fly.

The fantastic, barely accessible location of the kidnappers' hideout is an ancient monastery, surrounded by natural sheer-walled mountains. Note that in the above photo there are more than one monastery. According to the Wikipedia entry, there are actually six in this Greek valley of Meteora, each one perched on a natural sandstone pillar. One was used in the finale of For Your Eyes Only (1981) and maybe the same one was in the live action Tintin and the Golden Fleece (1961). Horror fans take note that Max Brook's novel World War Z also uses Meteora as a handy place for keeping zombies away. I'll leave you to work out which monastery was in each - the Wikipedia article has handy photographs of each.

The gliding looks dangerous and windy as the flock of hang gliders get dangerously close to the mountains.

The action-packed climax packs a ton of firepower, though the original certificate remained a PG. The 'high' point of the movie is James Coburn personally performing a perilous stunt by hanging off a helicopter hundreds of feet in the air.

Not essential, but a reminder of how big action scenes had to be shot for real. The story of the making of the film would probably be equally interesting. But this has a strong cast, stronger than the storyline anyway, and a gung-ho finale.

Robert Culp (the original star of the TV show I Spy) looks convincing on the big screen, when he was fighting to escape endless TV movies. But James Coburn (Our Man Flint, A Fistful of Dynamite) sneaks in to steal the best scenes! Seventies Brit-chick Susannah York (The Shout, Gold, Superman - The Movie) gets good mileage out of facing up to her female captor. Eccentrics Kenneth Griffith and Harry Andrews pep up the cast list but only get one scene each. Hunky John Beck (between supporting roles in Rollerball and The Big Bus) is largely wasted, despite being in the rescue squad.

I'm not a slave to auteur theory, but director Douglas Hickox did give us several enduring cult movies - Brannigan (1975, John Wayne as a Dirty Harry-style cop wreaking havoc in London), Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959, another dinosaur wreaking havoc in London) and the marvellous Theatre of Blood (1973, Vincent Price as a Shakespearean serial killer wreaking havoc in London).

After catching Sky Riders on TV in the eighties, I've waited until now to see it in the original 2.35 widescreen. It was only previously available in cramped 'what the hell is going on' pan-and-scan vision on TV, VHS and laserdisc. Shout Factory have released Sky Riders as a James Coburn action double-bill on DVD in the US. It's rated 'R' because of the brutal Peckinpah-style western The Last Hard Men. Both films are presented anamorphically in their original 2.35 widescreen, finally revealing the spectacular aerial photography throughout Sky Riders.

A longer review of both movies, with screengrabs, over at Eccentric Cinema, who enjoyed The Last Hard Men much more than I did.

The best pictures and posters online, used for this review, are also for sale at

Everard Cunion's hang gliding site reviews the film with notes about the hang gliders and stunt pilots.

The only clip on YouTube is this hang gliding display that gives Coburn's character the idea of how to rescue his family...

February 21, 2013

OCTANE (2003) - a caffeine-fuelled, nightmare road trip

U.S. title: PULSE
(2003, UK/Luxembourg)

 Norman Reedus doing horror ten years ago!

A rain-drenched motorway, an upturned car, an ambulance nearby. But when the paramedics check out the two crash victims, they gag the survivor and take him away before the police arrive...

Senga (Madeleine Stowe) drives past another similar crash. The same ambulance is there. She's taking her teenage daughter (Mischa Barton) home, though it's tough for them to even share a car. They disagree on music, piercings, life... When Mom nearly crashes, trying to avoid a baby in the road, they take a rest stop to argue in comfort.

Strangers in the diner, a young hitchhiker (Bijou Phillips) they pick up, everyone they meet... all are a little weird. And like the crash victim, some of them suddenly disappear into the night. Is Mom paranoid? Are her meds too strong? Is she seeing the same vehicles at every diner? Who will disappear next?

First saw this ten years ago and it's stayed with me. It's not a must-see but it's certainly got something. The premise is full of possibilities that make you work hard to work out what's going on. But your imagination might well trump what happens here. But full marks for a huge dose of intrigue and suspense generated by the an unwelcome, unfamiliar road trip, travelling through darkness.

The soundtrack by Orbital helps the film 100 percent. Good to hear them used for the Pusher remake. (I still haven't dared see that, having been so impressed with the original movie - Nicolas Winding Refn's debut). Here, Orbital perfectly complements Octane, and vice versa.

Madeleine Stowe (Twelve Monkeys) carries the film, balancing on the edge of being a fairly unlikeable character. 

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Shelter, The Tudors) is supposed to be strong and sexy, which he normally does very well, but here he looks pretty ordinary, and not as turned on as many of the minor characters, like the truck driver, the daughter, the hitcher, the punk, or even the car mechanic (Norman Reedus).

Norman? Is that you?
It's fun to see that Reedus hasn't changed over the past ten years, with the same facial hair and haircut as his cult character, Daryl, in The Walking Dead. Most of the rest of the cast of this European production succeed at sounding American, but Rhys-Meyers hasn't at this point. The diner chain (cheekily called Benny's) looks authentic, but the cars, police uniforms and road signs all scream of Europe. Which maybe helps further the feeling of disorientation.

The paranoia, the increasing nightmare, and Stowe's face are all a little scary. The story starts well, builds well, but then drops a gear by losing the gloriously dark, rain-drenched atmosphere. But there are enough sleazy, druggy, bloody moments to compensate.

Some of the DVD cover art online show this as a PG certificate, but it's definitely a 15.

In the USA, this was retitled Pulse, which sort of makes sense to the story, but confuses it with half a dozen other recent horror films.

February 20, 2013

THE CHANGES (1975) - post-apocalyptic children's TV!

(1975, UK, TV 10 x 25mins)

The image of a caravan in a quarry haunted me for nearly forty years!

I remember catching some of this children's TV series on one of its original showings. As a young teenager, I was open to the Day of the Triffids premise, where the whole country goes into a blind rage and destroys any and all advanced technology. To a young mind the first episode, where society completely breaks down, wasn't frightening but rather an interesting story.

It starts with everyone in a small town suddenly turning against all their electrical devices and petrol-driven vehicles, completely destroying them. When nothing is left, people start calming down but then want to flee the country because of the chaos and threat of disease. In the confusion, schoolgirl Nicky gets separated from her parents as they leave to head for the coast. Her father is more concerned about looking after her heavily pregnant mother. (All this happens in episode one!)

On her own, Nicky tries to catch up to her parents through the relatively deserted countryside, where the remaining population are already forming into superstitious, paranoid clans. She first joins up with a band of Sikhs, before running into a village full of racists, then a community of witchfinders, before finally stumbling onto the cause of all the changes...

What I didn't realise was this was in fact based on a trilogy of children's books by Peter Dickinson. The timeline of the story has been radically standardised, but many elements, like the boat Heartsease, are represented in the TV series.

Watching it all again, it's admirable that such a harsh apocalypse should be unleashed on children's television. The Tripods (1984), which had a more fantastical alien invasion, was shown in a Saturday Doctor Who slot when the whole family would be around for comfort. But The Changes went out midweek in the children's hour before The Six O'Clock News. But the series itself is about giving young people more credit for their intelligence and self-sufficiency, especially in a state of emergency.

It could be also be a radical way of comforting and preparing children for the unthinkable. The Changes bears comparison to the BBC adult drama, Survivors, which began a long successful run the same year. Almost seems like the BBC were preparing us all for self-sufficiency with dramas, and with the comedy The Good Life, to reassure us that if the nuclear bombs dropped, we'd still be alright if we knew how to live off the land!

The series of course suffers from having a children's TV budget, where the logistics of getting everything filmed probably took precedent over consistent acting performances. It often feels very 'padded out' with travelling shots and sometimes feels like the story is going nowhere.

While it often feels preachy, the agenda is extraordinarily wide: meeting different cultures, learning new languages, confronting racism and drastic change, life without parents, finding independence and responsibility. An alarmingly tough way to teach these lessons!

To its advantage, unlike many BBC programmes of the time, the series was all shot on film on location, with no distracting studio interiors and lighting to break up the look.

Nicky is ably played by Victoria Williams, who has to do most of her own little stunts as well. Among the few familiar faces are Jack Watson (From Beyond The Grave, Tower of Evil) as a witchfinder's deputy, and the recently departed Bernard Horsfall (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) as Nicky's father.

According to Wikipedia, the series was repeated only once on the BBC, in 1976, and again on UK Gold in 1994. It's never been released on home video, which seems strange considering the lasting memories it imprinted on many who caught it, not to mention its value for teaching, retrospective and social study.

I've only managed to revisit this because it briefly and recently reappeared on YouTube. I can only hope that someone like Network DVD pick it up for a release.

February 17, 2013

AMICUS: HOUSE OF HORRORS (2012) - heartfelt fan-made documentary

(2012, UK)

Attempting to document the famous horror studio

For British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s, Amicus Productions rivalled Hammer films by taking a different approach with considerable success. Amicus brought horror to mostly modern day settings, like the living rooms of The Skull, the film studios of Madhouse, the high-tech werewolf hunt of The Beast Must Die... They also monopolised on the 'portmanteau' horror, a film made up of short sharp shocks, held together by a linking story - Dr Terror's House of Horror's lead to the first EC Comics adaptions of Tales From The Crypt, Vault of Horror and beyond to Tales That Witness Madness and The Monster Club.

Strangely, the company started and ended with child-scary family adventures, from Dr Who and the Daleks to Warlords of Atlantis. Amicus made a lasting impression on several generations of filmgoers and late night TV horror fans.

Geoffrey Whitehead from And Now The Screaming Starts
On a limited budget, writer and director Derek Pykett has made dozens of interviews on home video around England. But looks like he was unable to pay for any expensive archive materials to portray a more complete story with behind the scenes footage, movie clips or old interviews. Instead he gives us some valuable time with many surviving cast and crew members who worked on the films.

I wish he'd spent a little more time on editing and deciding on a target audience. The running time is unnecessarily inflated by introducing many extremely familiar plots and people. Worse still, by repeating facts and introductions as if we've not been paying attention. His pieces to camera are also very downbeat, as he repeatedly reminds us who's dead, in stark contrast to the many chirpy interviewees who remember the good times they had while they colleagues were alive.

The variable sound levels also make this contrast with the flashy DVD extras that we're used to on special editions.


No-one else has got these interviews or even some of the interviewees that he has here. No one's bothered to go this far down the cast list and persuaded the directors and cameramen to talk about these almost forgotten films.

This could have been slicker, and a bigger budget could have pulled in better interviews and bigger names, Christopher Lee and Stephanie Beacham are absent. But there are no other Amicus documentaries out there anywhere!

It starts a little confusingly by introducing Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, the two producers who started Amicus. But then fast-forwards through the whole story of Amicus by telling us their entire life stories upto their deaths. Making me think the whole documentary was going to be a series of biographies all told in voiceover...

The style then settles down with a great remembrance from Milton Subotsky's widow who thankfully has great recall about his heyday. Then we get into the main meat of the programme, split over two discs, an exhaustive film-by-film account of the entire Amicus filmography, related by an impressive roster of surviving cast and crew members.

Angela Pleasence and father in From Beyond The Grave
I was particularly pleased to see interviews with Geoffrey Bayldon (Asylum, Tales From The Crypt, The House That Dripped Blood), indeed he introduces it. Also a pleasure to see Angela Pleasence (a stark presence in From Beyond The Grave) who's still out there working!

Actors who only appeared in one scene in one Amicus film are also delightful, partly because someone else remembers their characters as vividly as I do. Angela Grant as Ian Hendry's girlfriend in Tales From The Crypt is famous (to me) because I've seen it so often, and the shocking scenes that she's in. It's surprising just how much insightful material can come from someone who worked with Amicus so briefly.

Some are character actors who were more famous for their non-horror roles, like Jeremy Kemp (Dr Terror's House of Horrors) who regularly appeared as German commanders. Kenny Lynch (also Dr Terror) and Geoffrey Davies (Vault of Horror, above) were far better known for light entertainment and will only otherwise be recognised by those who remember 1970s' TV.

Crew members include production designers, cameramen and a couple of directors, like Kevin Connor (From Beyond The Grave, The Land That Time Forgot) and Stephen Weeks (I, Monster). There are of course many other interviewees and even a couple of visits to filming locations.

Director and voiceover Derek Pykett keeps appearing to fill in gaps in the timeline where he has no relevant interviewees, most annoyingly on my favourite, Tales From The Crypt, giving the first of a seemingly endless, dour reminder of how wonderful Peter Cushing was and reminding us that he's dead. I'll forgive him all this because Derek also wrote this invaluable paperback guide, British Horror Film Locations.

I won't forgive that Derek skips over the Amicus monster movies far too quickly, even though he's interviewed their director, Kevin Connor. The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, At The Earth's Core, and Warlords of Atlantis are scarcely covered. They were the few Amicus films that I saw at the cinema and indeed the only ones I was allowed to see at the time. They were also a large part of Amicus' success in the 1970s, and just as much a part of producer Milton Subotsky's love affair with fantastic literature.

So, after the extended run through most of the Amicus filmography, it then circles a little randomly for a while with another downbeat Cushing tribute and some leftover bits of interviews to try and sum up.

For enthusiasts who know these films and recognise these actors from relatively small roles, this is a treat. But it's a rough introduction to the subject, with not enough enticingly presented clips (just trailers) or thorough enough background, to please newcomers.

But there's more good stuff in the DVD extras! Also included are two rare archive interviews with Peter Cushing! The first is from 1990, and both are introduced by the interviewers as they are today.

While many of us are more than aware of how the death of his wife severely affected him, it's rare to see Peter talking about it at any length. And rather than being overly sentimental, he remains composed, self-deprecating and even humorous about what was a disastrous and prolonged grieving process of nearly thirteen years! He admits he tried to kill himself. Too cowardly to throw himself into the sea, he ran back home and tried to bring on a heart attack by running up and down the stairs! Which is quite an admission, that he treats with a smile. To slowly get over Helen's death, he threw himself into work and said yes to any and all offers. 

The second is a 1983 interview, with a young inexperienced interviewer who Peter politely but occasionally catches out. This was crucially filmed just at the end of his 13-year exile from the public. Perhaps it's Peter easing himself back into talking about things. This is a slightly more guarded interview, but reveals he actually doesn't like watching horror films! He prefers war, drama, comedy, westerns. Though he makes a point of gratefully acknowledging the horror fans who enjoy his work. He only watches his rushes but not his films.

Amicus: House of Horrors is only sold in the US, but the DVDs aren't region-coded. They can be bought direct from Oldies.com in the US, or you can easily get them via Amazon.co.uk, if you're in Britain.

The DVD set makes a great companion to this similarly covered Little Shoppe of Horrors' magazine recent Amicus special.

See many more of the classic Amicus movie posters here at The Wrong Side of the Art.

February 15, 2013

THE GHOUL (1975) - Peter Cushing horror not on DVD

(1975, UK)

Peter Cushing, John Hurt, Freddie Francis... but no DVD

The horror films in the many themed seasons on the BBC, late on Friday and Saturday nights in the 1970s and 80s imprinted on a generation of British horror fans. But while many have appeared on DVD and even blu-ray, The Ghoul hasn't been seen since the days of VHS. While Hammer Films are getting restored and reissued, some of the company's rivals haven't been so lucky.

Champion of the Classic Horror Campaign for late-night TV horror double-bills @Cyberschizoid recently reminded me that none of Tyburn Productions' horror films have made it to DVD. I then realised that there are in fact only three! Here's me thinking that Tyburn were a major horror studio, when I've been confusing them with Tigon films all these years. They started producing movies with a splash, when I was first reading horror film magazines, so the name of Tyburn stuck with me. But that opening burst of publicity was pretty much it.

Their most famous film is probably Legend of the Werewolf, starring Peter Cushing. Yes it's a werewolf movie, but a disappointing one, despite the great make-up work.. Much more interesting is Persecution (also 1975), starring Ralph Bates battling against his domineering mother (elegantly played by Lana Turner).

Their tiny library and small independent status has probably lead to their films subsequently falling through the cracks. But I'd especially like to pimp The Ghoul for your attention. This photo certainly caught mine...

World of Horror #4 photos made this a must-see!
A drunken party of well-dressed socialites and flappers runs into trouble when they decide to race their extremely expensive vintage motor cars through the foggy country lanes. This ends in disaster, with young Daphne seeking help at an isolated manor house. For her friends to find her, they'll have to tackle the neurotic groundskeeper, the devoted housekeeper, and the thing in the attic...

While set in the 1920's, this has less of a period feel than the Hammer films and aligns itself closer to contemporary horror with a variety of shock tactics and a far stronger heroine than Hammer usually managed. Veronica Carlson's character was relatively soppy in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, but here she's braver and more independent.

Peter Cushing is also allowed a role with more emotional depth than allowed him in Hammer films, with an uncomfortable-to-watch level of grieving, parallelling the actual loss of his wife. The cast also boasts John Hurt, in an early role (a few years before Alien) as a feral, scheming handyman. It's a treat to see him spark fireworks off Cushing.

Freddie Francis is often mocked for his worst horror films as a director. But his strongest films are definitely strong, like this one. It's fun to see him reprise the meathook gag from Trog, though he later seems unsure as to how to stage, prolonged frenzied violence.

Also very welcome in the cast, Alexandra Bastedo (wishing she had her superpowers from The Champions) and Ian McCulloch (wishing he had a rifle from Zombie Flesh Eaters).

The Ghoul is languishing, waiting in the attic, full-frame on VHS...

Rare photos (some are definitely spoilers) and the brief history of Tyburn films over on the extraordinary Peter Cushing fansite - The Black Box Club.

February 09, 2013

GRABBERS (2012) - creepy, slimy fun from Ireland

(2012, UK/Ireland)

A new monster movie... that's good!

We watched this completely cold and it's already a favourite.

I prefer monster movies played for real, which this does. But its balanced with a healthy amount of humour while remaining respectful of the genre. Tremors and Lake Placid are two that got it right and Grabbers holds up in comparison, despite a lower budget.

From the beautifully subtle opening shot, which confirms that the special effects were in good hands, as well as a gentle echo of John Carpenter's The Thing, that also meant that the director knows his stuff...

A fishing trawler runs into trouble in the middle of the night. Already, we know that something inhuman and deadly is at large.

There's a slow build that gives time to establish the characters and the setting of a remote Irish island. Richard Coyle (Pusher, Franklyn) plays an alcoholic policeman, who's saddled with an overly keen sidekick from the city (Ruth Bradley, recently seen in Primeval). The local islanders are all a little eccentric, but no worse than a English marine biologist twit (Russell Tovey working very hard to breathe fresh life into a sci-fi cliche).

As clues start washing up onshore, in fishing baskets and on the beaches, the two police officers know trouble is brewing, but have no idea how big a problem they're facing...

What I really love is that there's a new kind of monster and it looks fantastic. Well-realised, well-designed and disgustingly biological. Like Jaws it's not overused, and saved up for special occasions. It always gave me the creeps and would look good in a Cthulhu movie. But it's just a good old alien thingy from inner/outer space. The only way to beat it is to go down the pub and figure out what makes it tick...

In the extras, director Jon Wright admits that his homages are to 1980s monsters, rather than the pub-siege genre of the 1960s (as in Night of the Big Heat) which I feel is a missed opportunity, but there's plenty of fun 'quotes' to watch out for.

Well thought out, with likeable characters that you care about, Grabbers is rich, funny and suitably monstrous. It's out on DVD in the UK, but the blu-ray shows off the scenery, cinematography and special effects even better.

Most of the poster art I've seen only plays on the comedy angle and would have steered me away if I'd seen them beforehand. Worse still, the DVD cover (at the top) looks like a cheap, generic Asylum or Sy-Fy offering. This is more of a monster/horror film with a comedy element, so don't let it all put you off.