May 21, 2014

DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1978) - Leslie Nielsen in the follow-up to GRIZZLY

(1977, USA)

When animals attack... and keep on attacking!

A large group of happy campers prepare for a long trek in California's High Sierras. But after they're dropped off high on a mountain by helicopter, a warning goes out that an anomaly in the ozone layer could alter animal behaviour, and even be dangerous for humans. As the evacuation begins of all the towns at high altitude, the campers aren't expecting it when the many wild animals start behaving strangely...

This wouldn't have been made if it wasn't for Jaws, but like Joe Dante, director William Girdler knows his audience and tries to add surprises to the horror genre, rather than relying on cliche. With the theme of atmospheric damage, this also has a strong dose of sci-fi. It has a grindhouse vibe, but is too well made to be labelled as such.

Director William Girdler started off making really cheap horror films (like Three on a Meathook and Asylum of Satan) but rapidly progressed to mainstream releases. He rarely strayed from horror films, but maintained a fun creative sense, injecting what are now known as 'WTF moments' that make his later films must-sees. I looked forward to them, and was saddened when he died accidentally at the ridiculously young age of 30.

Day of the Animals, Grizzly and The Manitou deserve to be remastered on blu-ray. At the moment there's only a blu-ray of Grizzly in France and Day of the Animals has just had a special edition blu-ray in the USA, from Scorpion Releasing.

When I first saw this, on a double-bill with The Car, it didn't impress me nearly as much (see my review of The Car here). Watching it again on DVD did little to improve my opinion, but it was a really terrible presentation. Now, seeing it again in 2.35 widescreen, superbly restored, has elevated Day of the Animals to a worthy support feature for Grizzly, which I rate very highly. It could be argued that there's some continuity between the two stories. Day of the Animals could be a prequel, explaining why Grizzly ran amok. The animal attack theme certainly binds these two films together, made in consecutive years. It's certainly a better partner than The Car.

The new blu-ray showcases the production from the opening shots. Even the title sequence looks good, with so many wild animals sitting, waiting patiently in frame for their prey to arrive. The many wild animals on show are impressive because none of them are stock footage. The excessive lens flares and slightly 'hot' overexposure, with some additional filters, cleverly transmit that there's something not quite right about the sunlight. 

When the animals start to attack, it looks convincingly fierce. Girdler and his team must have met up with the right people during the making of Grizzly, to be able to film so many different co-operative animals. 

While the stuntwork is still very convincing, The budget can't extend to ambitious visual effects, some of which haven't aged well. It's also hard to take the film too seriously with Leslie Nielsen playing a racist bully, shortly before he appeared in Airplane! 

Both Christopher George (City of the Living Dead) and Richard Jaeckel (The Green Slime) return fresh from Grizzly, but as quite different characters. Girdler certainly hangs on to the actors he likes. Similarly, Michael Ansara later appeared in The Manitou.

Susan Backlinie was most famous for being the first victim in Jaws, and here he uses her both as stunt performer and an actress. Bobby Porter also performed stunts, but being under five feet tall, he usually doubled children. He also acts and plays a child in this, even though he was 25 at the time! Porter also had a major role as the young chimp in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and memorably a child zombie in Night of the Comet.

Andrew Stevens has a small role in this, just before he landed a major role in Brian De Palma's The Fury. There's also Paul Mantee, star of George Pal's Robinson Crusoe On Mars. He and Jon Cedar are interviewed on the blu-ray edition, adding considerable background to the making of the film and William Girdler's way of working.

As I mentioned, the US DVD of Day of the Animals is ghastly, a blurry, pan-and-scan 1.33 crop from a 2.35 widescreen image.

The new blu-ray shows off the how good the production actually looked, especially it's scenic cinematography, digitally mastered from the interpositive. There's a new 5.1 audio mix of the original elements and a unique isolated soundtrack of Lalo Schifrin's music. All this and reversible cover art.

An action-packed 'animal attack' movie at the height of that craze, and a predictive tale of eco-disaster, I finally loved watching this again. 

To see how Day of the Animals looks on blu-ray, visit DVD Beaver for their review and gallery of screengrabs.

For much more about the films of William Girdler, go to fan site

May 15, 2014

WHO? (1973) - released as THE MAN IN THE STEEL MASK on UK DVD

I've updated my review of Who? to include this new region 2 Pal DVD release for the UK. It's probably a repackaged version of the 2010 US release, but without any of the extras (namely commentary tracks). Don't quite know why they've changed the title. It always ran as Who? on British TV, years ago.

I try and keep all the information about one film in the same post, so please follow this link...

Elliott Gould in WHO? (1973) - cold war spy game with a splash of dated sci-fi...

May 03, 2014

THE ANTICHRIST (1974) - you may now kiss the goat

(1974, Italy, a.k.a. L'anticristo, The Tempter)

A delirious Italian riff on both The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby!

After a road accident, a young woman resents her wheelchair and rejects God, allowing herself to be possessed by a witch from a past life and attracting the sexual attentions of the Devil himself...

Now that I've seen an uncut version of The Antichrist, it not only makes (much more) sense, but is now hugely enjoyable. When originally shown in UK cinemas, it had many of the shock moments (and swearing) cut out of it, that left me thinking it was badly made because it made so little sense, and seemed badly edited. The loose English dubbing of the Italian cast drew laughs from the audience, especially during any swearing. Of course, it would have taken time and money to send the censored version back to Italy so that they could tidy it up, so what we saw was a patchwork of what we were allowed to. 

Despite this being my second ever 'X' film experience, I've hardly revisited it, remembering only its lack of impact. I saw it, The Omen and Exorcist II before seeing The Exorcist on its five-year reissue. The Antichrist was also overshadowed by the supporting feature, a reissue of The Legend of Hell House. I saw this double-bill in a South London cinema in July 1976, two years after The Antichrist debuted in Italy, making me think that it might even have been a re-run. More likely, I did see it on its first run, but it had been delayed by censorship problems.

To their credit, the filmmakers had done their best to deliver shocks similar to The Exorcist, assuming that they would be also allowed to show anything that William Friedkin had already. I remember the vomit, but not much swearing. The scene with the Devil I remember very little of, and that was certainly the most likely to be censored down - with sex acts, extensive nudity and, um, a goat... Only on this recent rewatch, on the UK DVD, did the story finally make sense to me.

Besides borrowing shock moments, the filmmakers had to avoid being sued, evoking visual elements and story ideas from The Exorcist while giving them a lawsuit-avoiding twist. This has been creatively done, and adds to the enjoyment. Rather than Washington D.C., The Antichrist is set in Rome - a much more picturesque capital. They include a spinning head, white eyes, lots of moving funiture, and even a stair fall... 

Rather than have the story dominated by a priest tackling a possession, the story delays any religious intervention by having a psychiatrist try to cure her. This still favours a supernatural angle because the regression therapy leads her to a series of spectacular witch flashbacks! 

A story of a woman rather than a young girl being possessed, means that the story can go much further with the bad behaviour of the character - an astonishing and convincingly devilish performance by Carla Gravina - who can be shown as far more sexual and foul-mouthed. 

At the same time, it seems influenced by The Devils, in that the witchy flashbacks take place in a past where medieval modernism looks smarter than the stuffy 'townhouse' where they live. Full of grand rooms, dripping in historical art to the point of excess, their dining room has a ridiculous number of gigantic paintings on the wall, too grand even for a museum.

The visual approach points towards Suspiria. Besides the story of a modern witch, the big house has baroque, overly-grandiose rooms inside a steep-sided stone house. Some of the walls are painted in block red. The presence of Alida Valli, here in a sympathetic role, also hints at a connection. 

The cross-cutting, seventies styles and dated special effects will amuse as much as they convince. Sometimes it all evokes surreal dreams, other times just presents awful effects. The fake toad and snake anticipate similarly unsuccessful moments in Lucio Fulci horrors. The variable optical compositing often fails to convince, but a bold use of back (front?) projection is still effective, especially when all the colours are distorted. 

Entertaining in many ways, The Antichrist includes some great moments of W.T.F.! My favourite being the volleys of low-flying vinyl during the exorcism. 

I've recently seen this called 'low-budget', but that's not my impression. The location work in and around Rome, and the huge complex sets are lush by comparison with many other Italian horrors. The director was regularly entrusted with films that were aimed at international success, like his Bond spoof OK Connery, starring Sean's brother Neil! More notably, Alberto De Martino soon delivered a riff on The Omen. Holocaust 2000 had lavish location work and a solid cast headed by Kirk Douglas.

Apart from the star, most of the cast speak English. Familar faces include Arthur Kennedy in a dog collar (good practice for his role in The Sentinel), George Coulouris (The Skull, Tower of EvilCitizen Kane) as a mysterious monk and Mel Ferrer (The Hands of Orlac, 1960) as Ippolita's guilty Dad.

The Optimum region 2 UK DVD from 2009 (above) has no extras, but the print is in great shape, with rich colours and an anamorphic widescreen 16:9 aspect. It appears to be the longest, original version (in the USA, not only was it delayed until 1978, it was cut down by nearly 15 minutes and renamed The Tempter

The main difference is that most of the prologue has gone, where Ippolita queues up amongst assorted freakouts hoping for a miracle cure, and witnesses an exorcism going wrong).

The long version was also released by Anchor Bay in 2002 (above). It also includes some short interviews as extras.

I'm really glad to have seen this uncensored, full-length presentation of The Antichrist, it's raised my respect for a film I'd dismissed several times before.