Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Review: Shark Bait (2022)

I love a good monster film ... and sometimes I think we don't get enough of them ... but this example falls back on a tried and tested trope: Sharks! Yes, those much-maligned denizens of the sea, who have a habit of being caught in tornados - or sharkenados - or terrorising innocent humans in everything from Jaws onwards.

Perhaps my favourite shark-menace film of recent years is The Shallows in which Blake Lively finds herself trapped on some rapidly submerging tidal rocks off a deserted beach as a highly intelligent shark attempts to snack on her ... and common with many of these films, the shark shows more intelligence than the humans it's trying to eat ... however with Lively, it might have met its match!

Which brings us to Shark Bait (called Jetski on IMDB, presumably an alternate title) ... another teens in trouble romp, where a group of dysfunctional kids on spring break - Nat (Holly Earl), Tom (Jack Trueman), Milly (Catherine Hannay), Tyler (Malachi Pullar-Latchman) and Greg (Thomas Flynn) - all with their own neuroses and sleeping with each other and angst and so on, head out to sea on a couple of stolen jet skis only to accidentally crash them into each other, leaving them all huddled on one ski, which of course won't now start. And one of them has broken their leg ... bleeding into the water ...

Cue the shark!

And that's more or less it. The kids are pretty hopeless and daft and you don't really care that much about them as they get picked off one by one by this shark ... the gore effects are realistic and nasty, and the water turns red on several occasions ...

Of course we have a Final Girl (I think she's Nat, but I could be wrong) who manages to outwit the shark, gets the jet ski mended and operational again, and heads to shore on some deserted beach somewhere - it's not clear where she ends up - but ol' sharkie is still out to get her ... even jamming itself between shallow rocks in an attempt to deprive her of her legs ... it's something of a daft scenario, and just how hungry must this shark be? It's already eaten four of her friends! Maybe it wanted some brains ... the one thing missing in this film.

Overall I found this to be a fun, but improbable, film. It's one where you have to leave your critical faculties at the door and just enjoy it - probably with some beer and friends. It's nicely made and the effects are excellent. The shark looks/seems real and it provides a tangible threat to the imperilled teens. Just don't expect anything more than a succession of deaths!

The only real issue is that shark attack films are very common ... and it's therefore hard to produce something which really stands out (as The Shallows managed). 

SHARK BAIT is released on digital platforms and DVD from 6 June 2022

SYNOPSIS: A group of spring-breakers enjoying a weekend in Mexico. After a big night of partying on the beach until dawn, the friends steal a couple of jet skis and take them out to sea, but end up in a horrific head-on collision. The group finds itself stranded miles from land and struggling with a badly injured friend. With no clear way home and predators circling in the choppy waters below, the true horror begins…

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Review: Demonia (1990)

What to say about this new Arrow release of a 1990 film co-written and directed by Lucio Fulci, he of Zombi 2 and The Beyond fame  To be totally honest, I've never 'got' why people admire him so much. The best of his films seem just okay, and the worst ... well ...

Sadly Demonia falls into the latter category. Apparently it was denied any release anywhere until picked up direct for DVD, and watching it you can see why. It opens with a scene of some nuns being inexplicably crucified in an underground vault somewhere - scenes which reoccur later in the film - and this is the most exciting thing about it! Then we cut to the present day, where archaeologists are exploring the area, and you think, maybe they'll find the crypt and unleash zombie nuns who will slaughter everyone ... nope. Instead one of the archaeologists, a girl named Liza (Meg Register), who has a penchant for looking upset and cross, and staring out into thin air a lot, and who previously fainted at a seance and saw a creepy nun, goes exploring and finds the crypt. She seems horrified by her discovery and starts smashing a wall down to get to where the nuns were crucified ... She's an archaeologist, so coffins and bones should excite/intrigue her, not horrify her ... and where's the 'preserving the scene' instinct ... completely missing!

Thereafter random people start to die by harpoon gun, in a meat freezer, torn in two in a trap in the woods, and, most hilariously, clawed to death and eaten by pet cats!  Seems the ghostly demon nuns are out and about and after some sort of revenge! Liza has been possessed or something, and so the archaeologists storm the crypt and set the remains of the crucified nuns on fire, allowing Liza's dead body to appear on the ground ... and the film ends.

Sadly it's slow and ponderous, and the narrative follows Liza as she mopes about, staring into space (the photo here is typical of her expression through most of the film). It's a relief when the killings start, but you do wonder how ghostly nuns could arrange all these deaths. In particular the one where the chap is ripped apart in the forest: nicely set up, and the gore is not too badly done ... but it's more laughable than scary. You just don't really care about anyone in the film!  It's been described as a 'nunsploitation' film which seems about right. There's an info-dump in the middle where we learn that these nuns had been having sex parties with local boys, killing them as they reached orgasm an drinking their blood! 

The Arrow print is, as usual, good, and shows off the cinematography nicely. The underground crypt is a great set, and the locations are scenic. It's a shame that the script is just not up to scratch.

For fans of Fulci though, and admirers of what is described as perhaps his last good film (I dread to think what the subsequent ones are like), this is a smashing restoration and package!

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Deluxe crucifix-style packaging featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Kat Ellinger


  • 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative
  • Restored original lossless mono English and Italian soundtracks
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
  • English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
  • Audio commentary by Stephen Thrower, author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci
  • Holy Demons, a video interview with uncredited co-writer/assistant director Antonio Tentori
  • Of Skulls and Bones, a video interview with camera operator Sandro Grossi
  • Fulci Lives!!!, camcorder footage of a visit to the Demonia set, including an interview with Lucio Fulci
  • Original trailer


  • Fulci Talks, a feature-length 2021 documentary by filmmaker Antonietta De Lillo, based on an in-depth, career spanning video interview with Lucio Fulci from 1993, conducted by De Lillo and critic Marcello Garofalo
  • Original lossless mono Italian soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Review: Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils

Oh my word. There is so much to say about this episode of my old favourite Doctor Who ... it was so anticipated following the trailer at the end of the previous episode which revealed that the Sea Devils - last seen in 1984 and before that in 1972 were coming back!  The visuals in the trailer which then appeared were spectacular too ... but we've been here before: the show looks great, but disappointed in the plotting ... what would 'Legend of the Sea Devils' bring ...

Okay ... I think it was Russell T Davies who said, or expressed the view, that if you were writing a Doctor Who and you came across something in your story/plot which could be filled with something from the show's past, then why not use it.  Better to use it, even, than to invent something 'new' but which was, in actuality, exactly the same.  I think this was how the Macra came to be involved in the 'Gridlock' story. It seems that current showrunner Chris Chibnall both understands, but fails to understand this approach.

Original Sea Devils, 1972
He brings back the Sea Devils, great idea! But then changes several key elements of their heritage. (No real surprise here as the show has consistently, in its modern incarnation, reinvented and changed classic monsters from the past - I'm thinking Cybermen, Silurians, Zygons, Ice Warriors - and most often not for the better. In fact, even a modern monster - the Weeping Angels - were consistently evolved by their creator into something which their original 'incarnation' was never said to be ... so this 'development' for want of a better word, happens all the time. Oddly, though, Chibnall's take on the Sontarans in the Flux series was miles better and closer to the original idea and ethos of the creatures than anything previously in the modern series.)

For a start, these Sea Devils ... why are they called Sea Devils? That name came from a (probably) drunk, (definitely) shell-shocked rig watchman in the middle of the sea, when asked by the Doctor who had attacked and killed his friend. This is something that we might call 'Ice Warrior Syndrome' as they too were called that by a scientist upon discovering one buried in the ice. It's not their name! Ice Warriors are actually Martians! Sea Devils are what ...? We've actually never been told, although the Doctor claimed that the Silurians (a land 'cousin' of the Sea Devils) should have been called Eocenes as they came from that period of the Earth's history, and not the Silurian era (amusingly it is the Doctor himself who first uses the term Silurian to refer to them) ... At best they would perhaps be called Earthlings as they all come from Earth ... Modern humanity should then perhaps be called Holocians? As we live in the Holocene era ...

Anyway ... for the purposes of writing about them, I'm going with the flow and calling them Sea Devils as well.

These are Sea Devils from 1533 ... and possibly earlier. There's no information given as to how long they had been around and active. Again, from the earlier story, and with no background given in this one, the Sea Devils (and Silurians) put themselves into hibernation when the Moon, as a rogue asteroid/planetoid was thought about to crash into the Earth. It didn't and went into orbit instead (note that this is 'Who' history and bears no resemblance to real life history!), and the hibernation chambers then failed to wake the creatures. They eventually woke when disturbed by humanity's explorations of the sea bed and underground digging ... Potentially not something that was happening in 1533! So it's not explained why the Sea Devils were active, or even what they were doing in 1533 ... presumably trying to change the Earth's poles to create climate instability and to flood the place so they could take over again ...

And then we have the issue with the Sea Devils - the technology they have in 1533 (or that this particular group of them have) is at odds with what we had previously seen. In the past they used hand-held heat weapons to burn the undersides of boats, to burn through walls and to kill people ... The Silurians had a third 'eye' which was used to manipulate machinery, operate controls, and also to kill others. (It also seemed to be a flashing indicator of speech in 1984, but lets gloss over that!). In this story, however, the Sea Devils seem to have some sort of teleport ability, and gravity-nulling control (their ship can fly through the air! And they can leap enormous distances unaided). They also have electric cutlassses with the same blue light threaded through them - a little like light sabres I suppose. They also use something called Hexotoxic poisoning - something the Doctor claims is a Sea Devil weapon - except that we've never seen them use it before.  It sounds like someone remembered that in 'Warriors of the Deep' the humans used Hexachromite gas to kill the invading Silurians ... but that wasn't a Silurian/Sea Devil weapon, it just happened to be on the seabase. But they remembered it wrong and thought that the gas was supplied by the invading reptiles. No idea. They also have a blue device on their tunics which flashes when they speak. No idea why as it does this even when Sea Devil talks to Sea Devil ... maybe the race just likes to have things which flash when they speak.

Their control centre seems powered by some sort of green liquid, and then there's this gemstone which will reverse the magnetic fields of the planet ... not sure how it does that! And where did such a gem come from in the first place? The Doctor says it's Sea Devil technology ... They can also put a human into temporal stasis for hundreds of years, and then thaw him out apparently unscathed. This is at least in line with their being able to hibernate and revive themselves ... or would be if they were not reptiles and so actually able to hibernate and come back to life. Something that cold blooded creatures can do, but mammals would have a hard job achieving. But I guess we could assume that their equipment works on both reptile and human ... that is if they didn't treat mammals with disdain and as totally inferior - so why develop and test the tech to hibernate them as well?

The Myrka, 1984
So they've brought back an old, well-remembered monster from the show. Costumier Ray Holman and Monster-Maker Rob Allsopp made them look amazing! And they do! From the animatronic/CGI heads, to their amazing pirate costumes they are brilliant!  They even managed to get the voices almost right too ... just a touch more sibilance and they would have been perfect!  They even sampled the Sea Devil 'death scream' from the original 1972 story for when they were killed. A lovely touch. But they changed all the tech, and gave them little motivation to be doing what they did.

And then there's their 'creature', the huge and brilliantly realised Huasen, which emerges from the sea and attacks everything it encounters! Now ... in 1984 the Silurians/Sea Devils had a sea monster called the Myrka - which, frankly, was dreadfully realised, looking more like a bright green pantomime horse than any viable threat. So why not call this new sea monster a Myrka? It's back to that original comment that if you have something which could be from a past story, then why not use it?

Madame Ching
So ... we have our monster ... the plot. however, is a little all over the place. In 1807 a pirate captain called Madame Ching (Crystal Yu) follows a map to find a giant statue of a Sea Devil which is protected by a man, Ying Wai (David Tse), and his son, Ying Ki (Marlowe Chan-Reeves). She hits at it with a sword until a gem falls off. This gem had trapped the Sea Devil Leader, Marsissus (Craige Els), in stone for hundreds of years ... and now he comes back to life and goes on the rampage, summoning other Sea Devils to attack the village. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and 'fam' (I hate that term) (Dan: John Bishop, Yas: Mandip Gill) arrive, hear the screams from the village, and go to help. They trap Marsissus in a net, but he escapes and summons his ship (still there after 274 odd years) which flies in on the air ...

And the Doctor utters the phrase which probably got this story commissioned: Pirate Sea Devils in 19th Century China!

So Madame Ching is looking for the lost treasure of the Flor de Mar, a ship which sank in 1533 ... she wants it to pay a ransom on her sons who have been captured by other pirates. But no-one knows where the wreck is ...

So the Doctor and Yas head back in the TARDIS to 1533 to find out. They discover that the ship was attacked by Sea Devils and sunk - so they know where it is. However, returning to 1807, and it's nowhere to be seen on the sea bed. But then the sea bed falls away and the TARDIS is apparently swallowed by the Huasen which emerges from the revealed cavern.

The Doctor and Yas are now, suddenly and inexplicably in the Sea Devil base. So where is it? Inside the Huasen? No idea. But the Sea Devils have the captain of the Flor de Mar, Ji-Hun (Arthur Lee), captive in stasis, as well as the TARDIS. It seems that these powers come from the gem - to freeze light and time, and to transport matter - which the Doctor says is Sea Devil technology.  See my earlier comments! And IF these powers all come from the gem, then how could Marsissus teleport and fly and whatever without it earlier on in the story?

The Sea Devils' ship heads for the surface when the Doctor activates some lever to make it do that, and inexplicably they escape and swing over to Ching's ship, where Dan and Ying Ki have been roped in as crew. Not sure how they escaped from the Sea Devils though ... the missing jewel is around Ying Ki's neck, so Marsissus appears and takes it - he wants to use it to change the Earth's magnetic field and melt the ice caps!  But suddenly there are Sea Devils climbing up the outside of Ching's ship ... and they all fight. The Sea Devil ship returns underwater with the Doctor as she intends to destroy it ... and she's also angsting about Ji-Hun killing Marsissus - what about all the other hundreds of Sea Devils that the six of them fought off and killed, without a scratch to any of them!

Anyway, so the Doctor engineers an implosion/explosion sort of thing, but inexplicably for it to work, two cables need to be held together, so she tells Yas to get out! But Ji-Hun is there and he insists on making the sacrifice himself. So the others all head back to the beach before the ship explodes, presumably killing all the remaining Sea Devils on it as well as Ji-Hun - the Doctor doesn't seem so upset about this. She's too busy leading Yas on and making provocative statements about loving their time together and wanting it to last forever ... wasn't that what Rose said to the Doctor in 'New Earth'?

ROSE: It's beautiful. Oh, I love this. Can I just say, travelling with you, I love it.

DOCTOR: Me too. Come on. 

My overwhelming feeling having watched the episode twice now, was that it improved on the second watching as you knew which bits to try and listen to for explanations ... the sound mix is awful and the effects and music often drown out key pieces of dialogue, especially from the Doctor as she tends to gabble, her accent also getting in the way of understanding what she's saying.

The Doctor, Yas and Dan meet Madame Ching
However, it felt to me more like watching an extended trailer for a story rather than the story itself. Director Haolu Wang uses a lot of fast cuts between scenes with material missing which make you wonder what happened. Like one moment the Doctor and 'fam' are on the beach, they hear screaming coming from the village, and the next scene, Marsissus is caught in a net trap engineered and set and sprung by the Doctor and 'fam' ... there's a lot of this short-cutting in the episode, leaving out explanations of how and why in favour of action and movement ... which is fine, but you end up not really caring any more, as if the script can't be bothered to explain things, then why should you worry about it too ... 

I wonder about Marsissus and his Sea Devil pals. He presumably vanished back in 1533 when he was turned to stone and displayed at the village (and why was the statue giant-sized and holding a tiny human in its hand?) ... so what happened to the other Sea Devils? Are they all just incredibly long-lived and so sat around in their underwater lair, twiddling their fins, waiting for their boss to come back. Why didn't they slaughter the village in 1533 and take their leader back? And when Marsissus is revived in 1807, how come all the Sea Devils are suddenly there to take commands and attack and whatever ... are these new Sea Devils? Or the same as before? Where have they been hiding? Why haven't they been attacking and generally pirating while their boss was away ... and no other Sea Devil became the boss? No-one took charge and decided what to do?

The Doctor
There's other elements too which make little sense. At the start, the Doctor's earring is affected by magnetic fields out at sea - which can also apparently make rocks bounce off it ... so is her earring made of iron, nickel or cobalt? Surely it would be made from silver or platinum, neither of which are magnetic (but then neither are rocks) ... and if it affected anything, then why weren't all the things on shore drawn to it - why just her earring ... why not Dan's hook hand, or his metal trouser fly, or buttons, or anything made of a magnetic metal really ... It doesn't stand up to any scrutiny at all.

This theme continues with things happening which you just have to roll with ... yes it's all exciting and looks amazing, and the music is great ... but you need a good plot to weld it all together ... and this is something that Chibnall and his writers (this episode is co-written with Ella Road) seem to consistently miss. I have to say though, that as the Whittaker era has progressed, things have slowly improved in the plotting department. Her first season was pretty woeful, but improved in the second, Flux showed a lot of promise, but they totally dropped the ball on most of it at the very end. And now we have 'Legend of the Sea Devils' which actually has no apparent Legend in it ...

I can't even hand on heart say that it's some new modern way of storytelling, as series after series of other shows prove that you can tell emotional and exciting stories in a 45 minute format ... that you can care about characters and plot, and make it all work ... it's just Doctor Who which seems to muff it every time and lose sight of the importance of plot and character over flashbangwallop.

Finally ... and yes this has gone on a bit ... when fans are more excited over the trailer for the next episode, than the episode you've just seen, then it must be obvious that something is not working ... 

And a CODA: people commenting that I didn't like it ... well strangely I did enjoy it ... faults and all it rushed past in a manic panic ... visually stunning, some great performances, loved ALL the costumes and sets ... it's just that darned annoying thing called a plot that was lacking!!!

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Review: Archive 81

There's a lot of material on the streaming services these days, so when something appears which is actually really good, it's worth shouting about.

Netflix's ARCHIVE81 is such a show! It's an 8 part, hour long set of episodes, chronicling the story of a man named Daniel (Mamoudou Athie) who is hired by Virgil Davenport (Martin Donavan) of a company called L.M.G.to salvage and preserve a set of Hi8 video tapes recorded back in 1994 by a woman named Melody (Dina Shihabi) ... it's all tied in with an apartment building in New York called the Visser which was destroyed by fire, and what happened to Melody at that time ... As Dan digs deeper, so he finds himself reliving Melody's nightmare as she investigates the Visser for an oral history of the place as part of her PhD. She records everything on her video camera and so it's all there to be salvaged and played back in the present day.

The strangeness starts to emerge as Virgil seems to know that Dan's family was killed in a fire when he was a child, and also that Dan must work out of a deserted facility in the middle of nowhere ... with no contact with the outside world. Dan's father appears on Melody's tapes proving that he's somehow involved in it all ... and a young girl, Jess (Ariana Neal) who helps Melody make contact with some of the apartment's residents also seems involved somehow.

As the episodes progress we're introduced to a strange cult operating out of the Visser, worshipping an ancient icon, and using an unnerving aural chant to invoke a fugue-like state ... And the mystery piles on as more people are introduced, including a present-day Melody who turns out to be an impersonator, Melody's friend Annabelle (Julia Chan) starts drawing images of a mystery-woman who turns out to be the original leader of the cult ...

I'm not going to say much more as the complexity and twists and turns of the production are one of it's strengths. It's got a great structure, with Dan in the present day looking back at Melody in 1994, and Melody in turn is seeing things from 1924 ... it's something of a crash of years and ideas as this icon-worship has persisted through the years and forms a backbone for the narrative.  Another strength is the sound design - and as part of the ritual is a strange humming cadence, this is used, along with a simple yet chilling note sequence in the music and sound design, so that the whole production becomes permeated with dread and horror as you watch. It's very clever.

The show is based on a podcast, also called Archive81, which can be found on Apple Podcasts (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/archive-81/id1098194172?mt=2), and all major podcast apps. The Archive81 Wiki explains that it's a found footage horror podcast created by Dead Signals about ritual, stories, and sound. It describes the Podcast thus: After Daniel Powell goes missing following employment by the Housing Historical Committee of New York State, his friend Mark Sollinger receives hundreds of hours of audio of his archiving there. The audio, released by Mark in the form of the podcast, documents Dan's listening to an extensive collection of cassette tapes, containing interviews from a high-rise apartment building in 1994. So it certainly has a similar background to the TV show.

I found the show totally engrossing, and very creepy. As Dan listens and watches the old tapes back, alone and isolated in this strange compound, so we visit 1994 with Melody ... and when Dan and Melody actually meet and interact, then you know that some deeply weird stuff is going down here ... each episode brings something new, and the nightmare deepens the farther you get.

If I had one complaint, it is that I would have given the last half hour or so a good script polish as there are elements there which just leave questions hanging as to what actually happened, and you don't want that after 8 hours of great drama.  It's telling that there's already an article on DigitalSpy explaining the ending, and the search is also one of the selections on Google - it seems a lot of people felt the same way as I did ... what did happen?  And that's not really what you want.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Review: Jack In The Box: Awakening (2021)

The Jack in the Box
 was a fairly decent 2019 film, now available on Prime. The premise was simple, there's a 'haunted' Jack in the Box toy, which, if opened, allows the demon within to emerge and to take 6 victims. 

Written and directed by Lawrence Fowler, the film manages to stay serious, and also manages to add a pretty decent new villain to the great horror pantheon ... though quite why this demonic Jack is claiming all these victims isn't clear ... 

Move forward a couple of years, and now we have The Jack in the Box: Awakening, a sequel of sorts, but one where Fowler seems to forget the rules he established in the first film, and now presents the demonic toy as some sort of wish-granting entity. The box has been obtained by the son (Matt McClure) of a dying old lady (Nicola Wright) and she opens the box.  The demon (James Swanton) will then take 6 lives, and once this has been done, it will grant her a wish - to be well again.

And thus the film plays out as per the first, with a variety of people: cooks, housekeepers etc being stalked and taken by the Demon ... strangely as this happens, so the old woman seems to get better ... looks like her wish is being granted as the killings progress ... But will she gain her health again at the end? And will feisty housemaid Amy (Mollie Hindle) win out? You'll have to watch to find out!

The main downside to watching was that on the preview copy, they had decided to put the text SCREENING PURPOSES ONLY over the bottom quarter of the screen, all the way through ... very distracting!

I enjoyed the first film a lot. I felt it showed promise, and had a nice, simple premise. Certainly it's cut from the same cloth as many other films from Hellraiser to Wishmaster and so on, but the makeup is good on Jack, and the actor playing him is suitable creepy.  I was reminded too of the 2018 Channel Zero season The Dream Door which featured the character of Pretzel Jack ... only that was far superior!

The sequel however is to be commended for not just rerunning the same plot as the first film, but also in trying to find a new angle, the writer/director seems to have played fast and loose with his 'rules' ... and the problem with that is then your franchise starts to lose credibility ... You need to stick with the rules and legend you have created, and only expand ... you can't start changing....

THE JACK IN THE BOX: AWAKENING is out now on Digital & DVD in the UK and available in the US on January 18th 2022

Friday, December 10, 2021

Design Classics

David J Howe takes a look at a classic design of book covers from one UK publisher in the 1970s.

They say that you should never judge a book by its cover ... and yet we do it all the time. Nevermoreso than when looking at covers which enchanted and moved us back when we were children ourselves. Everyone has their favourites, whether it is the Pan Books of Horror edited by Herbert van Thal, or the Narnia books from C S Lewis, or Susan Cooper’s magnificent The Dark is Rising sequence … but standing head and shoulders above them in my opinion are some series of paperback titles published by the Universal-Tandem Publishing Company in the seventies.

Universal-Tandem was not large, and was run by an entrepreneur by the name of Ralph Stokes who employed approximately nine staff to handle everything, including Sales Manager Brian Miles. The company specialised in publishing mass market paperback fiction and non-fiction. Universal-Tandem’s book covers were almost exclusively handled by a freelance designer, Brian Boyle, who had a knack of creating an eyecatching cover. 

In 1968, Tandem had published three novels which tied into the Sergio Leone Dollars Trilogy of films: novelisations of For a Few Dollars More and The Good The Bad The Ugly were published, along with an original novel, A Dollar to Die For, and each featured photographically based covers. The rights to the original film – A Fistful of Dollars – were not available due to a legal wrangle with Akira Kurosawa over similarities to his film Yojimbo.

Miles recalled that once the legal issues were ironed out, then they were free to get the novelisation sorted. ‘Tandem had already established the first Dollar books from the American editions but there had not been a book for the first film. So I was very friendly at the time with Terry Harknett who wrote for one of the Trade journals, and I arranged a showing of the film in one of the private cinemas in Wardour Street and obtained the script and he wrote the book. The book was just as successful as any of the American editions!’ Harknett published the book under the name Frank Chandler, and went on to have a successful career as a Western novelist writing as George G Gilman with his series of Edge books from New English Library.

In 1972, the novelisation of A Fistful of Dollars was released, together with reissues of the earlier titles, all with new matching covers featuring a simple title with colour illustration and a white backbround and a dollar bill at the top which incorporated each author’s name. A young artist called Christos Achilleos was commissioned to create these 1972-onwards covers, and he continued to complete eight titles in the series.

‘I came straight out of art school in 1970 and went into a job doing maps and illustrations based on my degree exhibition,’ explained Achilleos. ‘I spent six months doing that, and was then made redundant! So I headed into Foyles, the big bookshop, and looked at the book covers and started to ring around the publishers. One of the people I contacted was Brian Boyle. He was mainly a photographer, but worked as a freelance designer, and he gave me a couple of jobs: I remember the first was three covers for a fantasy series about Brak the Barbarian for Tandem. He then asked me to come and work in the studio with him at Great Portland Street, so I did, and I was doing art and book paste up and layout as well as painting covers. He quickly gave me a pay rise and wanted me to stay, and when the “Dollars” commissions came in I grabbed them.’

Achilleos decided to use a specific method for creating the covers for the Dollar Westerns. ‘The image was intended to be printed in three colours, so I first sketched out the element that I wanted in black using an art pen. Then I overlaid a sheet of tracing-paper-like material and created on top – again in black – the areas I wanted to be in brown or sepia. Finally I created another layer with the red sun background on. All these layers then went to the publishers with the instructions as to which colour each layer should be. It was a good way of creating the images! I also painted and designed the dollar bill for those covers.’

There was one exception to this approach, and this was 1974’s first edition of The Million Dollar Bloodhunt which used artwork with a colour background from the outset. Reprints of the books from 1974 retained the dollar bill at the top, but most now included a full colour background to the art. ‘Later on,’ explained Achilleos, ‘when they wanted to reprint the books, I took my original layers, and overlaid a sheet of white paper, carefully cut out to reveal the original black and white image, and then painted the colour element on that. The completed image was then stuck down on art board to create the finished art.’ 

From 1977, further reprints dropped the dollar bill design from the front cover and again mostly included Achilleos’ amended art (Blood for a Dirty Dollar however reused the original cover art rather than using the ‘colour background’ art). These reprints started as Tandem paperbacks but transitioned to Star (as Universal-Tandem had been bought by Howard and Wyndham in 1975 and they were rationalising the imprints). It’s interesting too that the title for the novelisation of the film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which had originally been published as The Good The Bad The Ugly, had the missing ‘and’ added to the book title for the 1977 reprint.

By 1972, Universal-Tandem was doing so well that Stokes and Miles, wanted to expand further and to set up a childrens’ imprint, which they called Target. They engaged an editor called Richard Henwood, and Henwood set about finding titles for the new imprint.

‘Undoubtedly,’ said Miles, ‘what guaranteed the success of Target was the Doctor Who acquisition right at its heart. Definitely a publishing scoop of the first order that, retrospectively, I feel very lucky and privileged to have had come my way.’

Henwood picked up paperback rights for three Doctor Who novelisations (Doctor Who andthe Daleks, the Crusaders and the Zarbi) which had been written and first published in hardback (and the first two in paperback) in the sixties, and to provide the covers for the new Target paperbacks, they again contacted Christos Achilleos 

‘One day I got this call from Brian Boyle,’ Achilleos recalled. ‘He said that Universal-Tandem were doing three Doctor Who books, and would I like to do the covers? They wanted to have something like the ones that Frank Bellamy had done for the Radio Times; so they asked if I would do them in that style.’

Achilleos was provided with photographs, and created his covers using a style reminiscent of that of Bellamy, of who Achilleos was a big fan. ‘Generally when you illustrate a book,’ he recalled, ‘you get a copy of it and either it’s a reprint, in which case you can have a look at what the other fellow’s done, or if it’s new, you just read through a manuscript quickly looking for something visually exciting, maybe an actual scene in the book. But the cover is more than just an illustration of a particular bit in the book, it has to be a graphic interpretation of it. The cover of a book is what sells it.

‘As far as designing the Doctor Who covers was concerned, it was left entirely up to me. The art director would tell me which one was next, and I just gave him the finished product, which was how I got away with so much. I used a technique I’d learned at college for scientific illustration called pointillism for those covers, with a rapidograph pen which had just been released. The cover design and style was similar to that I’d used for the Dollar Westerns and other works.’

The Target imprint launched in May 1973, and the first 12 titles in the Doctor Who range represent a clear iconography and style (as well as the first three, these were: Doctor Who andthe Auton Invasion, the Cave Monsters, the Day of the Daleks, the Doomsday Weapon, the Sea-Devils, the Daemons, the Abominable Snowmen, the Curse of Peladon and the Cybermen). They are clean covers with colourful images against a white background, and with a simple block logo for the Doctor Who title. Of particular note is the fact that the lead character – in this case the Doctor – is rendered in black and white – the same approach as on the Dollar Western covers – which gave a neat focal point to the art. There is a magnificent consistency and excitement about the covers and their design, and this conformity was key to their success in crowded bookshops. Kids buying them were drawn to the imagery of monsters and adventure, and the simple design made them stand out on bookshop shelves. 

Also during 1973, as part of the initial ‘buying spree’ of books for the Target imprint, Henwood obtained the paperback rights to another series of novels, this time by a Swedish author called Nils-Olof Franzén. The Agaton Sax novels were an ironic pastiche on detective fiction and featured a titular detective who smoked meerschaum pipes (one for each day of the week) and a hapless Inspector Lispington of Scotland Yard (who seemed modelled after Lestrade from the Sherlock Holmes stories). They were first published in Sweden from 1955 onwards with covers and illustrations by Åke Lewerth, with André Deutsch in the UK publishing hardback editions from 1965 with covers and illustrations by Quentin Blake, a popular cartoonist and illustrator known for his collaboration with writers such as Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken, Michael Rosen, John Yeoman and, most famously, Roald Dahl. 

Researcher Charlotte Berry discussed the decision to use Blake for the UK hardback books in her 2016 essay ‘Keeping the Spirit of the Text’: ‘British children’s editors gave careful consideration to illustrations in their translated Nordic titles. Following the precedent set elsewhere in commissioning new British illustrations for translated children’s fiction in order to create a strong in-house style, Quentin Blake was selected as the new illustrator of the series as early as May 1964 as Pearce [Philippa Pearce, first Children’s Editor at André Deutsch] felt “his sense of humour exactly matched the humour in the stories”. As Royds [Pamela Royds, second Childrens’ Editor at André Deutsch] comments, “Agaton Sax [did not] establish his reputation in children’s literature but [...] built on it”.’

The covers for the new Target paperback editions were also by Blake, and he was most likely chosen for the covers precisely because of this intimate relationship forged with the subject matter, something that Achilleos had also achieved with the Doctor Who titles.

Berry notes in her essay:  ‘Blake also became involved in the publicity for Agaton Sax and the League of Silent Exploders (1974), attending the Deutsch stand and doing drawings on the spot at Heffers’ Bookshop in Cambridge in autumn 1973 where the paperback Target editions “sold like hot cakes” according to Royds.’

The first four Target paperback Agaton Sax titles (Agaton Sax andthe Diamond Thieves, the Scotland Yard Mystery, the Bank Robbers (renamed from Agaton Sax and the Max Brothers) and the Criminal Doubles) went on sale in November 1973, and, it seems, were instantly as popular as the Doctor Who titles. These were followed up in May 1975 with the London Computer Plot and the Colossus of Rhodes, with a final title, Agaton Sax and the League of Silent Exploders following in August 1976. 

‘The Agaton Sax books were not a great success,’ said Miles, ‘but the curtailment of further publication of that series may have had something to do with the destruction of Universal-Tandem by the takeover by Howard and Wyndham.’ Indeed there were three Agaton Sax titles which never received a Target paperback edition.

A further range of novels, again with the covers and logo painted and designed by Achilleos, was the K’Ing Kung-Fu series by the pseudonymous Marshall Macao. Published by Universal-Tandem from 1974 onwards, the books featured a series logo, with the book title and colour artwork presented against a white background. As Achilleos said, ‘It was a design structure that I was pleased with, and so I used it a lot on several different titles and ranges of books.’ The K’Ing Kung-Fu range ran to four titles in the UK, and Achilleos used a similar cover design on another title from Tandem: Kung Fu Master Richard Dragon: Dragon’s Fists by ‘Jim Dennis’ (Dennis O’Neil and Jim Berry), later to be developed by O’Neil into a comic book series for DC Comics.

What is distinctive about all these diverse ranges of books is the way that the covers are simple and uncluttered, and yet each has a precise series feel to them and draw you in: you want to collect all the books in the range, and the covers all sell the respective series magnificently. Even those initial Dollar Western covers, with the dollar design at the top, have a simplicity which just feels right. 

In many ways these covers from Universal-Tandem, combined with the art and design from Christos Achilleos and Quentin Blake, form perfect paperback covers: memorable, effective and collectable. And all are true design classics.

With thanks to Brian Miles, Christos Achilleos, Russell Cook, Gary Russell, Matt Evenden, Mark Wayne Barrett, Peter Mark May, Stephen Laws, Fritz Maitland, Tim Keable.


Howe, D. (2009) The Target Book (Telos Publishing, England)

Berry, C. (2016). Keeping ‘the Spirit of the Text’: A Publishing and Translation History Case Study of Nils-Olof Franzén’s Detective Series Agaton Sax. Barnboken – Journal of Children’s Literature Research, 39. https://doi.org/10.14811/clr.v39i0.258

Holland, S. https://bearalley.blogspot.com/2010/09/few-dollars-more.html

Achilleos, C. http://chrisachilleos.co.uk/

Written in May 2020.

Remembering Christos Achilleos

David J Howe with Chris Achilleos and Peter Capaldi at the Cartoon Museum in London, 2016

I grew up with Chris Achilleos! One of the earliest items of Doctor Who merchandise that I bought with my own money was a copy of the Target novelisation of The Curse of Peladon. It was also the first Target book that I owned ... and that cover!  From the elegant black block logo, to the painting of the Doctor, an Ice Warrior, Alpha Centauri and Aggedor, it drew me and entranced me.

I found other books with art by the same guy ... all of them perfect recreations of those television adventures. And closer inspection gave the artist a name. Chris Achilleos.

The Curse of Peladon cover art
As time passed – I bought The Curse of Peladon in 1974 – I got more of those iconic Target books. And in 1977 I started my own fanzine – initially called The Surbiton Doctor Who Appreciation Society Magazine but which morphed quickly in to the much easier to digest Oracle – and printed Target news therein, gleaned from catalogues and press releases and, of course, the Target Book Club (Sandy Lessiter – whatever happened to him/her?).

When time came for the final edition of Oracle, published at the end of 1981, I wanted to fill it with special things ... and none more special than an interview with the legendary Chris Achilleos. But how to find him?

It was in the London telephone book of all places (the same way I found the phone number for Terrance Dicks!). Luckily there weren’t many Achilleoses in the phone book – in fact I think there was only one – and I found myself speaking to Chris.

We arranged to meet, and I spent a happy afternoon (2 May 1981 in fact) at his house in North London, looking at artwork originals and having my mind blown at the size, the colours, the detail – much of which was lost in the translation to a small paperback reproduction.

Chris in his studio, 1981
We talked and the resultant interview went into that final edition of Oracle along with the photographs I took of some of his amazing originals. There was no digital scanning here ... it was all old-school!

I stayed in contact with Chris, and, as he was willing to part with them, managed to buy some of the Doctor Who original artworks, some of which I still have to this day.

By 1983 I was running the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s Reference Department, and had the idea to do a special ‘Making of’ magazine about the show’s 20th Anniversary story, ‘The Five Doctors’. And who did I want to do the cover. Yes, of course it was Chris.

So we met and discussed and planned. I sorted out photographs, and art edited the cover (I wanted to do it as a poster as well as using it on the magazine, and so needed to foil stamp the title on the cover (so it wasn’t on the poster)) ... things like that were tricky and fiddly back then!

The Making of The Five Doctors artwork
Chris duly delivered the art and it was massive! Easily three times bigger than any of his other Doctor Who paintings, but we managed to get it photographed to provide the transparency for the printers to create the printing plates from.

Time went on, and Chris released books of his magnificent art ... Amazons and fantasy and Doctor Who and Star Trek and everything in between ... he was so prolific!

We talked about the business, the industry, artwork and ideas ... He would often call me for advice on various elements, or for help with reference materials – Chris was not native of the UK, and as he readily admitted, was not good with certain aspects of the business, and so I helped as and where I could.

King Kung Fu cover
I recently penned an article about some of his non-Doctor Who cover work, extolling the genius of his layout and design training and skills, which he applied to Kung Fu and Fistful of Dollars book ranges, as well as the Doctor Who titles ... and he was gracious enough to add in background details and to explain finer points where I had gone astray. You can read it here: Design Classics

The last time we spoke, he called to ask my advice on a new Doctor Who Calendar he wanted to do: what should he call it? Ideas for how to present it ... Of course we had a natter and a laugh as always ... 

And now he is no longer with us. 

His art and genius will live on in those covers, ideas and concepts. His work has always been the benchmark for excellence and imagination, and in the eyes of his fans, he was unmatched.

I truly hope that his more recent forays into the world of conventions: meeting the fans, setting up and selling prints and posters and books; all helped him to see how loved he was, and how influential his art was, not just to those who bought the books as a result of seeing it gracing the cover, but to artists who followed in his wake: inspired to try and create work which would move people, which would sum up a story or a concept, and which would push at the boundaries of what commercial art and illustration was capable of.

I’m going to miss Chris. I can still hear his distinctively accented voice telling me about how he created his covers ...

RIP Christos Achilleos. 26 September 1947 – 6 December 2001.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Review: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989)

What is immediately unusual about this 1989 horror flick is that it plays as though it is a sequel to another film - perhaps called Phantom of the Mall? - but it isn't. This is a standalone film which riffs on The Phantom of the Opera, transplanting the action to an LA Mall, with the Phantom being Eric (Derek Rydall), a young chap disfigured in a house fire a year before, who is now stalking his girlfriend Melody (Playboy centrefold in February 1988, Kari Whitman) (who survived the fire) and her friends as they visit and work in the Mall, which has been built on the site of his old home.

It's a predictable setup, with one of the Mall guards (Gregory Scott Cummins) being the person responsible for the original fire ... and everyone who meets or tries to date or interfere with the girls gets killed by the Phantom ... Another security guard (Terrence Evans) who spies on the girls in the dressing rooms is electrocuted; the pianist (Dante D'Andre) turns out to be another stalker who tries to molest the girls in the carpark - he is shot with a crossbow and then bitten by a cobra introduced into the toilet system - and the Mall owner's son (Tom Fridley) tries to molest Melody only to have his head crushed in a trash compactor!

It's enjoyable hokum as the bodycount rises and Eric plants a bomb in the basement, intending to kill everyone, including the Mall owner (Jonathan Goldsmith) and the Mayor (Morgan Fairchild), both of whom were complicit in the fire.

There are some daft elements along the way, and the film seems to have half an eye on the humour of this sort of film ... an eyeball popped from a head ends up unseen in a tub of icecream! And there's a lot of chasing up and down Mall escalators and passageways!

If you're a fan of eighties horror hocum then this is for you. It's well made and nicely put together, the acting is OK, and there's even some boobies on show ... all in all a typical teens in peril horror film!

As always, the Arrow package is superb, with two disks of entertainment!

  • Three versions of the feature: Original Theatrical Cut, TV Cut and bonus composite “Phan Cut”! 
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original uncompressed mono audio on all cuts
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing on all cuts
  • 60-page fully-illustrated perfect-bound book featuring new writing on the film by Brad Henderson and original press kit extracts 
  • Large fold-out double-sided poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn
  • Six postcard-sized lobby card reproductions
  • Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn

Disc One – The Theatrical Cut (Blu-ray)

  • Brand new 2K restoration of the Original Theatrical Cut from original film elements (90 mins)
  • Brand new audio commentary with director Richard Friedman, moderated by filmmaker Michael Felsher 
  • Brand new audio commentary with disc producer Ewan Cant and film historian/author Amanda Reyes 
  • Shop Til’ You Drop!: The Making of Phantom of the Mall – brand new making-of documentary featuring interviews with director Richard Friedman, screenwriters Scott Schneid and Tony Michelman, actors Derek Rydall and Gregory Scott Cummins, filmmaker Tony Kayden and special make-up effects creator Matthew Mungle
  • Alternate and Deleted Scenes from the TV Cut 
  • Domestic and International Trailers
  • Image Gallery 

Disc Two – The Tv & Phan Cuts (Blu-ray)

  • Brand new 2K restoration of the TV Cut with Standard Definition inserts for the footage unique to this version (89 mins)
  • Composite “Phan Cut” combining footage from both the Original Theatrical and TV Cuts for the ultimate Phantom of the Mall experience! (96 mins)

Review: Mill of The Stone Women (1960)

I'd never heard of this early 1960 Italian horror film, so thanks to Arrow for digging it out from whatever vaults it had been languishing in!  It's actually a pretty decent film overall, nicely shot and with some good performances and intrigue to get you wondering.

Wiki informs me that this was the first Italian film to be shot in colour, and the third locally based horror film to be released in August 1960 (after Black Sunday and Atom Age Vampire) ... not sure what relevance any of that has though.

The plot concerns a writer, Hans (Pierre Brice), who heads to a remote mill to meet art professor and sculptor Professor Gregorious Wahl (Herbert A E Böhme). Wahl has created a strange and macabre carousel in the mill, on which statues of murderers and corpses process ... Wahl's daughter, Elfie (Scilla Gabel), has a mysterious sickness and must never become excited, but Wahl and her physician Dr Loren Bohlem (Wolfgang Preiss) are conducting experiments on local girls to try and find a cure - these experiments render the unfortunate girls into stone, whereby Wahl incorporates them into his carousel.

There are touches of other films in here, and the most obvious is House of Wax (1953) where Vincent Price plays the mad scientist preserving girls by dipping them in wax. There is a dreamlike sensibility to the film, enhanced by the cinematography, and that Hans is drugged part way through and experiences several hallucinations ... I found this similar to films like The Tomb of Ligiea and other Corman titles where the characters experience dream-like episodes in the course of the film.

Overall, it's quite complex, with a twisty turny plot which leaves the viewer guessing, and characters whose motivations are never quite to be trusted. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to, and will probably return to it at some point for another viewing.

The Arrow release is over two disks and has a wealth of alternate versions and extras:

  • New 2K restoration from the original negative by Arrow Films
  • 1080p Blu-ray™ presentations of four different versions of the film: the original 96-minute Italian and English export versions, the 90-minute French version, containing exclusive footage, and the 95-minute US version, containing alternate dubbing, re-ordered scenes and added visual effects
  • Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Adam Rabalais
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Roberto Curti, an in-depth comparison of the different versions by Brad Stevens, and a selection of contemporary reviews
  • Fold-out double-sided poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Adam Rabalais
  • Six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproduction artcards

Disc 1:

  • Restored original lossless mono Italian and English soundtracks
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
  • New audio commentary by Tim Lucas, author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark
  • Mill of the Stone Women & The Gothic Body, a new visual essay on the trope of the wax/statue woman in Gothic horror by author and critic Kat Ellinger
  • Turned to Stone, a newly edited featurette containing archival interviews with actress Liana Orfei and film historian Fabio Melelli
  • A Little Chat with Dr. Mabuse, an archival interview with actor Wolfgang Preiss
  • Rare opening titles from the UK release, re-titled “Drops of Blood”
  • German opening titles
  • US and German theatrical trailers
  • Image galleries

Disc 2:

  • Restored original lossless mono French soundtrack for the French version
  • Restored original lossless mono English soundtrack for the US version
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the French soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack