Monday, June 22, 2015

Review - The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hammer Films were the staple for so many nightmares ... and yet the Horror films they made were supplemented with other films ranging from comedies (On the Buses anyone?) to psychological thrillers and dramas. They also dabbled in Sherlock Holmes, and their presentation of the classic tale The Hound of the Baskervilles has to be one of the best and most memorable.

Now Arrow have pulled the films from the vault, cleaned them up, and given them a smart new release on Blu-Ray, along with their usual panoply of extras.

The first thing to say, though, is that the film seems a little dark and murky. Certainly not as clean and sharp as I might have expected. I hope this isn't a fault or something.

But overall the film is more horror than some of Hammer's horror fare. The opening sequences make great use of Hammer's staple of historically-based tales, with a group of louche gentlemen, led by Sir Hugo Baskerville, tormenting a peasant - in this case, they throw him through a window into a moat/lake, half drown him, and then drag him back and kill him by roasting him on an open fire! Then a girl - of course it's all about a girl - escapes into the night and onto the moors, chased by the crazed Sir Hugo, who is then set upon and savaged by some monster ... a perfect opening ...

But it's in the casting of Peter Cushing as Holmes, against Andre Morell as Watson, and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville in the 'present day' where the film succeeds. All three are perfect in their roles, and so, so watchable as they play out the tried and trusted plot. The Whodunnit is well established ... is it the faithful Baskerville retainers, the Barrymores (another piece of great casting with John LeMesurier as the Butler), or perhaps the Staplefords (and here is the film's only mis-step in casting Marla Landi as Cecile Stapleford, as she has a very obvious European accent. Why would Stapleford's daughter have such an accent? There's no reason and no explanation.). What has the escaped prisoner on the moors have to do with it? And why is Holmes absent for the first half?

Of course all the answers come, and it's a genuine pleasure to see the cast perform the material. It's a great film, which hasn't really dated at all, and which has all the hallmarks of Hammer. Possibly the greatest Horror film they never made!

As mentioned, there are a host of extras on the disk:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) feature presentation
  • Original uncompressed Mono 1.0 Audio
  • Isolated Music and Effects Soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • New audio commentary with Hammer experts Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby
  • Release the Hound! – a brand new documentary looking at the genesis and making of the Hammer classic, featuring interviews with hound mask creator Margaret Robinson, film historian Kim Newman, actor/documentarian and co-creator of BBC’s Sherlock Mark Gatiss, and others
  • André Morell: Best of British – a featurette looking at the late great actor André Morell and his work with Hammer
  • The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes – a 1986 documentary looking at the many incarnations of Conan Doyle’s celebrated character, narrated and presented by Christopher Lee
  • Actor’s Notebook: Christopher Lee – an archive interview in which the actor looks back on his role as Sir Henry Baskerville
  • The Hounds of the Baskervilles excerpts read by Christopher Lee
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Extensive Image Gallery
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper
  • Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by former Hammer archivist Robert J.E. Simpson, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

  • Friday, June 05, 2015

    Review: Society (1989)

    Unlike the previous 'horror' film I reviewed here, Society is a bona fide horror classic which is an absolute pleasure to watch!

    For whatever reasons, I'd never seen Society before. I'd heard of it, and seen photographs from it, but never seen the actual film, so it's a double treat to put that right. As a horror film, it ticks all the right boxes and presents a great little small-town mystery. In a way, there are echoes of Dan O'Bannon's Dead and Buried here, with something rotten being hidden in the heart of a small town, where everyone is in on the 'joke' except for the hapless outsider who is trying to figure it all out and to escape with their life at the end.

    With Society, though, the secret is part and parcel of the town's very being, and the 'outsider' is actually the son of the leading family, the Whitneys. He's just not really part of the family, being adopted, and thus his Mother, Father and Sister's behaviour seems mysterious at first, and then just darn strange as we peel back the layers to reveal what is hidden beneath.

    Brian Yuzna does a great job of directing, presenting things as almost-normal to start with, but then becoming increasingly strange as deaths occur, and young Billy starts to discover things about his family which he wished he hadn't known ... but then the facts change, a tape with incriminating dialogue on is different when listened to again ... and Billy is left out on a limb. There is an effective paranoia at work here which is compounded and enhanced by small elements, like his friend's death and the face of the corpse crumbling in the church (is he really dead?) He finds another friend dead, but when he goes to get the authorities, there is no body when he returns ... is Billy going mad?

    All this is building to a climactic ending: his sister's coming out party, where all the town turns up to celebrate. Billy also finds himself there, captured, and told that you have to be born into society to be a part of it ... upon which, his supposedly dead friend is also served up, and the townspeople fall on him, morphing and mutating into something totally inhuman as 'the shunt' begins - a pseudo sexual orgy of slime and blood and twisted flesh ...

    Of course for the horror fan, this is simply awesome, and seeing the name Screaming Mad George on the credits for effects should be enough to let most fans know what sort of thing to expect. George is a master of the twisted body horror, and the film does not disappoint, with visuals ranging from the memorable 'butt face' to a massive hand where a head should be, to bodies being turned completely inside out ... it's an incredible visual array of horror, perhaps only matched by the work of Rob Bottin in John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing. (It's interesting that George cites both Landis' American Werewolf in London (1981, effects by Rick Baker) and Joe Dante's The Howling (1981, effects by Rob Bottin) as films which influenced him.)

    The action comes thick and fast at the end and our hero Billy escapes with the rather lovely Clarissa, but she of course might be part of the strange Society herself ... but in great eighties fashion, the film just ends when they escape, so we never find out what happens.

    Overall it's a great slice of eighties paranoia, infused with a horror sensibility, and some original and still startling effects. Arrow have provided a smashing set of extras as well - including a discussion with Screaming Mad George about the effects, interviews with cast and crew as well as much more besides. A great package, and highly recommended.

    Special Features

    ·         Newly remastered 2K digital transfer of the film, approved by director Brian Yuzna
    ·         High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation
    ·         Original Stereo 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
    ·         Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
    ·         Brand new audio commentary by Yuzna
    ·         Governor of Society – a brand new interview with Yuzna
    ·         The Masters of the Hunt – a brand new featurette including interviews with stars Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Ben Meyerson and Tim Bartell
    ·         The Champion of the Shunt – new featurette with FX artists Screaming Mad George, David Grasso and Nick Benson
    ·         2014 Q&A with Yuzna, recorded at Celluloid Screams Festival
    ·         Brian Yuzna in conversation backstage at the Society world premiere
    ·         ‘Persecution Mania’ – Screaming Mad George music video
    ·         Limited Edition Digipak packaging featuring newly-commissioned artwork by Nick Percival
    ·         Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Alan Jones, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

    ·         Society: Party Animal [Limited Edition Exclusive] – the official comic sequel to Society, reproduced in its entirety in a perfect-bound book

    Wednesday, June 03, 2015

    Review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

    The synopsis of this film reads: 'It’s the engagement party for brilliant young Dr Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and his fiancée, the beautiful Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), attended by various pillars of Victorian society, including the astonishing Patrick Magee in one of his final roles. But when people are found raped and murdered outside and ultimately inside the house, it becomes clear that a madman has broken in to disrupt the festivities – but who is he? And why does Dr Jekyll keep sneaking off to his laboratory?'

    Why indeed? This film is one of those which can be examined in detail, the meanings and interpretations pored over ... and yet as a film, it is really not that enjoyable, mainly because it doesn't make much sense, eschewing style and interpretation over actual plot. Much of the film seems to consist of people running about an old house, along corridors, up and down stairs, and opening and closing doors. The director has a habit of focussing the camera on certain apparently unimportant elements in shot rather than actually trying to create a meaningful narrative, and so the viewer is left wondering what is going on.

    When you add to this a soft porn element, such that the women are beaten and abused sexually, with the camera lingering on blood on flesh, buttocks and pubic regions, then the film starts to move from being a horror film (which perhaps it purports to be) into some other genre of voyeuristic and tacky film making.

    Watching the film, the plot is pretty impenetrable, and the above description is about all you can discern. There are some great characters, in particular Udo Kier as Dr Jekyll who manages to just about stay serene and above it all, and also Patrick Magee as a somewhat mad general, who bizarrely gives a sheaf of poisoned arrows, and bow, as an engagement present (lucky that these become useful later in the film to kill off most of the characters), but who also has a daughter who suddenly decides to be ravished by Mr Hyde in front of her father, and he then whips her and kills her (perhaps for her act of decadence, it's not clear).

    As with most Jekyll/Hyde films, there's the transformation element, and here it is quite cumbersome. It seems that to transform into Hyde, Jekyll needs to bathe and submerge himself orgiastically in a bath of some sort of mysterious salts ... emerging as the transformed Mr Hyde (played by another actor, Gerard Zalcberg). This takes place over several minutes while Jekyll's fiancée Fanny (Marina Pierro) watches from a hiding place in the bathroom. He then heads off to indulge in a mania of destruction and killing throughout the house, until Fanny decides to transform herself, despite the fact that to change back, Hyde needs some sort of potion provided by the doctor (Howard Vernon), and there is none of this left. So she bathes in the red waters, followed by Jekyll, and then both Hyde and a contact-lensed Fanny head away from the house in a coach, ravishing each other as they go.

    It's a strange film indeed. As I say, very hard to follow as the plot is obscure, and full of long, meaningful shots and portentous camera work. The sexual elements are not enjoyable, and sit uneasily with the horror stylings, and things seem to happen just because they can, eschewing plot and logic.

    There are some aspects which I liked. The incidental music is electronic and atonal, and works to highlight the action well. Kier is very good as Jekyll as I say, and some of the camera work and lighting is very nicely handled. Overall for me, though, it's a thumbs down. Not a film I suspect I will be watching again.

    As usual, Arrow have included an impressive package of extras, including two short films by the director, interviews and documentaries exploring his work.

    Special Features

    ·         Brand new 2K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative and supervised by cinematographer Noël Véry
    ·         High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the film, released on both formats for the first time anywhere in the world
    ·         English and French soundtracks in LPCM 1.0
    ·         Optional English SDH and English subtitles
    ·         Introduction by critic and long-term Borowczyk fan Michael Brooke
    ·         Audio commentary featuring archival interviews with Walerian Borowczyk and new interviews with cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy and filmmaker Noël Simsolo, moderated by Daniel Bird
    ·         Interview with Marina Pierro
    ·         Himorogi (2012), a short film by Marina and Alessio Pierro, made in homage to Borowczyk
    ·         Interview with artist and filmmaker Alessio Pierro
    ·         Phantasmagoria of the Interior, a video essay by Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez
    ·         Eyes That Listen, a featurette on Borowczyk’s collaborations with electro-acoustic composer Bernard Parmegiani
    ·         Happy Toy (1979), a short film by Borowczyk based on Charles-Émile Reynaud’s praxinoscope
    ·         Introduction to Happy Toy by production assistant Sarah Mallinson
    ·         Returning to Return: Borowczyk and Early Cinema, a featurette by Daniel Bird
    ·         Reversible sleeve with artwork based on Borowczyk’s own poster design

    ·         Booklet with new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archive materials, illustrated with rare stills

    Sunday, May 31, 2015

    Review - Rollerball (1975)

    Rollerball is one of those iconic films from the seventies ... something that most people have heard of, even if they haven't seen. And now Arrow Video have a lovely new remastered DVD and Blu-Ray release to remind everyone of this minor classic.

    The overall plot is pretty simple. It's the future (well a future as envisaged in the 1970s, so all chrome and 'futuristic' design), and the populace enjoy an entertainment called Rollerball - in which two teams compete to score points by getting the 'Rollerball' - a silver metal sphere - into a net. But both teams are on rollerblades and ride motorbikes and circle an arena. The Rollerball is shot around the arena at speed, making it le

    thal if it hits you, and anything seems to go in the game. Players can barge and attack each other, knocking them over and into the path of the ball, and fatalities are expected. However there is a deeper theme at play, one of the futility of individual effort. The game is designed to keep the populace subdued by showing that you have to work as a team to win - the individual means nothing. However, in terms of the film,James Caan is playing an individual, Jonathan, who is determined to succeed, even when corporate 'powers' want him to fail, bribing him with the return of his wife. The film ends with Caan becoming a hero, the opposite of what the corporation wanted.

    It's a very impressive film in many ways. Visually rich and splendid, the futuristic trappings are well done. It opens in a very documentary way, showing the game as though it were a sports reporting programme, with cinema veretie trappings and realism seeping from every pore. As we progress, the film starts to show its age with some incredibly slow sequences containing lots of talk. I guess these are adding the character into Caan and his struggle with the all powerful corporation, but with today's eyes, these drag the film down, and you can't wait to get back into the Rollerball ring for more action. Perhaps this was the point.

    The transfer and presentation of the film is excellent, with the colours rich and sharp and the picture quality brilliantly presented. Caan is superb in the lead, and it was good to spot John Hausman with his very distinctive voice as the representative of the corporation.

    As with all the Arrow releases. it comes with a great selection of extras:


  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the film from a digital transfer prepared by MGM Studios
  • Original Stereo 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
  • Isolated Music and Effects Soundtrack
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio Commentary with director Norman Jewison
  • Audio Commentary with writer William Harrison
  • Blood Sports with James Caan – A brand-new interview with the Rollerball star
  • The Fourth City: Shooting Rollerball in Munich – Unit manager Dieter Meyer and others revisit the Audi Dome and other original locations
  • The Bike Work: Craig R. Baxley on the Motorcycle Stunts in Rollerball – Stunt artist Baxley on the challenges and dangers of being one of the Rollerball bikers
  • Return to the Arena: The Making of Rollerball
  • From Rome to Rollerball: The Full Circle – original EPK bringing together interviews and on-set footage
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Theatrical Teaser
  • TV Spots
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper
  • Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
  • Thursday, May 28, 2015

    The Killing (1956) / Killer's Kiss (1955) - Review


    The movies

    Killer’s Kiss and The Killing were two of the very earliest movies to be written and directed by future screen legend Stanley Kubrick, both of them in the film noir style that was nearing the end of its classic period by the time of their release in the mid-1950s.         

    The Killing is the more acclaimed, well-known and influential of the two productions – it was an important touchstone for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) for instance – and is presented as the main feature on this recent Arrow Blu-ray release, with Killer’s Kiss relegated to the status of an extra. Although Kubrick took sole on-screen credit for The Killing’s excellent screenplay, its dialogue was actually written by noir fiction icon Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman, After Dark, My Sweet, The Getaway, The Grifters etc), and it was based on a novel, Clean Break (1955), by another accomplished noir author, Lionel White. However, in terms of both storyline and presentation, The Killing has a lot in common with Robert Siodmak’s similarly-titled The Killers (1946) – the Arrow Blu-ray release of which I guest-reviewed for this blog a few months ago – and it seems likely that this was also a significant source of inspiration.

    Like The Killers, The Killing centres around a heist plot – in this case, involving the theft of racetrack betting money – and is told by way of a series of out-of-sequence flashbacks, through which the viewer has to piece together the action almost in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle. These are classic film noir ingredients and techniques; and Kubrick reinforced the movie’s noir credentials by casting in prominent supporting roles two of the genre’s most recognisable stalwarts – and, as it happens, two of my favourite actors – Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jnr, both arguably a little past their prime by this point. Windsor plays a typical brassy femme fatale and Cook her milksop husband, and their bickering interplay is, for me, one of the great highlights of this movie.
    Other earlier heist movies often said to have influenced The Killing are John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955). The most obvious parallel with The Asphalt Jungle is that both movies star Sterling Hayden as the boss of the criminal gang, giving near-identical performances in near-identical roles; and Kubrick’s taut, documentary-style shooting of The Killing’s racetrack heist certainly recalls Rififi’s famously tense 30-minute dialogue-free sequence depicting in almost forensic detail the carrying out of a jewel robbery.
    Often rated as one of the greatest crime movies ever made, The Killing is one that no fan of the genre can afford to have missing from their collection. That said, though, and at the risk of courting considerable controversy, I have to confess that, in my eyes, Killer’s Kiss is actually the better and more interesting of these two early Kubrick works.

    Killer's Kiss
    While some film noir aficionados might consider this heresy, the advantages Killer’s Kiss has over The Killing are, for me, twofold. First, it tells a smaller-scale, more intimate story, which is altogether more emotionally involving than The Killing’s rather cold, clinical approach. Likewise structured in a series of flashbacks, it tells of a burgeoning romance between washed-up boxer Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) and his neighbour Gloria Price (Irene Kane), who works as a dancer in a seedy dime-a-dance joint – a kind of more chaste 1950s equivalent of today’s lap-dancing club. The challenge with which they have to contend is not The Killing’s logistics of planning a perfect robbery, but simply how to avoid the attentions of Gloria’s lecherous boss Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silvera), who is strongly implied to have raped her and has then dispatched two thugs to murder Davey. The only false-seeming note in this gripping narrative is its rather incongruous happy ending, and it is no great surprise to learn that this was added in a reshoot at the behest of studio United Artists, who stumped up the majority of the movie’s modest budget.

    The Killing
    The other great merit of Killer’s Kiss is Kubrick’s fantastic direction, which is even more gripping and inventive than in The Killing, making brilliant use of extensive location shooting in New York, including in the run-down streets and alleyways of the Brooklyn waterfront and Soho areas. Some of these sequences – such as a desperate fight between Davey and Rapallo in a warehouse storing shop window mannequins – are incredibly striking and memorable, and benefit from some very unusual and effective camera angles made possible by Kubrick’s decision to dispense with on-location microphones and dub all the dialogue and sound effects in post-production.

    All in all, Killer’s Kiss is an underappreciated gem of a movie – and one that, unlike The Killing, is likely to be a previously undiscovered one to many of this Blu-ray’s purchasers.

    Blu-ray presentation

    Arrow have again done a fine job with this Blu-ray release. The high-definition transfers of both The Killing and Killer’s Kiss are the same ones that formed the basis of the Connoisseur Collection’s acclaimed equivalent Region A disc, and are excellent. There is also a strong package of added extras, including:

    ·         The Evolution of a Master – critic Michel Ciment discusses Kubrick’s 1950s output;
    ·         An extract from the French television series Journal de la Cinéma featuring an interview with Sterling Hayden;
    ·         An appreciation by filmmaker Ben Wheatley;
    ·         Theatrical trailers for both films;
    ·         Collector’s booklet containing new writing by Peter Kramer, Barry Forshaw and filmmaker Ron Peck, illustrated with original archive stills.

    Very highly recommended.

    Stephen James Walker

    Friday, February 27, 2015

    Review - Rabid (1977)

    I have a fond association with David Cronenberg's second major film, Rabid. It was one of the earliest film novelisations that I ever read, and I may have even read the novelisation before I saw the film ... and I remember a local cinema down in Newquay, Cornwall, had the poster in their frame showing the girl in the deep freeze ... and this image tantalised and thrilled me ... it wasn't until I saw the actual film that I understood who the girl was and why she was frozen!

    And now the lovely people at Arrow have released a remastered version of the film on Blu-Ray, complete with a nice little selection of extras ... so let's dive in! But be warned, on this occasion I do give away the ending ... so if you've not seen it and intend to, then stop reading now.

    The film itself looks lovely. There is some black speckling around the opening title cards, but I suspect that this is on the original prints too, and would perhaps take too much to remove digitally. But aside from this, the print looks clean and is very watchable. The film itself is actually a little pedestrian to be honest, but it has a seventies charm about it. It's interesting to note that it was released the same year as another favourite film, Dario Argent's Suspiria as both films seem slightly ahead of their time. Cronenberg always comes up with the goods, and here it is former porn actress Marilyn Chambers who astonishes as Rose, a biker-chick girl who gets into a nasty motorcycle accident outside a place called the Keloid Clinic near Montreal  (after Doctor Keloid, and not after the keloid as a type of scar tissue - though the medical meaning of the word is obviously deliberate in the context of the film). Rose is taken into the Clinic and given emergency treatment and plastic surgery to repair damage to her breasts and hpper body - flesh is removed from her thighs and treated to transform it into generic tissue which can then take on the attributes of wherever it is used on the body.

    Unfortunately for Doctor Keloid and Rose, some of this generic tissue decides to develop into a puckered anus-like lesion under Rose's arm, and inside the hole is a chitinous barb, through which Rose can ingest blood from victims. Thus Rose heads off on a bloodsucking spree, taking from patients and nurses at the surgery. Unfortunately, these people then develop a fast-spreading madness, similar to rabies (hence the title of the film) and before long, Montreal is under martial law as people head off foaming at the mouth, biting others, and spreading the 'zombie plague'.

    The film meanders a little, but always comes back to Rose, who ends up living with a friend ...but Rose gets sick when she doesn't eat, and she doesn't want to feed off her friend ... but then ends up killing her anyway ... she has a fight with her boyfriend who wants to help ... but Rose is an independent sort, and doesn't believe that she is the source of the infection, so she picks up another man and feeds from him, locking herself in a room with him to prove that he won't go mad ... but of course he does and the film ends on a somewhat bleak note, with Rose's body being thrown in a dump truck with the rubbish.

    As a cycle, it's quite neat, as the ending removes the source of infection, and, presumably, all the other crazies will be hunted down and killed, and the problem is resolved. But for Rose, as an innocent and helpless victim, it's bleak and unremitting. She has been turned into a quasi-vampire by doctors, and can't help her hunger for blood - when she tries to resist it, and even to eat normal food, her body can't process it and she's sick and vomiting, or writhing on the floor clutching her stomach in intense pain. She HAS to feed to survive, but that feeding spreads the madness. She even tries feeding from a cow, but this too fails - she can take only human blood.

    So in this sense, the film is very tightly constructed, and Rose's trajectory really only has one arc, and can really only end in one way.

    Also on the disk among the extras is an episode of The Directors series which focusses on Cronenberg, covering off all his films, and revealing that, in actuality, The Fly is his most commercially successful film to date. It also reveals that Cronenberg has had to withdraw from projects because of studio interference, and that he feels he has to remain true to his own visions in his filmmaking, and, to be honest, this is why his oevre is so intense and personal, and has resulted in works as diverse and surreal as Shivers, The Brood, Scanners and eXistenZ, not to mention Crash and Naked Lunch.

    The film was released in a dual formal Blu-Ray and DVD format by Arrow on February 16th 2015.

    All in all, it's a great little package, showcasing a good slice of early eighties horror from a director who always makes films which are thoughtful and entertaining, never forgetting that at the heart of any good horror story, there is a personal viewpoint.

  • New High Definition Digital Transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the feature
  • Original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio Commentary with writer-director David Cronenberg
  • Audio Commentary with William Beard, author of The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg
  • Archive interview with David Cronenberg
  • Brand new interview with executive producer Ivan Reitman
  • Brand new interview with co-producer Don Carmody
  • Make-up Memories: Joe Blasco Remembers Rabid – A short featurette in which Blasco recalls how the film’s various gruesome effects were achieved
  • Raw, Rough and Rabid: The Lacerating Legacy of Cinépix – Featurette looking back at the early years of the celebrated Canadian production company, including interviews with author Kier-La Janisse and special makeup artist Joe Blasco
  • The Directors: David Cronenberg – A 1999 documentary on the filmmaker, containing interviews with Cronenberg, Marilyn Chambers, Deborah Harry, Michael Ironside, Peter Weller and others
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nat Marsh
  • Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kier-La Janisse, reprinted excerpts of Cronenberg on Cronenberg and more, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.

  • Monday, February 23, 2015

    Out of the Unknown

    I never saw any of Out of the Unknown, the BBC's somewhat trailblazing science fiction anthology series when it was first transmitted. It started in 1965 and presented a series of one-off plays, all with a science fiction theme, and written by some of the great writers of the time. Thus there is material by John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, William Tenn, Frederick Pohl and John Brunner all being adapted by playwrites like Stanley Miller, Jeremy Paul, Paul Erikson and J B Priestly ... such a thing does not exist on television these days, with all genre shows being series based and written by a small cabal of writers. But these are marvellous and magnificent achievements.

    For a Doctor Who fan like myself, the delight is also in spotting the re-use of sound effects and music, plus many of the same actors as from the good Doctor's adventures ... and perhaps the best example of this in this set is the 1969 episode 'The Last Lonely Man' which is directed by Douglas Camfield, stars Peter Halliday, and has music by Don Harper - all the same as the Doctor Who story 'The Invasion' from 1968. A treat indeed.
    Robots from 'The Prophet' which were later used in the
    Doctor Who story 'The Mind Robber'.

    This boxed set, produced by the BFI, is both a work of great passion, and at the same time, great disappointment. As was typical with BBC shows of the time, a great many of them have been wiped and destroyed, and thus we have a fairly limited selection to enjoy today. The four seasons break down as follows in terms of what exists and what has  been destroyed:

    SEASON 1 - 10 Exist; 2 Destroyed
    SEASON 2 - 4 Exist; 9 Destroyed
    SEASON 3 - 1 Exists; 12 Destroyed
    SEASON 4 - 5 Exist; 6 Destroyed

    As you can see, it's a depressing showing. But the DVD release makes the most of what material does exist, with it being cleaned up and remastered. There are also several 'reconstructions', using the original soundtracks matched to stills from the episodes, but these make for hard viewing. A better approach is the one used for 'The Uninvited' where the soundtrack is matched with the camera script so you can read what is happening on screen. This one seems easier to follow than the others and could simply be down to a better quality soundtrack - some of the others are a little 'muddy'.

    'The Machine Stops' one of the more famous episodes.
    It is a shame though that seasons 3 and 4 are so underrepresented as the series underwent a major shift in direction with the move to colour. This coincided with creator Irene Shubik moving off and Alan Bromly taking over, and I'm not sure I like the results. Wheras the black and white science fiction of series 1 and 2 was all alien worlds, spacecraft, strange blonde young men, futuristic ideas and concepts and great effects and visualisation in studio, the colour series 4 episodes tend towards present day location work, and psychological dramas, household terrors and more mundane horrors. In fact the final season is closer to Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected and the Hammer House of Horror series than to anything science fiction or 'unknown' - but again this might be more because of what remains to be viewed than what the series was actually trying to achieve as a whole.

    The comprehensive booklet of notes explains that Shubik was taken off after Series 2, but that she had commissioned all the scripts for Series 3 before her departure, and that it was Series 4 which had a darker more psychological remit. This seems to tally as the sole series 3 episode ('The Last Lonely Man') is one of the most enjoyable episodes on the collection, while the Series 4 episodes all seem strangely downbeat and samey.
    George Cole and Peter Halliday in 'The Last Lonely Man'.

    Whatever observations might be made of the content, the presentation of this set is brilliant. The episodes have been remastered and for the most part cleaned up and improved. There are reconstructions of several missing episodes, and party of one missing episode is included ('The Little Black Bag', half of which was found on an Engineering Training tape at BBC Glasgow!). There is a special documentary which interviews many surviving cast and crew members, and which also contains footage from other missing episodes, some of which have been colour-recovered. There are commentaries on many of the episodes too, and extensive stills galleries, so we can marvel and wonder at just what the lost episodes might have been like ... Just about every surviving element of Out of the Unknown is contained on the disk ... it's a labour of love for those involved in compiling it.

    For fans of vintage television, and especially of the science fiction and horror genres, this is a must-have purchase. Enjoyable and thought provoking, even today, Out of the Unknown stands the test of time. It's just such a shame that so much has been lost.
    The aliens from 'Beach Head' one of the missing episodes.