Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Outer Limits at 50

A selection of the Outer Limits trading cards.
When I was a young lad, we used to buy sweets from the local newsagents ... and I remember than among the delights to be found were things called 'Lucky Bags' which contained some candy, a strip of gum (I think) a small toy (no recollection of what) and a packet of trading cards. Most of the shops around Tolworth in South London where I grew up didn't have these, but there was one shop over in Hook which did ... and the trading card packets were for some show called The Outer Limits. Now I'd never heard of this show ... but I loved (and still do) things like Lost in Space and Doctor Who, and from the images on these cards, it seemed that The Outer Limits was of a similar ilk.

I never managed to collect a full set of the cards. They were only in the lucky bags, and these were hard to find, so I only ended up with a handful of cards. I have no idea where they are now! Lost somewhere in a room clearance in the distant past ... strange for me as I do have preserved all manner of things from my childhood. But not these.

A few years later, I got into horror magazines. I had a paper round and the local newsagent had one of those carousel magazine racks, and in it were occasional copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Monster Mag, and later House of Hammer ... as well as several other American imported magazines. All of which I devoured. It must have been in one of these that I first came across something called TOLAIR - The Outer Limits: An Illustrated Review. Not knowing much about anything, I ordered it, and when it arrived I was blown away - the photos, the details ... this was a series that I just had to try and see! And this was Volume 2 ... and no way to get Volume 1! But how? It was American, black and white, and there were no videos or DVDs, or even Internet in these backwards days ... I remember seeing that someone was talking in a letter about the music and about how amazing this show was aurally ... and I was just getting more and more frustrated.

And then. BBC2 ... Bless you BBC2 ... they showed the entire series ... late night ... but I was totally hooked. I'm not sure what year it was, but it must have been early 80s as I video recorded every episode (and we got our first video machine in 1979).  I totally fell in love with the series.

As the correspondent had mentioned, aurally it was a delight. The music was unique and creepy and totally drew you in. The sound effects, the monsters every week ... it was far superior to Lost In Space, and the episode 'Demon with a Glass Hand' is one of my favourite things ever!

And last year (2014), The Outer Limits turned 50 years old ... it must have started in 1964, the year after Doctor Who started. And to mark the occasion, David J Schow (a writer for whom I have long held a fond respect for as his name differs from mine in just the spelling of his second name - hey we even rhyme!) released a book celebrating the series. And it's magnificent.

David holds the series in the same kind of regard as I do Doctor Who, and like me, has accumulated a vast archive of Outer Limits ephemera. And this book brings much of it together. There are rare photos from the episodes, remembrances, strange facts, model kits and jigsaws, newspaper cuttings and much more ... this is actually very much like my own book Timeframe for Doctor Who ... a love letter to the show ... And I adore it!

If you have an interest in classic television, and in particular genre television, then this book, and David's earlier work The Outer Limits Companion, are essential for your bookshelf. I can't rave about them enough.

What we need now, is some nice DVD company to release a proper, cleaned up and remastered box set of all the episodes, including all the available extras (there is a great list of some of the things that could be included in this very book!)  The Outer Limits is a series which deserves some love and care and a pristine Blu-Ray release ...

The book The Outer Limits at 50 can be bought here:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Thief (1981) - Review

Michael Mann is one of those names which is spoken of in hushed tones. As a director, his films are feted and admired. Thief, made in 1981, was his first cinema film. According to IMDB, before this, he had only directed a few shorts, an episode of a TV series, and a TV Movie. And it's certainly an impressive debut. Mann would go on to direct The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986), not to mention The Last of the Mohicans (1992) ... so there is something of a pedigree here. Unfortunately Thief sees Mann coming to grips with all the elements which he would later excel at. While the visual element of the film is exemplary, with some simply beautiful shots of rain-soaked streets and a neon-washed Chicago, the narrative structure is slow and hard to get to grips with. The film has been constructed in an almost cinema veritie style, with the actors speaking and behaving as in real life, rather than as perhaps a film might present them, and this further obscures what is actually happening.

The plot follows the titular Thief, Frank (James Caan), who is working as a car salesman, while doing a bit of diamond-robbing on the side. The opening section is magnificent. With a pounding soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream (who Mann would go on to work with again on The Keep) which reminded me a lot of the way that director Dario Argento used the music by Goblin in his seminal horror film Suspiria (1979), Frank expertly drills into a safe and extracts the diamonds within. There is no dialogue at all, the action being carried by the music and visuals. Following this, we then get to know a little about Frank, and James Caan is excellent in the role. His is a complex character, driven by forces which the viewer doesn't really get to understand. Indeed, the film is more about relationships than action, and there are long dialogue scenes which unfortunately tend to drag things down.

Frank agrees to spring a friend, Okla (Willie Nelson) out of prison, and becomes embroiled with another gang boss, Leo (Robert Prosky), to steal another load of diamonds from another vault. Crime being what it is, the whole thing doesn't end well for anyone!  Along the way Frank picks up a girlfriend, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and there's lots of car chases and tremendous visuals, and even John Belushi in his first major film role. All the time the Tangerine Dream soundtrack lifts and underpins the action, and in places it has a very Blade Runner feel to it ... which the rain and visuals help to emphasise. Towards the end of the film there are several explosions, which have to be some of the best ever committed to film. Very impressively executed and edited.

Overall, Thief is an impressive film, but it does take a little work for the viewer to fully access. This might simply be a factor related to the time the film was made ... almost straddling the decade between earlier films which were dialogue-based, and later fare which pushed the action to the forefront. Certainly with the visual element, the film benefits greatly from release on Blu-Ray.

On the extras front, there's an impressive number of items:

  • Limited Slipcase Edition [3000 units] featuring two versions of the film
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the director’s cut from a new 4K film transfer, approved by director Michael Mann, with uncompressed 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the original theatrical cut [Limited Edition Exclusive] with original uncompressed 2.0 Stereo PCM audio
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Optional isolated music and effects track on the theatrical cut
  • Audio commentary by writer-director Michael Mann and actor James Caan
  • The Directors: Michael Mann – a 2001 documentary on the filmmaker, containing interviews with Mann, James Belushi, William Petersen, Jon Voight and others
  • Stolen Dreams – a new interview with Caan, filmed exclusively for this release
  • Hollywood USA: James Caan – an episode of the French TV series CinĂ© regards devoted to the actor, filmed shortly after Thief had finished production
  • The Art of the Heist – an examination of Thief with writer and critic F.X. Feeney, author of the Taschen volume on Michael Mann
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Brad Stevens

  • Overall, it's a good, solid release, and fans of the genre, of Caan, and of Mann's work are well served. Now ... what we really need is a Blu-Ray release of The Keep ...

    Thief is released 2 Feb 1015 by Arrow Films.

    Monday, January 12, 2015

    Review: The Quiet Ones (2014)

    Back in the day, Hammer Films was an institution, creating a whole raft of horror films (and some others - psychological thrillers and bawdy comedies, mainly) which captured the public imagination and made stars of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ralph Bates and many others. From my perspective, the films worked as although they were low budget, they made impressive use of Bray House and its surrounding forests and land, and used a company of actors who could be relied upon to deliver. Even the fact that they were very formulaic worked in their favour (how many innkeepers did Michael Ripper play, exactly?*).

    Over the years, Hammer fell into the doldrums, and was then bought by enterprising folk who decided to try and revive the film brand ... and THE QUIET ONES is the latest effort from them. What I don't quite understand, though, is why all the things that made the Hammer brand great in the sixties and early seventies are now missing: there's no company of actors involved, no use of the strangely period-free period setting, no mid-European villages which might have been Germanic or Romanian or somewhere like that (of course unspecified), and no strong development of the themes and characters with which they made their name (like Dracula or Frankenstein and his monster, or the Mummy and so on).  Instead we get fairly run of the mill psychological dramas, which owe more to the original Hammer thrillers than to their horror fare.

    THE QUIET ONES is about a troubled university professor, Joseph Coupland (well played by Jared Harris, who is the best thing about the film) who believes that a young girl, Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke) is possessed by some evil demonic entity. So he keeps her locked up and gets a group of students - Brian (Sam Claflin), Krissi (Erin Richards) and Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne), to help him observe and record the entity. However the university cuts his funding and so they all move to a spooky house (how they pay for this is unsure) to continue their 'work'.  Of course it all ends badly, and the demon is identified and people start dying ...

    Creating a new twist on the found footage and paranormal activity genres can be hard, but I liked the underlying ideas here. Good to see Tom deVille, who I know from his days writing the excellent URBAN GOTHIC, as the original screenplay writer here (and he's interviewed on the extras) but less impressed that more writers (Craig Rosenberg and Oren Moverman) worked on it, and also that the director, John Pogue, is co-credited for the screenplay. It is also said in the making-of documentary that Jared Harris re-wrote his character as well ... and you wonder whether the vision of the original writer was really preserved. I guess that's filmmaking for you ... and no wonder then that the screenplay is a little ragged as a result. There's a whole sexual element which seemed to sit poorly with the horror element - Coupland is having a relationship with Krissi, who is also sleeping with Harry, and Coupland also seems to be also in love with Jane, who is also attracted to Brian, while Brian is attracted to Jane ... all very complicated, and as Jane looks about sixteen, it adds a slightly bad taste to the whole thing.

    And don't get me started on the shakeycam. Unfortunately I suffer from slight motion sickness, and these films, with the camera jerking all over the place, are just unwatchable for me. I can't follow the action, and the jerking and movement robs the film of any dramatic tension. Thankfully, the jerkycam sequences are not that frequent here - they come with the conceit that Brian has been asked to film the tests on Jane ... and so he carries his camera about, and we see through its lens at certain points in the action.

    As to why it is called THE QUIET ONES ... this term is used once in the film, in relation to Coupland's group of students ... and seems to have no bearing on the demon or anything else that the film is about ... a strange title to use. Especially as the film relies on loud bursts of noise to create scare 'jumps', and is peppered with seventies pop music to ram it's period setting down the audiences' throat!

    Overall, the film falls into the 'paranormal' section of viewing, one which has been somewhat overdone of late. It's an adequate example, and aside from Harris' great performance, is very forgettable. I feel it's a great shame that it has a modern (well, 1970s) setting, as if you took the same plot and idea, and instead, based it in Karlsbadt, with maybe Harris as Father Sandor investigating the case of demon possession, then you have something new and original to add to the classic Hammer oevre ... instead of which we have this rather sub-par offering.

    Thursday, January 08, 2015

    Spirits of the Dead (1968) - Review

    As a fan of horror film, it's always a pleasure to find something which I haven't seen before, and this presentation from Arrow of a 1968 trilogy of adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe short stories was fascinating indeed. I'd not heard of the film before, and it seems to be an English/French/Italian production, with the first two segments (directed respectively by Roger Vadim and Louis Malle) being French, and the final segment (Federico Fellini) being Italian.

    The three stories, Metzengerstein, William Wilson and Toby Dammit, or Never Bet the Devil your Head, are each given a bit of a rethink and reimagining by the writers and directors, and while the essence of them can be traced to the Poe originals, they all come over far more as experimental sixties film-making, than the more popular Poe adaptations by Roger Corman.

    Metzengerstein stars Vadim's wife and muse Jane Fonda, and also her real life brother Peter Fonda in a tale which is confused in the telling, but which seems to be about a decadent woman (Fonda) who has a closer relationship with her horse than with anyone else. Peter Fonda plays her cousin for whom she harbours an incestuous love, and when he is killed in a stable fire, a black stallion appears and Jane Fonda rides off on this into the proverbial sunset.  The segment is beautifully shot (overall the Blu-Ray has a brilliant transfer and presentation throughout) and the costumes are lush, sexy and original, as befitting Fonda and Vadim. His stand out film with Fonda, Barbarella, was released the same year and has a similar detail towards the costumes and outfits which Fonda wears. Unfortunately while the segment is the closest to the familiar Corman adaptations of Poe, with its cinematography, settings and approach echoing elements of The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death, the narrative is confusing and ultimately ends with puzzlement as to exactly what it was all about ...

    The second segment, William Wilson, has a similar internal theme of debauchery, where the title character, played by Alain Delon, confesses to a life of evil to a priest. The story, told in flashback, shows how the young Wilson was a tormentor at school of the other boys, and how another child with the same name would appear to thwart his exesses. As a young man, he tries to gain the sexual favours of Giuseppina (played by Brigitte Bardot) by cheating at cards - a fact revealed when his namesake appears and reveals all. Wilson then fights with his double and kills him, which also then results in his own death. It's again a confusing narrative, with doppelgangers appearing for several characters, and the opening sequence, where Wilson is running to the church, is interspersed with shots of his own death, falling from the church belltower. So the viewer sees a foreshadowing of the ending before the story is even presented.

    The third and final segment, Toby Dammit, is, as perhaps expected from a Federico Fellini film, strange, disjointed and probably the hardest to understand and access. The Poe story concerned a young man who liked to bet on everything he does. This leads to him betting his own head to the Devil that he could jump a turnstile over a bridge ... a wager he fails to win, losing his dead to the Devil. In Fellini's film, Toby Dammit is played by Terence Stamp, who gives a brilliant performance as a drug and alcohol addled actor, stoned and out of it, swaying through a confusing melange of television interviews, sycophants, hangers on, and parties. He seems familiar from similar, later, characters such as Johnny Rotten who seems to have modelled his whole persona on Stamp's portrayal here. The segment ends with Dammit getting the Jag car he wanted, and driving through foggy streets until he arrives at a broken bridge, where the Devil - in the form of a beautiful blonde, bouncing a white ball - appears. Dammit tries to jump the bridge and fails, the white ball then bouncing past his decapitated head. As for any sense of plot, it's very confused and obscure, but there are nuns (of course) and the imagery and overall impression of a successful life destroyed by drink and drugs and excess is very well brought across.

    Overall the Blu-Ray presentation is exemplary, with various options to watch in English, or French with subtitles. There's even a version with some narration by Vincent Price (who of course was the 'face' of all of Corman's Poe adaptations). The transfers are beautiful, and allow the cinematography to be fully appreciated.

    Overall this is a fascinating slice of sixties cinema, with contributions from three key contributors to the era's output. Terrance Stamp's performance is exemplary, and it's good to see Jane Fonda in another Roger Vadim production.