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