Monday, 27 December 2010

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Dir: SIDNEY SALKOW
Country: ITALY/USA

aka:
L'ultimo uomo della terra
Naked Terror
Night People
Wind of Death

Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic tale of contagion, holocaust, and vampirism I am Legend (1954) has assumed a position of major influence within the horror genre (even though the novel itself is arguably science fiction), but its adaptation to cinema has been fraught with failure. Almost immediately Matheson’s novel was destined to endure setback and frustration. Matheson wrote a screenplay for Britain’s Hammer Film Productions under the title Night Creatures, but the project was halted before filming began by a squeamish censor that was only just becoming accustomed to Hammer’s gothic horror. It remains one of the most tantalising missed opportunities of horror history. Its release would have come at the pinnacle of Hammer’s gothic horror cycle and would have offered a fascinating contrast to the trappings of gothic period settings. The next attempt at least made it to the screen when Matheson’s screenplay was picked up by Robert L. Lippert. The title was changed to The Last Man on Earth and was produced in Italy with distribution in the US handled by AIP. Matheson’s dissatisfaction with changes made by William F. Leicester, Furio M. Monetti and Ubaldo Ragona led to his decision to receive credit through the pseudonym Logan Swanson. The most risible screen version came in 1971 with Warner Bros’ Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man. A mindless action film that made wholesale changes in order to indulge Heston’s gun fetish and vile macho posturing. The 2007 version starring Will Smith could only improve on the absolute nadir that The Omega Man represented, but fell to prey to another fetish - that of CGI. Although Matheson expressed a negative view of The Last Man on Earth it does actually emerge as the most faithful rendering of the text, and in my view still remains the most accomplished screen outing for I am Legend.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Poll Results

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)

2010 saw a general election in the UK, the result was a hung parliament with no party having a clear majority. Nevertheless the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition and it remains to be seen whether this pact will have the desired effect on the country. But a more important poll has been going on right here on the pages of The Celluloid Highway, a poll to decide what I will be consigned to writing about for a whole month in January. Themed months are a funny thing, they seem an excellent and exciting idea until you actually start one, by the middle of the month you find your enthusiasm waning and crave the freedom to review anything else. In May 2010 I embarked on my first and it was dedicated to that peculiarly British phenomenon the Video Nasty. In July I followed this with a month devoted to the brilliant and perplexing Werner Herzog. For my next I decided I would leave it up to those who follow my blog. May I take this opportunity to thank everyone (there were 55 of you) who took time out to vote, and may I also thank all of my regular readers for their continued support throughout 2010. It has made this endeavour all the more worth it, and I look forward to another 12 months sharing my ramblings. Without further ado here are the poll results:


01 The Italian Giallo -  27% (15 votes)

02 Alfred Hitchcock -  20% (11 votes)

03 Clint Eastwood -  18% (10 votes)

04 Japanese Horror -  18% (10 votes)

05 Stephen King -  12% (7 votes)

06 James Bond -  3% (2 votes)

Also feel free to check out my new monthly column Theatre of Blood over at the e-zine The Black Glove. Each month I’ll be looking at a different aspect of classic horror and supporting it with republished archive reviews from The Celluloid Highway. 

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Masters of Horror: Homecoming (2005)

Dir: JOE DANTE
Country: USA

First Transmitted - 02/12/2005
Masters of Horror - Season 1, Episode 6

The majority of episodes that comprise the two seasons of Masters of Horror vanished, in my opinion justifiably, into a cultural limbo that is only navigated by the most hardened of horror veterans. By and large there was little of prominence here, not even the heavily scented whiff of nostalgia - the horror directors of yesteryear continued their depressing plunge into the patchy avenues of mediocrity. However there were two episodes in the first series that did manage to break the shackles of the restricted form and gain unexpected column inches and unexpected praise. A lot of column inches and controversy was reserved for Takashi Miike’s breakout episode Imprint. For those unused to Miike’s grotesque excesses the episode was startling. In my view Takashi Miike was the only director invited to take part in the series that is a true contemporary Master of Horror. Even though he rarely works in the genre, his films are infused with a sense of surreal chaos, of societal breakdown…the only unifying factors being bizarre sexual perversions and brutal violence. The other episode that attracted the attention of the critical mainstream was the Joe Dante contribution Homecoming. I happen too agree with Dante’s assertion that all horror films are political. But traditionally horror has utilised metaphor and allegory, few horror films possess the literalness of Homecoming. It is not open to multiple readings, Homecoming is a liberal/leftist attack on the Bush Jr administration and the illegal war in Iraq that was fought on the back of a lie.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Doctor Who - An Unearthly Child (1963)

Dir: WARRIS HUSSEIN
Writer: ANTHONY COBURN
Country: UK

Original Transmission Dates:
23/11/1963 - 14/12/1963 - 4 Episodes

What better way to start The Celluloid Highway’s occasional look at the classic series of Doctor Who than with the four part adventure that started it all. The 23rd November 1963 became a landmark date in the history of tele-fantasy when audiences were first introduced to the fog enshrouded junkyard that housed a police telephone call box that also happened to be a conduit into the fourth and fifth dimensions of time and space. The opening episode of An Unearthly Child introduces us to the quartet of time travellers with economy and speed. The mystery, initially at least, revolves around the character of Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), a 15 year old girl who has her teachers at Coal Hill School utterly bemused. Her science teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell) feels that she imparts her vast knowledge a little at a time, so as not to make him feel inferior and her history teacher Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) is perplexed at her shifts from brilliance to stupidity. Rather unethically the teachers decide to follow the girl home to 76 Totters Lane and their curiosity is rewarded with their first fateful encounter with the enigmatic genius known as The Doctor.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Sergio Leone Poster Gallery

THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES (1961) #1 US poster

THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES #2 French poster

THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES #3 Spanish poster

Monday, 20 December 2010

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House (2005)

Dir: STUART GORDON
Country: USA

First transmitted on 04/11/2005
Masters of Horror - Series 1, Episode 2

Many filmmakers have attempted to navigate the delirious cosmic terrors of H. P. Lovecraft, but Stuart Gordon has been the most persistent. I don’t rate Gordon particularly highly as a filmmaker, but he has achieved something nobody else has; he’s actually made a decent film based on Lovecraft material. In this case the blackly humorous Re-Animator (1985), a film which retained the spirit of Lovecraft, but bravely adopted a sardonic tone, the result of which was one of the most original variations on the themes established in dozens of Frankenstein films. Since then Gordon has returned to Lovecraft on four separate occassions with varying degrees of success. He followed Re-Animator with From Beyond (1986) and offered up a visually ravishing spectacle full of colour and surreal special effects, but sadly the film had more artifice than substance, and only rarely approached the agitated feverishness of Lovecraft. His third attempt at Lovecraft was Castle Freak (1995), based on the story The Outsider and was largely an unsatisfactory and uninspired affair. This was followed by Dagon (2001), a film which has cultivated something of a cult reputation, but once again betrayed the narrative and the sense of encroaching and impending doom in favour of highly impressive visuals and a colour palette bathed in a chilly blue. His fifth attempt was on the invitation of Mick Garris for the first season of Masters of Horror. Gordon chose to adapt the tale Dreams in the Witch House, and the result is easily Gordon’s feeblest and most lacklustre Lovecraft adaptation to date.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2005)

Dir: JOHN CARPENTER
Country: USA

First Transmitted - 16/12/2005

In the last twenty years the stock of John Carpenter has plummeted to such depths of mediocrity that my expectations for his contribution to the first series of Masters of Horror were not high. The concept of creator Mick Garris (himself a maker of mediocre and undistinguished films) was a novel one and on paper at least intriguing enough to warrant viewing the episodes. Of course a cursory glance over the names attached to the series indicate that this is either a nostalgia trip or a pallid attempt to resuscitate careers that flat lined decades ago. Carpenter’s is one such flat lining career, who like so many of his contemporaries almost entirely rely upon a reputation forged in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Although this was episode 8 of the series, this was the first one I saw, and as this is an anthology series the order is unimportant. Much to my surprise Cigarette Burns turns out to be one of the strongest episodes of the series and something of a semi return to form for Mr. Carpenter. If one were to measure his films purely by enjoyment factor, then this ranks as his best effort since 1988’s They Live. Of course Masters of Horror is very much a directors for hire type series, and Carpenter had nothing to do with the writing of the teleplay. This was handled by the unfortunately named Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan. The post-modern and intertextual nature of the episode is not especially in keeping with Carpenter’s oeuvre, but Carpenter does manage to direct some well mounted set pieces.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

Dir: ALAN GIBSON
Country: UK

aka:
Count Dracula and his Vampire Bride

Dracula Is Alive and Well and Living in London

The Satanic Rites of Dracula was Hammer’s seventh outing for the cape wearing fiend Count Dracula, and the last to feature Christopher Lee in the role. The Count would appear for one final time in a Hammer film in 1974 when John Forbes-Robertson put in the fangs for The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. This particular entry is a direct sequel to the risible cinematic disaster Dracula A. D. 1972 (1972), and I’m relieved to say is a vast improvement on that embarrassing offal. In the main the same team were retained from A.D. 1972, with Alan Gibson directing and Don Houghton writing the screenplay. It beggars belief that they were given a second chance, but fortunately this time the filmmakers manage to concoct an enjoyable and tightly paced film. However as a finale to Hammer’s series of Dracula films it is something of a feeble and half-hearted whimper and does not bear any kind of comparison to some of the earlier films. The producers were clearly determined at this point to make Count Dracula succeed in a contemporary setting, and in large part here they do well. The failure of A. D. 1972 is that Dracula is not allowed too engage with modernity and spends the whole of the film within the gothic walls of a deconsecrated church. In Satanic Rites, Dracula has utilised capitalism and property development in order to create a smokescreen in front of his real identity. He has acquired the resources and influence in order to put forward a more coherent plan of vengeance, and is able to manipulate greed and avarice to control those disciples he needs to carry out his plan. In many ways Dracula is more like a Bond villain here, and although the character features little in the running time, he is still given far more than in the previous entry.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Prophecy (1979)

Dir: JOHN FRANKENHEIMER Country: USA

aka:
Prophecy: The Monster Movie

Prophecy is one of the more hysterical and stupid of the ‘Revolt of Nature’ horror films that achieved major prominence in the years following Jaws (1975). On paper at least the talents behind this $12,000,000 Paramount Pictures production are easily a match for Spielberg’s aquatic opus. In the directors seat was veteran John Frankenheimer, a filmmaker of some repute who had distilled the paranoia of cold war politics to such devastating and conspiratorial effect in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and who had interrogated questions of identity in the little seen Seconds (1966). The writer was David Seltzer who had achieved enormous prominence with his apocalyptic exploration of the return of Satan in The Omen (1976). For the themes of Prophecy however the more important Seltzer film is The Hellstrom Chronicle, a frantic and panic-stricken documentary about the possibility of humanities dominion over the planet being challenged by insects. Having explored this territory before with some measure of success one would assume that with Prophecy Seltzer was about to make a major ecological statement. It does make a statement, but the manner in which this proclamation is made is both preachy and pretentious. This is the worst type of Hollywood film, one that assumes its audience has the attention span of a goldfish and the intelligence of plankton. With films that have a ‘message’ to convey, the most important thing becomes the way in which that ‘message’ is delivered, and it is in its delivery that Prophecy fails miserably.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Omnibus - Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)

Dir: JONATHAN MILLER
Country: UK

First transmitted on the 07/05/1968 on the BBC

First published in the masterful 1905 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the short story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad is easily one of M. R. James’ most disturbing and arresting tales. With his background in the dusty libraries of academia and the enforced introversion of a scholarly way of life James created a series of pompous protagonists whose social skills have been blunted by their obsessions. They are not mere representatives of scientific rationality as you might find in lesser ghost stories, but also men of vanity, pride, hubris and an overriding sense of their own intellectual superiority. This gives them a depth and dimension that makes the inevitable encounter with the forces of the supernatural so much more powerful. In the wake of these chilling episodes with the unknown denial becomes vital to an act of self preservation because there is so much on the line. Not just their own conceptions of reality, but their careers and positions within the esteemed halls of universities; a position that would become untenable without their denial of the events. With this in mind Professor Parkin’s (Michael Horden) repetition of the word ‘no’ at the end of the BBC’s dramatisation of the tale takes on added significance.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Ghost Story for Christmas - The Signalman (1976)

Dir: LAWRENCE GORDON CLARK
Country: UK

First transmitted 22/12/1976 on BBC 1

The 1970’s was a decade of grim austerity for the British film industry, and although the cinemas were bereft of successful home grown product, television screens up and down the land were lit up by some of the most through provoking, intelligent and literate programming Britain has ever witnessed. Fortunately this was a decade of tele-visual innovation and experimentation, and a time when anthology serials reached a position of prominence. One of the most impressive and consistent was the BBC’s annual Ghost Story at Christmas. These chilling and nuanced short films offered a sobering riposte to the merriment of the season, a delicate feeling of unease amongst the decorations and festivities. The series ran from 1971-78 (and was briefly resurrected in 2005 and 2006) and five of the eight tales were based on short stories by M. R. James. These included The Stalls of Barchester (1971), A Warning to the Curious (1972), Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Ash Tree (1975). For whatever reason 1976 marked a departure from the world of James with the adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ short story The Signalman. This would continue for the final two episodes - Stigma (1977) and The Ice House (1978), which were based on stories by Clive Exton and John Bowen respectively.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Westworld (1973)

Dir: MICHAEL CRICHTON
Country: USA

Produced on a modest budget of $1.25 million by MGM Westworld was one of the most commercially successful science-fiction films in the age before Star Wars (1977). It marked the debut to feature filmmaking of Michael Crichton, who in the 1970’s contributed (either as writer or director) a number of interesting pictures within the ‘Revolt of Technology’ subgenre. The first was The Andromeda Strain (1971) which was based upon his novel of the same name and saw an alien virus come to earth due to technological efficiency. Also of note is an adaptation of his novel The Terminal Man (1974) which charts the effects of a microchip placed in a scientists' brain in order to control his violent seizures. Another major contribution was Coma (1978) which he also directed, and combined elements of the paranoid thriller with technological unease. But for me Westworld eclipses all of these efforts by some distance. It was Crichton’s clearest and most efficient distillation of his techno-phobic themes, but also displayed a brilliantly self aware attitude to genre which was never replicated in Crichton’s later career. Crichton’s awareness of icons, conventions, and expectations makes Westworld both fun and incredibly chilling.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Of Walking in Ice (2007)

Author: WERNER HERZOG
Publisher: FREE ASSOCIATION

First published in 1978, this review is of the 2007 reprint.

Werner Herzog is one of the few directors who has continually emphasised the physicality of filmmaking. For Herzog the filmmaking process is as much an expression of brute strength and physical fitness, as it is mental and intellectual agility. In order to fully explore the musculature inherent in his attitude to the art Herzog has travelled the continents in search of harsh and dangerous terrains. This isn’t because of an irresponsible desire for risk taking in my view, but possibly to assuage the embarrassment Herzog might feel for having fallen into filmmaking as a career. In his manifesto for documentary cinema entitled The Minnesota Declaration Herzog states “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.” One of the key components of his ‘Rogue Film School’ is that “it is for those who travel on foot”, throughout Herzog’s writings and observations he has returned again and again to the idea of travelling on foot as a means to release the poetic qualities within, and to appreciate the landscape as something more than a scenic backdrop. This attitude reached its extreme apotheosis in the winter of 1973/4 when he embarked on a journey from Munich to Paris on foot, in order to visit the ailing German film scholar Lotte Eisner. Herzog believed that undertaking this epic travail in this manner would somehow lead to Eisner clutching to life, and to survive until he finally arrived. In this he was correct and Eisner would go on to live for several years.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Dir: TERENCE FISHER
Country: UK

Hammer Film Productions’ fifth entry in their cycle of Frankenstein movies is a major accomplishment. Those Frankenstein films directed by Terence Fisher have a remarkable consistency, and each subsequent instalment sought too extend the moral arguments set up in previous entries. There is a definite sense of thematic progression in Fisher’s Frankenstein films, and a sense of fragmented morality that centres on the twin pillars of these films; The Baron, and ‘The Monster’. In most of the films the creature is a reflection of a certain facet of the Baron’s personality - the best example is the vanity and pride of Karl/The Baron in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). But in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed this aspect of the characters’ is subsumed into the Baron’s uncompromising sadism. Prior entries had shown The Baron to be an astute reader of social situations, a well mannered aristocrat cleverly using the mask of benevolence to hide his diabolical schemes. There was at least a sense that somewhere amid the dismembered body parts The Baron’s motivations were noble and progressive. This moral tension is totally excised from Bert Batt’s screenplay, and The Baron is free to murder, blackmail, and even rape his way to the achievement of his nefarious goals. Depending on your point of view this is either a major weakness of the screenplay, or a major strength. I personally think it is a great strength, it leaves Peter Cushing free to indulge in some wonderfully cruel behaviour, and gives ‘The Monster’ an opportunity to fully explore the moral wasteland within which he resides.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Dir: TERENCE FISHER
Country: UK

Hammer Film Productions’ wasted no time in capitalising on the surprise commercial success of their first colour gothic horror film The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Within a year Peter Cushing was once again impressing audiences with his coldly logical Baron Frankenstein whose steely determination to create life remained undiminished despite a close call with the guillotine. The manner in which Frankenstein survives his execution is further evidence of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster’s ingeniousness. The switch of victims that takes place at the inhospitable gaol is not simply a throwaway event intended to ensure the survival of the films’ lead character, but a fundamental plot element of the ensuing sequel. Sangster’s screenplay builds on this opening by showing the ruthless way in which Frankenstein plays on the vanity of the crippled gaoler Karl, and the terrible price that Karl pays for placing his trust in the aberrant scientist. Not only are we to enjoy the return of the impeccable Peter Cushing as a result of this plot contrivance, but also a deep moral and thematic terrain that interrogates questions of mental illness, trust, and the manipulation of pride and vanity. This thematic trajectory for me makes The Revenge of Frankenstein a far more rewarding experience than The Curse of Frankenstein, and helps it to take its position as the greatest Frankenstein film put out by Hammer.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Circus of Fear (1966)

Dir: JOHN MOXEY
Country: UK/WEST GERMANY

aka:
Psycho-Circus
Circus of Terror

Circus of Fear is a solid if underwhelming crime thriller derived from the Edgar Wallace novel The Three Just Men (1926). It is not as some might assume a horror film despite the appearance of Christopher Lee. Lee spends the majority of the film underneath a black hood, and is only a visible screen presence in the last ten minutes or so. The casting of Klaus Kinski in a typically brief and totally pointless cameo however is a stronger indication of this films relationship to the West German ‘krimi’ films. This cycle of movies, almost exclusively based upon the stories of Edgar Wallace reached a point of saturation in the 1960’s and in certain regards were a major influence on the embryonic first steps of the Italian giallo film. There is a definite relationship between the two, one which generally seems to be overlooked in histories of the form. If there is ever an area of popular European cinema worthy of further elucidation and research then it is certainly the Wallace ‘krimi’ movies. Circus of Fear is an Anglo-German co-production, and the film as a result benefits from some intriguing casting decisions. The main creative force behind it was Harry Alan Towers, a significant producer of low budget genre pictures in the 60’s and 70’s who in this case also put his hand to writing the screenplay. Perhaps the less said about that the better; this is a highly confusing and clumsily plotted movie which is unable to make full and proper use of an interesting ensemble cast.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Night of the Eagle (1962)

Dir: SIDNEY HAYERS
Country: UNITED KINGDOM

aka:
Burn, Witch, Burn!

The contribution of the production/distribution company Anglo-Amalgamated to the history of British horror is often overlooked in favour of Hammer, Amicus, and to a lesser extent Tigon. Although they didn’t specialise in the horror genre, they proved to be more daring than their contemporaries when they did distribute such material. David Pirie’s so called ‘Sadean Trilogy’ comprising Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Circus of Horrors (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) were unleashed on an unsuspecting British public by the distributor. All three films were in colour, concerned with voyeurism and spectatorship, and rigorously contemporary. The latter title was a sobering and unexpected lesson in the power of the critics, and from that point onwards Anglo-Amalgamated beat a more sedate path through the horror genre. The remainder of the 1960’s saw harmless flotsam such as Konga (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and Circus of Fear (1966) released onto a very suspecting public. All of these films were lurid, colourful, camp and very comical, which makes their handling of Night of the Eagle all the more surprising. The film was shot in crisp monochrome tones by Reginald Wyer, it was based on a novel of some repute; Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943), and possessed a less is more stylistic attitude which evoked the subtle scares of Val Lewton. However it was Jacques Tourneur’s marvellously creepy Night of the Demon (1957) that wielded the greatest influence, especially in its depiction of a man of science and rationality coming to terms with the very real incursion of the supernatural into his calm and ordered life.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Dracula A. D. 1972 (1972)

Dir: ALAN GIBSON
Country: UNITED KINGDOM

aka:
Dracula 1972

Hammer’s seventh outing for Count Dracula is a curious entry which is never able to transcend embarrassment. By this point Hammer were literally and figuratively flogging a corpse, and their gothic horror films were tired, anachronistic, and only fleetingly lightened by lesbianism and nudity. Hammer’s horror films needed a new direction and after the surprise success of Count Yorga - Vampire (1970), which transplanted its vampire aristocrat into a modern setting Hammer clearly thought they had the answer. Much of the success of Count Yorga, Blacula (1972) and The Night Stalker (1972) rested on the manner in which the bloodsucker actually interacted with his surroundings. How Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) is able to manipulate the rationality and logic of modernity in order to cover his tracks is part of the films self-conscious appeal. He has integrated himself so successfully in modern society because of such things as cinema and literature, and the strong association between his kind and the world of fiction. This is a layer of meaning which Don Houghton’s screenplay for Dracula AD 1972 completely, and in my view catastrophically, omits. Instead when Dracula is resurrected in a black mass ceremony (almost a complete replay of a similar sequence in Taste the Blood of Dracula [1970]) he is not allowed to interact in any way with the modern world. He spends the film (when we are allowed an all to rare glimpse of him) stuck in an abandoned and deconsecrated church. This is a location that aesthetically at least could have worked in any of Hammer’s Victorian set Dracula films, so the inevitable question arises; what on the earth was the point?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Suspiria (1977)

Dir: DARIO ARGENTO
Country: ITALY

aka:
Dario Argento's Suspiria

As each new piece of cinematic excrement is ejected from the mind of Dario Argento I begin to think that Suspiria might have been a fluke. Each successive Argento picture is puked up onto a wounded and insulted fan base, one which has no option but to retreat into the mists of time to remind themselves why they liked Argento’s films in the first place. This period is generally recognised as being the 1970’s. There has developed a rose tinted view of this decade in horror circles; propagated by those who were around at the time (unfortunately this generation pretty much still sets the parameters when it comes to horror discourse) and their nostalgic agendas to tell us it was better in their day. Argento directed six films in the 1970’s, three of them (Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, and Suspiria) were very good, the other three (Cat O Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and The Five Days of Milan) were poor to average. Even in Argento’s decade of peak creativity he only had a strike rate of 50%. The 1980’s was even more frustrating, a series of the films that were impressive in part, but failures as a whole. Argento has proven himself to be a mediocre filmmaker, time has shown him to make more poor and dissatisfying films than good ones. So what makes Suspiria such an exceptional film? The answer of course lies in the talents he surrounded himself by. There are three key elements to Suspiria, which if extracted, would damage the film irrevocably.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Dir: STANLEY KUBRICK
Country: UK/USA

aka:
Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange

I should start this review by saying I’m not a fan of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, which was first published in 1962. I first encountered it as an impressionable seventeen year old at college (this experience seems to be a very common rites of passage, at least in the UK) and I found it to be a reactionary and highly conservative work of Orwellian propaganda. Beneath the layers of linguistic game playing (his use of slang language for the delinquent gang is more irritating than anything else) there beats a right wing heart. This element never totally leaves Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay, especially in the camera’s adoration of the narcissistic fascist pretensions of the films anti-hero Alex. The politics of the film are more ambiguous than the novel though, but both share an interest in stylistic radicalism. In both film and book this helps to mask the socio/political intensions of both authors. However the synergy between Kubrick’s visual and aural experimentation provides a resonance that makes certain set piece sequences far more troubling than anything that appears in the novel.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Night of the Demon (1957)

Dir: JACQUES TOURNEUR
Country: UNITED KINGDOM

aka:
Curse of the Demon

The chilling ghost stories of English academic and scholar M. R. James have almost totally been ignored by cinema. When one considers some of the garbage that has been produced in the name of Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, or Edgar Allan Poe this ignorance becomes perplexing. The horror in the stories of James’ is of the nuanced and subtle variety, horror that would require a modicum of intellect to replicate on screen, this goes some way to explaining his omission from the world of film. To date Night of the Demon remains the only occasion James has been adapted for cinema screens. The screenplay by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester was based upon his short story Casting the Runes, and despite a number of alterations maintains the spirit of the original text. It should be noted that James has fared a lot better on British television. A number of his stories were chosen for the anthology series Mystery and Imagination (1966-68), and his tales provided the backbone for the BBC’s annual Ghost Story at Christmas throughout the 1970’s. It is certainly true that the short story is more suited to the anthology format, but Night of the Demon proves that James’ stories could make the transition to feature film with some measure of creative success.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Horde (2009)

Dir: YANNICK DAHAN and BENJAMIN ROCHER
Country: FRANCE

aka:
La horde

French horror cinema is enjoying a period of unparalleled creative success, and it comes as no surprise to me that this coincides with a period of civil unrest in the country. Issues such as the economy, pensions, the retirement age, and immigration have seen citizens take to the streets in protest. There is a noble tradition of striking in France, a tradition that seems in large part to have the sympathy of the population (an attitude which is quite different in the UK for example) and this melting pot of political upheaval and uncertainty surfaces quite notably in the latest gore soaked French horror film The Horde. The Horde follows in the footsteps of Switchblade Romance (2004), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007) and Martyrs (2008) in its unflinching portrayal of blood and guts and while it lacks the subtlety and intelligence of Them (2006 - for my money the most accomplished French horror film of this recent new wave) it makes up for this with its political overtones. Several of these major French horror films are ‘home invasion’ narratives, they offer a bourgeois vision of bland suburbia which is then shattered by the return of past events. The Horde situates its action in a rotting apartment block in Northern Paris, flipping the convention of middle class point of view to the perspective of rogue cops, violent gangsters, and the disenfranchised working class.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

Dir: PETER SASDY
Country: UNITED KINGDOM

Taste the Blood of Dracula was Hammer Film Productions’ fifth film to feature Transylvania’s favourite son, and the fourth to feature the sartorial talents of Christopher Lee as the eponymous bloodsucker. I’ve always had a great fondness for this Hammer film, and in comparison to the other Dracula pictures produced by Hammer I rate this as second only to their 1958 production. By this point Bray Studios was a distant memory and much of the studio bound sequences seen here were shot at Elstree Studios. Later Hammer films had a cheap tackiness about them, but Taste the Blood…was one of the last to maintain a lushness and vitality, a visual presentation that far exceeded its modest budget. The film benefits tremendously from some impressive location work in the Hertfordshire countryside, and several exciting and stylish scenes mounted in Highgate Cemetery. Just a scant few months after the release of this film, Hammer put out their sixth Dracula film Scars of Dracula, and the aesthetic difference between the two films is incredible. In many ways this was the last great gothic horror film produced by Hammer, and distilled with economy and brilliance the class message that is visible throughout their films.

LSOH #25 - Out Now


I rarely advertise on The Celluloid Highway, but the magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors continues to excel and put the majority of genre magazines to shame. October 2010's issue is of special importance to me because it covers in detail my favourite British horror film of all time - Tigon Productions' 1971 folk horror masterpiece Blood on Satan's Claw. With brilliant performances from Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden and Anthony Ainley, and a weird avant-garde score by Marc Wilkinson, Pier's Haggard's film  has steadily risen in reputation over the years and is well deserving of its cult following and further study. If you haven't seen the film yet I wholeheartedly recommend it. 

To order your copy of Little Shoppe of Horrors visit Hemlock Books.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Dir: HARRY KUMEL
Country: BELGIUM/FRANCE/WEST GERMANY

aka:
Les lèvres rouges
Blood on the Lips
Children of the Night
The Promise of Red Lips
The Red Lips


The traditions of the horror genre and those of art cinema are not the mutually opposed spheres of representation that one might at first glance think. Both horror and art films share an interest in transgression. These transgression’s might be political, social or cultural, but the form they normally take is through expressions of violence and sexuality. Art films sometimes use this thematic trajectory for a grander metaphysical or philosophical vision, whereas horror films enjoy the mess. The horror film takes pleasure in the breakdown and revels in the gooey stuff, but ultimately there is recuperation and conservatism. Radicalism and challenges to taboos are far more common in art films. But this is not to say that horror films cannot highlight a political or social anxiety, they just very rarely offer ideas to remedy the problems that have arisen - aside from the mindless destruction of the threat. These distinctions and commonalities are important things to consider when discussing Harry Kumel’s 1971 film Daughters of Darkness, because this is one of the few films that successfully cross pollinates the two forms.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Doomsday (2008)

Dir: NEIL MARSHALL
Country: UK/USA/SOUTH AFRICA/GERMANY

A recent status update by a ’friend’ on Facebook proclaimed Newcastle born writer/director Neil Marshall a genius. I was somewhat surprised by this, is Mr. Marshall really to be considered in the same light as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Leonardo Da Vinci? Naturally I had to challenge this cretinous stupidity, but before I did, I paused and wondered if perhaps this individual was basing their statement on his first two films Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2005). Imagine my horror when I discovered they had not only seen Doomsday, but saw it as the clinching evidence of his genius. My polite disagreement resulted in him removing me from his friends list…go figure! Dog Soldiers was an enjoyable werewolf yarn, a mild distraction which benefited from the eerie isolation of the Scottish highlands. The subterranean monster movie The Descent was less successful in my view and somewhat overrated. There was certainly evidence in these first two films that Marshall had the potential to lead a new wave of British horror, which makes his third film Doomsday even more perplexing. The word homage is overused, it is a post-modern device utilised in my opinion, for the purposes of giving legitimacy to unoriginality. There is a fine line between homage and the mindless plundering of the imaginations of other writers and filmmakers.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Black Christmas (1974)

Dir: BOB CLARK
Country: CANADA

aka:
Silent Night, Evil Night
Stranger in the House

In a recent article entitled The Ten Most Overrated Horror Films of All Time I included Bob Clark’s 1974 Canadian proto-slasher film Black Christmas as a footnote. Several people who commented on the piece (and thanks to all those who did) were somewhat surprised by its inclusion. With this in mind I decided to re-watch Black Christmas (once I found a copy, it took me twenty minutes of searching) and see if there was anything worth re-evaluating. My memories were of a visually bland and increasingly hysterical film whose position of prominence came about simply because somebody somewhere remembered this was made before Halloween (1978). There is a temptation to value films that began a cycle, but of course Black Christmas did not begin a cycle. Once again we have a case of retrospective acclaim. At the time of its release it appeared with little fanfare and quickly vanished in the same way. Many of the plot elements of Clark’s film were assimilated into the slasher form, but there is a crucial difference between this and the film that popularised these formal qualities; Halloween. The difference lies in the direction, and even a cursory glance of the respective filmographies of Clark and Carpenter will illustrate that the latter is a better filmmaker. All the ingredients were there for Black Christmas to be the Halloween of 1974 - but it wasn’t. The reason is that it simply wasn’t good enough.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Candyman (1992)

Dir: BERNARD ROSE
Country: USA

aka:
Clive Barker's Candyman

The previous incarnation of The Celluloid Highway was a Facebook group entitled The Never-Ending Encylopaedia of Horror, Science Fiction and Cult Cinema. At its peak the group attracted close to 700 members, but I was never satisfied at Facebook as a platform for inflicting my ramblings on the world. The most controversial moment came when I published a review for the 1992 Polygram production of Clive Barker’s Candyman. I was accused of racism (totally unjustified), anti-Americanism (some justification) and even received a death threat! - I kid you not. For all my American readers out there I should point out that my Anti-American stance existed for precisely the same amount of time George Bush Jr was in office. The very small incident of hysteria that my review generated reminded me of some of the things I’d read during my researches of the ‘Video Nasty’ scandal which beset the UK in the early 1980’s. It’s amazing how some people read what they want to read, or see what they want to see, and seem to be oblivious to the intentions or context of the cultural artefact. I apologise for this rare autobiographical detour, but the film Candyman will always hold a dear place in my heart; how can I not love the film after receiving a death threat over my review for it?

Sunday, 31 October 2010

British Horror Cinema: A Literary Guide


The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

For decades the study of British horror cinema lay in an arid literary wasteland. During the period of the British horror films greatest commercial success (which can be put at 1957-76) just a single dedicated volume was published. This was David Pirie’s landmark polemical A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946 - 1972. Pirie’s was a solitary voice in an empty ocean. Ironically when the second edition of this book was published in 2007 it largely got overlooked in a market overcrowded with yet more substandard books on Hammer Film Productions. British horror had been sustained through the 1980’s and first half of the 1990’s by genre specific magazines and fan publications (the best of which still remains Little Shoppe of Horrors) before a relative deluge of material flooded the market. Much of it was of poor quality, for example of the huge number of books dedicated to Hammer, I consider only five of value. The increasing popularity of horror cinema on undergraduate degree courses, and the continued ascendancy of the study of cult film has enabled publishers to take advantage. But the question still remains; where to begin? This guide is intended to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to offer the best overall library of books for the appreciation of British horror. There are over one hundred books on the subject, this guide reduces that number to fifteen. This will probably be a contentious selection, but I hope it helps people to make informed decisions, that will also hopefully save them a few pounds or dollars.

Friday, 29 October 2010

A Lycanthropic Halloween Collaboration


It's almost no more days to Halloween (thank god we wont have to hear that advertising jingle for another year!), so its time to slip on your Silver Shamrock masks (make sure you load up on bug killer first!) and head on over to The Film Connoisseur for the in-depth article Werewolves of the Blogosphere: 20 Werewolf Movies to Watch Under the Full Moon. I was invited to fly the flag for the United Kingdom, and to explore British horror cinemas relationship to our tragic hairy friends. Also in attendance in this monstrous collaboration was Brian from the brilliant Cool Ass Cinema, and Johnny Thunder from Johnny Thunder's Midnite Spook Frolic, a blog I've yet to explore, but will be certain to do so now. This is no trick, but its certain to be a treat!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Dir: CHARLES E. SELLIER JR
Country: USA

I half considered waiting until Christmas Eve to post this particular review, but that would have been far too predictable. I’ll probably review Halloween (1978) on Christmas Eve instead. Speaking of which, when John Carpenter and Debra Hill elected to set their sub Psycho (1960) derivation around Halloween, there was almost an instant inevitability about a film like Silent Night, Deadly Night. This wasn’t the first Christmas themed slasher film though, that dubious honour goes to You Better Watch Out (1980 aka Christmas Evil - and it is as dreadful as it sounds!). It made the festive themed episode of Tales from the Crypt (1972) with Joan Collins look like a masterpiece…its quite surprising to think that this 20 minute Amicus segment still remains the gold standard of Christmas horror. Lobotomised audiences had also queued up for Prom Night (1980/2008), Mother’s Day (1980), New Years Evil (1980) Graduation Day (1981) and My Bloody Valentine (1981/2009), before Silent Night, Deadly Night appropriated the image of Santa Claus and subverted him into a homicidal maniac gleefully slashing and hacking through another troupè of badly cast stereotypes. Although the festive season was a major feature of Bob Clark’s Canadian chiller Black Christmas (1974), the films overall sense of irony and intelligence puts it in a very exclusive club of ‘slasher’ films that are actually any good (by my reckoning this club has less then ten members). Instead of dealing in irony SNDN deals in hard edged cynicism, and it is this pessimistic attitude to the festive season that has aided its continued prominence.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Race with the Devil (1975)

Dir: JACK STARRETT
Country: USA

Race with the Devil is a hugely enjoyable and interesting independent production which manages to conflate a number of the thematic preoccupations of 1970’s American cinema into its form. Firstly we have an exploration (albeit rather unsophisticated) of satanic cults. The most disturbing aspect of which is the lengths such sects will go too in order to maintain the anonymity of its members. This film appeared in cinemas before the commercial battering ram of The Omen (1976), and continued to prove that the devil had significant commercial draw in the 1970’s. The director Jack Starrett exploits Satan to the fullest, even though the horned beast fails to put in an appearance. The film also draws on a cinematic current which sought to find horrors within the alienated populations of rural America. These ‘rural horrors’ such as Deliverance (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) set the trend by having the feeble faces of urban modernity facing primeval fights for survival against fellow Americans forgotten and rejected by modernity. With its wide open landscape, empty and desolate roads, and lifeless towns Race with the Devil fits smoothly into this thematic terrain. The film is also a road movie, it venerates the automobile as a gadget for masculine expression, but challenges preconceptions of motor vehicles as a conduit of pioneer spirit. Our protagonists do discover something in the American outback, but it is something terrible and nightmarish. This is a film with generic hybridity, and by expanding the generic remit it is able to put its finger on a number of the ‘phobic pressure points’ that Stephen King so eloquently described in his work of non-fiction Danse Macabre (1981).

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Dir: TOBE HOOPER
Country: USA

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a ferociously effective film with a power to disturb that remains undiluted after thirty six years circulating in the social consciousness of humanity. It is tempting to view the film as an exceptional and isolated event, certainly there is no other American horror film of the 1970’s to match its all pervasive atmosphere of charnel house terror. However, in retrospect Chainsaw was clearly a part of a strain of American cinema in the 1970’s that explored the dichotomy between the urbanity of city or suburban life and the simpler climes of the countryside. These clashes between modernity and rural existence were witnessed in varying degrees of success in Deliverance (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972), Badlands (1973), and one of my personal favourites Race with the Devil (1975). In his book Nightmare Movies Kim Newman terms these films ‘Rural horrors’, and their rich thematic territory explores issues of environment and ecology, the nightmarish inversion of American landscape and pioneer spirit, alienated and disenfranchised populations, and the sour decaying underbelly of ’American dream’ capitalist endeavour. They are also united by a belief in the backwardness of rural communities, with intimations of in breeding and aberrant behaviour or rituals adding a layer of hysteria to the horror. Of all of these films perhaps it is Chainsaw which succeeds best in creating the requisite tone and atmosphere to match these thematic concerns, and quite rightly emerged as one of the most radical horror films ever produced in America.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

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