Friday, 25 October 2013

Review - City of the Living Dead (1980 - Dir. Lucio Fulci)

If you've been with us since the very start (April 2011) then you'll know that this was the first film reviewed on this very site. And it was a bit rubbish. (The review, not the film.) So seeing as though we're having a bit of a zombie celebration I thought it would be rude not to have another look at one of the classics of the genre.

It is still a classic but as I was watching it I couldn't get over how terrible it is in parts. For example, the plot. To be generous, it's a big pile of dog presents. I'll buy the fact that a priest committing suicide has opened a gate to hell. But what happens after that is suspect to say the least. Characters behave in some very strange ways. When faced with a rather slimy zombie, Gerry (Carlo De Mejo) decides to comfort a small child in an incredibly calm manner, then has a look at the zombie in question. Does he attack it with a baseball bat encrusted with razor blades, or just leg it? Nope he shuts his eyes. For about five seconds. Any other zombie film and he's a dead man, but here the zombie vanishes. Not a standard tactic but it worked surprising well. Well done Carlo.

That brings me neatly to the next point: the vanishing zombies. They are brought to you by some stunning special effects technology. Slap the camera on a tripod, film the scene with the zombie there. Then remove said zombie and film it again. The editor can then craftily swap between the two shots and, hey presto, the zombie disappears (or appears as the case may be.) Premium quality.

There is also someone to rival Mary's dad in the bad acting stakes and amazingly he's someone's dad: Emily's dad. His acting is really bad, even compared to the acting in the rest of the film - which can be best described as standing around - but Emily's dad reaches new depths. All he has to do is look upset and he does it spectacularly badly. If he'd have just said, "Emily love," the package would have been complete.

This all sounds like I hate City of the Living Dead. But perversely, I love it. I was trying to work out why, and this was the best I could come up with: the brilliant parts make me forgive, even enjoy, the dire bits. And what brilliant parts there are. There are four standout scenes. Some films can't even manage one so it's doing well already. Beware there are spoilers ahead, as we have a look at those scenes in a bit more detail:

1. Catriona MacColl being buried alive and then getting rescued by Christopher George. The only problem here is that he slams a pickaxe through the top of the coffin narrowly missing her head. On numerous occasions. No acting required here because it looks absolutely terrifying. The pick comes perilously close to her face despite it being rigged to miss her. Add to that the claustrophobia factor and it must have been a nightmare to film. Luckily, the end shot of her screaming through the hole made in the coffin is truly iconic.

2. Daniela Doria throwing up her guts. Literally. This has to be one of the most gip inducing scenes in cinema. The first shots of the actual actress, (who Fulci lovely to put through hell) with intestines pouring out of her mouth are bad enough. And you'd think that when it swaps to a blatantly fake special effects head for the final push the vomit would recede. But no, it gets worse as a huge lump passes out from her lips. Disgusting stuff, but great.

3. Giovanni Lombardo Radice, as the seedy loner Bob, getting his head drilled. Another iconic moment here as the horror is drawn out to really get the most out of the effect. The tension is ramped up as his head gets closer and closer. And it intercuts between shots of the drill bit getting closer and closer. In most other films, he'd get rescued at the last moment, it would show the death in shadow, or cut at the moment of insertion. Not here. The camera loving gazes on as the drill enters his head, pierces his cheek on the other side, and then continues to spin for a while longer. It's a great effect, even now, and must be up there as one of the greatest screen deaths (now there's an idea for a Letterboxd list).

4. The final sequence with Carlo, Catriona and Christopher in the tomb of the dead priest. Not as excessive as anything that has preceded, though still brilliant nonetheless. The set design and lighting are gorgeous with skeletons and cobwebs hanging from the roof, lit with spooky blue lights in true gothic style. Then the music kicks in and the dead rise. In a similar way to The Beyond, the music signals the beginning of the end, and it's stunning mix of visuals and sound. 

There are other moments too, for example, the Sherrif's comment about Bob burning in hell, but it's the above scenes that garner the film so much goodwill from the viewer that its faults can be overlooked or, which happens more often, laughed at and enjoyed. Even the shockingly bad ending is part of the fun. For me, the things that stop it from being a 10 are the zombie make-ups, that are more oozy than the crusty examples in Zombie Flesh Eaters, and those disappearing zombies that I can never fully forgive. 

Right, now that I've got this review done and dusted, I'm off to Celluloid Screams 2013. Full coverage coming very soon...

If you like this you could also try:
Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Review - An Affair to Remember (1957 - Dir. Leo McCarey)

Less than a week to go to the celebration of all things bloody, dirty, greasy and a little bit spurty that is Celluloid Screams, I thought I better watch something pleasant before I get pummelled. An Affair to Remember it is then. (And yes, that is an excessively airbrushed DVD cover.)

Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) is a renowned gigolo but - much to the distress of ladies across the globe - he's finally settling down and getting married. On a cruise to meet up with his fiancee he meets up with Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) who's not interested in his winking and clicking antics. She's got a partner too, you see, and she's always been very faithful. Once you know that, the title tells you pretty much where this is all going. 

Now, I know I keep banging on about stories in films but the first half is a prime example of good storytelling. It may initially seem to be slow but every scene takes our two main characters a little step closer to falling in love. So even though the editing is laid back and the scenes are quite long, the story driving the film cracks along at a fair old pace. Once they're in love at around the halfway point, the story has to throw a problem at them, a pretty big problem, and it manages that with ease.

Saying that, the second half isn't quite as engaging. There is the small issue of Terry's partner being far too understanding about her indiscretion. But the main problem is how it morphs into a musical at certain points, the most irritating event being when a sugary-sweet band of children appear who overact and oversing their hearts out as if they're on Songs of Praise. My gran would probably have liked these bits. I hated them. Thankfully, they only murder two tunes and the final one is sweetened by a little girl almost tripping up and smashing her face into a bed. Oh come on, everyone's laughed at way worse on You've Been Framed

The final scene is another lesson in how to write something that absolutely drips with subtext. It gives Grant and Kerr loads to work with and they positively shine. The two main actors perform admirably throughout. Cary Grant is his usual Cary Grant persona and is as charming and likeable as ever. I'm not as familiar with Deborah Kerr, but based on her performance here - anyone who can match Cary Grant is doing well - I'm going to have a look at some of her other stuff. As a bonus An Affair to Remember does the usual polite thing beloved of old films. It gets to the point, then finishes. No messing about. 

Edit out the musical scenes and this would gain a much higher rating. But for a slice of pleasantness you could do far worse: two great actors, a touching story and one of the most unexpected ways to film a screen kiss that I've seen. Now that I'm all cleansed, I'm ready for some serious horror...

If you like this you could also try:
The Philadelphia Story, From Here to Eternity, Black Narcissus, The Grass is Greener.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Review - Evil Dead (2013 - Dir. Fede Alvarez)

Completing our mini-season within a season we return to the Evil Dead series with the recent remake. It could be said that the best Evil Dead remake has already been made in the form of Evil Dead II. But anyway, they went ahead and made it regardless. Was anyone expecting this to be good?

Like the I Spit on Your Grave remake it is very shiny and polished. The opening shots of a young woman running through a forest being chased by a lurking presence are gorgeous. They use a shallow depth of field and keep racking focus to the different elements within the scene. It's the complete opposite of the grainy, rough and ready approach of the original, although it's not unpleasant to watch. In fact, this raised my expectations from low to middling and made me think that this wouldn't be quite as bad as I was expecting.

You're probably thinking that something has got to go wrong soon. And you're right, to a point. It all boils down to the characters (yet again). Mia (Jane Levy) is a young lady who has had a problem. She started off snorting sherbet fountains 
at school and one thing led to another. After ODing (possibly not on sherbet fountains) she decides enough is enough and goes off for a weekend with her brother and buddies. She doesn't go to Centre Parcs though, she goes to a dodgy little shack in the middle of nowhere. Everything goes swimmingly, apart from when they find some dead cats hanging in the basement, until some clown finds the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead and decides to do a bit of light reading. 

Now you'd think that Mia would make a quite sympathetic character due to her drug abuse issues, and you'd be right. She's the only character who has any real character traits. The rest of the bunch are bland. Mia's brother, David, has one expression (disgruntled) throughout the whole film. Which is one more than his possible love interest, Natalie, who can't even be bothered to scream when she's in severe pain. Despite Mia not being the most complex of characters, she is enough to lead the viewer through the film. So it's a real shame - and I'm trying to write this without giving away any spoilers - when she's taken out of the equation for a while. A fairly long while. During that time all that's left are the personality bypass gang. When she returns things pick up and the ending hints at what the film could have been. 

One thing Evil Dead has got going for it is the gore. There's nothing in there as wince-inducing as the pencil incident in the original, although the knife licking comes close. One scene involving Mia in a small corridor is particularly effective. Some maniac is shoving a machete through the wall from the other side. She gets cut numerous times, culminating in a very nasty knee slice. A chainsaw scene towards the end also shows how much the censorship laws have changed since the original. And it's great.

One problem that it does have - and it's a problem that the completely dire Prometheus (click here for my review on Letterboxd) suffered from massively - is the substitution of one element from the original to another slightly different element. For example, let's imagine that I'm remaking Suspiria. Instead of a ballet school, I'm going to set it in a tap dancing school. In the original someone gets killed by falling into a pit of razor wire. Well, in my version she'll fall into a pit of open envelopes for some top paper cut action. The blind dog-owning piano player is going to be a limping squirrel-renting accordion player. You get the idea. It's lazy writing and has zero impact on the story.

All in all though it was fairly enjoyable. It's got enough positives to make it worth your while and the negatives aren't too irritating. It's one time where I think that a sequel could be worthwhile, as long as Jane Levy gets more screen time.

 If you like this you could also try:
The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, I Spit on Your Grave.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Review - Threads (1984 - Dir. Mick Jackson)

After seeing Cockneys vs Zombies recently, I need a shot of Northern goodness. Now, here's a little TV movie that was set and shot in Sheffield. Ooh, that should be nice. Threads, probably about a sewing club or some other heart warming activity. I'll make a nice cup of tea, prepare the ginger nuts and settle down for an evening of feel good entertainment. Right. Press play... oh, this is all rather unpleasant.

Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale from Home to Roost) and Ruth (Karen Meagher) are a young couple listening to the football results in a car, overlooking the beautiful city of Sheffield. They are so happy that Man Utd have been beaten that they partake in a bit of nookie. As often happens, this leads to a severe case of pregnancy. But Jimmy sticks by Ruth and they decide to get married. Everything is looking rosy. Radio and television broadcasts paint a different picture, one of an impending nuclear war. Things escalate until war breaks out and the first bomb hits Sheffield. 

This is one of the bleakest and realistic films that I've had the pleasure of watching. Normally when there's a nuclear explosion in a film it's fairly impressive, but nothing compared to the impact the bomb blast has in Threads. Seeing the mushroom cloud appear over the tops of the buildings in Sheffield city centre is scary to say the least. Maybe it's worse because I know the area. It feels more relevant, personal and realistic than seeing London or the White House destroyed. (Plus, when the bomb explodes, a woman in the street has a little bit of a wee - and lets it dribble down her leg Great Escape style - so it must be pretty terrifying.)

What makes it even more realistic (and scary) is its structure. It's part drama and part documentary. The drama follows Jimmy and Ruth through the attack. The documentary comes in the form of title cards that appear detailing how many bombs have been dropped, how much damage has been done and how many survivors are left amongst other cheery details. It feels like one of the old public service announcements that were designed to make you brick yourself into doing what your told. (I still veer away from dark and lonely water to this day.)

I never need much of an excuse to post this, but here it is again.

I can't see anything this powerful being made by the BBC now, with its preoccupation with making the blandest, glossy, politically correct and most average products designed to keep everyone pleasantly happy. Threads probably didn't make anyone happy. In fact, it probably made everyone think that all this nuclear warfare malarkey is a tad overrated. It is a smidgen too long with a drop in pace towards the end, but it has to be one of the best pieces of television ever made.

If you like this you could also try:
The War Game, The Day After, When the Wind Blows.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Review - Zombie Flesh Eaters 3 (1989 - Dir. Claudio Fragasso)

A comedy intro scene kicks off the proceedings, involving a sub-standard Tina Turner impersonator writhing around and then getting sucked into the third gate to hell. The voodoo priest responsible has an altercation with some ineffectual military types and zombies are released as per usual. Intercut with this are scenes of a family who are all incredibly bad actors (all no doubt related to Mary's dad). They are legging it from some zombies. As you would if you were a loving parent, the mother gives her six year old child a necklace and tells her to run, because an infant can obviously run faster than a grown woman carrying an infant. Amazingly she escapes and years later the girl, now a lovely lady called Jenny (Candice Daly), returns to the island with a bunch of mercenaries. As you do. 

At this point I thought I was in for a straight re-run of the terrible Zombie Flesh Eaters 2. Although it's got a slight more coherent plot than the previous film, it is still a complete mess story and logic wise. Jenny thinks that she dreamt the whole zombie island thing but when some slightly strange things start to happen on their boat she immediately attributes it all to real zombies. Now, I used to have a recurring dream about a T-Rex in my back garden but every time I hear a strange noise behind the back of my house, I don't immediately think, oh no, dinosaurs! To make matters worse when a zombie does appear and takes a chunk out of someone's face she doesn't even comment on it. Not even a smug, I told you so.

Add to this characters that always take the stupid route and the problems just keep mounting up. Three researchers come across the Book of the Dead. One sensible lady (I have no power over her) decides not to read from it. The lad (specialist film star, Jeff Stryker) - who looks suspiciously like Action Man complete with eagle-eye action - has a little read but stops short at the mysterious words that will bring forth the dead (despite the fact that they're already knocking about on the island). The bloke leading the expedition charges straight in there and reads the words. Funnily enough all hell breaks loose.

So it's a shambles. But it's a funny shambles. The zombies in particular are a highlight. They're more like ninja zombies complete with hoods and a fair few have the ability to fly into scenes as if they've just bounced off a trampet. (I always knew there had to be a legitimate use for trampets.) At least they've made an effort this time as there are shots of them rising from the grave - very shallow graves, granted - wreathed in foggy goodness.

On top of the ninja zombies there are also some zombies that can talk and fire weaponry. Now, I know I've complained about zombies with extra talents in other reviews, Land of the Dead especially. In Romero films, I'm after a quality experience, that takes zombies seriously. Here, as in Nightmare City, I couldn't care less and the talking zombies only add to the humour.

This is a notch above Zombie Flesh Eaters 2, and it's quite enjoyable, although it is best seen after a few pints of tequila. 

 If you like this you could also try:
Zombie Flesh Eaters 2, Nightmare City, Zombie Creeping Flesh.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Review - Supsiria (1977 - Dir. Dario Argento)

The violence in Suspiria has to be seen in context. Imagine a young evlkeith, brought up on a diet of tame and/or butchered horror films, where 18 rated films would barely register as 15s now, and suddenly Suspiria drops into his lap. Within the first quarter of an hour, a brutal stabbing followed by a quick ride on a noose-ended rope was certainly enough to make me sit up and take notice. When I finally got to see the uncut version  including the heart piercing, (round at a dodgy mates who had access to some highly specialist titles) Suspiria became one of my favourite horror films.

But time has passed and now it's the violence in Suspiria that seems tame. Surely there's more to this classic horror. The story perhaps? Nope. It's virtually non-existent. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) wanders around a ballet school and discovers that someone entirely unpleasant runs it. That's about it, really. The big plot surprise is actually given away very early on by a whispered word on the soundtrack.

So it's not particularly violent and it hasn't got a story. Not much left is there. Apart from style and music. And this is where it shines. Literally shines.

The lighting produces such intensely saturated colours that it looks as though the television screen is about to burst under the strain. It really is glorious. The cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli (who also worked on Tenebrae) developed a style that suited Argento's desire to represent a fairy tale nightmarish vision. Supposedly a lot of mirrors and coloured gels were used to create the intensity of colours. The end sequence, awash with deep blacks and shining golds, is Tovoli's favourite part and it's easy to see why. Guillermo del Toro obviously loves it too. (Although Dario borrowed too from other directors, see if you can name the film and director this shot was a homage to.)

As with all Dario films, he loves to experiment with camera moves and new technology. In Suspiria he attached a camera to a wire and sent it zooming down towards an actor in the middle of a deserted square. It took a few attempts, due to camera smashage, but it looked pretty impressive when I first saw it. Nowadays, it's not quite so shiny. But there are plenty of other moments that are great even now; little things, like the shot of the sliding door mechanism as Suzy leaves the airport at the start. Dario's certainly a creative soul.

The production design also deserves a big mention in terms of the style of the film. I can't say that I'd ever want to go to ballet school - my hamstrings aren't that stretchy at the best of times - but I wouldn't want to set foot in this one. The wallpapers are so excessively busy and the colours so gaudy that gip projection would quickly ensue. But they perfectly suit Suspiria's lighting style and atmosphere.

The other major player in the atmosphere is the music. Written and performed by Goblin it has to be one of the finest and deliriously unsettling horror soundtracks. It also must be one of the loudest. If you set the volume of your audiovisual unit whilst listening to dialogue at an appropriate level to listen to, when the music kicked in your head would vibrate so hard, it would fall off. 

There is one scene in the middle where the atmosphere dissipates and the exposition goes on and on, slowing everything down to a standstill. A film without a story really doesn't need exposition even if it is delivered by Udo Kier. The whole section could be cut and the film wouldn't suffer.

When I started this Dario Season, I was expecting Suspiria to still be my favourite, but I think that it's been usurped by both Deep Red, and to a lesser extent, Tenebrae. In a film that relies so heavily on its style and the atmosphere it creates, whether you love it, like it or hate it depends on the effect of that style. For me, I still like it, but it's power has diminished.

(As for talks of a remake, why bother? Even if Natalie Portman might be attached to the main role.)

If you like this you could also try:
Deep Red, Tenebrae, Phenomena.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Review - Kill Zombie! (2012 - Dir. Martijn Smits, Erwin van den Eshof)

I wondered when I started up this disc, whether Kill Zombie! was going to suffer from the same problems that I mentioned in the recent Cockneys vs. Zombies review. It's a new zombie film after all, and I got it from Poundland. But the film commenced and the first shot was nicely done with good use of depth and foreground interest. Then subtitles appeared, followed by the original title of Zombibi. Things were looking up.

Office worker Aziz (Yahya Gaier) is ecstatic when he finally gets a date with a 'way out of his league' co-worker. His boss, being a jealous fellow, sacks him due to the amount of calls he receives from his partying brother, Mo (Mimoun Ouled Radi). Aziz visits his brother to express his dissatisfaction and ends up in a scrap with a couple of gormless buffoons. Suffice to say, they all end up in prison under the watchful eye of Kim (Gigi Ravelli). Now I know this is set in Amsterdam but I'm doubtful that they get their lady police officers to wear uniforms like this. If they do though, it's well worth moving to Amsterdam and getting arrested by an attractive woman. Anyway, where are we in the plot? Oh yeah, zombies appear.

This is in the sub-genre of zombie comedies and it's a little bit hit and miss but leans more towards the hit side. Some of the jokes are pretty obvious, but then others are more inventive and had me chuckling away. One scene in particular springs to mind where they have to kill one of their own. It goes on for a fair while but it still manages to have a good final punchline. Some of the comedy comes from Scott Pilgrim style sequences (they weren't even very funny in that film) although thankfully they are brief and not very frequent. 

The main offenders in these homages to retro games are the Barachi brothers. I may have happened to mention my severe dislike of dancers and DJs before, and now here's a new one to add to the list: cocktail waiters. The Barachi brothers are cocktail waiters. There's no point to all of that fancy flicking and posing business. Dinner ladies would vigorously shake  it for ten seconds and chuck it in a glass and the job would be done in a fraction of the time, and the end product would be exactly the same. Except you may get a side serving of flapjack. Cocktail waiters are definite show offs and the same applies to the Barachis. (It doesn't help either that they're the Deus ex machina in two situations.)

The story is a simple let's save the Princess in the spooky castle type affair with Aziz trying to rescue his new girlfriend. Gaier is great as Aziz, playing him as your everyday office worker, and taking the material seriously despite being put in some stupid situations. It's a likeable performance that allows some of the less effective moments in the film to be glossed over. Apart from the Barachi brothers the rest of the cast are all fairly non-irritating too, which makes a big change from Cockneys vs. Zombies

CGI blood rears its ugly head again but CGI smoke and gunshot effects join the party too for added uselessness. It's not as bad as usual because there is a fair amount of the real stuff thrown around. There is a good use of CGI at the end to show a satellite that has crashed into the roof of an office building. Yep, it looks fairly cheap, but by that point the film has built up sufficient goodwill for it to look impressive enough.

This was a pleasant surprise. It's up against Juan of the Dead  and is actually a bit better. I enjoyed both films but this has a few more laughs. Not a classic by any stretch but an entirely pleasant way to spend an evening.

If you like this you could also try:
Juan of the Dead, Cockneys vs. Zombies.