Daniel Stillings

About Daniel Stillings

About Daniel Stillings Daniel is a little strange, the result of being traumatised watching a videotape of Zombie Flesh-Eaters when he was 11. He once had a picnic where they shot The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (a fact he was unaware of at the time) loves Jean-Luc Godard and Steven Seagal movies (if only they'd collaborate) and hates mobile phones. He also plays guitar in a covers band, but secretly yearns to be a member of The Residents...or maybe he already is!

Daniel Stillings Top Ten Films of 2015

DANIEL STILLINGS TOP TEN FILMS OF 2015

Not a definitive list as I didn’t see everything that I really should have this year, but there was some great stuff nonetheless. As last year, no documentaries, but if you haven’t seen Mark Hartley’s Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story Of Cannon Films, you really need to…it’s essential viewing. Now I’m thinking that Crimson Peak should have been in there somewhere.

duke 1sheet mailTHE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
Dir: Peter Strickland
If Berbarian Sound Studio (2011) was director Peter Strickland’s homage to seventies Giallo movies, this is his take on the lesbian themed European horror films of Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin, a connection made clear by the casting of frequent Franco collaborator Monica Swinn. Chiara D’Anna (star of Berbarian Sound Studio) plays a young woman who every day cycles over to the house of an older woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who she cleans for. She makes frequent mistakes and is punished in a series of bizarre scenarios which she seems to accept willingly, but as time passes we begin to realise the the relationship is not what it at first appears to be. Strickland’s film gets at the subtle undertones and power plays in a BDSM relationship that E.L. James didn’t even get close to. There are no men in the film at all, the tone is almost hypnotic and on top of all that it’s funny. The scene near the end where Knudsen finally finally crumbles and makes clear her feelings on the couple’s relationship is the finest acting of the year. Knuden, still best known for her role in the acclaimed Danish political drama Borgen is deserving of an Oscar nomination for this, though I’m guessing the chances of that are extremely thin. It’s a brilliant film, and the score by Cat’s Eyes is terrific too.

itfollowsIT FOLLOWS
Dir:David Robert Mitchell
Girl meets boy, girl gets it on with boy in the back of a car, and then girl gets chloroformed and wakes up to be told that boy has passed a curse onto her, and that from now on something or someone will follow her intent on killing her, she won’t know who, where it will be or when…but it is coming, and the only way to avoid being killed is to pass the curse on by having sex with somebody else. This is really an extension of Mitchell’s fantastic début feature The Myth Of The American Sleepover (2010) into the horror genre. The idea of a transferable curse reminds you of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Night Of The Demon (1957), but many people missed the point with this one. Passing the curse onto someone is no guarantee of safety because It – whatever It is – will still come for you if It kills the person you passed it on to. It’s an entity that is constantly working its way back down the list of people that have over time been cursed. Encouraging promiscuity in everyone in order to move the curse further away from you seems to be the best solution, meaning that this could be the most subversive teen horror film since Cherry Falls (1999).

sicarioposter-241x350SICARIO
Dir: Dennis Villeneuve
Villeneuve released two films this year. The first was the underrated doppelgänger drama Enemy (2013) with Jake Gyllenhaal, something that was more identifiable as a horror piece, but it was Sicario that was scarier…maybe the most terrifying film of the year. Emily Blunt is the FBI agent recruited / talked into volunteering for a CIA special forces operation against the drug cartels along the Mexican border, but the deeper into the situation she gets, the less clear the motivations of those around her become. While there are sudden bursts of violent action and several horrific set pieces, it’s the grinding menace that seeps into every frame of the film that makes this so powerful, and it doesn’t wimp out at the end. Villeneuve has since been announced as the director of the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel.

inherent_vice_ver4_xlgINHERENT VICE
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson has established himself as one of the best director currently working, and though not a horror film maker, the horror is never far away in his films. Boogie Nights (1997), Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and especially There Will Be Blood (2007) all intersect with the genre in some way and this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is no different. Set at a time in the early seventies when the sixties dream of peace and love had clearly and irreversibly soured, Joaquin Phoenix’s plays a private investigator at the mercy of forces neither he nor we really understand, and a plot which is almost incomprehensible, all the while trying to figure out how his ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) is involved. There are references to great seventies LA movies such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) & Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), and the fact that this film can stand those comparisons is an indication as to how good it is.

exmachinaEX MACHINA
Dir: Alex garland
Having already scripted several strong genre films including 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007) and Dredd (2012), Alex Garland made his directorial début with this visually stunning film about the nature of artificial intelligence. Domhnall Gleeson is the computer programmer charged with administering the Turing test to a human looking robot called Ava (Alicia Vikanda). Oscar Isaac who plays the Machiavellian genius who created Ava gives strong support, but it’s Vikanda who dominates pretty much everything, and with just her face. You’ve got to go back thirty years to Android (1982) and Blade Runner (1982) to find a film that makes you think as hard about what it means to be human as this film does.

bat001ATTACK OF THE BAT MONSTERS
Dir: Graham Kelly Greene
This is a bit of a rescue from obscurity. Attack Of The Bat Monsters was first screened at the Austin Film Festival in 1999 and then went on to win Grand Jury award at the 2000 Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles. Despite further screenings in the years since and almost universally positive word of mouth, the film never really gained the audience it deserved, but that looks set to change as the film is finally made available for streaming. It has been compared to movies like Larry Blamire’s The Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra (2001), but Greene’s film – about a group of low budget film-makers in the fifties trying to get a creature feature finished in three days before a bullying crew from a major studio comes in and takes over the location – actually has more in common with Wim Wenders’s The State Of Things (1982) and especially Joe Dante & Allan Arkush’s Hollywood Boulevard (1976). It’s a cult movie in the best sense: it’s well made with strong acting and a witty script full of references and in jokes to films past. If you grew up watching fifties monster movies on TV, you’re going to love this.

mmfrMAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Dir: George Miller
After thirty years – and several dancing penguin movies – Australian director George Miller finally returned to the franchise that he made his name with. It could have gone so wrong, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for a level of bonkers vehicular mayhem that made Mad Max 2 (1981) seem restrained, action that at times threatens to burst off the screen. The only flaw was the fact the film seems confused as to who the real Mad Max is. Though Tom Hardy ostensibly plays Max Rockatansky, it was Charlize Theron who actually seemed to be the embodiment of the famous lead character. It’s really her film.

 

lgcLANDMINE GOES CLICK
Dir: Levan Bakhia
The plot is simple: Three friends are on a camping trip in the Georgian countryside and one of them accidentally steps on an old landmine which will explode if he steps off it. Anyone who saw Levan Bakhia’s previous film, the underrated 247°F (2011) knows that he’s pretty skilled at milking a minimal scenario for maximum effect, and that’s what he does here, using the victim’s helplessness to torture the viewer as bad things happen. It’s a strong, efficient thriller, but it’s the last half hour that pushes the story beyond what we have been led to expect, and takes the audience near to the limit of that they can take.

 

wildtalesWILD TALES
Dir: Damián Szifron
This Argentinian anthology begins with a brilliant pre-credits sequence in which the passenger on a plane begin to realise that they are all in some way connected, and that pretty much sets the tone for series of blackly comic tales of revenge that follow. These include a road-rage incident that turns deadly, a man’s attempts to get even with the city after his car is towed and a wedding party that descends into into mayhem. The only familiar face is Ricardo Darín, star of the Oscar winning The Secret In Their Eyes (2009) which you really need to see before the American remake comes out next year.

 

Zombeavers posterZOMBEAVERS
Dir: Jordan Rubin
This was really more fun than it had any right to be. Some college kids decide to go and stay in a cabin by the lake, a lake full of beavers that have been exposed to toxic chemicals that have turned them into unkillable flesh-eating monsters with glowing eyes. After Sharknado (2013), its equally witless sequels and the assorted films in a similar vein that followed, films that treated their target audience with the level of sneering disdain the film-makers thought they deserve, Zombeavers was a relief. More in the tradition of older films like Critters (1986) and more obviously Piranha (1978), it’s gruesome and funny, and it had characters you cared about.

BEST OLD DISCOVERY

thestrangenessTHE STRANGENESS
Dir: David Michael Hillman*
A group of people go down into an old goldmine which was abandoned years earlier after several unexplained deaths. As they go deeper, their guide tells them of the bizarre fate that befell the miners who worked on the lowest levels of the mine, and eventually they come face to face with the tentacled creature responsible. This low budget creature feature was made for practically nothing back in the late seventies. It’s has a great stop-motion monster (it reminded me of the one filmed for but eventually cut from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)) and makes good use of the real abandoned mine it was filmed in…except that it wasn’t filmed on an actual location. Almost all the scenes in the mine were filmed in a garage owned by the director’s grandparents, and dressed to look like a series of caves. It was this revelation in Stephen Thrower’s book Nightmare USA that really increases your admiration for what Hillman and his two colleagues – Mark Sawicki & Chris Huntley – achieved will almost no resources. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a great deal of fun, and considerably better than Ciro Ippolito’s Alien Terror (1980) made at around the same time, and which I also saw for the first time this year.

* Since making the film, Hillman transitioned into a woman, Melanie Anne Philips, founder of the world’s first transgender support site, and it’s under this name that she provides the audio commentary for Code Red’s limited release of The Strangeness a few years ago.

videodromeBEST DVD’S

Arrow’s special edition Blu-ray of Videodrome was the release of the year. Not only did you get a brilliant array of extras including Cronenberg’s early short films and features, but it was also the first proper release of the original director’s cut which – apart from a rare laserdisc release in 1999 – has been unavailable in the UK for three decades. Arrow also scored with the Black Cat double bill of which Sergio Martino’s You’re Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key with Edwige Fenech was the reason for buying it. Also the restored Blood And Black Lace, Coffy, Society and many more. It was pretty Arrows year, but Eureka’s new edition of Seconds was certainly up there as well.

The Friends of Batman: Montage of Feck (Off) !!! (2015) Review & Watch Here!

THE FRIENDS OF BATMAN: MONTAGE OF FECK(OFF) (2015)

Directed by Terry Sallgold & Rene Dorset.

Starring: Terry Sallgold, Jim FOB, Brother Theresa, Thereman, The Great Kazoomo, Blandman.

Friends Of Batman (Poster)Every once in a while, a film of such importance comes along that not only does it dazzle the viewer, it forces a reassessment of every other film of its type that has proceeded it. METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (2004), END OF THE CENTURY: THE STORY OF THE RAMONES (2004), DIG! (2004), WOODSTOCK (1970), they all pale into insignificance in comparison to what directors Terry Sallgold and Rene Dorset have achieved with this game changing documentary. If you’re in doubt about this, just check out those quotes on the poster.

Well, that’s the review I wish I could have written, but what I actually saw falls slightly short of those lofty heights. In the interests of full disclosure, the founding member of the Friends Of Batman, Jim Connolly, is a friend and sometime contributor to this website, and I only agreed to do this because he has some serious dirt on me that I don’t want getting out.

The original manifestation of the Friends Of Batman was very basic, just Jim Connolly and a sock puppet, but over time they acquired new members of equal or lesser ability, enough to form something that could be recognised as an actual band, and they have been troubling a variety of venues in the Yorkshire region ever since. Think of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, but more punk with slightly less wit, more references to excrement and deviant sexual practises, copious dick jokes and a penchant for excessive use of the c-word…that about sums them up. Havoc has been caused, ear plugs purchased and tear shed, mainly over irreparable damage they have inflicted of the musical form. But all good things come to an end, and the Friends of Batman decided it was about time to cease and desist as well, going out in a smoulder of glory during Sheffield’s recent Tramlines festival.

But the final show was not the end! Now there is a coda to the entire saga of the self proclaimed Shittest punk rock band in Sheffield…an hour long rockumentary charting the band’s hijinx over the last decade, assembled from stuff people had laying around (or weren’t able to hide in time) by band member Terry Sallgold and sometime contributor Rene Dorset.

It’s all here…unfortunately (It could have done with losing about 15 minutes). Sure it’s a bit ramshackle and messy, but there’s a lot of genuinely funny stuff along the way, and the fake adverts are especially good…and it’s free, so what are you waiting for.

Disclaimer: Before anyone gets annoyed, all quotes on the poster are fake. It’s just a bit of fun.

Five Unfestive Christmas Treats

FIVE UNFESTIVE CHRISTMAS TREATS

By Daniel Stillings

christmasevilCHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)
Director: Lewis Foster.
This is arguably the best Christmas film of all time. Also known under the director’s prefered title, You Better Watch Out, Brandon Maggart plays the meek employee of a toy company who as a child was traumatised after witnessing his father dressed as Santa getting frisky with his mother. As an adult he loves Christmas so much that he keeps his own records on the neighbourhood children, making notes on who has been naughty and who has been nice. He really wants to be Santa, but he’s also a psychotic freakshow who goes about fulfiling his wish by stabbing the bah-humbug brigade with sharp tree ornaments and taking presents to the sick children’s hospital after stealing them from people’s houses. There are some spectacularly unease scenes where he gatecrashes a posh party and gives the most threatening festive speech ever and is then pursued through the streets by a torch carrying lynch mob. It’s often very funny, but also kind of tragic, far better than the controversial Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and it leads to a fantastic, mind bending climax.

DIE HARD (1988)
Director: John McTiernan.
A Christmas party, a group of thieves, a high rise office building, Alan Rickman as one of the all time great bad guys and Bruce Willis in a white vest of steadily deteriorating quality. Do you really need more than that? There have been other action films to be set at Christmas like Lethal Weapon (1987) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), but this is not only the best of the bunch, it’s a genre classic in its own right. Yippee Ki-yay, melonfarmer…oh yeah, don’t watch it on TV, just in case.

invasionusaINVASION U.S.A. (1985)
Director: Joseph Zito.
Die Hard’s Alan Rickman may have threaten to cancel Christmas in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991), but Richard Lynch, the sheriff T. Bastard of eighties action cinema went one better and actually took a rocket launcher to the festive season in this commie bashing eighties exploitation film. Luckily, Chuck Norris is on hand to sort things out, and start racking up the healthy death toll. In an interesting footnote, Richard Lynch who sadly died in 2012 may have wrecked Christmas here, but he once played Jesus…well, Jesus as a Christ-like extraterrestrial visitor with a vagina.

RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)
Director: Jal Mari Helander.
This Finnish horror movie is a macabre treat. An archaeological dig uncovers the real Santa Claus, imprisoned hundreds of metres underground, and it’s not the Santa we all know and love. This one doesn’t care if you’ve been naughty or if you’ve been nice. In fact he doesn’t really give a shit about anything…except abducting children. Not really one for the whole family,

Black Christmas#1BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)
Director: Bob Clark.
Since Halloween came out in 1978, the reputation of this Christmas themed slasher – one of the earliest entries in the genre – has fallen out of favour, but it’s still a disturbing film with an ending which is even more cryptic and unsettling than the open ending of John Carpenter’s classic. Clark also directed the family Christmas film A Christmas Story (1983) which is worth a look if obscene phone callers and mysterious killers aren’t your thing.

Daniel Stillings Top Ten Films of 2014

DANIEL’S TOP TEN OF 2014

There is still a lot of promising horror material that I still need to catch up with from this year including the remake of We Are What We Are, The Dead 2: India, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance Of Reality and much more, so this isn’t a definitive list. I restricted the choices to fiction films so there was no room for the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, but it was one of the films of the year.

The BabadookTHE BABADOOK
Director: Jennifer Kent.
This seemed to come out of nowhere to emerge as the freshest new horror movie in quite some time. Essie Davis is terrific as the single mother driven to despair by the behaviour of young son after she reads to him from a creepy pop-up book that mysteriously appeared on his bookshelf. Noah Wiseman as her son is equal to her in his ability to convey almost hysterical terror at things we often can’t see. Good as the two leads are, director Jennifer Kent is the real star here and she knows her horror. The film is informed by works as varied as Nosferatu (1922), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Shining (1980), A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), and particularly The Innocents (1962), but the fact that her movie stands comparison to those iconic genre greats is a measure of just how good it is. It’s a genuinely unnerving treat and the ending is ambiguous enough to satisfy several repeat viewings. It could be a classic in the making.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Director: Martin Scorsese.
Despite all the drugs, sex and general debauchery on display in this blackly comic epic, I don’t think any film this year was more horrifying than The Wolf Of Wall Street. It’s the finest of the five Martin Scorsese / Leonardo DiCaprio collaborations to date, and the manic intensity of DiCaprio’s performance here does the impossible and seduces you into the scheming Jordan Belfort world view even though you know he and everything he stands for is despicable. It shows the allure of money and punctures the myth that money doesn’t make you happy. The film was criticised for not showing the victims of Belfort’s scheme but that’s the point. It’s about how little conscience it requires to fleece someone out of their life savings if they are a voice at the end of a phone line that you don’t know. But, as the final shot makes clear, there are plenty more people just like me and you willing to follow Belfort’s example and make easy money. It’s a complex masterpiece that makes you hate yourself for liking it, and it’s Scorsese’s best film since Goodfellas (1990).

Under The SkinUNDER THE SKIN
Director: Jonathan Glazer
The Babadook may have been the stronger horror film, but it wasn’t quite as eerie as this. Scarlet Johanssen plays an extraterrestrial visitor who assumes the identity of a dead girl and then drives around Glasgow picking up random men to take home…why? In Michel Faber’s original novel the reason is clear, but director Glazer has deliberately obscured that key fact in his adaptation, and it’s an effective choice. Like Nicolas Roeg’s classic 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth, this forces you to see the world from an alien perspective rendering normal everyday street scenes or a visit to a crowded shopping mall as otherworldly. The glimpses of Johanssen’s alien world are minimal and cryptic, Mica Levi’s score is incredibly strong and Scarlet Johanssen has never been better. It’s a genuinely haunting piece of work.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Director: James Gunn.
In terms of pure entertainment, this was the best film of the year. After an apprenticeship with Troma and two underrated superhero spoofs – The Specials (2000) and Super (2010) – director and co-writer Gunn beat the odds to come up with a smart Hollywood blockbuster from material that did seem a risky proposition. Chris Pratt was a fantastic leading man as the self styled Star Lord, but a green Zoe Saldana stole the show…for many viewers I expect. What was interesting about it was that though it was essentially a comedy, it dug more deeply into the mythology of the Marvel universe than any of the other films in the series so far, including Joss Wedon’s The Avengers (2012). It’s classic space opera on a grand scale and it’s also very funny.

captain americaCAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Marvel’s first Captain America film is still the most undervalued entry in current franchise, and this sequel is one of the best. Much has been written about how it was informed by the conspiracy thrillers of the seventies, but the comparisons to films like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days Of The Condor (1975) are completely valid, and not just because Robert Redford – the star of the later of those movies – turns up as the key villain here. For a comic book adaptation the tone is surprisingly serious and the action sequences are headbangingly spectacular.

MAPS TO THE STARS
Director: David Cronenberg
With John Carpenter, George A. Romero and David Lynch quiet at the moment, Cronenberg is for the time being the only remaining one of the great seventies horror auteurs to still be producing challenging new work. Based on a partly autobiographical script by Bruce Wagner, this is a Hollywood horror movie to rival Barton Fink (1991). It’s part satire, part poisoned family drama with enough scheming, madness, incest and moral decay for anyone, but amidst all that it’s also a pitch black comedy. When Julianne Moore dances for joy at the death of a young child, you don’t know where to look. It’s the nastiest film about the industry since The Day Of The Locust (1974).

OCULUS
Director: Mike Flanagan.
Taking its inspiration from ‘The Haunted Mirror’ segment of Ealing’s classic 1945 horror anthology Dead Of Night, this was a feature length expansion of a short film Flanagan made back in 2005. Karen Gillan, forging a decent post Doctor Who acting career for herself plays a young woman with an elaborate plan to prove that her brother was not responsible for her parents deaths, the real cause being a possessed mirror. Having just been released from an institution for the crime, he is reluctant to go along with her plan and with good reason because the mirror has the power to distort the perceptions of people within it’s malign sphere of influence, and that’s what makes Oculus so scary: if you can’t trust what you see and hear what can you trust? It’s a horror movie with carefully built atmosphere and a sense of dread that doesn’t soft pedal the disturbing visceral nastiness when it’s required.

CHEAP THRILLS
Director: E.L. Katz
13sins13 SINS
Director: Daniel Stamm
These two films explored very similar ideas. In Cheap Thrills, two old friends in a bar meet a wealthy couple in a bar who start to offer them cash to carry out various tasks. At first the tasks are just mischievous and unsociable, but as the money increases, so does their severity until people start to lose body parts. In 13 Sins, a man just sacked from his job and having a terrible day receives a mystery call offering him money to kill a fly, and then more to eat it. These are the first two steps in a series of tasks he agrees to carry out, each earning considerably more money than the last, but each increasing in severity until a fortune is just a murder away. Cheap Thrills emerges as a satire about capitalism whereas 13 Sins has more in common with something like the underrated My Little Eye, but in both it’s clear that money is the key villain. They are interesting companion pieces, and would make a good triple bill with The Wolf Of Wall Street.

HONEYMOON
Director: Leigh Janiak
This debut feature co-written and directed by Leigh Janiak is probably the most underrated horror of the year. A newly married couple take a honeymoon trip to a lakeside cabin, but on the first night he discovers her sleepwalking naked in the woods. She seems unharmed, but the following morning she can’t remember how to do simple things like make breakfast and her behaviour starts to become increasingly strange. Whether or not you bought the climactic explanation as to what was going on was arbitrary. The build up to it was gripping and unsettling thanks to strong performances from Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway who made an appealing screen couple. The husband’s sense of despair and paranoia at his wife’s increasingly bizarre behaviour was palpable and upsetting, and it featured a gruesomely icky scene that wouldn’t shame David Cronenberg. Janiak is a name to watch.

See No Evil 2SEE NO EVIL 2
Director: Jen Soska & Sylvia Soska
The original See No Evil film made back in 2006 was a sadistic and repugnant slasher vehicle for it’s star, the WWE wrestler known as Kane, so it was surprising and a bit depressing that the Soska sisters decided to follow up their fantastic second feature, the genre bending American Mary with this sequel. That it’s as entertaining as it is is a small miracle. It’s surprisingly low on gore, surprisingly high on kink, it has a cast that it doesn’t despise, a winning lead couple in Danielle Harris and Kaj-Erik Eriksen and a final sequence seemingly inspired by the ending of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (critic Tim Lucas pointed this out, and it’s not an inappropriate observation). American Mary lead Katharine Isabelle threatens to steal the entire film until an unfortunate occurrence. It was a reminder of what slasher films used to be like before downbeat misanthropy took over.

HONOURABLE MENTION

Alexandre Aja’s Horns with Daniel Radcliffe was surprisingly strong. For a lot of viewers, the tonal shifts were too queasy and others couldn’t separate Radcliffe’s image from that of his most famous role, but I liked the unpredictable messiness of its shifts from black comedy to outright horror. It’s a fairy tale with graphic violence. You get the impression The Brothers Grimm would have approved, and to be honest I didn’t think of Harry Potter at all while watching it. Amy Heckerling’s Vamps finally crept out on DVD with Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter as socialite vampires in New York. It tries to do for Vampires what Clueless did for the teen movie It’s nothing ground breaking, but was a lot of fun and built to an unexpectedly moving finale.

DVD & BLU-RAY RELEASES

As a young horror fan in the late eighties, I never thought I would ever see Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantic get released at all in the UK, but an uncut restored Blu-ray! Arrow’s set was pretty spectacular, and just one of their excellent releases this year. Their special editions of Theatre Of Blood, Brian De Palma’s cult classic Phantom Of The Paradise and the Blacula double bill were all fantastic. BFI’s restoration of The Day The Earth Caught Fire was also spectacular.

Ankle Biters (2002) Review

Ankle Biters (Cover#1)ANKLE BITERS (2002)

Dir: Adam Minarovich

Starring: Adam Minarovich, Micheal Moore, Timothy Fahey, Jamie Burch, Catherine Brissey.

Running Time: 81 minutes.

The late film critic Pauline Kael once said, “If you can’t enjoy a really bad movie, then you don’t truly love movies.” On the whole I would agree with that, but every once in a while a film comes along that makes a mockery of that statement, and Ankle Biters is just such a movie. The title leads you to expect a comic horror involving vampire babies, something along the lines of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1973). Then you realise that the Ankle Biters of the title are played by little people.

There have been films in the past to focus specifically on little people. Following his interesting 1937 western Harlem On The Prairie featuring all African American cast, producer Jed Buell decided to follow it up with another gimmick western, this time featuring a cast made up entirely of little people. The resulting film called Terror In Tiny Town (1938) just ended up mocking it’s actors by showing them riding around on Shetland Ponies. Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small (1970) was much better. A bleak and misanthropic film where the short actors were seen on sets designed for normal sized people, a metaphor for man’s alienation from the world. Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) also treated its short actors with respect…Ankle Biters pretty much picks up where Terror In Tiny Town left off.

Ankle#1Drexel Vennis (played by director Adam Minarovich) is one of a small band of people fighting to rid the world of the Ankle Biters, little people who have been turned into vampires. He is aided by his sidekick T-Bone (Micheal Moore) himself a little person who was rescued by Drexel when his parents were turned into vampires, and John Marcus (Timothy Fahey).

Marcus doesn’t really trust Drexel because he too is a vampire, a halfbreed and the last in the bloodline descended from Pavlon, the last tall vampire. As Drexel explains, the vampires of diminutive stature can only turn their own kind into vampires, so the spread of the vampire outbreak is very slow. But the leader of the Ankle Biters, Korel (Jamie Burch), and his crew of vertically challenged vampires are in the process of acquiring the sword of Pavlon, a weapon adorned with a jewel that contains his blood, the blood of the last tall vampire. With this weapon, they will finally be able to turn any normal sized human into a vampire and take over the world.

To give the film its due, there is a lot of ankles bitten so the film at least lives up to its title, but that’s where the good news ends. The directing, writing and photography are abysmal beyond belief. The editing is the worst since Mardi Grass Massacre (1978) and the acting…The performances by the supporting actors are so inept that you start to suspect that they were deliberately cast to make Minarovich, Micheal Moore and Timothy Fahey look half way decent by contrast. When the characters aren’t saying lines such as, “It’s time to multiply at club chaos”, they are quoting well known moments like the “show me the money” speech from Jerry Maguire (1996) that just makes you wish you watching that film instead.

At least one of the Ankle Biters looks like he’s styled his look on a member of the band ZZ Top, there’s a scene in which a woman is punched in the face for comedic effect, and the end titles feature a song called ‘Three Feet Tall’, the entire lyrics of which are “Three Feet Tall, Two Inch Fangs”. The song is by a band calling themselves Catatonic…there’s a hidden subtext to that, I’m sure. The contact lenses worn in several sequences by director Minarovich are impressive, but they ought to be as that’s probably where the entire budget went.

Ankle#2The inspiration for this travesty seems to be Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998). There are at least half a dozen times during this film when you look back on worst aspects of that trilogy like Ryan Reynolds’s crassly misjudged “Cock juggling thunder cunt” outburst directed at Parker Posey in Blade: Trinity (2004) with a sense of wistful nostalgia. You get the sense that it was never the intention of Minarovich and his associates to be insulting, it’s just extremely ill judged, and as a result ends up compounding its ineptitude with genuine offence making it the greatest indignity to be inflicted on people of diminutive statue since Randy Newman’s ‘Short People’. Okay, to be fair, Newman’s song was a misunderstood song about prejudice…and he never once referred to a little person as a “Sawn off bastard” for a laugh.

Director and star Adam Minarovich went on to make several more films featuring many of the same people including Wiseguys Vs. Zombies (2003) but is now best know for his short stint as the character Ed Peletier on AMC’s series The Walking Dead. I guess that means he’s partly forgiven for this mess.

Rating: 0 / 10

Daniel Stillings

Branded To Kill (1967) BluRay Review

Branded To Kill (Cover)BRANDED TO KILL (1967)

Dir: Seijun Suzuki

Starring: Jo Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa.

Running Time: 91 minutes

Released UK in Dual Format from Arrow Video 18th August 2014.

The only flaw in the work of Seijun Suzuki is that he was at least two decades ahead of his time. He made 42 films for the Japanese studio Nikkatsu over a 12 years period. Many of them were routine B-pictures but signs of what was to follow could be found in early works such as Underworld Beauty (1958) and Take Aim At The Police Van (1960). With Youth Of The Beast (1963), he started to explore a more idiosyncratic and daring approach in the films he was contracted to make. Increasingly strong and innovative movies followed including Kanto Wanderer (1963), The Flowers And The Angry Waves (1964), Gate Of Flesh (1964) and Story Of A Prostitute (1965), but after directing Tattooed Life (1965), Nikkatsu president Kyusaku Hori stepped in and warned him to tone it down and play it straight. His response included the masterpiece Tokyo Drifter (1966), and its equally impressive companion piece Branded To Kill (1967). Nikkatsu fired him and he didn’t direct again until 1977.

Branded To Kill#1Goro Hanada (Jo Shishido) is the #3 killer in the criminal underworld but his home life is a mess. His wife (Mariko Ogawa) is unhappy because of his constant brooding at his rank, and at his fetish that means he only gets turned on sexually by the smell of boiling rice. She is also having an affair with Hanada’s boss. After an assignment to protect a mysterious stranger ends in a mass shoot-out, Hanada is approached by Misako (Annu Mari), a beautiful woman obsessed with death who wants him to carry out the killing of a foreigner, but during the attempted assassination, a butterfly rests on the telescopic sight of his rifle and he misses, killing an innocent bystander in the process. With his ranking gone and reputation in tatters, his boss hires his own wife to try and kill him. When Masako is kidnapped, Hanada is sent a film of her being tortured. Believing her to be dead he finally becomes embroiled in a cat and mouse showdown with the #1 killer himself (Koji Nanbara), the same man he was once hired to protect.

The irony of Seijun Suzuki’s firing is that he actually delivered what Nikkatsu asked for, a fairly routine gangster movie, but the style and fragmentary editing technique he employed to make it are something else entirely. The film is packed with striking images: Misako’s apartment decorated butterflies, the shoot out on the beach that climaxes in a man running from a burning building in flames, the bizarre methods Hanada uses to carry out his hits including shooting a man through the plug hole of a sink as he washes his hands, a dead woman’s hair swirling around in the toilet bowl, another shoot-out with Hanada using a moving car for cover, Hanada hiding out in his apartment being taunted by his nemesis who it seems could shoot him any time he wishes and the the climactic confrontation with the #1 killer in a boxing ring.

Branded To Kill#2Suzuki was himself influenced by the French director Jean-Pierre Melville, and his sixties films from Youth Of The Best onward seem to follow a similar stylistic path to that of Melville’s fellow countrymen who went on to form the new wave (it’s interesting to note that while Branded To Kill was being vilified in it’s native country, John Boorman’s equally innovative Point Blank (1967) was hailed as minor classic in America and Europe). If Nikkatsu had a point at all it’s that the style of the telling is so distracting, it takes a few viewings to get the fairly sparse story straight in your mind. Though he was effectively cut off in his prime, Seijun Suzuki is still one of the most significant film-makers of his era. His influence can be seen in Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer (2001), Kitano Takeshi’s Sonatine (1993), Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), John Woo’s The Killer (1989), Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999) and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour Or Humanity (1973) and its four sequels.

Branded To Kill#4Suzuki returned to directing with A Tale Of Sorrow And Sadness (1977) and Zigeunerweisen (1980) which is highly regarded in Japan but virtually unseen in the rest of the world. In 2001 Suzuki directed Pistol Opera which was a sort of sequel to / remake of Branded To Kill no where near as impressive as the original. He is now effectively retired.

Branded To Kill has been released on DVD several times before by Second Sight and Yume Pictures, but Arrow’s new Blu-ray / DVD dual format release is the best the film has ever looked. The new transfer – using the same materials as the Criterion release in the US – is astonishing. The sleek black & white photography is rendered with sparkling clarity on the high definition disc.

Trapped In Lust#1

Trapped in Lust (1973)

Extras include short interviews with Suzuki and the star Jo Shishido, but the big bonus is the inclusion of the feature length Trapped In Lust (1973), the roman porno remake of Branded To Kill directed by Atsushi Yamatoya, a screenwriter on the original who also wrote Suzuki’s comeback feature, A Tale Of Sorrow And Sadness. It’s no classic but is worth seeing if only for the genuinely creepy and unhinged sequence where Hoshi’s wife and her lover are menaced by a giant hit man who does all his speaking through his associate who appears to be a three foot tall ventriloquists dummy. It’s such a bizarre scene it appears to have strayed in from another movie entirely. Though the colour remake is more sexually explicit than the black and white original, it’s Suzuki’s film that is the more erotically charged of the two. If you are interested in Japanese cinema at all, Branded To Kill is essential viewing.

Rating: 10 / 10

 

An Exploration of Cannibal Holocaust (1979) by Daniel Stillings

Cannibal Holocaust (Poster)CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979)

Dir: Ruggero Deodato

Writer: Gianfranco Clerici

Starring: Francesca Ciardi, Luca Barbareschi, Robert Kerman, Perry Pirkamen.

Running Time: 96 minutes

It is no underestimation to describe Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1979) as one of the horror genre’s defining films, and for a variety of reasons also one of its most troubling, for audiences, censors and critics alike. According to the director himself, the film began life when his son became upset by images of real violence he had seen in a television news report, used less through a desire to inform the public of world events than through a need to give the viewers increasingly sensationalistic thrills. Out of this experience, Deotato began work on a screenplay that would form a pointed attack on the whole concept of sensationalistic reportage in general, and also work as a critique of the cycle of shock-documentaries known collectively as “Mondo” movies, specifically the works of two filmmakers, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi.

Gualtiero Jacopetti a journalist who had previously penned the narration for Luigi Vanzi’s two nightclub act compilation movies – European Nights (1959) and World By Night (1960) – directed and produced what is generally regarded as the feature that kick started the genre, Mondo Cane (1962). The film consisted of a series of cultural juxtapositions to prove in the words of the title, “It’s a dogs life,” but it was the images of real death that had the greatest impact on audiences and the film’s imitators. The following year, Jacopetti directed a sequel, Mondo Cane 2 (1963) which became the first director / producer collaboration for Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi who had been associate director / producer on the first movie with Paulo Cavara.

Cannibal Holocaust#1The two then went on to direct and write Africa Addio (1966) which set the tone for all mondo movies that followed it. Known as Farewell Africa in the UK, Africa Addio followed the continent’s transition from colonialism to independence. Jacopetti and Prosperi had initially entered the continent to work on another project only to be caught up in the political upheaval, and decided to turn their cameras on that instead. The film is literally packed with images of death, a fact stressed even more when an edited version of the film was released in America in 1970 called Africa: Blood And Guts. Shorn of nearly an hour of its more pleasant, contextualising footage, this new 83 minutes version was an unrelenting bloodbath, and a box office hit.

In the film, animals are seen slaughtered by the dozen and people are put up against a wall and shot, none of which was faked for the camera…well not quite. Jacopetti and Prosperi were both guilty of manipulating footage on the two Mondo Cane films, going as far as to restage Quang Duc suicide by fire in the second film. In Africa Addio this manipulation of events reached even further. In one nauseating sequence, a family of hippos are slaughtered in a sequences seemingly staged for the camera. More serious though were the allegations that the filmmakers encouraged the unlawful killing of a man by a mob in order to procure powerful and shocking footage for their documentary. This was the starting point for Deodato’s movie.

When a group of four documentary filmmakers disappear in the South American jungle, the TV company who employed them funds an expedition to be headed up by a professor called Monroe to find them, or discover what happened to them. On arrival they soon pick up their trail but the discovery of the rotting remains of their guide Filipe do not bode well for discovering the missing four alive. These suspicions prove well founded when they eventually make contact with the Yamamono tribe who display evidence of contact with them, some wearing camera lenses as jewellery and another a wristwatch.

Cannibal Holocaust#4The tribe are initially distrustful of Monroe and his team, but when they aid the tribe during an altercation with another Indio tribe, they are accepted, and lead to what turns out to be the skeletal remains of the four missing filmmakers, and the cans of exposed film they shot before whatever fate befell them (eagle-eyed viewers will notice the plot gaffe involving the film cans that puts a real crimp on the film’s logic). Back in New York, the TV station intends to use the footage Monroe brought back to form the basis of a piece entitled “The Green Inferno,” but on viewing the footage, the unpalatable truth of what actually transpired deep in the jungle begins to become clear.

From a technical standpoint, Cannibal Holocaust is brilliant. By the film’s half way point we know the fate that befell the missing filmmakers, but that fatalistic edge just amplifies the visceral tension in the second half when we actually get to see the footage shot by the now dead crew. As the atrocities committed escalate to the point where the seemingly peaceful Indios fight back with equal ferocity, we are repeatedly reminded that we are watching a film within a film by cutaways to the faces of Monroe and the TV executives’ disgust at what they are watching. While suspension of disbelief is not absolute when viewing the crew’s grainy “found” footage it is still powerful stuff, the look of which seems to have been inspired by Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle In America (1976), and though Deodato’s footage is not as shocking as the faked snuff material in that film, its use here much more complex.

This idea of presenting fake footage as real is complicated by the material that makes up the documentary within the film entitled The Last Road To Hell shown to Monroe as an example of the unscrupulous tactics the four filmmakers were willing to employ to get the footage they need. Monroe is told that the documentary is fake, but in reality the footage (“bought from an English company” according to Deodato) is real. This is according to David Kerekes & David Slater’s two books, See No Evil: Banned Films And The Video Controversy and their excellent dissection of the mondo genre, Killing For Culture, but a close inspection reveals some possible slight of hand. One stand out moment during the sequence in which a young boy is shot at point-blank range several times before collapsing out of sight appears to display evidence of blood squibs being detonated as he is shot when viewed frame by frame. The footage in this scene also appears to be of a different quality to the murky, authentic footage that surrounds it. All the material has turned up in several other mondo documentaries over the years.

Cannibal Holocaust#5The use of this real documentary material in a fictional narrative is dubious, but no more so than the use of real concentration camp footage in Stanley Kramer’s Oscar winning Judgment At Nuremberg (1961), and Deodato’s intended reading of the film would still be sound if not for the fact that in filming the grainy sensationalistic found footage the film deplores, he staged several animal killings for real, most notoriously involving the dismemberment and disembowelment of a live turtle. This particular sequence is utterly nauseating  and imbued with a gloatingly sadistic quality that makes it extremely difficult to watch. Claims have been made that the cast can barely hide their real sense of disgust and that actress Francessca Ciardi vomits for real, but any reservations the actors may have had to slaughtering the animal are not really evident, and the shot of Ciardi’s vomiting is obviously fake.

In Luca M. Palmerini & Gaetano Mistretta’s book Spaghetti Nightmares, Deodato claims, “The rats, wild pigs crocodiles and turtle were killed by the Indios themselves, for food. I simply followed them on their hunts – the equivalent of shooting the butchers at the city slaughterhouse, except that I always had someone from the animal protection league breathing down my neck.” As the actors are clearly visible hacking up the turtle in the scene described above, this is clearly untrue.

Much of the criticism written about Cannibal Holocaust tends to ignore this when discussing it. Kim Newman in his seminal study of the horror field Nightmare Movies described the film as, “the definitive cannibal movie and an auto critique of the genre,” and David Prothero in The BFI Companion To Horror said the movie is, “Deodato’s demythologising response to his own trend setting entry [Last Cannibal World (1977)] and the acme of the sub genre.” David Winter also alluded to the problem describing it as Deodato’s “crippled classic.” Tim Lucas who has a great appreciation for the film describes it in The Video Watchdog Book as, “one of the most devastating nightmares ever committed to film,” but goes on to address the animal cruelty issue head on saying, “it also uses footage of live animal slaughter to make its human slaughter effects appear more realistic, which is reprehensible.”

Cannibal Holocaust#7 For Lucas, the hypocrisy over Deadato’s use of the footage he objects to does not negate the value of the film as it does for Stanley Wiater, who wrote in Cut: Horror Writers On Horror Films, “unlike nearly all the other cannibal films, these acts are not committed by the natives, with the viewer assuming these animals were later eaten by savages in a typically savage manner. Here the slaughter is committed by the explorers as part of the plot. Either way, the very idea of animals being literally butchered as part of a fictional story where humans beings are supposedly butchered is morally reprehensible to say the least.”

The desire to find an argument that will justify the use of the real animal slaughter footage is desirable to fans but simply unattainable. Cannibal Holocaust’s reputation a one of the horror genres defining texts is well established, and guarded by fans to the point that drawing attention to the hypocrisy inherent in Deodato’s thesis is frowned upon. But dishonest claims about how the real scenes of animal slaughter were obtained are not the only false statements Deodato is guilty of.

In an interview with Deodato conducted by Emily Booth for the TV series Shock Movie Massacre about the similarities between The Last Broadcast (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), and in the latter’s similarity to Cannibal Holocaust, he claimed, “I had the idea to convince my young actors to sign a contract that said that they had to disappear for a year and pretend to be dead. When the film came out, it was confiscated by the authorities who accused me of having really killed the journalists, so I had call the actors and ask them to reveal that they were still alive just to prove that I didn’t kill anyone.”

Cannibal Holocaust#8In addition to accusing the makers of The Blair Witch Project of stealing his ideas, he dismisses director Daniel Myrick’s claims of ignorance simply as “Lies.” The problem with this statement is that despite going through pages of interviews and analysis, I was unable to find any corroborative evidence for Deodato’s claim concerning the stunt with the actors. Bearing in mind his false statements concerning the animal killings depicted in the film, it would appear likely that these claims are also untrue (If anyone has more information on this, I would love to hear it). In reality all three films explore quite distinct themes, despite these similarities: Cannibal Holocaust is intended as a pointed attack on the mondo cycle, The Last Broadcast is more about the documentary medium as message in itself, and The Blair Witch Project offers no context for what it show, relying solely on “found” footage, presented as real to scare the shit out of audiences.

Cannibal Holocaust opened in Italy on 8th February 1980 but was withdrawn four weeks later because on the scenes of animal cruelty. It was declared obscene by the High Court in Italy (using an old law that either forbid the import of bulls for use in the corrida or an old Fascist law forbidding the torture of guinea-pigs, depending on what source you consult) and banned. After three years and two more trials, Deodato eventually won his case and the film was again released in Italy with a “14” certificate. In France it was released with an “18” certificate after approximately 8 minutes of footage was cut amidst rumours printed in the January 1981 issue of Photo that the film was a genuine snuff movie (similar accusations would plague the film in the UK when it was seized in April 1993 during a comic mart in Birmingham). In Japan, it was the biggest box office draw after E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982).

Cannibal Holocaust#9Deodato’s movie was first sprung on an unsuspecting British public via GO video’s cassette released in the UK in the early eighties. Though this version was eventually withdrawn after being successfully prosecuted as a “video nasty,” it was not the complete version as was widely believed. Details totalling 6 minutes 24 seconds were removed included all references to the fact that the woman clubbed to death in the “social surgery” scene was pregnant, all the below the waist shot of the girl impaled on the pole, and it is also rumoured that the distributor cut many of the artificially damaged frames, but this is unconfirmed.

In addition to these edits, the sequence in which the crew chase the native girl before raping her is played twice. Rumours of an official re-release of the film on video in the UK never transpired. Despite its unavailability in the UK, it could still be purchased on the continent on videotape courtesy of Cult Epics in Holland and later on DVD from EC Entertainment. Unlike GO’s banned UK version, these were almost complete (for unknown reasons they were missing a few seconds of footage from The Last Road To Hell sequence).

In light of BBFC policy change, VIPCO submitted the uncut version of Cannibal Holocaust for a video certificate. They left some surprising and explicit things intact but still insisted on 17 cuts totalling 5 minutes 44 seconds before passing the film with an “18” certificate. The cuts are: 1 cut (17 seconds) deleting the scene of a musk rat being killed with a switchblade, though shots of the carcass remain; 3 cuts (47 seconds) to the ritual punishment of the native woman by the river, deleting the shot of her legs being forced apart including the sight of her vagina, details of the man using a dildo to rape her including a shot of the dildo covered in blood, and shot of the man forcing a clump of mud with bones protruding from it between the woman’s legs; 1 cut (11 seconds) deleting the scene of a native woman being raped, though a long shot remains; 4 cuts (1 minute 43 seconds) all shots of the turtle being killed (the cutting off of its head, it’s still kicking leg, and the animal being eviscerated in close-up) have been removed though a shot of the empty shell remains; 1 cut (21 seconds) a monkey having its head sliced open and its blood drained into a bowl have been removed; 1 cut (20 seconds) footage of the tethered pig being kicked and shot in the head have been deleted; 4 cuts (30 seconds) removing the more explicit details of the native girl being raped; 1 cut (1 minute 33 seconds) shots of Faye being stripped naked and raped twice, the second time while the natives hold her legs have been cut entirely; and 1 cut (2 seconds) deleting a shot of Faye’s vagina as she is carried away resulting in a jump cut.

The cuts to Cannibal Holocaust posed a difficult conundrum. The scenes of animal cruelty contained in the film are nauseating and almost unwatchable. The only difficulty with the censors’ intervention in 2001 was that in removing the footage of animal slaughter, they turned the film into the unambiguous critique of the mondo genre it most definitely wasn’t. Would it not have been more beneficial to an audience that they see the hypocrisy of Deodato’s thesis undiluted rather than have it misrepresented to them with a false impression of what actually happened during the making of the film? The BBFC admitted to playing it safe at the time in light of the films reputation and its history as a video nasty, but when the DVD label Shameless resubmitted the film in 2011, the board had a clearer and more defined idea of how to apply the revised guidelines, and waived all but one of the original cuts (the 15 second shot of the muskrat being killed was deleted and replaced with alternate footage).

Cannibal Holocaust (Cover)Over three decades on from when it first came to the attention of horror fans world-wide, and now almost completely intact, Cannibal Holocaust can finally be judged more clearly, animal violence and all, but now it seems as though Deodato himself realised his error, preparing a special edit to remove or obscure much of the animal violence (it was included in the Shameless edition). This new version solves nothing, the animals were still killed, it’s just seems like an apologists attempt to cover up what actually happened. Cannibal Holocaust is the horror genre’s most frustrating film. It’s an impressive work prevented from being the intelligently savage critique of the mondo cycle Deodato intended by the hypocritical inclusion of about two minutes of grotesque footage, and it’s a real shame because it didn’t need to be that way.

Daniel Stillings

The Last House on Dead End Street (1977) Review

tlhodesTHE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET (1977)

Director: Roger Watkins (credited as Victor Janos)

Writer: Roger Watkins (credited as Brian Laurence)

Starring: Roger Watkins (credited as Steven Morrison), Ken Fisher (credited as Dennis Crawford), Bill Schlageter (credited as Lawrence Bornman), Kathy Curtin (credited as Janet Sorley), Pat Canestro (credited as Elaine Norcross), Steve Sweet (credited as Alex Kregar), Nancy Vrooman (credited as Barbara Amunsen), Suzie Neumeyer (credited as Geraldine Saunders), Edward E. Pixley (credited as Franklin Statz).

Running Time: 78 minutes

Throughout the eighties and nineties, The Last House On Dead End Street was one of the horror genres great enigmas. No theatrical prints seem to exist, the pseudonymous credits led nowhere and videotape editions were so scarce that more people had heard of it than had actually seen it and…some doubted the film even existed at all. In November 2000, Roger Watkins finally came forward to confirm that he was the director hiding behind the Victor Janos pseudonym, and in a lengthy interview with journalist David Kerekes he revealed the entire twisted history behind the film (Contrary to popular belief, Watkins’s identity as the film’s director was actually revealed at least a decade earlier by Chas Balun in an article included in the The Deep Red Horror Handbook). As with most enigmas, the answers revealed much that was not known about the production, but also led to more questions, mainly about a now seemingly lost director’s cut.

Terry Hawkins (Roger Watkins), a leather-jacketed psycho recently released from prison after serving a year for drug offences arrives back in town and is out for revenge. Before his incarceration Terry made porno films and with the help of two female acquaintances – Patricia (Pat Canestro) and Kathy (Kathy Curtin) – and he’s looking to pick up where he left off, but this time with a difference. Through an old friend he meets Nancy Palmer (Nancy Vrooman) whose husband Jim (Ed Pixley) is being paid by “some fag” – Steve Randall (Steve Sweet) – to make pornographic films for his rich clientèle in the city. Steve is unimpressed by Palmer’s latest film featuring a young woman called Suzie (Suzie Neumeyer) telling him that he wants, “something new”.

The Last House On Dead End Street#1Terry seeing an opportunity hooks up with his old cameraman (Bill Schlageter) and takes over an old abandoned building in which to shoot his new project. With his gang of cohorts, all wearing masks, they tie up the building’s blind caretaker and Terry strangles him while the others film it. When Steve sees what they’ve come up with, he realises that he has found his “something new”, but when Terry finds out that Jim and Steve are passing his films off as their own, he lures them to an abandoned building with Nancy and Suzie where he plans to exact a savage revenge for their betrayal.

Roger Watkins had been making films since the age of 10. He was once an apprentice for Freddie Francis during his time at Hammer, he worked on Ted V. Mikel’s Blood Orgy Of The She Devil (1973) for one day before walking off the set, and worked as an editor on Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends (1971) and Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again (1973). It was working on the later film that Watkins got the idea for the feature film that would become The Last House on Dead End Street. During the production, he was sent by Nicholas Ray to meet with a Czechoslovakian producer who Ray would not see personally, and it was he who suggested that Watkins do something based on the Manson murders. Watkins had read Ed Sanders’ book The Family while working as a cameraman at a TV station, and decided to run with the idea.

Watkins began filming his project entitled ‘At The Hour Of Our Death’ in late 1972 with students and several professors at the university where he studied English literature. Filmed by Watkins himself and Ken Fisher, practically all the script was improvised with the actors using their real first names. As it was shot without live sound, Watkins had to post sync all the audio. After changing the title to ‘The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell’ (a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel Mother Night) Watkins was to have taken the film to Cannes but because of a lawsuit filed by Barbara McGraw, an actress who was to have appeared in the film, it was kept out of cinemas until 1977 when it was eventually released, first as The Fun House and then later as The Last House On Dead End Street.

The Last House On Dead End Street#2As it stands, the film divides fairly neatly into two segments. The first half is something of a mess, but despite being technically below par and incoherent, there are flashes of genuine artistry. It is only in the final 35 minutes where Terry and his accomplices butcher their captives that the film really snaps into focus giving the impression that these are the scenes Watkins really cared about, and it’s pretty unsettling stuff. The climax involves throats being slashed, graphic disemboweling, branding with hot irons and other assorted degradation. One victim is dispatched with a drill to the eye but only after he is forced to fellate a doe’s hoof that one of the girls has protruding out of her trousers. As he does, the others stand around jeering, one of them holding up a mirror so he can watch himself doing it. It’s genuinely fucked up, so twisted that you do worry for the sanity of the filmmakers.
Watkins himself cites his influences as Orson Welles’s The Trial (1963), Ingmar Bergman’s The Hour Of The Wolf, Luis Bunuel’s L’Age D’or (1930) and the films of Frederico Fellini. Unsurprising then that The Last House on Dead End Street, despite its status as a grindhouse exploitation film is full of allusions to other works including George Franju’s horror classic Eyes Without A Face (1959), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and John Boorman’s Zardoz (1973), acknowledged by Watkins himself but odd because his film was shot first.

The film that The Last House On Dead End Street seems to owe a lot to is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Both film build slowly to a a sustained climax of escalating horror, but whereas in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the effect is satirical, some kind of parody of the American family (even though Hooper denies it) The Last House On Dead End Street is totally free of any such subtext, aiming instead at a pure expression of demented horror. This pretty sound comparison was thrown thrown into confusion when Watkins revealed that the print of The Last House On Dead End Street as we know it is part of a much longer and never released cut of the film that actually pre-dates Hooper’s classic.

The Last House On Dead End Street#3According to Watkins, the distributor that eventually released the film removed a vast amount of footage, and re-dubbed the feature in its entirety. The original dubbing was apparently much better, and it was this atrocious new soundtrack that led many to suspect that the film was European in origin. Watkins’s original edit of The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell ran approximately 175 minutes (later reduced by about an hour) and is almost certainly lost forever. The film was originally presented in a linear fashion with no flashbacks or flash-forwards. It began with Terry being arrested in the projection booth of a porno theatre, establishing that he is already associated with filmmaking at the outset, and was followed by about 20 minutes of slaughterhouse footage. This was intercut with scenes of the girls Pat and Kathy leaving home and establishing them as they come together with Terry. Watkins stated that he wanted to use the footage of animals being killed to juxtapose one kind of slaughter with another as in Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1924), but it could also be another nod to Georges Franju who filmed in a slaughterhouse for his short documentary Le Sang Des Betes (1949). Apart from a short clip of a cow being killed, this exposition was cut in its entirety. The opening of The Last House on Dead End Street occurred 25 minutes into the original cut.

This also helps to answer some of the films lapses in logic. For example we never see Steve or Jim passing Terry’s films off as their own, or why Terry asks for Steve to bring Suzie along at the climax even though he has never seen the film she was in (originally Suzie Neumeyer had a substantial role in the film that was almost entirely deleted by the distributor). It is now difficult to say whether this drastic cutting eliminated the more explicit references to the Manson murders, but fragments remain. The “Terry is the Answer” dialogue spoken during the climax are indirectly modelled on the murders, and Watkins said that the killing of the blind man is modelled on Bobby Beausoleil’s killing of Gary Hinman.

The Last House On Dead End Street#4Though the climactic 35 minutes of the film are relatively untouched, there are still significant deletions. A scene of Terry half strangling Palmer after chasing him up the fire escape has been cut, but can still be glimpsed during the films opening. Just after he has been slashed by Ken off screen, spraying his blood across the white wall, Palmer originally stumbled out and tried to begin directing his own death, which explains why Terry jumps up and begins screaming “I’m directing this fuckin’ movie”. The most substantial cut occurs after the doe’s hoof scene as Palmer escapes and flees down the corridor and goes through a door. In the original cut he finds himself back in his own house. Disoriented, he wanders around before slumping down in a chair. It is then that the lights flash on and he finds himself back in the abandoned building as the gang advance on him with the drill. This is quite an explicit reference to the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it also suggests that Palmer has actually been driven insane by the ordeal.

In interviews, Watkins stated an extreme dislike for clips from the film’s climax that the distributor spliced into the beginning of the film along with many other changes. Though the loss of his original cut is extremely regrettable, the question remains as to whether we would still be talking about the film had it been released at its original length? Though Watkins would probably not have agree, it is most likely that the aura that has surrounded the picture for the last 37 years is due to its reputation as a compact, nasty little 78 minute exploitation film that pays off its shoddy build up with a utterly memorable climax, a film moulded by it distributor, not it’s director.

The film’s lapse into obscurity meant that it never had much of an influence on other films, with one bizarre exception. It’s probably coincidental, but Jefery Levy’s SFW (1994) starring Stephen Dorff and Reese Witherspoon as survivors of a siege involving a media terrorist group displays striking similarities with The Last House On Dead End Street. The scenes in which the masked camcorder wielding terrorists film their captives, framed by dazzling lights bears an uncanny resemblance to the climax of Watkins’s film.

The Last House On Dead End Street#7After it was released, Watkins turned to directing porn films such as The Pink Ladies (1980) and the dark brooding Her Name Was Lisa (1980) under the pseudonym Richard Mahler. He made only one film under his real name – Spittoon (1980) – before his death in 2007 at the age of just 59, but he did live long enough to see his cult debut resurrected. Though the original negative was lost, a US DVD outfit called Barrel Entertainment managed to reconstruct the film in 2002 using what was believed to be the only remaining 35mm theatrical print. This version was missing the 91 second sequence showing the disembowelling of Nancy Palmer, cut to avoid an “X” rating in 1977 which Barrel restored using an uncut VHS master. As a result, the print is unavoidable scratchy and the stock does not always match, but essentially, what Barrel has did was deliver the film looking exactly how you imagined it would look.

The Last House On Dead End Street was never released in the UK until Tartan’s 2006 DVD, not even in the dark unregulated pre-VRA days. There is apparently a widely held belief that Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981) was briefly caught up in the video nasties panic after being confused with The Last House On Dead End Street due to the fact it was initially released as The Fun House. One consistent fact about the video nasties panic was that the moral campaigners involved in trying to ban the many films they saw as dangerous knew next to nothing about the films they were attacking. Even if it had been released on video in the UK, the idea that these people would know enough about Watkins’s film to confuse it with Hooper’s version because of the alternative title it used only briefly in 1977 strikes me as highly unlikely .

The Last House On Dead End Street#6For what seems like the majority of horror fans, this is an insufferable nasty and amateurish film, but for some it has a strange and intangible power, like a half remembered nightmare you can’t shake. It’s like what you imagined horror films would look like when you were too young to see them, dangerous and genuinely irrational. It stick in the mind in a way that many better genre films don’t. It’s worth seeking out.

Rating: 6 / 10 (but the effect is 10 / 10)

Daniel Stillings

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) Review

Jodorowsky's Dune (poster)Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

Dir: Frank Pavich

Starring: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux , Brontis Jodorowsky, H. R. Giger, Chris Foss, Jean Giraud, Nicolas Winding Refn , Amanda Lear, Richard Stanley.

UK DVD/Bluray release TBC !

Running Time: 88 minutes

I personally like to think of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) as being the Apocalypse Now (1979) of science fiction movies. Just like Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war epic / Heart Of Darkness adaptation, it is by turns spectacular, sprawling, at times brilliant, at times banal, incoherent and visionary. Many of Dune’s negative aspects were exacerbated by producer Dino De Laurentiis’s insistence that the film be brought in at a contractually agreed running time of just over two hours.

Lynch apparently did try to win De Laurentiis over with an original three hour fine cut of the film, and though he was unsuccessful much of the material removed from this version did turn up years later in a still compromised two part TV screening (there are also floating around on the internet several “fan edits” which are superior to the TV version and closer to Lynch’s intended film, but are still unavoidably messy and stilted). Universal has tried over the years to tempt Lynch back to the editing room to create a director’s cut, but he has always refused due to the compromises he was forced to make while the film was in production. Adapting Frank Herbert’s long and complex 1965 novel was always going to be difficult, but when Lynch finally did bring his version to the screen, it was just the last phase of a project stretching back to the mid seventies. It’s a story in itself and the subject of this highly anticipated new documentary.

The film rights to Dune were first optioned by producer Arthur P. Jacobs, best known for Planet Of The Apes (1968) and its four sequels. When he died, they were taken over by the Chilean born film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky was a major counter-culture figure following his violent surrealistic western El Topo (1970), a favourite of John Lennon and Dennis Hopper and the film that established the phenomenon of the midnight movie. He followed this in 1973 with The Holy Mountain which was distributed in Europe by French film producer Michel Seydoux with great success.

Dune#1As a result Seydoux offered to produce his next project, whatever he wanted to do, and Jodorowsky said Dune. Jodorowsky assembled an amazing array of talent over the following two years: Dan O’Bannon from John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) to do the special effects, French comic strip legend Jean “Moebius” Giraud, the Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger and British science fiction artist Chris Foss to do the conceptual designs, production drawings and storyboards, Pink Floyd and Magma to do the music and approached people as diverse as Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí to star. With the project about to begin shooting, Seydoux and Jodorowsky were unable to convince an American studio to put up the final $5 million they needed, and the project collapsed.

The production history of the Dune that never was is something fans have been aware of since Lynch’s movie came out in 1984, and the laying out of the facts behind the failed production above does Jodorowsky’s Dune disservice. The film begins with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn explaining how Jodorowsky once spent hours talking him through his entire vision for the film, and this is exactly what Frank Pavich tries to do here.

With access to the storyboarded shooting script (a massive book the size of three telephone directories) and the original production art, Pavich wants the film to live in your imagination, dramatising several sequences using Giraud’s original illustrations, and allowing the artists to explain the thinking behind their work in detail for the first time. Not only does the film give you a tantalizing glimpse of the film that might have been, but there is real poetry in the documentary’s explanation of how the ending of Jodorowsky’s version of Dune – in which Paul Atreides is killed only to be reborn as everyone – reflects the actual influence his unrealized script has had on the development of science fiction cinema. The effect is actually quite moving.

Dune#2Pavich goes on to theorizes a world without the failed Dune – in a way it’s the same argument as what if the film had actually been made – and shows how many of the visual ideas in the Dune storyboards turned up in several other movies including Flash Gordon (1980), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), Contact (1997) and the Alien prequel Prometheus (2012). Some are more persuasive than others but one fact is indisputable. When the project collapsed and the creative team scattered, Dan O’Bannon wrote the screenplay for a monster in space movie, took H.R.Giger, Jean Giraud and Chris Foss with him as conceptual artists, and made Alien (1979), the film that established Ridley Scott’s directorial reputation after The Duellists (1977). Without Alien, Scott doesn’t direct Blade Runner (1982) – perhaps the most influential film of the last 35 years – and so films like The Matrix (1999) don’t get made. But that’s just the beginning of the fun “what if?” scenarios.

Without these two films, not only is Ridley Scott’s contribution to cinema vastly reduced, there is also no Sigourney Weaver who made such an impact in the first Alien film and was established as a star in Aliens (1986). Without Aliens, James Cameron would have suffered the same fate as Ridley Scott, but there is also the possibility that we would never have heard of him at all. In the wake of Alien’s box office success there were many low budget cash-ins, one of which was the little regarded Roger Corman production Galaxy Of Terror (1981) which gave Cameron his first directing job, shooting second unit and doing production design. No Galaxy Of Terror, no Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), no The Terminator (1984) or Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and without those Arnold Schwarzenegger does get his career defining role.

The final significant casualty would have been David Lynch himself. Had he not brought Dune to the screen in 1984, he would not have made Blue Velvet (1986) as part of his deal with Dino De Laurentiis, a film that is regarded by many as one of the best of the decade. Without Blue Velvet there is no Twin Peaks, the show that is often credited with starting the revolution in American television that produced shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire. The permutations are endless and fascinating.

Dune#4Jodorowsky’s Dune is terrific stuff. As a film about a film that never was, it’s even better than Lost In La Mancha, Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe’s 2002 film about Terry Gilliam’s failure to bring his cherished The Man Who Killed Don Quixote project to the screen. Like that film, there is still the possibility that Jodorowsky’s version of Dune could still be made.

The now 85 year old director who has just directed The Dance Of Reality (2013), his first film in 23 years, believes it could be realised as an animated project using his book of designs and Giraud’s complete storyboards as the basis, but with remakes one of the main currencies in Hollywood, isn’t it possible that it could be brought to the screen as originally envisioned, maybe even with Jodorowsky’s involvement? It seemed unlikely that the European film-maker Tom Twyker would team up with the Wachowskis to bring a $100 million adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to the screen, but in 2012 it happened. In a world where robots engaging in fisticuffs dominate the box office, Jodorowsky’s Dune could just provide the creative shock to the system that cinema needs.

Rating: 9 / 10

Daniel Stillings

UKHS Does The Nasty: THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)

DK 1UKHS Does The Nasty:

THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)

Dir: Abel Ferrara

Writer: Nicholas St. John (credited as N. G. St. John)

Starring: Abel Ferrara (credited as Jimmy Laine), Carolyn Manz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz.

Running Time: 96 minutes

After our previous encounters with Euro-sleaze psychos, third world cannibals and one hungry crocodile, UKHS’ newest member Daniel Stillings steps up for a look at controversial auteur Abel Ferrara’s Black & Decker-loving Nasty…

Though The Driller Killer is not director Abel Ferrara’s début (the porno movie 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) has that dubious distinction) it is still the film he is best known for. The project was initially planned as an experimental short – Ferrara made several in the early seventies in association with his long time collaborator Nicolas St. John – but was later expanded to feature length when Rochelle Weisberg, producer of Drive-In Massacre (1976) put up the extra money needed. The Driller Killer sets out many of the themes and concerns Ferrara would explore throughout his directorial career.

Reno (Ferrara himself) is a struggling artist living in a run down New York apartment with two girlfriends, Carol (Carolyn Marz) and Pamela (Baybi Day). With money in short supply, he is desperately trying to finish the painting of a buffalo he is working on to sell and finally dig himself out of the financial hole he has got himself into, but Carol who is receiving letters with money from her ex-husband is beginning to tire of the situation. When a rock band moves in to an adjacent apartment and begins practising around the clock and Reno’s protestations to the building super about the noise are met with disinterest, he begins to crack under the strain.

DK 2Seeing an advertisement on television for Porto-Pack – a handy mobile power supply – he buys one to power an electric drill that he then uses to casually murder a derelict in a doorway, an act that triggers a murderous killing spree of local down and outs. Eventually he completes his painting and invites his art dealer (Harry Schultz) to view the finished work, but on seeing it Briggs does not hold back his disdain for Reno’s new work, calling it simply “Shit.” This rejection of their last hope for financial security is the final straw for Carol who leaves Reno and Pamela to return to her ex-husband, after which Reno begins to turn his violent frustration inwards on those he cares for.

With its themes of urban alienation and madness and a central protagonist seeing himself in conflict with the city, it is pretty clear that the model for Ferrara’s film is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), but though thematically similar, their approaches are completely different. Whereas Scorsese’s neon drenched view of New York often resembles a science fiction movie, Ferrara’s New York is a murky, run-down hell hole captured in all its sordid glory by cinematographer Ken Kelsch. The more useful comparison is with Roman Polanski’s classic psychological drama Repulsion (1965), a point made even more explicit with the direct reference to the decomposing rabbit in Polanski’s film. A more solid Scorsese influence is the religious imagery that permeates the film from the church set opening to the mock crucifixion of a vagrant towards the end of the film, themes Ferrara would return to throughout his career climaxing in the controversial Bad Lieutenant (1992).

Despite its lurid title, The Driller Killer is not really an exploitation film. All Reno’s victims are unattractive male vagrants and only one of the killings is presented in a graphic manner, the violence of the other murders often being indistinct or off camera. The lesbian relationship between Carol and Pamela sensitively depicted (they are never the focus of Reno’s violence), and Joe Delia’s score made up of vibraphone re-workings of music by J. S. Bach offer respite from the muddy grumbling of Tony Coca-Cola & The Roosters.

DK 4Reno’s motivation for the series of killings occurs very early on. Though it is never stated explicitly, it is heavily suggested that the old vagrant that he meets in the church at the start of the film is his father. Homeless and seeking his son’s help, he embodies all Reno’s fears of failure, suggesting Reno is killing the derelicts out fear that he will lose his precarious position in society and join them. The film ends ambiguously. When the credits roll, nothing has been resolved.

The censorship history of The Driller Killer is complicated. The title was initially released by VIPCO in April 1982, and immediately caught the attention of renters on account of the graphic picture of the wino having his head drilled that graced the cover. Though it was a misrepresentation of the film, such practices were not uncommon during the early years of the video boom. While all the violence was intact, VIPCO’s release was missing an entire sequence lasting 6 minutes 35 seconds thought to be the result of a botched reel change during the film to tape transfer. It was a popular title, even more so when the Director of Public Prosecutions named it as one of the key “video nasties.” Prosecutions followed and the film was eventually outlawed, but thanks to the Scala Cinema Club in London, the public was still able to see it, but when the DPP turned up prior to a Scala screening and threatened to prosecute, they also withdrew the film.

The fact that The Driller Killer is nowhere near as graphic as its reputation suggests was something the BBFC themselves recognised very early on. James Ferman’s deputy Ken Penry told Tom Dewe Matthews in his book Censored that the film, “was cuttable,” but when VIPCO were told they would have to remove the wino killing, they lost interest in continuing the classification process. Meanwhile, an American Label called Cult Epics announced that it was striking a new print of the film for release as a special edition DVD, but as preparation for the new transfer took longer than expected, they were forced to use the same old murky print. This release restores the sequence missing from the VIPCO release, and includes a scary commentary track by Ferrara himself that gives a whole new meaning to the word “informal”, but is missing the final 1 minute 20 seconds of credits that VIPCO’s release did include!

DK 5In light of the policy change at the BBFC in the late nineties, Visual Entertainment decided to submit The Driller Killer for a certificate, but they opted to play safe and edit the film themselves before submission making cuts totalling 54 seconds to first murder, the killing at the bus stop and the graphic drilling of the wino’s head (much of this was substituted with alternate footage). This version was passed by the board with an “18” certificate and no further cuts. The final act in the censorship saga of The Driller Killer came on 19th November 2002 when ILC Prime Ltd. resubmitted the full, newly remastered version to the BBFC by who having now officially set out their post shake up guidelines passed the film uncut with and “18” certificate. The fact a film that caused such controversy just thirty years ago can now be screened intact on TV without any fuss at all seems incredible to anyone who lived through that time.

Rating: 8 / 10

#UKHSnasty