And Now The Screaming Starts #5 – ‘Cushing, The Creature and The Curse: A Peek at Hammer’s Franken-Frights!

“And Now The Screaming Starts!” – UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature by Rosie Gibbs

antss‘Cushing, The Creature and The Curse: A Peek at Hammer’s Franken-Frights!’

It is now 200 years since the 18-year-old Mary Shelley first began writing her classic tale of ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’, and in the two centuries that have passed since she first crafted the original story countless subsequent stories, television programmes, plays and of course motion pictures have surfaced which either re-tell or are in certain ways clearly inspired by Shelley’s novel concerning the young doctor Victor Frankenstein and his quest to create new life through scientific study and experiment. Hammer Productions is certainly one film production company which focused on Shelley’s Creature – eventually to become of course one of the line-up of ‘classic’ monsters alongside Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman etc. – and took inspiration from it to create spin-off tales of its own.

Shelley’s tale and monster became legendary certainly, and their posterity has in no small way been assisted by Hammer Productions, and in turn its most prolific and long-standing director – the late Terence Fisher. Hammer actually made a total of seven ‘Frankenstein’-based pictures, over the course of fifteen years, and while they each achieved varying degrees of success, it can certainly be argued that a good chunk of the clout the company eventually gained as a film-making business was down to Shelley’s notorious doctor and his insatiable thirst for cracking the secret to creating life, and any success they gleaned down largely to Fisher’s direction. Indeed, Hammer charted through these seven different films what could be called a ‘Life and Times’ saga of Victor Frankenstein (or the Baron as he would become known in this particular medium) – brought to life himself in all but one of these films by the incomparable Peter Cushing (and in the seventh, it must be mentioned, by the excellent Ralph Bates). In this article, we take a glance at three of Fisher’s ‘Franken-films’ – at the particular Creatures brought forth in each, the representation of the Baron himself, and how Hammer contributed to the development and furthering of the Frankenstein story…

franken1‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957)

The first of the true Hammer ‘horrors’, this film also saw Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing acting on celluloid together for the very first time. Terence Fisher achieved in this first Frankenstein flick commercial and critical success, with Hammer stalwarts Jimmy Sangster and Anthony Hinds providing screenplay and production respectively in what many critics hail as a ‘return to form’ for the horror genre, which had in the 1950’s seen something of a lull in its ability to pull in the crowds at the box office since the heyday of the original Universal ‘monster movies’ of the 1930’s and 40’s.

In Hammer’s first crack at the Baron’s life tale, we are given (I suppose naturally) more of an insight into his early life; we see him take on the baronetcy at an early age after his father’s death – with characteristic curtness and practicality – and meet his wife Elizabeth (Hazel Court), as well as nurture an amiable working relationship with his tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart). Life is toddling along enjoyably for the Baron until his ‘ideas’ and experiments begin to really take hold of him and he first suggests his plans for what will become his life’s work. Cushing in this film initially presents us with a slightly more sympathetic Frankenstein – certainly single-minded and brusque but not necessarily heartless.

franken2However, when re-animation becomes his obsession, he gradually morphs into a maid-bonking, manipulative, typically self-absorbed mad scientist, showing little to no regard for his wife, friends or indeed Christopher Lee’s wonderfully confused, child-like Creature. The progressively more diabolical Baron was lapped up by cinema-goers at the time and Fisher’s directorial eye created rich, colourful cinematography which would have packed an extra punch in line with the higher level of gore – many critics of the time found the picture distasteful and ‘salacious’, and that was even after a sequence involving Cushing nonchalantly dipping a severed head in acid was cut out for British audiences!

The film overall is a striking debut for Hammer which is still today an entertaining version of the classic Gothic tale which serves as a timeless warning against playing God, as well as having the honour of establishing both Fisher as a bankable director and Hammer as a fondly-loved film production company featuring rich talent, both in front of and behind the lens.

franken3Frankenstein Created Woman’ (1967)

With Fisher once again at the helm, and Cushing in his fourth appearance as the Baron,this much-loved Hammer offering released a decade after ‘Curse’ was produced by Anthony Nelson Keys with Anthony Hinds taking screen writing credit again. Coming after earlier Hammer sequels ‘The Revenge of Frankenstein’ and ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’, which saw the legend foray into brain transplantation and again general re-animation of male corpses / living subjects, the company this time offered a new slant on the tale – touching on the theme of the soul and its transference to flesh, between different bodies and genders, no less.

Baron Frankenstein, now living in an atypical ‘mittel-Europe’ town much the staple of Hammer story-telling, finds himself embroiled in the initially tragic story of tavern hired hand Hans (Robert Morris) and his sweetheart Christina (Susan Denberg), who is taunted over her facial disfigurement by three local yobs. In revenge for Hans having stood up to them, they ransack her family’s tavern and brutally murder her father – and Hans is unjustly found guilty of the crime and guillotined. Distraught, Christina immediately drowns herself. The Baron, having been handily working on experiments to determine whether or not the soul departs the body at the point of death, manages after some time to transplant Hans’ soul into Christina’s now re-animated body – her mind that of an amnesiac, but her soul full of Hans’ vengeful lust for the murder of the three villains.

‘Woman’ (admittedly a Franken-flick which doesn’t lend itself amicably to the one-word title abbreviation) does seem to stand out from the others in a number of ways – most obviously in that the Creature is for the first time a female. Perhaps this is not a staggeringly ‘out of the box’ deviation from the original story, but what I personally like is that unlike in the Shelley tale, or indeed in the classic 1935 film ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ in which a female creature is manufactured purely to provide a companion for the lonely male one, in this we see the female being re-animated to carry out a certain task, i.e. a murder of vengeance – Hammer could have easily have gone down the simple ‘make a mate’ route here and still had a success on their hands but they chose this plot line instead.

franken4Of course, Christina’s mind is still dulled and her body is still beautiful, and the very soul that drives her basically to live is still that of a man, but at least the film in the end creates a woman who is dangerous rather than distressed. Cushing’s Baron in this film, while still of course an obviously vital component, somewhat takes a smaller spotlight in favour of the young romance and the central theme of Christina’s agenda, however he is shown as less of a brute and more of a logically detached, morally ambivalent character who focuses on his work as virulently as ever but perhaps with less of a flagrant disregard for any person or thing which might stand in his way.

The originality of the plot provides arguably a less shock-heavy, gory feel to this film in comparison to the other Hammer Frankensteins – no angry marching mobs, death-defying stunts or fights to the death at the climax here, yet this gentler outing is still sensationalist and gory enough to have satisfied 60’s horror buffs. Indeed, it is the one of the few Hammer features to properly explore the notion of the soul and theories surrounding the concept – of course even the title references the Bible and the Creation myth. Martin Scorcese is reportedly a big fan of the film, having been quoted as saying, “…here they actually isolate the soul, a bright blue shining translucent ball. The implied metaphysics is something close to sublime.”

Whether or not Hammer were trying to delve especially deeply into such matters is anyone’s guess, but the film I believe is certainly one of the strongest of Hammer’s successful 1960’s period – and through it the Shelley legend gains a fresh twist which whilst not at this point ardently feminist, certainly provides us with a brutal broad who is no creature’s Bride!

franken5‘Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell’ (1974)

The final Hammer ‘Franken-film’, which would also sadly prove to be Terence Fisher’s final picture before his death, was released after 1969’s haunting ‘Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed’ and 1970’s black comedy of sorts, ‘Horror of Frankenstein’. The picture emerged at the tail-end of Hammer’s decades-long journey in film – actually the fourth from last. I personally feel, and I’m sure I’m not alone, that in these swansong years, Hammer went out with a bang in releasing belters such as ‘Hands of the Ripper’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’, ‘Vampire Circus’ and ‘Twins of Evil’. Amongst these excellent sensations is ‘Hell’ – in which we find Cushing’s Baron hiding out in a Carlsbad asylum for the criminally insane, under the pseudonym Karl Victor.

Here, posing as the asylum’s official physician, the diabolical doctor is still merrily carrying out his experiments on illicitly-acquired cadavers safe in the knowledge that those in the outside world now believe him to be good and dead. Surgeon Simon Helder (played by one of my favourite Hammer alumni, Shane Briant) is sentenced to a spell in the asylum, and the Baron secretly reveals his true identity to him, convincing him to assist him in his scientific undertakings. The two work together to re-animate the remains of a hulking inmate (none other than David Prowse) and initially the subject seems to be successfully brought to full living state in a non-chaotic manner. However, the Baron, unbeknownst to Helder, begins to make attempts to add new parts to their creature from the bodies of further recently-deceased inmates – and their deaths seem to be occurring with more and more alarming frequency…

In ‘Hell’, possibly the most sensationalist of the Franken-films from Hammer, we get the full schlock treatment – we are after all in the pitiful and highly unsavoury surroundings of an eighteenth century insane asylum (a hell in itself of sorts, and an undesirable home for a character whom by now has become utterly undesirable in Hammer’s imagining, although Shelley herself probably would not have intended that). Fisher and Hinds came up with gore aplenty in this one, including a particularly vicious (though not entirely brutish) Creature, rather squirm-inducing torture and implied deaths, fiendish asylum staff and a rather brutal finale (even after re-writes and cuts were enforced).

franken6In terms of the Baron, we are led to believe at first that perhaps his self-imposed incarceration has softened him a little in his later years as he seems genuinely, if curtly, concerned for the inmates’ health, not to mention the protection of the female ones from the lechery of the asylum director – however we soon discover his predilection for putting his work waaaay before ethics of any kind is still completely present and correct. Cushing delivers a witty, brilliant as ever performance in his last outing as the Baron and Hammer delivers a late-to-the-table treat for horror fans, more garish than most of the other incarnations of the tale but certainly just as satisfying.

So there you are – three of Hammer’s takes on the Frankenstein legend in a nutshell, all differing in theme, in style, in doctors, but all undoubtedly taking the legend in new directions for better or worse. The legend will, as they all do, live on and keep re-animating itself, but as far as I can see in comparison to recent films based on the legend – ‘Victor Frankenstein’, ‘I, Frankenstein’ etc. – Hammer has done the best job so far in fleshing out the story in a variety of gripping if not always audience-jolting ways (okay, I’m a little biased). Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Frankenstein’ aside, it may be that the story should be left well alone for a good few years and allowed to rest, safe in the knowledge that these tales were spun from it and should still be enjoyed nostalgically and joyously from time to time. To end with Terence Fisher’s own words, speaking about ‘Hell’, “You’ve had so many monsters that by (this point) at last you say where this monster has come from. He comes from Hell, from Evil, from Frankenstein’s mistaken belief that he is the creator of man, which of course he isn’t, and will never succeed in being.”

John Carpenter: ‘Release the Bats’ Tour, Manchester 29-10-16, Victoria Warehouse – UKHS review by Rosie Gibbs

rtb_manchester_570x440John Carpenter: ‘Release the Bats’ Tour, Manchester 29-10-16, Victoria Warehouse – UKHS review by Rosie Gibbs

“I make horror movies.
I love horror movies.
Horror movies will live forever.”

So spoke the man of the moment to a packed crowd of Carpenter-ites a week ago last Saturday, just before treating them to a run-through of the unmistakable theme from probably his best-known directorial work, ‘Halloween’. Manchester’s Victoria Warehouse for an all-too-brief 90 minutes was gifted live renditions of the scores of the superbly varied back catalogue of films by the now 68-year-old auteur from Kentucky.

Carpenter and his touring band, Scott Seiver (drums), Tenacious D associates John Konesky (guitar) and John Spiker (bass), Daniel Davies (lead guitar) and Carpenter Jnr., Cody on lead synth, kicked the show off with an excellent choice of opener – the theme from ‘Escape from New York’. The gentle synth intro to the 1981 cult classic was given a more thunderous live make-over and soon had the crowd of Mancunian Carpenter devotees grooving in fond unison, and the strains of the main theme from ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ were welcomed with similar vigour.

jc1Music then followed from ‘The Thing’ (the only film covered which does not contain music written by Carpenter, but instead by the great Ennio Morricone, whom ‘JC’ gave a humble mention to during his introduction), the bloody excellent main theme from ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ and music from the highly under-rated ‘Prince of Darkness’. Interspersed with these were excerpts from Carpenter’s recent album releases, ‘Lost Themes’ and ‘Lost Themes II’. Whilst possibly not as well-recognised as the film compositions, the band’s renditions of tracks such as ‘Wraith’ and ‘Vortex’ were still played to much appreciation and helped pad out the show’s run-time, as well as showcase Carpenter’s more modern musical work outside of film with the help of songs co-written by Davies and Carpenter Jnr.

The man himself and his band were characteristically laid-back yet not averse to a little showmanship and gentle humour, most notably donning shades and popping in gum during the theme from ‘They Live’, to the screen back-drop of the film’s famous subliminal messages, and of course having the smoke machines give it some welly during ‘The Fog”s theme. Indeed, the obligatory background footage from each film as its theme played was very well tied in with the rhythm and mood of each song, and it was admittedly a rather heart-warming treat to hear the crowd cheer at the sight of Carpenter favourites Kurt Russell, Jamie Lee Curtis, the fabulous Victor Wong and Donald Pleasance, plus of course our old friend Michael.

It was as thrilling as I expected to see the man himself in person performing classic music from his most successful films (tracks from his later offerings such as ‘Ghosts of Mars’ and ‘Vampires’ were perhaps understandably left alone!) and the whole show served as a reminder to treasure of the stories he’s told, the characters he has brought to life and simply fact that he’s a damned gifted composer to boot, whose musical talent is perhaps only now getting the real credit it deserves. During the encore we were given music from another under-rated Carpenter staple, ‘In the Mouth of Madness’, and Carpenter introduced the final song with a warning for us to all be sure to get home safe, as “Christine is out there!”

jc2On social media there have been some complaints that the Victoria Warehouse wasn’t the right venue for this gig and I would certainly agree with that – it was over-crowded and possibly the original venue, the Albert Hall, would have been more suited. Also, we were promised a venue ‘Halloween transformation’; not sure twenty-odd pumpkins really qualifies as that? Mind you, many of the peeps in the crowd had transformed into Snakes, MacReadys, Thunders and They Live aliens which made sure as a whole we were covered on that front! Over-priced drinks and visibility issues aside, I can probably safely say that the event was still thoroughly enjoyable…it’s the Horror Master for God’s sake, and who knew we would ever get this opportunity which could well be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing? Having said that, John Carpenter does not seem to be showing any sign of packing up the synthesiser for good any time soon.

Long may the Master continue, in whatever form he chooses.

And Now The Screaming Starts #4 The Witches (1966)

Witches_poster“And Now the Screaming Starts!” UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature

‘Bloody Love It: ‘The Witches’

Give me a gown of golden down,

Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,

Give me a skin for dancing in…”

The school holidays are drawing to a close, and as one of those summer skivers who is now preparing to get back in the saddle to embark upon another academic year, I thought it fitting to look back at a classic 1960’s Hammer, set partly in a school, for which I have a great affection – Cyril Frankel’s ‘The Witches’, released in 1966 and starring the well-known Oscar-winning actress, Joan Fontaine.

Feeling a tad uninspired by the comparative lack of suitable parts on offer since her winning role in Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’, she brought the screen rights to a novel by Peter Curtis (the pen-name of writer Nora Lofts) – ‘The Devil’s Own’. Nigel Kneale adapted the novel into the screenplay for Hammer Productions and filming then took place at Bray Studios, very much the home of Hammer between the early 50’s and mid-60’s.

‘The Witches’ centres around Fontaine’s good-natured yet troubled head mistress, Gwen Mayfield – who, we discover in the dramatic opening scene, worked for a time in a village school in Africa which sadly fell victim to a rebellion seemingly influenced by witchcraft. The trauma of this event led to Gwen suffering a psychological breakdown, which thankfully she recovers from to the extent that she is able to accept a new position back home in rural England, at Heddaby School. Furnished with a comfortable new home and welcomed by the apparently friendly villagers, Gwen feels optimistic about her future, and is delighted to be introduced by local ‘vicar’ Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) to his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh), a renowned journalist and writer.

witches2However, Gwen very quickly begins to notice certain habitual curiousities within the day-to-day goings-on of the village and its inhabitants, and mutterings of hocus-pocus and occult dabbling reach her ears, particularly concerning her pupil Linda (Ingrid Brett), and Linda’s rather sinister grandmother Mrs Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies). Linda and her grandmother are believed by some villagers to practise witchcraft, and when a young school friend of Linda falls seriously ill, many believe the cause to be malicious and occult in nature. After some investigation, Gwen becomes worried that young Linda herself may well be being prepared for some form of human sacrifice – sadly, before Gwen can uncover the truth she suffers a second breakdown and finds herself in a rest home, nearly a year later, with a severe case of amnesia. As she slowly regains her memories of the events in Heddaby, she becomes concerned for the welfare of Linda Rigg and bravely manages to escape back to the village, determined to rescue her pupil from harm – if she is alive yet…

‘The Witches’, for me, is a favourite Hammer on the one hand because of its setting, storyline and the themes it explores – it is essentially the first and only film from the company to explore the notion and continued existence of British witchcraft ‘writ large’ – as in, the rural traditional witchcraft practised and passed down through the ages and generations rather than straight-up Satanism as such (although I concede that many of the traditions, tools, magical words etc. shown and referenced are absolutely not found in either modern or historical Wicca or paganism!), pre-dating the more successful similarly-themed ‘The Wicker Man’ by a few years. The film delves into the notion and indeed fear that witchcraft – the bad type – still exists beneath the surface, hiding in plain sight within our most pleasant-seeming hamlets, which one can’t deny for the time was a juicy premise for a horror title. The title poster simply included the question “Does Witchcraft Exist Today?” to catch the attention of audiences who may have by this point been craving a different type of tale to the usual Gothic monster novel re-workings, ‘swashbucklers’ and invasions from other-worldy beings. ‘The Witches’ offers a more human, close-to-home story of a kind-hearted middle-aged teacher battling mental illness and trying with the odds stacked against her to protect her new pupils and community, which arguably had every reason ‘on paper’ to be well-received by Hammer fans and 1960’s movie-goers in general.

witches1A second reason I love the film is the casting – particularly of the two leads. Fontaine delivers a wonderfully fragile, vulnerable performance as the nevertheless determined and calculating Gwen, who exudes gentle charm towards her new village co-habitants and displays a genuine concern for and warmth-filled rapport with all the pupils on screen. Opposite her is the fantastic Kay Walsh as the witty, domineering Stephanie. Talk about two strong female characters – and this is a 1960’s film that would pass the modern ‘Bechdel Test’ with absolute flying colours! The various villagers and the younger cast members are all high quality too, with Michelle ‘Ooh, Betty’ Dotrice, the superbly unsettling Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies and Alec McCowen all providing a strong support in their roles.

Also, without wanting to give too much away, this particular Hammer production includes one of my favourite ever set-pieces in any film from the company’s ample back catalogue. At the film’s climax, Gwen, now close to the truth of Heddaby’s secret, finds herself witness to a bizarre and unsettling group ritual involving many of the village’s usually wholesome-seeming residents, and what unfolds is a fantastically choreographed, semi-orgiastic act of trance-like power-raising featuring no-holds barred acting from all involved which I just find a treat to watch every time (and the sequence features the best and creepiest use of a feline actor in any horror EVS!). Interestingly, director Frankel and screen writer Kneale were apparently not all that enthused with the film’s climax, feeling it was rather over-the-top and indeed bordering on comical, but this viewer looking at it fifty years later cannot help but find it fascinatingly enjoyable, if not especially frightening, and I can only presume and hope I am not alone in that.

Sadly, ‘The Witches’ was met with lukewarm and rather disappointing critical and financial reception on its release, and turned out to not be the hit that both Fontaine and Hammer had envisaged (it poignantly was to be Fontaine’s last ever film role, with the actress retiring to television for the succeeding thirty years of her career). Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes sum up the film’s tone and possibly the reasons for its uninspiring reception, in their excellent work on Hammer’s history ‘The Hammer Story’; “When ‘The Witches’ strikes the right balance, it succeeds as an engrossing thriller, even if it ultimately disappoints as a Hammer.”

witches3True enough, the film is not a classic Bray Studios schlocker in that it presents the viewer with no real jarring scares or the visual hook of an actual ‘creature’ to fixate our fears on – and one could suppose that at the time that that was what the public needed and expected from the home of British horror. But I believe it’s an understated, well-characterised piece whose only really noticeable fault is a slightly too neat and easily-accepted ending. ‘The Witches’ is a gentle, character-driven horror which was undoubtedly overshadowed by succeeding horror films of the same type of theme, but of the many Hammers out there for me its beguiling acting and well-paced sense of mystery make it one of the strongest.

And Now The Screaming Starts #3 – Christopher Lee: Six of The Best

And Now The Screaming Starts! #3  – UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature

cleeoldSix of the Best: Christopher Lee

There are a great many actors who graced the silver and small screen over the latter half of the twentieth century who cut their teeth on, and often made their name known thanks to, fleeting or regular roles in the films of Hammer Productions – the unforgettable Ingrid Pitt, the irreplaceable Peter Cushing and the legendary Oliver Reed to name a few – but there is one actor whose name was and still is utterly synonymous with ‘Hammer’, despite him having starred a massive number of films over his career produced by countless other studios and companies. That actor is, of course, Sir Christopher Lee. A year on from his death last June at the grand old age of 93, I felt it fitting this time around to cast an eye over a selection of his Hammer roles and explore how some of the varied films his work for Hammer propelled him to fame and went on to mould him as an actor – not to mention his contribution to the development of the company itself as his talent thrived over the decades.

I’m not necessarily suggesting in my selection of the six films that follow that they are his six best ever roles, for Hammer or otherwise, or indeed the six best Hammers he starred in, but I pick them more as a showcase of the range of parts he developed over time and variety of horror sub-genres he was able to explore through the company. I believe he starred in a total of 19 Hammer films (could be wrong!) spanning four separate decades so it’s hard at any rate to whittle down which part he played best or which film was the most enjoyable! Personal preferences aside, I invite both the discerning Hammer nut and novice to simply kick back and chew over these six outings, each made by one great British institution and starring another…

CLEE-The-Curse-Of-Frankenstein-christopher-lee-2511526-376-304The Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘The Creature’

Though best known for playing the first fanged fiend of literature, Lee’s first ever film under the Hammer banner (and one of the company’s first releases) saw him play a different yet no-less well-known ‘monster’ – Frankenstein’s, no less. The Hammer interpretation of Mary Shelley’s classic horror tale also featured Peter Cushing as the titular Baron, pairing the two actors in a picture together for the very first time and heralding the beginning of probably the most well-known and enduring lifelong friendships in cinema. Christopher Lee was cast because of his towering height (which ironically had seen him strike out with many acting roles before this in favour of shorter actors), and also because he had some experience in the field of mime.

He certainly brings this skill to the fore in his first Hammer flick, all at once convincing the viewer of the Creature’s melancholy, confusion and silent rage, even under the thick layers of make-up artist Phil Leakey’s corpse-like mask. Six further films starring the Baron were to follow from Hammer, yet this would be the only one to star Christopher Lee. What makes ‘Curse’ so special is, aside from simply being Lee’s first Hammer role, it can be argued that it ‘kicked off’ proper the company’s brand success as it was both commercially and critically successful, proving Hammer to be a film production force to be reckoned with and firmly kick-starting the long and highly prestigious career of one of Britain’s best-loved actors.

CLEE-drac58The Horror of Dracula (1958, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘Count Dracula’

Of course, this one has to be included in this particular line-up – Sir Christopher’s first time playing the Count for Hammer! Appearing the year after ‘Curse of Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’ (or ‘Horror of Dracula’) introduced us to Lee’s definitive Lord of the Undead amidst huge box office takings for the time and some derision on grounds of good taste from the then critics. Lee is simply perfect for the role and it is no wonder he was picked for it – the character of Dracula calls for charm, reticence, anguish and pure aggression in equal measure and he displays all these qualities in spades. The film itself, loosely re-telling the Stoker narrative, is still an essential horror watch today – an enjoyable thrill-fest and visually sumptuous, and it features a fabulous ending with decent special effects (fantastic for the 50’s!), understated acting from Lee even during a sequence that could easily be heavy on the ham, and of course the first of many quality Lee/Cushing death grapples!

cleebaskThe Hound of the Baskervilles (1959, Dir. Terence Fisher) – ‘Sir Henry Baskerville’

Another Hammer spin on a classic novel (and like so many early Hammer classics, directed by Terence Fisher), this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous case of all brought us Christopher Lee as the distinguished heir to the Baskerville fortune. ‘Baskervilles’ is not only one of the stronger early Hammer films, establishing Peter Cushing as one of the more memorable Sherlocks and with Andre Morell’s Watson providing stalwart support alongside one of literature’s best-loved mysteries – it also gave Lee the chance to spread his wings a little and show audiences that he could play the good guy just as well as the villain or monster, even almost your average Joe (landowning and Beagle fancying aside). Lee takes command of every frame he’s in as he did in any role, but as Sir Henry he was able to try his hand at a somewhat more vulnerable character, falling in ill-advised love with a Spanish servant’s daughter and although no wimp, still under threat of murder from an unknown and possibly supernatural force.

cleedracDracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968, Dir. Freddie Francis) – ‘Count Dracula’

Leaping ahead to the late sixties, Sir Christopher reprised his role as the vampire (and went on to do so another six times, five of which were for Hammer), now thawed out from his frozen demise a year previous and bent on a rampage of mayhem and revenge. With Ewan Hooper’s tormented priest under his hypnotised thrall, the Count plans to take revenge on the Monseigneur who exorcised his castle whilst he lay frozen by preying on his sweet daughter Marie (Veronica Carlson). Lee’s vampire has more interaction here with the living and seems more willing to get his hands dirty with a spot of coffin-robbing and public house basement squatting (even the undead have to move with the times). While the film did not impress on the same scale as its predecessor, ‘Grave’ is still a strong Dracula film, featuring a fantastically ghoulish opening, and Sir Christopher is once more effortlessly imposing, continuing to terrify and enthral audiences with his chilling performance as the Count.

cleedevilTo the Devil a Daughter (1976, Dir. Peter Sykes) – ‘Father Michael Rayner’

“Excommunicate – it is not heresy, and I will not recant!”

The vitriolic opening words, spoken by Lee as disgraced priest Father Michael Rayner, of what was to be Hammer’s final horror film before the company ceased producing films in 1979. The innocent young nun Catherine Beddows (Natasha Kinski) has been raised within Fr Rayner’s religious order in Bavaria, all seemingly above board, but the unsuspecting girl does not realise that Rayner is in fact leader of a highly dangerous religious sect which worships the ancient God Astaroth, and they plan to use her as the Devil’s representative on Earth once she turns eighteen. I choose this one plain and simple for Lee’s performance – the film itself was not a particular commercial or critical success, and thoroughly displeased Dennis Wheatley, the author of the book the film was (ultimately loosely) based on 1968’s ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (Hammer’s previous film based on a novel by Wheatley) was much more successful, and Christopher Lee turns in an equally respectable performance as the Duc de Richleau in it, however the sheer unsettling, total creepiness Lee brings forth as Fr Rayner still makes this Satanic horror film worth a look.

Lee is simply fantastic, oozing malice as he performs Satanic magic on his lackeys and doing a fine job of making the evil priest seem just pleasant enough on the surface – proving that even after working with Hammer by this point for nearly twenty years, he could still bring a character to life with utter conviction and curdle the blood of a whole new generation of filmgoers.

cleeThe Resident (2011, Dir. Antti Jokinen) – ‘August’

“I will always be grateful to Hammer for launching my international career as an actor. Like millions of others, I would welcome the day when the company resumes production.” *

And resume it fittingly did, in what would be the last few years of the actor’s long life, and what a pleasure it was for fans of this movie legend to see him collaborate with the resurrected company once more. In this first film from its new incarnation, we see Hammer take on a form of ‘stalker/home invasion’ horror, with Hilary Swank’s Juliet Devereaux falling foul of the affections of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s obsessed landlord Max. In what would be his final Hammer performance, Sir Christopher plays a small part (he was 89 by this point to be fair, and only a few years prior was heavy involved with various factions of both the Orc and Sith type!) as Max’s frail yet clearly emotionally abusive grandfather, August. Despite the short screen time, Lee keeps us guessing about August’s character, turning up in jump scares to unsettle, unintentionally or not, both Juliet and the audience, and leads us to suspect he may pose more of a threat to her safety than his grandson ever could…

So there you have it – a look back at a few of Lee’s Hammer roles and a reminder of one of the great cinematic partnerships of blossoming film production company and favoured ‘go-to’ actor, symbiotically launching and at times upholding each other’s success. And what an unbelievable talent the man was, both as a Hammer actor and in his near uncountable other acting credits – he is quoted as once saying “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Mr Lee, I’ve seen all your films!’ and I think, ‘No you haven’t.’”

He kicked ass for real in his 20’s in the RAF and Special Forces and kicked cinematic butt of various kinds as an nonogenarian. I’ve often thought that if (when?) a film-maker ever wanted to film a biography of his life, who would play the man himself – not to deride today’s current actors, but which actor today has the equal stature, presence and level of film and life experience?

There’ll never be another quite like him.

* = from the Foreword to ‘The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer’ by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes

‘And Now The Screaming Starts’ #2 Hands of The Ripper

hotr1“And Now The Screaming Starts!” – UKHS’ Regular Hammer / Amicus Feature

by Rosie Gibbs

‘Bloody Love It: ‘Hands of the Ripper”

Warning this article contains MAJOR SPOILERS – if you have not seen Hands of The Ripper then please do not read!!! You have been warned !!

In October 1971, Hammer Film Productions released a film which presented a new slant on the legendary and infamous ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1880’s London – a ‘true’ myth which the company had previously explored in the film ‘Room to Let’ in 1949. Some two decades later, Hammer chose the unsolved mysteries of the brutal Whitechapel killings as a theme once more, only this time with an altogether different perpetrator – who was however by no means all that far removed from the dreaded and still today elusive ‘Jack’. Released on a double-bill with the rather more saucy vampire romp ‘Twins of Evil’, ‘Hands of the Ripper’ was received with a respectable level of praise from audiences, though perhaps over the years has not gained a reputation as one of Hammer’s stand-out finest. For me personally, however, it’s a favourite, and what follows is something of an ode to the whole package…

‘Hands of the Ripper’ operates on what was a fresh angle on the Ripper legend – in the tale, we follow the journey of Anna, the daughter of the man who had become ‘Jack’, who as an infant tragically witnesses what we presume is her murderous father’s final killing and his subsequent capture by mob and law. In his final moments of freedom, he brutally stabs Anna’s mother to death in front of Anna’s crib, before giving the traumatised child a final embrace and kiss on the cheek. Some years later, we see that Anna (Angharad Rees) has been taken in by the unscrupulous phoney medium, Mrs Golding (a welcome cameo by the late, great Dora Bryan). Mrs Golding embroils innocent Anna in her fake seances, having her act as a hidden spirit guide, and also proposes to make a live-in prostitute of her. Her first client, Mr Dysart (Derek Godfrey), presents her with a sparkling brooch, and its glint in the light triggers an unusual reaction in Anna which results in her murdering Mrs Golding in a cold rage with a poker. Local physician Dr John Pritchard (Eric Porter), taking pity on the young woman and convinced he can help her with the assistance of psychoanalysis, has her stay with him, and as the story unfolds he pieces together who Anna really is and why she is cursed with the impulse to kill.

hotr2The film was directed by Peter Sasdy, who would later go on to direct many episodes of Hammer’s television series ‘House of Horror’ and ‘House of Mystery and Suspense’, and the Hungarian filmaker presented in ‘Ripper’ a delightfully subdued work which still hits the spot on the shocks and scares. The film’s opening sequencing involves a low-key yet still cleverly menacing circular view of all those gathered at the séance, staring down at the viewer passively yet with scrutiny. Subtle lighting and a soft focus in the camera work make for an attractive piece overall, replete with glitzy chandeliers and shimmering costume pieces – not least those which send Anna into her psychotic trances – and this is a welcome break from the dank dungeons and moody backstreet settings of many of its counterparts. The gore, when it occurs, is then all the more shocking in contrast – the hatpin-related fate of the unfortunate street walker ‘Long’ Liz, based on one of the real-life Ripper victims and here played by the excellent actress Lynda Baron, is particularly memorable and possibly one of Hammer’s greatest dispatchings.

The concept and narrative itself, scripted by Lew Davidson and based on an original story by Edward Spencer Shew, is I believe another aspect of what elevates ‘Ripper’ above the average Hammer. The piece shows at its start a horrific trauma suffered by a small child and the haunting fluted soundtrack which becomes something of a theme for Anna, played out over the opening credits and shots of her infant tear-stained face, is rather moving and shies away advisably from sensationalising a small child’s suffering. Shew’s story competently marries both the emerging (at the time the film is set) theories of psychoanalysis and the concept of mediumship and the ability to ‘hear’ those who are deceased, and questions whether the two can co-exist and even become manifest together in someone who has experienced traumas such as Anna’s. The presence of both a phoney medium (Bryan), out to exploit those who wish to talk with their dear departed, and a true medium (Madame Bullard, played by Margaret Rawlings) with an actual gift, admirably upholds both sides of the argument regarding how ‘real’ clairvoyance may or may not be.

Another of the film’s main strengths is its strong cast, in particular Angharad Rees, who portrays the china doll-faced Anna with grace and depth, convincing as the meek, genteel young ward of Dr Pritchard and suitably cold-blooded and snarling during her moments of murder. This film was Rees’ only Hammer part and one can’t help wishing she had taken others as she was such an engaging screen presence – standing ball-gowned with bloodied hands in a post-homicidal daze or cowering in dirt in a crowded jail cell, she is very believable as a sweet-hearted yet understandably mentally troubled protagonist. Jane Merrow is also completely charming as Laura, the fiancée of Dr Pritchard’s son Michael (Keith Bell) – in fact this spirited, energetic young woman is I think one of Hammer’s most positive representations of a young female, and credit is due to the writers for introducing a character with a disability (in this case loss of sight) who radiates positivity and capability, and whose absence of sight is rightly presented as merely one of the many facets of their overall being. The rest of the cast, including stalwart Eric Porter, are all capable in their roles, resulting in another of many boxes ticked for this outing.

hotr3My absolute favourite part of ‘Ripper’ however is the final sequence, which sees Michael and Laura escort Anna on a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral. The unique and inspired setting of the cathedral’s Whispering Gallery sees Anna, already in one of her trances and by now hearing actual instructions – imagined or extra-sensory – from her father, attempt to strangle the terrified Laura (the only point at which the bare titular Hands are used to kill). The wounded Dr Pritchard, from the ground far below the Gallery, calls to her and pleads with her to ‘come back’ to them, ending in tragedy played out in a beautifully bittersweet, poetic and satisfyingly redemptive final shot. This last sequence and ending frame round off this absolute gem of a horror film brilliantly and I say, long may it be appreciated and cherished as an excellent addition to the Hammer canon.

“Ding Dong!” A retrospective of ‘House’ at 30 by Rosie Gibbs

houseretro1“Ding Dong!” A retrospective of ‘House’ at 30 by Rosie Gibbs

I have fairly vivid memories, as a small child in the mid-eighties, of entering the then-commonplace local video rental shop (the Clevedon branch of Ritz video I believe was mine!) and, whilst choosing a She-Ra compilation or the latest Disney offering to rent, experiencing the unsettling yet hard-to-resist urge to take a sidelong glance at the VHS covers on display in the Horror section. You know it’s a bad idea as it’s very likely the plethora of terrors watching you from those particular shelves are going to take another starring role probably that very night in your dreams, doing whatever your imagination sees fit to muster up to terrify you – yet still, you sneak a peek…and for me, the one that always stuck in my mind was Steve Miner’s 1986 offering, ‘House’ (produced by the ‘Friday the 13th’ franchise’s Sean S. Cunningham).

Funnily enough, the cover art work and promotional photographs are rather understated for the film – there’s no monstrous or ghostly form staring back at you, reaching towards you or grasping threateningly onto some hapless human; merely a fairly subtle image of a worm-eaten detached hand, sideways-on, gently pressing a doorbell button. But for some reason, this image always frightened me particularly as a youngster – maybe because at that kind of age your home is where you feel most secure and happy, and you have little experience of the world outside. Armchair psychoanalysis aside, it always bothered me more than any other image in the ’18’ section that I could quickly peer at whilst following my family past it (although I do remember the ‘Fright Night’ one really giving me the willies too).

houseretro2Anyhow, as I grew older I made a mental note to one day watch the bugger just to see if it really was as terrifying as I imagined it might be. It turns out it wasn’t…but in it I discovered a fantastic black comedy which fast became one of my all-time favourite scaries. Happily, it has in the years since its release acquired a richly-deserved firm cult status, and last month we reached the thirtieth anniversary of its release in US cinemas. What follows is a short love letter to ‘House’ and why I believe it’s such an excellent, sadly sometimes-overlooked horror film which is vital to the genre and to the appreciation and study of it.

‘House’ follows the story of Roger Cobb (played by William Katt in an understated, engaging performance), a well-known novelist and veteran of the Vietnam War, and his grapplings with both the varied manifestations lurking in his childhood home and the deteriorating state of his currently very troubled mind. Cobb finds himself returning there after learning of his aunt’s death (by apparent suicide) to spend some time alone to work on his new book – this one, to his fans’ chagrin, a memoir of his war experiences. He has become estranged from his wife Sandy (Kay Lenz), and we also find that, tragically and inexplicably, their only son disappeared some time ago, from the outdoor pool of the House itself. Whilst reluctantly entering into an acquaintance with neighbour and fan Harold, Roger experiences a series of run-ins with horrific monsters, possessed wall ornaments and even sentient gardening tools as he submits fully to the effects of his psychological trauma harking back to his war memories. He must learn to battle these demons of both types head-on if he wishes to find his son Jimmy and be reconciled with Sandy.

houseretro3For me, that’s the main beauty of ‘House’ – the fact that it can be taken two ways. Firstly, it can be enjoyed with gusto on a superficial level as a joyful 80’s horror filled with some impressive, suitably unsubtle scares, bat-shit crazy creature designs typical of the era and a hefty slice of good-natured humour – the ‘closet monster’ is pretty special and still gives a good convincing fright today, and the chimney-flue kids are also creepily unforgettable! The hag-like monstrosity Cobb’s ex jump-scares into (lovingly since dubbed ‘the Sandywitch’) delivers laughs aplenty, especially during Roger’s frantic attempts to hide her dismembered body parts from sexy neighbour Tanya. And forgive me, but the oh-so-quiet, understated horror which is emerging in the 2010’s (i.e. ‘The Babadook’, ‘It Follows’ etc.) is all well and good, however sometimes it’s just a joy for any fan of the genre to occasionally revel in these kind of off-the-chart gruesome monsters and general thrill-gratifying silliness; ‘It Follows’ can cleverly make someone walking appear unsettling, but ‘House’ just for starters includes the image of a giant winged skeleton firing a shotgun – you just can’t argue with a film like that in my opinion!

Yet, on the flipside, ‘House’ does have a serious undertone which offers an alternative interpretation, and this is what sets it apart from many other 80’s horrors with a ‘critters in the house’ or ‘home invasion’ theme. It is of course abundantly clear that Roger is experiencing a form a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder brought on by the horrific events he witnessed serving in Vietnam, particularly with regard to the guilt he feels at having deserted his comrade Ben and left him at the mercy of the enemy deep within the jungle. The House only exacerbates this, and we are free to assume that Jimmy didn’t literally disappear – Roger has simply become so distanced from his wife and son as a result of his mental health problems that they both feel lost to him. ‘House’ brilliantly marries these two interpretations and the viewer can choose to take the film lightly or as something deeper and more evocative.

houseretro4Aside from this main reason I believe the film to be a corker, it also boasts several other general plus points such an excellent, typically heavy-on-the-cheese 80’s horror incidental music, and notably uses the sassy Betty Everett track ‘You’re No Good’ (one of my favourite songs included in any film ever). Add to this the menacing performance from Richard Moll as Big Ben and the ever-likable George Wendt (Norm from ‘Cheers’) as Harold, you have an all-round superb horror flick sewn up tightly by Ethan Wiley’s imaginative screenplay. It’s great to see that it’s appreciated in a cult following capacity but I certainly think it deserves to be seen by a broader audience and loved more widely as the smart, chilling, knowingly bonkers horror-comedy it is. I’ve also found through ‘House’ that it’s a good idea to catch up with those old VHS covers that shook you up as a little’un – in them you may discover true horror greatness!

‘I’m gonna say it again – you’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good..!’

Rosie Gibbs’ Top 5 Horrors of 2015

Rosie Gibbs’ Top 5 Horrors of 2015

deathgasm5 – ‘Deathgasm

Taking the cultural staple of heavy metal and the Devil naturally going hand-in-hand as its theme, this inventive horror romp was unleashed this year, from director Jason Lei Howden and starring Milo Cawthorne as loveable ne’er-do-well metal devotee Brodie. Our hero unwittingly releases an evil entity from Hell itself during band practise in his uncle’s garage, and along with his girl-next-door crush Medina and his misfit bandmates, he must save his normally sleepy New Zealand home town (and Earth!) from certain self-destruction. This is a no-holds barred giggle-along which is sure to become a modern classic – if you’re in the mood for in-your-face blood and guts by the bucket, witty dialogue and a killer black (or is it death?) metal soundtrack, this definitely delivers the goods on all that – essential horror viewing from 2015!

iood4 – ‘In Order of Disappearance

More of a black comedy / thriller than a horror outright, ‘In Order of Disappearance’ still presents us with a subtle measure of gore and there’s no denying this story still qualifies as a killing spree! Stellan Skarsgard plays Nils, a mild-mannered Swede who resides in Norway, earning a quiet and peaceful living as a road maintenance and clearance worker. After his only son is mistakenly murdered by local drug barons, Nils sets out for revenge – and by his hand (and with the assistance of his huge mother of a snow plough), bad guys aplenty of various nationalities and creeds start dropping all over the place. Hans Peter Molland directs this very enjoyable piece, and the beauty of snow-blanketed Norway doesn’t exactly work against it visually. Skarsgard is wonderfully understated as Nils and the supporting cast are top notch also, and while the storyline isn’t highly original, the film doesn’t try to present it as so – it’s simply a murder revenge tale outlined in classic subtle Scandinavian style, and all the better for it. ‘In Order…’ delivers an enjoyable and satisfying thrill for a good night in and deserves a place in any horror DVD collection worth its weight!

wloucover3 – ‘What’s Left of Us’ / ‘El Desierto

This one’s the hidden gem for me – it didn’t get a particularly wide release in cinemas but I was fortunate enough to get to review it this year for UKHS and it’s really something rather special. In Christophe Behl’s feature film directorial debut, we meet 30-somethings Ana, Jonathan and Axel, who have found themselves holed up in a well-barricaded Argentinian apartment after surviving your typical infection-based apocalypse. Over the weeks and months together, we see struggles unfold between the three as they cope with their isolation and co-habitation, with inevitable tensions arising. This film is a breath of fresh air from the usual dose of jump scares and high-end terror – if you want ‘less is more’ horror that makes you think and includes well-acted, engaging characters, this ticks those boxes. It also features the must-mention of the best, most original ‘zombie’ acting I have witnessed in a decade or two! ‘What’s Left of Us’ is well-worth seeking out – you’ll be very glad you did!

howldvd2 – ‘Howl

What can I say? This for me was the highlight of Manchester’s Grimmfest festival 2015. Director Paul Hyett this year brought us a tour-de-force, edge-of-your-seat belter of a werewolf tale with excellent special effects (that will last), on-point pacing, well-developed characters and a fresh storyline. Never before have I become so involved in a horror protagonist’s struggle and rarely have I been so thrilled by the sheer action in a horror film! Ed Speleers does an absolute star turn as put-upon rail worker-turned hero Joe and I was literally cheering him on under my breath during his final big push to escape the furry foes. The whole cast in fact is fantastic, particularly Rosie Day, Sam Gittins and good old Duncan Preston, and the werewolves are brilliantly designed. This is all in all an absolute must-see for every horror fan – so strap yourself in, prepare to be blown away and JUST SEE IT!

housebounddvd1- ‘Housebound

My absolute favourite of all 2015 horror releases (although it very nearly lost out to ‘Howl’!) is the simply excellent ‘Housebound’. Director Gerard Johnstone’s tale of coming home, secrets uncovered, reconciliation and ingenious use of household objects as defence weapons is an absolute joy and one of the best films I’ve seen in the last few years. Morganna O’Reilly and Rima Te Wiata are fantastic as the at-loggerheads mother and daughter trying to co-exist and crucially, work out whether or not their house really is haunted – and their quest leads to creative scares, moments of bonkers yet not over-blown humour and genuine pathos. Add to this its brilliant set design, unpredictable plot twists and likeable, well-acted characters – and viola, the result is perfection! Get hold of it, see it, treasure it!

‘Dud’ of 2015…

sotd1Soldiers of the Damned

In this film directed and produced by Mark Nuttall, we see Major Kurt Fleisher and his men stationed in Romania in World War II, instructed to escort a professor on her search within a secret forest location for a highly powerful occult artefact desired by one Heinrich Himmler. This is the one this year that sadly really didn’t cut it for me – it starts off promisingly with a few well-paced opening scenes but soon loses its way due to a rather confusing plot, wooden acting in places and clunky dialogue, mixed with uninspired scares to boot. Overall even at 99 minutes it felt far too long and as I said in the review, it’s not one I’d ever re-visit!

The Long and Bloody Weekend (2015) Short Film Review

‘The Long and Bloody Weekend’ (2015) Short Film Review

Director / Writer: BC Furtney

Starring: Jason Winn ‘JB Destiny’ Bareford, Jennifer Blaze, Michael Kolence

Runtime: 14 mins

Production Co.: Weekend Film

‘He thinks he’s hunting a monster…she thinks he’s insane…one of them is right.’

‘The Long and Bloody Weekend’, on limited release in the US last month, tells the story of a cabin-dwelling loner known only as ‘Del’ (Bareford), who appears from the get-go to be frantically nervy about some kind of presence lurking in the surrounding Texan woods. Polishing, cradling, and at times firing his shotgun, and shouting in frustration at the countryside around his house, we are unsure what manner of creature may or may not be haunting him (and indeed possibly feeding on others), but soon local woman Mary is embroiled into his paranoid behaviour and a frantic struggle ensues…

This short was written, directed and co-produced by BC Furtney, whose other work I’m not familiar with (namely last year’s ‘Werewolf Rising’, which he also directed). Having not seen his feature-length offering I was unsure of what to expect here, but sadly on viewing I was ultimately underwhelmed. Starting with the positives, the piece is capably acted, and the camera work delivers some imaginative angles which accentuate Del’s paranoia and obsession with hunting down the vicious creature before it decides to strike again. The prosthetic effects and costume work are also good considering this is a low budget short and the creature seems to be giving an affectionate nod to the familiar inhabitant of the Black Lagoon.

However, the production does suffer firstly from some sound mix issues – the dialogue in the bar scene was hard to hear in particular. Also, the use of a heart beat sound effect isn’t the most original way to heighten tension, even if it achieves that goal. Disappointingly I found there was an aura of leeriness too in it in terms of the female character and how she was filmed – I really fail to understand why we had to see her in bra and knickers for the main part of her screen time, unless we’re to believe the creature itself has stipulated its meals must only be underwear-clad before it can devour them?

Yes, female nudity or semi-nudity is a long-standing trope of the horror genre but I believe we’re past the point now where it can still get away with cropping up gratuitously even for the sake of irony or ‘proud’ tradition. At least she’s a bit feisty and has a good crack at escaping I guess…

Overall, I just feel ‘The Long and Bloody Weekend’ didn’t offer anything original in terms of concept and the characters felt very flat and cardboard cut-out – admittedly it’s harder to develop characters and flesh out absorbing dialogue in a short than it is in a feature-length offering but it is possible (e.g. the weary yet determined Lily in ‘A Stranger Kind’). On the whole I found it to be an offering that’s not terrible but unfortunately just left me pretty cold personally.


Cooties (2014) Review

cootiesCooties (2014) Review

Director: Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion

Writers: Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan

Starring: Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill

Runtime: 88 mins

UK Certificate: 15

UK DVD / Blu-Ray release date: 12th October 2015 from Universal Pictures

“I’m givin’ you kids an ‘F’ – for ‘FUCK YOU’!!!!”

‘Cooties’, the first directorial offering from Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, brings us a zombie / infection horror in an as-yet unexplored (or am I mistaken?) location – an elementary school. Aspiring writer Clint Hadson (Wood), newly returned to his home town of Fort Chicken, finds himself booked on a supply placement at a local elementary school – a place overrun with teachers who mostly make the staff of ‘Bad Education’ look professional, and kids who are pretty feral even before the virus takes hold.

After witnessing one of his charges bite a chunk out of another’s face, Clint thinks the day can’t get any tougher – and worse still, no-one he has mentioned it to seems to appreciate the genius of his ‘evil boat’ thriller-in-the-works, ‘Keel Them All’. However, he then has to contend with his long-nursed feelings for teacher and childhood crush Lucy (Alison Pill, ‘Scott Pilgrim Versus The World’) who is dating redneck PE teacher Wade (‘The Office”s Rainn Wilson) – oh yes, and now the children, fallen prey to the consumption of infected chicken nuggets, have dismembered the vice principal and are viciously attacking and eating each other and anyone else they can find!

cooties1The film starts off on a really promising note – right from the spot-on queasiness of the opening titles showing the manufacture of nuggets from live chicken to napkin on plate in all its grisly detail, and the introduction of the misfit band of teachers which delivers a good level of laughs and gives the viewer an assurance that they’re in for a fun ride. The gore is high up the chart too, as expected of the infection sub-genre – tonnes of splatter, blackened brains and general entrails abound, and the child actors deserve a mention for their display of all-out aggression and flesh lust, not to mention sinister giggling at their own murderous antics.

However, after the initial threat is released and realised, the high quality of the starting 20 minutes or so sadly then begins to wane – a lot of the humour begins to fall flat and the pace does start to drag as the adults get to a safe room and discuss what to do next. The cast is decent, with Elijah Wood as effortlessly charming as ever, knowingly playing the nice guy with delusions of writing grandeur, but a lot of the other characters lean into caricature – the writers actually seem to have got together and just thought “Hmm, what’s funny? Ah, stereotypes!” Enter, then, the gay male teacher who is of course totally camp and the Japanese janitor who eats a nori packed lunch and has an in-depth knowledge of martial arts.

Also, ‘Lost’s Jorge Garcia turns up for no obvious useful reason as a stoner grounds employee – cue lots of ‘humour’ concerning ‘shrooms and generally being stoned, the like of which may only really appeal to a young adult audience. Saying that, it is obviously a movie which is going for the goofy and the gross-out right off the bat, and playing to the teenage crowd of course isn’t something to knock points off for on its own – it’s just that it can be done without caricature and with higher-brow humour (‘Housebound’, ‘Cockneys Vs Zombies’, to name two).

cooties3To sum up then, ‘Cooties’ is a decent enough infection horror film with plenty of gore, but just isn’t as funny as it thinks it is – best watched when you’re in the mood for something kind of silly with a few beers and you’re not expecting your next dream horror film.


The Bloodstained Shadow (1978) Blu-Ray Review

bloodstainedshadow1The Bloodstained Shadow (1978) aka’Solamente Nero’

Blu-Ray release date: 25th May 2015 from 88 FILMS

Director / Co-writer: Antonio Bido

Starring: Lino Capolicchio, Craig Hill, Stefania Casini, Juliette Mayniel

Runtime: 109 mins

UK Certificate: 18

‘The Bloodstained Shadow’, the second horror offering from director Antonio Bido first released in 1978, emerges later on in the giallo period and is possibly one of the less well-known films of the genre. Now released on Blu-Ray, the film has been well-restored to accentuate the vivid orangey-reds so characteristic of gialli films and sharpen the grey, evocatively bleak backdrop of the Venetian town of Murano during the off-season colder months in which the story plays out.

That story revolves around likeable sheepskin-coated professor Stefano D’Archangelo (Capollichio), who has come to Murano to visit his brother Paolo, the community priest. While there, the murder of a local none-too-popular medium occurs and Stefano learns that a similar strangulation of a teenage girl happened a few years previously in the town, which remains unsolved. Whilst romantically pursuing tiger-eyed beauty Sandra (Casini, whom Dario Argento fans may recognise from ‘Suspiria’), Stefano assists his brother, who witnessed the more recent killing, in trying to uncover the identity of the strangle-happy assailant. However, Paolo is being warned through the subtle mediums of decapitated sheep’s heads and blood-stained type-written notes to keep schtum, and other residents of the town are gradually starting to drop in even more gruesome manners than asphyxiation…

bloodstainedshadow2‘The Bloodstained Shadow’ isn’t shockingly original even considering it’s nearing forty – there’s the well-trodden staple threat of the black-cloaked and hooded murderer present and even the quasi-twist of the killer’s identity will be guessed by most viewers before it’s revealed. The acting isn’t brilliant (although the main cast for the most part deliver) and as with many foreign films of the period the dubbing-over of dialogue can be distracting to the audience, but having said that the film isn’t without merit.

I’m personally not a seasoned connoisseur of the giallo but I enjoyed this piece well enough and was glad to get the chance to review a film from this sub-genre. The location of Murano, with its slightly derelict, blankly-decorated buildings and uninviting ports and canals provide an interesting setting and there’s a good use of its winding, maze-like back streets for the killer to carry out the old stalky-stalky action – in fact, there’s a sequence in which Stefano takes a turn about the canals and is watched by various suspicious locals which goes a little into ‘Wicker Man’ territory. Also, the French actress Juliette Mayniel is very unsettling as the matronly, cold-eyed midwife Signora Nardi – it is possibly worth a watch just for her performance.

The music, too, is rather well-placed – of course, it’s the usual blend of Starsky and Hutch-style bass riffs and jarring piano keys at the jumpy bits that leave you in no doubt that you are watching a 1970’s horror film, but the soundtrack here is more memorable than most films of its ilk and the sequence at the end in which the perpetrator is confronted by both their victims and their damnation is very well put together in terms of score and visuals.

bloodstainedshadow3The film also has something else going for it in terms of plot that many other gialli arguably do not – the victims meeting their maker are not almost exclusively young, beautiful Farrah Fawcett-haired women – older people of both genders are done in who happen to have become embroiled in the secret behind the murders in various ways, so props to ‘Bloodstained’ for breaking the mould there. Or is the staple of young attractive women being the hunted and often the heroine an essential component of the giallo? A point for discussion maybe, but either way, I found ‘The Bloodstained Shadow’ to be entertaining and charming enough and whilst maybe not a classic, certainly deserving of place in the annals of 1970’s horror history.