Army of Darkness (1992)

Director: Sam Raimi

Well, I said I’d need to see this after Evil Dead II, and, thanks to SBS (who aired the film last night; I recorded it for later viewing) I now have done so… more precisely, I appear to have seen the director’s cut. The film’s IMDB entry lists a bewildering array of alternate versions and one day I dare say I’ll be able to read it without getting a headache from trying, but I’m gathering what I just saw was Raimi’s preferred edit. ANYWAY, Ash is more sorely beset in this film than ever before, facing various threats posed by disgruntled medieval warriors, his own demonic double, the titular army, slightly ropey process photography and post-production tampering by Universal (who’d stumped up half the budget). At least this time the film looks like it’s had some money thrown at it, even if in the end it still wasn’t enough for all Raimi’s ambitions, the eventual appearance of the army of deadites makes for a remarkable spectacle… Again, he gets great mileage out of Bruce Campbell (whose Ash has a distinct tinge of madness to him in this film; I imagine that if I’d been through the shit he has by this time I’d be a little crazed too), what a terrific, game performer he is and what gurning he can do. And if I still doubt the precise tone of The Evil Dead, this one is pretty unambiguously skewed towards humour; there’s something… I don’t know, kind of juvenile (for want of a better word) about the forces of evil in the series, and Raimi really ramps that aspect up to the level of cartoon here. It’s all quite fun, obviously never takes itself remotely seriously, and yet something about it seemed slightly lacking and I can’t work out what or why. Maybe that “visceral” element the first film has. Maybe the compactness the first two films have. This one does seem to flop about a bit more at times. It’s good, but I’m not hugely blown away by it.

Piranha (1978)

Director: Joe Dante

Ah, now this is how you do a B movie: rubber puppets on sticks. And it comes complete with an endorsement from none other than Steven Spielberg, who called it the best of the films that knocked off his own megahit Jaws, which endorsement convinced Universal to call off their planned lawsuit against producer Roger Corman for releasing his film uncomfortably close to their own sequel. There were, of course, a number of Jaws knockoffs in the late 70s, indeed nature running amok seems to have been a popular trend generally in that decade, a goodly number of which crop up on the Drive-In Delirium list… in this case, though, nature’s been given a helping hand from US military science. These particular piranhas have been genetically altered to survive in cold salt water as well as their usual tropical fresh stuff, for the purposes of introducing them into North Vietnam’s water supply and fucking them up; unfortunately the war ended but one scientist saw no reason why that should stop him continuing the research… and even more unfortunately the fish are inadvertently released into the wild, so hilarity ensues… Piranha‘s critique of the Vietnam War and the US military is, obviously, not the most subtle offered by a 70s horror film, but I don’t suppose anyone was watching it for that back in 1978, they would’ve been there to see carnivorous fish chomping down on people, and Joe Dante gives us reasonably plentiful amounts of that. But he also laces the thrills with a certain degree of sometimes wicked humour; cf. the scene where our heroes (Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies, both of whom are terrific) are trying to get past an army guard, he tells her to try and distract him with her feminine charms and she responds “but what if he’s gay?”… and Dante also has the good sense to let his amazing locations do most of the work for him; the pursuit down the river to the summer camp and ultimately the lake is as impressive as hell to look at. I will confess to not having seen most of the other Jaws knockoffs Spielberg referenced, but I’m willing to accept his judgement that this was the best of them…

Hellraiser (1987)

Director: Clive Barker

This was probably one of the last films (if not the very last) that I saw for the first time on VHS. By that time I’d actually entered the digital age (so we’re probably talking mid-late 2003), and at that time a number of the old Anchor Bay horror DVDs were showing up in Sydney shops, including my local suburban HMV, as region-free imports, including this one. Which I was interested in but didn’t really want to buy without knowing what I was in for—at this very early stage in my DVD buying I was still a bit loath to buy things sight unseen—and so ventured to the local video shop to rent their somewhat elderly tape of it. I was sufficiently impressed to then buy the DVD, and I will say the Cenobites are still a pretty striking concept; as monsters go, they must’ve seemed something, if not entirely new, certainly markedly different from the raft of slashers the decade had been overflowing with. And it gave the world a new horror icon in Pinhead, of course, even though he’s not called that here (and apparently even while making the second film they thought Julia would actually be the recurring character through the series until they realised how popular Pinhead was). But rewatching tonight reminded me of something notable, i.e. the Cenobites don’t actually do much until reasonably late in the game… they obviously don’t even realise Frank’s escaped them until Kirsty inadvertently summons them, and they do kind of bugger all to help her for the most part when he’s trying to kill her; otherwise they’re really just a very background presence. Talking of presence, is it just me or is Andrew Robinson’s presence an odd one? You know, Scorpio from Dirty Harry as this nice suburban husband and father? Watching the film tonight, I felt there was something… off about him even before the last act when we realise he’s not exactly Larry any more… I don’t know what I make of the film now, but it seemed less satisfying tonight for some reason. The geographical vagueness of it—where exactly is it set?—irritated me more than ever before, and the rat killing business just seemed hugely unnecessary (like the people killings didn’t?). Still, I’ll give it points for bravery in trying to present a somewhat singular vision even if it did exceed the available resources at times; shame that vision didn’t survive much further into the series…

Frankenstein—1970 (1958)

Director: Howard W. Koch

So the other day I watched Hammer’s last Frankenstein film. As such, by way of contrast, here’s Boris Karloff’s last Frankenstein film… Hilariously, the producer of the film changed the title from Frankenstein 1960 because they thought audiences would find the idea that an independent scientist could access an atomic power source for his own use by 1960 risible and that 1970 would seem much more feasible for that sort of thing; one can only assume the audience was meant to find the idea of Frankenstein using that power source to create a monster the very stuff of gritty, realistic drama. Anyway, for the first time here we have Karloff as Frankenstein rather than (or, technically, as well as) the monster; he’s the last of his line, and he needs the aforementioned atomic thing to continue his work, and to get it he’s rather reluctantly allowing a TV crew to make a film about his ancestor Richard (?) von Frankenstein, the original creator of the monster. It’s vexing, but the money is useful, and the crew might be good for spare parts too… Wm. Everson reckons there were basically three kinds of Karloff film, ones he took seriously, ones he didn’t take seriously but put in an effort anyway, and ones he essentially just turned up to collect a pay cheque; he specifically cites this film as an example of the last case, but I think that’s a bit unfair… I presume he was about as unhappy at having to make this film as his character was, but I think he does at least make an effort (what a great voice he had, and how well he uses it here), which is far more than can be said for any of the other performers. What it does have apart from Karloff (and a small change mandated by the Production Code people, who objected to the sound of Frankenstein’s body-disposal machine and ordered the effect to be replaced with the sound of a flushing toilet) is pretty good Cinemascope visuals and sets, some of which were borrowed from another film, with the producer also borrowing the cameraman from that film on the grounds that he’d know how to shoot it properly. Ploddingly ponderous and ho-hum otherwise; amazing to think that director Koch—who also made the last Andy Hardy film the same year as this—would go on in the next few decades to be a producer on things like The Manchurian Candidate and The Odd Couple, not to mention several Academy Awards nights…

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)

Director: Brian Clemens

Brian Clemens was one of the main people responsible for The Avengers among other 1960s TV series, so he should’ve been a good catch for Hammer… except somehow he wasn’t, ultimately being attached to only two of their films (the other being Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde which he produced); Sinclair McKay’s book hints at behind-the-scenes conflicts with Michael Carreras, who was running the show by this time, and when Hammer eventually decided to sit on the finished product for two years—as they did with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell before finally releasing those two films together too late to do any good—I presume Clemens realised there wasn’t much point fighting. And that’s a damn shame, cos it was a good fight to try to reinvigorate the studio with some different twists on old stories (this was, as noted previously, intended to kick off a new series); in this case, Clemens appears to have looked at a bunch of older vampire films and decided what they really needed was more sword fights… Period setting here is a bit vague, but I’m guessing mid-1600s, assuming the “war” referred to was the English civil war; whenever it is, though, there’s a village being beset by some decidedly unconventional vampires, with an unusual m.o. (draining their victims of youth rather than blood) and seemingly few problems with such things as daylight and crucifixes (one attack actually happens in a church). It’s up to stolidly semi-Teutonic hero Captain Kronos and his hunchback offsider Professor Grost to save the day. This is an awful lot of fun in a fairly B-grade way, enlivened with some arresting images (e.g. the church bell dripping with blood), some nice acting (particularly John Carson as the doctor who summons Kronos in the first place and becomes a vampire himself), and a rather splendid noble residence where the final confrontation takes place (one of Hammer’s best sets). Decidedly the better half of the bill with F&tMfH, so it’s disappointing that it went down with that ship and the projected series never happened, as it may have done if only Hammer had given a shit…

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

Director: Terence Fisher

Time for another Hammer double bill—an actual double bill, too, with both films originally being released together—with one film supposed to kick off a new series, and the other one bringing another series to an end… After essaying a reboot of their Frankenstein films with Horror of Frankenstein, someone must’ve decided a couple of years later that the Ralph Bates experiment had failed and they need Peter Cushing back in the role. Poor Peter Cushing. Still in mourning from the death of his wife in 1971, Cushing was kind of desperate for work to distract him and he didn’t want to turn down an offer from Hammer, who he felt he owed something for having effectively made him. So once more unto the Baron, who, before the film begins, has been confined to an insane asylum for his “sorcerous” practices, but the lunatic has kind of taken over the asylum as we see… but he literally needs another pair of hands to help with his ongoing researches, cos his own have been badly burned somewhere along the way; how lucky that a devoted acolyte of his, Dr Helder, has just been committed to the very same asylum… This wound up being Terence Fisher’s last film, as his eyesight was apparently deteriorating badly after a car accident (he hadn’t made a film at this point since Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) and it was a faintly sad note to end on; it’s a kind of flat affair which has some nice individual moments (particularly the man who thinks he’s God), but in which no one really seems to be giving it their all but Cushing, who has a pretty neat bit of stunt work to do in one scene where he must subdue his creature, played by Dave Prowse. Him and whoever did the gore effects, which are still kind of extreme in their own way (particularly the brain transplanting business) but which do seem like a slightly desperate attempt by Hammer to keep up with trends in horror. And I suppose Cushing’s wig—which he designed himself, and came to regret later (perhaps with some good reason)—is a point of interest too… but on the whole it’s kind of nondescript. Hammer’s own lack of faith in it was evidently shown by the fact that it waited two years to finally the thing, whereupon having been flung into a post-Exorcist world (and a crumbling British cinema industry) it kind of died at the box office, presaging Hammer’s own imminent collapse…

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Director: Roy Ward Baker

Hammer’s finest hour and a half? I reckon it might just be that. And yet it was awfully long in coming; Hammer’s previous two authorised film versions of Nigel Kneale’s serials had both appeared within two years of the serials’ TV broadcasts, and apparently this should’ve done something similar, but Columbia—with whom Hammer had a distribution deal—were for some reason disinclined to take on a third Quatermass film, so it wound up not being made until after the Columbia deal finally collapsed. It was worth waiting for, of course; Kneale finally got his way about casting someone who wasn’t Brian Donlevy in the title role, though Andrew Keir seems to have found the whole experience a drag, and probably wasn’t impressed about only getting second billing in the credits for playing the lead. Still, that displeasure seems to have happily channeled its way into Keir’s performance; his Quatermass is sorely beset by Julian Glover’s Colonel Breen, imposed on him from higher up in the government, and frankly in his way when it comes to dealing with something found in an Underground station that shouldn’t be there… Breen thinks it’s a WW2 Nazi missile, but Quatermass knows it’s actually something far worse, i.e. some sort of spacecraft from Mars that’s been there for about five million years. I’m amazed that one reviewer at the time accused it of lacking imagination, when the central premise—i.e. that humanity is (mostly) descended from hominids who were “altered” by the Martians—isn’t exactly one that films had dealt with much before this, surely… Pit follows Hammer’s first two Quatermass films in condensing a story that ran nearly three and a half hours on TV very neatly down to just 96 minutes without ever feeling cramped or rushed; it gives off the feeling that the studio knew they had something really good on their hands and so they gave it pretty much everything they had, and the end result is pretty tremendous. If The Devil Rides Out from the following year was kind of the peak of their old-school gothic mode, this film is still probably the best I’ve seen from Hammer in whatever mode.

X the Unknown (1956)

Director: Leslie Norman (& Joseph Losey?)

So, Hammer had a hit with their big-screen version of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Experiment, and decided a follow-up was in order. Trouble hit, however, when Kneale refused to let Hammer use his character, so the chastened studio had to buy the rights to his second Quatermass serial and refit their own script as something else. As such, Brian Donlevy’s Bernard Quatermass, rocket man, became Dean Jagger’s Adam Royston, atomic man. Unfortunately, the film’s troubles didn’t stop there: original director Joseph Losey left the film, reportedly because of “illness” but in reality (apparently) because Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted communist sympathiser. Or maybe he just walked off the film because he hated it, as did his replacement Leslie Norman, who seems to have been such an arse towards everyone that Hammer didn’t hire him again until 1968, whereupon Michael Carreras quickly replaced him on The Lost Continent. Perhaps amazingly, none of this really seems to come through in the finished film, which is a solid bit of ruthlessly efficient second-feature craftsmanship on the order of Hammer’s first two Quatermass films (wonder why they didn’t just assign Val Guest to this one as well? Might’ve saved some of that trouble). As ever, Hammer were operating on minimal resources, but for once we can see how minimal; the film’s Wiki entry notes that American producer Sol Lesser stumped up $30,000, or half the film’s budget, and that basically went to Dean Jagger, so a bit of quick maths tells you how cheap the thing REALLY was. And admittedly there are times when it kind of shows, some of the effects are a bit wobbly, but for the most part the film works within those limited means (and it didn’t have to cope with period setting trappings like Hammer’s later colour gothics), the net result being a terrific bit of Saturday afternoon viewing, spoiled only by someone’s incomprehensible decision to have the music drown out the dialogue in certain scenes… Parenthetically, interesting to see not only future Monty Python director Ian MacNaughton in a small role, but also young Frazer Hines, whose Doctor Who co-star Patrick Troughton I also recently saw in the course of this month’s horror viewing (in Phantom). I will note young Frazer’s put-on Scottish accent improved a fair bit in the ten years between this film and the start of his tenure on Who

Saw (2004)

Director: James Wan

This was on SBS tonight as part of their Wednesday night horror series for October; I’ve been recording some of the others but decided to just watch this as it aired. I remember thinking it was a pretty grotty piece of shit when I first saw it (on DVD, not long after the original release), and I can’t really say I feel any better disposed towards it now… Wan & Whannell were kind of quick to distance their film from the “torture porn” trend that followed in its wake, arguing that it was the rest of the series that really fit that description (which was only applied retrospectively anyway), but this is bullshit, of course; the film is full of it. Maybe not all as physical as later films in the series seems to have turned, but let’s not kid ourselves, torture is what it’s all about… albeit torture dressed up as self-improvement, cos that’s the rationale behind the film’s somewhat singular psycho, Jigsaw; dying as he is, he takes various people he considers don’t appreciate their existence well enough and runs them through various ghastly mechanical traps to see how far they’re willing to go to not get killed by them. This would be all fine and well if Saw gave us any reason to care about Jigsaw’s victims, but our two “heroes” in the body of the film, as played by Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell’s put-on American accent, are frankly a pair of irritating shits; Elwes the doctor having an affair with one of his medical students and Whannell the photographer hired to pursue him by a cop who suspects Elwes of being Jigsaw. Which, of course, he proves not to be, as we find in one of the most idiotic, logic-defying, you-have-got-to-be-fucking-joking climactic twists in film history… if the film had just been irritating up to that point, it suddenly turns actively insulting. I don’t think I’ll be missing much if I don’t give this a third go some time in the future, nor if I never see any of the other films in the series even once.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George Romero

For reasons that even I don’t understand, not only did this blog pass its fifth birthday two days ago, this is the thousandth post. So, to mark the occasion, I had to find something special. Had to be something big, cos why waste a milestone post on something crap… and, well, a film that kind of reinvented a classic horror monster single-handedly—really, how much of what you “know” about zombies is really because of this film?—while never actually using the word “zombie” seemed big enough for the task. Before I start, though: how hilarious is it that, given all the debate in recent years over running zombies and whether or not they should exist, the very first zombie in Romero’s first zombie film is actually seen running (or jogging at any rate) after a car? Not just that, he uses a rock to break into it before it takes off (and let’s not forget the ones who bust into the house at the end, nor indeed the undead child in the cellar). Funny how the dead are only just learning to use tools in the third dead film…

Anyway, I have a longish history with this film, which would’ve been one of the first horror films I ever saw back in the mid-90s… my video shop had a typically shabby Hollywood House tape of it (also bearing Mr Coppola’s Dementia 13, if I recall rightly), which left a lot to be desired as did pretty much everything HHV issued, but the film itself was amazing. Still is, of course. You can tell it’s one of those films where they were operating on a stupidly low budget (which seems not to have extended to affording continuity; some scenes are amusingly uncertain about what time of day/night it is), but that the people making it had evident ability to overcome it and were determined to make the best damn film they could with it; it’s an actually terrific bit of independent filmmaking irrespective of genre. Apart from rewriting the zombie rulebook, Romero also pulls off the feat of having a horror film with a noticeably black hero whose blackness is never actually highlighted, and infuses the whole thing with a hellacious “everyone dies in the end” grimness I don’t know that any horror film before it had pulled off. Romero’s dead films have always left room for critics to read certain attitudes and statements about society into them, and Romero himself hasn’t exactly discouraged that; Dawn of the Dead is pretty open on that front, and I know there are those who’d say it’s better than Night for that reason. Still, while you can make that case and while you can also read some sort of state-of-the-nation subtext into this film if you really want, there’s a certain purity of overt purpose to Night; whatever subtexts you may find in it, its real mission is to be a cheap, shit-scary film about a disparate group of people trapped in an isolated location by an outnumbering force they can’t stop. As someone else called George once said with far less justification, “mission accomplished”.

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