Director: Joe Dante
The other werewolf movie of 1981 (yes, there’s Wolfen, but apparently there’s some debate about whether or not that’s actually about werewolves as such), which I must confess to not liking anywhere near as much as American Werewolf in London. Indeed, Rick Baker, the latter film’s make-up/FX man, actually started working on this one before Landis said “hey, I’ve finally got money for my werewolf movie” and poached him for it, leaving Baker’s erstwhile assistant Rob Bottin to handle the lycanthropy on this one. And, to give the young man credit, he did a terrific job on a fraction of the budget of AWiL; the werewolf transformation about two-thirds of the way through is the highpoint of both films, and Bottin’s work holds its own quite capably in its own way. I also rather like the concept of the Colony in this film being a sort of resort where Patrick Macnee’s doctor is trying to kind of rehabilitate the resident werewolves and bring them into the modern world. And it looks remarkably nice, too, there’s a really good use of colour and light and judicious application of fog. So why didn’t I like it more? I don’t know… maybe there’s just something not terribly exciting about it, or maybe it’s the not awfully interesting characters. Maybe it’s the somewhat weak humour, which in this case extends mainly to naming characters after directors of vintage werewolf and other horror films. Maybe there’s something I’m not getting. Maybe it was just me and whatever mood I was in (you can never entirely rule out my useless brain and its vagaries). It’s good. I’m just not blown away by it.
Director: Ted Post
Cult Sinema is back in Sydney! It’s been an awfully long time since the Mu-Meson crew ran films at the Annandale; now they have a new home in Petersham, and OY did they kick off the revival in style… Being part of the Drive-In Delirium collection, The Baby is a film whose trailer I’ve seen many times, and so I had some idea of what to expect, i.e. a sort of southern Gothic melodrama (albeit one set in what I presume were rather more northern suburbs) involving the titular baby… who just so happens to be a young adult who never developed beyond infancy. And one day a social worker takes on Baby and his family—mother and two sisters—as her latest client, for reasons that finally become clear at the end. So I was prepared for some strangeness… and yet I was woefully underprepared for just how strange it would get. Put bluntly, this is profoundly fucking warped; there’s an early hint that something untoward happened to a previous social worker who dealt with the Wadsworth family, and it doesn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the rest of the family has even more problems than Baby, but OH MY just how problematic they are is something else. The scariest actually scary thing in the film—which I’m filing under “horror” cos that’s the best I can do with it—is Marianna Hunt’s astounding bouffant hair in the party scene, cos it looks more like 1983 than 1973, but the overall atmosphere of wrongness (enhanced by the film’s bizarre pacing and bravura scenery chewing by pretty much everyone involved, especially Ruth Roman’s matriarch) is the main thing, especially in the last third or so when the emotional temperature goes from merely superheated to positively thermonuclear. This film, basically, is fucked, and I enjoyed it immensely through all the times I had to keep picking my jaw off the floor.
Director: Marino Girolami
And now for some classic Italian zombie action, albeit using the word “classic” loosely… This would’ve been much more accurately named Cannibal Holocaust, but a certain obscure and barely known other film had already scooped that title by appearing in cinemas just a few weeks earlier, which goes to show how timing can indeed be everything… oh well. This came near the end of a long career for Girolami, who apparently started as an actor in 1941 if his IMDB credits are right; as well as siring future director Enzo G. Castellari, he seems mostly to have worked in comedy as far as I can tell, with a handful of other genre titles, so I’m buggered if I can work how he came to make this. I daresay he had not much idea, either; the whole thing seems to have come from producer Fabrizio de Angelis, who’d looked at the box office returns from the recent crop of zombie films and cannibal films, and decided there was probably money to made from a film with zombies and cannibals. The only thing was, in the end result, we don’t actually see our first zombie until, oh, about 49 minutes into this 84-minute film, and they don’t actually do an awful lot.
But if you’re here for the cannibals, there’s plenty; indeed, the whole film stems from the discovery of a Southeast Asian cannibal dining on corpses at a New York hospital. The investigation regarding same leads eventually to the island said cannibal came from, where a bit of mad doctoring has been going on, which is where the zombies finally come in (being the products of said mad doctoring). This is really not a very good film, and yet there’s something bizarrely entrancing about it that I can’t explain. It’s absolutely derivative and does nothing terribly original apart from the outstanding and applause-worthy use of an outboard motor engine as a weapon, and for all of that something about it remains watchable. Maybe it’s a “so bad it’s good” thing cos I can’t really think of many positive things Zombie Holocaust has going for it, and I found myself enjoying it anyway. Can’t work it out.
Director: Robert Fuest
It would be harsh to say that this film’s credit sequence, which uses the work of Hieronymus Bosch for its backgrounds, is the best thing about it, but I’m sure some people—probably a lot of people, in fact—would say it’s also fair… we’re looking at a somewhat notorious dog here (Scott Ashlin’s observation about the film’s nonsensical promotional tagline is apt), which more or less killed Fuest’s film career, he only made one more theatrical film in the early 80s and otherwise remained stuck working in TV for whatever remained of his career. The problem seems to have been producer Sandy Howard, who wanted a movie featuring Satanists and a climax with all of them melting; quite how the film was supposed to get to that point seems to have been of less interest to him. Fuest was accordingly saddled with a script that didn’t make much sense and little way to force it to do so… conversely, he was also saddled with interesting Mexican locations also picked by Howard, and he does get to do good things with those in widescreen, and his design background serves him well with the Satanist church setting (I presume this is where Anton LaVey offered “technical advice”). The story involves a book belonging to a Satanic cult back in pilgrim times, containing the names of the members who’ve sold their souls to Satan, and when it’s stolen it means cult leader Ernest Borgnine can’t actually dispatch their souls to Hell. Quite why Satan is so picky about this detail is something the film never addresses, as is the question of quite why Borgnine takes, you know, a few hundred years to find the book, doesn’t say a lot for his supposed Satanic powers… But none of that was the point anyway, the point was Sandy Howard’s melting Satanists, and, well, he surely got those, frankly to excess as Fuest himself says in the DVD commentary. Alas, the evident determination to get a PG rating means you don’t even really get that much of a gorefest, everyone just melts into goo rather than blood and guts. On the whole pretty meh, but there is some bravura ham from Borgnine (and from Bill Shatner to a smaller extent) and a certain overall strangeness that does keep you watching, even if the attempt to understand is sometimes in vain…
Director: Robert Young
And we need a bit of Hammer for this month, too, so why not go with one that’s been on the to-do list for a while. This is, obviously, latter-day Hammer, and I gather it’s generally regarded as one of the better such films these days—even Sinclair McKay is quite kind to it in his book on Hammer—although at the time it seems to have been comparatively unloved. Again we have Hammer somewhat stuck in its fading gothic mode, but at least this time they had some new people on board to write produce and direct it, and at least it wasn’t just another Dracula sequel (though there’d be one of those that same year, and the next). It’s a film of kind of limited resources, whose production was kind of hampered by Young’s determination to take his time with it and make it as good as possible; this was the height of presumption at Hammer, and in the end some key scenes never got shot. For the most part, though, I don’t think the film actually suffers too much. Our story is set in some Mitteleuropa village suffering a plague which the townsfolk ascribe to a curse laid on them by a vampire killed nearby some years earlier; somehow, despite roadblocks being place, the titular circus comes to the village and, you know, things don’t get any better from there, cos the circus people are there to fulfil the vampire’s curse and restore him to life. Or unlife, whatever. Kind of bold in some ways (opening with a child as the first victim, and having two more later, gives it a decidedly unpleasant edge) and problematic in various others (the animal attack scene is just terribly done, and there are slips in continuity and logic even I noticed), but generally it’s pretty solid and markedly better than most of the other 70s Hammers I’ve seen.
Director: Hal Needham
And this kind of combines aspects of the last two films in a way, particularly the way it loudly screeches exactly when it was made… also, it was a co-production with Golden Harvest—part of an attempt by Raymond Chow to break into the US market in the early to mid 80s—and it was also kind of an attempt at a family-friendly action flick that would have a good deal of shit blowing up but no one actually getting killed. The real difference between Needham’s film and TS’s though, is the cost; apparently it cost something like $20 million as opposed to the far smaller sums spent on those films… wherein lay the problem, though, cos it only made back about $5m (whatever else may be said against Deathcheaters, it evidently did good box office) thanks to competition from other big films like that second Mad Max film. And it was a critical bomb, too, which got three Razzie nominations, a BOMB from L. Maltin, and to this day still scores 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Needless to say, a planned sequel did not happen.
Actually, what it felt like to me was a rather long pilot for a TV series in the vein of The A-Team; it’s a fairly comic book plot, with one country attacking another and Megaforce—a sort of G.I. Joe/Action Force kind of multinational “phantom Army of super elite fighting men whose weapons are the most powerful science can devise”, as the opening text—being brought in to deal with them. That’s about it. It’s a jumped-up TV show. It plays like one, sounds like one, even the opening credits feel meant for a TV show somehow (even though TV in 1982 was still 4:3 and not 1.85 widescreen). And one thing it somehow doesn’t really feel is expensive; that budget would now be worth about $52 million, and, well, it’s hard to see where all that went (sure as hell wasn’t on blue-screening). Pretty good explosions, I’ll grant it, but even so.
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
And this was the logical follow-up to our last film. By all accounts it was a far less happy experience making this than Deathcheaters was, mostly on account of imported Hong Kong star Jimmy Wang Yu; in the scene at the martial arts academy where TS plays one of the guys going hammer and tongs against Wang, well, the blood may have been fake (transcendently so throughout the film), but the punches weren’t… Whatever, the film is great, of course; it was the mid-70s, Australian cinema was resurging nicely and Hong Kong action cinema’s international renown was on the rise, so uniting the two seemed like a good idea, even if the leading man was an obnoxious shit, and even if the not altogether casual racism expressed in some scenes makes for not altogether comfortable viewing in our allegedly more enlightened times. The plot is simple enough, a Hong Kong inspector is brought to Sydney to question someone who turns out to be connected to crime kingpin George Lazenby, who obviously has to be taken down with as much violence as $450,000 could buy in 1975 (and that was a surprising amount); by this time TS had cut his teeth on an assortment of documentaries, and his first fiction feature displays a certain skill for widescreen carnage. Obviously dated in a lot of ways—I mean, just look at the soul-blasting amount of orange in Lazenby’s lair where he and Wang have their final duel, and the classically 1970s not wholly naturalistic post-sync sound—and prone to a certain, I don’t know, larger than life-ness in some of the acting (hello Ham Keays-Byrnes!), but an awful lot of fun; if you were going to do a sort of Bond-style action knockoff with an Asian twist in those days, this was the way you’d do it.
Director: John Carpenter
Rewatched this very late last night for the first time since… I don’t know, probably the mid-90s, at which time I wasn’t overly impressed by it. I have, of course, since learned that pan and scan VHS was no fit way to watch John Carpenter’s films, and watching a decent anamorphic DVD of this one made me appreciate it rather more. This was his avowed combined knock-off of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, an attempt to make a western whose budgetary limits ($100,000, apparently) meant he couldn’t make a “proper” one so he updated the Hawks film to a 1970s police precinct about to be closed down… except this time the gang attacking the station don’t want to break someone out alive, they want him dead. I mean, if a gang kills your daughter (a scene which is still pretty startling) and then you kill one of said gang members, they’re probably going to want to kill you back…
It’s interesting that the film makes such a point of the gang being multiracial, cos that kind of takes the edge off the fact that the gang is, frankly, something of a characterless mob otherwise, much like Romero’s undead, and similarly it’s interesting that Carpenter’s other major cue from Romero was evidently the choice of a black actor in the lead role (and another one in a secondary role). But otherwise it’s Carpenter’s own skill on show, and he demonstrates a pretty ruthless efficiency; although the set-up to the siege situation takes longer than it really should, once shit starts happening, GODDAMN. I kind of wish this has been his breakout hit (it did well in Europe but much less so at home) rather than Halloween, cos we might’ve been saved the slasher film glut that the latter gave birth to. Then again, Assault might’ve just engendered its own flood of dodgy clones, so who can say…
Director: Lucio Fulci
So, at last I come face to face with one of the nastiest of the video nasties (yes, I know it wasn’t an actual nasty, SHUT UP), and possibly the late Lucio’s most notorious film… which is quite something when you look at some of the films he’d made before it. Ripper saw him stepping away from the supernatural and back into the murky waters of the giallo, and I don’t think there were many gialli murkier than this; by this time the slasher film (which was, of course, heavily influenced by the giallo) was in the ascendant and Fulci seemed determined to respond to that, and go further in the process (did any American slasher have a killer with… you know… THAT voice?). And it’s very much one of those films whose censorship history precedes it; it was banned here until 2005, and it was famously escorted out of the UK after James Ferman refused to even look at it… even now there’s that one scene which the BBFC still won’t allow to pass uncut.
To be sure, Ripper lives up to its rather horrible reputation in a lot of ways; you can argue about the extent to which it is or isn’t misogynistic—the Shameless DVD has an interview with Fulci’s daughter, who says it isn’t, and co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, who says it is but disavows responsibility for it being that way—but I don’t anyone would deny that it is, basically, hugely unpleasant. Maybe some of his previous films are a bit more spectacular on the gore front, but the general vibe of Ripper makes its violence seem so much worse and so much nastier (and that final scene of the little girl in the hospital crying for her daddy—the killer—who’s never going to answer her call because, you know, he’s dead by that point is, somehow, far more disturbing than anything in Fulci’s undead quartet). Like Cannibal Holocaust, it’s well-made enough that I can’t just dismiss the film as a repugnant piece of shit conspicuously lacking in redeeming features, which is what most critics seem to do. It’s good enough that I can’t just, you know, pretend it’s not. Equally, I also can’t pretend I actually liked it as such; indeed I’m not sure when I last saw a film quite so reluctant to ingratiate itself with the viewer, who it almost seems to hate at times. Well-made, but determined to be unloveable, and it surely succeeds on that count…
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Douglas Trumbull was kind of born into SFX, cos his dad—also credited on this film—was working in that field on films like The Wizard of Oz before little Doug was even born… so, having entered the family trade, he scored a job with Stanley Kubrick on a little film called 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was supposed to take place (in part) in the vicinity of the planet Saturn. However, that got changed to Jupiter when Trumbull couldn’t produce an adequate model of Saturn, but within a few years he’d fixed that problem, and I presume that’s the main reason why he set Silent Running there, cos I can’t see any particular narrative reason for it… Basically, it’s the indeterminate future, life on Earth is apparently great but all the plant life is wiped out (am I the only person wondering where the paper the operator’s manual shown in the film is printed on came from?) and the surviving forests are protected under giant domes being hauled around Saturn by commercial freighters. Until the order is given to destroy the forests and return the freighters to normal service. There’s no particular reason given for why the forests are to be abandoned any more than why they’re orbiting Saturn in the first place, but never mind that; Freeman Lowell, a botanist strangely incapable of realising plants die without sunlight and hiding around the dark side of Saturn is accordingly a bad idea, refuses to accept the order, killing his fellow crew and basically taking over the ship… There’s something weirdly cold about this film despite its obvious attempts to be an emotional experience, and part of that is probably because of the hammer-handed unsubtlety of the environmental theme, and part of it is because, well, Lowell didn’t strike me as a particularly sympathetic character; obviously more caring than the boors he’s stuck with on the Valley Forge but still a kind of unpleasant fanatic. It’s impressive as a showcase for effects and design, but beyond that I didn’t get an awful lot from this one. And the songs sung by Joan Baez are kind of hideously out of place too…