Friday 30 November 2012

The Three Musketeers (1973)

The first of the swashbuckling collaborations between director Richard Lester and writer George Macdonald Fraser (and, of course, Alexandre Dumas), The Three Musketeers is an enjoyable romp that takes a cast of great stars and puts them into something that never quite hits the heights that it should.

Michael York is the young D'Artagnan, a swordsman who heads to Paris to fulfill his potential and make a good name for himself. Unfortunately, upon his arrival he seems to upset everyone he meets. He unwittingly ends up arranging to duel with Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain) and Porthos (Frank Finlay) but then becomes friends with them when they all have to defend themselves against a bunch of Cardinal Richelieu's guards. And so begins the advenutres of D'Artagnan and The Three Musketeers, adventures that will involve a beautiful woman named Constance (Raquel Welch), the ruthless Rochefort (Christopher Lee), the Cardinal (Charlton Heston) and the beautiful and scheming Milady (Faye Dunaway).

Made at the same time as the direct sequel, The Four Musketeers (much to the chagrin of the actors involved, who sued for money owed to them as they thought they'd just worked to make the one movie . . . . . . . though there seems to have been no bad blood as they would also get together again for The Return Of The Musketeers), this is the slightly better film but there's not that much in it. As I mentioned in my review of the sequel they all blend into one big, mildly amusing, swashbuckler.

The leads all have their obvious charms but the real pleasure here comes from a supporting cast that includes the likes of Roy Kinnear, Spike Milligan and Rodney Bewes mixing with Simon Ward, Joss Ackland and Sybil Danning. Talk about an eclectic mix.

While it's hard to get too excited about, there's still certainly some easy pleasure in watching, for example, Oliver Reed have a bit of a drink and still swagger around, ready to lunge at anyone who engages him in swordplay. The film, and the sequels too, allows viewers to look at stars through rose-tinted glasses and to see them in roles that really play to their strengths. Michael York was always the handsome up and coming star, Richard Chamberlain was always relaxed and assured and Frank Finlay was always very entertaining. At least, that's how they have remained in my mind and that is how they are made to appear in this adventure.

Richard Lester may not have been the best director of this kind of material but he sure knew how to throw some big names together and let them have some fun. That fun is infectious, even if the actual movie never moves into top gear.


Thursday 29 November 2012

Silkwood (1983)

Based on a true story, Silkwood is all about a woman who works at a plutonium processing plant. Her name is Karen Silkwood and she starts to make some trouble for the management of the plant when she becomes directly involved with the union and starts doing her damnedest to blow the whistle on the numerous dangerous practices that happen around her and her colleagues every day.

It may not be the most exciting story in the world, and the lead character isn't put across as the most likeable person in the world, but Silkwood certainly has a fine pedigree. The script was written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen and Mike Nichols has the directorial duties. Then there's that wonderful cast. Meryl Streep plays the titular character, though it's not her best performance by a long shot, while Kurt Russell plays her on-off lover and Cher does well as her good friend. If you don't like any of those folks then how about Fred Ward, David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, Ron Silver or Craig T. Nelson? All, in my view, mighty fine actors. Even the people with names you probably won't know, such as Diana Scarwid and Sudie Bond, give very good performances and Bond is involved in one of the most harrowing scenes in the entire movie.

It's the real horror of the material here that raises it up for me, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to score the film above average. The dangers of radiation are very well known nowadays but it wasn't all that long ago when people were being misinformed and basically used up, as is the case here. Management and business owners needed results and that meant exposing employees to some serious potential health risks. Best case scenario = they really weren't aware of just how damaging it could be. Worst case scenario = they knew, they knew all too well and would go to any lengths to keep their dirty little secrets hidden away. Silkwood tends toward the latter scenario but there is some ambiguity in the first half, at least, to avoid making the company villains absolute monsters.

The film, as a whole, just didn't work well enough for me but I know that I won't forget certain moments. The character played by Sudie Bond being hauled off and cleaned down after exposure to radiation is as upsetting a scene as any that I can recall from any genre, made all the more effective by Bond's heartbreaking performance in her supporting role. Surprising as it may seem, I have to suggest that Streep is actually the weakest link here. Perhaps there was only so much she could do with her character as it was written or perhaps, as I suspect, it just so happens that someone else would have been much better for the role. I don't know who that actress would be but I do know that when I think of the likes of Margot Kidder or JoBeth Williams in the lead role I feel more intrigued about what could have been. And those are just two choices off the top of my head.

Do watch the movie to see something powerful and distressing and to see some actors doing great work but don't watch the movie just to see Streep in the main role because you may find yourself disappointed.


Wednesday 28 November 2012

Vamp (1986)

Written and directed by Richard Wenk (who was helped by Donald P. Borchers in coming up with the story), Vamp is one of those movies that I know isn't for everyone . . . . . . . . . yet I recommend to everyone anyway. It's a favourite of mine and the more people who come around to my way of thinking, at least in this matter, the better.

After almost being bored to death while pledging to a fraternity, Keith (Chris Makepeace) and AJ (Robert Rusler) offer to get the guys anything they want instead of being made to go through the usual humiliations. The frat guys, somewhat predictably, want strippers. So our two young men borrow a car from Duncan (Gedde Watanabe), and also allow him to join them, before setting off to procure some dancing girls. After a few wrong turns, a fair bit of lost time and a run in with an albino punk (Billy Drago), they get inside the After Dark club. At last. The After Dark club is quite a place. There's the guy who looks after the place but dreams of Vegas (a superb turn from the ever-brilliant Sandy Baron), a waitress who keeps trying to get Keith to remember her (played by the lovely Dedee Pfeiffer) and a star turn from the mysterious and animalistic Katrina (Grace Jones). Unfortunately, there is a side to the club that people only see if they're not getting out again. A vampiric side.

Yes, as you may have guessed, years before the enjoyable From Dusk Till Dawn used the strip club setting for some monster mashing, Vamp had already paved the way. Was Vamp the first? No, but it remains one of the best (especially when compared to, for example, The Monster Club, which I think contains a few similiar elements).

The performances from everyone involved really help lift this above numerous other vampire movies of the decade. Robert Rusler and Chris Makepeace play off each other superbly, Gedde Watanabe is great comic relief and Dedee Pfeiffer is adorable - like an '80s Meg Ryan but a Meg Ryan that I'd actually contemplate trying to hit on. The villains are just as good, if not better. Billy Drago is his usual intimidating presence, Grace Jones is her . . . . . . usual intimidating presence and Sandy Baron steals pretty much every scene that he's in.

The special effects don't overwhelm the movie but they're very well done and the same can be said for the score from Jonathan Elias. Wenk may do a great job as director but he's helped no end by a very talented team, including Alan Roderick-Jones in the role of art director and cinematographers Elliot Davis and Douglas F. O'Neons. I don't usually mention art directors and cinematographers in my movie reviews for a number of reasons. First of all, I usually KNOW more about the cast, writer and director. Secondly, a movie is always a collaborative effort and I worry that if I start to single out too many people I end up having to go down the list of credits to include absolutely everyone (which, in an ideal world, is as it should be). But Vamp has such a unique and wonderful visual style that I have to mention the guys who helped to get that onscreen.

At times it's a surreal, off-kilter world. It's very much a cinematic horror landscape - nobody helpful is around when the sun goes down, the sets are full of deep shadows and often lit with pink and green colouring, there's a lot of dry ice around - but it's one that just uses the artificiality of everything to make things more interesting and entertaining throughout. There is always the risk that these elements can pull a viewer out of the experience but it's a worthwhile risk when the viewers that go along with the whole thing can take so much away from it.

I can still recall, even to this day, looking at that garish VHS box and being both impressed and curious. Those feelings stayed with me as I watched the film for the first time and by the time the end credits rolled I wasn't curious any more but I was still impressed, mightily so. It's a horror movie that's easy to dismiss and forget about, it's a horror comedy with some teen elements that I'm sure will annoy quite a few fans who like their horror adult and serious, it's a film that will even have some viewers switching off by the halfway mark. But it's also a film that really delivers some great vampire moments, it somehow made Grace Jones even scarier than she already was at that time (and, by god, she was already terrifying) and it made such a great impression on me that I will always step up to defend it in front of those who don't appreciate its magnificence.


Tuesday 27 November 2012

Judge Dredd (1995)

I think it's pretty widely acknowledged nowadays that Judge Dredd was a bit of a letdown for fans of the character. I still like it more than a lot of people but even I must admit that Dredd spends far too much time not wearing his iconic headwear and there's a bit too much screentime given over to the comic relief AKA Rob Schneider. Anyway, let's start with the good stuff.

Judge Dredd has a great cast, including Sylvester Stallone in the title role. When he first appears onscreen he's fantastic in the title role. Stallone may not be the best actor in the world (though he certainly has his moments) but he's surrounded by a quality cast. There's Diane Lane, Max Von Sydow, Armand Assante, Jurgen Prochnow and the great James Remar (although he's, sadly, not in it for long). There are also small roles for Ian Dury, Ewen Bremner and Scott Wilson. And then there's Rob Schneider.

The plot sees the most infamous peacekeeper in Mega-City One being accused of murder. It's unbelievable but all the evidence clearly points to Dredd as the perpetrator. Dredd is to be sent away for a long time but that doesn't quite go to plan thanks to a big fight on board a vehicle full of prisoners that leads to a crash that leads to Dredd and a hapless criminal named Herman (Rob Schneider) stuck in some waste lands and needing to deal with some bad folks before finding their way back into Mega-City One and clearing Dredd's name. Meanwhile, it turns out that the real villain is someone very close to Dredd with his own warped reason for revenge. Even better, he's played by Armand Assante, in superb eye-rolling form.

Michael De Luca may have managed to come up with the story with William Wisher but it's Wisher and Steven E. de Souza who crafted the final draft of the screenplay and due credit must also, of course, go to the many fine folks who have written stories for Judge Dredd during his long-running stint in the mighty 2000 AD. The story, and the backstory (both that which is revealed and that which is just known to fans of the comic), is solid and the direction from Danny Cannon isn't that bad at all. The film simply starts to fall apart when Judge Dredd stops seeming like Judge Dredd and that happens, as silly as it may sound, when the helmet comes off. And when it stays off for most of the movie. It's not true to the character and it just leaves viewers with a half-decent Sylvester Stallone action movie. There are already plenty of those, thank you very much.

Judge Dredd is fun. It has one or two enjoyable set-pieces (one that involves James Remar, one involving the delightfully demented Angel Family and almost any moments that involve Assante), I don't hate Schneider as much as some people and it's good to see so many big names involved with what is, essectially, pulp fare. It's just not a great JUDGE DREDD movie and that is, ultimately, a big black mark against it.


This Bluray plays  in the USA AND the UK -

Monday 26 November 2012

The Evil Of Frankenstein (1964)

Written by Anthony Hinds, and directed by Freddie Francis, The Evil Of Frankenstein is another of the consistently entertaining Hammer movies focusing on the ongoing difficulties of Herr Baron (played once more by the great Peter Cushing). It's not as good as some of the other Frankenstein movies but it's still worth seeing if you're a fan of the character.

The Baron tries, once again, to return to a place he was once driven out of with an assistant (Hans, played by Sandor Eles) in tow. This time it is the town of Karlstaad. It will be worth it if he can resurrect his creature and come up with some way to communicate with its damaged mind. That method of communication may be found in the shape of a hypnotist named Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe) if everything goes according to plan but, alas for poor Baron Frankenstein, things rarely go according to plan.

I like the character of Baron Frankenstein when he's portrayed as he is in this movie, a man who really does have the answers to the big questions in life but is beset by attacks from the morally indignant masses and attempts to ruin his good name.

Peter Cushing, if you don't realise how good he is by now then I can't help you but, rest assured, he's one of my all-time favourites for good reason. Sandor Eles is okay, though he doesn't get too much to do, and Peter Woodthorpe is a lot of fun as Zoltan, the hypnotist who quickly realises how he can use the situation to feather his own nest a little. Duncan Lamont is enjoyable as the Karlstaad Chief Of Police and Katy Wild does just fine in the rather thankless role of "beggar girl". The creature this time around is played by wrestler Kiwi Kingston so there's certainly a solid physicality to the monster, if little else. The design work may hark back to the Universal flicks of old but it ends up being quite a disappointment.

Hinds laces the script with a few good lines, as per usual when it comes to dialogue uttered by the good Baron, but the direction from Francis is flat and lifeless. There's enough here to please Hammer fans but that's probably more to do with goodwill than good film-making on this occasion.


Sunday 25 November 2012

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

I couldn't tell you the exact facts and figures involved but it seemed to me that, when it was released, The Spiderwick Chronicles didn't do all that well at the box office. I hope it did okay but it certainly didn't create any major excitement and talk of big new franchise opportunities. That's a shame because it's a very enjoyable family film. The same thing happened to Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events (another family film I also enjoyed a lot). Hmmm, I hope I'm not jinxed.

Anyway, to the movie. The Spiderwick Chronicles. Young Freddie Highmore takes on two roles here, playing twin brothers Jared and Simon Grace. After their parents separate, the two boys, along with their older sister (Sarah Bolger) and mother (Mary-Louise Parker) move into the Spiderwick Estate, an old and run-down house in the middle of nowhere. Jared is convinced that his mother is to blame for this family split and he reacts with anger and insolence, resenting every minute of his new life. That all changes, however, when he discovers a book filled with details of many magical creatures living in the area. He doesn't believe any of it, of course, until he actually sees the creatures for himself. There are quite a few nice, sweet creatures to be observed but, sadly, also a number of nasty baddies out to cause harm and get their hands on the book in order to deliver it to their master, an ogre named Mulgarath (Nick Nolte). Jared must keep the book safe at all costs, which isn't going to be easy unless he enlists the help of his family. Will anyone believe him?

Based on the books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, this is an imaginative, consistently entertaining adventure that mixes great special effects with a great cast all portraying nicely rounded characters. Freddie Highmore is a very talented young actor and gives two great performances as Jared and Simon, Sarah Bolger is very likeable as Mallory and Mary-Louise Parker plays a very understanding and loving mother. Nick Nolte isn't onscreen physically for very long but he's excellent whether voicing Mulgarath or portraying him in human form. There are also roles for the likes of the great David Strathairn, the great Joan Plowright and the . . . . . ummm . . . . pleasant Andrew McCarthy. They may not be seen onscreen but Martin Short and Seth Rogen provide some enjoyable vocals for a couple of creatures that are on the side of good.

Three people, including John Sayles, worked to adapt the screenplay and the end result is well balanced. There are moments that may feel a bit intense for younger children but there are also many moments of comedy, spectacle (a flight on a griffin is a particular highlight) and sheer wonderment to keep everyone happy.

Director Mark Waters has given audiences a couple of poor movies in his career but he's also responsible for the remake of Freaky Friday, the great Mean Girls and, his first film, The House Of Yes. The Spiderwick Chronicles easily sits alongside that lot and I think that my high rating here could easily rise after future repeat viewings.


Saturday 24 November 2012

We Are What We Are (2010)

A number of years ago, a little Mexican movie called Cronos came along and gave fans a wonderful and unique vampire movie. Well, someone else from Mexico has come along now and given fans a fantastic and unique cannibal movie. Okay, it may not be all THAT unique from start to finish but it certainly couches the grisly subject matter in a way that allows it to feel enjoyably refreshing.

This is not a movie for gorehounds so bear that in mind before you go running off to get your cannibal fix (as in a fix of cannibal movie fun and not a repair from a cannibal). Writer-director Jorge Michel Grau has crafted something that's arguably more disturbing because of the way that the cannibalistic need to eat human flesh is shown as the main defining aspect of a fairly dysfunctional family.

Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) and Julian (Alan Chavez) are two very different brothers. Alfredo is the older of the two and tries to do his bit whenever he is required to help the family while Julian is hotheaded and not nearly as caring for his loved ones. This is all clarified when the two boys have to cover the family market stall. There is no sign of their father, who makes a living repairing watches, so they go along for the morning until Julian gets into a fight and they are told that they must stop trading at the market. When they get home the boys are told by their sister, Sabina (Paulina Gaitan), that their father has died. This is slightly upsetting for all concerned, and especially for their mother (Carmen Beato), but the biggest problem for the family is just where their next meal is going to come from. Their father would provide them with victims for cannibalistic rituals. Alfredo is told he will have to step up and fill the role but it's not exactly an easy task.

All of the actors involved here do a great job, and there are is a sub-plot involving a couple of police officers (played by Daniel Gimenez Cacho and Jorge Zarate) trying to solve the case, but the real beauty of We Are What We Are lies in the fact that the cannibalism is almost secondary to the other problems that the main characters have. Almost.

Sabina may seem to be the most well-adjusted of the group but it quickly becomes clear just how well she could step into the matriarchal role to ensure that the family is safe while Alfredo and Julian never appear to be in control of their own destiny. As for the mother, it's hard to discern whether she has been driven mad by years of brainwashing or whether she was the one who led the whole family down the path to cannibalism. Whatever the case, she certainly grows more and more desperate as more time passes without the next meal becoming available.

Quietly impressive from start to finish, when the end credits rolled I then began to formulate my thoughts for this review and realised that I'd just watched a new favourite. I'm not sure if I would easily recommend it to most horror fans, I just know that I loved it.


Friday 23 November 2012

Ghostbusters II (1989)

When Ghostbusters II was released in 1989 it did solid business at the box office. You wouldn't think that nowadays, with the way many people deride it and claim that it's a completely unworthy sequel to the classic first movie. Well, the first movie is a classic. I completely agree with that and already praised it here. What I don't agree with is the opinion that this sequel is completely unworthy. It's not as good as the first movie but few films are. It is, however, a very enjoyable film that picks up some years after the events of the first movie and allows viewers to find out just what the main characters have been up to since their big battle with Gozer.

And just what have the Ghostbusters been up to since saving New York City and, indeed, the world? Well, they were sued by a number of city and state agencies and the brand became worthless. Ray (Dan Aykroyd) and Winston (Ernie Hudson) are trying to keep the Ghostbusters name out there by entertaining ungrateful children at birthday parties, Egon (Harold Ramis) is conducting scientific studies with his usual, detached demeanour and Venkman (Bill Murray) is hosting a paranormal chat show. Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) has a son and is enjoying the time that she spends helping to restore paintings under the watchful eye of Dr. Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol). There's one painting in particular, of a nasty man called Vigo (Wilhelm Von Homburg) that starts to cause no small amount of trouble and so the gang need to get back together and get back to doing what they do best.

The baddie may not be as memorable this time around and there's no denying that the movie doesn't feel as fresh as the first film (but sequels rarely do, by definition) but there's a hell of a lot here to enjoy and anyone dismissing this movie completely is, I'd say, being very harsh.

Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis and Hudson are all still great in their ghostbusting roles, Weaver plays off them all very well once again and Annie Potts and Rick Moranis return to reprise their memorable characters. Peter MacNicol is also good fun and Wilhelm Von Homburg keeps his mean face on throughout. Kurt Fuller may not be able to replace the great William Atherton as the main jerk of the movie but he tries his best. David Margulies returns to play the Mayor of New York and Harris Yulin has a small, fun role as a very strict judge who ends up seeing the Ghostbusters on trial in his court.

With Aykroyd and Ramis also returning to their writing duties and Ivan Reitman once again directing the action, this is very much the kind of sequel that feels like audiences are getting to catch up with some old friends. Because that's exactly what it is. I will watch Ghostbusters any number of times and never tire of it but this second outing is almost as rewatchable and has a smattering of great lines in almost every scene. The ending is a bit of a letdown but I think that any ending would have been slightly underwhelming compared to the brilliance of that big finale of the first movie featuring Gozer and The Traveller.

Oh, okay, there's also a pretty lame soundtrack compared to the complete '80s greatness of the first movie but that's the only other major complaint I have.

If you haven't seen it in a while then do give it a go and you might just find that the Ghostbusters are still the guys to call when you want some ectoplasmic entertainment.


Thursday 22 November 2012

True Grit (1969)

John Wayne. He was the ultimate macho man to many people and could always be relied upon to show the very best assets of being a man completely in line with the will of Uncle Sam. I have never been a fan but that's just because I've never seen any clips of his acting in which he wasn't just the swaggering bull of a man that he so often portrayed. Finally seeing the original True Grit after I'd enjoyed the remake so much, I realise that I should make an effort to watch the films of someone who made such a big impact on cinema audiences. He's an icon and icons are usually icons for good reason.

True Grit is a wonderful film with some fine performances in there and the turn from Wayne, as grizzled and oft-drunk Rooster Cogburn, is the highlight of the film. In fact, it gave him his only Oscar win. There may have been worthier candidates that year but it's hard to begrudge him the win after he gave audiences so much pleasure over the years.

The story here is all about young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) looking to hire someone who will hunt down the murderer of her father. She gets Rooster Cogburn and offers him some money to do her bidding. He takes her up on the offer but then tries to get her to stay behind and wait while he heads off with a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) to catch some crooks and collect some rewards. However, young Mattie isn't going to stay put and she wants everything resolved her way. It doesn't take long for anyone who meets this young woman to realise that she often gets what she wants.

Based on the novel by Charles Portis, True Grit has a fine screenplay from Marguerite Roberts and capable direction from Henry Hathaway yet it's hard not to think that the movie is really lifted by all of the performances. Wayne is fantastic, being both a hero and sometimes a drunken ass. Darby is superb as Mattie Ross, a young girl easily able to shame and correct anyone trying to pull a fast one on her, and Glen Campbell is perhaps the weakest of the trio but an essential part of the group dynamic. Jeff Corey is the main man being hunted but film fans will probably get more enjoyment from watching a young-ish Dennis Hopper in a small role and the great Robert Duvall playing the villainous Ned Pepper.

The cinematography and visual style may be indistinguishable from the hundreds of other Westerns made during this decade but that doesn't detract from the fact that so many people hold up True Grit as a classic because it IS one. See, and enjoy, it for yourself.


Wednesday 21 November 2012

The Fox And The Hound (1981)

The Fox And The Hound is a great Disney movie that just falls short of being a real classic because it all feels a bit "been there, seen that". Yet it's still a very sweet movie with wonderful animation and some moments of heartache and fear that will still affect young children.

With three directors involved and lots of writers, the film follows the standard Disney formula almost to the letter but you can't really blame those involved for being set in their ways when it proves a winner time and time again. This particular tale is apparently based on the book by Daniel P. Mannix but, as is so often the way with Disney adaptations, there are very few similiarities between the book and the end result onscreen.

A small fox is hidden away by a parent who is being hunted and ends up in the home of Widow Tweed (voiced by Jeanette Nolan). This allows him to have a fairly happy and safe life. The fox, named Tod, even befriends, and plays with, a hound, named Copper, belonging to a neighbour. That all has to change at some point and Copper is taken away by his owner to learn how to track and hunt. Tod grows up while awaiting the return of his friend but is still naive enough to believe that nothing else will affect their friendship. Sadly, Copper knows better and when he returns he tries to explain to his friend that they can no longer hang around together. Tod doesn't want to believe this but is soon shown just how things have changed.

With Kurt Russell as the voice of Copper and Mickey Rooney as the voice of Tod, The Fox And The Hound almost feels like a bridge between two ages of Disney. The animation is as lovely as ever and the story is the stuff of classic Disney but the studio had a pretty tough time in the 1980s, not helped by the departure of Don Bluth and a number of other animators who helped birth and develop Sullivan Bluth Studios. In fact, production of this movie was delayed by a year because of the staff departures. Perhaps I'm simply projecting onto the film based on the little I know about the ups and downs of Disney but this certainly feels like one of the last old-fashioned outings that they got right just before faultlines began to run through the House Of Mouse.

However, none of that can detract from the fact that this is an endearing, amusing story with moments of great excitement and a cracking vocal cast that includes Paul Winchell (best known as the voice of Tigger), Richard Bakalyan, Pearl Bailey and Sandy Duncan as well as the stars already mentioned. I recommend it as one of the many great Disney films worth including in any collection of family entertainment.


Tuesday 20 November 2012

Bloody Birthday (1981)

Bloody Birthday is bloody brilliant. Directed by Ed Hunt, who co-wrote the script with Barry Pearson (is it just me or do those two sound like typical used car salesmen?), the movie is a hugely entertaining slasher that delivers the goods and keeps you smirking in all the right ways. The premise is preposterous but it's all played out in such an enjoyably cheeky way that it gets away with everything.

Horror fans will rub their hands with glee when they realise that this is a movie all about killer kids. Three children were born during an eclipse and this means, of course, that they are born with something missing. It's all to do with the moon and the sun blocking Saturn. The kids are psychopaths ot sociopaths or something-paths. Basically, they're little shits who spend as much time as possible killing people and often making the deaths look like freak accidents.

A few of the leads are just fine in their roles (Lori Lethin is the older girl who starts to put the pieces together and K. C. Martel is her younger brother, also suspicious of the killer kids) but the most fun is had while watching Elizabeth Hoy, Billy Jayne and Andy Freeman be so obviously evil in almost every scene. Melinda Cordell and Bert Kramer play a very unfortunate mother and father, Julie Brown is the older sister of one of the evil kids and spends a lot of time dancing in front of her mirror while getting dressed, oblivious to the fact that her little sister is charging small boys a fee to peep through from her room to see what an '80s woman looks like in the altogether. Jose Ferrer plays a doctor and Susan Strasberg is a strict teacher who puts the little killers in a bad mood.

It starts off as pretty far-fetched and gets more and more implausible as it continues but Bloody Birthday just wouldn't be half as much fun if it tried to make itself a serious look at children with murderous thoughts. The fact that I haven't heard much praise for the film before now is quite shocking, considering just how deliriously entertaining it is from start to finish.

Deaths range from strangulation with skipping rope to someone shot with a bow and arrow, there's fun with a birthday cake and a big bottle marked "Ant Poison" and the very last scene is as twisted and funny as anything else in the film. I recommend this as essential viewing for anyone with a love of '80s horror.


Monday 19 November 2012

Dracula: Prince Of Darkness (1966)

The third movie from Hammer in the Dracula fold, this actually follows on more from the end of Dracula than has anything to do with The Brides Of Dracula and, as such, can be accepted almost as a direct sequel in itself.

Directed by Terence Fisher, and with Jimmy Sangster also involved, I was hoping for great things and found myself, sadly, a little disappointed. The story sees our sharp-toothed count laying on some hospitality for weary travellers while he rests in piece until, about halfway through the movie, the resurrection can occur. And what a glorious, crimson-covered resurrection it is - a definite highlight in a movie I found somewhat lacking in other areas. Once Christopher Lee is back on screen it's all the usual Hammer style (i.e. keep distressed damsels safe while the silent Count tries to get his wicked way, in a manner of speaking). And there's a memorable finale that fans will recall when it appears, if not beforehand, though I won't spoil it here.

There's no Van Helsing this time around. Instead, that role is taken over by the presence of Father Sandor (played by Andrew Keir). Keir is okay in the role but I always feel, just my personal preference, that any of the Hammer Dracula or Frankenstein movies not featuring Peter Cushing automatically start with a deficit to make up. As for the rest of the cast; Lee is as good as ever with his mute performance (all bared teeth and staring, bloodshot eyes), Philip Latham is excellent as the Count's manservant and thoroughly dodgy bloke, Thorley Walters is quite amusing as a Renfield-ish type who resides in the Father's care and Barbara Shelley gets some good screen moments in the latter half of the movie. Nobody else really makes much of an impression, to be honest. Suzan Farmer is a little adorable cutie with little to do except look in peril while Francis Matthews and Charles Tingwell play the buttoned down, stiff-upper-lipped lead gents just fine.

There's just something missing here and I can't quite put my finger on what it is. The pacing isn't a problem because, despite Dracula himself not appearing till round about the halfway mark, we have the usual Hammer moments including a tavern scene, a scared coach driver, the exploration of a seemingly empty castle, etc. The script isn't that memorable, the direction seems rather "safe" (that halfway highlight aside) and everything just stands out by dint of it not standing out. Maybe I expected too much but maybe, as I personally feel to be the case, this is simply one of the average Hammer horrors. After all, not every one can be a winner eh.


This is yet another Hammer title available in this wonderful, bargain box set -

Sunday 18 November 2012

Beetlejuice (1988)

For people who may have forgotten just how good that Tim Burton used to be, for those who have seen nothing from him apart from remakes, Beetlejuice is one of his many, earlier works that will remind you of his imagination, humour and sheer brilliance.

It's the tale of a married couple (played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who have their happy life unexpectedly spoiled by premature death. Completely bewildered by their situation, the couple find their situation getting worse and worse as their home is then bought and inhabited by a horrible couple (Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones) and their morbid daughter (Winona Ryder). As they watch their home become "infested" with unpleasant people they turn, in desperation, to Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a bio-exorcist who claims that he can solve their problem.

Everything here ticks the boxes for a Tim Burton movie - the use of Danny Elfman for a lively score, the macabre subject matter with plenty of humour in there, the wonderful visuals and main roles for some of his favourite people of the 1980s (Keaton, of course, was his choice for Bruce Wayne/Batman and Ryder was also given a starring role in Edward Scissorhands).

The script by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren is enjoyable enough but this is a movie elevated to greatness by a number of flawless performances. Particular praise must go to Michael Keaton, who gives yet another hugely entertaining turn in the title role despite the character not being onscreen for for little more than about 15 minutes. Davis and Baldwin are very likeable as the recently deceased couple trying to protect their home while O'Hara, Jones and Glenn Shadix are very UNlikeable as the new people trampling over many happy memories. Shadix, in particular, is irritating and completely pretentious as Otho, someone who pretends to know everything about everything worth knowing. Winona Ryder is very good as the young girl who happens to figure out exactly what's going on before the rest of her horrid family.

There are great depictions of the afterlife, an unforgettable staging of Day-O (and one or two other songs from Harry Belafonte) and a mixed bag of practical special effects that may not hold up as perfect creations but certainly retain plenty of charm. Beetlejuice is a movie that I have always remembered with fondness but haven't seen that often since that first viewing back in the '80s. It's a pleasant surprise to find that it's one of those movies that just gets better and better with each viewing.


Saturday 17 November 2012

The Thing (1982)

Let me start by saying that the next Kurt Russell movie scheduled to pass before my eyes was due to be The Fox & The Hound but it's been delayed until next week so we go from Disney to classic Carpenter with The Thing.

The story is all about a bunch of men stuck out in the middle of nowhere, an Antarctic base, who find themselves in a situation full of danger and paranoia when they unwittingly let a shape-shifting alien into their midst.

Here is the review that I already posted on IMDb. I'm not sure that I can say much more about the movie so this format works. I entitle it . . . . . . . 10 Things About The Thing.

1) Despite director John Carpenter also giving us the greatness of Halloween, TheFog, Escape From New York, Assault On Precinct 13 and more, this movie is an absolute classic of the horror genre.

2) It's a remake, based on the Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks movie TheThing From Another World and the story THAT was based on, "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. The original movie was briefly shown on TV as part of the Halloween line-up the kids watch in . . . Halloween.

3) Thanks to the amazing work of Rob Bottin it features some of the best special effects work ever, all stuff that holds up to this day. Nasty, visceral, alien and eye-poppingly impressive.

4) The Carpenter-esque, minimal synth score was by Ennio Morricone, a fact I often forget while enjoying the movie.

5) It has an all-male cast and all of them are never less than great, with Kurt Russell, Keith David and Wilford Brimley standing out amongst an ensemble cast of sheer class.

6) Beyond the blood and guts on screen, there are some interesting ideas here about identity, a sense of self and a "trust no one" attitude that would, of course, become the watchwords of X-Files fans at the turn of the twenty-first century.

7) There has been a video game developed from the movie's premise (approximately 20 years after the movie was released) and it's surprisingly good.

8) Contains one of my favourite ever lines: "I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I'd rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS F*-&KING COUCH!"

9) In a year dominated by Spielberg's little, friendly E.T.  it was not great news at the box office for The Thing but home video and subsequent word of mouth saw it become a much-loved film by horror fans and deservedly so, in my opinion.

10) I first saw The Thing at the tender age of twelve years old. On a small, black and white TV. With a lot of static. While eating a curry. Despite the lack of a crystal clear screen I still could not eat my curry. Needless to say, that's now a cherished memory within my twisted Thing-loving psyche.

For fans of the film, the Blu-ray release is essential. Great picture and sound gives the movie a new lease of life and this is complemented by the many extras that were also on the special edition DVD release: that great commentary track featuring both Carpenter and Russell (one of the best chat-tracks that you will ever hear), a lengthy documentary about the making of the movie, outtakes, production notes, conceptual art and much, much more. 

Movie: 10/10

Disc: 10/10

Friday 16 November 2012

Dan In Real Life (2007)

There are parts of a nice movie hidden within Dan In Real Life. In fact, there are parts of a movie that the cast deserve a hell of a lot more than this one. Especially Steve Carell in the lead role.

Carell plays the Dan of the title. He’s a widower with three young girls who seem to test him more and more every day. He also writes a column in which he offers other people advice and helps them with their own family problems. If only he could sort out his own. He and the girls head off to a family gathering and it’s not long before Dan is encouraged to head off for a bit of time on his own. He heads to a local bookshop and, while there, meets the beautiful Anne-Marie (Juliette Binoche). The two of them have a wonderful time talking together and Dan gets her phone number as they go their separate ways. He’s shocked when he gets home and is introduced to the latest girlfriend of his brother (Mitch, played by Dane Cook). Yep, it’s Anne-Marie. So begins a family gathering from hell as Dan veers between playing things overly cool and letting his emotions cause no small amount of embarrassment.

Directed by Peter Hedges (who also co-wrote the movie with Pierce Gardner), Dan In Real Life benefits from an absolutely superb cast but doesn't give any of them enough moments in which to shine.

Carell is wonderful and Binoche is delightful but the great Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney are sadly underused while the not-so-great Dane Cook is sadly given plenty of screentime. Now, unlike some folks, I don't mind Dane Cook and have actually enjoyed a number of his movies and performances but he's not served well by the script here, his role being little more than harmless schmo oblivious to some rather obvious awkwardness between his new lady and his brother. If you like Emily Blunt then you may be disappointed to see that she's also given very little to do. In fact, her screentime amounts to little more than five minutes and her character is simply a bit of an antidote to all of the subtle treachery occuring while, let's face it, a guy tries to sabotage his brother's latest relaionship. Alison Pill, Britt Robertson and Marlene Lawstonare all quite good as Dan's three young daughters but even their characters aren't given all that much to do.

There were a couple of moments that made me laugh and many moments that made me cringe but I couldn't bring myself to rate the movie as something truly terrible. It's quite a disappointment but at least the performances are good.


Thursday 15 November 2012

Bad Taste (1987)

There are many fans who seem ungrateful nowadays because they moan about the fact that Peter Jackson has found such great success with The Lord Of The Rings movies that it's taken him away from his splatterific, horror roots. While I love almost everything that the man has ever done, it's hard not to look back on his early movies and wish that, even just once, he would go back to doing something as energetic, manic and blood-soaked as he used to.

Bad Taste was the first feature film that Peter Jackson ever made. It took about four years from start to finish but you couldn't tell that from the end product. It may be rough around the edges but there was already plenty here to mark Jackson out as a considerable talent.

The plot is simple - a bunch of aliens have landed in a small New Zealand town and they've taken all of the locals and turned them into fast food (humans being the latest taste sensation with this set of extraterrestrials). The only people who become aware of, and could fix, the situation include The Boys AKA Derek (played by Jackson), Ozzy (Terry Potter), Barry (Pete O'Herne) and Frank (Mike Minett). They have weapons, they have the courage and, in the form of Derek, they have at least one deranged individual who also seems to be pretty indestructible.

I'm not going to harp on about this movie and make it out to be some perfect gem that every horror fan should immediately seek out because it's not a movie that most people are guaranteed to enjoy. However, I like to think that people who share my sense of humour will most definitely like this as much as I did. It's full of some great splatstick (to use the phrase that Jackson likes to use) moments, has a couple of memorable characters and plenty of fun lines throughout the script, which was written by Jackson with additional material from Ken Hammon and Tony Hiles.

The plot may be a standard mix of sci-fi and action but the gore effects (some superb and others amusingly crude) really push this into horror territory. Well, there aren't many non-horror viewers who will be entertained by aliens sharing a bowl of green chuck, a man who keeps placing bits of his damaged brain matter into his broken skull and some demented fun with a chainsaw. Mind you, everyone laughs at the unfortunate sheep (just watch and learn).

I will be in line to see The Hobbit movies when they are released over the next couple of years and I will also be looking forward to seeing what Jackson does with the second Tintin movie. I don't mind at all that such a talented and passionate man has been given plenty of money and a much bigger playground in which to film his visions. Having said that, I'd also rush to the cinema and gladly hand over my money for a follow up to Bad Taste.


Wednesday 14 November 2012

The Curse Of The Mummy's Tomb (1964)

As mentioned in my review of The Mummy, I'm not a big fan of mummy movies. So the fact that I enjoyed that film and, to a lesser extent, this one too should bode well for those who like to see their bad boogeymen shuffling around while swathed in bandages.

Michael Carreras directs, and writes, this time around and the first half of the movie is very familiar territory. A tomb is opened, treasures are removed and deaths start to occur. The second half brings in one fresh idea but by then all the fun is to be had watching the mummy go about its business anyway (and I, for one, thought that this particular mummy had a great look to it . . . . . in as much as a mummy CAN look good).

The cast are a real mixed bag. Ronald Howard is the standard Hammer hero, a solid gentleman always ready to help a damsel in distress in between his academic pursuits. Terence Morgan is smooth as Adam Beauchamp, Jack Gwillim is okay in the first half of the movie but doesn't really convince in the latter half as his character becomes a bit of a drunkard, Fred Clark is great fun as an American entrepreneur wanting to make big money from the discoveries and George Pastell plays a character very similar, superficially, to the one he played in The Mummy. And Michael Ripper pops up, too. Oh, then there's Jeanne Roland, one of the most irritating women I have watched in a Hammer movie. I'm sorry to say it but her accent felt like nails on a blackboard to me. That may seem unfair, considering the fact that she was dubbed but her acting wasn't all that good either.

It's definitely not up there with the better Hammer horror movies but The Curse Of The Mummy's Tomb is a decent enough, consistently entertaining, entry in their extensive catalogue. Boredom never sets in and the ending provides a satisfying mix of tension and tragedy. Worth a look.


Tuesday 13 November 2012

The Giant Claw (1957)

Directed by Fred F. Sears, and written by Paul Gangelin and Samuel Newman, The Giant Claw is an abject lesson in bad movie making. Never mind the fact that the creature putting the fear of god into everyone looks like a heroin-addicted cousin of Gonzo from The Muppets, nothing in this movie works at all. If you watch it in the right mood, and probably with the right company, you should be able to wring some laughs from how bad it is but even that is a struggle. It's too easy, which makes mocking it feel like tripping up a floppy-eared puppy.

Jeff Morrow stars as Mitch MacAfee, a man who upsets everyone when he starts insisting that he has seen a UFO during a flight. Nobody believes him until more flights are affected. Then they start to, reluctantly, consider the possibility that he might be telling the truth. When it comes to light that the UFO is actually some giant creature that seems pretty indestructible there's only one man that the world turns to for a solution. Mitch. He, along with the pretty and intelligent Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday), sets out to find a way to kill the deadly beast.

Apparently, leading man Morrow didn't see the creature until the film's premiere in his home town. When he saw, and heard, how laughable it was he cringed for a while and then left early so that nobody would recognise him. That's understandable but what's harder to understand is how he thought the rest of it would be any good.

It feels like almost a third of the movie is narrated. At least the opening narration accompanies relevant footage. The narration explaining the terror caused by the giant bird has nothing alongside it really showing you any terror.

Director Sears can get most of the blame but I can't imagine anything that would have lifted such a poor script. Full of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, characters that it's hard to care about and unmemorable dialogue, it's an embarrassment from start to finish. The acting from all involved isn't that great either but as that's the least of the onscreen problems it's an easier fault to overlook.

If you're a connoisseur of bad cinema then this is one that you need to check out. Everyone else should avoid it like the plague. I give it 2 points for making me chuckle but even that is being generous.


Monday 12 November 2012

Q (1982)

AKA Q: The Winged Serpent.

Writer/director Larry Cohen has given fans a lot of great little movies over the years. Films with no delusions of grandeur that often just manage to punch above their weight thanks, usually, to Cohen's ability to knock out fun scripts that are peppered with cool dialogue.

Q is one of his best, a film all about a giant bird winged serpent that terrorises the good people of New York. Yet it's not really all about the giant, winged beastie because Q is equally a character study, focusing on a small time crook named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty). Jimmy bemoans his lot in life but it's really all his own fault, as is shown by how unappreciative he is of the love of a good woman (Joan, played by the wonderful Candy Clark). When he's involved in a robbery that doesn't go according to plan, Jimmy has to scarper and he stumbles upon the nest of the titular serpent. When the police (David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, amongst others) get a hold of him and take him in for questioning, Jimmy starts to think that his luck may have finally changed. He hears talk of some flying creature that's been killing people and he knows that he has information that could save the day. At a price.

The main character of this movie is not a nice guy. No, Jimmy Quinn is an ungrateful, cocky, cowardly, crude, pathetic excuse for a human being. Thankfully, the script and Michael Moriarty's performance also make him into someone that you want to keep watching, even if it's only to see if he'll get his comeuppance. The support from Clark, Carradine, Roundtree, James Dixon, Malachy McCourt, Larry Pine, John Capodice, Tony Page and a few others also keeps this movie being watchable and very entertaining from start to finish.

Q himself isn't fully shown very often, for obvious reasons. Thankfully, there's enough aerial photography and trickery with shadows to ensure that viewers never feel shortchanged. Even for the many moments when the beast isn't directly involved, it always seems to be hovering over everything. Which is most appropriate, of course. To be fair, when it does finally come to the "money shots" then it's not all that bad either.

As already mentioned, Cohen crafted another winner with this one - that great character study mixed in with part monster movie and part serial killer film (the beast may have been summoned by someone flaying people alive) - but he really lucked out when he snagged Michael Moriarty for the lead role. The man gives, perhaps, a career-best performance.

I easily recommend this film to lovers of smart b-movie fare. Grab a beverage, put up your feet and spend some time up in the clouds with Quetzalcoatl.


Sunday 11 November 2012

Night Of The Demon (1957)

Rightly regarded as a classic of the horror genre by many, Night Of The Demon is directed by the great Jacques Tourneur and based on the short story "Casting The Runes" by the great M. R. James. So it's basically got a foundation of greatness. The cast, which includes Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins and Nial MacGinnis, is full of people just right for their characters and therefore the movie can't really fail.

But then there are those moments in which the titular demon is shown onscreen. We'll get to those scenes later.

The plot is all about Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) and his visit to England to expose the workings of cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell (Nial MacGinnis). When he arrives, Dr. Holden is upset to hear that a colleague he was collaborating with (Professor Harrington, played by Maurice Denham) is dead. He is determined to continue his work but also ends up being assisted by Harrington's niece, Joanne (Peggy Cummins), as he investigates the mysterious death of the Professor. Meanwhile, Dr. Karswell predicts another death and seems very confident in his powers. Initially dismissive of the paranormal, Dr. Holden starts to believe that there may be something more happening that can't be easily explained but he only has a few days left to get to the bottom of everything if he is to avoid his own premature death.

With so many scenes positively dripping with atmosphere and some wonderful exchanges between "rational minds" and those who believe in the paranormal, Night Of The Demon is both old-fashioned horror at its simplest and best and also intelligent and full of characters who are enjoyably sceptical of what they see as a load of hokum.

Impressively, that scepticism runs through most of the movie. There are times when things occur that could be just coincidence (such as the moment in which Dr. Karswell "conjures up" a strong wind) and the movie is almost as much about the way in which people only need to believe in something bad for their behaviour to change in such a way that brings about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The script is by Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester (who was also an executive producer and quite a meddlesome presence), with some uncredited work from Cy Endfield, and they deserve their credit but the fact is that the source material was superb. For that reason, even though it may seem slightly unfair, I give the most thanks to M. R. James and director Tourneur, who knew exactly how to make the best of every scene.

Oh, I've still to mention the moments when the demon itself appears onscreen. This has long been a bone of contention among many horror fans, with most claiming that those scenes spoil an otherwise perfect film. Tourneur claims that he never wanted the demon to be shown so directly and the blame is often heaped upon Chester for this major mis-step. Mind you, according to the excellent Beating The Devil: The Making Of Night Of The Demon by Tony Earnshaw, the offending, unambiguous shots were included in the early stages of production development.

I'm in agreement with the majority anyway, those scenes DO spoil an otherwise perfect film. On the other hand, this movie has that great mix of onscreen quality and offscreen turbulence that makes it just as enjoyable to watch and investigate further nowadays as it would have been over 50 years ago.


Saturday 10 November 2012

Escape From New York (1981)

This sleek, cool, sci-fi thriller from John Carpenter is the film that really seemed to cement the working relationship between the director and actor Kurt Russell. The two consistently brought out the best in one another throughout the 1980s and this is when it all kicked off (the Elvis biopic was good but also far removed from the rest of the work that they would do together).

Russell has a ball playing Snake Plissken, one of the coolest, grizzled anti-heroes ever to be put on film. He’s asked to rescue the President Of The United States after a flight is hijacked and he reluctantly agrees, not caring at all about the fate of the POTUS but won over by the thought of a full pardon. You see, Snake is a criminal and it will take a criminal to rescue the President because the President is being held in a prison by a bunch of degenerates who want out. The prison is New York itself, walled up many years ago and made inescapable – it’s the place where criminals go to rot.

Escape From New York is just as enjoyable to watch today as it was when it was released back in 1981. It doesn’t matter that the wild future depicted onscreen is now some years behind us (1997), it only matters that this is Carpenter at the top of his game with his favourite actor in the lead role and a supporting cast of top notch character actors: Tom Atkins, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau and Donald Pleasence.

The script, written by Carpenter and Nick Castle, is lean and cool throughout, with Plissken being more a man of action than words. The direction and cinematography is as great as you'd expect from Carpenter during this period in his career, with typically gorgeous work from Dean Cundey, and there's yet another of those classic synth scores accompanying the action - created by the director and Alan Howarth.

It may have been Carpenter's biggest budget at the time but the movie remains a great one to study for those wantting to learn about wringing the most from every dollar. Superb matte paintings, "wire-frame" images of a city created by white tape on a black model, a production design department making numerous trips to garbage landfill sites to scavenge junk they could use for props, every trick in the book was used to ensure that the money is onscreen and that the movie matches the vision of its director.