Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas

I'd just like to wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a peaceful and safe New Year. I'm grateful to all of you who visit and read my blog and am aware from the statistics that, as well as the UK, I get visitors from all over the world: USA, Russia, Netherlands, Germany, Iceland, Canada.... too many countries to list so wherever you are, and whatever your'e doing, thanks again and have a great Christmas.

Just a quick word on my Joe Strummer coverage: Unfortunately, I'm way behind due to a number of factors, which include pressure of work, illness (Meniere's Disease once again) and an unexpected Blu-ray that turned up for review. So, my Joe Strummer tribute will continue through January and I have two very special contributors lined up to help.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Blu-ray Review: Tenebrae

Made in 1982, Dario Argento's Tenebrae marked a triumphant return to the Giallo after the Italian director had previously shot Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) - two memorable forays into the supernatural which departed from Argento's previous fare. I've seen Tenebrae labelled on more than one occasion as Argento's last great film and while I'd certainly take issue with this assertion, there's no doubt that it represents top-drawer material.

The film is set in Rome; more specifically a Rome of the near future, as Argento makes sure he keeps well away from landmark architecture and crowded streets to unveil a city that will seem unfamiliar to all but local residents and the most committed of tourists. American writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arrives in the eternal city to join personal assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and PR guy Bullmer (John Saxon) aiming to successfully promote his latest novel. Tenebrae (Latin for darkness/shadows) is the next in line of murder mysteries, and its storyline inspires the murder of a shoplifter and high roller played by Ania Pieroni, who is slashed with a razor while pages of Tenebrae are stuffed into her mouth.
Enter police Detective Altieri (Carola Stagnaro) and his assistant who team up with Neal in an attempt to catch the deranged killer before any more blood is spilt. When the detective confesses he never guesses the killer's identity in Neal's books, it gives some idea of the calibre of detection on offer here; a deficiency that is amplified when a rather large murder weapon - barely concealed in a tree - is missed by Altieri and his merry band.

For the benefit of potential first-time viewers, I'll refrain from delving into the various plot twists of this film, except to say their are several surprises along the way en route to justifiably famous reveal near the end which is beautifully choreographed and shot. There are several clues during Tenebrae that point to the killer's identity, but many of us missed them first time round which makes repeated viewings a must, establishing just how ingenious the screenplay really is.

The supremely stylish murder sequences were brilliantly conceived, driven by a superb score from Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli, and Franciosa's performance is a real stand-out; particularly when compared to some of the phoned-in performances from past (and future) Argento leads.

Tenebrae was originally released on Blu-ray in the UK by Arrow Video, but a sub standard master and DNR rendered their presentation to beyond disappointing. Now, a new master has emerged and the encoding process has delivered a stunning transfer. Now, skin tones are bang on, and the brightly lit interior and exterior scenes look fantastic with a fine layer of grain that remains this time round. Those who passed on the first release can now buy with confidence, and can also enjoy the supplementary material that was previously on offer and replicated here.

First off, we have a pair of audio commentary tracks: Kim Newman and Alan Jones share the first track, with Newman's vast knowledge of film nicely hooking up with Jones' wealth of industry experience which crucially includes many days of on-set exposure to Argento's films. It's a hugely enjoyable an enlightening chat, full of anecdotes and sharp observations, which leave you with a much greater appreciation of what was accomplished here.
The second track sees Thomas Rostock deliver an in-depth look at one of his favourite films, talking about the clever framing devised by Argento and ace cameraman Luciano Tovoli; discussing visual and thematic motifs, which include the 'doubling' aspect that runs through the film. An enjoyable and rewarding commentary.

Next up is an interview with Daria Nicolodi 'Screaming Queen: Daria Nicolodi Remembers Tenebrae' (16 min) in which Daria recalls she wanted Argento to start work on the final chapter of 'The Three Mothers' trilogy, and how she had her eyes on another role in Tenebrae. She also chats about the photography in Suspiria, Inferno and Tenebrae, and declares "Murder can be an art".

'The Unsane World Of Tenebrae: An Interview With Dario Argento' is a 15 minute interview with the great man, where he talks about the reason why he stopped doing Giallo's for a while, a most unnerving situation when he was stalked by a telephone nutter in LA and fellow director Michele Soavi is also mentioned.

'A Composition For Carnage: Claudio Simonetti On Tenebrae' (10 min) sees the ace musician and composer holding forth on Argento and recalling how they got the gig for Tenebrae.

'Goblin: Tenebrae And Phenomena Live From The Glasgow Arches' is next on the agenda, and includes 16 minutes of music from a gig on 25th February 2011. It's an absolute pleasure to see these great musicians at work with two of the standout tracks from those films.

Last up is a new interview, 'Maitland McDonagh On Tenebrae' (12 min) which was specially recorded for this release. McDonagh - author of the essential 'Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds' (a must for Argento buffs) makes some excellent points about the film and its location, ending this most special edition in style.

Tenebrae is released on 23rd December, and is Region B. A most welcome release for Argento's legion of fans, and a great place for newcomers to start.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Chaos At The Kings Hall: My First Night With The Clash

Music first got me in its clutches during my schooldays. The likes of Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music, Marc Bolan and The Sweet kickstarting my musical education, and making albums and 45rpm singles a must when birthdays, Christmas or just special treats rolled around. I began to read the music press when I was 14, and became aware of the wonderful world of live music, where bands would play at concert venues up and down the country with loyal followings taking the chance to see their heroes play live. When I was 16, I started going to concerts, and some good friends lined up a series of gigs to go to at the Kings Hall in Derby. Bands came thick and fast in those days, and almost every week offered a new band to see: Man, Budgie, Curved Air, Steve Hillage, Streetwalkers, Fruupp.... they were great nights out, but deep down inside, I was bored. Like many others, I was waiting for something to happen, and didn't really know it.
Then Punk hit the headlines and the airwaves and I knew this was it. John Peel's radio show from Monday through to Friday unleashed a host of exciting new bands, and The Kings Hall - built over a swimming pool - took the baton and ran with it. In October 1977, The Boomtown Rats played there, and I enjoyed watching them as they were one of the flavours of the month at the time, even though Bob Geldof's onstage patter didn't particularly convince me and several others I talked to. At the time, I was out of work, awaiting my first job which would turn up out of the blue in December of that year,and would give me some much-needed cash to fuel my passion for music. London was calling to me, but a gig on 24th November at the Kings Hall was the only thing on my radar at the time, and would mark the first time I saw The Clash onstage.

So, I turned up at the hall early and was greeted by a long line of like-minded souls who walked down over half the length of Queen Street to join the queue. After what seemed like an age, the queue began to move forwards and before we knew it, we were inside and making a beeline for the bar to grab that first pint of the evening. I was already aware of the supporting acts and resolved to watch them both. An all-girl bands called The Lous (who were French) took the stage first, but sadly only lasted a couple of songs, thanks to some members of the partisan crowd who only wanted to see The Clash. Shower after shower of spit, beer cans and bottles, and other projectiles usually confined to Derby County's Baseball ground battles between rival fans were all aimed at the band who took flight, leaving those of us who wanted to see them utterly frustrated. Next on the bill was Richard Hell And The Voidoids; a band that had thrilled me with songs like "Blank Generation" and "Love Comes In Spurts". Unfortunately, Richard and his band suffered the same treatment as The Lous but they never took a backward step and played their set in full, earning great respect in the process.
Now the stage was set for The Clash, but the hour was getting late for Kings Hall gigs, where the headline act normally went onstage by 9.30pm. In the event, The Clash were still in their dressing room at 10.30, and with my last bus home only 15 minutes away, I had a decision to make: Should I Stay Or Should I Go? I reckon it took me all of a minute to decide I was staying to see the band. Having made that decision, the only course open to me was to sleep rough outside as none of my friends at the time were into Punk and therefore didn't attend the gigs. At 10.40pm, the lights went down, Joe Strummer and co walked on stage and went straight into "London's Burning". I knew I had made the right decision!The band and the atmosphere were simply electric, with all the songs we knew so well present and correct, and a few new ones we would grow to love. This gig marked a first for me,in that it was the first time I extricated myself from the pogoing masses down the front and went onto the balcony where I stood and watched the band and the crowd's reaction. The song I chose was "Police And Thieves". Truth was, I needed a breather, but it became something I would do at every gig I attended. In years to come, I would appreciate just how much the likes of Iggy, Pete Murphy, Lydon, Siouxsie, Ian Curtis and others commanded the stage and Joe was the same. Police And Thieves may have originally bore the name of Junior Murvin but Strummer went on to own it, and the song became of of my live faves: quite simply one of the most intense musical experiences you could imagine.

All too soon, the gig was over and I trudged out into the chilly November evening on a high, which was slightly diluted by the fact that my nice warm bed seemed a world away. After walking for what seemed like ages, I finally dossed down in a bus shelter and waited for dawn. I know at some point, I finally got to sleep. Whether I dreamed or not is beyond my memory, but if I did, I'd like to think I dreamed of Joe and the boys. When morning came, the sound of a bus honking its horn rudely awoke me, and I gathered my thoughts and realised I would return to the Kings Hall later that night. The Jam were headlining with Neon Hearts supporting, but that's another story.

Now, an illness called Meniere's Disease has largely taken control of my life, meaning attending live music is out of the question but I've had my day in the sun and been extremely fortunate to see some terrific live acts. I've seen Patti Smith at Birmingham Odeon, The Stranglers, The Jam, The Banshees on many occasions,The Lurkers play a super set at London's Marquee club as the fog rolled in on Wardour Street outside, I've seen The Who and The Rolling Stones rock the old Wembley football stadium, Iggy, Lux, The Ramones and Lydon tear up the stage at Nottingham's Rock City, the great Joy Division play twice and got off my sickbed riddled with flu to drag myself to see The Clash at Derby Assembly Rooms. Wonderful nights indeed, but I really don't think any gig has ever matched The Clash at Derby Kings Hall.
You never forget the first time.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Ballad Of Joe Strummer (part two) The Sound Of The Westway

1976, and England really was burning with boredom now. Disaffected and disfranchised youth, waiting for something, anything, to happen.Mick Jones was one of those on a short fuse, and joined a band called London SS, with a guy named Bernard Rhodes as their manager. The Punk scene spawned many legendary bands who never played a single gig, and London SS were a prime example. The name reached legendary status, but like many, imploded with just a name for a memory. Jones and Rhodes remained in contact and contacted Paul Simonon who had previously auditioned for London SS as a vocalist. before long, drummer Terry Chimes and guitarist Keith Levene were enlisted, and Strummer soon followed when Rhodes gave him the chance to form a band that would rival the Sex Pistols.

On 4th July 1976, The Clash made their live debut, supporting the Sex Pistols at The Black Swan in Sheffield. More intensive rehearsals followed, and the band gradually improved, though Levene and Chimes would soon be out of the band; the former was fired and the latter walked out.
Word of mouth soon spread about this exciting new talent, and I jumped at the chance of seeing them play live in nearby Derby on a dream of a bill. Together with The Clash, were the Sex Pistols headlining and The Damned and Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers to make for an exciting quartet of acts. Unfortunately, Derby City Council met on 4th December - the day of the gig - insisted on vetting the Pistols' show. Rotten and co simply didn't turn up, leaving the council to stew for over 2 hours. In the end, the council refused permission for the show to go ahead, so hundreds of us had a disappointing trip back home, denied the chance to see 4 terrific bands perform.

So, 1976 fucked off, and in came '77 and one hell of a year was in store. At the arse-end of January, The Clash signed to CBS Records for 100 grand, releasing their first single "White Riot" in March. This white hot slice of vinyl was a stunning declaration of intent and I knew at once that all the hype was justified. Bring on the album!
Punk spawned many great albums and singles, and a whole cartload of stunning debut LP's. "The Scream", "Crossing The Red Sea", "Another Music In A Different Kitchen", "Never Mind The Bollocks", "Cut", "Real Life".... the list goes on, but "The Clash" really was something and still is. The kind of album you play loud with the bedroom window wide open, so the music goes out into the streets where it belongs. This is still a record that stands up, even more so when you consider the mediocrity of today's music scene and the utter shit perpetrated by our current government and those who have gone before.

8th April 1977 was a red letter day when the album hit the racks of my local record store, and I could not wait to get the album back home and slam it on the turntable. Right from the opening track about brothel keeper "Janie Jones", the album simply never lets up, with furious guitar, some juggernaut drumming and venomous lyrics spat out with the contempt we all felt for the wankers who sought to control our lives. Economics, class, rubber johnnies ("Protex Blue"), race, the hopelessness of unemployment and an inspired reaction to a critic who had labelled The Clash a 'garage band'... great lyrics that were soon memorised for the gigs that were to come when we were all singalongaclash down at the front. For me, one of the finest songs in this stunning album is Junior Murvin's "Police And Thieves", recorded to boost the running time of the album, and destined to be a live standard which introduced many of us to Reggae.

"The Clash" reached number 12 in the album charts, and should have made number one, but it served its purpose giving us music for the ages and whetting our appetites for seeing the band live. Happily, the wait for me was almost over.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Blu-ray Review: The Long Goodbye

Robert Altman's take on Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel takes private investigator Philip Marlowe and moves him from 1949 to 1970s Hollywood. Health concious California is the setting for Rip Van Marlowe (Elliott Gould) whose character appears to have woken from a 20 year slumber to emerge as a chain-smoking stranger in a strange land. Marlowe's best friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) has gone missing and the cops haul Marlowe in for questioning, telling him that Lennox's wife has been beaten to death. Enentually, Marlowe is released with the police now declaring Terry is dead, and the case is closed. Of course, Marlowe isn't put off that easily, and an encounter with local hood Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) hardens his resolve to discover the truth; particularly as Marty reveals Lennox stole $355,000 from him and accusing Marlowe of knowing where the money is stashed. Add to this a juicy sidebar involving the elegant Eileen Wade (Nina Von Pallandt) and her hard-drinking husband Roger (Sterling Hayden) and you have an industrious plot containing some major diferences to Chandler's book.
Inevitably, many Chandler devotees did not take kindly to Leigh Brackett's screenplay, feeling too many liberties were taken, and certainly the ending is a major revision from its source, together with Roger Wade's demise, yet both scenes work beautifully, in my opinion.

Happily, time has been kind to Altman's film, now banishing the original negativity to emerge blinking in the bright sunlight of critical acclaim. Elliott Gould really does excel in the role he was born to play, and there's a fine supporting cast at work with the shocks and surprises that keep you glued to the screen: check out Mark Rydell as the truly nasty Augustine who figures in a shocking act of violence designed to show Marlowe that he#s not fooling around like some lightweight crook.
It's well past time that The Long Goodbye was treated to a feature-packed high definition outing and the Arrow Academy Blu-ray does the job beautifully. Image quality maintains the high standard output adopted by Arrow, and DOP Vilmos Szigmond provided detailed colour notes so the master could better match the original look intended from 1973. The result is a transfer with muted, desaturated colours and plenty of detail that will surely satisfy fans of this film.

On the extras front, the Channel Four documentary Robert Altman: Giggle And Give In is a 56 minute look at Altman and his work, which was screened on 17th July 1996 by Channel Four. Here, Alan Rudolph, Elliott Gould and Shelley Duvall hold forth, with the latter declaring Altman to be "the best at depicting Americana". 'Giggle' was shot around the time of the 'Kansas City' release, so there's a slice of proceedings given to this film, and also clips from other key works such as 'Three Women' and 'Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean': how I would love to see this long-neglected classic hit Blu-ray in 2014!

Next up is the 53 minute Elliott Gould Discusses The Long Goodbye. This really is an absolute joy, as Gould reveals this to be his favourite role, and throws in many anecdotes (including a wonderful harmonica story) and recalls Altman's generosity - particularly with regard to actor's improvisation - recalling the Al Jolsen scene and that immortal line "I've seen all your movies". One feels a genuine sense of regret when this absorbing Q&A ends, and a word of thanks to Michael Connelly who is an excellent host, and who declares he watches The Long Goodbye once a year, acknowledging that it changed his life.
Vilmos Szigmond Flashes The Long Goodbye is next on the agenda, being a 14 minute interview with this great cinematographer. Szigmond has been in much demand recently with Blu-ray documentaries, and his talents add so much to Altman's film. Szigmond chats about Altman's value as a great director, about his use of the zoom lens, and shares memories of this film and of the great McCabe And Mrs Miller.

David Thompson On Robert Altman is a 21 minute interview with the writer and filmmaker which centres on Altman's work, describing the remarkable 'Images' as his European art movie; discusses how he mixes actors with real people playing themselves and how Altman felt liberated by his break from television to the big screen.

Raymond Chandler enters the spotlight next, as Tony Williamson (author of a book on Chandler) gives a 14 minute interview, explaining how Chandler discovered Pulp and his relationship with Billy Wilder, writing the screenplay for 'Double Indemnity'.

Finally, we have crime writer Max Jakubowski on Hard Boiled Fiction (14 min) where the names of Cornell Woolrich, Ed McBain and Jim Thompson crop up along the way. Devotees of The Long Goodbye will also be pleased by the inclusion of a trailer and a booklet containing new writing on the film, including a piece fro Brad Stevens (which I didn't receive a copy of).
Oh, and do check out a remarkable theory amongst these extras. it centres on the scene where Marlowe is knocked down chasing a car driven by Eileen Wade, possibly getting killed in the process. This puts a whole new spin on the ending, and is well worthy of your consideration.

The Lon g Goodbye is a Region B release, and comes out in the UK on 16th December. It's a tremendously satisfying package, and a worthy contender when the Best Blu's Of The Year lists are rolled out.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Ballad Of Joe Strummer (Part One). The 101'ers

Originally named John Graham Mellor and born in Ankara, Turkey on 21st Sugust 1952, Joe Strummer was the son of a British diplomat and spent his formative years travelling because of his father's job. Bonn, Cairo and Mexico City all made for temporary homes, before Joe settled in London in 1959.
During his schooldays in the UK, Joe quickly grew to love music, with the likes of Captain Beefheart and Chuck Berry amongst his early favourites, but it was a stint at the London School Of Art that really cemented his interest in music and also cinema.Joe had already changed his name once (from John to Woody), but another name change was on the horizon. In 1974, Joe's burgeoning passion for music saw him form the legendary band 'The 101'ers',and Joe Strummer was born.
The band made their live debut on 7th September at The Telegraph pub in Brixton as 'El Huaso And The 101 All Stars', with the name subsequently shortened to 'The 101'ers' after the number of the Maida Vale squat they lived at. The band played at various festivals and slowly began to make a name for themselves on the London Pub Rock circuit. Although relatively short-lived, Pub Rock was responsible for bringing live music back to smaller clubs, and the movement was graced by some wonderful bands such as Dr Feelgood, Kilburn And The High Roads, Roogalator and Ducks Deluxe.
The history of The 101'ers may have been short, but it got Joe up onstage and spawned some great vinyl, which included the excellent 'Keys To Your Heart' single. This was the first song Joe wrote and was about his girlfriend at the time, Palmolive.

The 101'ers were supported by an exciting new band called the Sex Pistols on 3rd April 1976, and this inspired Joe to get togther with younger, more yobbish musicians, feeling his his fellow band members were simply too old. So, The Clash were born, but this new venture did not mark the final chapter in The 101'ers as far as vinyl output was concerned. By 1981, The Clash were a vitally important band and interest grew in Joe's first group, leading to the release of a second single - 'Sweet Revenge' - which, like 'Keys' was released on the mighty Chiswick label. An album followed, titled 'Elgin Avenue Breakdown', which contained several live recordings. Right from the word go with 'Letsagetabitarockin' kicking things off, this album is a glorious slice of rabble-rousing rock with 12 tracks of high octane (sometimes subtle low-key) music and a wonderful 8 minute version of 'Gloria' ending the album in style. The album was re-released in May 2005, with the help of Joe's widow Lucinda, containing an additional eight tracks and was titled 'Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited'. Joe had always intended to give this album a very special re-release, but sadly passed away before he could do so. Looking back, The 101'ers were a very special, blink of the eye band, and I envy anyone who got to see them play live in some London pub where the fires of Pub Rock burned brightly.
Now the scene was set for The Clash to enter the fray, with a truly blistering debut album and a growing reputation as one of our very finest live bands.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Video Watchdog Kickstarter Campaign

Tim and Donna Lucas recently started a Kickstarter drive which aims to raise enough money to bring all 176 issues of Video Watchdog online. Let Tim and Donna explain.

I have long held Video Watchdog to be the finest film magazine in the world, and was lucky enough to get the first issue from London's Forbidden Planet shop. At last, I'd found a film magazine that was for me, and devoured that debut issue, particularly enjoying a brilliant article on Jess Franco and how to read his films.

Check out the video and then visit the link and pledge what you can afford. We are entering a very exciting period for this great publication.

You can find more details HERE

Thursday, 28 November 2013

December 2013: Joe Strummer Month at Wonderland

December 22nd will mark another anniversary since Joe Strummer's death in 2002. This year, I thought it would be nice to run a month-long tribute to Joe, celebrating his life and the huge contribution he made to music.

For those who aren't into The Clash or even music, December on Wonderland will still see some film related goodies. I'll be reviewing the Arrow Academy release of 'The Long Goodbye' on Blu-ray, and also Arrow's second stab at Dario Argento's 'Tenebrae', which was a victim of a sub-standard master first-time round that Arrow could do little with. I'll also be taking a look at the BFI Player, which is an essential tool for film buffs resident in the UK. The end of 2013 will see my list of the top ten discs of this year, so plenty in store for film fans.

Going back to music for a moment, and in 2014, Wonderland will be undertaking month-long specials on The Slits, The Jam, Manchester Music and Punk Rock in the '70s which will include British and American bands.

Until then, here's Joe.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Blu-ray Review: Heaven's Gate

'What one loves in life are the things that fade'.

Based on 'The Johnson County War', "Heaven's Gate" is set in late 1890's Wyoming, where cattle barons wage war on immigrant settlers from eastern Europe. When the odious Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) draws up a death list (with government backing) containing 125 names, James Averill (Kristofferson) must decide whether to help the oppressed settlers or stand aside and allow Canton's hired hands to engage in an orgy of bloodshed.

History records that "Heaven's Gate" cost $44 million to make, took $1.5 million during a brief theatrical run and brought United Artists to financial ruin.

Critical response to the most unjustly maligned film in cinema history was largely unfavourable, with the majority of critics indulging in their own kind of vicious bloodletting: "boring", "at least 90 minutes too long", "sketchy characterisation"...... just a few of the comments aimed at a director who "didn't know when to stop shooting!" Maybe those same 'learned scribes' should sit and watch the two hour abortion occasionally screened on Sky, and then return to Cimino's 219 minute cut. It's here they'll find a film of exquisite beauty, where Vilmos Szigmond's painterly photography ensures damn-near every shot is a work of art, set to David Mansfield's celestial score.

Performance-wise, "Heaven's Gate" almost manages to surpass its sumptuous visuals:Kristofferson and Jeff Bridges (saloon keeper, James H. Bridges) deliver career-bests, Isabelle Huppert (Ella Watson) has rarely been better as the feisty Madame who juggles her emotions between Averill and part-time lover/mercenary Nate Champion (Walken) while John Hurt is unforgettable as the almost permanently blotto William Irvine.

Despite an excellent ensemble cast, the eye/ear candy provided by such splendid sound and vision could result in the screenplay being overlooked: subsequent viewings, however, will reveal an intensely moving script, conveying its characters collective feelings of loss, jealousy and regret. Even the finale is a masterpiece as we realise Averill has spent over 3 hours reliving his past from a ships deck, before ending the film with wordless acknowledgement of a request for a cigarette from his old college sweetheart; possibly the most moving scene in the entire film as Averill's eyes confirm a life that once was so full of promise has now lost all meaning.

So, why did the critics deliver such a savage reaction to this film? Quite simply, they reviewed the consequences of what turned out to be an enormous financial loss, and turned Cimino into a whipping boy, mindful of the possibility that they had possibly gone overboard for their praise for The Deer Hunter, whose success gave Cimino enormous leverage with his employers. This was payback in spades. Was Cimino blinded by his arrogance, with no thoughts for the money he was spending and the vast amount of footage he shot? Yes. Most definitely. But, just look at the film he turned out. Full of frankly terrific performances, from a cast he had carefully selected. Now, Heaven's Gate has emerged from the fire, and is at long last receiving the praise it deserves and we welcome its release on Blu-ray from Second Sight.

I've seen this film on Video, DVD and on the big screen at London's National Film Theatre, and this high definition presentation replicates the theatrical print, resulting in some truly stunning scenery. Indeed, Zsigmund's photography looks wonderful, with so many 'magic hour' shots taking one's breath away, and his aim of the film frequently looking like an old photograph just adds to the overall beauty. Fans of this film are likely to be delighted with how it looks here, and are also in for a treat with the supplementary material.

First up is True Gate. An Interview With Jeff Bridges. This piece has Bridges speaking with warmth about a film he watches every couple of years, recalling the film's premiere and a scathing New York Times review, both of which greatly disheartened cast and crew. He talks of great 'jam sessions' with the wonderful musicicans very night, and draws a comparison between the Johnson County situation with the oil barons of today. 19 engrossing minutes, and a pleasure to hear Jeff talk.

The next featurette is Painting Jackson County: An Interview With Vilmos Zsigmund (18 min) Here, Vilmos criticises United Artists for not standing by the film, and shares some great memories (champagne to celebrate one million foot of film shot), including Cimino's impatience ("But not with me") with some of his cast during the pursuit of excellence. A joy to witness and it nicely leads us into a 55 minute excerpt from the documentary 'Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of Heaven's Gate'. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, this absorbing feature tells the story of Cimino's film, from the story of European imigrants suspected of stealing cattle, and the death list drawn up; the original budget of $7.5 million; the reaction and efforts of studio executives who tried to get Cimino onside and the critical pounding it took from critics who decided its sins obscured its virtues. It's all here, with contributions from the likes of Steven Bach, David Field (both UA execs, with the former being the author of the best book on film I've read - Final Cut), Kristofferson, Bridges, and Cimino's assistant editor Penelope Shaw who remains fiercely loyal and makes some telling contributions. All in all, this documentary is worth the purchase price alone.

This Blu-ray release is out now on the Second Sight label, and adds to this film's standing as one of the great American movies. Yes, it's brutal in parts,but also achingly beautiful and, for me, never fails to recall aline from Edith Wharton's novel The Age Of Innocence.

"Next to death, life is the saddest thing there is".

Monday, 25 November 2013

Blu-ray Review: Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers

Philip Kaufman's 1978 take on Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers is more a re-imagining than a remake, moving the action from small town America to the big, bustling city of San Francisco where public health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) teams up with Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) to fight an invasion from outer space. Driscoll is certain her husband has experienced a massive overnight change, emerging as a completely different person and Bennell encounters the same story when he visits a drycleaners to be told by the owner that his wife is not the person she was hours earlier. The whole city appears to have changed overnight, with bus loads of commuters and normally store-hungry commuters ensnared by pods that create an exact likeness of their bodies, which when fully formed, leave the originals crumbling away. Kaufman is well served by a stellar cast here, which includes Leonard Nimoy as the shadowy Dr Kibner, and Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright who were cast as the husband and wife team running a mud bath spa which plays host to some fiendish transformations. There are cameos for Don Siegel (director of the original film) as a taxi driver, and Kevin McCarthy who appears to have been transported from Siegel's film to warn San Francisco of the escalating menace. These are wonderful touches from Kaufman, which serve to remind us of a fine slice of Sci-Fi which is actually bettered by this late '70s version.
The idea of alien manipulation on a massive scale is beautifully executed, with the chilling message 'Trust no-one' creating more than one surprise along the way. On a technical level, Kaufman's film scores highly in several departments: DOP Michael Chapman (who also has a cameo as a janitor) adds much to the sense of paranoia and mistrust, with imaginative lighting and ingenious camera angles, while Ben Burtt's sound design works so very well in tandem with Denny Zeitlins' score which turned out to be his only work as a composer. Full marks, also, to Kaufman for his decision not to let the audience off the hook with an ending that came as a big surprise to at least one member of the cast.
Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers is just as relevant today as it was in 1978, and makes a great addition to Arrow Video's increasingly impressive catalogue.

Picture quality on this Region B Blu-ray will delight fans of the film, with strong fleshtones and a retention of the grain which has not been tampered with. All in all, this seems to be an accurate representation.
Kicking off a generous selection of extras is 'Discussing The Pod'; a 50 minute roundtable where Kim Newman, Norman J. Warren and Ben Wheatley all have plenty to say about the success of Kaufman's film, sharing memories of their first viewing, and pinpointing exactly why this film has garnered so much praise.Newman in particular makes some excellent observations, declaring that the characters would be interesting even if there were no alien invasion, and that the conspiracy theme could involve whoever/whatever you're worried about.

Dissecting The Pod (17 min)
Writer and critic Annette Insdorf - who has studied Kaufman's work for over 20 years - discusses the multiple layers of Bodysnatchers, comparing the style to other Kaufman films, and succeeds in enriching our understanding and appreciation of the onscreen and offscreen contributions.

Writing The Pod (11 min)
Jack Seabrook, author of a book on Jack Finney, discusses the man's career and his most famous novel, offering a solid appreciation of Finney's talents.

Re-Visitors From Outer Space (16 min)
A featurette with appearances from WD Richter (who penned the screenplay), Kaufman, Michael Chapman, Donald Sutherland and Veronica Cartwright who explain what the film meant to them. Kaufman recalls how he approached Don Siegel with a view to making this film, and there's a hilarious story involving Don driving without his glasses through the streets of San Francisco.

The Man Behind The Scream (12 min)
Sound designer Ben Burtt reveals how some of the other-wordly sounds were created.

The Invasion Will Be Televised (5 min)
A short piece that discusses the Hitchcockian elements of Invasion, how they filmed the city at work and a demonstration of Chapman's considerable skills.

Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod (4 min)
Here, the famous opening sequence comes under the spotlight, together with the challenges involved with design and effects.

There's also a valuable director's commentary track where Philip Kaufman acknowledges Robert Duvall's cameo, labelling him "the first pod" and speaks warmly about Donald Sutherland's extraordinary acting ability, together with the fact that Sutherland did all his own stunt work despite being "one of the clumsiest men alive". It's a thoroughly engaging track that takes us on a scene-by-scene ride through the film, greatly adding to our appreciation of just what was accomplished.

Arrow's Blu-ray is out now, and is a top-notch, value for money package for fans of '70s paranoiac cinema.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Blu-Ray Review: Betty Blue

"She was a flower with psychic antennae, and a tinsel heart."
So begins the story of Betty Blue (Beatrice Dalle) and her relationship with Zorg(Jean-Hugues Anglade), a handyman and aspiring writer who finds his world turned upside down when Betty pitches camp in his beach shack: "the first time we've met in daylight." Zorg soon discovers his girlfriend possesses a fiery temper, with his boss on the receiving end. After a series of increasingly volatile encounters with the sweaty employer, Betty sets fire to their home and the pair move on to stay with a widowed friend of Betty's (Lisa, played by Consuela De Haviland). Before long, the trio become a quartet when Lisa's boyfriend Eddy (Gerard Damon) moves in and becomes firm friends with the house guests. So, relationships and bonds are formed, but Betty gradually sinks into severe depression, driven by rejections from publishers who turn down Zorg's book and by her inability to conceive.
In director Jean-Jaques Beineix's three hour director's cut, we can better appreciate Beatrice Dalle's iconic performance, and also her character whose decent into mental illness is slower and much harder to bear than in the two hour theatrical version which is also included in Second Sight's Blu-ray release. Indeed, it's a wonderful performance from the (then) unknown Dalle who exhibits a wild horse, impossible to tame nature which actually takes centre stage in the tale, rather than just being the story of someone who is driven mad by life. Zorg (a moving turn from Anglade) does his best to turn the tide, but comes to realise Betty's world exists "not in a meadow but in a gloomy pen."

Prior to Betty Blue, Beineix had delivered two shining stars in Diva and The Moon In The Gutter, but I strongly suspect that Betty Blue will turn out to be the one he's remembered for. Gabriel Yorel's score is instantly memorable, and stayed with me on a permanent basis after I caught the film opening week at the cinema in 1986, while Jean-Francois Robin's photography hits magisterial heights, realising some beautifully lit scenes. Betty Blue is one of those movies where all individual elements and components are exactly right, and the end result is a work that is of its time, and yet also timeless.

Second Sight's Blu-ray release offers exemplary picture quality that will delight fans of this film, with gorgeous candy colours, perfect skin tones and and high levels of detail which replicate the original theatrical release. An added bonus comes with Severin Films' hour-long documentary 'Blue Notes And Bungalows: The Making Of Betty Blue' which includes valuable contributions from Beineix, Dalle, Anglade, Robin, Yorel and first time producer Claudie Ossard who recalls the joy she felt at working with Beineix. We get to hear why Beineix chose to go with an unknown actress; exactly how responsive he was to input from cast and crew and his vision of Betty as an image of female rebellion. Oh, and do listen out for Dalle's great story about an encounter in a bookstore that she swears actually happened! This documentary is beautifully made, exhibiting a real love for the film and it's one you'll return to on future occasions. The remaining extra is 4 minutes of Beatrice Dalle's screentest. Here, she's completely unused to the cold, unblinking eye of a movie camera lens and is spontaneous and completely natural: exactly the kind of girl her director needed, and she comes over that way in the film, too. It's a delightful conclusion to Second Sight's presentation that bestows reverential treatment to one of cinema's great love stories, where the central characters discover the world was not made for them.

Betty Blue is released in the UK on 25th November and is region-free.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Blu-Ray Review: The People Under The Stairs

Some 22 years after its big screen debut, Wes Craven's The People Under The Stairs is, sadly, more relevant than ever. Here, child abuse and the plight of the disenfranchised come under the spotlight as class warfare erupts behind the locked doors and windows of what can only be described as a house of horrors.
Fool (aka Poindexter) played by Brandon Adams,is part of a struggling American family who face eviction from their apartment by an unscrupulous landlord in search of a return on his investment. Fool's mother is battling cancer and can't afford the treatment she so desperately needs, so her son becomes part of a plan to steal a collection of gold coins from the home of the aforementioned owner of the block. Led by family friend Leroy (Ving Rhames), Fool is accompanied by a third party, and the plan is to get in and straight out with the cash. Unfortunately for them, the occupants turn out to be an insane brother and sister act who keep their 'daughter' a permanent prisoner, together with an assortment of workmen and delivery guys who had seen and heard too much during their business trips to the house. Soon, Leroy and his accomplice meet a grisly end, leaving Fool to face the twin peaks of terror (Everett McGill, Wendy Robie) wo are hell bent on adding him to their list of casualties. Aided by Alice (A.J. Lang)and Roach (Sean Whalen)a prisoner in the walls,Fool fights to stay alive, and find the gold coins that will be the answer to his family's prayers.
The People Under The Stairs really is a multi-layered gem, and I really enjoyed my first view of this film since its theatrical screenings back in 1991.Originally, I'd pegged it as mid-tier Craven, but now feel it belongs to his top-drawer entries. Be very sure this is a gruesome, often hard-hitting affair mixing the harrowing subject of child abuse with the impoverished state of America's underclass, as Craven keeps his foot on the accelerator to inflict a steady stream of physical and verbal abuse on the unwilling occupants of the house. Wendy Robie in particular is a real standout here as the savage, sexually frustrated woman who also figures in several of the film's frankly hilarious moments; welcome comic relief that appears and re-appears before events resume their bleak, unforgiving tone: watch out for the scene when Fool discovers Roach had his tongue cut out, mirroring the down and out class of society who also have no voice. While McGill, Roach and Fool play their cat-and-mouse game, the eerie fortress becomes yet another character in the film, with secret passages and half-lit basements bearing all the trappings of quality genre fare. It's a wild ride indeed, and thoroughly deserving of a Blu-ray release from one of our most enterprising companies.

Arrow Video's Blu-ray has robust colours and plenty of detail, even in dimly lit scenes which benefit hugely from a HD picture. There are several instances of edge enhancement, but these can be attributed to the fact that Universal supplied the HD master and no blame for these isolated glitches can be laid at Arrow's door. On the extras front, the excellent High Rising Productions (Calum Waddell, Naomi Holwill)have worked hard on a quartet of featurettes:

Fear, Freud And Class Warfare
This features Wes Craven talking about his film, revealing the idea came to him from a newspaper report concerning a couple who kept two children locked in their house. Craven also chats about the challenges of working with children, and declares 'People' to be one of his most unfettered personal works.

Behind Closed Doors
A 13 minute interview with A.J. Lang who recalls the connection she made with Craven, and also Wendy Robie who remains a close friend.

Silent But Deadly
A 14 minute interview with Sean Whalen who recalls what a great time he had playing the little rebel in the house, and the experiences of what was his screen debut.

Underneath The Floorboards
A 9 minute piece featuring Jeffrey Riddick, who chats about the impact of Craven's film and declares Wendy Robie to be his favourite character.

Fans of Brandon Adams' performance will be delighted by the inclusion of a commentary track, which is beautifully moderated by Calum Waddell. Adams proved extremely difficult to track down, but his memories of working with Craven and McGill(a personal hero, even at Adams' tender age) amongst others made the effort worthwhile.
The People Under The Stairs is out now on, and represents a good solid addition to Arrow's increasingly impressive catalogue.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Blu-ray Review: Streets Of Fire

Released in 1984, Streets Of Fire cost $14 million to make and took a disappointing $8 million at the US box office.Since then, Walter Hill's 'Rock & Roll Fable' has gained in popularity to become a genuine cult attraction for viewers old and new. The film takes place in an unnamed city as homecoming queen Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) brings her band The Attackers to play a gig in her hometown. During the performance, a biker gang named The Bombers rush onto the stage and kidnap Ellen. Her manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) is outraged at seeing his girl snatched and offers $10,000 to her ex-boyfriend Tom Cody (Michael Pare) to get her back. The Bombers - led by the villainous Raven (Willem Dafoe) represent a formidable obstacle but Cody, joined by ex-soldier McCoy (Amy Madigan) is well up to the task. After a thrilling shoot-out, Cody is successful in his mission, but finds his troubles are only just beginning. With affairs of the heart bubbling away in the pot, Cody must reckon with the collective might of The Bombers artillery, which lives up to Raven's boast that he can bring "a lot more guns" to the table. Overall, it's a rather thin storyline and hardly original,yet the whole production works beautifully. Performance wise, Hill's cast tick a lot of boxes: Pare, brooding and resourceful as the ex soldier of fortune, with Madigan equally impressive with her hard-talking, no nonsense character and Moranis gives a more than decent turn as the loud mouthed agent who possesses the balls to challenge The Bombers, but no muscle to back it up with.Diane Lane, already well experienced in the acting profession despite her youth, also impresses as the diva in distress and watch out for The Sorels; a delightful doo-wop band-that-never-was who bring some great music to the party.
The visuals also hit the spot, with some excellent choreography during the concert footage which was lit by Marc Brickman who worked on lighting gigs for Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen. Streets Of Fire is the closest Walter Hill has come to directing a musical, and the score is a constant winner with Ry Cooder imposing his considerable style on proceedings while Jim Steinman adds his talent to the mix with "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young" and "Nowhere Fast". The film also inspired a hit single with Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You". All in all, it's a satisfying mixture that seals the deal on this films' cult status, and now we have a Blu-ray release to celebrate.

Second Sight's HD presentation really does lift Hill's film to even greater heights. Here, the late Andrew Laszlo's photography benefits hugely from the increased resolution,and the concert footage looks simply gorgeous. Fans will also be delighted with 'Rumble On The Lot' - and 80 minute documentary which features anecdotes and memories from key personnel, including Hill, Pare and Madigan who explains how she persuaded Hill that the part of McCoy should go to a woman. Madigan has excellent recall of the shoot as does Pare who states he can remember every day of what turned out to be an enjoyable filmmaking experience. Both actors clearly relished their time with Hill who goes into various production details, showing pride at the way things turned out, though he does express his regret that Lane's voice simply wasn't strong enough to carry the songs, instead using the combined voices of 2 vocalists. Second Sight have also included the original Electronic Press Kit which gives a nice nostalgic slant on the excitement surrounding Streets Of Fire's road to release, and music videos for "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young", and "I Can Dream About You".
Streets Of Fire is released on Blu-ray from Second Sight on 18th November. It's a great package that will increase this film's cult following and its never looked so good.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

DVD Review: The Stone Tape

When it comes to the paranormal, the written word so often triumphs over the moving image. Sometimes, it's nice to sit back and let imagination take you through some dark places, away from over-zealous film directors showing you more than you really need to see. Sometimes, however, we encounter celluloid chillers that succeed in establishing an icy grip on the senses: The Haunting, The Changeling, Session Nine, The Others and The Woman In Black are just a few examples of films that can lower the room temperature and freeze the blood. The Stone Tape is another worthy member of this select group of spookers.

First broadcast on 25th December 1972, The Stone Tape must have ruined Christmas for many viewers, adopting a 'less is more' approach which delivers a handful of spectral apparitions, and a series of blood-curdling screams - the rest is down to Nigel Kneale's screenplay and several fine performances.

Director Peter Sasdy's declaration of intent is unveiled right from the word go as Jill Greely (Asher) - a woman clearly on the edge of a nervous breakdown - almost comes to grief with a large truck bearing the name 'Ryan Electronics'. Jill recovers from what could have been a fatal crash to begin work at Taskerlands - a building that dates back to the 18th century - where she will oversee the installation of computers and sundry data equipment.

A crack team of electronics experts - led by bombastic Peter Brock (Bryant) - hope to design a revolutionary recording medium, and confound the market leaders, affectionately known as 'old nippon'. With an eager team wanting to press ahead, the schedule is thrown off-kilter when workmen down tools, refusing to renovate one room in particular. A general feeling of unease appears to be their main cause for concern, though matters come to a head when Jill - blessed/cursed with mediumistic powers - sees the ghostly apparition of a young woman at the top of a flight of stairs that lead...... to nowhere.

The discovery of 30 tins of spam and a letter to Father Christmas ("All I want for xmas is please go away") become pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that includes a maid named Louisa Hanks; two attempted exorcisms back in the mists of time, and the reluctant testimony of a frightened local who mentions "the others".
As the unquiet spirit screams and screams again, Jill is joined by several of her colleagues who can now see and/or hear what may be a psychic echo of a past tragedy. Peter eventually joins the ranks of the believers, and embarks on a ruthless pursuit towards self-advancement, with no thoughts for the safety of his team or his mistress.

Approached from a purely supernatural perspective, The Stone Tape hits the back of the net on many occasions, with its aura of evil practically reaching out from the confines of a television screen to suck you into that infernal room where past events intrude on the present. The aural and visual manifestations are frightening enough, but Sasdy's film reaches its peak when a solitary figure enters the time-slip vacuum, breaching the darkness to confront a silence that is deafening.

It's a scary trip, and maybe Sasdy hasn't received the credit he deserves: due, no doubt, to another visionary screenplay from Nigel Kneale. Just witness the animated conversation regarding the possibilty of history in the making; a new recording device that will condense hours of audio material onto a tiny piece of software, and 13 channel TV - "Porn channel 1, porn channel 2, DIY...." Kneale even extends his take on the shape of things to come into a sidebar concerning brusque businessman Crawshaw (Marsh) who fights for a piece of Taskerlands to aid development of his own invention - a self-programming washing machine capable of sorting its own load. Together with Kneale's Year Of The Sex Olympics script, The Stone Tape casts an eye to the future with more than a degree of accuracy, and creates a foundation for Sasdy and his cast.

On the debit side, there are several scenes which grate a little - mostly in the form of OTT performances from some of the largely male cast, and the sight of 'ghostbusters' attempting to 'clear' the room by using primitive outside broadcast equipment looks a tad amateurish. Still, many films (with the advantage of state-of-the-art resources) have cheerfully cribbed from The Stone Tape's ghost-laying technique, and its desire to move on from the bell,book and candle approach should ultimately be applauded. Some dodgy FX scenes near the end momentarily threaten to undo the good work, but a late rally puts things to right, taking us into the haunted room which may be about to welcome at least one new occupant.

Sasdy's film is available in the UK on VHS and DVD. While I don't own a copy of the latter, I have viewed the disc and, given its age and the source material, picture quality is as good as one could hope for. The BFI disc includes a commentary track from Kneale and writer & reviewer Kim Newman, and there's also a DVD Rom extra in the form of a Kneale script, 'The Road'.

I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of The Stone Tape at London's National Film Theatre, a few years back. Afterwards, Kneale was interviewed onstage and briefly discussed 'The Road'; a ghostly tale of Roman centurians returning from the grave. Kneale lamented the fact that the tape of this film had been wiped by a BBC employee, and is lost forever. A crying shame, but think of it as an unfilmed gem that may see light of day from one of the UK's rising young directors. Until then, stoke up the fire, sit back and let your imagination take hold.

Friday, 25 October 2013

BFI Classic Horror Trailer

The British Film Institute have just added a trailer to youtube featuring clips from Robin Redbreast, Dead Of Night and Classic Ghost Stories. I hope you have enjoyed reading my reviews of the DVD's and will check out the trailer for a taste of classic horror from the BBC.

DVD Review: Classic Ghost Stories

Picture, if you will, a cold December evening. Outside, a thin layer of snow has formed over the expansive lawns of a college. Inside, a small gathering of students take their seats in a candlelit room waiting for M.R. James to begin reading a slection of his classic ghost stories, Montague Rhodes James - 1863-1936 - was a medieval scholar who enjoyed a distinguished career, and wrote ghost stories in his spare time for friends and colleagues to enjoy. His terrifying tales - often involving a scholar who unwittingly invokes supernatural horrors- have thrilled generations of readers who demand atmospheric chillers that leave you constantly jumping at the slightest sound or movement in a half-lit room.
In 1986, the BBC screened Classic Ghost Stories on 25th, 26th, 28th, 29th and 30th December, with renowned actor Robert Powell filling the role of M.R. James. Here, Powell tells five of James' ghost stories from the confines of a study, using his wealth of experience to convey the absolute dread that legions of fans have experienced when reading the books.The first tale is 'The Mezzotint', which involves a university scholar on the lookout for topographical drawings to add to his employers collection. An ordinary (on the surface, at least) drawing is sent for his perusal, depicting a view of a manor house, the identity of which is unknown. Before long, this unremarkable work of art begins to change with a figure appearing on the boundary of the lawn. Overnight, the Mezzotint continues its terrifying downwards spiral as the mysterious figure has moved closer to the house. Is this heading towards a tragedy about to unfold, or has it already taken place? 'The Mezzotint' is, for my money, one of James' finest tales and 'The Ash Tree' - the 2nd ghost story in this collection - is just as essential. Suffolk is the setting as the 1690 Castringham witch trials reach into the present day. Something terrible resides in a huge ash tree, and a number of unexplained deaths can be traced back to a convicted witch's forecast that "there will be guests at the hall". With a finale that will surely turn your stomach, 'The Ash Tree' is bone-chilling fare indeed, and is followed by 'Wailing Well'. Here, two boy scouts are strongly dissuaded from entering a red-ringed field that local legend has placed 'out of bounds'. One of the boys ignores these grave warnings and encounters a trio of other-wordly beings who were characters of ill-repute during their former lives.The famous 'Oh Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad' is the next story on offer here, featuring a college professor who takes a short vacation in order to improve his game of golf, and also to check out local sites of interest. Professor Perkins had been asked by a friend to visit the site of a Templar preceptory, and unearths an ancient whistle; a discovery that inspires a ghostly presence to claim it back. 'Whistle' is a prime example of James' ability to place his audience in a world of academia where strange forces hold sway, gradually building an atmosphere of fear and loathing that will set your nerves a-jangling. The final story is 'The Rose Garden', involving the haunted site of an old summer house set in Westfield Hall, Essex, where a gardening project is directed towards the aforementioned piece of land. Soon, horrifying nightmares of past events are accompanied by sight and sound that relate to the death of a disgraced Lord Chief Justice. This is a subtle, remarkably effective tale that amrks the end of Powell's involvement. James' stories are beautifully read by Powell, who uses books, manuscripts and letters to add colour to proceedings which also benefit from the use of dramatisation during some of the stories. It's a genuine pleasure to view once again these very special broadcasts, and immensely pleasing to discover The BFI has added three stories from the 'Spine Chillers' series to their DVD.
The 'Spine Chillers' series contained readings from major writers including James and HG wells, and was broadcast by the BBC in 1980. Here, Michael Bryant takes on the role of James and begins with a reading of 'The Mezzotint', which contains a different edit to Powell's version. 'A School Story' is next on the bill. This wonderfully chilling piece concerns two men talking about their schooldays, and involves some extremely unsettling classroom experiences. The final story, 'The Diary Of Mr Poynter', sees a book auction lead to the pruchase of four volumes written by the titular character. A piece of cloth is found in one of the diaries, which becomes the pattern for new curtains. Of course, subsequent events prove this to be a wholly unfortunate decision as, once again,the past returns to haunt the living. Bryant is admirable in his role of the famous writer, and this generous extra feature gives real added value to this essential purchase for lovers of tales well told. The BFI have also included an informative booklet with essays on the tv series. Perfect uneasy viewing for cold winters evenings, this BFI DVD is released on 28th October.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

DVD Review: Dead Of Night (BBC TV Series)

For the BBC, 1972 would prove to be a classic year of small screen Horror gems. Fans of classic ghost stories thrilled to their adaptation of M.R.James' A Warning To The Curious and Peter Sasdy's Nigel Kneale penned The Stone Tape. Dead Of Night was originally seven 50 minute stories but, alas, four of the tales were wiped. Now, The BFI have released the three surviving episodes on one DVD, and kick off with one of the most unnerving slices of television drama ever transmitted.
First broadcast on 5th November 1972, Don Taylor's The Exorcism places two couples in a restored cottage, aiming to celebrate Christmas with an abundance of food and drink. Edmund and Rachel (Edward Petherbridge, Anna Cropper) welcome Dan and Margaret (Clive Swift, Sylvia Kay) to their home and the men's conversation soon turns to the subject of money and how they should not feel guilty about their wealth. So far, so middle-class, and this cosy gathering get a taste of things to come when Rachel plays a tune on her clavichord and becomes extremely nervous, claiming she's never heard this piece before. When dinner is served, events really take a nasty turn for the worse when Edmund declares the wine to taste of blood, and their first mouthfuls of food have a burning nauseous effect on all four members of this well-to-do group. Add to this a mysterious loss of power, Rachel's vision of a child's skeleton in the bedroom upstairs and doors that won't open, windows that refuse to break mean the quartet are stranded with no way out and can only wait to discover the awful truth that will soon come to the surface. Here, the land of plenty becomes a barren wasteland, as past events return to haunt the living with a terrible vengeance. I was lucky(?) enough to witness the small-screen debut of The Exorcism and the screening damn near ruined Xmas for me later that year, with an extraordinary turn from Anna Cropper (who also appears in Robin Redbreast) staying with me for many long months after, and leading to the most downbeat of endings. This Holy Grail of tv terror has stood the test of time so very well, and will now greatly disturb a whole new generation of viewers. It's interesting to note that Cropper took over the lead role in the West End play of The Exorcism when Mary Ure dies of an overdose the day after the opening night.

Return Flight is the next episode on offer, and concerns one Hamish Rolph (Peter Barkworth); a recently widowed pilot who is hauled in by his superiors to explain his sighting of an unidentified aircraft with no navigation lights. The problem is, air traffic control recorded no other plane within an eight mile radius. Although Return Flight is possibly the least of this trio of tales, it does leave its mark; especially when we learn the first husband of Rolph's wife was killed in a bombing mission. Rolph's wish to move on with his life, coupled with professional and personal insecurities are beautifully drawn with a strong performance from Barkworth, and the script - penned by Robert Holmes - leaves one with an awful lot to consider. Return Flight was first screened on 12th November 1972.

The final episode, A Woman Sobbing, was first broadcast on 17th December 1972 and stars Anna Massey as Jane - a housewife kept awake by the sound of a woman sobbing in her attic during the hours of darkness. Husband Frank (Ronald Hines) can hear nothing of these deeply unsettling nocturnal events, and Jane's sanity is called into question by her husband and his friend Sandy (Julian Holloway). With their meagre sex life bubbling away in the background (sometimes foreground), the couple are gradually drawn apart leaving Jane very much alone in her battle with a perceived supernatural entity. A Woman Sobbing is a wonderfully understated chiller, using sound rather than vision to install an overwhelming sense of dread that could well come from the mind or from another world. Paul Ciappessoni's direction is finely tuned to John Bowen's script, and their collaboration really gets under the skin to leave a lasting impression: do listen out for the line, "Where'd you get the holy water from, duckie?" - the malevolent voice uttering that line stayed with for years after.

It's a genuine cause for regret that over half of the Dead Of Night episodes are no longer available, but this BFI DVD does include a gallery of stills from two of the missing episodes and there's a PDF of downloadable scripts for the four episodes that were wiped. The DVD also includes a booklet featuring beautifully written overviews from Lisa Kerrigan.This DVD is released form the BFI on 28th October, and is an essential purchase for devotees of uneasy viewing.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

DVD Review: The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill

Situated in the county of Bedfordshire, St Mary's church in Clophill has more than its fair share of supernatural legend.The church was said to have been built over a leper colony and dates back to 1350, while a newer church was built on the same ground around 1840. In the 1960s' and 70s', it was the victim of grave desecration and black magic rites, and its altar was constructed facing the west (which, according to legend, means it's facing The Devil). As well as satanic worship, the church is also reputed to be a site where unquiet spirits walk amongst the shadows - more than enough activity for a whole army of ghostbusters. So, Kevin Gates got together a film crew and a few psychic investigators to shoot The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill, aiming to record their findings on film to establish whether Clophill really is haunted. A three-day shoot was decided upon, and the result is a fascinating and decidedly spooky documentary that mixes fact and fiction.
The Paranormal Diaries runs for 88 minutes and is the product of editing many hours of footage to provide an absorbing account of the techniques employed by modern-day investigators. The opening minutes include establishing shots of packing for the trip and departing for and arriving in Clophill before we move onto several interviews with bona fide eyewitnesses who once ventured up to the church and were privy to possible psychic activity and the aftermath of devil worship. By the time darkness falls, the scene is set nicely as the church and surronding area assume a much more forbidding look, illuminated by the light of the full moon. Here, night vision cameras follow shadows mvoign quickly across line of sight, and sound recording equipment catches rustling in the trees and bushes and all manner of noises that could well point to company from beyond the grave.Add to this spine-tingling seances, and a 'Ghost Box' that works in a similar way to a ouija board (but with sound) and you have a quality production that's refreshingly bereft of all the hysteria and amateur dramatics that so often plague televised ghost hunts.
With several jump out of your seat moments and instances where the crew can see something that we can't, The Paranormal Diaries is certainly not for the faint-hearted and fully deserved its inclusion in the 2013 Frightfest film line-up. After watching this nerve-jangling, often quite disturbing film, you're sure to have many questions about its content and the whole filmmaking process, and Second Sight's DVD is well served by two audio commentary tracks. In the first, co-director Kevin Gates goes solo, confessing the film was "as much an experience as a filmmaking process", and going on to adopt a mostly scene-specific approach. Gates explains why the film took three years to make; tells a wonderful story about a local pub that's straight out of a Hammer film, and explains that a surprisingly high percentage of the footage was reality rather than digital manipulation. Refreshingly, Gates points out certain ideas that simply didn't work - and they are few - and neatly separates fact from fiction. The second commentary track sees Gates back at the wheel, joined by Craig Stovin (documentary co-ordinator) and Creselda Cabitac (interviewer). Inevitably, there is some overlap with the first commentary, but it's an absorbing experience and contains a few surprises. This DVD also includes 23 minutes of deleted scnes that didn't make the final cut. While there's nothing that really sceamed out for inclusion, there is a story about a black cat seen prowling around the grounds that would have linked in nicely with the heart-stopping finale.

The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill is out now on the Second Sight label, and just in time for Halloween. Don't watch it alone!

Friday, 11 October 2013

DVD Review: Robin Redbreast

Directed by James MacTaggart, Robin Redbreast was originally broadcast by the BBC on 10th December 1970 as part of their 'Play For Today' strand. Inspired by the murder of a farm labourer as a blood sacrifice in 1945, John Bowen's script takes a city girl - Norah Palmer, played by Anna Cropper - and deposits her deep in the country where superstition and the old ways hang heavy in the air. Norah has just come out of an eight year relationship and is hurting badly, so a break from her life as a television editor appears to be a sensible move to make.
Upon arrival at her dream cottage - Flanethan Farm (The Place Of Birds) - Norah encounters a sinister gum-chewing individual who introduces himself as Fisher, and begs permission to look in the garden for Sherds (fragments of prehistoric history). Fisher is just the first in a succession of strange characters whose dependency on the success of the crops drive them to do unspeakable things.
Prior to leaving London, Norah confessed to feeling randy, and her state of arousal eventually propels her into the arms of the local gamekeeper who becomes smitten with this attractive stranger.
Before long, Norah falls head first into a crazy world where a marble split in half sits on her windowsill, a contraceptive cap disappears and then re-appears before and after her night with the gamekeeper, and her escape routes to the relative sanity of London are cut off at every turn.

During Robin Redbreast's debut screening, a series of powercuts meant parts of the UK audience were denied the chance to see its conclusion. After a barrage of complaints, the BBC were compelled to add a second screening to their schedule, and it's easy to see why folks were so enraged at being denied to see how this riveting drama ended.
MacTaggart's film is hugely important - not least in historical terms - with its central theme surely inspiring The Wicker Man which was still three years away. In fact, Robin Redbreast stands proudly with Hardy's film at the pinnacle of 'Folk Horror', along with Blood On Satan's Claw and Eye Of The Devil, and its various religious motifs make for a rich story indeed. With a beautifully tuned-in performance from Cropper (an inspired suggestion by John Bowen) and the overpowering presence of past rites reaching into the present, Robin Redbreast fully justifies its presence amongst the BFI's 'Gothic The Dark Heart Of Film' line-up.

The DVD features a monochrome presentation of what was originally a colour production, and is taken from a 16mm telerecording. As a result, picture quality does suffer but at no point took me out of the film. The BFI have included a valuable 12 minute interview with John Bowen who reveals his script included some of the characters he'd met at the house (his own home served as Flanethan Farm, and recalls the uproar that surrounded certain aspects of his script, together with memories of his work for the BBC.
There's also an 11 minute short film titled 'Around The Village Green' that examines the changing face of village life with regard to agriculture, social activity and education. Fittingly, there's also mention of the Harvest Festival. The BFI have also included their customary informative booklet featuring an essay on the film and an overview of John Bowen's work.

So, the film that built up a strong cult following is now available for the first time on home video, and packs a considerable punch as a potent, highly disturbing essay on what can happen when an outsider breaches the walls of past tradition. With a strong replay value, Robin Redbreast should prove to be a highlight amongst a BFI series of releases that celebrate a golden age of television classics.
Robin Redbreast will be released on BFI DVD on 28th October.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Coming Soon: Classic Ghost Stories

From the cosy confines of his study, a learned professor (award- winning actor Robert Powell – Jesus of Nazareth, Mahler, The Detectives) tells five terrifying tales. Inspired by M R James’ legendary readings of his own works, these vintage ghost stories were originally broadcast over the Christmas of 1986.

In The Mezzotint a haunted picture slowly reveals the horrors of the past, whilst The Ash-Tree tells of the execution of a witch and the dreadful curse she places on the Fell family. Wailing Well involves a troop of scouts who find that curiosity can be fatal, and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad concerns itself with an academic who gets more than he bargained for after he finds an enchanted whistle. Finally, in The Rose Garden, disturbing visions upset Mrs Ansthruthers’ gardening plans.

Special features

Spine Chillers: The Mezzotint, A School Story and The Diary of Mr Poynter (1980, 36 min in total): acclaimed actor Michael Bryant reads three of M R James’ stories adapted for the BBC’s Spine Chillers series – produced by Classic Ghost Stories producer Anglea Beeching and the team behind the BBC children’s series Jackanory.
Fully illustrated booklet with a newly commissioned essay by BFI TV Curator Lisa Kerrigan.

This will be released by The BFI on 28th October. Look out for a review soon.

DVD Review: My Amityville Horror

In the 38 years since 112 Ocean Avenue first hit the headlines, this supernatural phenomenon has spawned 10 films and 13 books on the subject. In 1975, the Lutz family moved into a house in Amityville, New York, fully aware that 13 months earlier, Ronald DeFeo jr had shot all 6 members of his family while they lay sleeping. The Lutz's tenure lasted for just 28 days, culminating in a 'night of terror' that saw them fleeing the house and leaving their belongings behind. Claims and counter-claims have since divided both investigative and public opinion as to whether the events really did take place or were simply a giant hoax. While George and Kathy Lutz both went to their graves upholding their claims, son Daniel Lutz has never publicly delivered his side of the story. Until now.
Directed by Eric Walter - responsible for the web site - My Amityville Horror takes Daniel Lutz back to the tenth year of his life on earth, with a series of revealing interviews allowing the short-fuse Lutz to state his case. The first questions we really need answering are why Daniel waited until now to divulge his experiences, and why he felt the need to do so? Lutz states the saga had been following him for over 35 years and that it had finally caught up with him. The time to stop running had arrived, and he decided to present his case. So, we get to hear of Daniel's family background, his parent's divorce, and the fact that he was unwilling to accept George as his stepfather: a man, who according to Daniel, had an interest in the occult. Although Daniel's domestic life was unsteady to say the least, he recalls moving into the Amityville house full of expectation that his time there would be happy. Then, the disturbances began. Lutz remembers the presence of 4 or 500 flies in the a bedroom during December; the infamous 'pigs face' at the window; the numerous cold spots with drops of 20 degrees inside 5 steps; the time when his fingers were trapped under a window that left bone on bone and his had swollen to the size of a baseball glove before mysteriously healing, and the sound of a marching band on the stairs. These and many other claims recorded here will be mostly familiar to students of this controversial story, so how does Lutz handle their re-telling? Well, in a confident, unfaltering manner though detractors will doubtless argue he's had a long time to get his story straight and polished. My own reaction is that Daniel's state of mind where his parents are concerned would not compel him to uphold their version of events out of loyalty, and so it's not a great stretch to conclude he really does believe the recorded events did happen.

Joining Daniel in the documentary are Dr Susan Bartell, a psychologist who approaches the troubled waters with caution, and Laura Didio, an investigative reporter who worked on the case as a journalist used to exploring pyschic phenomena. We also see Daniel meet with Lorraine Warren; the surviving half of a demonologist husband and wife team who visited the Amityville house following the Lutz family's departure. Warren really seems to believe something evil resided in the house, at least for a while, and as the investigator of more than 4,000 cases, she'd obviously encountered more than her fair share of fakes during her time. Naysayers have all sorts of theories up their collective sleeves, believing the Lutz's concocted their story to make money to ease financial pressures which may or may not have existed, and there's even a story that the whole affair was dreamt up by George, Kathy and the attorney of Ronald DeFeo.
None of the families who have since lived at 112 have encountered any supernatural phenomena (at least, none reported), but the story lives on with sightseers still visiting this 'house of horrors' which, incidentally, no longer resembles the building of 1975.
Daniel Lutz himself comes over as deeply pyschologically scarred, and various claims such as his witnessing George moving objects without touching them are said with such conviction, it's not too difficult to believe he's describing things as he actually recalls them.

My Amityville Horror is a thoroughly gripping documentary, and a quite remarkable chapter in a story that will run and run. Part of me - ok, a large part of me - wants to believe the events of 1975 really did take place. After viewing this documentary, I'm still not sure, but there is a scene near the end that further adds to the legend when Daniel is asked if he would be willing to take a lie detector test. It's worth noting that George and Kathy Lutz both took polygraphs. Both passed.

My Amityville Horror will be released by Arrow Films on 28th October.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Coming In December: Joe Strummer Month

I've written a brief acknowledgement on the anniversary of Joe Strummer's death every year since he passed away. This year, I want to do something different. To play just a very small part in a celebration of his life and the great music he was a part of. I was lucky enough to see The Clash play live on many occasions, and those golden memories stay with me. Always will. So, this December will be Joe Strummer month here on Wonderland. I'll be including reviews, video clips, concert memories... and hope to see you here.

Coming Soon To Blu-ray: Streets Of Fire

Looking forward to Second Sight's Streets Of Fire Blu-ray, which will be released 18th November.

DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM Stereo

A brand new 80 minute documentary featuring new interviews with Walter Hill, Michael Paré, Amy Madigan and James Allen produced for us by Fiction Factory.

Featuring ‘Rock and Roll Fable’, ‘Exaggerated Realism’, ‘Choreographing the Crowd, ’Creating the Costumes’ ‘From the Ground Up’, ‘Personality Profile’, Featurette, Teaser Trailer and On-Air Promos

‘Tonight Is What it Means To Be Young’
‘I Can Dream About You’

Look out for a review soon.