Friday, 27 September 2013

DVD Review: The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue

During a video introduction on Anchor Bay's DVD, Jorge Grau expresses the hope that viewers will be scared by this blood-splattered account of ecological mayhem.

Fast approaching its 40th anniversary, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue proves rather adept at increasing the number of beats per minute, with some fairly explicit gore and several set-pieces that are brimming with tension.

The fun really begins when the Department Of Agriculture unveils an ultra- sonic sound machine designed to drastically reduce the insect population. Luckily for us, Grau and his team of pen-pushers had other ideas, sparing us the horrors of 'Farming Today' and instead standing us lunch by using this less-than cutting-edge technology to resurrect the newly dead. Soon the titular crypt and surrounding area - actually based in the Lake District (and shot mostly in the Peak District) - are awash with zombies and it's up to George and Edna (Lovelock & Galbo) to save the day. These two central characters gain in stature as their predicament grows ever worse: Galbo being the sensitive, vulnerable half of this 'odd couple' pairing, but still offering steadfast support to the initially irritating Lovelock, whose inner strength comes to the fore as their situation intensifies.

Probably the most colourful character aside from undead down-but-not-out Guthrie - is the gloriously stupid Sergeant McCormick (Kennedy) who must have been a great inspiration to a certain self-styled ''God's Cop' during those heady days of 'Video Nasties.' Indeed, one can't help but wonder if Grau's less-than respectful portrayal of the police may well have contributed to some pretty heavy interest in suppressing video distribution of his film. Quite possibly, though a certain Gianetto de Rossi did his little bit by providing fx for some delightful 'dining' sequences that would resurface to even greater effect a few years later in Fulci's Zombie Flesheaters.

Die-hard fans of the aforementioned classic may scoff at even the tiniest comparison with Grau's movie but Manchester Morgue is well worthy of inclusion in your list of top 'Living Dead' flicks.

Watch out for: breast munching, the disembowelling of a brave, but foolhardy police constable, and the wonderfully stomach-churning scene where Lovelock and Galbo attempt to escape from a crypt full of living dead.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

DVD Review: The Children's Film Foundation Scary Stories

The Children's Film Foundation was a non-profit making organisation set up in 1951 by the owner of the Odeon and Rank cinema chains. It's objective was to provide home-grown entertainment for those wonderful Saturday morning screenings that provided fun and education and introduced thousands of children to the magic of cinema The fourth release in this collection also marks the opening of a truly mouth-watering selection of releases in the BFI 'Gothic - The Dark Heart Of Film' season.
Scary Stories begins with 'The Man From Nowhere'; a Victorian gothic thriller in which Alice Harvey - a young orphan - goes to live with her rich uncle in his country mansion. Alice is first taunted and then befriended by a gang of young urchins whose help will prove invaluable when Alice faces a nightmare situation. Multiple appearances of a tall dark stranger wearing a top hat, and issuing stern demands that Alice leave her uncle's abode strongly suggest a being from beyond the grave is haunting her every move. To make matters worse, Alice is the only person who can see this apparition, and her guardian and new found companions seem powerless to combat this invisible menace.Made in 1975 and directed by James Hill, The Man From Nowhere is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller that will delight children and adults alike. It combines the heady days of youthful exuberance with the excitement and dread that occur when something truly out of the ordinary comes along and puts bright sunlight firmly in the shade.There's also an important lesson at play here, that friendships can be forged by the most unlikely of pairings.

The second story - Andrew Bogle's 'Haunters Of The Deep' (1983) - takes place in Cornwall where an American businessman arrives to oversee the re-opening of a disused tin mine. Strangles Head Mine has its own dark secrets, and Josh and Becky (the daughter of the US magnate) are thrown together to confront the past. The splendid Andrew Keir plays an important part in proceedings, clearly relishing his role as the local who issues unheeded warnings concerning the history of the mine and how the past can reach into the present with potentially grave consequences. Haunters Of The Deep is a strong entry in this trilogy, with impressive effects sequences, a brisk pace and superb photography that captures the splendour of the Cornish coastline.
The final story in this collection is John Krish's 'Out Of The Darkness', shot in 1984. My home county of Derbyshire is probably the richest place in England for supernatural lore and ghostly sightings. Apparitions of Roman soldiers, witches returning from their lonely graves and the sounds of horse-drawn carriages moving unseen down otherwise silent streets are but a few examples of other-worldly interventions in modern-day life. So, it's entirely possible the Derbyshire village of Eyam harbours its own unquiet spirits.

In August 1665, a flea-infested bundle of cloth arrived from London, straight into the hands of the local tailor. This resulted in The Great Plague, which killed 260 out of the population of 343; curiously, the local gravedigger survived. Out Of The Darkness pitches camp in Eyam, where a family elect to live in a run-down cottage once inhabited by victims of 'The Black Death'. The mother (played by Jenny Tarren) encounters a local historian (Michael Carter, The Keep, Return Of The Jedi) who soon forms a bond with her sons and their school friend. Before long, the boys are witness to most unnerving manifestations, as the sins of the past reach out into the present in an effort to unlock the events behind the death of a child who just won't stay dead. Once again, the special effects are most impressive, and the theme of children responding to supernatural phenomena with courage and fortitude makes this a great way to end your viewing of this delightfully spooky trio of tales well told. This BFI release benefits hugely from brand new high definition transfers for all three films. Indeed, the picture quality is excellent, and there's an illustrated booklet with essays by writer John Tully (The Man From Nowhere), actor Michael Carter and Rachel Moseley. Perfect viewing for those cold, dark winter evenings.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Blu-ray Review: Saxon Logan's Sleepwalker

"Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?"
Edgar Allan Poe

Driving rain, the ominous sound of thunder and an old dark house provide a perfect setting for the cinema of unease, and that's exactly what we get in the opening sequence of Saxon Logan's Sleepwalker.
The house of Albion - the oldest known name for the island of Great Britain - is rather appropriately populated by Alex and Marion Britain (Bill Douglas and Heather Page), and old school brother and sister act who are soon to welcome Richard and Angela Paradise ( Nickolas Grace and Joanna David) as their guests for the weekend. The Paradise couple couldn't be more different than their hosts, with Richard immediately marking himself a a rude, totally insensitive bigot views and 'Only person is me' attitude will later clash with Alex's own beliefs and principles. Initially, the Britain's had planned for a cosy candlelit dinner, but the storm breached the windows of Albion, forcing this party of four to visit the local restaurant, where Fulton Mackay and Michael Medwin await as hosts. Once there, Richard's homophobia and absurd political views ("mass unemployment is good. Sucks the poison out of the system") result in a fiery clash with Alex, who represents the polar opposite of his opponents view that the unscrupulous chase for wealth really does lead to a personal paradise. Small wonder that the confrontations continue back at the house as more alcohol is consumed, leading to sibling arguments, jealousy, sizzling sexual tension and talking point murder scenes that would fit perfectly into the great Italian horror films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. The stylish sequences of bloodletting provide an astonishing finale, and this mid-length feature (made in 1984 and running 47 minutes) has more absorbing themes and ideas within its running time, than many films three times the length.

Sleepwalker is beautifully directed, with the screenplay - a tripartite affair from Saxon Logan, John Vernon and Michael Keenan - is a triumph and the performances are exquisite. A word of praise, too, for Phil Sawyer's score which is enormously disconcerting, and perfectly in tune with the onscreen events. There's a lot more to Sleepwalker than meets the eye, and I'm simply itching to discuss the film's final image, but will instead wait til the dust has settled and more people have seen the film before I return to it on this blog.
The same can be said of Saxon's 'Stepping Out' and 'Working Surface', both of which are featured on this Blu-ray/DVD combi pack. 'Stepping Out' is a 5 minute short, and played with Roman Polasnki's The Tenant at UK cinemas. I still believe The Tenant to be Polanski's finest work, and Stepping Out is a perfect companion piece with its themes of gender, role reversal and becoming someone else. Stepping Out was actually shot inside 24 hours, and the same time frame was allocated to Working Surface - a 15 minute short starring Bill Douglas, Heather Page and Joanna David. Dedicated to Lindsay Anderson, this, like Saxon's other work, has endless replay value, using dislocation of time and the age old disease of writer's block to construct a thoroughly absorbing account of characters departing from their written word confines. The BFI have also included Rodney Giesler's 'Insomniac', a 45 minute mid-length piece that justifies its inclusion here with a lively tale of sexual fantasy and dread behind the walls of sleep. The Insomniac would be a great way to sign off this very special Flipside releases, but there's one more item to tell you about. Shot in Cape Town in June of this year, 'O Lucky Man' is a 75 minute interview with Saxon Logan, taking in his friendship and working relationship with the Great(s) Lindsay Anderson and Bill Douglas; his persistence at striving to find work in the industry and the stories behind Sleepwalker, the aforementioned short films and Anderson gems such as O Lucky Man. It's also the story of a man who sees filmmaking as a vocation, and who suffered setbacks along the way.
Witness Saxon's moving account of Sleepwalker's success on release at the Berlin Festival, and a government policy that meant it sunk without a trace over here. At one point, Saxon is overcome and it's hard not to shed a tear as you witness his passion for the great art form that is film, and his regret at how things originally turned out for Sleepwalker. Now, the film that was released at the wrong time is reborn, with major thanks going to film historian Darrell Buxton, and you can hear of the part Darrell played in this interview. This Flipside release is region-free, and the picture quality for all the features is more than acceptable. There is also a BFI booklet to accompany this release with writing on all the features, though I must confess I have yet to read it. This is one of the jewels in the flipside crown, and already destined to be on many top ten lists come the end of 2013.

You can read my review of a theatrical screening , written several years ago HERE

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Girl From Rio

Jess Franco and Harry Alan Towers follow the samba beat with this tale of a disreputable businessman arriving in Brazil with $10 million worth of ill-gotten gains. Forget Ronnie Biggs and instead devote your attention to a guy named Jeff Sutton (Wyler), who hooks up with exotic spy Leslie ( Maria Rohm), before evading the clutches of four knife-wielding masked men in the employ of crime lord Masius (Geroge Sanders).

The ‘Big M’ is aware of Sutton’s recently acquired wealth, and seeks to relieve him of this ‘burden’ while on the other side of the fence lies Sunanda (Shirley Eaton); self-styled Queen of Femina – a city of women who are slowly working towards the total empowerment of men and view Sutton as the latest in a long line of reluctant financiers. Alternating between blonde and brunette and decked out in outrageous pop art threads or fetching Cleopatra garb, Eaton appears to be having a ball with her character while at the same time undoubtedly aware of the many absurd lines of dialogue she’s asked to recite. George Sanders also goes with the flow, delivering many of his lines with an air of detachment; a class act playing a character unable to view the acts of violence carried out at his request. Witness the scene where Lesley is ducked several times in a swimming pool, while Masius reads a Popeye comic rather than be privy to the victims ordeal.It’s here that Rohm’s beautiful face is at its most alluring – say what you will about this much-maligned director but Franco has a track record for employing a host of sensual women and his screen captures of Rohm, together with the likes of Miranda, Stroemberg and Janine Reynaud mix sleazy with surreal to often devastating effect.

While fans of Jess and Maria will rejoice at the chance to see another chapter in their story, those same people may well grumble at the amateurish action scenes (you can be sure Ridley Scott did not use Franco’s helicopter footage as a blueprint for Black Hawk Down) and laughable instalments of torture. Well, chill out folks! This is nothing more than throwaway pop art trash, to be approached with a sense of fun and due lack of caution.

For many people, Franco’s partnership with Towers (numbering 9 films) was largely a bridging gap between past glories and a new golden age which would begin with Vampyros Lesbos (1970). That’s possibly an unfair assessment, as Towers was involved with at least one Franco classic (Venus In Furs) and several worthwhile projects that continue to grow in stature ( Eugenie – The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion, The Bloody Judge). The Girl From Rio scores above average in the mindless entertainment stakes but, given the Franco riches currently available on DVD, it’s unlikely to attract multiple viewings from all but the most committed Franco freak.

Blue Underground’s DVD presentation unveils The Girl From Rio via a nice widescreen transfer with rich colours, warm fleshtones and several instances of edge enhancement, which do not prove too distracting.
Extras include: a Franco biography; ‘The Facts Of Sumuru – a potted text history of the “Female Fu Manchu” with no recognizable national identity – and ‘Rolling In Rio’: a 14 minute featurette in which Franco, Towers and Eaton participate in video interviews. Here, Franco and Eaton both exhibit mutual admiration, though Eaton does accuse Franco of taking liberties with a ‘body double’ and Towers joins in the fun, revealing the Rio shoot also provided the means to film roughly 25% of Franco’s 99 Women feature

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Blu-ray Review: Me And You

Shown out of competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Me And You marks Bernardo Bertolucci's comeback film after a decade out of the game. Of course, a lot has happened in this ten year absence. Bertolucci now directs from a wheelchair, and Me And You takes confinement as one of its central themes.

Making his big screen debut, Jacopo Olmo Antinori plays 14 year old Lorenzo - an acne-infested teen who lives with his mother and shuns any activity that takes him out of his comfort zone: in this case, the four walls of his room. For Lorenzo, personal space is everything and thew prospect of a school skiing trip gives him an idea. After pocketing the holiday money, Lorenzo has a key cut for the basement of their house and meticulously chooses enough provisions for seven days and seven nights spent 'underground'. Once settled, Lorenzo seems to enjoy this self-enforced isolation and constructs an ant farm, positively reveling in his time spent devoid of human contact. Then, out of the blue, his half-sister turns up. Olivia (Tea Falco) is apparently a regular visitor to the basement, and comes with a heroin addiction as part of the package.
At this point, the audience may well be expecting a coming-of-age drama where Lorenzo experiences his first sexual encounter, and Bertolucci would certainly not shy away from chronicling an incestuous relationship if that's what he felt was needed: indeed, warning shots are fired early in the film when Lorenzo pitches an end-of-world scenario to his mother which would see him impregnating her to save mankind. However, the director embarks on a different path, contrasting Lorenzo's desire to be alone with Olivia's need for a companion while she goes 'cold turkey'. At this stage of Lorenzo's life, an eleven year age gap shows the dangers awaiting him in the form of drugs and on a more human level, how relationships can be formed, blossom and disintegrate. Soon, shared memories and the occasional familial revelation take centre stage, and a rather touching bond is formed. Although me And You is open to accusations that nothing much happens, it's actually a beautifully directed miniature piece with two very impressive leads who successfully convey just how much of a challenge they face in changing their lives. One standout scene occurs during an Italian version of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity', and the song crops up again a little later; this time in its original cut as the pair hug and suggest doing it again sometime. It's a supremely uplifting moment, and when the camera's freeze-frame captures Lorenzo's smiling face, we guess that while both parties may not be capable of immediate change, one at least is on the right path.
Artificial Eye's Blu-ray presentation is presented in 1.85:1 and looks rock solid, with real depth, bags of detail and well saturated colours. The solitary extra is actually an excellent 48 minute making of documentary. This UK Blu-ray is locked to Region B.

Monday, 2 September 2013

La Nuit Americaine (Day For Night)

Where does make- believe end and reality begin? On the big screen, this often finite line has been examined by a number of great directors: Godard, Fellini, Lynch, Ferrarra, Billy Wilder and Fran├žois Truffaut are just a few of the famous names to lengthen the boundaries of the film-within-a-film sub-genre. Truffaut's contribution won 'Best Foreign Film' at the Academy Awards, just one decade before his death.

La Nuit americaine (American Night) refers to the process of shooting a night scene in daylight by means of a special filter, and is a particularly apt title for the two films on offer which often merge into a single viewing experience.

Truffaut himself takes the role of Ferrand, a dedicated movie director who must harness the talents of cast and crew to negotiate the successful shoot of his latest project, "Meet Pamela". His screenplay concerns a recently married woman who falls in love with her father-in-law, during a visit instigated by her husband. Back in the 'real world', various members of the entourage also succumb to temptation and it's a job in itself to keep pace with who's sleeping with whom, not to mention the trials, tribulations and internal politics associated with the world of high profile cinema. For all that, La Nuit americaine is an extremely likeable film, populated by a host of disperate spirits who all seem to draw inspiration from Ferrand's passionate affair with his art: Jean-Pierre Leaud (star of Truffaut's five Antoine Doinel films) who keeps script girl Lilane (Dani) on the boil, before falling for American actress Julie Baker ("I remember her in that movie with the car chase".), played by the radiant Jacqueline Bisset. Baker arrives on the set some 39 minutes in, with baggage that includes a recent nervous breakdown; a state of affairs that provides Ferrand with another insurance headache to go with his 35 day completion deadline. While Ferrand attempts to get his vision in the can, helped by loyal continuity assistant Joelle (Nathalie Baye in her feature debut), we are privy to an ageing lead coming to terms with being gay (Aumont); an actress (Stewart) whose pregancy throws an unexpected spanner in the works; a cat that's either unable or unwilling to act and, best of all, Valentina Cortese as Severine ("She never comes to rushes."), a loveable, lively piece of work whose love of alcohol matches her directors' passion for film. While Ferrand's direction of Baker (the candle scene) marks the best scene in the film, Cortese figures in the funniest, fluffing lines, continuously opening the wrong door for her maids exit and generally breaking every rule in the book before opting for some extremely radical improvisation ("I'll use numbers. The way I do with Fellini.") An absolute joy to witness, as indeed is the rest of this film. Admirers of Truffaut were no doubt delighted by the opportunity to watch him work and showcase a few tricks of the trade, with even the stop-start rhythm of the shoot commanding our most earnest attention. Complimented by a beautiful Georges Delerue score ( think Greenaway and Nyman), La Nuit americaine may not be Truffaut's best film but it's certainly his most entertaining

Warner Bros. DVD is far and away the best home video version of this film, exhibiting strong, stable colours. The softness of image is still present, as with all other versions, but this is doubtless due to the film stock and should not be seen as a failing of the transfer. While it would have been nice to have the option of an audio commentary (Bisset in tandem with film critic Annette Insdorf would have been a good choice), the inclusion of several featurettes does help to soften the blow. Indeed, the 9 minute interview with Bisset is alone worth the admission price. It's long been one of life's mysteries as to why Bisset failed to reach the very top of her profession. She's certainly one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen, and her acting ability is beyond reproach. Perhaps it was a combination of a life punctuated by the failing health of loved ones (never was there a more devoted daughter) and so often being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her performance here suggests she was more at ease in quality European productions than the lightweight fare which traded on her looks and little else: shame on all those gutless filmmakers who never found the time to commission the type of roles that would have made her star burn even brighter. Still, it's nice to listen to the obvious affection she still feels for this film and rather humbling to hear her voice concern regarding the merits of her beautiful French accent; a needless worry that's shared in the film by Julie Baker.

The rest of the featurettes do veer towards 'puff piece' territory, but are still worth checking out. We get to listen to Annette Insdorf, Todd McCarthy and Bob Balaban hold forth on the magic of Truffaut, while lamenting the fact that he died at an absurdly young age, and there's a most welcome appearance from Brian De Palma.

Warner Bros. also include an English language trailer; an interesting choice which serves to heighten our appreciation of the original French audio track.