Sunday, 26 April 2015

Blu-ray Review: Blood And Black Lace (Arrow Video)

The fact that Mario Bava did not receive widespread critical acclaim during his lifetime would not have bothered him one bit. Happily, some of those who long championed his skill behind the camera and amazing on-set ingenuity can now witness his work through the medium of Blu-ray which showcases his films to a degree never thought possible in the days of watching 'Kill, Baby...Kill!' and others on a 3rd gen VHS boot. Unfortunately, some of those more ardent supporters such as the Upchurch brothers are no longer with us, but their work and appreciation live on!
The latest instalment of Mario Bava home video releases is Arrow's wonderful 2K restoration of 'Blood And Black Lace' which played an important part in the giallo sub-genre.
The film is set largely in a fashion house, populated by characters who become extremely nervous about a diary belonging to model Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), whose body has been discovered by boutique owner, recently widowed Countess Cristina (Eva Bartok). Blackmail, drug abuse and abortion are just a few of the skeletons in various closets here, making the bright red journal most desirable for those with something to hide. As the bodies pile up (literally, in one scene), the police, led by Inspector Sylvestri (Thomas Reiner)attempt to shed some light on this darkest of mysteries, and detain five men; each of whom could be the killer. Clad in a black trenchcoat, with black gloves and a white faceless mask, this haut couture assassin inspired a whole slew of similarly attired deranged murderers, and more than 50 years on, has never been equalled. The killers in this outrageously brutal series of films each have his/her own back stories and motivations. Here, the killer could be any one of five or six people, from Cameron Mitchell to Luciano Pigozzi's fashion designer, but there's also another important participant to consider. If the soundtrack to Dario Argento's 'Suspiria' can be viewed as an additional oppressive cast member, then the use of colour in 'Blood And Black Lace' could possibly be termed a central character, teasing, unsettling, making us gasp at times.

It's a beautifully shot film, with inventive lighting and bold primary colours leaving us in no doubt that Mario Bava was an absolute master of his crafts. The murder scenes are gruesome, yet oddly compelling, and turn an every day place of work and what should be secure dwelling places into houses of malice and death, recorded by an unflinching camera that glides and then settles on the killers prey.
The cast are all excellent, from Arrianna Gorani; Mary Arden (whose character Peggy procures the incriminatory journal); Danti Di Paolo's drug addict to Cameron Mitchell, Bartok and Lea Krugher (Lea Lander), and the score by Carlo Rusticelli is one to savour and replay. The film alone makes this one of Arrow Video's choicest cuts, but that's just part of this story.

The restoration for 'Blood And Black Lace' comes from the original camera negative, scanned in 2K resolution on a pin-registered Arriscan at Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna. The film was graded on the Baselight grading system at Deluxe Restoration, London. The end result gives us the opportunity to view this film in its correct aspect ratio, and to experience the full effect of Bava's colour scheme. It's a flawless transfer, and a real eye opener for those of us who thought they'd really seen this film. Prepare to think again!

The supplementary material begins with a commentary track from Tim Lucas, author of 'Mario Bava: All The Colors Of The Dark' and editor of 'Video Watchdog' magazine and who also assisted with the grading on this release. Tim covers an enormous amount of ground here, talking about the colour schemes (dresses, telephones); the Krimi films and 'White Face'; how the murder scenes were shot to increase the victims vulnerability and of the director's ability to create something out of nothing. Tim also delivers valuable information on cast members (including his late friend Harriete Whie Medin)and makes a multitude of astute observations. One of these is what he terms "the angel in the wreckage', referring to Bava's placement of statues next to scenes of crime and of the lighting used in those moments leading up to and after death. No-one should die alone, and Bava's choices suggest he agrees. Maybe someone or something was there at the end to guide them on the final stage of their journey. A commentary track you'll surely return to.

The next item for your attention is 'Psycho Analysis'; a 55m 8s feature-length documentary on the origins of the giallo, featuring crime novelist Carlo Lucarelli; screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi; writer Steve della Casa; Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava and Roberto Curci. Amongst the many topics discussed are film censorship, classic detective stories and Mario Bava with Argento recalling the work he did on 'Inferno' and son Lamberto remarking he'd watched so many films on Italian TV and discovered his father had done the effects and photography on many of them. It's an informative and revealing documentary which amply rewards the time invested by the viewer.

'Helen Cattet and Bruno Forzani'. An appreciation of 'Blood And Black Lace' by the creative team behind 'Amer' and 'The Strange Color Of Your Body's Tears'. The pair talk about Bava's career; the erotic elements of the genre and agree that Mario is"The father of the giallo'.

'Yellow' (26m 2s)
A crowd-funded, award-winning neo giallo from Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt, which is set amongst the neon lit Berlin where a serial killer is at large.
Driven by a suitably atmospheric score, 'Yellow' follows an old man on the hunt for the murderer who commits his bloody crimes in time-honoured giallo fashion. This compelling short is well paced, manages to cram some interesting set pieces in it's short running time and begs repeated viewings to fully appreciate.
There's a 3m 24s trailer for 'Blood And Black Lace' up next, which is followed by 'Gender And Giallo' (38m 1s); a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie (whose brother David did the encoding for this disc). Michael explores the giallo's relationship with the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s; defines exactly what constitutes a giallo; analyses scores, costumes, the preoccupation with social mores and looks at the M-giallo and the F-giallo.
The commentary is accompanied by clips from the likes of 'Death Walks At Midnight', 'Lizard In A Woman's Skin', 'Short Night Of The Glass Dolls', 'The Fifth Cord' and others. It's an extremely informative piece that fully justifies it's presence on this disc.
'Blood And Bava'. (11m 21s) This is an audio panel discussion with Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve della Casa recorded in 2014 at Cour Mayeur film festival. Stories include Bava's work on 'Inferno', a Bill Friedkin/Alfred Hitchcock anecdote and how a drunken Sacha Pitoeff was dealt with on the set of 'Inferno'.

'The Sinister Image' (56m 25s) This contains 2 episodes of David Del Valle's TV series that were devoted to Cameron Mitchell. This really is worth its weight in gold as Cameron holds forth on some of the director's and fellow artists he's worked with, which resembles a who's who of a golden age of cinema. He recalls having to leave a theatre at the age of 12 during Bela Lugosi's portrayal of 'Dracula'; the time he had to shoot Miriam Hopkins in the back; his role in 'Death Of A Salesman' play and feature ("it was never meant to be a film") and offers generous praise for British actors. The interview includes clips from 'My Favourite Year', 'Gorilla At Large (with Cameron and David donning 3D glasses), 'Blood And Black Lace' and 'The Offspring' amongst others, and Cameron explains why he held Mario Bava in the highest regard amongst all the directors he'd worked with. I was left with a genuine sense of regret when the interview ended as I could hav listened to another couple of hours in the company of two men who have earned the highest respect in their respective fields.
The extras conclude with the 1m 56s US opening, which is an imaginative alternate credit sequence, created by Filmation for US release. It was sourced from Joe Dante's private print and scanned in high definition.

We're not quite finished yet, as there's a booklet containing writing by Howard Hughes, Alan Jones, David Del Valle and Anton Bitel. 'The Glamour House Of Horror' by Howard Hughes notes the additions to the Krimi formula, goes into the history of some of the locations used and notes the exteriors were often "worthy of "Jack The Ripper" victoriana".
'Whodunnit: The Usual Suspects' follows, giving the lowdown on the cast members in the frame for the murders in 'Blood Adn Black Lace', and includes career resumes. Two fine pieces, and make sure you install Howard's books on your 'must buy' list .
Next up is 'Joe Dante Remembers The Genius Of Mario Bava', which is an Alan Jones Shivers magazine feature from November 2000. Joe remembers the first Italian Horror film he saw was 'Black Sunday'; explains why he travelled long distances to see classic horrors at the cinema and of inserting a long homage to Bava in the middle of his first film (Hollywood Boulevard). This was written for the revised and expanded version of Troy Howarth's 'The Haunted World Of Mario Bava' book.
'Bava's Avenger' by David Del Valle takes a look at Cameron Mitchell's film and TV career, from 'The High Chaparral' ( a series my wife and I both watched in different countries during our formative years)to his work for Bava.
There's also a short piece on 'Yellow' from Ryan Haysom and a review of this film by Anton Bitel which explores the films influences and places it as "casting a modern eye back on the old school" which is a beautifully observed comment.This booklet contains some great colour stills from the film, and there's also notes on the transfer and disc production credits.

'Blood And Black Lace' is available to buy now. It's region A and B, and also comes as a beautiful steelbook.

Early days to be thinking about best discs of the year lists, but the film, and it's remarkable restoration and quality extras is destined to be one of the best packages of the year.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Coming Soon: The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Miss Osbourne

Arrow Academy's 'The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Miss Osbourne' will be released on 11th May in the UK and the following day in the United States. Following on from their wonderful 'Boro' box set, Arrow have secured some additional extras to an already impressive batch of supplementary material. The final specs are as follows:

Brand new 2K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative and supervised by cinematographer Noël Véry
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the film, released on both formats for the first time anywhere in the world
- English and French soundtracks in LPCM 1.0
- Optional English and English SDH subtitles
- Appreciation by critic and long-term Borowczyk fan Michael Brooke
- Audio commentary featuring archival interviews with Walerian Borowczyk and new interviews with cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy and filmmaker Noël Simsolo, moderated by Daniel Bird
- Brand new interview with Udo Kier
- Brand new interview with Marina Pierro
- Himorogi (2012), a short film by Marina and Alessio Pierro, made in homage to Borowczyk
- Interview with artist and filmmaker Alessio Pierro
- Phantasmagoria of the Interior, a video essay on Borowczyk’s Dr Jekyll by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López
- Eyes That Listen, a featurette on Borowczyk’s collaborations with electro-acoustic composer Bernard Parmegiani
- Happy Toy (1979), a short film by Borowczyk inspired by Charles-Émile Reynaud’s praxinoscope
- Introduction to Happy Toy by production assistant Sarah Mallinson
- Returning to Méliès: Borowczyk and Early Cinema, a featurette by Daniel Bird
- Reversible sleeve with artwork based on Borowczyk’s own poster design
- Booklet with new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archive pieces by Walerian Borowczyk and André Pieyre de Mandiargues, illustrated with rare stills

After being referred to the BBFC for "senior review", this film will be released in the UK uncut after more than 2 minutes were taken out for a previous home video release.

This release promises to be one of this year's very best, and Arrow have some true experts in their particular fields who have worked on this release. Daniel Bird and Michael Brooke have worked very hard to enable such a deluxe edition to see light of day, while James White has overseen the transfer and David Mackenzie did the encoding.

I hope you'll all support this release and join me in looking forward to further Walerian Borowczyk releases in the future.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

DVD Review: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (BFI 4 disc set)

Filmed between 1964-65, Sherlock Holmes became a popular series on BBC1 and is now available on DVD in the form of a 4 disc set from the BFI.
Douglas Wilmer (who made a cameo appearance in the modern day BBC series) takes the role of Sherlock here, and is quite possibly the most faithful incarnation of this ace sleuth, supported by Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson.

Disc 1

The opening episode is 'The Speckled Band' which is a pilot episode and was filmed as part of the BBC's 'Detective' strand. 'The Speckled Band' concerns the Stoner sisters, Helen and Julia. The latter (played by Marion Diamond) plans to run away and get married, leaving sister Helen (Liane Autin) alone in the house with a 'papa' who rules the house with a rod of iron. Strange whistling in the dead of night and an overpowering smell of tobacco create an air of considerable unease which ends in one of the sisters dying of fright. Sherlock Holmes is called upon to investigate, in what is essentially a 'locked room' mystery. The dangerous Dr Raylett (Felix Felton) arrives at 221b to ward off Holmes' investigation, but the Baker Street boffin is not easily shaken. Here, Wilmer's Sherlock remains cool under pressure, determined to unearth the meaning behind a dying woman's words, while terror spawned thousands of miles away combines with local malice to threaten another life. It's a cracking opening, which paved the way nicely for a dedicated series.

'The Illustrious Client' follows, with Holmes approached to save Violet de Merville (Jenny Linden) from the clutches of serial womaniser Baron Gruber (Peter Wyngarde) who also includes murder amongst his leisure activities.
When Kitty Winter (Rosemary Leach) turns up to tell of her own sorry experiences with the Baron, Violet turns a deaf ear, leaving Holmes to gain possession of a diary that may expose Gruber once and for all. With Holmes taking a vicious beating, women almost coming to blows over Watson and a supremely nervy encounter with Gruber concerning intimate knowledge of valuable pottery, there's plenty going on here as Peter Sasdy's direction moves things along at a brisk pace. This episode comes with an audio commentary moderated by actor-comedian Toby Hadoke, in which Peter Sasdy talks about Peter Wyngarde (very expensive to hire); the joy of finding new acting talent, and reveals his approach to directing is akin to conducting an orchestra.

'The Devil's Foot' rounds off disc 1, with Holmes acting on Doctor's orders during a visit to Cornwall for rest and recreation. His solitude is rudely interrupted when the local vicar calls with a chilling tale of a game of whist that ended in death and madness for three of the players. Now, Mortimer Tregennis (Patrick Troughton) and the brusque Dr. Sterndale (Carl Bernard) become prime suspects in a case that will see Holmes and Watson participate in a most dangerous experiment. Did members of the Tregennis family fall foul of a supernatural force, or is Holmes correct in suspecting a more earthbound manifestation of evil? Listen to the commentary track, and you'll perhaps be surprised to hear that the shoot for 'The Devil's Foot' often descended into chaos. Here, Douglas Wilmer explains why he had to write chunks of the script himself - due to the laziness of others - and also chats about Peter Cushing's thoughts on his own stint as Sherlock Holmes, and how Douglas got the role for the 1965 series.

Disc 2

'The Copper Beeches'
Well-to-do Jephro Rucastle (Patrick Wymark( seeks a governess for his unruly 10 year old son, and sees a succession of young women before settling on Miss Violet Hunter (Suzanne Neve). He originally offers the sum of £100 per annum - way over the going rate for such an occupation - but he insists she cut short her hair and wear a certain dress that happens to be in the household at the time. Violet refuses, but when the offer is raised to £120, begins to have second thoughts. The bewildered young woman consults Sherlock Holmes who believes Violet to be in great danger. Holmes and Watson negotiate a web of deception, which began with the death of a previous governess, meeting stern opposition before an intriguing case is finally cracked.

'The Red-Headed League'
Holmes and Watson find themselves on the trail of a master criminal who leaves a clay pipe at the scene of every crime. In fact, a dastardly duo are behind a series of robberies, and add a red-headed storekeeper (played by Toke Townley) to their list of victims. Holmes deems this case to be "a 3 pipe problem", but manages to stay one step ahead en route to a thrilling climax. While it's true you may well guess the identity of one of the felons a few seconds after he first appears, this should in no way impair your enjoyment of an enthralling episode which comes with the option of a commentary track. Actors David Andrews and Trevor Martin talk about why Holmes has endured through all these years; why David went on to become a director and their memories of working on this episode.

'The Abbey Grange' (Partial Reconstruction)
Most BBC drama of the 1960s was recorded on 35mm for broadcast and 16mm for overseas coverage. For this particular series, the 35mm masters no longer exist, but most of the 16mm recordings are held in the BBC archives. The 16mm material was split into two 25 minute reels, but for 'The Abbey Grange', only the second reel still exists.
So, we have Douglas Wilmer reading the opening 22 minute section, and the final o minutes with sound and vision on the second reel. The story concerns the evil Sir Eustace Brackenstall who was robbed and murdered, with a nefarious family trio identified as the culprits. Holmes isn't so sure of their guilt, and grills Brackenstall's wife (Nyree Dawn Porter) who was found bound and gagged at the scene. Directed by Peter Gregeen, this is a hugely enjoyable episode, with a finale most of us would applaud and understand. Peter also takes the microphone for an audio commentary, talking about the main actors and his own career, which began in 1964. He also reveals directors on Sherlock were only allowed 5 edits per show which goes a long way towards explaining the presence of continuity errors which, in a curious way, add to the charm of this half a century old series.

Disc 3

'The Six Napoleons'
In this episode, we meet Inspector Lestrade (Petter Madden) who seeks the identity of someone he considers to be a vandal. 3 paster busts of Napoleon have been smashed; a seemingly unimportant case, which of course turns out to be something far more sinister when a Napoleon bust is stolen leaving a throat-slashed corpse in its wake. Mafia involvement is one of the theories offered, but Holmes works to his own suspicions and soon apprehends the culprit, even managing to establish a link between this case and an earlier unsolved crime. It's a fast moving episode with plenty of humorous moments - check out a priceless encounter with a storekeeper who drips with sarcasm - and Gareth Davies' direction is finely tuned to the original literary creation.

'The Man With The Twisted Lip'

When Mrs St Clair (Anna Cropper) sees her husband at the window of a "dreadful den", Sherlock Holmes is called upon to investigate the case, which places beggar Hugh Boone (Anton Rodgers) as a murder suspect. After reading De Quincey's 'Confessions Of An English Opium Eater', Holmes disappears on a some would say foolhardy undercover operation. It's a deliciously compelling slice of drama involving not one, but two, masters of disguise and things are finally resolved with customary skill and perception.

'The Beryl Coronet'
High stakes gambler Arthur Holder (Leonard Sachs) is forced to issue an IOU to buy time on a 200 guinea gambling debt, with his father refusing to bale him out. The temporary loan of a coronet studded with 39 valuable beryls is kept under lock and key by Arthur's father who faces ruination when 3 of the beryls go missing. Did Arthur steal them in order to pay off his debt? Holmes arrives on the scene, which is also populated by a maid who holds clandestine meetings with her lover; the dastardly Sir George Burnwell (David Burke) and Arthur's cousin Mary (Suzan Farmer) who apparently loathes Burnwell. It's a tangled web indeed, though not without several clues which are picked up on by the sharpest of minds. Once again, it's an absolute joy to watch everything fall into place.

'The Bruce Partington Plans'
For this particular episode, only sound and vision survives for the first 26 minute reel, with the original sound and the script in text form taking over for the second half, with a background of on-set photographs. Here, Sherlock's brother Mycroft (Derek Francis) is introduced when he arrives at Baker Street with Lestrade. The body of government junior clerk Cadogan West has been found on the line at Aldgate tube. It is strongly suspected West took the 3 most important pages from the Bruce Partington submarine plans, and sold them to foreign interests. With national security at risk, Holmes enters the murky world of espionage, visiting the home of Sir James Walter, only to be told by Valentine (Allan Cuthbertson) that his brother died earlier that morning. Probably one of Holmes' toughest cases, but his inexhaustible knowledge and great powers of perception (which include the workings of London's underground tube system) ensures our attention is held throughout. A crying shame about the missing footage, but a round of applause for the overall presentation.

Disc 4

'Charles Augustus Milverton'
When Lady Farningham (Stephanie Bidmead) goes to see Charles Augustus Milverton (Barry Jones), a most deplorable case of blackmail occurs concerning a military agreement. it seems Milverton has forged a lucrative career as 'The King Of Blackmailers' and his next victim is Lady Eva Bracknell (Penelope Horner) who desires the return of incriminating love letters. Holmes feels this vile individual instills more revulsion than even the worst murderer and engages in a battle of wits to recover the letters and expose Milverton for the bastard he is. Douglas Wilmer chose this episode as one he'd particularly like to talk about and his commentary track - again moderated by Toby - is revealing on a number of levels. Douglas chats about another of his favourites ('The Speckled Band); why he feels that Milverton's director Phiip Dudley fared better than most and why he was disappointed with Patrick Wymark's contribution to the series. Douglas declares he's a tough critic of his own performances and feels there was too much pipe smoking and deer stalker hat (which is perhaps a bit harsh)in the production overall. He also feels some of the director's of Sherlock Holmes could have been started on lesser productions than this one, and talks about his cameo in the modern day series.

'The Retired Colourman'
Josiah Amberley (Maurice Denham) claims his wife has cheated on him, and run away with a man he regarded as a son. As Holmes is preoccupied with another case, he sends Watson to gather information and draw conclusions. The little matter of a missing £7.000 worth of cash and bonds make this a little more than just another jilted husband story, but when Holmes eventually takes command, he smells a rat, or rather paint to be exact. It's another masterclass in detection from Holmes who sees his job as art for arts sake rather than financial gain.

'The Disappearance Of Lady Carfax'
The series is rounded off with this wonderfully compelling tale of a single lady who goes missing in France the same time as her new-found friends depart a swanky hotel. Holmes feels his colleague could do with some fresh scenery so Watson is despatched, only to fall foul of Holmes' and his withering put-downs. In Watson's defence, it's an especially hard case to crack, not for the first time putting Holmes on the wrong side of the law, but an amazing piece of observation moves things forward when all seemed lost.

This most special set concludes with a 1m 35s Douglas Wilmer interview where the great man talks about his own career (which included playing Charles II and work in series such as UFO, The Invisible Man, The Avengers and The Saint), and laments the fact that most of his stipulations for playing Sherlock were ignored (including no more than 3 directors for the series). He also chats about his favourite locations for filming (Cornwall being one) and relates a rather unkind Peter O'Toole comment about one of the actresses in Sherlock Holmes.
This BFI 4 disc set also comes with a booklet which includes info on cast & crew; an excellent piece on Douglas Wilmer (now 95 years of age)by Elaine McCafferty; an episode guide and notes on the transfer. There's also a well written piece on Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes by Nicholas Utechin which delivers a potted history of Holmes and proves very informative.

Image quality on the discs is variable. Dirt and speckles are inevitable given the archive material which have been largely sourced from HD transfers of master negatives. The picture quality can vary from sharp to soft, but the BFI has to be commended for their work which has doubtless made these episodes as good as they can look.

By the time I reached the end of the final episode, I felt a genuine sense of regret that there were no more to savour(the episodes' running time varies between 42 - 52 minutes) Watching Dooulas Wilmer as, for my money, the best Sherlock Holmes; seeing so many great character actors and Nigel Stock's solid performance as a loyal friend whose courage could never be questioned.Then we have Max Harris' haunting score, script editor Anthony Read's sterling contributions and some rather splendid photography which amplifies the tension of these tales. Fifty years old and still not out, Sherlock Holmes makes for compelling small screen drama and this DVD release at last makes it available and a compulsory purchase for Holmes devotees.