Sunday, 21 June 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Hound Of The Baskervilles (Arrow Video)

An A certificate picture containing X certificate fare may be one way of describing Hammer's 1959 production of one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most popular Sherlock Holmes stories.
While it's true that the film version makes several changes to plot and characters, it remains an important part of Hammer's filmography.
The prologue takes place in and around Baskerville Hall in the 1700s. Here, the evil Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) is indulging in an evening of drink and debauchery with his hunting cronies. First, a man is held over an open fire and then thrown through a window, leading to the intended rape of a young woman who is pursued by Baskerville to the ruins of a local abbey. It's here that the crazed Sir Hugo stabs her to death, before a chilling howl fills the cold night air. Sir Hugo had become the first victim of a demon hound that casts a long shadow over future heads of the family.

Fast forward several centuries and Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead at the same place where his ancestor departed from this world.Ace sleuth Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Lee) is called upon by one Dr. Mortimer (Francis De Wolfe) to investigate the death of Sir Charles, whose relative Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) is on his way to Dartmoor to take up residency at the hall. Holmes despatches his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson (Andre Morell) to establish cause of death in this latest instalment of a truly appalling curse, and the amiable doctor finds himself knee-deep in supernatural legend and human collusion.
As Holmes is missing for a good chunk of this film, it's Andre Morell's Watson who really grabs the attention, dispelling any lingering thoughts of previous bumbling incarnations of this character, being more than capable of going it alone. He's supported by a fine cast too, including the Barrymore housekeepers (John Le Mesurier, Helen Goss); Marla Landi as Cecile who may well be the death of Sir Henry and the wonderful scene-stealing Miles Mallinson as Bishop Frankland. Of course, Sir Christopher Lee delivers a memorable performance and there's on moment where he exudes menace and authority reminiscent of Count Dracula himself.
The scenery, too, plays an important part in proceedings, with unforgiving terrain (watch out for the life-sucking Grimpen Mire), and the spooky abbey ruins that may have played host to unspeakable rites, all beautifully lit by DOP Jack Asher. While it's true that the appearance of the hound is a good deal less than chilling and certain changes to the source are questionable, the film as a whole works very well, driven by a rousing James Bernard score.
Full marks to director Terence Fisher whose eye for the macabre takes the story into wholly unsettling territory, where Holmes himself comments "there is more evil here than I have ever encountered".

Arrow's Blu-ray presentation will please fans of this film and newcomers alike, with vivid detail in both interior and exterior scenes and vibrant colours. The sound is the original uncompressed mono 1.0 audio.
Those same people should also be delighted with the supplementary material here.

'Release The Hound' (30m 20s) is a documentary containing interviews with Mark Gatiss, hound mask creator Margaret Robinson, Kim Newman - who looks at the domestic and international markets for Holmes films - assistant director Hugh Harlow and Peter Allchorne (chargehand props) who recalls Cushing's absolute professionalism. Robinson and Harlow both talk about the hound mask and a dog known as 'Colonel' and Harlow also mentions Fisher's thorough approach to preparing cast, crew and sets. Gatiss and Newman also chat about Cushing's performance.

'Andre Morell: The Best Of British' (19m 43s) is made up of interviews with Andre's son, Jason, Dennis Meikle (author of "A History Of Horrors") and David Miller (author of "The Complete Peter Cushing"). Jason talks about his father's early career and how it was cut in half by the war; why his time with Hammer came to an end and of his death which is extremely moving. Meikle and Miller talk about Hammer's interpretation of the story, and of the humour in the film, making for an absorbing 20 minutes worth.

Next up is "The Many Faces Of Sherlock Holmes"; a 46m 4s feature made in 1986, and narrated by Sir Christopher Lee who sadly passed away recently. This looks at the many incarnations of the master detective, beginning with a tour of Sherlock Holmes' London. The early days, featuring Charles Brookfield and William Gillette are covered, moving onto the first talking Holmes (Clive Brook) and the superb Basil Rathbone and Douglas Wilmer. Sir Christopher also talks about the only actor to play both Holmes and his brother Mycroft, and stageplays starring Leonard Nimoy and Charlton Heston. We even encounter a man who thought he was Holmes in the wonderful "They Might Be Giants". There are some great clips in this enjoyable feature, with plenty to add to your 'must see' list.

'Actors Notebook: Christopher Lee' is a 12m 59s interview recorded in 2002. Sir Christopher offers much praise for Terence Fisher ("a superb arranger"); explains why he preferred to be a stationary actor and how he was absolutely terrified of that spider. He also recounts the last time he saw his dear friend Peter Cushing.

'Hound Of The Baskervilles Excerpts' is 14m 36s of Sir Christopher reading extracts from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book. Those of you who have heard him read from the MR James stories will already know what a wonderful reading style he possessed.

The original theatrical trailer in monochrome (1m59s) is next, followed by a stills gallery which includes posters, colour and b/w stills and some excellent artwork.
There's also an audio commentary with Marcus Hearn (official Hammer historian) and fellow film historian and writer Jonathan Rigby. They begin by discussing the BBFC's decision to give the film an A certificate, and go on to inject fascinating information and astute observations. The differences between film and book are discussed; the detail in the performances; Jack Asher's lighting - at which point Ricardo Freda and Mario Bava are acknowledged - and why James Bernard was particularly upset with Hammer. The pair recall reviews for the film, and end a thoroughly enjoyable track by agreeing "The Hound Of The Baskervilles " is a flawed gem.

The extras are completed by an Arrow booklet featuring new writing on the film by former Hammer archivist Robert J.E. Simpson, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
This Blu-ray is locked to Region B and is available to buy now.

Sir Christopher Lee 27/5/22 - 7/6/15 RIP

Friday, 19 June 2015

Looking Back At The Story Of Sin

While I'm in a Borowczyk mood, I thought I'd reprint a review I wrote, over a decade earlier, of "The Story Of Sin".
I'm extremely hopeful Arrow will eventually release this.

Sefon Zeromski’s literary classic provided the inspiration behind Walerian Borowczyk’s first (and last) feature to be shot in his native country of Poland.Working under the strict regime of the Catholic church, Borowczyk was forced to tone down the more sexually explicit elements of his source, and yet constructed an erotic melodrama that may yet turn out to be the film he’ll be remembered for. In her feature debut, Grazya Dlugolecko plays Ewa - a young woman who falls in love with a lodger at her parents home. When Lukas Niepolomski (Zelnik) turns out to be a married man, Ewa embarks on a tragic journey; her path littered by a succession of men who bring lust, deception, jealousy and death.

Those who associate Borowczyk with little more than boobs ‘n’ bums would do well to investigate this stately account of a life less ordinary which strides purposefully forward to the music of Mendelssohn. Here, Borowczyk shows a remarkable eye for detail in his socio-political condemnation of 70s Poland, while largly leaving his cast to grow with the story. The men in Ewa’s life - a wholly unsympathetic bunch - are well portrayed by a capable troupe of performers (Zelnik, in particular, is excellent as Ewa’s guardian devil) but it’s Dlugolecko who should receive the lion's share of the praise.
Her remarkable performance wrings every last drop of emotion from the words and images of this film, compelling one to wonder why she failed to reach the heights of her profession (more on that later). With an approach to her art and a style that reminds me of Fassbinder’s Hanna Schygulla, Grazya commands sympathy for her deeds and her suffering, taking us through several emotionally intense scenes, including a shattering event that you really will not want to witness: watch out for the roses scene, too, which surely inspired that much-talked about scene from American Beauty. Apart from a rather messy final scene (partially rescued by a beautiful closing shot), The Story Of Sin remains a timeless, harrowing study of the exploitation of sin and the innocent. Indeed, it inhabits the same block as Terence Davis’ The House Of Mirth and Harry Kumel’s extraordianary Eline Vere, while not being quite so moving.
Full marks, then, to Nouveaux Pictures for their release of a Region 2 DVD which honours this important work.In lieu of a full restoration, picture quality is as good as one could hope for, with a generally stable, colourful transfer. Extras are also well catered for, and include a commentary track and interviews with two key figures from the film.The still-gorgeous Dlugolecko takes part in a 6 minute interview, during which she explains how she got the role sans audition; why The Story Of Sin remains her biggest film, and her profound regret that she failed to push her career in foreign markets “until it was too late”. Borowczyk also gets 6 minutes of face time; giving us some background on his film; commenting that Disney features are more erotic than his own productions, and countering accusations of being “a big pervert” from a rather forward interviewer.While it’s a matter of regret that both interviews are so short in length, it’s a genuine pleasure to see and hear the participants.

The audio commentary track, from Daniel Bird, is restricted to comments on selected scenes with valuable information on Borowzyk’s career and a breakdown of Polish life during and prior to the making of this film.
Unfortunately, a major technical glitch meant that much of the commentary track was 'lost' to us, but there's a good chance it may one day surface in its entirety. I hope so, as Daniel is an authority not just On Borowczyk, but Polish cinema in general, and his information and observations will increase enjoyment and understanding.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Miss Osbourne (Arrow Academy)

Arrow Academy's "Camera Obscura: The Wlaerian Borowczyk Collection" boxset came out in 2014 amidst multi-disc collections celebrating the work of great directors such as Werner Herzog and Alain Robbe-Grillet. For many people, Arrow's 'Boro' collection turned out to be the year's finest release; no mean feat, given the alternative riches that graced the UK market. Now, Arrow has released Borowczyk's "The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Miss Osbourne" and I'm pleased to report the top spot in Home Video releases once again beckons.

Released in 1981, Borowczyk's astonishing take on Robert Louis Stevenson's literary creation unfolds almost exclusively amongst a maze of the rooms and corridors of a house that will soon turn into a morgue. The engagement of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) and Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro) has drawn a select group of people to celebrate the impending union, including Patrick Magee's General who turns up in full regalia, bearing arrows with poisoned tips as a rather macabre wedding gift. A most brutal murder sends shockwaves through the household, leading to a long night of terror for the inhabitants of this house of death. With Magee in suitably demented form, and Howard Vernon delivering an assured turn as Jekyll's medical adversary Dr. Lanyon, there are some fine performances to savour, not least from the two leads.
Kier is splendid as the Doctor whose experiments with Transcendental Medicine conjures up the nightmare inducing Mr. Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg), while Pierro, breathtakingly beautiful, really enters into her 'tale of two women' role with a fierce passion.

The subject of Transcendental Medicine was probably unknown to most of us. An article in The Economist reveals some scientists believe it to be the source of out of the body experiences. By stimulating the right angular gyrus( a point about an inch above and slightly behind the right ear), a sensation of travelling outside the body can be experienced. Here, a vial of Solicor and a bathtub enable Jekyll to realise a second bestial self, and gives rise to transformation scenes which culminate in a real show-stopper at the end: "Fill me with hatred".
With the women in the house comatose through morphine-induced slumber, Lanyon encounters the evil Hyde who stands to inherit all that Jekyll possesses, and discovers method and madness that will turn his own beliefs to dust.
Set to a mesmerising score from Bernard Parmegiani, "The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Miss Osbourne" will greatly repay multiple viewings. The lighting, framing and set design are beautiful, with DOP Noel Very capturing art, objects and the very souls of Jekyll and his intended to painterly effect. Johannes Vermeer's 'Woman In Blue Reading A Letter' is a key work of art here, but freeze frame practically any moment in this film and it's like gazing at a painting.
The beauty of Fanny Osbourne; the malice in the face of Hyde; the absolute carnage of the finale.... they all make for arresting images in a film that's rich in detail and containing not a little blood. Borowczyk's film has been passed uncut by the BBFC (after being referred for "senior review"). It's very strong stuff in places,uncompromising and subversive, but its artistic merits and directorial finesse ensured the board reached the correct decision.

This film has been restored in 2K for Arrow Academy's Blu-ray, with the colour grading overseen by Noel Very.
Image quality is sumptuous, with the costumes, set designs and diffusion as close as humanly possible to the very first screening. Another triumph for Arrow's James White and encoder David Mackenzie.
The sound has also undergone rigorous attention being crisp and clear, and offers the option of listening in either French or English language. As usual on Arrow product, there are subtitles for the hard of hearing.
The supplementary material begins with a commentary track in the form of interviews. First up is Noel Very, who explains how the original DOP Martin Bell was ousted and recalls Borowczyk was an impatient director in certain areas.
Later on in this track, Very has some very interesting things to say about diffusion, lighting and framing shots.
Walerian Borowczyk talks about his two leads, remarking Pierro was "a classical beauty"; discusses set design; the transformation scenes and Ridley Scott's "Alien".
Assistant Michael Levy has a lot to say, explaining Borowczyk wanted to understand film at every level and that he was always ahead of the time. Michael explains his own introduction to Borowczyk's work and holds forth with his own opinions on a wealth of subjects.
Khadica Bariha (editor) talks about different stages of editing; working with Chris Marker and her working relationship with Borowczyk.
Noel Simsolo (filmmaker) chats about Jekyll and is own take on Borowczyk's cinema.
The track is moderated by Daniel Bird who has many astute observations to make, mentioning and highlighting the director's interest in objects; how Borowczyk viewed art as a seperate entity and that the film adaptation of "Sir Henry At Rawlinson End" was an influence for this film.

A short films section follows, with "Happy Toy" (2m 17s) which was made in 1979 and rediscovered in 2014. This one harks back to the early days of cinema, based on Charles-Emile Reynaud's praxinoscope, and is a nice take on how things were.
"Himorogi" (2012) runs for 16m 58s and is an absorbing tribute to Borowczyk by Marina & Alessio Pierro. It was inspired by the way Borowczyk projected photographs and drawings onto a transparent screen, with some of the images and objects taken from the director's work, including the veil from "Love Rites" and the necklace from "Dr. Jekyll". This is a dark delight, using stop-motion and set to another edgy score from Parmegiani.

Udo Kier (11m 19s) recalls his work in "Lulu"; talks about the transformation scene and of how he was actually going to play the role of Hyde as well.
Marina Pierro (20m 17s) gives an off-camera interview, recalling a screening of "The Beast" made a strong impression on her, and goes on to talk about Kier, how she wanted to ask Magee about working with Kubrick and Losey and the genesis of "Himorogi" and its mood and motivation. It's clear she has a tremendous affection for Borowczyk - with whom she shares a love of art - and remarks that working on his set was like learning at a film school.
Alessio Pierro on Himorogi (10m 36s). Alessio discusses how he learned so much from Borowczyk, and explains about the tchniques used for this short film.
Sarah Mallinson On Walerian Borowczyk And Peter Foldes (10m 1 s). Sarah recalls meeting Borowczyk when he was presenting "Angel's Games" and talks about her late husband Peter who embraced the possibilities of computer animation. Clips from "Metedata" and "Hunger are shown, amongst others.

Documentaries And Essays
An Appreciation By Michael Brooke (32m52s)
Michael has been a fan of Borowczyk for over 30 years, and delivers a wonderful appreciation of his work. Michael recalls seeing "The Blood Of Dr. Jekyll" at London's Classic cinema; a screenign that compelled him to seek out for features from the director. He gives us the lowdown on Borowczyk's background as an artist; his amateur filmmaking; the period when Boro began to lose support and why the BFI got cold feet over a project. It's a most rewarding half hour and a prefect introduction for those who missed out on the boxset (and who we direct to the individual releases which are available now).

Phantasmagoria Of The Interior (14m 39s)
A video essay by Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopez. This superb essay looks at the world of objects and interior spaces in the film and how they relate to the repressed world of women. Vermeer's 'Woman In Blue Reading A Letter' is described as being unique in Vermeer's work and its influence is explored together with the framing which, is pointed, out often has no corners, floors or ceilings in shot. The entrapment of women is covered along with the fact that women are usually victims or liberators in Borowczyk's work.

Eyes That Listen (10m 2s)
Daniel Bird takes a look at Bernard Parmegiani's score and interviews Andrzej Markowski and Wlodimierz Kotonski. Bernard's sound library is mentioned, and how he would watch a film before composing and immerse himself in it. Sarah Mallinson appears again, and the overall theme of images made complete with music is explored. Fascinating listening.

Return To Melies: Borowczyk And Early Cinema (6m 50s)
Towards the end of 'Jekyll', four still photographs suggest the streets of London as seen froma carriage. This harks back to Borowczyk's filmmaking experiments in Poland during the late 1950s. Clips from "Dom", "Diptych" and "Rosalie" illustrate this featurette.
The disc ends with a 1m 14s trailer. The original French soundtrack had been lost, so Parmegiani's score is used and the viewer can also opt to select an English voice-over or commentary from editor Khadica Bariha.
Arrow also includes a booklet as an integral part of the extras, with writing by Daniel Bird, Andrey Pieyre de Mandiargues and an introduction and script extract from the director along with contemporary reviews.
Daniel's 'A Bath Full Of Solicor' examines the parallels between Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel"; talks about Stevenson's novel and the 'Bath Trick'.
Daniel also penned essays on "Happy Toys" and "Himorogi", describing the latter as "a sensual response" to Borowczyk's work. Excellent writing which will increase understanding and appreciation of Boro's work.

Arrow Academy's Blu-ray is regions ABC, and it's available to buy now. For the film, the quality of the restoration and the bountiful and rewarding extras, this release carries a high recommendation. A labour of love and it shows.