Monday, March 25, 2013

MORE HAMMER


Continuing to plough through the recent spate of Hammer BluRays, this morning it was a double-bill of Rasputin - The Mad Monk and The Reptile. Since these two 1966 productions were released on the same bill in many markets, it made sense to watch them together.

The Reptile is the lesser of the two Cornwall set horror flicks filmed back-to-back by director John Gilling (the other being the much more satisfying Plague of the Zombies). Essentially a female take on the werewolf mythos, The Reptile has a decent plot and performances, and an interesting choice in male lead with ruddy-faced Australian Ray Barrett, but it is let down by the appearance of the title (she) creature, which is brilliant in design but sadly lacking in the execution, with Roy Ashton’s budget-restricted make-up effects not up to his usual high standard.

Much more successful is Rasputin - The Mad Monk, which has a more classically grand, epic feel, is quite mature in its nature and features another great, commanding performance by Christopher Lee in the title role, bringing his Count Dracula charisma and vibe to the sexually-charged Russian madman. Barbara Shelley is also wonderful in the role of Sonia, the Tsarina’s lady-in-waiting who falls under the spell of Rasputin (and commits a wicked act in his name which is still shocking nearly fifty years later).

As with the other releases, the BluRays of The Reptile and Rasputin have a great selection of nice extras - including making-off featurettes and, in the case of Rasputin, a cool little documentary on the vintage Hammer paperback novelisation tie-ins.


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QUATERMASS


What a treat it was to watch the new Blu-Ray of Hammer’s 1967 sci-fi classic Quatermass and the Pit. When I sat down and put it on I realised that the only copy of the film that I have previously ever owned was a VHS taped off a television broadcast from the nineties (where it was shown under its alternative title, Five Million Years to Earth), so seeing it in any kind of hi-def for the first time was a real eye-opener.
 
Quatermass and the Pit still holds up as intelligent, clever and sometimes thought-provoking piece of genre filmmaking, with director Roy Ward Baker delivering a very satisfying blend of science and scares, and anchored by a commanding performance by Andrew Keir as Professor Quatermass. Sure, some of the characters are cliched and a couple of the effects look more suited to the Dr. Who episodes of the day, but the story is engrossing and rousing, and there are more than enough clever and effective visual touches to compensate (such as the devil-like Martian spectral image that appears over the city at the film’s climax - a genuinely disturbing visage). And on top of everything else, we get the beautiful Barbara Shelly in a cute plaid skirt and tight red sweater!
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VALE MARZIPAN

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Melbourne's cinema-going society lost one of their own over the weekend when Marzipan, who was the resident cat at the magnificent art deco cinema the Astor Theatre, died at age of 21 after suffering a long illness. Marzipan was adopted by the cinema management when she wandered into the lobby as a stray kitten back in 1992, and since then she had become an integral and much loved part of the theatre - always lounging on the comfy chairs in the upstairs and downstairs lobby, mingling with the crowds in search of a pat, wandering through the cinema like she owned the place and frequently finding a warm lap to sit on for a nap. On several occasions, she was known to scare audience members when she would unexpectedly leap up on someone's lap during a particularly tense moment in some horror or thriller movie.

Marzipan became so popular and adored she was the subject of newspaper articles, a Facebook page and even Melbourne's biggest newspaper carried a story on her passing. As someone who lives only a few minutes walk from the Astor and has been a regular patron of it's great screenings of films new and old since 1982, I will certainly miss the pitter patter of her little feet and the warmth and unity her presence brought to an audience. She certainly lucked out when she wandered off a busy street into that cinema, and 21 years is a great life for a kitty much loved and spoiled rotten.

 
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http://m.theage.com.au/victoria/astor-cat-bows-out-20130324-2go37.html

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=740102618#!/marzipan.astorcat?fref=ts

Thursday, March 14, 2013

HARD TIMES

 
Finally had a chance to revisit Allan Moyle’s 1980 teen rock movie Times Square last night, the first time I have seen it since its original theatrical release. The story of two teenaged girls (from wildly different classes and backgrounds) who bust out of a neurological hospital and survive on the streets of New York, forming their own punk duo The Sleaze Sisters with the aid of renegade DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry), it’s an entertaining but unexceptional film for the most part. There’s a good new wave/punk soundtrack featuring the likes of Roxy Music, Lou Reed, The Ramones, Talking Heads and more, and Trini Alvarado and Robin Johnson are fine in the lead roles of Pammy and Nicky respectively. But the real interest in the film lies is in its setting - filmed entirely on location, Times Square captures the seedy landscape of 42nd St in all its lurid glory, just as it was on the cusp of it’s big clean-up and transition from a grotty urban jungle wallowing in danger and character to a bland Disneyland-esque family attraction (in fact, one of the subplots of the film revolves around the political campaign to ‘beautify’ Times Square).
 
Some of the movies spotted on the cinema marquees in Times Square include Al Adamson’s Nurse Sherri, Cry Rape, House of Psychotic Women (which the two female leads briefly lampoon),The Dark and perennial grindhouse fave Snuff. Also features a brief appearance by legendary 1970s/80s porn starlet Sharon Mitchell (who also popped-up in William Lustig’s 1981 sleazy cult 42nd St fave Maniac).
 
While Times Square has garnered something of a cult following over the years, at the time of its release in was unmercifully savaged by most critics, none more so than David Denby in New York Magazine, who spat out: "This evil, lying little fantasy has been photographed in ugly color, and a mess of mediocre rock music has been draped across it like mozzarella on lasagne. If the producer, Robert Stigwood, sells soundtrack albums with this movie, he should set up a fund for every girl mugged, raped or battered in Times Square".
 
Hunt down the double vinyl soundtrack LP on the RSO label and look for the out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD, which features an audio commentary by director Moyle (Pump Up the Volume, Empire Records) and co-star Johnson.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

DAMIANI'S SLEAZY POSSESSION



Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Damiano Damiani’s Amityville II: The Possession is a great underrated horror movie from its period. Released in September of 1982, it came along at the tail end of a wave of demonic possession films that had started a decade earlier with the 1973 release of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Yet despite being one of the final entries in a cycle that was quickly growing stale, Amityville II remains one of the best examples of the genre, surpassing 1979's The Amityville Horror by a good margin.
 
While The Amityville Horror was based on supposed events, Amityville II at it’s core is a prequel that is based on real, proven events - the 1974 massacre of the DeFeo family (parents and four children) by the oldest son, Ronald DeFeo (it was after this event that George and Kathy Lutz bought the now-infamous Amityville house and fled from it in terror 28 days later, claiming it to be harbouring demonic forces). Using the DeFeo story as the spine of his screenplay, along with material from Hans Holzer’s 1979 true crime book Murder in Amityville, Tommy Lee Wallace incorporated the supernatural spook elements from the first film and came up with a plot about a highly dysfunctional family who move into the Long Island home and instantly become prime feeding material for its infested soul, with the most troubled and vulnerable occupant, oldest son Sonny Montelli (Jack Magner) chosen as the one to spread mayhem and murder.
 
Of course, Amityville II is not necessarily a exceptional film if you are looking at it purely from a writing, performance and directing perspective - it’s the presence of other interesting elements which help distinguish it from similar fare. The dialogue may not always be sharp, but the themes the screenplay explores are often confronting and uncomfortable - none more so than the incestuous relationship depicted between oldest siblings Sonny and Patricia (the wonderful Diane Franklin). The scene where Sonny (quite easily) persuades Patricia to take off her nightie, then confesses to stealing her underwear before he seduces her, has an air of perverse sexual tension that is almost palpable. And while this happens after Sonny has clearly become possessed, there are obvious prior hints that their relationship is a very flirtatious and sexually-charged one (look no further than the scene where Patricia, dressed in tight jeans and pure white jumper, practices her ballet poses in front of Sonny). The incestuous angle is one of those themes found in early-80s genre cinema that most studios would not even try to get away with today (especially in such an exploitative way), and it’s what helps give Amityville II that unique feeling of sleaze and seediness which pervades almost every frame of its running time.
 
One of the most curios aspects of Wallace’s screenplay is that it doesn’t let you feel much sympathy for the characters. Instead of taking a likeable family and establishing an identity for them which is slowly destroyed, Wallace gives us a family who are already dysfunctional, ugly and rotting away from the inside. Father Anthony Montelli (Burt Young) is the slovenly, brutal head of the family, constantly grumpy and dishing out slaps across the face and belts across the backside at the drop of a hat. He looks like he works on a wharf or a meat-packing plant in the Bronx, and totally out of place in his new surroundings. Young’s performance is both amusingly over the top and genuinely creepy. As wife Dolores, Rutanya Alda plays her character like someone slightly out of step with time - in many ways, she epitomises the loyal but naive American housewife of the 1950s, in denial but still desperate to cling to the suburban dream. You have to wonder what her wholesome character first saw in the man she married, but Young and Alda manage to create an interesting chemistry between each other that is always fun to watch.
 
As Sonny and Patricia, Jack Magner and Diane Franklin are terrific in roles that would have offered a bit of a challenge to effectively pull off. Magner is generally decent as a teenager on the verge of manhood but still living under the oppressive hand of his father, but where he really excels is simply in his presence, his eyes and his facial expressions, which become progressively more demonic and deformed as the story unfolds. And Franklin (Terrorvision, Better Off Dead, The Last American Virgin) demonstrates once again why many people (myself included) consider her one of the best and most versatile young actors from that period. In Amityville II, Franklin’s character displays some interesting dualities - she exudes a naive innocence yet eagerly embarks on a sexual affair with her brother. After sleeping with him, she runs off to confess the next day to the family priest (James Olsen), yet tells Sonny that she doesn’t regret what has happened between them at all. Franklin has rarely looked lovelier than she does here.
 
The final reel of Amityville II not only does an entertaining riff on The Exorcist, but offers up some pretty tasty prosthetic make-up effects courtesy of John Caglioni, Jnr. By 1982, thanks to the rising cult status of make-up artists like Dick Smith and Tom Savini, effects had become an integral part of a horror movie’s success. It got you valuable coverage in horror bible Fangoria, and in the pre-internet days a horror flick with convincing or unusual make-up effects always garnered some effective word of mouth.
 
Another factor which adds greatly to the appeal of Amityville II is it’s gloomy look and sense of oppressive atmosphere which cinematographer Franco DiGiacomo creates, using shadows and darkness inside the house and washed-out colours in the exterior scenes, giving the film a continually bleak and colourless tone (as does the fine mist, dead leaves and dirty pools of melting ice that fill many of the outside locations). There is the expected overuse of POV shots to try and create tension, but there are also some genuinely clever and creative photographic touches - a white tablecloth flies down a hallway and covers an offending crucifix that is hanging on the wall, and there’s a nice shot which tracks Sonny from behind as he stalks the house at night, before the camera does a continual 180 flip and tilt to reveal the character front on. The film’s tone is compounded by a suitably creepy and ambient score from the always reliable Lalo Schifrin.
 
Filmed mostly in Mexico (the house exteriors were shot at the same New Jersey location as the previous film), Amityville II comes close to being one of late Italian director Damiano Damiani’s best films. It doesn’t reach the same heights Damiani scaled in his 1966 spaghetti western A Bullet for the General or the 1971 Italian cop actioner Confessions of a Police Captain, but in Amityville II he delivers a downbeat yet wildly entertaining spook show with a healthy dose of 42nd St grind.
 
If you live in Melbourne, Australia, ACMI cinemas will be screening Amityville II: The Possession on Sunday, 14th of April as part of Scream and Scream Again, a program of horror movie sequels from the 1970s and 80s, which will also include Jaws 2, Halloween II and Damien: Omen II. You can find more about the screenings at the ACMI website. Amityville II is also available on DVD, the best release being Sanctuary’s 2004 UK special edition, which features an+ entertaining audio commentary by Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, along with a nice booklet and set of mini lobby cards.
 
Review Copyright John Harrison 2013.