Friday, April 6, 2018

HAMMER HORROR: THE WARNER BROTHERS YEARS

2017/UK/Directed by Marcus Hearn



Written and directed by noted Hammer scholar and author Marcus Hearn and produced by the folks behind Diabolique magazine, HAMMER HORROR: THE WARNER BROTHERS YEARS is an entertaining and fairly deep and thorough examination of the genre films which the legendary Hammer studios produced in conjunction with Warner Brothers between 1968 and 1974, a period which saw some of the best and most daring, as well as some of the more experimental and strange, titles emerging from the studio. The infusion of money from Warners saw the films reach a new level in terms of production values, while the distribution which Hammer received from the deal also saw their films gain more visibility in terms of worldwide distribution.

By the time Warner Brothers became involved with Hammer with DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), the beautifully-lurid, gothic horror productions which made the studio famous across the globe had already been around for a decade, and while they were still turning out popular films, cinema - and the world in general - had changed immesurably, and what had been horrific and shocking about films like THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) now seemed rather quaint and tame compared to the new wave of cinema that was pushing boundaries and taking advantage of more tolerant censorship laws, movies such as BONNIE & CLYDE (1967), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) THE WILD BUNCH (1969), MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) and EASY RIDER (1969), not to mention more provocative UK horror features like Michael Reeves' WITCHFINDER GENERAL (aka THE CONQUERER WORM, 1968). In an attempt to keep up with the times, Hammer began upping the ante once again, both graphically and thematically, with Terence Fisher's superb FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) and Peter Sasdy's TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970), as well as the strange and rather obscure CRESCENDO (1970). Other Hammer movies produced with the help of Warner's during this period included the rather oddball science-fiction film MOON ZERO TWO (1969) and the prehistoric adventure WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) with Victoria Vetri.

When Warner Brothers was sold and changed hands in June of 1969, the new owners sadly decided to cut right back on their dealings with Hammer, effectively limiting their involvement with the studio to just one film per year, a period which saw the release of DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972), THE SATANIC RIGHTS OF DRACULA (1973) and the much-maligned kung-fu/horror hybrid THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974). Sadly, by this point Hammer were once again being made to look somewhat antiquated in the wake of THE EXORCIST (1973) and the more provocative, grimy and transgressive British horror films directed by the likes of Pete Walker, such as HOUSE OF WHIPCORD (1974) and FRIGHTMARE (1974). Indeed, Warner did not even bother with a US release for the the last two films they produced under their deal with Hammer, with both THE SATANIC RIGHTS OF DRACULA and THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES sitting on the shelves for several years before getting a belated stateside release (under various titles) by small independent distributors.

Along with a number of rare production photos and archival behind-the-scenes footage, HAMMER HORROR: THE WARNER BROTHERS YEARS features new on-camera interviews with stars like Veronica Carlson, Madeline Smith, Caroline Munro and John Carson, as well as director Peter Sasdy along with noted Hammer fans and historians Joe Dante, Jonathan Rigby, Denis Meikle and others. My own personal highlights from the documentary are those which cover CRESCENDO (a film rarely discussed in other Hammer books or documentaries) and the scenes that were cut from various films for their US release (such as the controversial rape scene in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and Victoria Vetri's nude shots in the otherwise kid-friendly WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH).

In many respects, HAMMER HORROR: THE WARNER BROTHERS YEARS is like a feature-length (101 minutes) version of the excellent featurettes which Hearn has put together for many of the non-Warner Hammer Blu-rays that have appeared over recent years.With most of the Warner Hammer Blu-ray and DVD releases being sadly bare bones affairs, this documentary provides the perfect accompaniment for these films, and should appeal to both die-hard Hammer fans and general cinema buffs and historians alike.

More information on the documentary can be found at the Diabolique website at the following link:



Sunday, April 1, 2018

X-RAY MARKS THE SPOT

My piece on the classic 1963 Roger Corman mind-bender  X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES is now up on the Diabolique website. Click on the link below to read.

X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES Diabolique Article





POLICEWOMAN

My current TV binge watch is the first (1974) season of POLICEWOMAN, a show I enjoyed watching growing-up but only ever saw sporadically so it's great to see how it unfolded and developed from the start.
My impetus for revisiting this series came about from recently watching the first fantastic season of POLICE STORY, where the final episode ("The Gamble") was the clear inspiration for POLICEWOMAN, since it starred Angie Dickinson as an undercover cop (with a different name to her "Pepper" Anderson character) alongside Ed Bernard and Charles Dierkop, both playing the same cops (Styles and Royster) that they would portray in POLICEWOMAN. With Bert Convy playing the character which Earl Holliman would portray in POLICEWOMAN, "The Gamble" is another great episode of POLICE STORY and provides a further example of just how honest and uncompromising the series was (at one point in "The Gamble", when the Angie Dickinson character goes undercover as a hooker, Royster asks her "Do you know what a string of pearls is?").
POLICEWOMAN is not quite as tough or gritty as POLICE STORY but it is still a highly-enjoyable watch anchored by a great cast with terrific chemistry, and of course Dickinson is so strong as the lead. Some great guest stars so far in the first season as well - my favourites being William Shatner as a high-school science teacher mixed-up in the on campus drug trade, and Bob Crane as a radio DJ who uses his wife's extra-marital affair as an excuse to bump her off. Considering Crane's own bloody demise in a Scottsdale motel room just a few years later, it's a rather unsettling appearance. I had to wonder if he flashed his famous collection of X-rated Polaroids to Angie while on set (he was supposedly quite proud of his photography work and not shy about showing it)?
Now I need to find the POLICEWOMAN action figure and costume accessory sets, would make great playtime fun with the KOJACK and STARSKY & HUTCH dolls from the same era.








Saturday, March 17, 2018

CITY ON FIRE

Another new addition to Netflix Australia which I highly recommend is LA 92, a recent (2017) feature-length documentary produced by National Geographic, which examines the incendiary racial riots and violence that occurred in the wake of the police beating of Rodney King and their subsequent clearing of the charges laid against them.
In Australia the King beating and the riots were big news, but there was still so much that I learnt from this riveting documentary, which is composed entirely of vintage news reports and amateur video footage shot by people caught up in the chaotic unrest. Brilliantly pieced together and combined with a powerfully effective score, LA 92 not only educates about its subject but puts you right in the midst of its terrifying whirlpool, which had clearly been simmering for years before the truly incomprehensible King decision (along with the earlier killing of African-American teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean convenience store worker) forced the powder keg to ignite.



ANNIHILATION

Alex Garland's ANNIHILATION (2018) is another beautifully cerebral, thought-provoking and at times terrifying science-fiction thriller from the writer/director of the brilliant EX MACHINA. It's a true reflection on the sad state of current cinema distribution that ANNIHILATION was deemed "not commercial enough" for threatrical screenings outside of the US. Instead it has gone straight to Netflix in Australia and is available to view right now, and is well-worth doing so asap. Led by stars Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, ANNIHILATION may not quite be the emotional stunner that EX MACHINA was, but it is totally seductive and gripping, a simple idea over which layers of complexity are slowly and effectively added. There's a few stunningly beautiful visual moments in the film that are composed like classic abstract and surreal paintings, not to mention a nail-biting monster attack that comes with an aural accompaniment that is truly unnerving. Delivering on its title, ANNIHILATION will wipe you out.



Saturday, March 10, 2018

SCARRED FOR LIFE

Another night, another of the new local Hammer Blu-rays given the once-over. Last night's title was SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), which I got up to watch at 2am as this always seems to be the hour when gothic Hammer is most effective to me (no doubt partly due to the fact that this was the time I first saw a lot of these films on TV when growing-up).
Produced at the same time as HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN in order for the two films to share a double-bill, SCARS OF DRACULA is not only the worst of Hammer's DRACULA films starring Christopher Lee, but possibly the studio's worst vampire film, period. It is good to see Lee getting more screen time (and dialogue) than usual, but the absence of Peter Cushing's Van Helsing is sorely felt, and the cheaper than usual production values (brick castle walls that wobble when bumped, rubber knives that bend when hitting skin, clearly fake vampire bats) are even more obvious in hi-def. And the mod hairdos on young male stars Dennis Waterman and Christopher Matthews make the characters better suited for the modern-day follow up DRACUL A.D. 1972 than a period gothic piece. And I can't help but hear the Benny Hill theme tune play when Bob Todd turns up as the Burgomaster.
On the plus side, one-time Doctor Who Patrick Troughton is great as Klove, Dracula's servant, and its nice to see Hammer regular Michael Ripper getting more scenes than usual (as the tavern landlord, of course). Dracula's death by lightning strike is also different and effective (despite the obvious rubber Chris Lee mask on the burning stuntman), and the film is surprisingly graphic thanks to the studio taking advantage of the recent change in the British X certificate (which raised the minimum viewing age from 16 to 18). The TV version I grew-up with on Channel 9 was clearly cut to ribbons. The Hammer glamour quota in SCARS OF DRACULA is filled by Jenny Hanley, Anouska Hempel and Wendy Hamilton.



MUMMY DEAREST

Despite numerous attempts over the years, I have never really been able to connect with Seth Holt's BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971). In fact, other than Terrence Fisher's masterful THE MUMMY (1959) I have found all of Hammer's mummy flicks to be somewhat underwhelming and lacking, certainly in comparison to the studio's other great gothic (and modern) horrors. Unfortunately last night's viewing of the new local Blu-ray release of BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB has done little to alter my view of the film. Based on Bram Stoker's novel THE JEWEL OF THE SEVEN STARS, the film certainly looks beautiful and lush, has a fine score by Tristram Cary, and atmosphere oozing from almost every pore. It presents an interesting take on the traditional mummy themes, and Valerie Leon looks absolutely ethereal in her dual role as Margaret Fuchs/Queen Tera, but it's just one of those movies where its whole does not reflect or do justice to its wonderful individual elements. It's also a movie whose production was beset by personal tragedy - original star Peter Cushing had to drop out after only three days filming due to the illness of his beloved wife, and director Seth Holt died at the age of only 48 while the film was still one week away from the completion of filming (Michael Carreras overseeing the completion of the film).



CARRY ON FRANKENSTEIN

Really enjoyed a recent viewing of the new local Blu-ray release of HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970). It cops a lot of flack from Hammer fans, and it's understandable why, with its more comedic and saucy take on the classic gothic horror story. But it was the first Hammer horror film I ever saw, and it did its job of scaring the heck out of me on late-night TV when I was a kid. Ralph Bates is not the Victor Frankenstein that Peter Cushing was but he was a good actor who died far too young and I loved his take on the character here. He gets great support too from Jon Finch and Dennis Price as the creepy, jovial graverobber who loves his job, and Dave Prowse as the bald, muscle-bound monster. I've always loved the way film ends so abruptly and on such a blackly comedic note, and of course there is the usual dose of lovely Hammer glamour in the form of Veronica Carlson and Kate O'Mara. Not classic Hammer by any stretch but a very entertaining and different take on the subject and a clear indication of just how much Hammer were struggling to stay afloat and relevant as the 1970s dawned.



Monday, March 5, 2018

CLASSIC UNIVERSAL MONSTER ART

My article looking at 1950's Universal Studios genre movie posters and their often-stunning art has now been posted over at the Diabolique website. You can read the piece by clicking the link below.



Wednesday, February 28, 2018

SON OF UNSUNG HORRORS

Edited by Eric McNaughton & Darrell Buxton



Thanks to his excellent and long-running digest magazine We Belong Dead, Eric McNaughton is one of the more prominent and respected names in the UK genre magazine scene. Recently, his imprint has expanded to include the beautiful large-sized books Unsung Horrors, A Celebration of Peter Cushing and the truly phenomenal 70s Monster Memories (which I reviewed for the pages of Weng's Chop magazine in their ninth issue from 2016). Now Eric has ushered in 2018 with another absolute treat for the classic horror fan with Son of Unsung Horrors.

Featuring an introduction from filmmaker John Landis (Joe Dante introduced the first volume), Son of Unsung Horrors follows the same format as its predecessor, with a number of genre film writers taking a look at some of their favourite overlooked or underrated horror films from the silent ear to the early-1980s, with a large majority of them coming from the 1960s and 70s (a beloved era of horror for many of the people this book is aimed at). Most films are given between two to three pages, and each essay is accompanied by a rare and often stunning selection of still, posters, lobby cards and other original promotional material, the majority of them in full colour. Some of my own favourite films covered in Son of Unsung Horrors are the atmospheric Italian film The Embalmer (1965), Paul Naschy's Night of the Werewolf (1981), Irwin Allen's outrageous killer bees disaster epic The Swarm (1978), the wonderfully strange Brit biker horror Psychomania (1973), the messy Satanic Panic pulp The Devil's Rain (1975) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956, a film I recently discussed myself HERE as part of Diabolique's regular webite column on Universal Horrors).


Of course, there are quite a number of films covered which, to many film buffs, are not really considered to be "unsung". Certainly, Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) is rightly regarded as a classic and highly influential piece of surrealist genre cinema, and movies like William Castle's The Tingler (1959) and Madhouse (1972) have many admirers and have been written about extensively in the past. Likewise Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 thriller Targets with Boris Karloff, and Peter Weir's haunting Australian mystery Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) are widely considered classics that have large followings outside the general horror audience. But on the whole Son of Unsung Horrors offers a pleasing and very interesting cross-section of titles and the writing is kept fresh by the number of contributors and their varying writing styles (some analytical, some informative, and some just plain appreciative).

The hefty cover price of Son of Unsung Horrors (UK 30 pounds plus another 20 for shipping if you are outside the UK) will restrict its appeal to mostly hardcore horror fans and collectors, but there's no doubt that if it is your cup of tea then the cost will be more than worth it to have this beautifully lush volume sitting on your shelf or coffee table for others to envy. Almost half of the limited print run for Son of Unsung Horrors has already been sold on pre-orders alone, and the rest are not likely to remain available for too long. Both 70s Monster Memories and A Celebration of Peter Cushing sold out quickly and go for mad money these days, so get in fast if you want to secure your copy of this one. 

Son of Unsung Horrors is available direct from the publisher's website at www.unsunghorrors.co.uk. Click HERE for more details.




Saturday, February 24, 2018

WENG'S CHOP 10.5

Received my contributor's copy of the new WENG'S CHOP Holiday Spooktacular mini-issue (#10.5) recently. 180 pages of cult and exploitation movie essays, articles, interviews and reviews that I am looking forward to digesting over the long Australia Day weekend. My contributions to this issue are an article of the 1976 drive-in classic MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH (including an interview with one of the film's stars, Rex Sikes) and a piece on the stunning and provocative new film from Mark Savage, PURGATORY ROAD (including an interview with Mark and the female lead of the film, Trista Robinson). Get it from Amazon and dig it!








MONSTER! BACK FROM THE GRAVE

After a bit of a hiatus, MONSTER! should return next month with another huge issue and a great wraparound cover by Mike Hall. I believe this issue will include my article on 1970s horror movie poster magazines (including an interview with legendary UK comics and movie magazine publisher Dez Skinn).



RONDO NOMINATIONS 2018

A thrill as usual to see my SIN STREET SLEAZE blog listed amongst the nominations for the 2018 Rondo Awards in the "Best Website or Blog" category. My fourth consecutive nomination in that category. Congrats to all the other nominees in all categories, many of whom I am friends with on FB and who do work that I greatly admire.

Aside from being nominated for a Rondo Award in the "Best Website or Blog" category this year, it's also a thrill to see a book in which I was involved in also gaining a nomination for "Book of the Year" . Edited by Amanda Reyes and published by Headpress, ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? is a compendium of articles and reviews devoted to the classic 1964-1999 era of American telemovies, with emphasis on the more esoteric and genre-related titles. Some of the great TV movies I wrote about for this book include GARGOYLES, BORN INNOCENT, Ron Howard's COTTON CANDY, SNOWBEAST, a bunch of 1990s Stephen King adaptations and more. Was a great night launching the book at Monster Fest with Amanda and fellow contributors Lee Gambin and Kier-La Janisse, along with special guest Marneen Lynne, who talked about her own work on TV movies and played a great highlight reel that she played for the audience.

Big congrats and best luck to Amanda for the nomination, and great to see the book amongst some many other worthy nominees.

Click here for all Rondo nominations and voting instructions:




THE BLACK PANTHER STRIKES!

Ryan Coogler’s BLACK PANTHER delivers a pretty solid, involving and entertaining chapter in the all-conquering and ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe (which a lot of people expected to start imploding a few years ago but only seems to have gotten stronger on the backs of some of the company’s second and third-tier and lesser-known characters). There was a lot about BLACK PANTHER that I loved – it looks beautiful and often recalls the days of the big African adventure epics, the costume design is stunning and we get a great villain (Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger) with some clear motivations that we can empathize with. Throw in a great soundtrack, some touches of humor that don’t make you groan, and some strong and nicely-realized female characters who also get to kick major butt, and you have a movie whose positives more than compensate for its odd moments of silliness and CGI-induced confusion. A blockbuster with both a heart and a brain.



DETROIT

After missing-out on Kathryn Bigelow’s DETROIT (2017) when it made its very brief Australian cinema run, I had the chance to catch-up with it since it made its local Blu-ray release this week. How this film went completely unnoticed by the Academy voters is beyond me. DETROIT is a stark and stunning drama which unfolds during the violent civil rights riots which took place in Detroit in 1967. Focusing on a true incident which saw three teenaged blacks beaten and shot dead by Detroit PD at the Algiers Motel on the night of July 25th, DETROIT is a galvanizing and often immersive experience, as Bigelow and her photographer Barry Ackroyd use cinema verité techniques to take you into the terrifying midst of a street riot, depicting it from the varying eyes of the authorities, the rioters and the innocent people who are often caught in the middle. The use of vintage newsreel footage and crime scene photographs help the film enhance its documentary flavour. The whole cast deliver nice performances but Will Poulter takes the acting honours with his turn as a truly vile and vicious, racist young cop. DETROIT left me feeling drained, shaky, angered and saddened…just the way a movie like this should leave you.



Saturday, February 3, 2018

BRUTAL & BRILLIANT BRAWL

After the baroque brilliance of his horror western BONE TOMAHAWK (2015), S. Craig Zahler scores another home run with BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, a rousing ode to the tough prison genre starring Vince Vaughn in a powerful and literally bone-crunching performance as an incarcerated drug courier who runs amok behind bars in a bid to save the life of his wife and unborn child. At over two hours long, the movie takes its time to tell its relatively simple story, but it is never less than engrossing and builds its tension beautifully, leading to a brutally violent pay-off in the last thirty minutes. It starts off gritty and real and progressively becomes more over-the-top and comic book, but it’s a natural progression and keeps you invested in the main characters and the stakes that are being played for. Great soundtrack as well, along with a nice performance by Don Johnson as a prison warden and a very creepy Udo Kier. Zahler is definitely a filmmaker to watch.



LEATHERFACE LACKING

LEATHERFACE (2017). Now out locally on disc, this latest instalment in the line of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE sequels, prequels and reboots, has been almost universally panned, and sadly within thirty seconds of the film starting I knew we were in trouble. CHAINSAW completists and the undemanding horror fan will find it a mildly diverting watch, and there’s enough grue to make the gorehounds happy, but it is just the complete antithesis of all the elements that made Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original such an audacious and terrifying piece of work. It looks so bland and cheap and its 1950s/60s period setting has about as much authenticity as the re-enactment sequences in an average episode of FORENSIC FILES.

I’m not a fan of taking horror icons and classic boogeymen and giving them an unnecessary backstory, which only serves to dilute their original aura, but if they HAD to go that route here did they have to give Leatherface such a boring and unexceptional origin? Lilli Taylor is completely wasted in this ugly-looking meld of Bonnie and Clyde and NATURAL BORN KILLERS which accomplishes nothing other than to
remind us of just what a masterpiece the original is.



Sunday, January 28, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Though it's no traditional monster movie, THE SHAPE OF WATER still feels more like a genuine classic Universal horror film that that studio's own disastrous attempt to revive their line of famous monsters via the formulaic Tom Cruise vehicle THE MUMMY. A meticulously-crafted Cold War love story between a lonely mute woman and an amphibian man-fish captured in South America to be exploited for military purposes, THE SHAPE OF WATER has tension but very little actual horror, but I was still thoroughly engulfed and transfixed by it. The interspecies romance works extremely well and comes off as quite tender and not at all repellant, thanks to the writing and directing and endearing performance by Sally Hawkins. It's BEAUTY & THE BEAST meets THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and the beautiful photography, music and immaculate attention to the details of its 1962 Baltimore setting provides the sumptuous icing to the film's emotional heart. I'm usually not big on "Oscar Favourites" but if this one wins Best Picture it will be a brave but worthy choice.