DVD review: The Doctors – The Sylvester McCoy Years (2018)

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In a near-echo of the problems Doctor Who suffered during the closing years of its original run, the sixth and seventh incarnations of the titular Timelord present quite a challenge for Reeltime Pictures as it repackages individual instalments of its popular Myth Makers series into these compilations.

Chief among these is the lack of co-stars to profile: the Doctors portrayed by Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy only had three companions between them, and one of those – Bonnie Langford’s somewhat less than universally loved “Mel Bush” – has yet to be interviewed by producer Keith Barnfather and his team.

It’s surprising, then, that the existing episodes with McCoy and Sophie “Ace” Aldred (hosted by Nicholas Briggs and shot in 1994 and 1991, respectively) were not augmented in some manner, although the latter does pop up alongside Barnfather in the introduction and past ‘updates’ haven’t always proven successful, most notably the disjointed Nicholas Courtney contribution to The Jon Pertwee Years. If McCoy had any clue he’d be enjoying one final huzzah the following year, in the ill-fated tv movie marking Paul McGann’s debut as the Eighth Doctor, he certainly doesn’t let on, and Aldred’s involvement as a production assistant offers evidence of the close bond between them which still exists to this day.

The focus then switches to three actresses who portrayed notable supporting characters in the series: Lisa Bowerman (featured in the final serial, “Survival”, then subsequently cast as “Bernice Summerfield” in various Big Finish audio spin-offs), Jessica Martin (“The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”) and, most interesting from a biographical viewpoint, Angela Bruce (“Battlefield”). Bringing up the rear is a 2002 chat with former story editor Andrew Cartmel, who offers a tantalising insight into how a 1990 season would have treated the Doctor (a new companion, to begin with).

The interviews with Martin and Bruce were conducted earlier this year by Reeltime’s “Ace” reporter, and Sophie’s uniquely personal perspective does introduce a fresh angle into the equation. I for one certainly look forward to her next Myth Makers assignment.

DVD review: Bella in the Wych Elm (2017)

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Although Tom Lee Rutter’s debut feature shares with Ian Merrick’s The Black Panther (1977) both a factual basis and a heart of England setting, the former’s “Midlands phantasmagoria” eschews grimy realism for a more abstract account of the mysterious discovery of a woman’s corpse inside a hollow tree in wartime Warwickshire.

Was she the victim of a bizarre Satanic cult, a Nazi agent eliminated by her own comrades or merely an inconvenient lover? Rutter’s drama-documentary follows in the journalistic footsteps of contemporary local reporter W Byford Jones, whose ‘Questor’ column first explored the myriad possibilities. The film’s low budget is to some extent compensated for by Rutter’s use of authentic locales and non-actors for many of the roles (the narration by ‘Tatty Dave’ Jones certainly boosts its Black Country flavour), although he does go a little overboard with the flickering retro photography, which would be more appropriate had the murder taken place fifty years earlier. Nonetheless, this is an intriguing curio, and not without its ‘folk horror’ charm.

[This film was released on DVD by Carnie and is also available via Amazon Prime. The limited edition includes two alternative ‘silent movie’ edits (unusually, of differing durations) with fresh scores, a trailer and three postcards.]

Blu-ray review: Vampira (1974)

[This film will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Fabulous Films on 14 August 2017.]

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Reportedly squeezed out by sitcom sausage machine Jeremy Lloyd (Are You Being Served?; ‘Allo ‘Allo) as a favour for his friend David Niven (never better than in A Matter of Life and Death) when the latter revealed a yen to portray Count Dracula, Vampira is fatally undermined by the inability of Lloyd and director Clive Donner (1978’s small-screen rehash of The Thief of Baghdad; Get Smart revival The Nude Bomb) to decide what genre they’re aiming for. Spoof? Sophisticated comedy? Softcore farce? Woefully vague in both conception and delivery, this anaemic yarn offers a Dracula with little bite and jokes far too long in the tooth to raise more than a groan.

Niven tries to paste over the cracks with his career-winning bonhomie, but even he can’t save a scenario which sees his beloved wife transformed into a cross between Elizabeth Bathory and Foxy Brown following a ill-fated blood transfusion from a group of visiting Playboy models (don’t ask, it’s just one of numerous oddities in this screenplay). Lloyd was apparently instrumental in getting his former Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In colleague Teresa Graves the title role, her only movie lead, but his storyline is less kind to Linda Hayden (dispatched with absurd haste), Jennie Linden (wasted as an imperilled literary agent) and Freddie Jones (whose demise shows every sign of having been heavily cut to avoid a higher certificate). Only Nicky Henson emerges relatively unscathed, playing a horror writer bent to the Count’s will (no sniggering at the back, though that would be a novelty with this film), but the material he’s working with feels like remnants from one of his mate Robin Askwith’s Confessions romps.

Hammering another nail into Vampira‘s coffin, this is by no means an optimal print, and the final scenes (in which Niven’s usual tan appears to have been coated in boot polish) are particularly washed out. Appropriate, really: playing up the ‘debonair aristocrat’ angle might have clicked with 1970s audiences (after all, aren’t most members of the nobility bloodsuckers of a kind?), but this vampire vehicle never really came into focus.

Blu-ray review: Waxwork (1988)

[This Blu-ray will be released by Lionsgate on 28 August 2017.]

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There’s a lot of nostalgia these days for the 1980s, as evidenced by the success of Stranger Things and the release of films which keep one eye firmly trained on the rear view mirror, such as The Void and Beyond the Gates. Whilst that affection is occasionally misplaced (see my review of Blood Diner below), it’s well deserved in the case of Anthony Hickox’s directorial debut Waxwork.

Hickox, the son of editor Anne Coates (The Elephant Man) and director Douglas Hickox (Theatre of Blood), famously scored the gig when he drove into a car owned by would-be producer Staffan Ahrenberg and agreed to make amends by writing a script for $3000. Three days later, they had the mould for Waxwork, but it wasn’t until fellow producer Mark Burg intervened with Vestron’s studio head Dan Ireland that the wax could be poured.

Zach Galligan, who’d slid into television after 1984’s lead roles in Gremlins and offbeat fantasy Nothing Lasts Forever, was cast as reluctant hero Mark Loftmore, partnered with Hickox’s then-girlfriend Deborah Foreman (Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat) as the unexpectedly kinky Sarah Brightman. Adding some solid British support, Hickox called in Avengers veteran Patrick Macnee to play mysterious mentor Sir Wilfred and David Warner (TRON, Time Bandits) as the sinister museum owner whose exhibits are as dangerous as the icons of evil they depict.

The movie isn’t perfect: Hickox had to junk his original finale as time and money ran out, throwing together a rather shambolic free-for-all which is less ultimate showdown than saloon brawl, although elements were resurrected for the 1992 sequel Waxwork II: Lost in Time (with former Sports Illustrated model Monika Schnarre filling in for Foreman following an acrimonious break-up with the writer-director). However, it exhibits genuine energy and inventiveness, with British special effects designer Bob Keen bringing a glorious menagerie of monsters to the screen without the faintest whiff of CGI.

It’s a pity Lost in Time couldn’t have been bundled into this volume of the ‘Vestron Video Collectors Series’, seeing as Lionsgate previously handled the sequel’s 2003 DVD release and it’s referenced extensively in the copious extras, but fans will certainly have no complaints about the print’s clarity and absence of visible DNR.

Extras: audio commentary with writer-director Anthony Hickox and lead actor Zach Galligan; 82-minute documentary The Waxwork Chronicles, featuring interviews with Anthony Hickox, producer Staffan Ahrenberg, editor Chris Cibelli, sfx designer Bob Keen, make-up technician Steve Hardie, production assistant Paul Martin, art director John Chichester, make-up designer Paul Jones, plus Zach Galligan and fellow actors Dana Ashbrook, J Kenneth Campbell, Monika Schnarre, David Carradine (archive, obviously), Bruce Campbell; The Making of Waxwork, introduced for 1980s audiences by Patrick Macnee; theatrical trailer; stills gallery.

Blu-ray review: Blood Diner (1987)

[This Blu-ray will be released by Lionsgate on 28 August 2017.]

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Originally pitched as a sequel to Herschel Gordon Lewis’ infamous gorefest Blood Feast, Jackie Kong’s cannibal comedy (the third of four horror films she directed between 1983 and 1987) is a prime case of incoherent ineptitude misdiagnosed as satirical spoof.

Psycho siblings George (Carl Crew, Urban Legends) and Michael (Rick Burks) run a sleazy eatery where the menu is more Hannibal Lecter than Heston Blumenthal. Under the ghostly guidance of their dead uncle, the pair embark upon a murder spree in order to resurrect an ancient goddess by staging the first “blood buffet” in five million years.

This might sound ludicrous enough to be fun, but it really isn’t. The recipe is wrecked by lack-lustre direction, inane acting (it’s no surprise the leaden LaNette LaFrench made no other screen appearances), cack handed continuity, patchy audio (much of the film is clearly dubbed, though why is anyone’s guess) and a pedestrian screenplay by Michael Sonye (Star Slammer, Commando Squad). On a purely technical level, it’s a great print and includes footage removed for the Vestron VHS release, but it strikes me as somewhat crazy that time and effort can be expended on this junk when many genuinely worthy movies still await a Blu-ray restoration.

Extras: audio commentary by director Jackie Kong; 2016 featurette Killer Cuisine: The Making of Blood Diner; 2009 interview with memorabilia dealer Eric Caidin, who died in 2015; trailer; television ads; stills gallery.