DVD review: Prospect (2018)

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Prospect (2018)
Signature, certificate 15 (out 22 April)
Originally written for Infinity magazine

Fellow fans of the lamentably short-lived science fiction series Firefly (2002-3) and its spin-off movie Serenity (2005) will find much to enjoy in this extraterrestrial western, expanded by writer-directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl from their 2014 short of the same title.

Teenage spacefarer Cee (Sophie Thatcher, tv’s The Exorcist) accompanies her prospector father Damon (Jay Duplass, The Oath) to an alien moon in search of highly sought-after crystals, but they’ve no sooner struck lucky than Damon dies in a shoot-out with rival miners and the pragmatic Cee finds herself teamed with one of her father’s assailants, Ezra (Pedro Pascal, Bloodsucking Bastards and Game of Thrones).

The duo’s unsteady alliance takes up much of the film, and both lead actors are excellent in their roles. Although the last of their confrontations with the satelite’s other inhabitants does get a little confused (as tends to happen with nocturnal firefights), Cee proves herself to be a young lady with true grit and saves both their skins, a satisfactory conclusion to a cosmic tale which proves refreshingly down to earth.

Blu-ray review: Replicas (2019)

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Replicas (2019)
Lionsgate, certificate 12 (out 29 April)
Originally written for Dark Side magazine

Actors have occasionally been accused of ‘phoning a performance in; with this largely lamebrained excuse for a science fiction thriller, Keanu Reeves (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Matrix trilogy) goes one step further and texts most of his. “We are going straight to Hell,” says fellow scientist Ed as the pair start playing Frankenstein with the newly-deceased remains of Reeves’ wife and children; the rest of us are already there.

At a secret lab on a remote Latin American isle (presumably chosen for that Jurassic Park vibe), Will Foster (Reeves) is using a holographic display cribbed from Tony Stark to implant memories into android brains. After a traffic tragedy wipes out his family, he and Ed (Thomas Middleditch, The Final Girls) clone new bodies to create a fresh off-the-peg domestic unit. So far, so crazy, because a shortfall in the number of amniotic pods Ed could rustle up has already forced Will (or Bill: the film can’t decide, which is typical of Chad St John’s confused screenplay) to jetison his younger daughter.

Reeves demonstrates how deeply this is affecting him by delivering every line like he hasn’t slept for a fortnight (if he’s suffering from insomnia, perhaps he should try watching this film). Meanwhile, his resurrected wife Mona (Alice Eve, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Men in Black 3) is proving memories can’t be buried like last week’s trash, forcing Will into a conversation which is one of the few unexpected moments in this $30M b-movie. Enter the lab’s administrator (John Ortiz, Kong: Skull Island), who forces Reeves to channel his inner John Wick and take the action up a gear to protect his faux family.

Unfortunately, the film’s closing 30 minutes are still hobbled by the lethargy and gormless technobabble of the opening 75, leaving us with a fractured and deeply unfocussed narrative. Its moral perspective is further skewed by the finale, in which the allegedly deleted daughter rematerialises and an android version of Reeves begins offering the resurrection tech to any elderly millionaire with a yen – and sufficient spare yen, or dollars, or rubles – to reboot.

Reeves is reportedly back with Alex Winter right now, shooting a third Bill & Ted. Let’s hope his time-travelling includes telling Replicas director Jeffrey Nachmanoff to order a few critical rewrites and maybe get himself a more convincing lead actor (seriously, Jeffrey, your faith in Reeve’s “dramatic chops” is deeply misplaced).

Extras: commentary by Nachmanoff and executive producer James Dodson; “making of” documentary, including interviews with Reeves and his production partner Stephen Hamel, who came up with the initial story; deleted scenes.

Blu-ray review: Crucible of the Vampire (2019)

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Crucible of the Vampire (2019)
Screenbound, certificate 15
Originally written for Dark Side magazine

The sad truth is, the British horror industry has sunk to such depths that almost any halfway competent entry is greeted with disproportionate excitement, and whilst Crucible of the Vampire is by no means as instantly forgetable as some recent releases, its overall impact is that of a damp squib rather than the fireworks we all hope to see again.

When archaeologist Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch) is dispatched to a remote country house to evaluate a potential addition to her museum’s collection, she soon runs foul of the item’s current owner, Karl (Larry Rew, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans). At least his wife Evelyn (Babette Barat, who seems to have stepped out of a Ken Russell romp) and daughter Scarlet (Florence Cady) seem friendlier, the latter far more than usual in polite company. Meanwhile, resident gardener Robert (Neil Morrissey, I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle) offers moral support amidst a few dark hints about the estate’s health and safety record.

Pretty soon, Isabelle (a virgin, we helpfully learn via an oddly intimate conversation with a barmaid) is having curious dreams and encountering the stately manse’s spectral squatter. Luckily for her, Scarlet is happy to offer solace in her own bed, as well as a rather restrained sapphic seduction and a somewhat over-enthusiastic hickey.

It doesn’t take a graduate of Karlsbad University to see where this is going: the local Satanists want to use Isabelle’s virgin blood (lesbian sex doesn’t count, apparently) to restore the vampire in Karl’s upstairs bathroom to full strength and, well, the rest of their scheme is left unstated because Isabelle is soon channelling her inner Lara Croft and inserting some overdue dynamism into the film’s closing act.

This is director Iain Ross-McNamee’s second feature (his first was 2015’s ghost story The Singing Bird Will Come), co-written with Darren Lake and John Wolskel (whose Vampire Motorcycle credit no doubt explains Morrissey’s fleeting and frankly superfluous participation), and displays logistical assurance which sadly is not matched by any noticable skill in creating either tension or atmosphere. Like the photography, much of the drama is disappointingly flat, encouraging one’s mind to wander off piste and query why Scarlet, a vamp in both senses of the term, wanders happily around her home’s more sunlit wings, yet her presumed ‘siress’ flares like a Roman candle as soon as she exits the front door.

The great problem when reviewing a film such as Crucible of the Vampire is that the intentions of cast and crew are never in doubt: they clearly wanted to make a memorable British chiller in the vampiric vein of Dracula AD 1972 (with a PG-friendly dash of Lust for a Vampire). Unfortunately, the script simply doesn’t deliver the goods, and everything from that point onwards is rendered anaemic as a result.

Blu-ray review: Kin (2018)

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Kin (2018)
Lionsgate, certificate 15
Originally written for Infinity magazine

Despite the presence of headliners Dennis Quaid (Innerspace, The Day After Tomorrow) and James Franco (Spider-Man, Oz the Great and Powerful), Kin feels oddly more suited to small screens than the large, with an open-ended finale which leaves you anticipating (albeit not rooting for) a spin-off tv series.

When the recently-widowed Quaid’s estranged elder son (Jack Reynor, soon to be seen in Scandi folk horror Midsommar) gets out of jail, he might be forgiven for thinking strained family dynamics are the biggest problem on his plate. Unfortunately, Reynor is in debt to a local gangster (Franco), adopted teenage son Myles Truitt (last seen in Black Lightning and here making his feature debut) has salvaged an extraterrestial weapon from the site of an unexplained alien shoot-out (seriously, it’s time for a moritorium on that cliché) and Quaid has the misfortune to walk in on Franco’s gang as they’re robbing the construction company he works for. The two brothers escape, joining forces with a kind-hearted stripper (Zoë Kravitz, X-Men: First Class and Mad Max: Fury Road), but Franco is soon hot on their trail, as is a team of aliens eager to retrieve their bad-ass bazooka.

Although competently executed, the resultant road movie is crushingly familiar, and that’s not because I saw Bag Man, the 2014 short by Kin co-directors Jonathan and Josh Baker from which it was expanded. The old Not the Nine O’Clock News song ‘Nice Video, Shame About the Song’ springs to mind; in this case, decent enough performances and special effects, pity about the plot and script.

Blu-ray review: Swamp Thing (1982)

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Swamp Thing (1982)
88 Films, certificate 15 (out 25 March)
Originally written for Dark Side magazine

The opportunity to write and direct a screen adaptation of the Len Wein / Bernie Wrightson horror comic came at an interesting juncture in Wes Craven’s career. Having navigated his way out of hardcore pornography through exploitation cinema (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) into the horror mainstream (Deadly Blessing), Swamp Thing allowed Craven to demonstrate his ability to handle action scenes, location work, special effects and a relatively tight $2.5m budget. Unfortunately, despite bringing the project in on schedule and within Avco Embassy’s cost estimates, it would be nearly three years before A Nightmare on Elm Street earned him wider recognition (by which time any comics fans picking up Swamp Thing on VHS would probably wonder why it diverged so much from Alan Moore’s 1983 reboot).

The movie was clearly aimed at a family audience, although 88 Films has chosen to go with the ‘European cut’; this version features brief nudity excised from the original US theatrical release, most notably a sequence in which its well-endowed heroine Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape from New York) skinnydips under the no doubt sexually frustrated gaze of mutated biologist Alex Holland (stunt man Dick Durock, who stepped in to play the beast of the bayou after Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) found the costume too clumbersome). Heading the cast as the urbane mad scientist Anton Arcane is Hollywood veteran Louis Jourdan (1977’s Count Dracula), who was most likely fulfilling a contractural obligation when he reprised the role in Jim Wynoski’s decidedly less effective 1989 sequel The Return of Swamp Thing.

In the excellent commentary track hosted by Sean Clark (Horror’s Hallowed Grounds), Craven readily admits there were problems with the production values – Jourdan’s climatic transformation into some kind of sword-wielding werewolf is more comical than comicbook – but Swamp Thing remains a fun romp, much of its charm lying in its being produced in an era before computer graphics became a kneejerk panacea for lazy film-makers.

Extras: slipcase, 16pp photobook and A3 poster (limited edition only); commentary by Wes Craven, which drops out during the nude scenes; interviews with production designer Robb Wilson King, critic Kim Newman; original trailer. The HD restoration is very nicely handled and my only regret is that 88 Films weren’t able to import the additional commentary by makeup artist William Munns and interviews with Adrienne Barbeau and Len Wein which appeared on Shout Factory’s 2013 Blu-ray (although that release omits Ms Barbeau’s steamy ablutions).

Blu-ray review: The Green Inferno, aka Cannibal Holocaust II (1988)

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The Green Inferno, aka Cannibal Holocaust II (1988)
88 Films, certificate 15 (out 11 March)

Anyone picking up this limp jungle drama in the mistaken belief that it bears any connection whatsoever with Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 gorefest beyond the Amazonian setting is in for a savage disappointment.

Director Antonio Climati (Mondo cane) originally intended Natura Contro for Italian television, where it might have slipped into well-deserved obscurity, but Medusa pre-empted that airing with a video release falsely promoting it as a sequel to Cannibal Holocaust. The only upside to this scam is that UK customs officials might have seized any copies passing through their sticky fingers and spared the intended owners from wasting 90 minutes of their lives on this utter piffle.

Other than the gratuitous insertion of Jessica Quintero’s naked breasts into shot whenever the pace begins to flag (in other words, continuously), The Green Inferno would not look altogether out of place on CBBC, and why 88 Films deemed it worthy of a 2K remastering is a bigger mystery than the disappearance of a noted professor which sends our gang of cardboard explorers up river.

Extras: booklet featuring an essay by Francesco Massaccesi (not seen); extracts from Banned Alive, The Rise and Fall of Italian Horror Movies (featuring interviews with Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi); Italian titles and end credits; Italian audio track; remastered trailer.

DVD review: The Doctors, Villains! (2018)

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The Doctors: Villains! (2018)
Koch Media, certificate E
Review originally written for UK magazine Infinity

Hot on the cloven heels of the Myth Makers compilation Monsters!, producer Keith Barnfather and his team turn their attention to the Doctor’s arch-nemeses.

Sadly, of course, the best-loved of those actors, Roger Delgado, was tragically taken from us 45 years ago in a car crash whilst filming in Turkey, but this two-disc set includes a tribute to him from many of his former colleagues (a number of whom have sadly also now left this plane).

The remaining five places in this nefarious Who‘s Who are taken up by David Gooderson (Davros in Destiny of the Daleks; interviewed this year by Robert Dick), Bernard Archard (Marcus Scarman in Pyramids of Mars; interviewed at a 2006 convention), Julian Glover (Scaroth in City of Death; ditto); Ian Collier (Omega in Arc of Infinity; filmed at home that same year) and Peter Miles (Nyder in Genesis of the Daleks; likewise). In a misguided attempt to give the older material a sense of continuity, questions from regular interviewer Nicholas Briggs were inserted into the footage; the result is both clumsy and jarring.

Whilst Glover provides the most entertaining segment, arguably the best line comes courtesy of Collier, confiding how his 1988 HIV diagnosis made it difficult to get regular work: “If it wasn’t for Big Finish, my career would have been finished!” Another reason, whilst the broadcast series suffers the attentions of the vacuous Chris Chibnall, to be grateful at least one company still knows how to make an authentic Doctor Who adventure.

Blu-ray review: The Time Tunnel, The Complete Series (1966-67)

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The Time Tunnel: The Complete Series (1966-67)
Revelation Films, certificate PG
Review originally written for UK magazine Infinity

Having explored oceanic depths in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and distant worlds with Lost in Space, legendary producer Irwin Allen switched focus to the fourth dimension for his third science fiction series. Unfortunately, despite garnering solid ratings for ABC in the generally ill-regarded Friday evening slot, three did not prove the charm and The Time Tunnel was relegated to telefantasy history after just a single 30-episode season, in the spring of 1967.

And yet it had all begun so well that previous September, when viewers were introduced to impetuous physicist Tony Newman (James Darren), his more cool-headed colleague Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert) and the secret underground installation which gave the show its title.

Threatened with the project’s cancellation unless it begins to justify its astronomical budget, Newman risks his own life to test out the apparatus and finds himself aboard the SS Titanic in the final hours of its fateful maiden voyage. Phillips volunteers to mount a rescue mission, which ends with the pair adrift in the continuum whilst their fellow scientists try frantically to pull them back into the present day.

Later adventures would see them interact with such landmark events as the Reign of Terror, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Custer’s last stand and the fall of the Alamo, with Allen taking maximum advantage of Twentieth Century Fox’s stock footage library. Cost concerns kept non-historical settings to a minimum, but the second episode did feature a moon landing in 1978 and aliens could turn up wearing costumes borrowed from the Lost in Space wardrobe.

Quality predictably varied from week to week, but the show’s writers would occasionally turn in a really ingenious storyline and the series was rarely less than entertaining. Ultimately, however, it was a victim of network politics, initially granted a second season in the 1967-68 schedule, bounced into 1968-69 to make room for an unsuccessful western show and then dropped entirely when ABC had a change of management.

That said, at least we still have the first season and full marks to Revelation Films for this excellent Blu-ray presentation; the image is crisp, the colours deep and the Emmy Award-winning special effects look terrific. Ironically, the pilot episode for a proposed 2002 reboot has fared less well, shot on video rather than celluloid and upscaled from DVD.

Extras: original 1966 pilot (largely identical to the aired version, but with a different ending); unaired pilot for the 2002 reboot (a further attempt in 2005 never got beyond the script stage); tv and radio spots; on-set camera tests and home movie footage; cast interviews; The Time Travellers, a 1976 tv movie produced by Allen and based on an uncredited storyline from Rod Serling; mono / 5.1 audio options.

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.]