Category: Film Reviews

Film review: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

MyersHalloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

[From Critical Wave #17, 1990. Copies of Platform Entertainment’s 2010 DVD release are currently available via Amazon, as is the 2012 Blu-ray edition.]

 

There are essentially two schools of thought when it comes to horror movies. The first, typified by John Buechler and Clive Barker, holds to the theory that emotional response is directly linked to visual bombardment: the gorier the image, the greater the impact. The other, which informed Robert Wise’s superlative 1963 screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, opts instead for intensity and suggestion rather than graphic anatomy lessons, shadows rather than splatterfests.

Regrettably, the latter school has had few graduates in the past decade, the box office success of Freddy Krueger and his rivals too much of a temptation for young film-makers eager to make their mark and all too ready to jump aboard the bloody bandwagon if it seems to be heading in the right direction. That’s not to say I’m not in favour of a little gore once in a while, just that by the time you’ve seen your tenth eye-gouging or your fortieth disemboweling, the entire affair loses its initial shock value, much as a stag night comedian who peppers his routing with “fucks” soon becomes merely tiresome.

So I suppose I should send a note of thanks to Dwight H Little, director of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, for not only creating (with screenwriter Alan B McElroy) a movie with sequences of real tension, but denting the view that horror sequels are by their very nature a worthless exercise in audience exploitation. The third chapter in the Myers saga (Halloween 3: Season of the Witch having no connection to its predecessors, you will recall) opens a decade after John Carpenter’s original, Jamie Lee Curtis’ character having survived her murderous brother only to die in a traffic accident, the focus shifting to her young daughter, now fostered by one of Curtis’ babysitting clients. Uncle Michael is safely locked up, of course, but (surprise, surprise) escapes to wreak havoc in tranquil Haddonfield yet again.

Several questions arise at this point, such as “How come psychopaths are always relocated in pitch darkness?” and “Why don’t people simply leave town for the Halloween weekend?”, but expecting a sensible answer is as pointless as wondering how Myers and monomaniacal psychiatrist Donald Pleasance survived the fiery finale of the second movie. You simply have to suspend disbelief, set your brain in neutral and go with the flow; gore fans may be disappointed by the conspicuous lack of on-screen carnage (folks get offed, sure, but with a refreshingly economical style), but I actually jolted at one point towards the close, which is quite a change from the usual predictable yawnfest. And make certain you catch the final few minutes, for one of the neatest twist endings in many a moon.

Film review: Edge of Sanity (1989)

Edge2Edge of Sanity (1989)

[From Critical Wave #11, 1989. Twentieth Century Fox released a DVD in 2004, copies of which are currently available via Amazon. Copies are also currently available on eBay.]

 

If Robert Louis Stevenson, awakening from the nightmare which spawned his novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, had been granted a vision of the legion of cinematic emetics his book would ‘inspire’, I suspect he’d have thrown his notebook to the floor, slid back under the sheets and vowed to never again eat strong cheddar before retiring.

However, we have Allied Visions’ Edge of Sanity as testament that such was not the case, with Anthony Perkins drafted in to essay the role of the deranged doctor. Intriguingly, the script is credited to J P Felix and Ron Raley, with no mention of the original source, though judging from the final result, this may be out of respect for the dead.

The core of Stevenson’s novel is its anthromorphosis of Victorian society, the Jekyll / Hyde split holding a mirror to the hypocrisy of the privileged few who preached morality in the daytime and spent their nights frequenting music halls and brothels. Its subsequent stage adaptation by the American actor Richard Mansfield struck a deep chord in a community then being terrorised by the Whitechapel murderer immortalised as ‘Jack the Ripper’, a relevance not lost on the makers of this movie.

What Edge of Sanity chooses to do, however, is to forge a direct historical link between the murders of autumn 1888 and the fictional antagonist of a novel published two years earlier. By dubbing the murderous alter-ego ‘Jack Hyde’, it attempts to cash in on the interest rekindled by last year’s centenary and at the same time legitimise its sado-sexual excesses; needless to say, it fails on both counts.

EdgeAnthony Perkins tackles his dual role with only a modicum of make-up (arguably the film’s single merit), playing the Hyde persona as a close relative of the homicidal priest he portrayed in Ken Russell’s excellent Crimes of Passion. This time, unfortunately, Perkins is allowed to go completely over the top and thus disastrously undermines his character’s credibility. His decision to take this course might be a conscious attempt to emphasise the difference between the mild-mannered workaholic Jekyll and his amoral doppelgänger, but it’s just as likely to be another coffin nail in director Gerard Kikoine’s reputation — particularly when Glynis Barber (as Elizabeth Jekyll) is allowed to be just as wooden as Kim Cattrall was in Kikoine’s previous genre effort, the dismal Mannequin.

Even more self-destructive that the erratic performances on screen is the film’s reliance on softcore titilation, underlined by Valerie Lanee’s bizarre costume designs, which totally eschew historical accuracy and opt for a cross between Ann Summers and Cyndi Lauper, decorated with more crucifixes than the Vatican. At some points, it out-Russells Ken himself, no mean feat but no reason for anyone to bother tracking this film down, either, unless you’re an s&m junkie. And if you are, I doubt you’ll find this dressed-up slasher yarn any more to your taste than I did.

Blu-ray review: Theatre of Blood (1973)

PriceTheatre of Blood (1973)

[Distributed theatrically by United Artists and issued on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment, this film was released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films in 2014.]

 

As Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria, observes during one of several fascinating featurettes on this disc, 1973’s Theatre of Blood neatly bookended the 20-year rollercoaster ride his film career had stepped onto with 1953’s House of Wax. Price’s unique brand of camp malevolence swiftly established him as one of the true giants of horror cinema, arguably the first such since Karloff and Lugosi, and it was never more effectively showcased than in this tour de force collaboration between veteran director Douglas Hickox (co-helmer on 1959’s The Giant Behemoth) and jobbing screenwriter Anthony Greville-Bell (later to gain greater success as a sculptor).

But every Faustian pact comes with a bill: association with the genre undoubtedly denied Price many of the classic roles assigned to more mainstream stars, so it is here that Theatre of Blood raises the curtain on the first of its many delights; whilst we never had an opportunity to see Price’s own interpretation of Shylock or Richard III, that tantalising ‘what if?’ scenario is here placed centre-stage, albeit viewed via the crack’d mirror of deranged thespian Edward Lionheart.

Yet even here, Price refuses to bypass Lionheart’s shredded humanity and turn him into some species of cookie-cutter killer: “I don’t play monsters,” he once said, “I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge.” The challenge of engaging – and, perhaps more impressive, retaining – the audience’s sympathies for a multiple murderer wreaking vengeance upon those who ridiculed his self-belief is clearly one Price was hungry to sink his teeth into, and with justifiable relish.

Nor was dominating the screen going to be an easy task: Theatre of Blood is populated by a quite extraordinary array of British acting talent. As well as Diana Rigg, portraying Lionheart’s bereft daughter (a performance within a performance, as we soon discover), the ‘Critic’s Circle’ now finding itself held square to account comprises Michael Hordern, Jack Hawkins, Arthur Lowe, Coral Browne, Robert Morley, Ian Hendry, Dennis Price, Robert Coote and Harry Andrews, all of whom approach their roles as the film’s alternative villains – assuming you accept Lionheart’s own adjudication – with precisely the right blend of gravitas and doomed pomposity. These are ‘journalists’ versed in such casual malice that even Index on Censorship might not grieve over their bloody demise.

It is Hordern’s grisly dispatch – sliced to meaty ribbons in an homage to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – which sets out both Lionheart’s modus operandi and the tone for every subsequent execution. Much as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead would venture eight years later, Hickox and Greville-Bell use humour to distract from what is at its core one of the most inventively violent and gory concoctions to hit British screens that entire decade. Decapitation, electrocution, evisceration, drowning, choking: all are grist to this particularly bloodthirsty mill, yet they remain closer to the tradition of pantomime than the media-manipulated ‘video nasties’ which waited in the wings to overshadow the genre. How appropriate that a drama which evoked the spirit of the Grand Guignol with such flourish should feature ‘theatre’ in its title.

Certain contemporary critics – damnable parasites! – apparently regarded this film with a degree of distain, pointing to 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its 1972 sequel in what was presumably an attempt to downplay Theatre of Blood’s originality. If so, it was criminally misjudged: yes, Anton Phibes and Edward Lionheart do both practice their own form of homicidal justice, but the former is more of a carnival act, with his insane puzzles and manic machinery of death, whilst the latter seeks vindication as much as vengeance. From Lionheart’s perspective, those whose snide derision poisoned his triumphant grand tour had only to express remorse for their failure to recognise a true genius of the stage, present him with the honours he so richly deserved, and all that other exhausting unpleasantness could have been excised from the text. Instead, it was left to this great Shakespearean impresario to mount this final and most inspired production; the rest is silence.

~~~

Notes: Rarely would the tag ‘special edition’ be so justified as it is with Arrow’s long-anticipated Blu-ray release. In addition to the crystal-clear transfer (sourced from MGM’s original elements), extras include the 1973 trailer and an rich selection of interviews conducted by film-makers Calum Waddell and Naomi Holwill (as well as Victoria Price, they’ve spoken to her father’s friend and confidante David Del Valle, supporting actress Maddy Smith and composer Michael J Lewis). Sadly, none of the lead contributors are still alive, other than Dame Diana, so the optional audio commentary is provided by all four members of dark comedy troupe the League of Gentlemen; as such, it offers more of a mildly entertaining diversion than any great insight into one of British horror’s most memorable productions, rather like watching the movie whilst sharing your sofa with a pack of particularly hyperactive puppies. That aside, this is a seriously must-have treat for any self-respecting fan of the genre.