DVD review: Prospect (2018)

Prospect.jpg

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)

REPLICAS_BD_2D_DC_OCARD.jpg

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)

Crucible of the Vampire.jpg

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)

Kin.jpeg

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)

Swamp Thing 3D Packshot Slipcase.jpg

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)

The Green Inferno - Cannibal Holocaust 2 2D Packshot Slipcase.jpg

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.

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.