Archive for July, 2011
Monday, July 25th, 2011
Witchfinder General (1968)
by Troy Howarth
Directed by Michael Reeves; Screenplay by Michael Reeves and Tom Baker; Starring Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer, Rupert Davies, Robert Russell, Nicky Henson, Patrick Wymark, Wilfred Brambell, Bernard Kay
In the midst of the British Civil War, the lawyer Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) appoints himself ‘witchfinder’ – finding and accusing people of witchcraft and condemning them to death, for a tidy profit…
When Michael Reeves died of a drug overdose in 1969, at the age of 25, the British film industry lost one of its brightest, most promising talents. A rabid cinephile from childhood, Reeves shmoozed his way into the film industry after making some home-made short films on his own. Reeves revered the great American filmmaker Don Siegel and set out to meet his idol – after literally appearing on Siegel’s doorstep, he talked his way into becoming an assistant director. By 1965, Reeves completed his first ‘professional’ picture as a director – The She Beast, aka The Revenge of the Blood Beast, starring cult favorite Barbara Steele. It was not Reeves’ first brush with the genre; prior to this he acted as an assistant director on the Italian-made Christopher Lee vehicle The Castle of the Living Dead (1964), and it would seem that his contributions extended far beyond assisting its nominal director, Warren Keifer. Recognizing the commercial viability of horror, Reeves continued in the same vein with The Sorcerers (1967), an intelligent commentary-of-sorts on the power of the cinematic medium, starring Boris Karloff. The success of The Sorcerers allowed the director to advance to a slightly larger budget for the ambitious Witchfinder General.
The film is a scathing portrayal of religious and moral hypocrisy based on a real life incident. The story deals with Matthew Hopkins, who scours the countryside for so-called witches; in truth, his motivation has little to do with moral crusading and everything to do with blackmail, of both the monetary and sexual variety. The film plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, but it does provide a surprisingly realistic portrait of life in the secluded sections of England during the time of the English Civil War (1642-1651). In Reeves’ capable hands, the relatively modest budget is made to appear considerably larger than it really was – this is largely accomplished by the use of existing buildings and locales, as opposed to constructing expensive sets. The end result verges on the epic, though budgetary constraints prevented the director from being quite as ambitious as originally planned – there are no battle scenes, for example, though the sense of a country torn apart by strife looms large over the proceedings.
It is well known by now that Reeves originally intended to cast Donald Pleasence as Matthew Hopkins, and there’s little doubt that the veteran actor would have able filled the role. However, when American International Pictures became involved and offered to put some money into the project, they insisted upon casting Vincent Price in the lead. Reeves resented the imposition and worried that Price would destroy the film by offering a campy, flamboyant performance. Price, meanwhile, found Reeves rude and presumptuous, leading to a falling out that never really became resolved. Reeves goaded and tormented his star at every turn, forcing the actor to give a toned down, realistic performance that is all the more startling in comparison to his more typical performances in other horror fare of the period. Price was impressed with the end result and would later admit that Reeves was right to reign him in, but the tension on the set was the stuff of legend. In some respects, the casting of Price changed the tone of the film, regardless. Whereas Reeves saw Hopkins as a petty tyrant, suffering from impotency, he was forced to rethink the character when the regal and imposing Price was brought into the role. Price plays Hopkins as a conflicted character, initially driven by an equal desire to stamp out evil and to make some money in the process, but who succumbs to his own inner evil and becomes far and away the darkest, most frightening characterization of the actor’s career. There’s none of the flamboyance and sense of fun that Price normally brought to his horror roles, and the film definitely benefits because of it. The end result may not have been quite what Reeves had in mind initially, but it works beautifully, just the same.
The supprting cast is very impressive on the whole, with Reeves favorite/screen doppelganger Ian Ogilvy (From Beyond the Grave) offering a strong performance as the soldier who incurs Hopkins’ vengeful ire. Ogilvy brings considerably more depth to his role than one would expect from a young leading man in a genre film of this vintage, and his big showpiece at the end is particularly memorable. Ogilvy’s love interest is played by Hilary Dwyer, a beautiful, sensitive actress who graced far too few genre films. She would go on to play against Price in The Oblong Box (1969) and Cry of the Banshee (1970), but she was never so effective as she was here. Her performance is flawless, moving from wide eyed naivete to devastated hysteria without missing a beat. Rupert Davies (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) is also very effective as Dwyer’s uncle, whose persecution at the hands of Hopkins sets the drama in motion, while Robert Russell makes a tremendous impression as Hopkins’ vile henchman, John Sterne. Russell would never get another role with so much substance, and though he was dubbed by the character actor Bernard Kay (who, bizarrely, shows up as a fisherman in the picture), he more than holds his own against Price.
Reeves’ direction is stylish and energetic throughout. Aided by John Coquillon’s stunning location photography, he makes the most of every unsavory setpiece. The film moves at a tremendous clip, building to a climax that remains potent to this day. Indeed, the film’s realistic depiction of violence (barring some none-too-convincing stage blood) landed it in hot water with the censors, and later the critics, of its day. It may seem a little tame by today’s jaded standards, but there’s far more emotional impact due to its careful attention to mood and character than can be found in any NC-17-level bloodbath produced in today’s marketplace.
Odeon’s all region blu ray release of Witchfinder General is a winner. The 1.85/16×9/1080p transfer looks terrific from start to finish. Colors are vivid, detail is strong, and print quality is very good on the whole, with only some minor speckling in evidence. The film is presented in its original director’s cut, retaining all the violence but omiting the ‘uncovered’ scenes shot for the ‘continental’ market – Reeves never intended the film to include more than a little tasteful nudity during one love scene, and the topless shots evident in some video editions were only there at the behest of producer Tony Tenser, so the presentation is true to the director’s original wishes.
The mono soundtrack is in good condition. Paul Ferris’ gorgeous score sounds truly majestic, and the dialogue is clear and easy to hear throughout. There are no issues with hiss or background noise to report.
Extras include a commentary by Reeves’ expert Benjamin Halligan and the director Michael Armstrong. Armstrong was a friend of Reeves and would later direct the most (in)famous cash-in on Witchfinder’s success, Mark of the Devil (1969). It’s a good, informative track, and the two men are careful to temper analysis with more realistic nuts and bolts productions concerns. Up next is Reeves’ early short film, Intrusion, which is presented both silent or with optional commentary with Halligan and Armstrong. It’s a crude film, and print quality is spotty at best, but it is of definite interest to Reeves completists. Blood Beast: The Films of Michael Reeves is a short documentary on the director, featuring comments from various friends and enthusiasts; it has already been present on prior R2 editions of Witchfinder and The Sorcerers, but it’s nice to have it included. Bloody Crimes: Witchcraft is a TV program shedding some light on the real life horrors of the witch hunts of the era, and it provides a nice refresher course for anybody interested in the subject matter. Vincent Price on Aspel & Company is a talk show interview with the late horror icon, who makes some funny comments about his low paying gig on Michael Jackson’s titanic smash hit album Thriller; the interview drives home what a witty, endearing man he truly was. Alternate opening and closing titles (from the US edit, Conqueror Worm, which AIP tried to shoehorn into their waning series of Poe adaptations), alternate scenes from the continental edit, a still gallery and a theatrical trailer are also included. Blood Beast, Intrusion, the Price interview, the continental clips, and the trailer are all presented in standard definition.
Film: ***** out of *****
Blu Ray: ***** out of *****
Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
Chained Heat (1983), Red Heat (1985), Jungle Warriors (1984)
Stars: Linda Blair, John Vernon, Sybil Danning
Director Paul Nicolas, Robert Collector, Ernst R. Von Theumer
Released by Panik House
There have been prison pictures since the 1930s. James Cagney, George Raft and many others have rattled tin cups against jail bars and railed against unfair treatment by the screws. Howls of I gotta see the warden have echoed ever since that first cell door slammed shut. Prisoner have schemed and plotted to bust out as early as Wallace Beery’s Butch led the boys in 1930’s The Big House. But Women in Prison? When did that start? Katharine Hepburn’s brief stint behind bars was played for laughs in Bringing up Baby – that doesn’t count. The Snake Pit with Olivia De Havilland in 1948 was a mental institution so that doesn’t count either. You could say Caged in 1950 was the first one or maybe Women’s Prison in 1955 with Ida Lupino was the first one to take place entirely behind the gray walls. I’d argue that it took the combination of the rise of the exploitation film as a genre and the women’s movement in the sixties and seventies to really let this genre take hold.
Exploitation films are at their heart action films that play to crowds that want fast fun and entertainment. Low budget filmmakers were always looking for an angle, something fresh to splash across posters and ballyhoo in trailers. Roger Corman’s New World Films really started this sub-genre in the seventies relishing the new freedom of the R rating. All kinds of things that were held in check burst out in these films. Sex, nudity, sleaze, sadism, and violence became the new thrills. The prison outfits became very skimpy and every opportunity was found to loose them. Films like The Big Doll House (1971) and Caged Heat (1974) were classic Women in Prison films however they were driven by action, rebellion, humor and a sense of fun. In an odd twist on the era’s feminist movement, women became action stars in exploitation pictures like these and the blaxploitation flicks. The early seventies also saw Japan’s Female Prisoner Scorpion series and later in the decade Australia had a cult hit TV series with the syndication of Prisoner Cell Black H.
Chained Heat is a little late to the party but lots of fun. Linda Blair who turned heads (okay bad pun) in The Exorcist later practically invented the TV movie subgenre of Teens in Trouble with sleazy TV movies like Born Innocent and Sarah T., Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. The former had a particularly nasty bathroom plunger rape scene that was later removed due to public outcry and rumored copycat actions. These were very lurid films that stretched the boundaries of what TV could deal with. Ms. Blair then did a stream of TV work including appearances on Love Boat and Fantasy Island Chained Heat finds the innocent Blair thrown into a powder keg of a prison. Inmates are forced to turn tricks in a prostitution ring that smuggles the girls outside the walls and back under cover of the night. Henry Silva schemes and plots to move Illegal drugs in and out. There is a race war about to erupt and the warden has his own private hot tub in his office where he films homemade porn movies with select prisoners. The action moves very quickly with all the requisite traits of the genre including shower scenes, fights and lesbian encounters. The film is full of more recognizable stars like Sybil Danning and Cleopatra Jones herself, Tamara Dobson. Ms. Dobson is very effective as the leader of the main prison gang. John Vernon is in all of these. He is instantly recognizable as Dean Wormer from Animal House. However he made his debut with Lee Marvin in Point Blank and has legitimate pedigree in B movies like these. Danning and Dobson seem to carry much of the film playing bitter rivals that have to work together for the good of all the women. They are tough as nails and pull off the roles easily getting us behind them. Linda Blair on the other hand seems to work in the pouting mode all the time. She frowns and looks upset throughout much of the picture. As he new fish she’s got one girl who befriends her and shows her the ropes. She has narrow escapes and is never sure who else to trust. The Melodrama cooks nicely as the abuse mounts until something has to break. A girl is killed in that infamous hot tub and the evidence is right there on a good ol’ VHS tape. If only they can get it to the authorities. Everything builds to the expected big revolt scene led by the inmates with guns blazing and explosions aplenty. Chained Heat is a predictable but enjoyable ride that delvers everything you’d expect. This purports to be the uncut version, presented for the first time in the US. While nothing appeared cut to me, I cannot claim to be an expert.
Red Heat features Sylvia Krystel (Emmauelle) as the top dog of an imposingly evil German prison. This time Linda Blair finds herself wrongly incarcerated while her boyfriend works diligently on her release. There may be some nefarious political reason why she is suspected and held on ice. The overall tone of this one is very downbeat, dark and not at all enjoyable. Mr. Krystel sports a close-cropped hairdo with very unflattering make up. It seems as if someone has worked hard to make all the women very unattractive here. Drab is the operative word. There is not much action. This one is dull and has none of the pace or thrills associated with the genre.
How can you take a plot that has a gaggle of supermodels lost in the hot steamy jungles and turn it into a dull plodding exercise. Jungle Warriors pulls that seemingly impossible feat off. Nina van Pallandt (The Long Goodbye) plays the mother hen of the models who manage to get captured by drug dealers and put inside a makeshift sweaty somewhat sleazy jungle prison. While Linda Blair is not in this one, we get John Vernon again along with Alex Cord, Marjoe Gunter and Sybil Danning. Not recommended.
I’d have to give the nod in the WIP films competition to the New World films of the 70s because they are fun and have a nice sense of humor about them. While they work as good B action films, no one is taking it that seriously consequently the actors have a contagious good time. The Scorpion films from Japan hit all the exploitation marks but do so, at least in the early ones with an artfulness that is beautiful to behold.
Video – Chained Heat looks very good with natural colors from a nice print source. All three films are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. Red Heat appears a bit washed out to me but that may very well be the look they were going for. Jungle Warriors is the least appealing of the lot with some washed out scenes and bleached looking colors. Chained Heat gets its own disc while the other two share the second one.
Audio – All three are offered in English mono. They sound fine.
Extras – There are interviews with Stella Stevens and Sylbil Danning. Stella is charming and has good memories of the Chained Heat shoot. Sybil carries herself well.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic
DVD – Chained Heat – Excellent, Red Heat – Good, Jungle Warriors – Fair
Movie – Chained Heat – Good, Red Heat – Fair, Jungle Warriors – Poor
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Sunday, July 17th, 2011
The Funhouse (1981)
by Troy Howarth
Directed by Tobe Hooper; Screenplay by Larry Block; Starring Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Miles Chapin, Largo Woodruff, Kevin Conway, Sylvia Miles, Wayne Doba, William Finley
Four teenagers get more than they bargained for when they decide to spend the night in a carnival funhouse…
Long before he was reduced to directing drek like Crocodile (2000) and Mortuary (2005), Tobe Hooper was one of the key voices in the modern horror genre. He scored box office gold with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), but early success came with a price – in the minds of many critics and fans, he has never really lived up to its promise. Indeed, there are those that would argue that TCM was a fluke, a lucky accident. However, a careful look at his (admittedly uneven) body of work reveals a genuine artist with a rare ability to get under the skin of the viewer. There’s little doubt that TCM remains his masterpiece, but up until the release of the brilliantly satirical Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986, Hooper was a pretty consistent filmmaker. The Funhouse came after a series of personal and professional setbacks (Eaten Alive, 1976, had been taken away from him during production, and he was fired from The Dark, 1979, and Venom, 1981), but it finds him pretty much at the top of his game.
The story and setup are familiar, even bordering on the creaky. A group of teens decide to hit a carnival for a little fun, and the sex-crazed boys propose a ‘wild’ idea: why not spend the night in the spooky funhouse, as well? All too predictably, things do not go as planned – instead of a little innocent loving, they end up being picked off one by one by a deranged, inbred killer. Hooper appears to be having a ball with such familiar turf, however, and he turns the film into a real treat for the senses. Aided by ace cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors), Hooper makes the carnival setting come to life in an aggressively stylized manner which recalls the wonderfully outre look of Eaten Alive. With a stronger script, The Funhouse may have emerged as a bona fide classic – but as it is, it just narrowly misses the mark. Even so, Hooper’s stylish, surehanded approach makes it an immensely entertaining diversion.
The cast performs very well, with even the requisite horny teens coming off as likable and sympathetic. Indeed, the makers of the recent Saw and Hostel films would do well to study films like this – it is, afterall, so much easier to become fully engaged in a slasher film when one actually cares about those who are being slashed. Elizabeth Berridge (Amadeus) gets to carry much of the film as the ‘virtuous’ heroine – the role isn’t terribly complex, but the actress is most effective at conveying her naivete and mounting hysteria. The supporting cast includes some familiar character actors, including Kevin Conway (Mystic River), Sylvia Miles (Midnight Cowboy) and William Finley (The Phantom of the Paradise). Conway is particularly effective in his role(s) as three different but equally sleazy sideshow barkers, while Finley makes the most of his cameo as an eccentric magician.
Technically, The Funhouse is one of Hooper’s most polished and accomplished efforts. He makes excellent use of the scope format and does a good job of keeping the camera moving. The film also has excellent makeup effects and a good music score, courtesy of John Beal. It may not scale the same heights as Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but that would be a tall order for any horror film; it does, however, remind one of what a valuable asset Hooper once was to the horror genre… here’s hoping that his upcoming shocker Dijin manages to rekindle some of the old magic.
Arrow Video have taken a lot of flak (much of it deserved) for their presentation of some key Italian horror films, but when it comes to The Funhouse they have nothing to be ashamed of. Their blu ray is taken from a pristine master, presented in the appropriate 2.35 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen TVs. Colors are vivid, and there’s a healthy coating of grain throughout. The image is consistently sharp and there are really no mastering flaws or defects to complain about.
The surround soundtrack is in excellent shape, too. Beal’s score has plenty of presence in the mix, but one is really left admiring the careful sound design – the use of sound in the carnival scenes is particularly striking, helping to create a strong atmosphere. There is no hiss or background noise to report.
Arrow again offer up a surfeit of supplementary materials, commencing with three audio commentaries. Track one features writers Callum Waddell and Justin Kerswell; track two features FX artist Craig Reardon and writer Jeffrey Reddick; and track three features producer Derek Power and writer Howard S. Berger. All three tracks are worth a listen, but the Power/Berger track packs in the most interesting information. Power hints a lot at Hooper’s well publicized drug problems and how they came close to derailing the production, but otherwise speaks well of the filmmaker and his talent. Up next are five featurettes: “Carnage at the Carvival – Tobe Hooper Remembers The Funhouse,” “Miles of Mayhem: Acting in Tobe’s Funhouse” with star Miles Chapin, “A Trilogy of Terror: The Make-Up Madness of Craig Reardon,” “Master Class in Horror,” in which director Mick Garris discusses Tobe Hooper, and “A Q&A With Tobe Hooper,” which was derived from a 2004 festival appearance with the director. Hooper’s interviews and comments are particularly interesting, but all the featurettes are worth watching; alas, some of them do suffer from the usual excessively lengthy intros that have dogged so much of the High Rising Productions featurettes on these releases, but at least they’re done with style and affection. A theatrical trailer is also included, as is a collector’s booklet by genre scholar Kim Newman, a double sided fold out poster, and the usual reversible cover art one has grown to expect from Arrow.
Film: **** out of *****
Blu Ray: ***** out of *****
Sunday, July 10th, 2011
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