The Vikings (1958)

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What would be the worst thing for a Viking? Viking Prince Einar (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t know it but his worst enemy, the slave Erik (Tony Curtis), is actually his half brother and their father King Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) legitimate heir. Their feud only intensifies when Einar kidnaps Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), on her way to be the intended bride of the brutal Northumbrian King Aella (Frank Thring). Einar intends to make her his own. However Morgana has eyes only for Erik – leading to the capture of  Ragnar and a terrible final attempt to win her heart ...  Let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh. Good looking, well put together and great fun, and that’s just the cast, in this spectacular historical epic, an action adventure produced by Kirk Douglas that capitalises on his muscular masculinity opposite husband and wife team Curtis and Leigh who get to seriously smoulder for the cameras in their love scenes:  it was the third of their onscreen pairings. With some very fruity language, mistaken identity, axe-throwing, pillaging, actual bodice-ripping, walking the plank for fun, unconscious sibling rivalry, brawny sailors, death by wolf pit, romance and swashbuckling, this has everything going for it except horned helmets. It might well be about eighth or ninth century Viking lord Ragnar Lodbrok and the probably-real Northumbrian king Aella (who died 867) but it’s really about Kirk and Tony and Janet. Jack Cardiff shoots the expansive Technicolor images, and director Richard Fleischer lets every character have their moment in this fast-paced entertainment. The beautiful tapestry-style animated titles are voiced by Orson Welles and the incredible score is by (paradoxically unsung) soundtrack hero Mario Naschimbene who brings both vigour and mystery to this good-humoured story of war and violence: you will believe that those voices in the sky are coming from the heavens. Adapted by Dale Wasserman from the 1951 novel The Viking by Edison Marshall, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham, this is one of the very best action-adventure films of all time with some great editing by Elmo Williams who also helmed the second unit and made the TV series inspired by it, Tales of the Vikings, also produced by Douglas’  Bryna Productions. Within a few short years Douglas would cement his legend as a Hollywood liberal with the cry, I am Spartacus! but for now it’s Odin!

The Return of Count Yorga (1971)

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Aka The Abominable Count Yorga. The most fragile emotion ever known has entered my life. Those brutal supernatural Santa Ana winds revive Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) and faithful manservant Brudah (Edward Walsh) and they follow little boy Tommy (Philip Frame) to his San Francisco orphanage home where Cynthia Nelson (Mariette Hartley) is helping run a costume party fundraiser. Lonely Yorga bites one of the guests Mitzi (Jesse Welles) and then becomes infatuated with Cynthia, whose family his female vampires feed upon, bringing the object of his affection to his ramshackle lair intending to make her his bride against the advice of his in-house witch. Cynthia’s mute maid Jennifer (Yvonne Wilder) and her fiance David (Roger Perry) become suspicious about her whereabouts…  Where are your fangs?/ Where are your  manners? The title (and the poster) say it all, really. That debonair bloodsucker sticks his hand up from the grassy knoll and enters the vicinity of entirely vulnerable people, tongue subtly planted in cheek even while his teeth are in their necks. It’s fun again, with the Count losing out in the Best Costume stakes in the opening party scenes to a pretend vampire. This is of course just another story of an arranged marriage with an army of vampiress enforcers with teased hair and tacky dresses enhancing their startling impact. Hartley is lovely, Quarry is lovelorn and the entire shebang looks and moves smoothly with writer/director Bob Kelljan at the helm (the screenplay is also credited to Yvonne Wilder) in a decent sequel concluding in the mandatory twisted ending to a tragic romance which openly pays tribute to Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers.  Perry is also back from the dead but in a different role and it’s good to see a young Craig T. Nelson as one of the sceptical investigating police officers. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that vampires do exist?

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

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Aka Nosferatu:  Phantom der Nacht. Ready my horse. I have much to do. Jonathan Harker(Bruno Ganz) is sent away to Count Dracula’s (Klaus Kinski) castle to sell him a house in Virna, where he lives. But Count Dracula is a vampire, an undead ghoul living off men’s blood. Inspired by a photograph of Lucy Harker (Isabelle Adjani), Jonathan’s wife, Dracula moves to Virna, bringing with him death and plague… Death is not the worst. There are things more horrible than death. Werner Herzog’s adaptation of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, a haunting interpretation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 character (that became subject of a lawsuit), functions all at once as tribute, homage, pastiche, anti-horror, sombre literary work and a travelogue that treats seriously this Mitteleuropäischer world of vampires, dallying with Freud around the time Sigmund was developing his own ecstatic fantasy narratives. Kinski is a perfect Count, grotesque, funny and sympathetic and done up to resemble Max Schreck’s animalistic version, Ganz is great as the idiot husband prey to his client, while Adjani’s luminous beauty is put to perfect use and she gets a great payoff at sunrise in a transcendent scene. No less notable is Roland Topor as the maniacal Bremen realtor Renfield.  It’s not really a horror, in fact it feels in its elongated melancholy macabre mood closer to fairytale, but it is really Herzog at his most morbidly and poetically effective, with one of the best music scores you will ever hear (from Florian Fricke aka Popol Vuh) and unforgettable work by production designer Henning Von Gierke’s, costumier Gisela Storch and cinematographer Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein. A haunting and spectacular dance of death. Listen. The children of the night make their music

Highlander (1986)

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There can be only one! Swordsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) from the Scottish Highlands known as the Highlander is one of a number of immortal warriors who can be killed only by decapitation. After initial training by another highly skilled immortal swordsman and metallurgist, Ramirez (Sean Connery), MacLeod lives on for several centuries, eventually settling in New York City, managing an antiques shop. After watching his first wife Heather (Beatie Edney) grow old he is unable to fall in love again however in 1985, he encounters police forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart). He also finds out that he must face his greatest enemy, the brutal barbarian Kurgan (Clancy Brown), who wants to kill MacLeod and obtain ‘the Prize’ – a special ability given to the last living immortal warrior: vast knowledge and the ability to enslave the entire human race. They play cat and mouse through the centuries until destiny arrives in a fight played out on NYC’s Silvercup Studios’ neon sign  … You won’t drown, you fool. You’re immortal! Music video director Russell Mulcahy made the transition to features with this deliriously nutty actioner, a time travel fantasy that seamlessly moves through the ages, imbued with the tropes of Arthurian myth, a beautiful woman handy in each of the three main centuries/locations, a supposedly Spanish-Egyptian Connery speaking in his usual cod accent, brilliant one-on-one combat and wonderfully cartoony car chases. Then there’s the odd brilliant visual transition (Lambert’s face morphing into an NYC Mona Lisa mural) and a mini-pop video to soundtrack band Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever telling the story of Lambert’s relationship with Scots wife Edney until her demise, in a film that references everything from Citizen Kane to The Duellists and Star Wars. There are incidental pleasures, like spotting familiar faces such as James Cosmo and Celia Imrie. Some head shearings plus a sex scene put this out of reach of the kids but it’s fabulous fun and spawned any number of sequels and spinoffs. Written by Gregory Widen as a class project at UCLA, this had a rewrite by Peter Bellwood & Larry Ferguson. You only have one life

Dementia 13 (1963)

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Aka The Haunted and the HuntedI think you should spend more time with your wife to be. After John Haloran (Peter Read) dies suddenly, his wife Louise (Luana Anders) fears she will be denied his inheritance and conceals the death. She travels from the US to join the rest of the Haloran family at their Irish estate, Castle Haloran, as they hold a memorial for John’s young sister, who died in a lake eight years ago. Her brothers-in-law Billy (Bart Patton) and Richard (William Campbell) perform a strange ritual. Louise schemes to convince her mother-in-law Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) that she can speak with the dead child. However, this plan is interrupted by an axe murderer on the loose and family members start dying off, one by one.  Local medic Dr Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee) attempts to solve the mystery  It’s a true sign of the late, great lord y’are. A neat little slasher made by producer Roger Corman with funds left over from The Young Racers (and three of the stars, Campbell, Anders and Magee), this is Francis Ford Coppola’s proper debut following two nudie pics. It’s nicely shot on location in Ireland (at Ardmore Studios, Howth Castle and Dublin Airport) by Charles Hannawalt.  It’s an effective little slasher flick made in the mould of Psycho, with some new sequences shot by Jack Hill when Coppola’s original didn’t fit Corman’s exacting requirements with a tacked-on prologue done by Monte Hellman. It’s a good role for the underrated Anders, one of my favourite actresses of that era and there’s oodles of atmosphere with the murderer appearing out of the dark in the many murder sequences, making superb use of the picturesque setting. Who could have guessed that the director of this story about family business would turn into America’s version of Luchino Visconti in less than a decade with The Godfather?! He made a wax doll to relieve his guilt

The Wrecking Crew (1968)

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Faster! You’re an awful driver! Matt Helm (Dean Martin) is assigned by his secret agency, ICE, to bring down an evil count named Contini (Guy Green) who is trying to collapse the world economy by stealing a billion dollars in gold. Helm travels to Denmark, where he is given a guide, Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate)  a beautiful but bumbling woman from a Danish tourism bureau. Two of Contini’s accomplices, the seductive Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer) and Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan) each attempt to foil Helm’s plans. The former is killed in an ambush intended for Helm, the latter in an explosion. On each occasion, Freya’s clumsy attempts to assist Matt are helpful, but not particularly appreciated…  My hat’s not broken! Dean Martin returns in the fourth (and final big-screen) outing for Donald Hamilton’s spy, taken out of retirement. It’s all day-glo, great locations and slapstick with Tate an utter joy as the klutz, a Stella Stevens role in the original The Silencers, with her girlfight opposite Nancy Kwan a particular highlight (and as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood acknowledges, Bruce Lee was her martial arts trainer). Dino makes out to his own songs – asking Elke when she wants her dress zipped, Which way – up or down?  – there’s a runaway train with the bullion, combat scenes galore and lots of bombs. Go-go boots ahoy for groovy girls and boys! Directed by Phil Karlson, making a welcome return to the series. Screenplay by William P. McGivern. If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleepin’ with your uncle Fred

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

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That’s poetry, not proof. It’s 1927. The Magical Congress of the USA is transferring Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) to be tried for his crimes but he escapes with the aid of his associate Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie). In London, Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) encounters Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) an old pure-blood classmate from Hogwarts who has always been somewhat disturbed and is now engaged to Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who works in the Auror office at the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Newt turns down the request to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) in Paris but Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) persuades him to change his mind because Grindelwald is searching for Credence in order to help him implement a New World Wizarding Order … She has eyes just like a salamander. The JK Rowling franchise trundles on and it gets off to a speedy start, with Grindelwald assuming someone else’s identity and making good his escape. This triumph of production design and effects has lots of things to recommend it, not least big plot moves in a heavily stuffed story that’s laced with humour and irony. It’s based on the pull of family ties – brothers, sisters, the need to know your true identity – and that’s what balances a fun adventure that has a lot of good moments, a more rounded and sympathetic Newt and a great sense of jeopardy from Depp as the deranged proto-fascist albino seeking to elevate wizards above muggles. Familiar faces, well developed characters, a lot of narrative threads and a lot more to come. Adapted by Rowling and directed by David Yates. We were closer than brothers

Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough

Labyrinth (1986)

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You remind me of the babe.  Bratty 16-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must find her young brother Toby (Toby Froud) whose crying is driving her crazy and whom she has wished away to the Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), a character in the play she’s rehearsing. To find him she has to enter a maze and has just 13 hours to do so or have her baby brother transformed into a goblin at midnight. With the help of a two-faced dwarf called Hoggle she negotiates all the tests and obstacles including a talking worm, creatures called Fireys who try to remove her head, and a goblin army on the march…  I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. Nutty enchantment in a musical fantasy collaboration between puppetmaster Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud with Monty Python’s Terry Jones providing the screenplay (although other writers were involved:  George Lucas, Laura Phillips, Dennis Lee, Elaine May… and it owes a deal to both Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak) which got a roasting upon release but has proven its credentials with the passing of time and is now a determined cult and kids’ classic. Beautifully imagined and executed with a wicked stepmother, a baby in peril and toys that come to magical life in an ancient labyrinth and wicked creatures in the woods, this is just a perfect film fairytale, a story enabling a child to do battle with the grown ups in her life, a darkly romantic and dangerous outside world never far from her door. Bowie’s performance is of course something of legend, while Connelly and the puppets are the mainstay of the ensemble. Do you dare to eat the peach in this phallic kingdom of the subconscious?! Puppetry:  puberty. Discuss. Quite wonderful. You have no power over me!

The Fearless Vampire Killers or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck (1967)

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Aka Dance of the VampiresThat night, penetrating deep into the heart of Transylvania, Professor Abronsius was unaware that he was on the point of reaching the goal of his mysterious investigations. In the mid-nineteenth century tottering bat researcher (and vampire hunter) Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his dim-witted bumbling assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski) travel to a small mountain village where they find the tell-tale traces of vampirism. Shy Alfred becomes enchanted by Sarah (Sharon Tate) the local tavern keeper Yoine Shagal’s (Alfie Bass) daughter, before she is promptly abducted. Determined to save the buxom maiden they confront the undead Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) in his castle… Takes me for a nincompoop, that necrophile. Despite its ostensible status as a parody, this is a mesmerising, beautiful concoction that might be the purest expression of writer/director Roman Polanski’s worldview:  witty, satirical, brilliantly poised between comedy and horror with hints of fairytale and deathly romance and a rather twist(ed) ending. From a story and screenplay by himself and Gérard Brach with exquisite cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, this mitteleuropäischer story was shot in the Trentino instead of Austria but it’s still in Polanski’s Alps and his love of the mountains and the juxtaposition of blood with snow is evident even in the titles sequence (the American version has a silly animation). The cast is perfection with Mayne hilarious in his Christopher Lee tribute and Iain Quarrier a hoot as his gay son;  Terry Downes is a scream as their servant; Bass has perhaps his best film part: Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!  The leads are sensational. MacGowran is lovable as the dotty expert and Polanski is positively Kafaesque as his fearful sidekick. Tate is one of the most staggeringly beautiful women ever on celluloid and the story gives her many bright moments. Last week I viewed those personal belongings of hers that are going on sale at Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks and it made me very sad, indeed I felt somewhat vampiric. She is gone almost fifty years and this year she would have turned 75 (last January 24th). Seeing her possessions behind glass – clothing, mementos, photographs – was unbelievably poignant. It is simply unfathomable that she suffered such a terrible demise. This is a delightful memorial to her and she and Polanski are terrific in the one film they made together before their marriage.  That night, fleeing from Transylvania, Professor Abronsius never guessed he was carrying away with him the very evil he had wished to destroy. Thanks to him, this evil would at last be able to spread across the world