Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

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Prevenge (2016)

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Children these days are so spoiled, like, Mummy get me the new Playstation, Mummy kill that man. Screenwriter and actress Alice Lowe makes her directing debut in this low-budget horror thriller about a widowed seven-month pregnant woman who takes directions from her highly vocal foetus and goes on a killing spree avenging her late husband whose climbing buddies (male and female) cut the cord to save their lives on an expedition gone wrong. Interspersed with her horribly awkward midwifery appointments there are gory murders, some funny sight gags (getting stuck in a dog flap) and the big joke is about the invisibility of a pregnant woman in the world, even when murdering all before her. Her job interview with yet another guilty party exposes the prejudice towards pregnant workers.  Shot in a sporadically inventive way by Ryan Eddleston (underpass = birth canal, etc.), there are problems in the writing and exposition and in some ways this doesn’t really hit the extremes you might expect despite the violence. The twist ending materialises when the eventual arrival of the totalitarian newborn doesn’t exactly quell the maternal rage. For fans of the genre, there is the bonus of a Seventies-style score by Toydrum.   I’m not grieving I’m gestating! The expectant mother of all slashers.

The Skull (1965)

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All I can say to you is keep away from the skull of the Marquis de Sade! This adaptation of Robert (Psycho) Bloch’s short story by producer Milton Subotsky whose Amicus Productioons made this is a credible chiller. Directed with his usual visual aplomb by the cinematographer Freddie Francis who made so many horrors and shockers as a director, it tells the story of esoterica specialist Dr Maitland (Peter Cushing) who acquires said skull from his usual source Marco (Patrick Wymark), paying no heed to the warnings about its peculiar effect on the owners including nineteenth century phrenologist (Maurice Good), the graverobber who boiled down the trophy and became the first in a series of men who turn into maniacal killers under its influence. Maitland wishes to return the skull when he learns it was stolen from fellow collector Sir Matthew (Christopher Lee), who doesn’t however want it back after the effect it had on him.  Maitland pays no heed … This boasts an array of cheaply achieved but remarkably atmospheric effects with the use of the point of view shot (from the skull!) a simple solution for both ramping up the tension and suggesting something diabolical at work. There’s a terrific kidnapping sequence which may or may not be a nightmare – including a red room! And a judge! Well played by a wonderful cast that includes Jill Bennett as Maitland’s wife, Nigel Green as the credulous Inspector and the leads are of course the stuff of legend. Beautiful to look at with an interesting score by avant garde composer Elizabeth Lutyens, who did several for Amicus.

Split (2017)

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We are what we believe we are. Mental patient Kevin (James McAvoy) knocks out the abusive uncle of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and kidnaps her and her two friends, taking them to a basement where he holds them captive. Various of his 23 personalities materialise and the girls try to play the kinder ones to make their escape. However his complex psychiatric issues are revealed in various visits to his analyst Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who realises too late there is a 24th personality that her cack-handed empowering therapy has inadvertently caused to be released and just when the girls were about to get away … This feels a lot like M. Night Shyamalan, that late 90s auteurist who fell foul of his own concepts since approximately The Lady in the Water, decided to use a medical scenario to give that profitable Noughties rape/torture porn trope a workout with a psycho(logical) horror bent, filtered through our collective memories of the great Manhunter. Or something like that. Being the filmmaker he is, he structures it very well, using the backstory of Kevin’s various personalities as they materialise in front of Fletcher to give us a break from what we fear he is doing to the girls in captivity. And there are flashbacks to some very nasty experiences in Casey’s childhood. It has a grimy look which is probably what it should have, given its mostly underground setting. There’s a twist to the end which finally brings us back to the Universe the auteur created, oh, years ago, if you care that much. Not my bag, actually. I don’t like seeing girls raped or eaten even if you’re blaming it on paranoid schizophrenia or whatever you’ve chosen from the medical dictionary as a rationale to get your career back on track. Bald baby-faced McAvoy is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Call me picky. Go on, I dare you. And step away from the therapist!

It (2017)

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Aka It:  Chapter One. Go blow your dad you mullet-wearing asshole. Stephen King’s 1986 novel gets the big screen treatment here after a 1990 TV two-parter that has a fond place in many people’s memories.  It sticks with the first part of the novel – the kids’ experiences, and moves them forward, to the late Eighties. In 1988 Derry, Maine, little Georgie sails his  paper boat and it floats down a drain in a rainstorm and he is pulled in by Pennywise the Clown, becoming one of the town’s many missing kids. When school’s out next summer his older brother Bill sets out to find him with a bunch of other kids who all have their issues:  big mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, germophobe Stan, overweight newbie Ben, pretty Bev (the subject of false sex rumours) and black home-schooled Mike.  They are the Losers Club and have various problems with the parental figures in their lives. Ben’s research in the library proves that Derry has a very high mortality rate particularly when it comes to kids and every 27 years this demonic shapeshifting character manifests through their fears when he reappears to feed. But in the midst of their search they have to avoid the Bowers Gang, horrible greasers who violently terrorise them as they search the area’s sewers to find the centre of Pennywise’s hellish underground activities … Part of why this works so well is that the kids are taken seriously and their problems in the world are immense:  we’re talking child abuse and Munchausen by proxy, to name but two. We feel for them because they are fully rounded characters who have legitimate reason to fear grown ups. A clown in the sewers is as nothing compared to Dad waiting in the hallway to feel you up. It’s a perfectly judged drama. Another reason this works is because it inhabits familiar territory for many of us who recall Spielberg films of the era – the sight of a squad of boys on bikes recalls ET – and the King drama Stand By Me which was so iconic and one that also treats its protagonists respectfully. We also think about The Goonies:  the spirit of adventure is overwhelmingly attractive despite the dangers to this bunch of nerds and scaredy cats.  The Netflix show Stranger Things is an overt homage to all of these, mixing up the paranormal, horror and nostalgia for thirty years ago and the presence of cool girl Winona Ryder is such a plus.  Adapted by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman;  directed by Andy Muschietti who gives the scenes equal weight and doesn’t give into the massive temptation to exaggerate the horror element, allowing each character to fully blossom. This is a coming of age story with panache and clowns and a wonderful ensemble of wholly believable kids and Bill Skarsgard donning the whiteface. Personally I can’t wait for part two set 27 years from 1989 when It reappears: wouldn’t it be really meta to cast Molly Ringwald as the adult incarnation of the Molly Ringwald lookalike? Awesome idea!

Invaders from Mars (1986)

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When a spacecraft lands in the hill behind the house where David Gardner (Hunter Carson) lives, his parents don’t believe his story. And then they start behaving strangely – and it’s not just them, it’s his ghastly teacher Mrs McKeitch (Louise Fletcher) and horrible little classmate Heather (Virginia Keehne). And as for the police … This remake of the striking and iconic Cold War classic (directed by William Cameron Menzies) falls between the stools of sci fi and horror, in other words right into the lap of auteur Tobe Hooper who was working for the Go-Go boys. David enlists the help of the school nurse (Karen Black, Carson’s real-life mother) who believes his bizarre story. It turns out aliens have landed in order to mine copper and the military are starting to figure out something odd is going on. If this isn’t the classic it might have been, Dan O’Bannon (& Don Jakoby) make a good attempt to scythe fears about parental weirdness, Cold War paranoia and school bullying into this genre piece – which also has something to say about dumb scientists who think they know what aliens are really up to… It all ends in a conflagration. Or does it?! Remember:  never trust a teacher who eats the lab experiments while they’re still alive and watch out for people with Band-Aids on their necks! Based on the original screenplay by Richard Blake with an appearance by the original little boy, Jimmy Hunt, as the police chief.

The Wasp Woman (1959)

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Aka Bee Girl and Insect Woman. I’d stay away from wasps, if I were you, Mrs Starlin.  Socially the queen wasp is on the level with a Black Widow spider.  They’re both carnivorous, they paralyze their victims and then take their time devouring them alive.  And they kill their mates in the same way too.  Strictly a one-sided romance! Mad scientist Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark) has been messing with wasps on a honey farm so he gets fired. Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) is losing business at her cosmetics company because she’s starting to look old. She funds Zinthrop to extract enzymes from the  royal jelly of a queen wasp provided she is the human subject. But when the wasps start to exhibit violent behaviour Zinthrop doesn’t get to warn Janice before he’s rendered incapacitated in a car crash and while she loses 20 years off her appearance over the weekend she becomes extremely violent without those buzzy injections … Ah, the price you pay for anti-ageing products. One of those great corny Corman mini-classics with cult star Cabot showing exactly why she’s so beloved (even if not by her own son, who murdered her). Some priceless scenes and the transformation is to die for (!). Written by the wonderful actor, screenwriter and novelist, Leo Gordon, whose screen persona belied a great dramatic ability. He was Brooklyn born and reared and after serving in WW2 got shot in an armed robbery which earned him 5 years in San Quentin. He read voraciously in prison and entered the movie business afterwards following training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Grace Kelly. We are duly grateful. The prologue was shot by Jack Hill while producer/director Corman has an uncredited role as a doctor and Barboura Morris has a nice supporting part as Cabot’s secretary, Mary Dennison. Released in a double bill with Beast from Haunted Cave.

The Horror. The Horror.

Some soundtrack excerpts and scores to make you shiver on a Sunday afternoon.

Classical introduction to the great Thirties film by Franz Waxman.

 

Perfect mood music, if surgery takes your fancy.

 

The mother of all film scores by Bernard Herrmann.

 

The masterful Georges Auric puts the chills up one of the scariest films ever made.

 

Krzysztof Komeda’s dreamy theme to an urban nightmare.

 

A surprisingly melodic introduction to the dread rural life. By David Hess.

 

Mike Oldfield. Just cannot get this film out of my mind when I hear Tubular Bells. As it should be.

 

High school is hell. From maestro Pino Donaggio.

 

Goblin underwrite one of the great genre films.

 

John Carpenter, that man can do anything.

 

The wondrous world conjured by Werner Herzog out of Bram Stoker is given vivid life by Popol Vuh.

 

Hotels are hell. By Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind.

 

Bowie. Cats. What else do you want?

 

Echo and the Bunnymen take on The Doors and do pretty well in a very fun film.

 

A modern classic.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

George A. Romero 02/04/1940-07/16/2017

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The death has taken place of George A. Romero, a true horror auteur whose Night of the Living Dead  (1968) extended the boundaries of the horror movie in some style – political and racial. And it gave zombies a voice!  He began his career as a gofer on the set of North By Northwest – not too shabby an introduction to the world of cinema. It would be another decade until he set the world alight – and he continued to make zombie films in a loosely affiliated series that he was going to continue as late as July 13th last when he released poster art for the forthcoming Road of the Dead, the first of the series he wasn’t going to direct. He had a lot of friends in the horror world, literary and cinematic, because they respected the tone of his films, his originality, his sensibility and his tenacity. He gave Stephen King his first screenwriting job in the anthology Creepshow, a Valentine to all those 50s comics that so influenced American writers and directors. Pittsburgh was of course home to most of his best known works and The Crazies and Martin remain minor classics. He was such an original and such a smart, conscientious filmmaker that it’s hard to qualify his contribution. Legend. Icon. Rest in peace.