The Velvet Vampire (1971)

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Aka Cemetery Girls. Remember – this is the desert and out here the sun can be destructive. Nice guy Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his pretty wife, Susan (Sherry Miles) are introduced by friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) to mysterious vixen Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall) to visit her in her secluded desert estate. She lives with Juan (Jerry Daniels) whom she says her family raised when his died on their reservation. However when she takes them to a graveyard where she claims her husband is buried tensions arise – trouble is Mr LeFanu was buried in 1875.  The couple, unaware at first that Diane is in reality a centuries-old vampire, realise that they are both objects of the pale temptress’ desire but that doesn’t really stop them lying in the way of her systematic seduction… Diane, I think I want to drive your buggy. This homage to Irish horror maestros Bram Stoker, Sheridan LeFanu and the recent Euro-Gothic erotic vampire genre, is the kind of cult exploitationer that should be seen more regularly but still belongs firmly in that realm despite its contemporary dayglo modern California setting, dune buggies and post-hippie glam.  While played straight, the lines aerate the daft premise with humour:  There is no life without blood, says the marvellous diaphonously clad Yarnall, a veteran of TV’s Ozzie and Harriet who died one year ago this week. You’ll recognise her from Live a Little, Love a Little as the beautiful girl who inspires Elvis to sing A Little Less Conversation. Miles is a lovably clueless ditsy blonde, barely clad in a bikini but topless more often than not. Blodgett (Lance in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is perfectly engaging as the good guy who just can’t help himself. The low budget is put to one side by the clever setting – that Spanish Revival house in the desert where the sunlight plays havoc with those pale of skin who prefer to socialise at night but also gives costumier Keith Hodges some fun opportunities and Daniel LaCambre shoots it beautifully. There’s a well conceived climax at LA’s bus terminal and a rather appetising coda. Blues musician Johnny Shines performs his song Evil-Hearted Woman. Directed by cult fave Stephanie Rothman and co-written by her (with her producer husband Charles S. Swartz and Maurice Jules, who also co-wrote that voodoo vampire outing Scream Blacula Scream), this gives you a good idea why her point of view as a feminist filmmaker was so significant in the drive-in era and it’s a real shame her women’s movies aren’t more widely known. Roger Corman was somewhat disappointed with the finished result and released it on a double bill with the Italian horror Scream of the Demon LoverI was having the same dream

Fame is the Spur (1947)

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Did God ordain it, this contrast between sweat and ease, between want and luxury, or is it the product of man’s will, of greed of selfishness?  In the late nineteenth century in the English North Country, young Hamer Radshaw (Michael Redgrave) commits to help the poverty stricken workers in his area.  He takes as his Excalibur a sword passed down to him by his grandfather from the Battle of Peterloo, where it had been used against workers. As an idealistic champion of the oppressed, he rises to power as a Labour MP but is seduced by the trappings of power and finds himself the type of politician he originally despised, his liberal leanings compromised as he becomes more and more conservative to his wife Ann’s (Rosamund John) disgust … Nigel Balchin adapted Howard Spring’s 1940 novel and it’s superbly directed by Roy Boulting (and produced by his brother John), a vivid depiction of a politician who rises from poverty through sponsorship to become one of Britain’s leaders up to and after World War One. It’s widely assumed to be a take on Ramsay Macdonald and Redgrave inhabits him wonderfully, but he is matched all the way by Rosamund John, who goes to prison for her suffragist beliefs.  Her hunger strike triggers her early death, leaving her corrupted husband to bemoan his choices and the deviation from his original spur to action. A bristling, busy story that must have had huge resonance for post-WW2 British audiences:  the violence used by the police against protesters still has the power to shock. There are wonderful stylistic flourishes and transitions that make this a lesson in visual storytelling. Quite the surprise package, leaving an indelible impression. Even among a very impressive cast that includes Carla Lehmann (in her final screen performance), Bernard Miles and Hugh Burden, Redgrave is simply rivetting as the principled man who rises from obscure origins to lead his country and loses everything decent and liberal about himself on the way to the top where it is very lonely indeed. Power corrupts…

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Broken Arrow (1996)

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Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapon? US Air Force pilots Vic Deakins (John Travolta) and Riley Hale (Christian Slater) are sent on an overnight top-secret mission with two nuclear weapons aboard their aircraft. But, after they are in the air, Deakins changes the plan. He attempts to kill Hale and then steals the weapons with the intent of selling them to terrorists led by financier Pritchett (Bob Gunton). However, Hale survives the crash and meets up with park ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis) who initially misreads the situation and tries to arrest him. Together they try to thwart Deakins’ plan as Government man Giles Prentice (Frank Whaley) and Colonel Max Wilkins (Delroy Lindo) try to uncover what is going on in the desert – while a murderously ruthless chase ensues… John Woo’s second American film tones down his trademark stylistic elements but it has non-stop action, great effects, some terrific explosions and would have been improved by introducing some complexity into the screenplay, by Graham Yost, which mostly sets up sequence after sequence of shoot-em-ups, blow-em-ups and kill-em-ups in beautiful desert locations shot by Peter Levy, finishing with a face off between these terribly charismatic co-stars in a symphony of action that takes place on trains, boats, planes, helicopters and Hummers. It all culminates in a fiery conflagration and Travolta literally burns up the screen.  There’s no difference between you and a guy who shoots up a schoolyard.  You’ve both got a head full of bad wiring

Son of Belle Starr (1953)

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Do you know anyone who would trust the son of an outlaw?  Crooked Sheriff Hansen (Myron Healey) offers The Kid (Keith Larsen) – who’s wanted for a previous robbery – a one fifth split in a gold shipment theft. The Kid is infamous female bandit Belle Starr’s son but she and her Cherokee husband died violently and he’s been struggling to go straight and now he’s framed for something he didn’t do.  He doesn’t have too many friends in the town of Griswald but thinks he can trust his girlfriend Dolores (Dona Drake). After getting the gold he foils an attempt on his life, getting one of the other four robbers. Then he foils another murder attempt, getting one of the remaining three. Of the two remaining one is the Sheriff. The unknown other is the boss of the heist team and the man that framed him for the earlier robbery and he needs to expose him to prove his own innocence and bring the men to justice: is it the mine’s owner, George Clark (James Seay)? Or Bart Wren (Regis Toomey) who owns a piece of it? Time is running out and there’s a posse cornering him … Written by Jack DeWitt, D.D. Beauchamp and William Raynor this is pretty standard oater material except for its relationship with the Gene Tierney film Belle Starr that preceded it a dozen years earlier.  That was an A production with a screenplay by Lamar Trotti. This is cheap as chips, strictly B movie fodder, with an energetic cast doing their lively best amid shaky sets. There are nice supporting performances from band singer Drake as spicy and treacherous Dolores and Peggie Castle as the cool blonde daughter of the newspaper proprietor with Toomey as her brother. There’s a fabulously melodramatic score by Marlin Skiles. Directed by Frank McDonald, it’s pacy and colourful as you’d expect from a man who specialised in Bs and particularly westerns in the Fifties and he spent time shooting a slew of TV shows like The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Jr, Broken Arrow and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, amongst others, before making Gunfight at Comanche Creek with Audie Murphy.

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

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It happened once, it happened twice. Cancel the dance, or it’ll happen thrice. Ten years ago, an inexperienced coal miner named Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles) caused an accident that killed five men and put a sixth, Harry Warden (Peter Cowper), into a coma. A year later, on Valentine’s Day, Harry woke up and murdered 22 people with a pickaxe before dying. Now Tom has returned home, still haunted by the past. And something else is back in Harmony: a pickaxe-wielding killer in a miner’s mask, who may be the ghost of Harry, come to claim Tom and his friends.  The accident long forgotten, the dance resumes. Many of the town’s younger residents are excited about it: Gretchen (Gina Dick), Dave (Carl Marotte), Hollis (Keith Knight), Patty (Cynthia Dale), Sylvia (Helene Udy), Howard (Alf Humphreys), Mike (Thomas Kovacs), John (Rob Stein), Tommy (Jim Murchison), and Harriet (Terry Waterland). Of this group, Sarah (Lori Hallier), Axel (Neil Affleck), and the mayor’s returning son T.J. (Paul Kelman) are involved in a tense love triangle. … This Canadian exploitationer is notorious for its gore and violence which led to it being heavily cut but it has become something of a cult item due to its status in the vanguard of the slasher genre. What’s striking about it at this distance is how it treats its subject – seriously! You may think twice about using a nail gun after this. Written by John Beaird with a story by Stephen Miller, this is directed by George Mihalka.  And this holiday serial killer flick gave a certain great band their name. For that at least we are grateful.

The Spoilers (1942)

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A woman doesn’t run out on the man she loves, she sticks with him through thick and thin. It’s 1900 and Flapjack (Russell Simpson) and Banty (George Cleveland) arrive in Nome, Alaska to check up on their claim to a gold mine. Saloon owner Charry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) knows that Bennett (Forrest Taylor) and Clark (Ray Bennett) are plotting to steal their claim. The new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) is part of the corrupt scheme as is the territory’s judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds) whose niece Helen (Margaret Lindsay) has a thing for Cherry’s old flame Roy Glennister (John Wayne), fresh from a trip to Europe. Roy makes the mistake of siding with McNamara which damages his relationship with longtime partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey).  Roy realizes he’s been deceived as McNamara and Stillman prepare to steal at least $250,000 while the mine’s case awaits appeal. Helen is now in love with Roy, who begs Dextry’s forgiveness and persuades him to rob a bank to take back the wealth stolen from them. Both Glennister and Dextry don black faces to disguise themselves during the heist. The Bronco Kid (Richard Barthelmess) kills the sheriff but Roy gets the blame. He is arrested and a plot forms to kill him – permitting him to escape then murdering him on the street – but Cherry comes to his rescue, breaking Roy out of jail. A spectacular train derailment occurs during his fight for freedom. Then a fierce fistfight with McNamara results in Roy getting back his mine and his girl. A great starry cast play brilliantly off one another in this spirited adaptation of the novel by Rex Beach, adapted by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed. The tone is set from the start with a shootout in this muddy town and Dietrich beats a path to the dock to greet old love Wayne. She doesn’t sing but wears several sparkly numbers in this monochrome delight. Her byplay with romantic rival Lindsay is a wonderful contrast in performing styles and her scenes with Wayne positively crackle The frequent references to Robert Service’s works are done with a nod and a wink to his own appearance as The Poet. Directed by Ray Enright who brings everything to a rousing conclusion with one of the longest fistfights ever filmed – and it’s all over the saloon! Wonderful fun.

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

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I’ve never made any secret of the fact that basically I’m on my way to Australia. Calendar Colorado is a lawless town rich on the proceeds of a gold find during a funeral and it needs someone to pull it into shape. A sharpshooting chancer Jason McCullough (James Garner) claiming to be on his way to Oz takes a well-paid job to clean up as sheriff, hired by mayor Olly Perkins (Harry Morgan). That involves putting the Danby family in line so he imprisons idiot son Joe (Bruce Dern) in a jail without bars by dint of a chalk line and some red paint … This sendup of western tropes gets by on its good nature and pure charm with Garner backed up by a hilarious Joan Hackett as the accident-prone Prudy Perkins whose attractions are still visible even when she sets her own bustle alight. Jack Elam parodies his earlier roles as the tough guy seconded as deputy while Walter Brennan leads the dastardly Danbys, hellbent on making money from the guys mining the gold before it can be shipped out. Written and produced by William Bowers and directed by Burt Kennedy, that expert at a comic take on the genre whose serious side he had exploited in collaboration with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott the previous decade. Bright and funny entertainment from Garner’s own production company, Cherokee.

The 33 (2015)

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The story of the Chilean miners at the Copiapo mine who spent 69 days underground in 2010 following a workplace accident always puzzled me because it had so much traction:  where were all the international journalists when hundreds of thousands of Chileans – no more than the Argentinians – were ‘disappeared’ over a few decades???? Torture under military juntas/fascist regimes unwittingly/silently supported by the Liberal West isn’t sexy, I suppose. I digress. So there was a wall collapse and a bunch of men paid the price for the owners’ shortcuts in maintenance – plus ca change in the world of work. And Antonio Banderas spends, oh, two hours, giving rousing speeches, because that’s what you do when you’re shut in with your lovely colleagues. Admittedly I am both claustrophobic and agoraphobic and the idea that I’d even have to have lunch with colleagues makes me gag. I’m probably allergic to this as well. Written by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas, and directed by Patricia Riggen. With Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Gabriel Byrne and Lou Diamond Phillips. Watch Missing instead.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

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What a difficult thing it is to be the first. And the best. This was the first Nam movie. Michael Cimino was directing for just the second time after earning his stripes with Clint Eastwood on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. He co-wrote the original story – he had been writing for years of course – with Deric Washburn, who got the screenplay credit. Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker had written an unproduced script about Russian roulette and Vegas so they share story credit.  Cimino recced locations all over the US for verisimilitude and many of the extras are the real-life inhabitants of those places masquerading as western Pennsylvania circa 1967. The vets in the rehab facility are the real thing. The setpieces establishing the men’s friendship (drinking, hunting, the wedding party) are leisurely and help us empathise with them when with an extraordinary jump cut they and we are transported to the killing fields. We love these guys by now. One of them (John Savage) is weaker than the others and it’s De Niro who leads the charge against the vicious Vietnamese: their contempt for life is all over the movie (and no surprise to those of us related to POWs held by the Japanese.) And yet the film could be about any war, anywhere: the cast said Vietnam was never even mentioned and it was shot in Thailand. This is a film about people under pressure and how they react to that pressure. Nicky (Christopher Walken) stays behind and it is of course his scene with De Niro for which the film is notorious. It never fails to shock. The overwhelming emotion in the scene strangely is that it is about love – and that of course is what certain people hated. The final gathering, in which the original team of Russian American steel workers are reunited at his funeral and Meryl Streep leads them in God Bless America really pissed off a lot of liberals. Warren Beatty allegedly orchestrated a campaign against the film during awards season (Heaven Can Wait was in competition!) Cimino came from making Heaven’s Gate to the Academy Awards where it took 5 including Best Director and Best Picture (De Niro lost out to Jon Voight but Walken took Best Supporting Actor). Afterwards Cimino found himself sharing an elevator with Jane Fonda and wanted to congratulate her for winning Best Actress for Coming Home: she refused to acknowledge him (she hadn’t seen the film. Her own rehab flick was up against it for Picture). The music, adapting Stanley Myers’ theme, is exquisite, as is the sound design. The acting is extraordinary and probably unsurpassed by those performers in a flawless cast (professional and amateur alike). Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is perfection.If you’re not crying by the end of this, the greatest Seventies movie of them all, then you’re probably  …no, I won’t go there. Cimino was responsible for some of cinema’s finest hours and they’re right here. RIP.