JX Williams' Psych-Burn

Format: DVD

Release date: 25 September 2007

Distributor: Other Cinema

Director: various artists


95 mins

The healthy bleed between horror, the avant-garde and the cultural demi-monde can comfortably be dated back to at least the Grand Guignol of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Paris and, in cinema, as Jack Sargeant points out in the DVD booklet of Experiments in Terror 2, to Buí±uel and Dali’s Un chien andalou (1928).

This is perfectly natural. The underground and the avant-garde revel in forms and notions seen as threatening to mainstream society – a threat most effectively neutralised by adopting it, at which point the cycle begins again, only louder, nastier and occasionally smarter. So Romero’s Night of the Living Dead becomes Michael Jackson’s Thriller, becomes Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, ad nauseam.

I’d suggest that hardcore horror audiences are likely to be more tolerant of alternative and experimental cinema: certainly it was that shared sense of the absurd, the uncanny and the other (and enlightened Scala cinema programming) that drew this youthful horror film fiend to the more celebrated cinematic avant-gardists. And let’s face it, one person’s performance art – whether it’s naked beatniks splashing about in a Hermann Nitsch extravaganza or Joseph Beuys confronting a baffled wolf – is just another day on set at American International Pictures or Troma.

But back to the DVD. With Experiments in Terror 2, curator Noel Lawrence has put together a largely satisfying sick bag. The two vintage pieces – JX Williams’ Psych-Burn (1968) and Lloyd M. Williams’ (no relation as far as I can tell) Opus 5 (1961) – are real standouts. The former a distillation of the Corman/AIP flavour of psychedelic horror, all swirling patterns and blood-soaked go-go girls set to a disjointed psych-rock soundtrack, the latter a hypnotic, multi-layered cine-fugue of archetypal night horrors and the fears of the damned, all apparently suffered by a hooch-drinking country-dweller.

Of the younger blood, Angel Nieves’ The Fear (2001) toys successfully with 70s horror tropes surrounding the home and family, managing to be surprising, scary and playful, while you could spend some time unpicking film references in the interior decor alone. Damon Packard’s dreamy, suggestive Early ’70s Horror Trailer (1999) pursues female archetypes from 70s horror flicks – the witch, the victim, the dreamer, the killer – through the Ballardian architecture of Cronenberg’s early work. Bill Morrison’s ‘re-vision’ of 1926 silent The Mesmerist is, well, mesmerising, redeploying the decomposition effects used so stunningly in 2002’s Decasia to equally beautiful effect, nicely complimented by a moody Bill Frisell soundtrack. Found footage is put to genuinely uncanny use in Wago Kreider’s Between 2 Deaths (2006), which superimposes scenes from a familiar-looking 50s thriller over what appears to be the film’s actual locations, shot more recently on DV. The effect is quite unusual, not unlike an extended sensation of déjí­Â  vu. Elsewhere we get skeleton sex in Amor Peligrosa (Michelle Silva, 2002), Maya Deren-esque choreography and stop motion in Childree and Rollason’s She Sank on Shallow Bank (2006) and Goth music video action in Usama Alshaibi’s Hold My Scissors (2004).

Perhaps some of the films come across as a little too knowing for my tastes, but then so does the majority of what passes for ‘horror’ cinema these days. Overall this is a very worthwhile collection, though I still think I’ll stick to the real thing, thanks!

Mark Pilkington

Read the interview with Other Cinema co-founder Noel Lawrence.


Der Letzte Mann

Format: DVD

Release date: 21 January 2008

Distributor: Eureka Video

Director: FW Murnau

Screenplay: Carl Mayer

Alternative title: The Last Laugh

Cast: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Georg John

Germany 1924

90 mins

Der Letzte Mann is less celebrated than FW Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Sunrise (1928), and its imaginative scope is certainly narrower. But it is perhaps the director’s most perfect example of purely visual narrative. It is famous for the absence of intertitles: Murnau simply shows us what is happening, even what is being said, rather than telling us in words.

The film is driven by an unstoppable performance by Emil Jannings as the proud old doorman at the prestigious Atlantic Hotel. Each turn in the story remoulds his body, each small humiliation etches itself in his face. The contrast between his proud erect gait as doorman and his cringing, hobbling posture when his fortunes change is the essence of the film. Though Jannings was, amazingly, only 40 at the time, he evokes vividly the trials of age – we feel in ourselves, as we watch, the old man’s aching back, shortness of breath, bleariness of eye, stunned incomprehension of a world leaving him behind.

The obligation to get the plot across without words certainly doesn’t cramp Murnau’s style. Practically every scene offers unusual composition and lighting, the most memorable vision being the nightwatchman trudging the murky gloom of the hotel basement, his torch glowing in the centre of his silhouette and then becoming a spotlight for the doorman’s shame. Murnau and his cinematographer Karl Freund frequently turn the visual effects up to 11 – most extraordinarily by means of lens distortions. This might seem a limited and gimmicky technique (so did the wah-wah pedal before Jimi Hendrix); in inspired hands it proves richly expressive. But perhaps the greatest visual pleasures of the film are the moving shots with which the two parts of the film begin, drawing us through the perfectly choreographed world of the bustling hotel. The moving camera was a new technique in cinema then – and it is hard to think anyone has ever used it better.

The bleakness of the film is relieved by an exuberant Chaplinesque comic epilogue. Murnau introduces it with an extraordinary Brechtian distancing technique: an on-screen admission, in the film’s only title card, that he doesn’t believe his story could really end this way. The epilogue (like the prologue to The Darjeeling Limited last year) is so perfectly realised as to steal the show from the main body of the film.

Why is the film called Der Letzte Mann? The doorman is ‘the last man’ for a wealthy stranger, in an encounter which leads to his second turn of fortune. But this reading of the title would make the epilogue the key to the film (as does the standard English version of the title, The Last Laugh). And we can only see the film this way if we ignore the ironic framing of the epilogue. Instead I think we should understand ‘letzte’ as having the connotation of ‘least’ or ‘lowest’, as in the biblical warning ‘the first shall be last’.

A film like this – simple, melodramatic, sentimental, wordless – could not be made today. Watch it and visit a world we have lost.

Peter Momtchiloff


The Phantom Carriage

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 February 2008

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Victor Sjí¶strí¶m

Based on: novel by Selma Lagerlí¶f

Original title: Kí¶rkarlen

Cast: Victor Sjí¶strí¶m, Hilda Borgstrí¶m, Tore Svennberg

New score: KTL

Sweden 1921
93 mins

Regret is an awful thing to entertain. Nostalgia at its worst. Self-absorbed and boring, it is not very much fun to witness. Victor Sjí¶strí¶m’s The Phantom Carriage is all about this distasteful human condition; a hot, mad – no, psychopathic – self-obsession. The film’s protagonist makes a rather large mistake, which is simultaneously seen as a defining moment. Sjí¶strí¶m being Swedish, the sheer awfulness comes in buckets so big they’d dwarf a cottage. As heavy with the morals as it is with the supernatural, The Phantom Carriage is extremely reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Here, though, the motivation for the protagonist’s downward spiral is not angst over greed and misanthropy, it is angst over alienation, family dereliction and alcohol abuse and a not fully articulated interest in self-destruction.

Manufactured in Sweden in 1920, The Phantom Carriage is a quaint and harrowing New Year’s Eve fable about fate that reeks of late nineteenth-century Protestantism and temperance. Afflicted with tuberculosis and hell-bent on a very slow suicide, Sjí¶strí¶m’s protagonist David Holm (played by Sjí¶strí¶m himself) is tragedy on two legs, a melancholic kamikaze pickled in alcohol. Pathos abounds but there is no hope, David Holm is beyond redemption. In Swedish, the word Holm means an island. This seems an appropriate surname given the alienation Sjí¶strí¶m’s protagonist endures.

As Holm and his two boozer friends congregate beneath a clock tower at twenty minutes to midnight, one of them begins to recount a frightful yarn: ‘You gentlemen are not afraid of ghosts, I hope…’ The tale, delivered via intertitles, carries on: ‘No ordinary driver holds the reigns… he is in the service of a strict master named Death’. Indeed, one imagines Death would be a pretty miserable employer, but I was a civil servant once so I have my doubts.

Notions of life and the afterlife are index-linked in early cinematic vocabulary. Sjí¶strí¶m knows this. ‘A tale told in living pictures under the direction of Victor Sjí¶strí¶m’, state the opening credits in Swedish. Is the Phantom Carriage actually Sjí¶strí¶m’s camera? Since its invention, the camera has been associated with the uncanny and this isn’t just down to anthropomorphism and technological ignorance, the camera was and still is an untrustworthy device. It has the ability to make phantasms out of reality, it records the past and can alter it and Sjí¶strí¶m relishes this. The director certainly liked optical effects or at least saw something of the unheimlich in such gimmicks. The Phantom Carriage is a phantom image. A dullish apparition in cobweb grey, a double-exposure. It intrudes as a super-imposition onto the action of the mortal world.

There are two versions of the DVD, one with a Klezmer-esque ‘authentic’ soundtrack which is nothing more than adequate and another with a KTL soundtrack. KTL being Peter Rehberg aka Pita of Mego and Stephen O’Malley from SunnO))), this is a rather nice bit of acoustic ectoplasm that shimmers like a moonlit lake. Tremulous, spectral and rumbling it hams up the spookiness, but this is erroneous since this film is really about sub-zero squalor and decrepitude. It is hard-boiled and grim and the paranormal aspects of it are in some ways the least relevant since they are ultimately a McGuffin. David Holm is already in hell so damnation to purgatory seems a mere formality. His mad rage at himself and the world around him is far more disturbing than the presence of a skeleton with a scythe.

Fear God, love your family and stay off the booze. Those are the three main moral tenets of this film, all of which are usually very confused on a typical British New Year’s Eve. At least they are in my house, quite often at times other than New Year but always joyously so.

Philip Winter


Kamikaze Girls

Format: Cinema

Part of season: ‘A Life More Ordinary – A Portrait of Contemporary Japanese People on Film’

Release date: 9-17 February 2008

Venues: ICA, London, then on tour at the Watershed Media Centre (Bristol), Queens Film Theatre (Belfast), Filmhouse (Edinburgh) and Showroom (Sheffield)

Distributor: Japan Foundation

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima

Based on: manga by Novala Takemoto

Original title: Shimotsuma Monogatari

Cast: Anna Tsuchiya, Kyôko Fukada

Japan 2004

103 mins

Welcome to the weird and colourful world of Momoko (Kyôko Fukada) – a dedicated follower of fashion – eighteenth-century-inspired ‘Rococo’ Lolita fashion, that is! Dressed in frilly period attire and stuck in a backwater called Shimotsuma, Momoko helps her father sell his ‘Versach’ bootleg merchandise on the streets to pay the bills. Unimpressed by the tracksuits and cheap supermarket threads that prevail in her hometown, she dreams of working for Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, Tokyo’s bona fide fashion house for Lolita outfits, led by í¼ber-designer Akinori Isobe.

One sunny day, a black-clad biker girl called Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya) comes to Momoko’s house to buy some fake designer gear after arranging the visit over the Internet. When she realises that Momoko is not the smart cookie she imagined but a baby doll draped in Marie-Antoinette lace, Ichigo’s curiosity quickly turns to contempt. Being a foul-mouthed rebel ‘Yanki’ and member of an all-girl speed-tribe, as Japan’s Kamikaze biker gangs are referred to, Ichigo has no patience for Momoko’s fussy girliness. However, as they visit Pachinko parlours (slot machine dives) and cocktail bars together, the two girls learn to admire each other’s own brand of gutsy non-conformism and gradually form an unlikely friendship. Indeed, opposites attract, and what ensues is an often comical and surreal road trip that brings each girl a little closer to fulfilling her dream…

Director Tetsuya Nakashima has whipped up an exquisitely shot and wonderfully quirky film that is highly enjoyable even if you are not acquainted with Japan’s complex youth subculture. Based on the graphic novel Shimotsuma Story by cult manga creator Novala Takemoto, the rather misleadingly titled Kamikaze Girls convinces through strong performances and a captivating plot.

Thanks to the ICA’s ‘A Life More Ordinary – A Portrait of Contemporary Japanese People on Film’ season, this 2004 movie is finally given a much deserved release in a London cinema.

Claudia Andrei


The Boss of It All

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 February 2008

Venues: London and key cities

Distributor: Diffusion Pictures

Director: Lars von Trier

Writer: Lars von Trier

Original title: Direktí¸ren for det hele

Cast: Jens Albinus, Peter Gantzler, Iben Hjejle

Denmark 2006

99 mins

After the tedious sabre-rattling of Manderlay and his increasingly big-budget casts, Lars von Trier surprises yet again with a low-budget comedy in the tradition of The Office (although the director claims not to have seen the show). Funny, moving and incisive, The Boss of It All shows that von Trier has a great grasp of comedy and the absurdity of modern life. Arguably the ridiculous situations in many of his other films wouldn’t have taken much to tip into comedy, but here he generates genuine laugh-out-loud moments through great character creation. It’s quite a deft sitcom set-up – the boss of a company has spent the last five years pretending he’s another employee to get his colleagues to like him. Now that he’s about to sell the company for millions and sack them all, he hires an actor to be the mysterious boss they think they’ve never met. A terrific cast handle the mechanics of this satire with great aplomb, including dogme veterans Jean-Marc Barr (director of dogme#5 The Lovers and star of The Big Blue) and Peter Gantzler (dogme#12 – Italian for Beginners).

It’s tempting to call the style of this new film ‘dogme06’ but although the filmmaking principles utilised here could be seen as even more liberating than the rules set out in the original manifesto, I doubt many other directors will take up this technique. The Boss of It All was shot using von Trier’s computer-controlled system ‘Automavision’, whereby a computer moves the camera randomly within a 20-degree angle of the direction it’s pointed. This footage is then cut into shots of around five seconds in length. It’s not clear if the cutting was also carried out by the computer, but if so it must be well-attuned to human speech patterns as it never cuts in the middle of a sentence.

There’s no white balance or concession to continuity, so the colour and exposure within a section may vary wildly from shot to shot, adding a lunatic Ed Wood quality to the aesthetic. This is not to say that the computer doesn’t occasionally choose a pleasing angle, in the same way a four-year-old handling their first camera might. This technique becomes annoying on occasion but forces the viewer to ignore the camerawork and concentrate on the direction, the script and the performances. After Manderlay and Dear Wendy, this is von Trier’s best screenplay in years, though his own appearance as omniscient narrator book-ending the film is slightly unnecessary – yes we all know how clever he is. Just to rub salt in the wounds, von Trier mocks the dogme movement itself by satirising actors and improvisation, but he’s a filmmaker at the top of his game and when he’s making comedies like this we can forgive his arrogance.

The Boss of It All isn’t a film that will gain great renown for its technical, directorial or textual innovations, but if von Trier feels that doing a small film like this will recharge his creative batteries before mounting the next grand folly, this is a fine amuse-bouche, and an easier watch than many of his previous films.

Alex Fitch


No Country for Old Men

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 January 2008

Venues: Vue West End (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Paramount

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Based on: the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Cast: Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson

US 2007

122 mins

Sacrilegious as this may seem, I’ve never been a fan of the Coen brothers. In part I’m sure this is due to only having seen certain films in their oeuvre, but having suffered through the unbearable screwball comedy of Raising Arizona and the insufferable Barton Fink I’d pretty much given up on them by the time The Big Lebowski hit the screens (‘You’ve never seen The Big Lebowski?’ No, I have never seen The Big Lebowski. ‘Officer, the handcuffs’.) I’ve since been tempted back into the cinema for The Man Who Wasn’t There (fantastically dull. Really.), rented Fargo (good, but what movie with Steve Buscemi’s hang-dog face isn’t?) and watched Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? on telly (I liked the songs) and my opinion has changed little. The Coen Brothers are competent filmmakers with a tragic disposition towards wackiness and pastiche that mars their every work, something akin to seeing Wes Anderson in double. I tell you this because there’s a tendency amongst film critics to praise the Coen Brothers’ work to high heaven regardless of its worth, and I want you to know that when I say their new film is very, very good, you can trust me.

No Country for Old Men is based upon Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the brothers’ first straight book adaptation, and by all accounts the film adheres fairly strictly to the text. This leads to a peculiar moment later in the film when a central character dies, but more of that later. Until that point, from the opening credits and Tommy Lee Jones’ portentous voice-over as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, this is a tight, taut exercise in filmmaking, a relentlessly tense thriller that works on a purely visceral level but also deals in higher ideas of good and evil. Its backdrop is the imposing landscape of West Texas, sparse and arid, and it’s out here that Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the gory aftermath of a drugs deal gone wrong. Among the dead and the dying Moss finds a briefcase stuffed full of banknotes and flees the scene.

By now we’ve been introduced to the murderous, enigmatic presence of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who, despite a haircut that makes him look like a member of an especially groovy sixties garage band and a curious instrument of death constructed from a pressurized gas canister, has already killed twice in scenes of such extreme violence and cold-bloodedness that we are developing a sense of extreme foreboding over Moss’ decision to take the money. When Moss returns to the scene of the massacre he narrowly escapes being caught by the Mexicans and, packing his wife on a bus to her mother, goes on the run with the briefcase, with Chigurh in close pursuit. It’s hard to describe the degree of menace Bardem brings to this role. There are moments of what could be described as humour in his interactions with those he meets along the way, but they’re shot through with such terror and unease that you’re gripping your seat even while you’re laughing.

Chigurh seems to represent relentless, unstoppable evil; as unforgiving and harsh as the Texas countryside; as inexorable as the general decline in standards that the Sheriff complains bitterly about. There comes a point where we’re unsure if he’s a man or some kind of dark, avenging spirit. Part of what is disquieting about Chigurh is that he appears to live by some strict moral code, however twisted, and that his actions are in some way governed by this, as if he’s obliged to track down Moss not as a job, but in order to make him pay for his greed. The appearance of Woody Harrelson as Moss’ guardian cowboy angel, pleading with him to return the money, only adds to this impression, as do the Sheriff’s lugubrious pronouncements on the inevitable.

Approximately three-quarters of the way through the film one of the major characters dies off-screen, removing the possibility of the dramatic showdown that is high in the audience’s expectations. From this point onwards not everything that occurs is immediately clear and we lose the logic that has, until then, underpinned the narrative. The instant gratification of the obvious is snatched away from us and we’re left blindly searching for meaning in the void. Given my low opinion of the Coen brothers it was at this point I feared that No Country for Old Men had fallen foul of their contrived methods but, firstly, the brothers are doing nothing more than being true to the original text and, secondly, while what may work in print isn’t always what works in film, there is something pleasing in leaving a movie theatre still digesting what you have just seen on the screen. In this way the Coens score big over that other recent film set in the wide expanses of America, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which saw fit to telegraph every last emotion and plot detail by way of an intrusive voice-over, and instead invites comparison with that master of the unexplained, David Lynch.

Sean Price

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 January 2008

Distributor: Warner Bros

Venues:Odeon Leicester Square and nationwide

Director: Tim Burton

Based on: the musical by Stephen Sondheim

Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman

US/UK 2007

117 mins

There’s something both strange and familiar about Sweeney Todd. It is a tale that has been recounted on both the large and small screens several times over the last century and yet most people only know the broad strokes of the story – the serial killer who runs a barber’s shop that provides filling for the meat pies in the café below. This is mainly because, unlike the two other most famous Victorian serial killers – Jack the Ripper and Jeckyll/Hyde – Sweeney Todd isn’t based on a well-documented case or a famous novel but is a continuing game of Chinese whispers that began as a ‘penny dreadful’ around 1847. To this day there is a continuing debate regarding whether the folk tale is based on truth or not and each generation has added new details. Tim Burton’s new film version of the story, based on the Stephen Sondheim musical, includes Sweeney’s alter ego Benjamin Barker, who was only added to the mythos in the early 70s.

Familiarity also comes from the fact that this is almost the culmination of a life work’s for Burton – it is the third musical he has directed (following Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas), the sixth film of his to feature Johnny Depp in the lead, the fifth with Helena Bonham Carter (the third that all three of them worked on together) and yet another love letter from the director to the Anglo-American school of gothic romance and horror. It combines the Grand Guignol of his earlier Sleepy Hollow with the razor-fingered melodrama of Edward Scissorhands to the extent that when Depp exclaims, ‘At last my hand is complete’, while holding a razor it feels like a prequel to Edward, albeit one with an 18 certificate.

For all its familiarity though, I imagine Tim Burton’s film will be the first full telling of the story that at least one generation has come across. A brilliant combination of vocals, victuals and Victorian horror, this is one of the finest musicals I’ve seen on screen in years.

Watching the badly weighted trailer and with the precedent of the ill-judged Mars Attacks in mind, I had worried in advance that the combination of murder, black comedy and musical might be a dreadful mismatch, but unlike Burton’s pointless remake of Planet of the Apes, Sweeney Todd is one revival perfectly matched to the director’s sensibilities. Though not as catchy as the first musical Burton plotted (Nightmare) and at times needing a little more tightening, Sweeney Todd could bring an entirely new audience to the musical genre with its combination of extreme horror and unexpectedly good vocal performances from all the leads. This is no glitzy melodrama designed to appeal to fans of Moulin Rouge or Evita but a potent horror film where the characters just happen to deliver their dialogue to music.

Johnny Depp is a brilliant character-actor (and now a bankable star on the back of Pirates of the Caribbean) and has always been at his best in Burton’s films. Here, he delivers a performance as memorable as Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, his mentor’s love of kitsch coming through via the white streak in Sweeney’s hair that seems borrowed from Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein. Bonham Carter is also on top form in another doomed romance that sees her mix a sickly pallor with a love of violence. In another strange echo, her final scene recalls her own role as the bride of Frankenstein in Kenneth Branagh’s risible Mary Shelley adaptation.

Depp and Bonham Carter already sang love duets from beyond the grave in the earlier Corpse Bride, but no one really noticed because the songs were delivered by their CGI avatars. Here, her unrequited love is surprisingly poignant even as she disposes of her man’s victims and makes cannibalism the latest diet on the streets of London. It’s a hard trick to make death beautiful, especially when it’s so bloody, but for every brutal throat-slashing in the movie there is an exquisite exsanguination – the severed jugular coating the throat in a scarlet damask or the outline of an angel appearing in rhesus negative on the floor. Elsewhere, the set design mixes the director’s continuing love of German Expressionism with the latest CGI, making the cobbled stones and soot-blackened bricks of nineteenth-century London spring as vividly to life as the consumptive pallor of its inhabitants.

As Burton brings another famous gothic tale of terror to the screen, the only real surprise (other than the amount of blood) is the lack of a horror icon in the cast – no contemporary of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee or Michael Gough here. However, the British character-actors Burton has assembled work wonders in their somewhat caricatured roles: Alan Rickman as the evil pantomime villain (following similar turns in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and Timothy Spall as his henchman. Unlike the rest of the world, I’m not a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen but here he is well cast as Sweeney’s absurd rival Pirelli, affecting an over-the-top Italian accent that segues into Cockney behind closed doors. Less successful are new comers Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener as the young lovers Anthony and Johanna, both bland and twee in their parts – the former in particular, a younger, prettier Jonathan Rhys Meyers lookalike. The only other slight disappointment is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Anthony (Stewart) Head, which I hoped would lead to at least one musical number…

American critics, pondering the success of this movie, wondered whether the marketing campaign was based on what they call a ‘bait and switch’ strategy, where you tempt someone with something but swap it for an item less palatable at the last minute, to whit: it was marketed as a (comedy) horror film but what audiences get is in fact a musical. However, while the first grisly murder may take a little while coming, subsequent deaths follow in rapid succession with increasingly lurid amounts of claret filling the screen. So for anyone who didn’t know this came with lyrics, music and a book, rest assured it is a horror film as well as a musical, and a very successful example of both.

Alex Fitch

Beat Girl

Beat Girl
Beat Girl

Format: Cinema

Screening at: Barbican, London

Date: 23 January 2008

Director: Edmond T. Gréville

Writers: Dail Ambler, Edmond T. Gréville

Cast: Gillian Hills, Adam Faith, Christopher Lee

UK 1960

85 mins

On 23rd January the Barbican will be revealing the first of its collaborations with the Hammett Story Agency. Writers are commissioned to write a short story about a minor character in their favourite movie. The evening will feature a screening and a reading of the story by its author. The first film, selected by Cathi Unsworth, is Beat Girl, made in 1960 by Edmond T. Gréville and starring Gillian Hills, Adam Faith and Christopher Lee. Cathi Unsworth will read her story ‘Johnny Remember Me’ (the title of soap star John Leyton’s 1961 chart topper), a first-person account narrated by one of the anonymous backing musicians.

Beat Girl is set in that mythic milieu in pop culture history – Soho in the late 50s – the moment when England discovered ‘cool’, when wild young merchant seamen such as Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard went looking for kicks during shore time and accidentally imported an American music called rock’n’roll. In coffee bars, across the street from strip joints, the nation’s first ‘teenagers’, fuelled by double shots of espresso, went wild for this new music. Somewhere between child and adult, this new being began to create its own identity and its own language. When Jenny’s (Gillian Hills) father asks her what all the new words mean she replies, ‘It means us. Something that’s ours. We didn’t get it from our parents’. The film is peppered with so many ‘cool it daddios’ it seems almost too forced – the ‘square’ movie producers’ idea of what the kids sound like – but it may well be accurate.

Like other ‘fictional’ accounts of this era, The Tommy Steele Story and Espresso Bongo (which charts Cliff’s rise from coffee house bongoiste to becoming God’s own Elvis) the film depicts a world of crazy beatnik jazz and early rock’n’roll (as always the importance of skiffle is overlooked).

Espresso Bongo is released in the UK in a Dual Format DVD/BR edition on 25 May 2016 as part of BFI Flipside.

The jazz music (nothing like the bebop that Kerouac, Cassady and Co went wild for) is provided by the John Barry Seven (just a year before Bond theme mega-stardom) and the rock’n’roll by Barry’s protégé Adam Faith – who gets to perform two songs. The John Barry theme tune is quite something, maybe even better than his classic Bond theme. Thus it is that Beat Girl became the first British film to have a soundtrack LP release.

‘THIS COULD BE YOUR DAUGHTER’, the poster shrieks, and Beat Girl is undeniably an exploitation film, with the familiar mix of titillation (a lengthy strip scene was cut from the original UK release but is usually reinstated nowadays) and delinquency with a timely lesson in morality thrown in at the end. Unsurprisingly, it is a bit corny and a little clichéd but in all the right places. When Faith strums the battered old acoustic guitar he wears throughout the film he is suddenly backed by an invisible rock’n’roll band and his voice is drenched in Elvis Presley-style reverb. But Gillian Hills is excellent as the wild beat girl ignored by her architect father (obsessed with the creation of his sound-proofed utopia ‘City 2000′) and angry at his new 24-year-old French wife. She spends her time screaming hysterically in her bedroom or sneaking off from St Martin’s College to hang out and drink coffee with her friends and go dancing in cellars and caves ’til the early hours with a young Oliver Reed (now that is wild!). The film is always willing to show the seedier side of life. As in Jane Mansfield’s Soho-set movie Too Hot To Handle (1960), much of the action concerns the strip clubs and their managers (Christopher Lee in both cases) and of course the strippers.

Beat Girl remains an entertaining film and a great picture (lacking in some authenticity I’m sure) of that brief moment of British ‘cool’ before the entertainment industry stepped in and turned Cliff, Tommy et al into family entertainers. But while Cliff and Tommy got cleaned up, Soho’s reputation as London’s centre of sex, caffeine and rock’n’roll was made. In the 60s the R’n’B clubs gave the likes of Georgie Fame and The Yardbirds their start and even today coffee shops (mostly Starbucks, granted) exist alongside strip clubs and sex shops. And jazz can still be heard at the Pizza Express.

As for the Cathi Unsworth story I’m curious to find out. Will the musician follow John Barry to Hollywood and work on soundtracks? Does he think in hip-talk or just use it to act cool with his friends? Will he break the world drumming record? And are they really only drinking coffee?

Paul Huckerby

For details of the event click here.


Teenage Hooker Became A Killing Machine

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 December 2007

Distributor: Third Window

Director: Gee-woong Nam

Cast: Dae-tong Kim, So-yun Lee

Orginal title Daehakno-yeseo maechoon-hadaka tomaksalhae danghan yeogosaeng ajik Daehakno-ye Issda

Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi

Cast: Maho Nonami, Eiko Koike

South Korea 2000

60 mins

Finally! Somebody in this stinkin’ world appreciates my superhuman ability to waste entire weeks of my life watching endless piles of B-Movies with stupid titles and has actually given me an opportunity to post my narrow-minded opinions on an otherwise respectable online magazine. So big up to the Electric Sheep gang for doing so… and on your heads be it.

The premise of Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine is essentially a cross between I Spit on Your Grave and Robocop. A street-walking-sailor-suited-schoolgirl is murdered when she becomes pregnant by her teacher, and is brought back to life Bionic Woman-style by some mysterious organisation. Reprogrammed as an emotionless assassin, complete with a fearsome flip-out crotch-cannon, she is unleashed on the city’s underworld, only to have her circuitry damaged (or to be more accurate, one of her robo-boobs memorably blown off) causing her to realise her true identity. Cue bloody and violent revenge upon her killers and so forth.

Sounds like I just described a generic exploitation action thriller, don’t it? I knew you were gonna get the wrong idea! At risk of sounding unsophisticated… I think this is really one of them artsy films in disguise… To get a better idea of the way things go down in the world of Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine, I’d like you to fetch a torch and hold it up to one of your eyes, as this will help more accurately emulate the experience.

You see, I had to take an unexpected trippy-trip out of my comfort zone for this film. As an avowed philistine, I was hoping for something kitschy and lowbrow, I mean, it’s got ‘Killing Machine’ in the title for gad’s sake. Instead I was faced with something darkly surreal and full of what I can only assume was symbolism. I’m not really an abstract type guy, and my knowledge of Asian cinema is basically limited to Godzilla so I had to really fish my brains for a decent reference point and I came up with… Tetsuo: The Iron Man! I know that one gets wheeled out a lot but it’s the only other film I can think of that has a similar mix of Lynchy obscurity and animé-informed cyberia. You can tell someone’s out of their depth when they resort to calling stuff ‘Lynchy’ but you know what I mean. It’s a world where people can transform into robots and shoot each other up, but it all happens in grimy hand-held slow motion with ‘experimental’ lighting and an opera soundtrack. Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about: rather than go for the obvious ‘scientists turn dead body into android in laboratory’ scene, Teenage Hooker gives us the world’s first ‘creepy old lady turns dead body into android with a Victorian sewing machine’ scene. That kind of thing.

So, yeah, contrary to my expectations, Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine is a little more in the arthouse than the grindhouse, and I’d recommend it to anyone who fancies spending an hour feeling shocked and confused. I’d buy it just for the title, it’s a real shelf-brightener.

Doc Horror


800 Bullets

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 December 2007

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Alex de la Iglesia

Writers: Jorge Guerricaechevarrí­Â­a, Alex de la Iglesia

Original title 800 balas

Cast: Sancho Gracia, Carmen Maura, Luis Castro

Spain 2002

124 mins

Images of spinning tumbleweeds and drunken bar-room brawls set the scene for 800 Bullets, the latest offering from cult director Alex de la Iglesia, which finally sees a DVD release. Taking its cue from every Western you’ve ever seen, de la Iglesia presents us with the washed-up former stuntman Julií¡n Torralba, an eccentric who is desperately trying to keep his spirit alive by performing action shows on a crumbling Wild West film set in Spain, the very location of his prior glory. In his own words Torralba’s stunts captured the respect of the Western icon himself, Clint Eastwood, but the best he and his team can hope for now is a cluster of Japanese tourists that will secure the next month’s living expenses. He is also still coming to terms with the death of his son, who was killed on set in a stunt gone wrong, and the subsequent estrangement from his daughter-in-law and young grandson Carlos. When the young boy stumbles across relics that point to his grandfather’s legacy, he immediately becomes infatuated with the idea of escaping his seemingly idyllic life, and takes it upon himself to sign up to his class’ skiing trip, only to deviate from the group and set off on his own quest for adventure in search of Julií¡n.

De la Iglesia’s homage/satire/parody works best when taking risks. The funniest scene sees the young Carlos, having been initiated into his grandfather’s clan of Western-themed misfits, finding himself alone with a bra-less prostitute. In keeping with the liberal values of Julií¡n’s regime, she proceeds to give him a masterclass on breast fondling (‘no, not like you’re ringing a doorbell!’), only for the young boy to be phoned mid-session by his mother, eager to know how the skiing trip is going. In scenes like this you’re not sure whether to laugh or be worried about the social services bursting onto the set, but the film is all the better for it.

Unfortunately the script, written by de la Iglesia with Jorge Guerricaechevarrí­Â­a, is wildly inconsistent and at times veers towards the sentimental. Where 800 Bullets is centred on family values and reflects heavily upon the relationship between generations, it seems like an easy option to tie up strands of narrative with predictable feel-good schmaltz, especially as the strengths of the film lie in injecting the clichés of old Westerns with de la Iglesia’s trademark quirkiness. Adding to this is the fact that 800 Bullets looks and feels like a kid’s film. The cinematography is clean and bursting with colour, the dialogue (when not peppered with profanity) is frank, and much of the soundtrack could have been written by John Williams on a lazy day. While on the surface this sounds like an interesting idea, as much of the film is seen through the eyes of Carlos, it comes across less as a stylistic choice and more as an attempt to reach the crossover mainstream audience enjoyed by de la Iglesia’s Hispanic contemporaries Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro. This sadly compromises the more daring aspects of the film.

While excessive and over the top in parts, 800 Bullets comes across as more Shanghai Noon than El Topo. Despite intriguing ideas that could have been built upon, the film is just too safe in its journey to have any real merit and comes across as a generic Western spoof rather than the witty homage it could have been. Let’s hope that de la Iglesia’s first English-language offering The Oxford Murders can restore faith in his undeniable talent.

James Merchant