Rabid 1

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 16 February 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver

Canada 1977

91 mins

Rabid was David Cronenberg’s second Canadian exploitation film, a phase that evolved more or less naturally from his period as an underground filmmaker, before he mutated into a more mainstream auteur via films such as The Fly (1986). It even features a cameo by Adrian Tripod himself, Ronald Mlodzik, star of Crimes of the Future (1970). Bigger in scope than its predecessor, Shivers (1975), but perhaps more rough-edged, it explores the effects of an experimental surgical technique performed on an injured motorcyclist (porn star Marilyn Chambers) where she is treated with ‘undifferentiated tissue’ – an idea borrowed from William S. Burroughs which anticipates current developments in stem cell research. The unfortunate and unexplained side effect is the growth of a retractable, penis-like spike in her armpit, through which she sucks blood and passes on a rabies-like virus.

Cronenberg has always played nonchalantly innocent about this subject’s misogynist undertones. Chambers becomes a kind of Typhoid Mary, immune to the disease herself but passing it on through her depredations, which are all redolent with sexual subtext (hot-tub lesbian encounter; porno cinema pick-up). Though Cronenberg rightly says that the character is portrayed as sympathetic, it is also somewhat hard to relate her given her strange denial of what is clearly going on. The virus seems to induce a kind of amnesia: her victims go about their business after being vampirised, until suddenly going berserk in a way familiar to viewers of Romero or Danny Boyle flicks; Chambers seems to know she’s draining blood, but thinks little of it until the discovery that she’s been spreading a kind of plague brings about a crisis of conscience. Her eventual fate seems uncomfortably like a puritanical judgement, or a deliberately provocative pastiche of one.

The film betrays its status as an early, crude effort, in other lapses in psychology and logic. The opening motorcycle crash seems to happen on a straight stretch of road where the mobile home parked across the road would be clearly visible for some considerable distance; but the hero just yells in panic, drives straight at the obstacle, and then swerves at the last possible moment. That hero (Frank Moore) presents a considerable problem. Cronenberg is only partway to his eventual solution to the monster movie problem, which involves making the monster the main character. Here, our attention and empathy are needlessly diffused by the useless Moore character, whose defining trait is his tendency to be wherever the plot is not unfolding (because if he was ever in the right place at the right time, he would perish immediately). The same problem would afflict the lumpen protagonist of The Brood (1979), but in Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983), the hero is himself deviating from the normal, and in the latter film we actually view the entire action filtered through his gradually mutating consciousness, a trope the filmmaker would return to repeatedly.

It’s notable that Cronenberg has never fully embraced the idea of a female lead character. His heroes can develop vaginal openings in their abdomens or be penetrated in their lower spine by Willem Dafoe wielding a bolt gun, they can turn into insectoid hybrids, they can be one consciousness split between two bodies, and they can be psychotic. But they can’t have one of those alien openings from birth: they have to be supplied by the special effects department.

Rabid is most intriguing in its adoption of the plague narrative form used by George Romero in The Crazies (1973), or by Eugene Ionesco in his play Here Comes a Chopper. Rather than following a single character, we follow the disease itself as it filters through society: the scenes of psychodrama with Chambers alternately weeping and feasting are distractions from what could be a perfect Cronenberg hero: a quasi-sexually-transmitted virus.

David Cairns

The Nightcomers

The Nightcomers
The Nightcomers

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 23 February 2015

Distributor: Network Distributing

Director: Michael Winner

Writer: Michael Hastings

Cast: Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, Thora Hird

UK 1971

92 mins

‘Marlon, you’re a great actor. I’m not a great director. Do what you like.’ This was supposedly how Michael Winner began his unlikely collaboration with the king of the method players. Brando was in the midst of a severe career slump, from which he would only escape with the double whammy of Last Tango in Paris and The Godfather the following year. The Nightcomers marks the last gasp of Brando’s wilderness years, which had stretched through pretty much the entire previous decade (fascinating though some of those films maudits are).

The idea of a prequel to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is an odd one for any studio seeking commercial success: Jack Clayton’s adaptation, The Innocents, had appeared exactly 10 years earlier, and despite being an artistic masterpiece it hadn’t done terribly well at the box office. Too subtle, too intelligent, too defiantly non-generic. Only the last quality really applies to Winner’s movie, which is even more of an odd duck than the eerie Cinemascope ghost story it both follows and foreshadows.

Giving no acknowledgement to the 1961 classic, The Nightcomers nevertheless starts with a snatch of ‘Willow Waly’, the folk song/nursery rhyme sung in spooky solo over the credits of Clayton’s film. This is promptly followed by a jarring crash zoom, neatly encapsulating the clash of temperaments that makes up the film’s style: half literate and dreamy, half leering and vulgar, rarely very successful.

It’s a shame, since Robert Paynter’s moody, muddy photography is beautiful and atmospheric, making something evocative from the mixture of dim, wintry daylight and dancing grain. It’s just that everything Winner makes him do with his camera, save the wide shots, is rather trashy. Many of the scenes might have been rescued, since Winner is at least shooting a decent range of coverage, but he insisted on cutting the film himself (using the admittedly hilarious pseudonym of Arnold Crust Jnr), and he has absolutely no sense of rhythm, mood, drama, character, or any form of continuity beyond the most basic – making sure the actors are standing in the right places. It’s not that the props or costumes jump around when you’re not looking, it’s that none of the shots build to a total effect, and the actors often seem to be staring into space rather than at their off-screen co-stars (which is probably the case, given Brando’s tendency to take off whenever not required for a close-up).

Brando himself is… sort of good? It’s quite an extreme version of an Irish accent he’s doing, but it’s at least less goofy than Orson Welles’s in The Lady from Shanghai, still the gold standard in rogue brogues. Trying to suggest an alluring, poetic psychopath, Brando is slightly hampered by his excess years and pounds, though Winner, whose eye was usually unflattering in the extreme, protects both his star and his audience by framing out the Brando bare belly (which was back under control, briefly, in time for his sexual exploits of 72).

The script by Michael Hastings riffs off the clues provided in James’s novella, but actually rewrites fictional history to create a more (melo)dramatic story, in which Brando’s lusty gardener corrupts both nanny Miss Jessel (luscious, warm Stephanie Beacham) and the two children under her charge. Touching on the themes of Forbidden Games and Lord of the Flies, the movie slowly turns its emotionally damaged children into horror movie monsters, complete with an ending that strongly implies that classic horror movie trope, ‘It’s all going to happen again!’ In fact, readers of James and viewers of Clayton will be aware that things are not as simple as that, and certainly neither artist intended for their uncanny children to be seen as deranged killers.

Hastings’s dialogue is often smart, strange and literate, suggesting the alien mindset of the Victorian era with its odd, stilted formality. This gets pushed further into the realms of the bizarre by the kids’ line readings, and the very particular acting style of Thora Hird as the housekeeper (it’s a style a less charitable critic might call ‘reading it out’, but I love Thora and would never put her down like that). Brando seems genuinely amused by his unlikely co-star.

What will likely interest viewers most in this age of shifty grades of fey, is the sex, which includes all the unsafe bondage techniques and dubious consent issues people seem to want nowadays. The kinky stuff gets dealt with pretty quickly, but is fairly strong for the time. Winner’s melting it together in those lap dissolves reserved for tasteful sex scenes back in the day gives it a safely old-fashioned quality, though, which explains why this wasn’t seen as taboo-busting in the same way as Last Tango. Though in both films Brando degrades his partner by making her repeat lines after him and makes reference to pigs, so I guess we can be fairly sure that’s what he was genuinely into. Future biographers take note.

David Cairns

Watch the original trailer:

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 January 2015

Distributor: Sky Vision

Director: Nick Broomfield

USA, UK 2014

105 mins

British documentarian Nick Broomfield – aka the man with the boom (and bumbling persona) – returns with this incisive look at the grim realities of life in South Central Los Angeles.

Broomfield is best known for his 1990s documentaries, including Kurt & Courtney and Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, while his investigation into an Iraq massacre, Battle for Haditha, drew much praise in 2007. His films, which tend to feature him in front of the camera as much as behind, spawned a host of imitators (Michael Moore and Louis Theroux among them). Now a sprightly 66, he’s back pacing the streets, of grimsville South Central, or else driving a black Mercedes, with son Barney (off camera) and local junkie come good, Pamela Brooks, in tow. Ms Brooks guides the Broomsfields around the poverty-stricken neighbourhood, and steals the show.

On the face of it, Broomfield’s film appears to be examining the murder trial of one Lonnie Franklin Jr, arrested in 2010 and charged with the murder of 10 prostitutes and transients, stretching back 25 years. However, it soon emerges that the number of victims could ‘run into hundreds’ as Broomfield himself points out, during his sobering voice-over introduction. As he and his small crew meet Franklin’s friends and neighbours, Broomfield wonders how on earth this behaviour could have gone undetected for so long (DNA links Franklin to the murders). He soon finds an LAPD indifferent to the welfare of the poor black communities affected. Drug abuse, particularly crack, appears to be rife.

The narrative takes an increasingly grim turn as Franklin’s neighbours and friends call Broomfield back (after initial encounters) to recall disturbing incidents in Franklin’s house that they had previously brushed off. Hence Franklin goes from Mr Nice Guy to Mr Weirdo pretty quickly. We hear of his horrific abuse of his victims (with his son, Chris, apparently observing through a peep hole). Hundreds of photos of unidentified women in compromising positions are found on his wall. There is the strong suggestion that he dumped many of the bodies in the local tip, where he used to work.

Local community leaders, including Margaret Prescod, head of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, prove particularly insightful. Some of Franklin’s former conquests (who managed to get away) relive their ordeals. Yet the LAPD remains silent, beyond a PR-driven press conference that hails Franklin’s arrest as a victory for law and order. They bluntly refused, apparently, to be interviewed.

Broomfield never actually questions Franklin’s guilt (which is reasonable, given the evidence against him). But he does throw a spotlight on this impoverished part of a famously wealthy city, demanding to know why the police investigating these serial killings did so little, for so long. As Prescod quite rightly says, if the victims were white women in Beverly Hills, the LAPD would be all over the case in a flash. It is a striking and powerful film, and certainly one of Broomfield’s best for quite some time.

Ed Gibbs



Format: DVD

Release date: 26 January 2015

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Yorgos Kakanakis

Cast: Aris Servetalis, Kostas Xikominos and Evangelia Randou

Greece 2005

94 mins

I sit at the computer to write a review about Kinetta, Yorgos Lanthimos’s debut feature, available for the first time on DVD. My fingers rest on the keyboard, then I move a hand and I scratch my chin. Minutes pass. I type the word ‘nihilistic’ then I slowly delete it, letter by letter. I breathe heavily through my nose. This is going to take some time. And it won’t be fun.

You see, Kinetta is an enervating experience. Long shots, minimal dialogue, a world drained of other people and interest. Kostas Xikominos plays a plainclothes policeman, I think. With the aid of local photographer Aris Servetalis and a series of women, he meticulously reconstructs a series of violent crimes against female victims by re-enacting them. Whether these re-enactments serve any investigative purpose or are simply a voyeuristic kink is undisclosed and possibly unimportant. The characters themselves are uncommunicative and distant, somnambulant and boring. Everyone is pitched into the deepest ennui, incapable of conversation and their raison d’être seems to be entirely to provide Lanthimos with something to film. They are characters not so much in search of an author as in search of personality, plot, something to do. The policeman, we learn, likes BMW cars, but this is not so much part of his character as instead of it. A hotel maid (Evangelia Randou), who sleeps for a hobby and is predisposed to self-harm, becomes the latest woman to play the part of victim.

As they fastidiously film their reconstructions to pedantically detailed direction it is obvious that this anti-narrative is the germ of Lanthimos’s idea, which we will see again in Dogtooth and Alps, namely that everyone is playing games, including (obviously) the filmmakers. Of course, when we say ‘games’, we mean it in the sense used by post-structuralist French philosophers, i.e. games no one actually enjoys. But whereas in his later films, Lanthimos has moved towards a more (festival) crowd-pleasing black comedy, here he is encumbered by a portentousness that is unrelieved and makes for an arduous and unrewarding watch.

Now, I could just delete this and start again.

Second Run’s DVD release includes a new and exclusive 30mins interview with Yorgos Lanthimos filmed at London’s Tate Modern.

John Bleasdale

Ganja & Hess

Ganja and Hess
Ganja & Hess

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 26 January 2015

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Bill Gunn

Writer: Bill Gunn

Cast: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn

USA 1973

123 mins

Ganja & Hess was conceived as a black vampire movie: producers Jack Jordan and Quentin Kelly wanted to capitalise on the recent success of Blacula (1972) and other ‘blaxploitation’ films Hollywood had started making to appeal to African-American audiences. Playwright and novelist Bill Gunn readily accepted the producers’ offer of $350,000 to make his first feature film, but was determined to create something far more ambitious than a genre film. He decided to use vampirism as a metaphor to explore the idea of addiction in all its forms.

Ganja & Hess is utterly original, but if I had to compare it to another film, it would be Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, which was released the following year: both films are set in a large house where statuesque actors and actresses engage in dreamlike scenarios where time telescopes. More broadly, in its uncompromising creativity Ganja & Hess reminds me of the supremely unusual films, past and present, screened in Paris’s Latin Quarter: films that are experienced first and understood only later (if ever). Films where the only thing certain is that you’ve never seen anything quite like them. Films so fresh and innovative that you feel anything could happen. Films that restore your youthful impression of time and space opening up before you with unexpected possibility.

Ganja & Hess is worlds away from the cool swagger and forthright action of a film like Shaft. Professor Hess Green is an academic who surrounds himself with books and art, rides in an elegant chauffeured car and speaks in French with his son. As the film’s producer and editor point out in the DVD’s extensive extra material, this was revolutionary, as audiences had never before seen a film centred on a cultivated African-American character. Actor Duane Jones was particularly well suited to the role: although he is best known as the star of Night of the Living Dead (1968), he also worked as a college professor. The director himself appears as George Meda, the assistant who infects the professor with vampirism. Marlene Clark plays Meda’s wife, Ganja, who comes looking for her missing husband and quickly develops a relationship with the professor.

Ganja & Hess appropriates the vampire myth into a specifically African-American context through richly layered cultural references that include ancient legend, art, song, and costume. The film is bookended by documentary-style footage of an African-American evangelical church, seen as a place of passion and togetherness as well as a source of comfort and salvation.

The film was released in its original version for barely a week. It was this version that won Best Film at Critics’ Week in Cannes but was reviled by critics at home. The producers accordingly hired a different editor to recut it as a sexploitation film, which screened at drive-ins under various titles including Blood Couple, Double Possession and Black Evil. The director, one of the producers and the original editor were so disgusted that they had their names removed from the film. This new home entertainment release finally gives audiences another chance to see this ambitious and innovative film as its creators originally intended.

Alison Frank