Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 26 September 2016

Distributor: BFI

Director: Don Sharp

Writers: Julian Zimet, Arnaud d’Usseau

Cast: George Sanders, Beryl Reid, Nicky Henson

UK 1973

90 mins

The unlikely mix of black magic, undead bikers and Safeway makes this 70s British oddity endurably appealing.

‘Deep shame,’ was how Nicky Henson characterised his feelings about this suis generis exploitation weirdie, when quizzed by Matthew Sweet, but really, though the lovable thespian has obviously had great moments on stage, this is the one he’ll be remembered for. Witchfinder General is the superior film, but it’s not really a Nicky Henson film. Psychomania, God bless it, despite top-lining oldsters George Sanders and Beryl Reid, is Nicky Henson’s film, whether he wants it or not.

As if cobbled together from a fever dream about The Wild One and Polanski’s Macbeth, the film combines black magic and biker gangs, stone circles and juvenile delinquency. The script is by the same duo of blacklisted Americans who wrote Horror Express, and it has the same rather appealing mixture of strange, vaguely clever ideas, goofball nonsense and bizarrely naive exploitation elements. I wish the pair had written a whole bunch more horror films: they had a unique sensibility.

Genre specialist / all-rounder Don Sharp directs ably, starting the film rather brilliantly with slomo cyclists roving round a set of papier mâché megaliths on a misty morning, with John Cameron’s sonorous wacka-wacka score adding a kind of camp solemnity. Sharp had an affinity for overcranking, opening his Curse of the Fly (1965), a belated sequel to the Hollywood teleportation horror, with a surprisingly atmospheric, oneiric nocturnal chase, shot at around 48 fps. He’d also made Witchcraft (1964) with Lon Chaney Jnr. as an unlikely English warlock, and Hammer romps Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), as well as the first two of Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu outings.

Henson plays the biker son of medium Beryl Reid who acquires the power to come back from the dead through a mysterious ritual involving a frog (don’t ask). Sanders plays a butler who might be Satan, or something (I wasn’t totally clear: see what you think). Soon, Henson, looking damned good in his leather trousers, is converting his whole gang to an afterlife of mayhem, running amok in a Walton-on-Thames branch of Safeway.
The film’s take on youth culture is wonderfully peculiar: the bikers bury their leader on his bike in the stone circle to the tune of a folk song strummed on acoustic guitar; the gang wear crocheted waistcoats; nobody smokes (the producers were afraid they wouldn’t be able to sell the film to TV); nobody swears. But they run over a baby in a pram, and that was considered perfectly OK.

The violence and criminality is still slightly shocking, maybe because all the surrounding action is so absurd. The bikers are the main characters, and they will keep killing people. Elsewhere, there is amusing dialogue: ‘Abby’s dead.’ ‘You must be very happy.’ ‘I’ve always fancied driving through a brick wall.’ But then the movie will alternate pathetic, puerile hi-jinks (spanking a young mother in a hot-pants one-piece) with cold-blooded murder. The two tones only come together as black comedy during the impressive stunt sequences where the bikers commit suicide in order to rise again.

Rumours that old pro Sanders killed himself in response to seeing a print of this, his final movie, are doubtless false. The old rogue had gotten himself involved in a crooked business venture, hilariously called Cadco, and was facing possible financial ruin and legal proceedings, a likelier motivation for suicide than either a bizarre horror film or boredom, the cause cited in his note. And after all, the man had already worked for Jess Franco.

Scattered throughout Psychomania are familiar faces from TV shows like All Creatures Great and Small, Eastenders and Dad’s Army, with everyone managing to appear perfectly earnest and, in Henson’s case, actually cool, even though his character is a colossal jerk. The leftist writers appear to have had some kind of critique of youth culture in mind: Henson’s undead cyclist espouses a plan to kill every policeman, judge and teacher in the land, but once back on his bike, he always seems to gravitate back to Safeway.

David Cairns

Cat People

Cat People

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 26 September 2016

Distributor: Criterian Collection

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Writer: DeWitt Bodeen

Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph

USA 1942

73 mins

The Val Lewton-produced shadowy horror classic gets a radiant new release from Criterion.

‘I’ve lived in dread of this moment, I’ve never wanted to love you. I’ve stayed away from people, I lived alone… I’ve fled from the past, some things you could never know, or understand… evil things, evil.’

In the early 1940s, a horror movie was supposed to be something hairy and melodramatic like Universal’s hit The Wolf Man – a werewolf movie that made a horror star out of human sequel Lon Chaney Jr. It might not have been art, but The Wolf Man set the box-offices afire in the days immediately prior to the US entry into World War Two. Naturally, other studios wanted to cut themselves in on the action.

In 1942, RKO Pictures, reeling from a feud with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst over their backing of Orson Welles’s veiled Heart biopic Citizen Kane, were further inconvenienced by the financial dead loss of Welles’s follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons. Executives were fired and a new regime instituted a policy of ‘showmanship, not genius’. Val Lewton – formerly a sidekick to arch-tyrant David O. Selznick – was hired to run a brisk, efficient unit whose ostensible job was to turn out horrors like they made over at Universal. There were left-over sets and costumes from Welles movies, which featured old dark houses as suitable for prowling Karloffs and Lugosis as Kanes and Ambersons. Studio head Charles Koerner tested a jim-dandy title for the first of Lewton’s supposedly unambitious quickies, Cat People. If the public went for guys who turned into wolves, then it stood to reason that they’d be even happier with girls who turned into cats. It was the kind of slam-dunk project that had the publicity department turning out a fang-and-claw poster even before there was a film to go with it.

However, Lewton was secretly ambitious. His background was schizoid, torn between the pulp of Weird Tales magazine (for which he had once written a cat-werewolf story) and the Reader’s Digest classiness of the pompous Selznick (who once had Lewton read Dickens to him as he sat on the toilet). If he had to make a film about a woman who turned into a cat, then Lewton would make the best possible cat person movie. To top off the whole thing, he would go all out to be scary in a way The Wolf Man, for all its growling, couldn’t manage. Assessing the sorry state of the genre, mired in fairy tale European settings and third-hand plots, Lewton opted for a subtle, innovative movie that brings the monster home, literally to a contemporary New York setting (Cat People is among the first supernatural horror films set in a world its audiences were familiar with) and figuratively in its unusual attempt at psychological depth. Having guided DeWitt Bodeen through a solid script, Lewton hired young French director Jacques Tourneur, at the beginning of a career that would stretch to a later horror classic, Night of the Demon (1958), and set about putting together an unusual cast.

Kittenish Simone Simon stars as frigid Serbian refugee Irena Dubrovna, unable to consummate her marriage to ‘plain Americano’ Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) because she fears orgasm will transform her into a giant panther. When her frustrated husband is tempted into an affair and her creepy psychoanalyst Dr Judd (Tom Conway) starts groping, her fingernails sharpen (in an unforgettable shot, she strokes a sofa and leaves parallel scratches in the material) and some sort of change comes over her. Is she a were-panther or just disturbed? The answer doesn’t come until the last scene, and is all the more unsettling because of it. The stalking sequences – as ‘other woman’ Jane Randolph is pursued through Central Park or menaced in a swimming pool by an almost-unseen force – are chilly, but the power of the film is in Simon’s queerly appealing performance. In an ominous little vignette in a Serbian restaurant, she is struck silent by the sight of a mysterious beauty (Elizabeth Russell), who seems to be another passing cat woman. The character is on screen for only seconds, but trails her own unknown and untold story – giving an impression of life carrying on outside what we see, which is unusual for Hollywood cinema. Lewton wanted every character to be distinctive – so even a washerwoman and a cheery waitress have bits of business, while a zoo-keeper seems to know secrets he hints about.

The Criterion Blu-ray is luminous – this is a film I’ve watched often (I wrote the BFI Film Classic book about it) but the new transfer brings out fresh detail of art direction and performance. Extras run to a commentary by historian Gregory William Mank, a fine feature-length documentary on Lewton (Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows), a French television interview with Tourneur and an appreciation of Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography by John Bailey (who shot Paul Schrader’s eccentric remake of Cat People).

Kim Newman

Beyond the Walls

Beyond the Walls

Seen at Horror Channel FrightFest, London (UK)

Format: Cinema

Director: Hervé Hadmar

Writers: Hervé Hadmar, Marc Herpoux, Sylvie Chanteux

Cast: Veerle Baetens, Géraldine Chaplin, François Deblock

Original title: Au-delà des murs

France 2016

3 x 52 mins

One of the great surprises of this year’s FrightFest was this fantastique tale of an impossible house beyond a house.

One of the highlights at this year’s Horror Channel FrightFest was not a theatrical film but a three-part mini-series made for the French/German TV channel Arte and presented by the Duke Mitchell Film Club. The evocative opening credits of Beyond the Walls, accompanied by Agnes Obel’s haunting, melancholy ‘The Curse’, immediately set the tone and invite us to enter the chiaroscuro world of the series. Speech therapist Lisa (Veerle Baetens) lives a deliberately isolated and minimal life in a barely furnished flat, avoiding close relationships. Unexpectedly, she inherits a neighbour’s house across the road. She moves her few possessions into her new home, but is soon faced with the secrets hidden behind its walls.

The Rorschach wallpaper makes it clear early on that we are invited to enter a maze of the mind and that the impossible architecture of the house, with its disappearing entrances and internal forest, is to be taken as a mental space. The house itself stands quaintly decrepit in the middle of the bustling modern city, poignantly out of place and ominously gloomy. Unfolding like a dream, the exploration of her new home forces Lisa to confront a past that she had buried, but also allows her to form a new bond beyond the boundaries of time. The Borgesian circular temporality of the story fits perfectly with the paradoxical space of the house to create a vertiginous plunge into the richly furnished hollows of the mind and the different shades of loss and longing.

Veerle Baetens is a convincingly self-imprisoned heroine, forced to come out of her shell when faced with the perils of a space inhabited by the ‘Others’, who threaten its occupants with a mysterious and terrifying fate. Flawed and confused, but also resourceful and brave, she has to distinguish friend from foe as she looks for the door that leads out of the labyrinthine nightmare. That nightmare is eventually given a face, full of immense sadness and menacing, hardened beauty, ambiguous and unsettling, as everything else in the house. An intelligently crafted fantastique tale, Beyond the Walls conjures up an oppressive, densely atmospheric world bathed in muted, muddy colours, dimly lit by flickering candles and fragile oil lamps, which lingers long in the mind.

Virginie Sélavy

Beyond the Walls will be coming soon to horror streaming service Shudder.

The Empire of Corpses

The Empire of Corpses 1
The Empire of Corpses

Format: Dual Format (Bluy-ray + DVD)

Release date: 26 September 2016

Distributor: Anime Ltd

Director: Ryôtarô Makihara

Writers: Koji Yamamoto, Midori Goto, Hiroshi Seko

Based on the novel by: Project Itoh, Tô Enjo

Original Title: Shisha no teikoku

Japan 2015

120 mins

Kim Newman rummages through the straight-to-DVD treasure trunk

Unusual touches and a profusion of ideas are let down by hasty direction and animé clichés in this steampunk revisiting of Frankenstein.

In a parallel 19th century, society has been reshaped by the scientific innovations of Victor Frankenstein and Charles Babbage. A vast underclass of living corpses function as soldiers, servants or suicide bombers – revived by Frankensteinian injections and programmed with punch-card software generated by Babbage’s giant proto-computers. In 1878, boyish medical student John Watson reanimates a close (perhaps, very close) friend as a sad-eyed scribbler he names Friday (though his official designation is Noble Savage 007). Blackmailed by one-eyed spymaster Walsingham, who uses the code-name M, Watson and Friday are packed off on a quest to get the lost notes of Victor Frankenstein. These are being used by renegade Russian scientist Alexei Karamazov, who is holed up in an Afghan stronghold. Alexei wants to refine the process to match Frankenstein’s original, unrepeated experiment in creating an articulate monster with a soul (or, at least, intelligence). Also involved in a chase that dashes about the world – including spells in Tokyo and San Francisco – before looping back to London are macho British adventurer Frederick Burnaby (a real historical character), bosomy American mystery woman Hadaly Lilith (an Edison-made automaton, working for ex-President Grant), the USS Nautilus (a nod to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as much as Jules Verne), and Frankenstein’s white-bearded original monster (‘the One’).

This steampunk animé is based on a novel by Project Itoh, which seems to borrow an approach from my own Anno Dracula. It takes a different Gothic text as source but similarly extrapolates a world dominated by fall-out from a famous monster’s story and mixes in real people and characters from other Victorian fiction. The book was published posthumously (completed by Tô Enjo), which might explain why the film’s plot clanks a little as it waffles about weighty themes (what is a soul?) while speeding through incidents (several wars and mini-apocalypses), which might have benefited from a more leisurely approach. Too often the main characters are on the sidelines of mass action, watching or taking notes while battles are fought or maddened zombies run riot (seemingly turning vampire by the amount of neck-biting on view). There are several unusual elements, like the understated homoerotic bond between Watson (who doesn’t hook up with his usual partner until an after-the-credits tag) and his corpse near-doppelganger Friday, but the picture slips into an animé-manga rut as it all boils down to a world-changing catastrophic event masterminded by a cackling villain and thwarted by straight-up good guys. A confusion of characters – including a Karloff-look flat-headed brute – clash with each other at the Tower of London as a Big Magic Effect appears in the skies above.

The animation is variable, with rich detail and backgrounds but some shaky character stuff (Hadaly’s ridiculous breasts are rather disturbing).

Kim Newman

Watch the trailer:

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 5 September 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Russ Meyer

Writers: Roger Ebert, Russ Meyer

Cast: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom

USA 1970

110 mins

Much love for Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s deliriously libidinous all-girl rock band melodrama.

***** out of *****

‘This is my happening and it freaks me out,’ declares rock impresario Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John LaZar) during his berserker Hollywood party replete with live performances by The Strawberry Alarm Clark, a bevy of boobilicious babes, all manner of fornication and bucket-loads of booze/drug consumption.

Z-Man wasn’t the only one freaking out. When Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Motor Psycho), the king of big-boob cinema extravaganzas, unleashed his first major studio picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls upon an unsuspecting public, audiences, critics and the film’s major backer, Twentieth Century Fox, were freaked out to the max.

For good reason.

The opening few minutes of Meyer’s Roger Ebert-scripted dive into L.A. sleaze pits proceed to bash us in the face with Z-Man and Martin Bormann (Henry Rowland), Z’s loyal bartender, right-hand man and resident Nazi (nom-de-plumed as ‘Otto’), whilst the nutty pair malevolently chase scantily clad babes within a seaside mansion estate. In a climactic moment to end all climactic moments, we cut to a Luger sensually stroking the supple lips of a beauteous-sleeping-big-bosomed-babe until the deadly firearm is inserted erect-penis-like into her mouth, the wet maw eagerly – nay, greedily – accepting the cold-steel schwance-of-death as our dozing dame proceeds to suck it dry.

Under the circumstances, who wouldn’t? (Be freaked out to the max, that is.) (Oh, okay, and suck it dry, too.)

When Meyer and young film critic Ebert were hired by Fox to concoct a vague semi-sequel reboot to Mark Robson’s through-the-roof sex-and-soap-suds adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls, the artistic pursuits of these perfectly matched reprobates flew under the radar of studio executives during the delightful beginnings of the oft-envied, late lamented and much-revered ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ days of American Cinema. The film was so low-budget by studio standards, nobody in the front office paid it much mind, but for Meyer, the budget might as well have been as large as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra.

He did not waste one cent.

Plot wise, things are relatively simple and perfectly in keeping with Susann’s moronically simplistic rags-to-riches-to-rags soap opera. However, the incorrigible lads dole out a cinematic masterpiece of flagrant filth that’s anything but moronic and in its own strangely perverse way is rooted (so to speak) in a queer miasma of morality. If anything the film celebrates perversion to such a deliciously over-the-top degree that the tale cannot help but become a morality play. (That said, the film brilliantly manages to make the morality seem as old-fashioned as it deserves to be – it’s even vaguely derisive.)

So, the film focuses on the buxom Carrie Nations, an all-girl rock band comprised of Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) and Petronella ‘Pet’ Danforth (Marcia McBroom). At first they’re infused with the down-home, corn-fed morals of the mid-western US of A, but in no time, they’re turfing their regular squeezes for a series of libidinous adventures with a variety of partners. One of the cuckolded beaus (David Gurian) even takes up with a porn starlet (Edy Williams) who drains him to such a degree that he eventually can’t even get it up.

Fun and games, for one and all – especially the audience – but as this epic of sin continues, the freedom of youth increasingly morphs beyond the ‘summer of love’ antics, and the evils of both L.A. and show business in general give way to an unholy Walpurgisnacht that unravels during the film’s deeply dark finale. (The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten proclaimed that the film was ‘true to life’. Who are we to argue with this?)

Ebert and Meyer created a work that’s drenched in lurid colour and the colours of sleaze, slime and scum, and we’re allowed to revel in the kaleidoscopic picture with all the giddy laughs it wrenches from us from beginning to end, along with the trademark Meyer montages of rapid-fire cuts – a chiaroscuro of madness and freakishness at its finest. This is sheer sex-drenched melodrama; as a director, Meyer might as well be Douglas Sirk on crack cocaine.

Besides, what other movie features (again, from the highly quotable Z-Man) one of the greatest lines of dialogue in movie history: ‘You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!’

Black sperm, indeed.

Years ago, I met Ebert as a young lad and proceeded to geek him out with my love for the film. He took me for donuts and we spent an hour together talking about it. His final words to me were thus: ‘Never, ever feel ashamed to admit how much you love Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.’

And if you’re listening up there, Mr Ebert, I am not ashamed.

I’m infused with pride to declare my utter, deep passion.

Greg Klymkiw

She’s Allergic to Cats

Shes Allergic to Cats1
She’s Allergic to Cats

Seen at Fantasia 2016, Montreal (Canada)

Format: Cinema

Director: Michael Reich

Writer: Michael Reich

Cast: Mike Pinkney, Sonja Kinski, Flula Borg

USA 2016

82 mins

Premiered at Fantasia 2016, this throwback to 80s video art is deliriously inventive and perversely romantic.

**** out of *****

She’s Allergic to Cats is a terrific picture on many levels. Upon multiple viewings since first seeing it in Montreal at the Fantasia Film Festival in July of this year, I have to admit that one of the more potent aspects of the film was the manner in which it took me back to a period of artistic expression that’s been largely forgotten, in spite of its profound influence upon how movies began to be made and continue to be made to this very day.

The film is a deeply personal film, but as such, it also has inspired – in me – a myriad of personal reflections.

In the halcyon days of making movies in the not-so-bustling Midwestern Canadian winter city of Winnipeg, there was an old schmatta factory in the schmatta district of schmatta-central which had been converted into a six-story emporium of aesthetic exploration called the Artspace Building.

The third floor housed two important non-profit arts organizations. One was the Winnipeg Film Group where I lollygagged, slacked and made movies during the 1980s with the likes of Guy Maddin, John Paizs and a few other wing nuts. The other was Video Pool. We seldom ventured across the hall to visit. They made video art, you see. As far as many of us film snobs were concerned, Video Pool’s creative output was little more than belly button sludge. That said, on those rare occasions in which we actually dared lay eyes upon the matter regurgitated upon – ugh – three-quarter-inch video, even us film snobs had to admit there was occasionally something, dare I say it, cool going on.

The coolest video art, however, was practised on Winnipeg’s community cable station VPW where some of the most insane Chroma-keyed madness was belched out with such frequency and mad genius that I even grudgingly joined the charge and produced a talk show devoted to surviving nuclear annihilation. Masked and frothing at the mouth whilst Chroma-keyed images of nuclear test footage exploded behind us on blue screen, I starred in the show alongside Guy Maddin and Maddin regular Kyle McCulloch (star of Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel and Careful).

At the time, all of us were obsessed with the simple, gorgeous video art techniques employed by the mesmerizing music videos generated by and for The B-52s.

Here it is, some 30 years later, and I’m not only re-obsessed with an arcane, but highly influential form of visual art, but it’s all because of one brand new and genuinely wonderful picture.

Once in a while, you see, I experience a film that reminds me of the joys in those days of generating no-to-low-budget features. The accent was always on the love of cinema, innovation, and most of all, cool shit that I and my colleagues would be happy to pay money to see ourselves. Given our collective cinematic predilections, our only nod to ‘marketplace’ was knowing there had to be whack-jobs like us ‘out there’ who’d pay money to see stuff that we thought was cool.

My personal credo was thus: if you’re making a movie for very little money, it better goddamn well be something that puts you and the film itself on a map. Impersonal ‘calling card’ films had only two results: making something competent enough that you might end up in regular network series television or worse; not being able to overcome the meager production value and generating a movie that nobody would want.

She’s Allergic to Cats made me happier than happy. From the opening frames to the magnificent cut from a hilariously poignant final image to the first of the end title cards, I found the picture endlessly dazzling, deliriously perverse and rapturously romantic. This is exactly the kind of first feature which an original filmmaker should generate. Writer-director Michael Reich boldly announces his presence with a friendly fuck-you attitude, a great sense of humour and a visual style that should make some veteran directors be ashamed of their by-the-numbers camera jockey moves.

Though there is no official genre called ‘schlubs who get to successfully seduce babes’, She’s Allergic to Cats would definitely be leading the charge if such a thing did officially exist – it’s kind of like a Woody Allen picture on acid through the lens of wonky, nutty 80s video art.

Mike Pinkney, the actor, plays Mike Pinkney, the lead character – a schlub extraordinaire who works a day job as a dog groomer. and in his off hours, makes retro-styled video art and/or endlessly watches the horrendous, compulsively watchable 70s TV movie with John Travolta, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. These viewings include Mike eating sweet, unhealthy breakfast cereals. His home is also disgustingly infested with rats that seem to devour everything – from bananas to condoms. The landlord’s only solution is to eventually ‘look up’ a solution on Wikipedia.

Mike’s dream is to make a feature film homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie – with CATS!!! His producer thinks it’s the stupidest idea he’s every heard. Mike is dejected and persistent all at the same time. Amidst the slacker/McJob existence he leads, Mike miraculously hits it off with Cora (Sonja Kinski – Nastassja’s daughter, Klaus’s granddaughter), a mega-babe who happily agrees to a date.

Here, director Reich deserves to win some manner of official accolade for creating the most depraved ‘meet-cute’ in cinema history. All I will say is that it involves the incompetent clipping of a dog’s nails on the quick, causing them to bleed.

The entire love story is mediated through Mike’s filmmaking/video-art perspective. The result is a chiaroscuro-like mélange of garish ‘video’ colours, cheesy (though gorgeous) dissolves and plenty of sexy video tracking errors.

Though the film’s final actions can be seen from a mile away, ‘surprise’ is hardly the point. There’s a sad and deeply moving inevitability to where things go. Reich achieves the near impossible. We laugh with his main character, we laugh at him and finally, we’re given a chance to weep for him.

Yes, on many levels, She’s Allergic to Cats is a head film, but it has heart and soul. This is something of a miracle. Then again, this should come as no surprise. Getting the film made must have been a miracle and what Reich’s efforts have yielded is nothing less than revelatory.

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer: