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Vampyres + Styria

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Styria

Vampyres

Format: DVD

Release date: 5 September 2016

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Victor Matellano

Writers: José Ramón Larraz, Victor Matellano

Cast: Caroline Munro, Verónica Polo, Marta Flich, Almudena León

Spain 2015

82 mins

Styria

Format: DVD

Release date: 11 July 2016

Distributor: High Fliers Films

Directors: Mauricio Chernovetzky, Mark Devendorf

Writers: Karl Bardosh, Mauricio Chernovetzky, Mark Devendorf

Based on the novella by: Sheridan Le Fanu

Alternative title: Angel of Darkness

Cast: Stephen Rea, Eleanor Tomlinson, Julia Pietrucha

USA, Hungary 2014

89 mins

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

This double bill of European vampire movies revisits oft-told stories. Indeed, the ghosts of earlier incarnations hang as heavily over the films as the curses of the past affect their mostly doomed characters.

José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) is among the most minimally-plotted horror films – a fusion of the Spanish director’s sensibilities with the last gasps of the British Gothic boom as a pair of lesbian vampires who might have come from a Jesús Franco or Jean Rollin film (or a Halloween layout in Knave magazine) bloodily prey on feeble men in that familiar decaying mansion that turns up in so many UK-shot horror films. Contemporary Spanish director Victor Matellano shares his script credit with Larraz on Vampyres (2015), a close remake – it even restages some gore/sex scenes shot-for-shot as in the Gus Van Sant Psycho, though a few new ones are thrown in (the ever-popular Bathory-inspired human blood shower is featured). 1970s genre fixture Caroline Munro gets a non sequitur role as a hotel owner and seems as out of place in these surroundings as she did in the New York sleaze of Maniac in 1980. Spanish horror star Lone Fleming, heroine of the first Blind Dead films, also pops up. Further evidencing Matellano’s interest in genre history, new passages of the script have the hapless Harriet (Veronica Polo) – reduced to a tent, since this even-scantier production can’t stretch to the camper van of the original – discover a copy of Théophile Gautier’s vampire story ‘La morte amoureuse’ and ponder how it might feed into the current situation. Marta Flich and Almudena León replace Marianne Morris and Anulka as vampire vixens Fran and Miriam – they are pretty, and willing to do nude splatter scenes with abandon, but Matellano doesn’t get out of them what Larraz did of his stars. It’s a case of the direction being at fault rather than any thespic lack: Morris and Anulka were nude models rather than actresses and their performances were entirely shaped by Larraz (and professional dubbing). As properties suitable for remaking go, Vampyres was an odd choice – a film distinguished by approach and ferocity rather than any particular strength of concept or story. Transplanting the whole thing to contemporary, non-specific Spain from the tatty, fraying edges of 1970s Britain cuts away much that makes Vampyres interesting. It’s a remake that feels like a footnote, and – though it’s scarcely an hour and a quarter long – your attention is likely to wander quite a lot while it’s running.

Writer-directors Mauricio Chernovetzky and Mark Devendorf’s Styria (released on UK DVD as Angel of Darkness) tells an even more familiar story. It adapts J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s much-filmed ‘Carmilla’, with moments that explicitly evoke many of the story’s earlier incarnations (Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, Roger Vadim’s Et Mourir de Plaisir/Blood and Roses, Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, Vicente Aranda’s La Novia Ensangrientada/The Blood-Spattered Bride) and such Carmilla-by-association efforts as The Moth Diaries and Byzantium. In a more sophisticated manner than the simple Gautier-read-aloud sessions of Vampyres, Styria draws on a wealth of pre-Bram Stoker vampire stories to present a version of the myth that’s unusual and distinctive. Carmilla films often seem odd because the Stoker/Lugosi/Hammer vampire myth is so entrenched in pop culture that Le Fanu’s more nebulous, ambiguous creatures appear somehow ‘wrong’ in interesting ways. Even the very physical Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers, Hammer’s own take on the story, does some ghostly vanishing that wouldn’t do for Christopher Lee’s Dracula.

Styria sets the story in Hungary in 1989, and pares away much of Le Fanu’s plot and most of the supporting cast. Dr Hill (Stephen Rea) comes to a shuttered castle to examine murals that have been papered over, working under the threat of the collapsing communist regime levelling the building. Lara (Eleanor Tomlinson, who has now taken the Angharad Rees role in the remake of Poldark), his teenage daughter, has just been expelled from school after a violent incident. The sulky girl’s interest is piqued when she learns the castle once belonged to the family of her absent mother, whom Dr Hill doesn’t like to talk about. In the forest, Lara sees Carmilla (Julia Pietrucha) escape from a car driven by a bullying official, General Spiegel (Jacek Lenartowicz), and befriends the blonde, peculiar girl, who becomes a major influence in her life.

Though there’s a kiss that mimics a scene in Blood and Roses, Styria plays down the lesbian eroticism – too often taken to be the only interesting feature in Le Fanu’s extraordinarily complex story – and makes Carmilla possibly the protagonist’s alter ego, imaginary friend, sister, incarnated wild side or reincarnated mother. The film mostly stays in the crumbling castle to concentrate on the two girls … only venturing into the village near the end, to show the gruesome depredations of the vampire (whoever she may be) among the local population. It’s a successful evocation of the approach Euro-horror took in the 1970s rather than simple pastiche, and there are creepy, fresh scenes: a night-long sleepover on a bare mountain, which ends with Lara waking to find a bloody smiley face scrawled on a rock, a midnight swim with cold fingers that might be dumped statues or petrified corpses brushing Lara’s feet. The performances are all pitched slightly high – and Lenartowicz goes over the top as a malign take on the fearless vampire killer – and there’s attention to décor and atmosphere rather than shock, though the last reel (which borrows a lick from Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire) is eventful and gruesome. Following The Moth Diaries by blurring the roles of vampire and victim, Styria gives Tomlinson (who is excellent) as much to play with as Pietrucha. This gets around the persistent problem that Le Fanu’s heroine, Laura, is a passive doormat who tends to be the dullest part of any film adaptation, even when played by Elsa Martinelli or Madeline Smith. Arty and sometimes too elliptical for its own good – Carmilla draws art film attention as much as commercial horror – Styria is nevertheless an interesting, unusual vampire movie.

Kim Newman

Electra, My Love

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Electra, My Love

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 September 2016

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Miklós Jancsó

Writers: László Gyurkó and Gyula Hernádi

Cast: Mari Törõcsik, György Cserhalmi, József Madaras

Hungary 1974

71 mins

Miklós Jancsó’s richly inventive 1974 adaptation of the Greek myth sends an oblique political message.

Electra, My Love mesmerises from the very beginning: the beat of the music, the dance of the actors, and the sweep of the camera in extended takes all combine to draw you into the film’s rhythm. So too do the portentous words of Electra, sole voice of justice in the village, where a tyrant king has taken over after the death of her father, Agamemnon. Electra is convinced that her brother, Orestes, will return from exile and help her to liberate the people.

It’s hard not to see the film, made in 1974, as a comment on Hungary’s situation at the time, and a message of encouragement to the director’s fellow citizens. While Hungarians were living under a restrictive Communist regime, Electra, My Love used native folk music and dances as a backdrop to speeches about the need to speak the truth at all costs, and engage in a continuous struggle against oppression: to be reborn every day, like the phoenix.

As the film was made with public funding and under Communist scrutiny, any message of resistance had to be oblique. In his excellent liner notes to this new DVD release by Second Run, Peter Hames explains that Miklós Jancsó’s films are considered ‘difficult’ precisely because the audience is left uncertain as to whether they’ve understood them. The director believed that such ambiguity was important, as it made the viewer engage actively with his films, trying to figure them out, whereas traditional storylines encouraged passivity and escapism.

Just because a film is difficult to understand, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s difficult to watch. Electra, My Love treats the viewer to a rich and thoroughly enjoyable spectacle, not wasting a second of its 71-minute runtime. It includes a peacock, dogs, traditional costumes, whip and swordplay, nude dancers, impossibly large adobe huts, a giant ball and even a helicopter, all filmed in rich colour photography.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that this entire highly choreographed film contains just 12 shots. In a 28-minute interview included as extra material on the DVD, Jancsó’s cinematographer János Kende shares insights about the process of filming such long takes. He talks about Jancsó’s preference for improvisation, how camera technology allowed him to progress from 5-minute to 12-minute shots, and the challenges faced by actors in Electra, My Love, who needed to deliver poetic lines while Jancsó yelled stage directions through a megaphone.

Kende also shares fascinating anecdotes about the production process: how Jancsó was inspired to introduce the giant ‘football’, which features neither in the original myth of Electra, nor the play by László Gyurkó on which Electra, My Love was based. He also confides that they neglected to install a lightning conductor on the prairie where they filmed, and lightning did indeed strike, destroying part of the set, luckily while no one was there and after 90 of the filming was complete.

Alison Frank

The Darkness

the-darkness
The Darkness

Seen at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France)

Format: Cinema

Director: Daniel Castro Zimbrón

Writers: Daniel Castro Zimbrón, Denis Languérand, David Pablos

Cast: Brontis Jodorowsky, Aliocha Sotnikoff, Camila Robertson Glennie

Original title: Las tinieblas

Mexico, France 2016

91 mins

Daniel Castro Zimbrón’s twilight tale of an isolated Mexican family in the woods impressed at the L’Étrange Festival.

This year’s L’Étrange Festival opened with the world premiere of Daniel Castro Zimbrón’s new feature film The Darkness (Las tinieblas). After Tau (meaning ‘sun’ in the Huichol language), which dealt with a biologist stranded in a sunburnt desert and forced to reconsider his past and present, this second part of the ‘Trilogy of Light’ explores the other extreme, while starring the same Gustavo, convincingly and charismatically played by Brontis Jodorowsky. This time the desert gives way to a misty forest, where a father lives with his three children: a teenage Marcos, 12-year-old Argel and 8-year-old Luciana. They live alone in the woods, cloistered in a house repeatedly haunted by something dark, noisy and scary, in an unspecified future. The post-apocalyptic dimension of these woods is only vaguely hinted at when young Argel asks his father about the use of an old rusted pick-up, a relic from an unknown, bygone past. In this indefinite future there seem to be neither seasons nor any difference between day and night – only claustrophobic mist-ridden twilight. The title’s darkness is recurrently created by the father’s meticulously closing the shutters and locking his children in the cellar for bedtime. This world is further blurred by Argel’s mystical dreams, which invade the narration now and again, revealing their oneiric nature only when Argel wakes up. In one such dream, a Pandora-like box diffusing a blinding white light alludes to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), where a similar box was the fruit of the Manhattan Project.

The fact that the whole story is narrated from Argel’s point of view, oscillating between dream and reality, adds to the general mystery, as does the masterful cinematography of Diego García who, as in Tau, shoots exclusively in natural light. Tenebrist tableaux, reminiscent of Caravaggio or Joseph Wright of Derby, are worth a look for themselves, but Zimbrón avoids complacent indulgence in mannerist camerawork by endowing his shots and his plot with an inner depth that transfigures the film from a post-apocalyptic thriller into a universal comédie humaine, exploring the confused limits between parental protection and authority, set against young Argel’s coming-of-age. For the beast that visits the house ‘nightly’ is (to quote the director’s own words) ‘a metaphor of the world in which we live, in which the beast represents the dangers outside the home as well as the dark side of human nature’. During his waking hours, the father makes elaborate wooden puppets of and for his children, the last one being fashioned after Luciana’s drawing of him as a spider-shaped monster. Like this puppeteer, Zimbrón manipulates our expectations, scatters contradictory clues as to what is really going on, and deceives us into believing in a M. Night Shyamalan-like twist, only to depart from it in the last part of the film, leaving us eventually, bewitchingly and literally in the dark.

Pierre Kapitaniak

Raw

raw
Raw

Seen at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 April 2017

Distributor: Universal

Director: Julia Ducournau

Writer: Julia Ducournau

Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

Original title: Grave

France 2016

95 mins

Julia Ducournau’s technically masterful female-focused cannibal film is less insightful than it may seem.

A girl walks alone at dawn, alongside a deserted country road. When a car drives by, she dives underneath it, causing the car to crash into a tree. The driver is dead and the girl leans over the car door to examine him. Here we are, then, revisiting David Cronenberg’s Crash, one might be tempted to think. Yet we soon find out that, if Julia Ducournau’s first feature film – selected for the Cannes Critics’ Week 2016 – definitely pays tribute to the ‘baron of blood’, it is most indebted to his recent novel Consumed. (Incidentally, let it be said that the English title makes the film’s cannibalistic turn evident from the start.) Cronenberg makes a perfect and duly acknowledged tutelary figure for the 32-year-old French director, who must have been fed pithy anecdotes from dissecting tables and emergency wards in her early days by her dermatologist father and gynaecologist mother. This might partly account for Ducournau’s obsession with the transformation of bodies, already omnipresent in her short film Junior (2011) and in her TV film Mange (2012). Junior actress Garance Marillier – now come of age and confirming her talent – is entrusted with the main role of Justine, who joins her elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) for her first year in a veterinary school. During the unavoidable fresher initiation ritual (and in France medical schools are known to be the most gruesome), vegetarian Justine is forced to swallow a raw rabbit kidney, which, after an allergic reaction, triggers a novel taste for meat. A bikini-line depilation accident transforms this taste into a craving for human flesh, which actually runs in the family, as Alexia turns out to be ‘crash’ girl, eating her victims’ spare parts.

Although at first sight, Ducournau seems to be using the horror genre as a vehicle for a reflection on the passage to adulthood, the film is rather short on social or psychological insights, while the plot and the characters seem half-baked. In fact, Ducournau indulges in a sensationalist exploitation of the theme and the wide range of unpalatable reactions it provokes. This was clearly confirmed when she presented her film at the Etrange Festival, and evidently relished retelling the pungent anecdote from the Toronto Film Festival where paramedics had to be called during the screening to assist a spectator who had found the film hard to stomach. Thus, inscribed within the horror genre, Raw rather self-consciously plays with its codes, safe within its boundaries and often verging on parody. Ducournau delivers an efficient and technically mastered (but one would not expect less from a Fémis graduate) variation on the cannibal flick, which manages to keep a few twists in store alongside the more expected final feast. Ducournau was one of the 30 people on The Alice Initiative 2016 list, which aims to boost the number of female directors. Let us hope she gives us more fat to chew on in the years to come.

Pierre Kapitaniak

The Untamed

the-untamed-2
The Untamed

Seen at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France)

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Release date: 22 May 2017

Director: Amat Escalante

Writers: Amat Escalante, Gibrán Portela

Cast: Kenny Johnston, Simone Bucio

Original title: La región salvaje

Mexico, Denmark, France 2016

100 mins

Amat Escalante’s SF exploration of Mexican society’s attitudes to sexuality is compelling despite its overuse of the supernatural.

Two Mexican films shown this year at the Etrange Festival – The Darkness and The Untamed – happen to focus on a small house in a forest clearing where strange things happen. But this is as far as the comparison extends. Awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Amat Escalante’s The Untamed borrows its premise from Pasolini’s Theorem: a family is disrupted by the arrival of a very attractive stranger who seduces all of its members and turns theirs lives upside down. Where Pasolini was lashing out at the Italian bourgeoisie of the 1960s, Escalante similarly confronts a contemporary Mexican society still hopelessly bogged down in machismo, misogyny and homophobia.

The opening sequence, which contrasts two visions of female sexuality, gives a good insight into what Escalante is driving at. After a shot of a meteorite in outer space, the camera zooms on a naked Veronica (Simone Bucio) slowly reaching a climax in a dark room, eventually revealing a glimpse of the receding long tentacle that has just given her pleasure. She then leaves the wood cabin wounded and bleeding. In the next scene we witness a couple – Angel (Jesús Meza) and Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) – waking up in a sunlit bedroom. Without any preliminaries or even a kiss, Angel takes Ale from behind while the camera zooms in on her face, still and expressionless on the pillow as she waits for him to come. She then wipes herself, gets up and masturbates under the shower until she is interrupted by their kids… After meeting Ale’s gay brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), who works as a nurse in the local hospital, Veronica intrudes into the lives of those three characters, changing them for ever.

She is the visitor here, and Escalante plays on the name given to Terence Stamp’s character in Theorem, as the Visitor in this story is also an alien creature from outer space. The director justifies his recourse to the supernatural by the fact that reality has already gone beyond fiction, but by including a long explicit sex scene between Ale and the alien (and why not one of the men?) – which was greeted by laughter among the audience of the L’Étrange Festival – he undermines more than he enhances the film’s social criticism. In Possession (1981), Andrzej Żuławski (whose influence is acknowledged in the final credits) explicitly opted for the realm of madness, altogether forsaking realism. But Escalante wants to have it both ways and fails to solve the conflict between the genres. Showing the demon in Possession made sense in order to blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. But since Escalante’s alien is established as real from the outset, it is hard to see the point of a sex scene that, far from producing the disturbing effect it had in Żuławski, seems to be revisiting Hideki Takayama’s manga and animés with an Overfiend redesigned by H. R. Giger. Escalante would have been better advised to follow the example of his Mexican compatriot Daniel Castro Zimbrén in The Darkness and retain more mystery, so that the otherworldly presence might serve more efficiently as a metaphor for the Mexican social atavisms he has been so brilliantly exposing in his films since his 2005 feature debut Sangre. The Untamed tones down the violence that shocked in Heli (2013) or Los Bastardos (2008) in favour of a more diffuse atmosphere of sadness and despair that still succeeds to convey Escalante’s powerful social message – despite, rather than thanks to, the alien’s presence.

Pierre Kapitaniak

The untamed screens at the London Film Festival on 8, 10, 16 October 2016.

The Glass Key

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The Glass Key

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 19 September 2016

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Director: Stuart Heisler

Writer: Jonathan Latimer

Based on the novel by: Dashiell Hammett

Cast: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy

USA 1942

86 mins

Masculinity is the true focus of Stuart Heisler’s noir tale of crime, power and lust.

Power, corruption and lies are at the burning heart of The Glass Key, with lust adding fuel to the fire. It’s election season, and local power broker Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) has unexpectedly decided to throw his weight behind the reform candidate Ralph Henry, turning his back on his own shady interests and his gangster cohorts. The reason: Henry’s beautiful, clever daughter Janet (Veronica Lake), who’s more than happy to take advantage of Madvig’s intentions to help her father’s campaign.

But events are complicated further when Janet’s gambling-addicted brother Taylor, in debt to Madvig’s former partner-in-crime Nick Varna (and also secretly involved with Madvig’s sister Opal), turns up dead, his body found by Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), Madvig’s right-hand man. The death becomes a pivotal moment in the power struggle between Varna and Madvig, with Beaumont’s involvement, rather predictably, ensnaring Madvig, Janet and himself in a love triangle. It’s classic noir territory, although Stuart Heisler’s 1942 adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel doesn’t quite sit as easily alongside some of the greats from the genre, due to its slow, muddy start.

Donlevy plays Madvig as something of a clown, his romantic volte-face derided by his opponents, while everyone seems to know that Janet is playing him for a fool. Veronica Lake is icy in her demeanour, all chiselled cheekbones and glossy, smooth hair, any feelings she has buried beneath her cynical exterior. But The Glass Key is really Alan Ladd’s picture (despite some good lines, Lake is criminally underused in the film). Beaumont comes into his own after Taylor’s death; though initially a suspect himself, he’s canny and connected enough to get himself off the hook, using guile and misdirection to figure out who is behind the murder. But Varna is clever too, sensing blood when Madvig emerges as the most likely suspect.

Everyone is in somebody’s pocket, including the local newspaper owner and the district attorney, with everyone looking after their own skin. It’s these sleazy back-room deals that make the film compelling, the tension increasing as Beaumont finds himself in increasing danger. The Glass Key really picks up after Varna decides to get to Madvig through Beaumont, taking a satisfyingly dark turn that leads to the film’s most explosive and powerful scenes. While Ladd fails in this as a romantic lead, with some wooden acting in his scenes with Lake, and, through no fault of his own, some laughable soft-focus close-ups, he excels as a man fighting for his life. In the end, the most compelling relationship in the film is the one that develops between Beaumont and one of Varna’s thugs, Jeff (William Bendix), who is full of admiration for his opponent’s fighting spirit.

In the end, it barely seems to matter who murdered Taylor, the film more concerned with the themes of honour, loyalty and masculinity. Despite its early failings, there are moments when The Glass Key really shines, with some classic cinematography, plenty of innuendo, and some standout performances, especially from the minor characters.

Sarah Cronin

Psychomania

psychomania
Psychomania

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

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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
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: