Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray), part of ‘George Romero Between Night and Dawn’ limited edition box-set Release date: 23 October 2017 Distributor: Arrow Video Director: George A. Romero Writer: Rudolph J. Ricci Cast: Raymond Laine, Judith Ridley, Johanna Lawrence
This review of George A. Romero’s atypical counterculture drama is an excerpt from horror luminary Kim Newman’s new book Video Dungeon (Titan), which explores the B-movie basement and digs out unexpected gems.
George A. Romero’s second film, made with many of the creatives who worked on Night of the Living Dead, is the odd man out in his CV: a vaguely counterculture-ish, diffident look at the relationship between smart, directionless, no-longer-a-kid Chris (Raymond Laine) and smart, vulnerable model-actress Lynn (Judith Streiner).
Format: DVD Release date: 20 June 2016 Distributor: Lionsgate Entertainment Director: Kevin Greutert Writers: Lucas Sussman, L.D. Goffigan Cast: Isla Fisher, Anson Mount, Gillian Jacobs
A familiar plot revolving around a pregnant woman, decently directed.
SPOILER ALERT: This review discusses the big twist(s) – though anyone who’s seen a horror film in the last 50 years will pretty much be able to guess them from reading the sleeve copy.
Format: DVD + Blue-ray Release date: 26 June 2017 Distributor: Lionsgate Director: André Øvredal Writers: Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing Cast: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Olwen Kelly
UK, USA 2016
André Øvredal follow-up to Troll Hunter is an original, elegant horror tale anchored by a well-observed father/son relationship.
When an advance screener of André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter slipped into my machine at the end of 2011, the buzz about the film was already intense, with plenty of discussion about the fact that it had been optioned for a US remake before the film had even been released there. The remake never materialised and although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t blown away. So when I began watching The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which has been surrounded by another blaze of publicity (including favourable comments from Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro), I was a little wary. This caution was quickly dispelled, however.
Format: Blue-ray Release date: 15 May 2017 Distributor: Eureka Entertainment Director: Sidney J. Furie Writer: Frank De Filetta (original novel and screenplay) Cast: Barbara Hershey, Ron Silver, David Labiosa
Sidney Furie’s disturbing, ambiguous 80s poltergeist tale brings up difficult issues surrounding sexual assault.
Sidney J. Furie’s sunshine-set supernatural horror, The Entity, is based on an alleged true story, ‘a story so shocking, so threatening, it will frighten you beyond all imagination’. Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is the single mother of three children, a teenage boy (David Labiosa) and two younger girls, struggling to get by in Southern California. Our brief introduction to Carla is set to menacing, clanging noises; after an exhausting day, she returns to the safety of her modest bungalow, only to be viciously attacked in her own bed by an unseen assailant. Her cries bring her son running, but a search of their home uncovers nothing – no perpetrator, no forced entry, no unlocked doors.
Format: DVD Release date: 19 October 2015 Distributor: Lionsgate Entertainment Director: David Gelb Writers: Luke Dawson, Jeremy Slater Cast: Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger, Donald Glover, Ray Wise
A competently horrifying take on scientific experiments gone wrong.
A decent, well-made, small-scale genre film with a great cast of on-the-cusp players, The Lazarus Effect begins as a modern-day spin on Frankensteinian mad science, but segues into more demonic matters. In a university lab, significantly named scientists Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde) supervise a team – techies Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover), and documentarian Eva (Sarah Bolger) – working on a process involving a nerve-rebuilding compound and electric shock with the intention of creating a defibrillator equivalent to overcome brain death. They are successful in reviving a put-down dog, whose cataracts mysteriously heal and who develops slightly sinister abilities, before the university dean (Amy Aquino) shuts them down for breach of ethics – raising the important issue of the embattled state of science in facilities where the student body and alumni donors push a fundamentalist Christian line, a promising thread then dropped – and the process is bought through a corporate loophole by a Big Pharma concern repped by a smiling shark (Ray Wise).
Pam Grier’s third outing as a tough 70s Blaxploitation action lady is fun although not as exhilarating as Coffy and Foxy Brown.
After the breakout success of Coffy and Foxy Brown, Pam Grier had become hot property in mid-1970s Hollywood, with studios keen to snap up the head-turning Blaxploitation star. She was, after all, the first African-American woman to become a bona fide leading lady – and she kicked serious butt.
Sensing they might lose her, American Independent Pictures (AIP) ensured she retained lead billing status, with this third round of low-budget action pandering to some extent to her request for less sleaze and more story. As a result, it lacks the gritty charm of those previous outings, although Grier still holds her own with ease.
The story, such as it is, pitches Grier as a private investigator out to beat a local crime pin (D’Urville Martin) who is plotting to do in her dad. The action is set in the director’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Helped by her father’s business partner (Austin Stoker), who has a soft eye for her, Sheba’s pursuit of justice ensures car smashes and explosions galore, with some neat gun play between the sexes along the way. It is as one would expect: fast, frothy and funky (Monk Higgins’s score works well).
Although it received mixed reviews upon its original release in 1975, Sheba, Baby marked the peak of Grier’s screen career, prior to her return in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown more than 20 years later. Blaxploitation became increasingly divisive among the black community with its stereotypes and motifs, before being hijacked by the studios in the years that followed, with stories perpetuating sexual violence and slavery (Mandingo and Drum) signaling the death knell for the genre.
Grier, who began her career as a receptionist at AIP, has endured as the popular face of Blaxploitation over the years. Even this relatively lightweight vehicle shows the star in her element, delivering a series of no-nonsense responses to thugs that dare cross her path. It’s a shame that no one has managed to match her on screen in the decades that followed. Even more than that, it’s depressing and familiar to consider that her starring roles all but dried up after her brief flurry of hits – and that her leading lady status never quite materialised as it should have.
Still, as a companion piece to Coffy and Foxy Brown, it’s worth a spin. Grier is always great value and, as Tarantino knows only too well, a hugely underrated talent. This anniversary set comes with a high definition print of the film, plus a commentary and interview with screenwriter-producer David Sheldon, and featurettes on Grier and the film from critics and enthusiasts.
Cast: William Hurt, Raúl Juliá, Sonia Braga, José Lewgoy, Milton Gonçalves
Brazil, USA 1985
The story of the friendship between a political prisoner and his gay cellmate remains as potent and provocative as it was in 1985.
Thirty years on from its Cannes-feted debut, Hector Babenco’s adaptation of Manuel Puig’s 1976 prison-based novel has lost none of its dramatic power. Beautifully restored, this anniversary release, complete with a disc of extras (interviews, commentaries, etc), offers a timely reminder of a bold and brassy classic that challenged social and political norms in a magnificent manner.
The plot centres on a pair of seemingly mismatched prisoners: political activist Valentin (Raúl Juliá) and his gay cellmate, Molina (William Hurt). The latter recounts a tale of forbidden love, set during World War II, between a French chanteuse and a Nazi officer – a postmodern device, typical of the time, that offers a noir film within a film, and which also helps emphasise the poignancy of the film’s title. Molina’s real motives for his flamboyant storytelling soon become apparent as the action shifts beyond the pair’s cell into the wider prison complex. The authorities are determined to extract information from Valentin via his cellmate and Molina’s charms are their unconventional weapon.
Hurt’s electrifying performance as the camp Molina came at a time when the actor was hot property in Hollywood (his star shone brightly throughout the 1980s, before being resurrected in the early 2000s). Always one to challenge himself on screen and on stage, his Best Actor prize at Cannes was deservedly followed by a Best Actor Oscar and BAFTA the following year. It remains, in many ways, a career-defining performance for the thoughtful, bookish East Coast star.
Hurt’s co-star, the great Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá – whose career was cut tragically short in 1994, following a stroke – similarly offers an intense and sensitive portrayal of the politically engaged Valentin, who forms an unlikely bond with Molina before the two must part. The eventual love scene is relayed with a playful nod to the studios’ infamous Hays Code censorship.
The film appeared at a timely juncture for America, with Ronald Reagan’s right-wing grip on US domestic and foreign policy compounded by his administration’s attitude to the emergence of AIDS. Such was its resonance with audiences, the source material was further adapted for a stage musical in the decade that followed (although it received mixed reviews, it won a Tony Award in 1993).
Today, this much-praised film feels as relevant and provocative as ever, particularly in light of recent developments with LGBT and immigrants’ rights, as well as the sharp rise in inequality in many parts of the West. It’s a theatrical work that defies expectation, offering up a series of very fine set pieces (and performances) that feel as urgent today as they did in 1985.
Cast: Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco, Mary Jane Higby, Doris Roberts
Leonard Kastle’s brutal, gritty take on the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ is a masterwork of ugly desperation.
A lonely and bitter nurse, Martha (Shirley Stoler) lives alone with her unstable mother in Mobile, Alabama. She is friendless, apart from her conspiratorial neighbour, Bunny (Doris Roberts), who makes less-than-subtle comments about her weight, especially as Martha gorges on a bag of pretzels after a tortuous day at the hospital. So Bunny mischievously signs her up to a lonely hearts club, and sets in motion a chain of events, described in The Honeymoon Killers’s title card, as ‘…incredibly shocking… perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime’. Based on the true story of the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’, Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, the only film ever made by Leonard Kastle (who was actually a composer) is a gripping, original crime drama, a low-budget cult classic.
When Martha receives her first letter from Ray (Tony Lo Bianco), the audience is given a glimpse at his game – he writes her from a desk full of framed photographs of other women. Ray is a con man who seduces then fleeces desperate women, going so far as marriage (one woman pays Ray to marry her to disguise a pregnancy – the myth that sex before marriage is clearly a sin with severe consequences runs through the film like a joke). Martha, at first, is no different than his other marks – but somehow she clings on to him, becoming a part of his scheme, masquerading as a sister who never leaves his side, even when they travel to meet his various women. Although Martha wants in on the cash, she’s far from a willing accomplice. She’s jealous, possessive and insistent that Frank never touch the others, even going so far as to sleep in the same bedroom as the other lonely hearts; it’s his violation of Martha’s rules that eventually leads to murder.
Shot in stark black and white – often gleamingly bright, in contrast to the usual noir aesthetic linked to such torrid stories – it’s a documentary-style film, but laced through with dark, erotically charged undertones, captured by the cinematographer Oliver Wood in some terrific moments. In a scene when Ray first comes to visit Martha, celebrated with a sad little party, the camera films him from behind as he dances in front of her, his hips at her eye level, as he sways suggestively to the sounds of tropical music – for Martha, he’s irresistible. Though the film is rarely explicit, sex is at its beating heart; after the first, explicit killing, Ray strips off all his clothes, the camera again following him from behind as he enters Martha’s bedroom, linking the pleasures of violence with sex.
Shirley Stoler perfectly captures Martha’s unhappiness and desperation. She’s an ugly person, shrill, irrational and brutal. Lo Bianco’s Ray is the perfect (if stereotypical) Latin lover; his is perhaps the more nuanced performance of the two. In fact, the film is peopled with unpleasant characters, hinting at an ugly world full of sad, pathetic people (this cynicism is compounded when the killers bury two religious icons alongside one of their victims). It’s only Ray’s final lonely heart who is kind, attractive and caring – and too much for Martha, who’d rather she and Frank were in jail than see him sleep with another woman – which is, of course, the final outcome of their killing spree. Martha and Ray were executed in Sing Sing in 1951.
Watch the Arrow Video Story for The Honeymoon Killers:
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane,
Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson
USA, UK 2015
Scott Cooper’s violent thriller about Boston criminal Whitey Bulger fails to engage.
** out of *****
Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: The United States of America V. James J. Bulger (2014) is a modern masterpiece. It tells the same story as Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a derivative ultra-violent homage to Goodfellas, which it desperately wants to be (failing miserably in that respect).
Berlinger’s picture is an alternately terrifying and heartbreaking documentary exposé of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, his protection at the hands of the FBI and the suffering of his hundreds of victims. It’s the victims who give Berlinger’s film oomph. Cooper’s picture does little more than blast through key high points of Bulger’s ‘career’. Bulger was an asshole and psychopath of the first order. This places Black Mass immediately at a disadvantage. There’s clearly no room for redemption and the only change of any consequence is just how appalling Bulger’s actions become.
Focusing too superficially on the family dynamic between Bulger, his State Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their tough, accepting Mom (Mary Klug), the movie mostly targets Bulger’s 30-year history as a federal informant via old neighbourhood chum, FBI agent John Connolly (superbly played by Joel Edgerton). Bulger is given complete immunity to commit horrific crimes so the FBI can get the dope on the Italian mob whom our ‘hero’ is attempting to rub out so his Irish Winter Hill Gang can completely control all criminal activities in Boston. Seeing as Bulger is so ruthlessly reprehensible (sans the perverse fun Scorsese injects into his pictures), so much of the proceedings are humourless and just plain unpleasant.
Much will be made of Depp’s performance as Bulger and he does indeed seem to be having the time of his life mugging malevolently under a variety of insane makeup designs. His flamboyant excess delivers prime entertainment value, but only to a point. It eventually becomes tiresome. I’ll take Depp’s work as Tonto in The Lone Ranger over this any day.
The biggest problem is a screenplay that doesn’t provide a strong enough adversary for Bulger to play against. This wasn’t a problem in Berlinger’s great documentary since Bulger’s prime victim was the protagonist, genuinely fearing for his life (and indeed getting rubbed out during the film’s shooting and subsequent Bulger trial). What drives the world of Black Mass is Bulger’s enablers, henchmen and virtually faceless rivals whom he stylishly dispatches. It’s the human factor that’s missing right across the board. Humanity is what makes great crime
Notoriety has long swirled around Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’s 1958 film noir, a box-office failure in the US that famously ended his Hollywood career. But it has since become much admired for its often emulated long take, which masterfully introduces us to the dusty town on the Mexican border in which the story is set.
In the dramatic opening scene, we see a bomb placed underneath a convertible, before the camera pulls away to soar over the streets of the town, following not only the movements of the car, but also the newlyweds whose lives are about to be derailed when the bomb explodes on the American side, killing a local construction magnate and a strip club dancer. The scene is beautifully orchestrated, with stunning sound design. Music pours out of the bars that the couple stroll past, the sound of guitars and jazz flowing into rock and roll, evoking the sultry, sweaty streets of the south, adding a risqué, decadent feel that is echoed throughout the film.
The murder pits two very different law enforcement officers against each other. Vargas (Charlton Heston) is the newly married, upstanding man who’s successfully targeted one of the biggest drug gangs in Mexico; Quinlan, overweight, dishevelled, puffy-eyed, is the revered cop who never fails to get his man, even if it means breaking the law, his convictions based ‘on intuition, rather than fact’. The murder victim is barely relevant to the unfolding plot; rather, the killing is the catalyst that turns the crime thriller into a dark, brooding meditation on good versus evil.
Caught in the middle is Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh), who becomes a victim of both Quinlan and the Mexican gang, who are now on the same side in their war against Vargas. The crime family is led by the unassuming, overweight Joe Gardi (Akim Tamaroff), who has a gang of young thugs in black leather jackets to carry out his dirty work. Susan starts out as a tough broad in pearls and cashmere sweater, but when they hound her in a deserted motel she’s no match for them. In a twisted party scene, the threat of sexual violence, with its racial undertones, pulsates to the sound of the rockabilly music piped through the motel.
Touch of Evil deserves to be watched multiple times, not for the story, but to absorb its brilliance and audacity. The cinematography is a work of art, a virtuoso example of the noir aesthetic, using angles and lighting to heighten the tension. Quinlan looms above the camera, the sweat on his meaty face almost palpable. In one shot his menacing shadow, thrown up against a wall, stalks Vargas as he walks away down a dark road. When Gardi meets his fate, the camerawork and editing are dizzying, the tension and drama escalated by the screeching jazz horns.
There are some weaknesses in the performances by Heston (ignoring the fact that he is, of course, not Mexican) and Leigh, though Marlene Dietrich as the fortune teller who predicts Quinlan’s demise is seductive as always. Joseph Calleia also deserves mention as the tragic sergeant devoted to Quinlan, who will later pay a horrible price. While there is undoubtedly a hint of the B-movie at times, it’s a masterpiece of the noir genre, one of the last true great films of that era, and a fantastic turn by Welles.
Creative control of the film was taken away from the director by Universal, who released a botched version of the film; after seeing it, Welles penned a 58-page memo detailing his desired changes. In 1998, it was re-cut by editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who tried to incorporate as many of Welles’s instructions as possible. It’s a thing of beauty.
Watch the trailer:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews