It’s 1931. A girl finds her younger sister playing with fire, quite literally: the child’s arm is on fire, but she is quite calm, telling her sister that it doesn’t hurt at all. In order to share the game, she pours lamp oil over her older sister’s head and lights it with the flames on her arm. To the young girl’s horror, her sister begins screaming in agony as she is consumed by the fire. A young boy is found with abrasions all over his body; like the girl, he felt no pain as he chewed and ate parts of his own flesh. The authorities decide the best course of action is to have these children – and several others like them – incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, where they are strapped into straitjackets (with a muzzle for the boy described above) and left in padded cells where they can do no harm to themselves or anyone else.
In the present day, a doctor survives a car crash that kills his pregnant wife, although their premature baby is alive, with a slim chance of survival. When a scan is performed on the doctor’s body after the accident, it reveals that he has lymphatic cancer, and only a few months to live. In need of a bone marrow transplant, he goes to see his estranged parents, where there are revelations in store.
This synopsis only covers the first 30 minutes, so I haven’t given much away. On a technical level, Painless is exemplary. First-rate cinematography and art direction give a yellow, musty and retro feel to the scenes in the 1930s, while most of the present day scenes possess an angular, modern and sterile look. Symbols of modernity abound in the latter thread, characterized by sleek new cars, computers and scientific equipment that are at odds with the old-fashioned medic equipment that resembles medieval instruments of torture. The high-quality technical elements are matched by superior acting, particularly from Paul Verhoeven regular Derek de Lint, as a scientist determined to understand and treat the children’s condition, and Àlex Brendemühl as the dying doctor of the modern era.
However, Painless is not easy viewing. Director Juan Carlos Medina subjects his characters to every kind of indignity, misfortune or brutality, whether it is deliberate, unintentional or arises from an unfortunate twist of fate. The children inflict horrible wounds on themselves, only to be thrown into padded cells and brutalized by the staff, who treat their condition like a child’s bad behaviour rather than a medical condition. The doctor loses his wife (and possibly his son, who might not survive), develops cancer and then discovers another painful secret that may be a significant factor in his approaching demise. Even the kindly scientist has been forced to flee from the Nazis because he’s Jewish. Examples of human kindness are few and far between, and most of those can do little to stop the tide of misery and cruelty depicted by the film. For that reason it’s not an easy film to recommend, although it’s an interesting take on the legacy of the Spanish Civil War.
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza
There are few films that fit the title of ‘cult favourite’ better than Eugenio Martín’s Horror Express (1972). Despite being one of the best Spanish horror films of the 1970s, Horror Express didn’t make much of a splash in the domestic market, but even today cult fans recognise it for what it is: a colourful, fast-paced monster movie filled with oddball characters and equally loopy plot twists.
Most of the action takes place on the Trans-Siberian Railway as it hurtles across the Siberian tundra from Peking to Eastern Europe. Among the passengers are two British scientists, Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee), an archaeologist, and biologist Dr Wells, played by Peter Cushing. Others travelling on the train include a Polish nobleman (George Rigaud), his beautiful young wife (Silvia Tortosa), and their unstable, Rasputin-like priest (Alberto de Mendoza); a Spanish engineer; a Russian detective (Julio Peña), and a woman later revealed to be an international spy (Helga Liné). Saxton is travelling with several crates containing the finds from his latest expedition, including the frozen corpse of a primitive humanoid, believed to be millions of years old. Before the train has even left the station the curious properties of the thing in the crate have begun to emerge; after attempting to open the box, a Chinese thief is found dead on the platform, with his eyes completely white. Later that night a hairy, bestial hand emerges from the crate, finds a rusty nail and expertly picks the lock. Before long there is a mounting pile of corpses on the train, and all with the same white eyes. Dr Wells performs autopsies and discovers another bizarre symptom: the victims’ brains are entirely smooth, leading the doctor to conjecture that they have been drained of memory and learning. Whatever is loose on the train is not simply killing, it’s also accumulating the knowledge and experience of all its victims.
As you might guess from the two main stars, Horror Express draws much of its inspiration from the Gothic horror tales of Hammer, but Martín and his scriptwriters can at least be commended for not repeating the usual Cushing/good vs. Lee/evil set-up. In many ways Saxton is a typical Lee character: proud, aristocratic and distinctly unlikeable, the opposite of Cushing’s good-humoured Dr Wells. Despite this, Horror Express does give Lee a chance to flex his heroic muscles – something he rarely did with Hammer – as he leads the fight against the prehistoric monster and rescues the damsels in distress. Saxton might be an insufferable snob, but he does at least manage to save the day. Further references to Hammer’s films are dotted throughout Horror Express, whether it’s the prehistoric beasts of Val Guest’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), the disastrous archaeological expeditions of Terence Fisher’s The Mummy (1959) or the sensationalist pseudo-history of Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Naturally, no true Hammer tribute would be complete without Peter Cushing opening at least one skull with a saw and chisel, and sure enough, there’s one here too. There’s also plenty of Hammer-style pseudo-science: ‘The creature’s visual memory resides in the eye, not the brain!’
Such knowing references might well appear lazy and derivative in a lesser work, but in Horror Express – a film that displays its influences openly – they contribute to its considerable charms. A key factor in this is a witty and original script that treads comfortably between humour and horror, without undermining either of them. It’s a claim that’s often made and rarely warranted, but there really isn’t another film like Horror Express. At first it’s a fairly standard creature feature, with the victims locked in an enclosed space with an ancient monster, but before long the bizarre plot developments start to appear. [SPOILER ALERT] The primitive primate is not the creature itself, it’s just a body the being inhabits – and it can move bodies too, along with a few other abilities that make killing it a bit more difficult. The heroes’ task is complicated by human factors too, including the increasingly unstable priest who comes to believe that the monster is a being of divine origin. Fed up with pandering to the ‘spiritual needs’ of the nobility, he decides to offer himself to the diabolic creature and tries to stop Saxton and Wells from killing it. Even more troublesome is the presence of Captain Kazan, an army officer played with enthusiasm by Telly Savalas. Sent to deal with the problems on the train, Kazan believes it’s all the work of agitators or anarchists, and his solution involves whipping or beating anyone whose face doesn’t fit. Naturally the Count and Countess are spared this treatment and allowed to return to their carriage. [END OF SPOILERS] If there’s a subtext to Horror Express, it concerns the insulation of the Count and his wife. Appropriate surrogates for Generalissimo Franco, still in power at the time, they sit in luxurious and comfortable surroundings while their servants brutalize anyone they please with impunity.
As well as Cushing and Lee, Horror Express features a number of well-known faces from the European horror scene. Seasoned gialli stars Alberto De Mendoza and George Rigaud both appeared in Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) together, as well as a handful of Sergio Martino films separately. German-born actress Helga Liné is much the same, having racked up an impressive number of genre credits, including Amando de Ossorio’s When the Screaming Stops (1976). Before his death in 1972, Julio Peña had been a mainstay of Spanish cinema, appearing in almost 100 films since the 1930s. Although Horror Express is one of her few genre credits, Silvia Tortosa is still a popular TV star. Special mention much go to Telly Savalas, whose flamboyant, over-the-top performance as the thuggish vodka-drinking Captain Kazan is one of the film’s most memorable aspects, even though Savalas is only on screen for about 15 minutes. Whether it’s entirely appropriate is up to the individual viewer, but Kazan’s sudden appearance kicks the film into high gear and brings in the energetic final act as Saxton and Wells make one last attempt to save the passengers and destroy the monster.
Although it doesn’t play fair by bringing some new monstrous abilities for the climax, such left-field plot developments are comparatively commonplace in Spanish horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Thankfully Martín and his two leading men have the sense to approach the film’s increasingly loopy narrative entirely straight, aware that even a hint of irony or condescension could have a disastrous effect on a movie like this. The finished result is an atmospheric, original and very entertaining film, and one of Spanish horror cinema’s best works. Ironically enough, it’s also the kind of film that British studios were finding it increasingly difficult to produce. Hammer’s most recent efforts were not inspiring: Dracula A.D. 1972 was a misbegotten attempt to bring Dracula into the 20th century, while the promising Vampire Circus (1972) was hampered by rewrites and post-production difficulties. Similar problems afflicted Amicus, the producer of endless anthologies of short horror films. In comparison with Horror Express, the 1970s output of both Hammer and Amicus looks somewhat pale indeed. Jorge Grau’s excellent The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) is another Spanish horror film that makes far better use of its English locations than most British directors could.
Electric Sheep writers review the best DVD and Blu-ray releases in 2011.
The Colour of Pomegranates (Sergei Paradjanov, 1968, Second Sight)
Inspired by Armenian miniatures and icons, its tableaux slowly evoke - rather than tell - the life of the 18th-century poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. Laden with the poet’s suffering and biblical and folkloric symbolism, there is an epic, earnest solemnity to The Colour of Pomegranates; and while such gravity and careful construction could lead to austerity and artificiality, there is also a consuming warmth and sensuality. The extraordinarily striking actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays the part of both poet and muse, exploring male and female sexuality (Paradjanov was himself bisexual and first imprisoned for a homosexual act with a KGB officer) and the film is joyously abundant with melodic folk music and heightened sounds: the crinkling of books’ pages; the squelch of pomegranate seeds; the urgent chirping of bird song. The Colour of Pomegranates is an emotionally affecting film and is especially poignant given Paradjanov’s own suffering in prison and the loss of his first wife. Lost loves and issues of ethnicity, subjects raw to his heart, are treated with immense compassion. And yet, The Colour of Pomegranates is also a film that joyously arouses all the senses: a truly sensory experience without precedent or successor. Eleanor McKeown
La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969, Park Circus)
The pristine swimming pool of a glamorous couple’s private villa in the French Riviera is the focus of Jacques Deray’s 1969 tale of lust, co-dependency and revenge. Of ample size and stylish design, it’s where lovers Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) fool around during a long hot summer, far from the madding crowd of St Tropez. It’s also where Jean-Paul challenges Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) to a symbolic swimming race, and where the film reaches its shocking and deadly climax. Deray does a deft job in capturing the hedonism and abandon of the period, where good looks and chic clothes conceal dark feelings that lurk beneath the surface, helped by a toe-tapping soundtrack by Michel Legrand. Legrand is a name often associated with the French New Wave, as is Maurice Ronet, who plays smooth-talking music producer Harry, but La piscine‘s connection with the movement ends there. Instead, with its smoulderingly attractive cast and focus on relationships, it owes more to American film noir and psychological thrillers of the previous two decades. Lisa Williams
Who Can Kill a Child? (Narciso Ibañez Serrador, 1976, Eureka)
Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? is arguably the best Spanish horror film ever made. It’s also a classic of 70s horror, but you’re unlikely to find it on many ‘best of’ lists, from either fans or critics. This is mainly due to its half-hearted distribution until Eureka finally released it on DVD in the UK this year. Like Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Corn (1984), Who Can Kill a Child? pits adults against children, this time working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unlike those films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t dilute the horrific premise by making his children aliens or religious maniacs controlled or directed by a supernatural entity. Following Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) and Romero, Serrador provides no real information that might help to understand or explain the events taking place. Once the misjudged moralising prologue is over, Who Can Kill a Child? is a masterpiece of atmosphere and a deeply unsettling, original experience, and one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. Jim Harper
Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988, Manga Entertainment)
Based on Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s serialised comic, in which telekinesis and telepathy are imagined as evolutionary reactions to a dehumanised machine-driven world, Akira proved to be a ground-breaking film on its release in 1988, presenting concepts and imagery rarely seen on the big screen in animation. While some aspects have dated and the rushed ending - a soupí§on of Kubrickian post-human light show plus shafts of divine light in a ruined landscape - strives too hard to be sublime, this is a classic animated Japanese film that is well worth adding to any Blu-ray collection, in a HD transfer that finally does justice to the film’s colour palette and intricate line art. Alex Fitch
Alice (Jan Švankmajer, 1988, BFI Video)
Alice, technically a Swiss-British-German co-production although, in all creative respects, entirely Czech, was filmed in Prague with Švankmajer’s regular team. Significantly, the Czech title translates as ‘Something from Alice’, indicating that it should in no way be considered a straightforward adaptation of Carroll. While Alice is played by a real little girl, the world of her imagination or dream world is represented by puppets and animated figures. The characters have become much more explicitly threatening than in Carroll’s original. Švankmajer’s most nightmarish creations are his ‘animals’, who pursue Alice at the White Rabbit’s behest after she has escaped from his house. These skeletal monsters include a coach pulled by chickens with skull heads, a fish-like skeleton with legs, a skull dragging a bone body, and a skull head that snaps out of a jam pot. This array of visions is far from the antiseptic world of Disney or the reassuring middle-class images of Sir John Tenniel. Peter Hames
The Kingdom (Lars von Trier, 1994 + 1997, Second Sight)
Set in Denmark’s largest hospital, Lars von Trier’s 90s TV series The Kingdom is perhaps best described as the mutated offspring of a hospital-based reality TV show and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but even that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. The Kingdom‘s horror might seem tame to viewers of Saw and Hostel, but von Trier manages to establish - and increase - a surprising level of tension and atmosphere, something that suits the work much better than explicit violence and gore. The Kingdom is absolutely essential viewing for lovers of horror or fantasy, as well as anyone with a passion for the weird. Originally broadcast in two seasons of four episodes each, the first season was edited into a single movie for a British VHS release in 1998, but this is the first time that both seasons have been available in this country. Jim Harper
Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970, BFI Video)
Deep End is a film driven by and dripping with discomfort, an effect that’s heightened by the 40-year interval between its original release and recent revamp by BFI’s Flipside imprint. The story of Mike, a London teenager working his first job as a public bath attendant, and his sexual obsession with his co-worker Susan, it is morally ambiguous in tone, pitched somewhere between psychosexual thriller and a dark coming-of-age comedy. In that sense it’s quite typical of the era in which it was made, but there is something more self-aware about Deep End. The uncomfortable mood is not just the by-product of its time and our latter-day perspective on it, but also, perhaps, of director Jerzy Skolimovski’s own slightly distanced perspective on his subject. Frances Morgan
Shôhei Imamura releases (Eureka’s Masters of Cinema)
Eureka continue to make the work of the great Japanese director Shôhei Imamura available to UK audiences. Following the release of Vengeance is Mine (1979) and Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) in previous years, 2011 brought a bounty crop: Pigs and Battleships (1961), A Man Vanishes (1967) and The Ballad of Narayama (1983).
Pigs and Battleships
A vivid indictment of a nation struggling with a serious identity crisis, Pigs and Battleships is a biting social satire by a truly brilliant filmmaker. John Berra
A Man Vanishes
Over 40 years ago, Shôhei Imamura created the quintessential mockumentary, A Man Vanishes, a film essay that reveals with cunning wit concerns of veracity and corruption and anticipates the traps reality will lay for filmmakers. John Bleasdale
The Ballad of Narayama
The cruelty of survival is the focus of Shôhei Imamura’s stunning film. His achievement here is in presenting a radically different society with values that clash directly with what we today consider universal and inalienable rights. John Bleasdale
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews