31 Days of Halloween- Day 15- Dementia 13 (1963)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 15- Dementia 13 (1963)

A movie directed by a young Francis (Ford) Coppola and produced by Roger Corman.

A genius plot-

One night, while out rowing in the middle of a lake, John Haloran, and his young wife Louise, argue about his rich mother’s will. Louise is upset that everything is currently designated to go to charity in the name of a mysterious “Kathleen.” John tells Louise that, if he dies before his mother, Louise will be entitled to none of the inheritance. He promptly drops dead from a massive heart attack. Thinking quickly, the scheming Louise throws his fresh corpse over the side of the boat, where he comes to rest at the bottom of the lake. Her plan is to pretend that he is still alive to ingratiate her way into the will. She types up a letter to Lady Haloran, inviting herself to the family’s Irish castle while her husband is “away on business.”

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In the UK the film was named ‘The Haunted and the Hunted’

 

But then after this something happens that changes the course of the whole film (I’m not going to ruin the film for potential viewers). This was a brave move a la Psycho and Night of the Living Dead.

And it works brilliantly. In fact, everything about this film works amazingly. It’s a great film with a great premise, gorgeous cinematography, uniformedly good performances from a cast of unknowns and direction that deftly straddles both drive-in cinema and the Nouvelle Vague. This is part Homicidal (this was made to cash-in on it’s success) and part Carnival of Souls but whilst retaining it’s own identity. Theres a strong Giallo feel to proceedings- the gloved killer with an ax, the sinister doll symbolism.

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The location used deserves a mention. A spawling castle in Ireland with a scene that takes place in a Dublin bar make this film even more special. It feels like part film, part time capsule. The costume design of the film is also something to behold- classic men’s suits (think Sean Connery as Bond and Michael Caine in The Italian Job), chic women’s miniskirts and the best bleached blonde 60’s haircuts seen in any film of the period.

Highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars

 

31 Days of Halloween- Day 12- Island of Terror (1966)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 12- Island of Terror (1966)

Scientists on an island just off Ireland are close to finding a cure for cancer but accidentally produce ‘silicates’: tentacled creatures that suck the bone marrow from their victims.

This is a British film directed by Terence Fisher who made a lot of films for Hammer. The version that I saw had been restored by Pinewood Studios where the film was produced and it looks gorgeous. The cinematography and colour palate of the film have been brought out beautifully.

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This is a fantastic invasion movie from a bygone era and feels like something John Wyndham might have written. The creatures are like giant flattened slugs but with a single antennae which in reality are so unthreatening that it’s hilarious. But it adds to the charm of the movie- and it’s still better than some CGI modern multiplex borefest.

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But don’t think that this film is a just a cheesy film to merely laugh off. The version I saw had reinstated a sequence in which Peter Cushing’s character has his hand chopped off with an axe. This scene was taken out of prints after the BBFC said that it was too strong for audiences. With the restoration of the film for release on Blu-ray this scene is available to be seen in all it’s bloody glory.

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Cushing’s character post-axe.

The Odeon UK Blu-ray release of this film looks great. The US Scream Factory release is meant to be even better. I look forward to seeing it.

3/5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 9- Plague of the Zombies (1966)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 9- Plague of the Zombies (1966)

This has one of the most crazy plots of any Hammer film I’ve ever seen. I won’t give away everything that happens though.

A Cornish village is suffering from some sort of plague that is bumping people off at such a rate that the local doctor asks an expert friend to investigate what is happening. When opening up the graves of the recently deceased they discover that all of the coffins are empty. Could the answer to this mystery be connected with the tin mine which is on the land of Squire Clive Hamilton? Is it also relevant that he used to live in Haiti and the fact that he practiced voodoo and the black arts whilst he was there?

I remember seeing this in the 80s as my local television station used to show a double-bill of Hammer films every Thursday night (a blessing!) It was scary then and it’s retained it’s ability to shock. The zombies themselves are the stuff of nightmares.

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But unfortunately the film drags every now and again. But on the whole it’s worth seeing, even if it’s not the best of the studio’s output.

Fun fact- Martin Scorsese thinks highly of this film.

2/5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 5- Day of the Triffids (1963)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 5- Day of the Triffids (1963)

I remember so well the 1981 BBC1 adaptation of Day of the Triffids. It may now be dated but, by Christ, it gave me plenty of sleepless nights as a 6 year old boy.

Years later I discovered the work of author John Wyndham who is now one of my favourite writers. Day of the Triffids is one of his best books.

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I didn’t know that there was a 1963 film version of his opus. I’m glad I’ve now seen it as it looks gorgeous. In these days of Blu ray restorations this film is a prime candidate. If a 4K scan of an original and restored print was released this film may be appreciated as a long-forgotten gem.

The plot involves a meteorite shower making whoever saw it go blind. Fortunately our leading man Bill Masen is in an eye hospital after an accident which has damaged his sight. His heavily bandaged eyes mean that he was spared from seeing the meteors fall. Plants called triffids have started to grow and come to life seemingly because of the shower. They are carnivorous, can walk and possess a very high intelligence. Oh, and they seem to hate and want to kill humans.

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This isn’t a particularly faithful adaptation of Wyndham’s book but it’s still interesting and holds perceptive observations into the breakdown of society when something catastrophic happens and how fragile the bonds that hold us all together really are. But it also shows how altruistic humans are when such an event happens.

The ending of this adaptation feels a little bit too simplistic and pat but it does very little to ruin the rest of this beautiful film.

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Fun fact- it’s this version that had gained the ultimate accolade- its quoted in a lyric of the song ‘Science Fiction, Double Feature’ in The Rocky Horror Show- ”And I got really hot when I saw Janette Scott/Fight a triffid that spits poison and kills…’

3/5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 2- Witchfinder General (1968)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 2- Witchfinder General (1968)

I remember when I lived in London I loved perusing the list of films being shown citywide in the listings magazine Time Out. In those days (the mid 90s) there were plenty of funky little cinemas showing all manner of films old and new, renowned and obscure.

I remember going to see Witchfinder General and it instantly becoming one of my favourite films. The thing that shocked me most about the film was that it’s based on fact.

Set upon the backdrop of the Civil War between the Roundheads and Cavaliers, there was thought by those in charge to be a surge in lawlessness amongst the populace. With no state enforcers of the law being in place it was possible for self-appointed one-man ‘judge, jury and executioner’ figures to spring up.  With these times being still very religious with that fanaticism stretching to superstitious extremes then such a figure could rationalise that he was doing God’s work and stamping out witchcraft and Satan worship.

Step forward Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price). He leads his team of bloodthirsty underlings from town to town, stamping out ungodliness whilst accusing those who get in his way of being witches and so has the approval of the state to dispose of them in any number of ghoulish ways. One method in which he tests to see if people are witches is to throw them in a local lake or river. If they sink and drown, they weren’t a witch. But if they float then they are evil and need to be burnt, flogged or any other kind of torture. It’s lose/lose for the accused.

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Director Micheal Reeves’ film doesn’t flinch away from the sadistic acts that Hopkins (who actually existed) inflicts and how utterly barbaric and cruel the times were. There are some great examples of dark gallows humour too- notice the children who have just witnessed a supposed ‘witch’ being burnt to death. We see them baking potatoes in her still smouldering ashes.

Witchfinder General was very controversial when it was first released with the BBFC demanding cuts and most critics denouncing the film’s unblinking depiction of the devilish practices carried out by Hopkins and his cronies. But, some critics saw the greatness in the film and over the years the film has gained a reputation as somewhat of a sick classic. Price’s performance is restrained and nuanced. Reeves’ direction is amazing and it feels almost as if you are watching a documentary rather than a British/American horror film from the late 60’s. American International Pictures invested some of the money for the film to be made but only thought of it as a tax write-off. They were actually very surprised when they saw the finished movie and how good it was. It’s name was changed to The Conqueror Worm for the U.S. Drive-In markets as this was a line from Edgar Allen Poe whose adaptations AIP were (in)famous for.

I love the stories about Price and Reeves not getting along during the shooting of the film.  Donald Pleasance was originally chose to play Hopkins but Price was available and a bigger star which could translate as more money at the box office. With Price playing the lead instead the script had to be changed to accommodate him. Reeves wasn’t impressed by this and let it be known that he didn’t want Price in the leading role.

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Vinny munches on a Toblerone on the film’s set

One of many examples of the bitchiness between them was from when they first met. Price’s opening gambit to the 28 year old Reeves was ‘I’ve starred in 87 films. What have you done?’ to which Reeves deadpanned ‘I’ve made 3 good ones.’

Witchfinder General is a warts and all classic. But don’t underestimate it. This is strong even by today’s standards and contains one of the most disturbing endings for a film I’ve ever seen.

5 out of 5 stars

Review- ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (1968)

Review- ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (1968)

One of the earliest British gay-themed films ever made, this tells the tale of June ‘George’ Buckridge, the soon to be eclipsed star on the TV soap opera Applehurst. We see her relationship with the Baby Doll-like Childie and also the interventions of television executive Mrs Crofts. But does Crofts have her own agenda?

This lesbian drama has the amazing tagline ‘The story of three consenting adults in the privacy of their own home’ which obviously mimics the mantra of liberals and homophobes alike regarding ‘the gays’. It’s also a reference to the wording of The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalising homosexuality. 

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There’s something aesthetically pleasing about Beryl Reid in all of the films and TV programmes I’ve seen her in. This film is no exception. She plays George and she dominates proceedings whenever she is on screen. Her character is irreverent, rambunctious and a sheer delight. She’s ‘punk’ years before the punk movement actually erupted. Also, notice how she plays her rebellious character to perfection and got under the skin of George. This is very evident in her body language. No unconscious crossing of the legs or keeping them together when she sits down. She can manspread with the best of them. This is a headstrong woman who lives life on her own terms rather than conforming to societal norms regarding how a ‘lady’ should act.

Part of the film takes place in the real life lesbian bar The Gateways Club which was then in Chelsea, just off The Kings Road. The film used the real patrons as extras and it feels so natural it’s as if the crew just went in and filmed without warning. The wide range of cast extras show that the uneducated myth about lesbians being either ‘butch’ or ‘femme’ is a fallacy and the locale provides a fascinating peek inside not just 1960’s Gay London but specifically Lesbian London. George and Childie are also dressed as Laurel and Hardy in this scene which makes it even more joyous, surreal and brilliant.

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Inside The real lesbian bar The Gateways Club with Laurel and Hardy

A primary theme of the film is the power play within the character’s relationships. This is nicely shown in the ‘contrition game’ scene in which rather than being degraded by George’s task, Childie makes herself enjoy it thus taking away the power from George and being in control herself. 

The film depicts it’s characters like human beings with all of their foibles rather than as freaks in a sideshow to be leered at and grimaced at by ‘them there normal folks’. The film prompts a new discussion on our perceptions of gay people in a Britain in which homosexuality had just been decriminalised (this was carried out in 1967- the year before this film was released). The tagline for the film also references the wording used in The Sexual Offences Act.

The Killing of Sister George was unsurprisingly very contentious with the unenlightened British Board of Film Classification when it was due to be released. The main bone of contention was with the scene between Childie and Mrs Crofts- Crofts kisses and caresses Childie. There is nothing gratuitous about this scene and it is dealt with respectfully and mostly takes place off-screen. From the BBFC Case Study regarding the film-

”(But) the BBFC was adamant that the scene be removed in its entirety. Trevelyan stated that the BBFC was “not prepared as yet to accept lesbian sex to this point.”

It’s unbelieveable today that the BBFC saw to not include this scene not because it may corrupt or adversely influence but because they thought the Great British public would have it’s collective minds blown by such a scene.

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The notorious scene

The BBFC Case Study on the film notes-

”The BBFC classified The Killing of Sister George as ‘X’ in February 1969, with the encounter between Mrs Crofts and Childie deleted. Nevertheless, a number of local authorities across the UK banned the film even in this version. The Greater London Council allowed the film to be shown within its authority area with minor edits. The increase in the age bar for ‘X’ films from 16 to 18 in 1970 saw some local authorities relent on their previous decision and allow the film to be shown under this higher age restriction.”

Today the film is thankfully uncut. This movie is an amazing time capsule, a perceptive and all too revealing glimpse into human relationships and a groundbreaking slice of LGBT history- a history that generally erases lesbians altogether. This film noisily and joyously bucks this trend. And audiences should be truly thankful for that.

5 out of 5

Review- The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

Review- The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

From the director of the quite extraordinarily brilliant How To Survive A Plague comes this film.

Marsha P Johnson was a black transvestite/drag queen (there was no ‘transgender’ then) who hung around Christopher Street in the 60s until her mysterious death when she was pulled out of the Hudson River in the early 90s. As we hear from one person captured on video back then who witnessed her body being recovered there appears to have been some kind of wound on her head. Could there be more to Marsha’s death than just the officially held cause being accidental? Was it suicide or homicide?

David France expertly tracks the work of Victoria Cruz in unearthing and unravelling what happened to Marsha whilst celebrating this revolutionaries life. Moments of this documentary are sometimes very shocking. One such is when Ms Cruz telephones a retired member of the NYPD who she asks to meet to discuss the circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death. ‘Definitely not’ he responds to her meeting request. He then warns her ‘Don’t go playing detective’. Sinister.

This film feels like new unexplored relics and answers from LGBT history being unveiled right before your eyes.

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However, there are politics at play regarding the film. Some members of the non-white trans movement are slamming France’s work as hes a white cisgender (non-trans) man who is making this film rather than a trans person of colour. There have been accusations of theft of material from another project that was being made by the trans community regarding Johnson. There are also accusations that David France could get funding and distribution because hes white and cisgender. I think these accusations are just a case of sour grapes. If you are a filmmaker who has made films before, have a proven track record and can actually accomplish these projects through to fruition then you will get funding and distribution. How long have we been waiting for the fictionalised short film Happy Birthday, Marsha? I’m amused that its fictionalised- so was Stonewall in 2015. Lets see if there are protests regarding this new film if events are seen to be historically accurate.

Also, does it matter whether the person making the film is trans or cisgender or what their ethnicity is when the film they make is as great as this?

There seems to be a huge emphasis on Marsha and Sylvia Rivera when it comes to LGBT history and the Stonewall Riots. But when anyone else is represented they are lumped together and not given the same kind of detailed analysis or be the centre of attention. I’d love a similar documentary on Danny Garvin, Martin Boyce or the person widely believed to have started the riots- Jackie Hormona (Marsha P Johnson admitted in an interview that when she arrived at the Stonewall Inn on that fateful night in 1969 that the rioting had already started. The interview is here- makinggayhistory.com/podcast/episode-11-johnson-wicker/ She dashed off to Bryant Park to tell Sylvia Rivera who had taken heroin). You don’t know who Garvin, Boyce or Garvin are? Thats very telling.

A great documentary. Now lets hear about other Stonewall voices.

4 out of 5