Review- Alice Sweet Alice (1976)

Review- Alice Sweet Alice (1976)

I love the horror films that are unlike any other films in the genre and stand alone with their quirks and idiosyncrasies. One such film is Alice Sweet Alice.

The film was actually called Communion when it premiered at numerous film festivals but was then retitled Alice Sweet Alice when it was picked up by it’s distributor and then released in 1977. With one of it’s stars, Brooks Shields becoming a star in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby even though she only appears in this film for all of about 10 minutes, it was then released again in 1981 under the name of Holy Terror. The film also received the ultimate seal of approval in the early 80’s when it was banned during the Video Nasty moral panic in the UK.

Not many horror films revolve around the issue of Catholicism but Alice Sweet Alice does and to horrific and chilling effect.

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We see Karen who is preparing for her first communion and her older sister Alice at home. It seems that whatever Alice does Karen whines about to their mother as is the case when Alice puts on her communion veil. This first scene seems to expand into a deeper theme within the film and that is what psychologists talk about regarding family relations when one child is treated as a ‘golden child’ (in this case Karen) and when another is treated as a ‘scapegoat’ for anything wrong that happens or any misdemeanour (Alice). The film expands on this further later in proceedings.

As revenge for Karen being such a brat, Alice lures her to an abandoned warehouse and scares her before locking her in a separate room and then threatening her if she tells anyone.

We see Alice wear a transparent (and very creepy) mask and bright yellow raincoat to scare their housekeeper Mrs Tredoni. Later on during the communion service we see someone wearing the same mask and raincoat bump off Karen by strangling her and then placing her body in a compartment within a bench then placing a lit candle inside for good measure. Could the person who did this be Alice who we had seen wear a similar mask earlier in proceedings?

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The film is very much a whodunnit as to whether it is Alice who is carrying out the murders and also if it isn’t her, then who is it and why?

Alice Sweet Alice is a proto-slasher movie and a fantastic one at that. Not only do we get the storyline regarding whether Alice is the murderer or not but also a brilliant character study regarding this character that goes into family dynamics that have only started to creep into public discussions recently.

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Add to this the very unexpected supporting characters who are as out-there as they are unexpected (check out the character of the bald, fat neighbour Mr Alphonso and you’ll fully understand what I’m talking about) and you have another demonstration of why this film really is a one-off and all the more brilliant because of it.

There are also moments of near hysteria within the narrative that feel like they’re straight out of a John Waters movie. In fact, when I first saw the sequence in which the character of Annie is stabbed I instantly thought of when the shopper has her feet stomped on by Dexter aka The Baltimore Footstomper from Polyester. The acting is unhinged and utterly genius because of it.

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Add to this some very inventive kills (check out the sequence in which Annie is killed in the hallway and when a later victim is thrown from a high building to land on broken mirrors down below) and one of the creepiest killer’s disguises I’ve ever seen (the director was influenced by Don’t Look Now in his choice of the raincoat).

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The look of the film is just as striking with a gorgeous muted colour palate that I’ve never seen in a film before and beautiful photography that means that this is so much more than just your average 70’s horror oddity. In fact it’s just one reason as well as the ones mentioned previously why this film is a complete and utter gem. The way to experience this flick is by going for the US Arrow Video Blu Ray. Their restoration of the film is a revelation and really something to behold.

Grade- B+

Leatherface and Me- Growing Up With (and Without) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Leatherface and Me- Growing Up With (and Without) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the cinema the other day. It’s been a long road but I feel like I’ve had my own personal journey with this horror masterpiece. After years of not being able to view the film, it grew in my mind to almost mythic proportions. When I finally got to see the film, was it worth the wait and would it live up to the hype?

From the very beginning there was a massive amount of controversy with the film in the UK. On it’s original planned cinema release it was banned outright by the BBFC. However, those were the days when local councils could override the BBFC’s official decisions and so, whilst some local authorities agreed with the Board’s decision, a number decided to allow screenings of the film.

The advent of home video would give the film a new, albeit brief, lease of life. The film was originally released on video in 1981. But in 1984 the Board decided that all videos had to be classified by them and so for three years or so the film could be rented and viewed in the privacy of one’s home. My father actually remembers seeing the film on video, an occasion which I wasn’t privy to. Maybe he had decided to watch it when I was safely tucked up in bed. My Dad’s attitude to me watching horror and violent films from an early age was rather laissez-faire to say the least, but maybe even he thought that the film that had such a shocker of a title would be too much for me to take at such a tender age. When he spoke about it, he did so as if to say, ‘Yes, I saw that film!’ accompanied by a startled look on his face. With such a backhanded compliment I now regard my not being able to watch the film with the rest of my family as akin to some kind of child abuse.

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With the Video Nasties moral panic, TCM was promptly banned. However, the parents of a friend of my older brother owned a local video shop and so, as many video shop owners did back in the day, they didn’t return any of the newly banned videos they were asked to take off their shelves. I got to see The Evil Dead via this route but my friend never showed anyone TCM as she had seen it and was truly traumatised by what she had witnessed. With this knowledge, the legend surrounding the film grew even bigger.

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There was an excellent film in the 80’s called Terror in the Aisles which was a compilation of the juiciest bits of horror movies that were segued by legends Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen. Within the movie were clips of TCM along with scenes from another withdrawn classic, The Exorcist which meant the Terror in the Aisles was essential viewing. The scene in which Pam stumbles (literally) into the room covered with chicken feathers and adorned with bizarre home furnishings was included and was so perfect that the fact that the full film couldn’t be seen in the UK meant that I hated the BBFC even more than I already did.

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As I then started to get into punk rock I saw a picture of Johnny Rotten wearing the stickers given away to the patrons of the original screenings of TCM that was being shown in London against the BBFC’s wishes. The Sex Pistols had seen the film and were endorsing it on their ripped clothing. It must be something really shocking and I needed to see it, like, NOW!

TCMStickerTCMJohnnyRottenIt wouldn’t be until 1994 when I would finally get to see the film from start to finish. My friend Tom has scored some horror classics that he taped onto two blank video tapes for me with the jewel in the crown being TCM (the others were Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust and Driller Killer). And so that’s how I got to see the film- a copy that had been copied from a copy that had possibly been copied numerous times before with diminishing quality each time. The picture was fuzzy, some facial expressions were a bit hazy and fine detail was very much lacking. But hey, here was the film! And I loved it! But whilst it was and is such an intense and unnerving experience, there was something that I hadn’t been told about and hence wasn’t expecting- the humour. ‘Look what your brother did to the door!’ was one such moment. Another was the moment in which the garage owner takes the time to go back inside to turn the lights of his garage off just after he’s kidnapped Sally after explaining that the cost of electricity these days could send a man out of business.

Something that also caught me off guard but that I loved was how much the film felt like the most surreal and violent EC Comic that just so happened to have been turned into a film. The film was lurid, colourful and surreal.

Skip forward a few years and I’m living in London and have just completed a film degree. The Institute of Contemporary Arts has curated a festival of film screenings in which still banned horror titles could be legally shown for one day each after getting the green light from the BBFC. One of these films was TCM and so I could finally see it on the big screen.

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My original ticket stub for the ICA screening

But it was a wider release shortly after this and without the OK from the Board that would lead to the film being legalised. Just as years before local councils could usurp the Board and show films anyway, Camden Council decided to show the film at a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue (and rather cheekily just a few streets away from the Board’s Soho HQ). I didn’t know about these screenings until I was walking past the cinema and my eyes jumped out of their sockets as I saw the poster. Camden Council even had their own certificate of ‘C for Camden’ for the film. I had planned an afternoon (and night) of drinking in London’s more salubrious gay bars but waylaid this to take an excursion into Hell first. The screening was amazing and the sound had been turned up to deafening levels. It really did feel like myself and the two other people in the afternoon screening (that’s right, there were only two other people in the whole cinema!) had undertaken a traumatic experience together and as the film ended we all glanced at each other, nervously laughed and then exited.

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My original ticket stub for the 1999 screening

It would be these screenings that would persuade the BBFC to reexamine their classification of the film and agree to pass it uncut with an 18 certificate. Another significant factor in these proceedings was that James Ferman had retired as Head of the Board. It was during his tenure that he had tried to cut the film to finally get it released. But he concluded that there was nothing that could be cut as there was very little gore and such an underlying sense of constant tension to the film that made it impossible to cut. So basically he was ensuring that the film remain banned for being a horror film that was too effective as a horror film. Ridiculous. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the film was then passed.

The film was duly issued in the UK on both video and DVD by Blue Dolphin in 2000.

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But a funny thing happened just before this release. With the advent of the internet there was a website called Amazon (you may have heard of it) that was based in America where loads of horror movies were available uncut and could be bought and shipped to the UK. This was very much a game of chance with some films being seized by customs and some not. The films that were confiscated bizarrely included some titles that weren’t even banned in the UK at the time. The artwork of other VHS and DVD titles that boasted of their notoriety were being let through (the box artwork for The New York Ripper proudly stated the number of countries the film was banned in but was amazingly let through by customs to the ever grateful horror fan who had ordered it). I ordered the Pioneer DVD of TCM which was chock full of special features such as a director’s commentary and blooper reel and it got through. Yeehaw.

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With such a film as TCM now being available there was only one direction in which the releases from now on could go and that was to restore the film so that it could look and sound as good as possible. But with a film like TCM which has always had a grimy and gritty look to it, would these new restoration programmes mean that the film would loose some of this grit and dirt and look completely different?

Dark Sky picked up the film in the US and cleaned up the visuals and audio significantly for a 2006 DVD release. Suddenly, details that couldn’t be seen before were now visible. It was akin to layers of grime being lifted from a classic painting. There were also oodles of special features and presented in a 2 disc steelbook to boot. And more importantly, the look of the film didn’t suffer one iota because of these new efforts to make the film look and sound as good as it possibly could. The film still sounded like it always had with the bassy and subhuman tremors experienced still present but now sounding even more unearthly. 

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With the advent of Blu ray as a format and then 4K, this meant that even more work could be done on the film and even more care taken to present and preserve the film as the cultural force it had become. Again, Dark Sky took up the task and released a 4 disc Blu ray edition of the film, complete with 7.1 Dolby remix (along with the original mono soundtrack for the purists) and all of the special features imaginable (3 discs worth to be precise!)

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And it was this print that I saw the other day at a cinema that was state of the art and with the biggest screen I’ve ever seen this side of IMAX. It was ironic that I should be watching the film in such a beautiful cinema with gorgeous leather seats and state of the art projection equipment when the film would originally have been seen and experienced in grindhouses and Drive-Ins across America on it’s first run. But did the film still hold up in such surroundings? You bet it did! There was even nuance that could be only be picked up on the mammoth screen and details that could only be heard within the 7.1 remix that couldn’t be picked up in mono (the film gets gradually louder and bassier as the action goes on) with the later part of the film being the hellish (in a great way) experience that all TCM fans know and love. 

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So, as you can see my journey with TCM has been long and winding but so rewarding. The film being banned and then passed uncut and then released on new formats and after extensive work has been done on it has meant that the makers of the film have certainly got their dollars worth from fans like me. But the pleasure of snapping up each new release has been an absolute pleasure and I’m so happy that the film can be appreciated and savoured by future generations. TCM will always be in my list of my Top 10 favourite films. The wait was certainly worth it. 

Meathook Cinema Salutes…Pete Walker

Meathook Cinema Salutes…Pete Walker

History is the ultimate judge of everything and film is no exception. One director whose work history has been very kind to is British director Pete Walker.

Walker was actually the son of music hall star Syd Walker. His first job was as a comedian at a strip joint in Soho (!) He also made 8mm ‘glamour shorts’ before making full length (pun not intended) soft core films at the end of the 60’s with titles like School For Sex, Cool It Carol and Four Dimensions of Greta.

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The 70s-tastic Pete Walker

But it was in the 70’s that Walker turned his attention to exploitation films and primarily the horror genre.

House of Whipcord is one such film and was made in 1974. This is a lurid movie with an equally lurid title. It concerns specially selected women who were judged to be far too liberated and sexually free and are thus thrown into a mysterious correction facility so that they would receive punishment for their wicked ways.

The film exposed the huge gulf within British society at the time- on one side were those who embraced the progressive changes Britain was undergoing regarding women’s changing roles that empowered and liberated them from simply being mothers and housewives. On the other side those who were more traditional and conservative. They were angry at the new permissive society and were the kind of people who wrote venom filled letters to the national newspapers whilst spewing bile behind their net curtains. A figurehead for these people can be seen as Mary Whitehouse and her ‘Caravan of Light’ who campaigned against everything from offensive and ‘corrupting’ films to be banned (Mrs Whitehouse would come into her own in the next decade during the Video Nasties moral panic), television programmes she didn’t approve of (the watershed was introduced because of her campaigning) and even pieces of poetry that didn’t meet her outdated moral standards (the publication Gay News was disbanded after she took them to court over a poem they published regarding Jesus and one of his foot-soldiers).

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House of Whipcord- Within These Walls on steroids

House of Whipcord is a genuinely brilliant piece of exploitation and horror which holds up a mirror up to what was happening in society at the time. Britain was still so repressed that it was easy for mavericks to break boundaries and challenge taboos. In fact, there were those who at this time who were delighting in poking holes in the more archaic elements of society. Punk was just around the corner and tellingly Walker was approached by Malcolm McLaren to make a documentary about The Sex Pistols. This was only cancelled because the band split up before the film could be made.

House of Whipcord is also a fantastic addition to the Women In Prison subgenre. It feels like Within These Walls on steroids. There are also elements of Kafka’s The Trial thrown in for good measure. This is highlighted by the shadowy figure of Judge Bailey who lays down the law within the facility but whose laws are completely unclear. This is an authoritarian nightmare which still feels all too real.

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Special mention needs to go to the cast. Celia Imrie starred in the film at the start of her career and she speaks about the movie at numerous points in her autobiography. She makes it sound like the film was a cinematic shocker that she starred in when she was young and needed the money. However, you get the feeling that she is kind of proud to have been in such a production with it almost attaining a kind of ‘cool’ status.

Barbara Markham is spectacularly unhinged as Head Warden Mrs Wakehurst who turns from measured to biblically psychotic in an instant (witness the sequence in which is lurches at her husband wielding a knife whilst screeching ‘If thine eye offends thee, PLUCK IT OUT!’)

An actress who would be cast by Walker in a total of five of his film and stars here is the magnificent Shelia Keith. Her portrayal of sadistic warden Walker is as cold and brilliantly extreme as Markham’s is. Think of Vinegar Tits from Prisoner Cell Block H but much more extreme.

The next of Walker’s films that stands out for me is Frightmare also from 1974. In 1957 Dorothy Yates and her husband Edmund are convicted of murder and cannibalism (!) and sent to an asylum until the film’s present day (1974). They are then released supposedly fully cured and living a quiet life. But are they? The answer, of course, is of course not! The film shows Dorothy not being cured at all but using the cover of giving tarot readings to people who she then kills and eats.

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‘The cards predict cannibalism. Yes, really…’

The film also deals with Jackie (Edmund’s daughter from a previous marriage) who regularly visits the couple offering gifts of animal brains whilst falsely telling them that they are actually human remains and that she is actually killing people so that her stepmother doesn’t relapse and remains free. It is also revealed that her father had actually faked being complicit in the crimes and feigned madness so that he could stay with his wife. Jackie lives with Debbie, a wayward 15 year old who is the actual daughter of the couple who was placed into an orphanage as a baby just after her parents were institutionalised. She has recently been expelled from there as she is too much for the authorities to deal with and so spends most of her time with her boyfriend who is the leader of a violent biker gang.

Walker’s film goes to the darker places that other horror films of the age wouldn’t have dared to. Frightmare has enough deprived goings on to have even the most jaded of horror fans salivating with glee.

There’s also a playful pop at the more respectable films on release at this time and what Walker thinks of these- Jackie drags her new boyfriend out of a screening of the arty farty Blow Up- and for good reason. Why watch that when you could be watching (or even starring in) a Pete Walker film?

Another facet of Walker’s work that I love is that his films capture the world in which they’re filmed in and feel like beautifully filmed time capsules. The fact that a certain demographic were lapping up films like Walker’s with a healthy section of the cinema-going public loving all things horror and exploitation was also very revealing of the time. The drive-in and 42nd Street audiences weren’t just confined to America during this time.

There’s also a fantastic strain of black humour at play within the film with events sometimes becoming so extreme that they become surreal and darkly funny. This reminds me of the dark comedy that rears it’s head during the endings of both Straw Dogs and Taxi Driver. Within Frightmare, this reads as completely intentional with an almost vaudevillian Grand Guignol tone during certain scenes.

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Again, Keith features and plays the role of the cannibal housewife Dorothy resplendent with pale palour and red eyes. She attacks each character she takes on with such unbridled zest and zeal that that her presence feels an essential part as to why Walker’s films are so noteworthy. Walker talked about working with her saying-

“Sheila Keith was a lady who lived a quiet life with her dogs and her cats and came into work to do, brilliantly, whatever was asked of her. She was like your nice old aunt who would serve you cucumber sandwiches before ripping into a dismembered limb – without complaining.”

I honestly think that Walker and Keith make for one of cinema’s great director/actor partnerships in much the same way De Niro and Scorsese or John Waters and Divine do.

Another Walker favourite of mine is Schizo made in 1976. Figure skater Samantha is just about to get married but we see that a former partner of her mother is travelling to London from the North East to seemingly stalk her.

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The film feels ahead of it’s time as issues that are more widely spoken about now such as stalking, voyeurism and obsessive behaviour directed towards a single person hadn’t been tackled in film before. All of these concepts and dysfunctional attributes would have been new and revelatory to audiences back then in much the same way as those introduced to audiences watching Hitchcock’s Psycho (crossdressing, multiple personalities) or Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (celebrity stalking, obsessive fans) for the first time.

There are also the questions as to who the stalker is, why he’s stalking Samantha and what role she has in all of this. There’s a huge sting in the tale and I’m certainly not going to spoil any of this here.

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More than with any of Walker’s films before or since, Schizo really captures the time and locales it’s set in with London being beautifully captured in the year that, ironically, punk was about to explode. Just as punk marked an explosion not just within music but also other art forms, Walker’s films can be seen as part of that movement.

Walker actually thought there were no subtexts to his films but was pleasantly surprised by what he saw when he reinvestigated his work. He said-

“But recently I had to record commentaries for the DVD releases so I saw the films for the first time since making them, and you know what? They’re not as bad as I thought. But searching for hidden meaning . . . they were just films. All I wanted to do was create a bit of mischief.”

But there is meaning and subtext to be found in all films whether this is intended by the screenwriter and/or director or not. Walker and his screenwriter David McGillivray and their views on the British society of the time are there for all to see and marvel at throughout their work.

Walker’s last film was made in 1983 and was his most polished movie to date, the big budget House of Long Shadows which cast horror royalty Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee all in the same picture. After this film Walker retired from making films and instead set about restoring old cinemas.

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Boxsets of Walker’s films have been released but curiously, only in the US. It’s time for 4K restorations of his work for Blu ray releases in his home country. It’s time for the outstanding back catalogue of this amazing auteur to be finally recognised and released in the UK. Walker’s work documents a secret history of a time in British cinema that was gritty, forbidden and utterly intoxicating. I think the BFI would be the best company to issue these releases and tout Walker as the major force he truly was within the British film industry even though he may have been frowned upon by others within that industry at the time. And if the BFI do release his films then they should also show a retrospective at the NFT for good measure.

That’s not asking too much, is it?

Review- The Driver (1978)

Review- The Driver (1978)

I saw this film in the best way possible back in the 80’s- on late night TV, lights dimmed with it being the last thing I watched before hitting the hay.

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Ryan O’Neal plays The Driver (no name is given for his character and this is the case for all of the lead characters), a man who is known to be the best getaway driver for any bank robbers who have the money required to hire him. Bruce Dern plays the detective who is trying to successfully arrest him. Isabelle Adjani is the leading lady billed simply as The Player.

Just as the leads have no names, their characters display a fantastic minimalism which is mesmorising to watch, especially Ryan O’Neal as the brooding, introspective lead. It’s possibly his best role along with his turn in Paper Moon. There’s also a great appearance by Ronee Blakley who of course would later appear in A Nightmare on Elm Street as the lush mother of Nancy Thompson.

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A major feature of the film is downtown LA, an eerie ghost town of neons, gorgeous architecture and brooding majesty. The allies and parking lots also feature in their dimly lit malevolence.

Another welcome addition to the film when it comes to it’s location is the inclusion of Torchy’s Bar which also features predominantly in When A Stranger Calls and 48 Hours.

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The Driver underperformed at the box office on it’s release and was almost universally panned by the critics although outside the U.S. reviews were more appreciative. When The Driver was released the film’s director Walter Hill was already working on his next film, The Warriors which garnered more positive reviews and performed better at the box office. Theres an interesting connection between the two films other than the director as well- listen to the music by Michael Small within The Driver and you’ll hear some of the creepy and unsettling psychedelic touches that Barry De Vorzon used within the soundtrack for The Warriors. Was this at Hill’s insistence for both films?

History has been very good to the film though with it now being regarded for what it is- a minimalist, urban thriller which feels in some respects like a modern version of a hard boiled crime flick from decades before. It has also gone on to influence many films in it wake such as The Terminator, Drive and Baby Driver.

The Driver is a fantastic film. When you watch it, watch it late at night.

****1/2 out of *****

Review- Grease (1978)

Review- Grease (1978)

Along with most other households in the UK for members of Gen X (the best generation by the way), we had the soundtrack for the film Grease. When the film was finally shown on UK TV I recorded it and watched it fat too much. It was a ‘go to film’ for a time when I was young.

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But this was stopped when I asked my brother’s new girlfriend if she liked the film and soundtrack. She frowned and said ‘It’s a bit tacky…’ This stayed with me. How could I have been into something so lacking in sophistication and tacky?! My love for Grease abruptly ended.

I found myself recently revisiting the film when it was shown on TV again. Would I cringe and snigger whilst wondering how I could have possibly have watched such rubbish as a child? No! I loved it!

For those who have been living under a rock since 1978, the film concerns the holiday romance between Danny Zuko and Australian Sandy Olsson. As Sandy finds that her family are staying on in America rather than returning to Oz she starts at Rydell High School, not knowing that Zuko attends there. She also doesn’t know that he is the leader of a greaser gang known as The T-Birds. This leads to the tough and streetwise Danny she meets rather than the sensitive and caring Danny she knew from her summer holiday. Sandy is taken under the wind of a girl gang known as The Pink Ladies led by the inimitable Rizzo.

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The true star of the show, Rizzo

I love how theres another layer to the wit within the film that completely went over my head when I was a kid. Grease is full of filthy references as the teenagers characters (most of whom look like they’re actually at least 35) are unabashedly full of hormones and lust (except the pure and virginal Sandy). And so we get fantastic ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ gags such as a car door being slammed on Danny’s erection at the drive-in after he tried to get it on with Sandy and the appearance of the cling film during the Greased Lightning sequence.

And then theres the music which is just as steeped in nostalgia and a lost era as the film’s visuals and narrative are. And just like the rest of the film, the songs are just as funny. Possibly the greatest of these is the Beauty School Dropout sequence resplendent with Frankie Avalon. Surreal, hilarious and utterly inspired.

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But there are also poignant musical moments such as Sandy singing Hopelessly Devoted To You and Rizzo’s There Are Worse Things I Could Do. This isn’t a one note movie.

Grease originally started as a stage musical on Broadway  in 1972 and was instrumental in a revival of all things 50’s Americana in the 70’s which continued with American Graffiti and Happy Days. The film imbues the same wistful nostalgia which is gleefully part fact, part fiction as times gone by normally are when viewed through rose-tinted glasses. This doesn’t matter a jot however as Grease is still a fantastic piece of escapism.

In fact, theres very little difference between this and say, John Waters’ Cry Baby which just goes to show what a fantastic era both films draw inspiration from and how close to the bone and risqué they are.

Grease has also been the subject of many different kinds of film analysis. My favourite is the one that sees it as a lesbian text with Sandy being ‘femme’ and Danny being ‘butch’.

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Butch and femme

Grease is a film that was the highest grossing of 1978, with the soundtrack being just as successful when it came to record sales. And it was utterly justified.

Watching Grease after so many years was like being visited by an old friend.

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

Review- La Dama Rossa Uccide Sette Volte (The Red Queen Kills Seven Times) (1972)

Review- La Dama Rossa Uccide Sette Volte (The Red Queen Kills Seven Times) (1972)

Hooray for Facebook. I was browsing pages devoted to cult cinema as I’m prone to do during my downtime and I saw a post about the Giallo gem, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and realised that I had never seen it. And lo and behold it was on YouTube in both Italian or badly dubbed English.

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This film concerns two sisters, one good, one evil. Their spacious abode has a very disturbing painting on the wall that evidently influences the black haired evil child, Evelyn to act terribly towards her blond haired more rational sister, Kitty. The artwork has a backstory- the evil Red Queen depicted in the picture was killed by her sister but the murdered then rises from the grave and becomes murderer, killing seven people linked to her death.

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Evelyn just being Evelyn

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The painting

A brilliantly funny sequence during the film’s opening credits shows that the teasing of Kitty by Evelyn continues throughout their childhood. The teasing carries on into adulthood. But during one incident Kitty accidentally kills Evelyn.

Real life seems to imitate art however when a figure dressed in a red cloak appears and starts to murder those connected to Kitty in gruesome ways. Who could this person be? Is it really Evelyn who has risen from the grave?

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This is classic Giallo with gorgeous direction, innovative and VERY gory kills and style oozing out of every frame. Listen for the fantastic cackle the Red Queen gives after each murder as she relishes her evil deeds. She reminds me of Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! who used to laugh loudly after doing something reckless and thrilling.

The film is also sleazy as hell. This is one of the things about Giallo that I love the most- the impeccable interiors, perfect hair and make-up, the gorgeous aesthetics. In short, stylisations that are in stark contrast to the messy dabblings of the main characters.

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Kitty- immaculate hair and make-up

Theres a wonderful Scooby Doo moment near the end with a mask being pulled off to reveal a true identity (not the caretaker in this instance) and massive plot points being spat out faster than a snitch giving evidence. One of the final scenes does for rats what Jaws did for sharks. It’s fantastically gross.

The use of the colour red evokes the horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now which was made the year after this film. Had Nic Roeg seen this brilliant film prior to making it?

This film is great fun. And has a soundtrack to die for (no pun intended). I look forward to buying the Arrow Blu ray.

4 stars out of 5

Review- Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Review- Daughters of Darkness (1971)

A newly wed couple stay at a spawling and very beautiful old hotel in Ostend, Belgium. Stefan has married Valerie without telling his mother and so Valerie is keen for him to call to inform her of their union.

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Valerie and Stefan

A couple of women arrive at the hotel- the very glamorous Elizabeth and her younger companion Ilona. They seem beguiled and utterly captivated by Valerie and Stefan. And so the character’s paths meet in what turns out to be a fantastic updating of the vampire genre.

Lesbian chic was popular in vampire movies in the 70’s and Daughters of Darkness is a worthy example of this. It’s quickly established that Elizabeth and her companion are more than just friends but this point isn’t laboured and is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. In fact, there are plenty of narrative strands within the film that are just as enigmatic and not needlessly over-explained. This is something that I love as it grants the audience with a modicum of intelligence and forces viewers to make up their own minds regarding backstory and context. As we have seen from newer horror films, especially the prequels made for classic horror films, over-explanation kills mystery and the horror element of these films. What made Leatherface the way he is? Who cares especially if the film sucks!

Another example of this mystery occurs when we see Stefan finally call his mother. ‘Mother’ turns out to be a very effeminate homosexual man not unlike a more sinister version of Quentin Crisp. ‘Mother’ isn’t happy about the marriage and lets Stefan know this. In fact, this episode in the film makes us ponder who Mother really is, his relationship to Stefan, Stefan’s true sexuality and in fact, why Stefan has married Valerie in the first place. Did the shifty and malignant character of Stefan have his own agenda and intentions in his recent marriage, just as Elizabeth and Ilona have their own agenda?

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‘Mother’

Stefan’s call to his ‘Mother’ instantly triggers a violent and angry reaction from his as he starts to beat his new wife with a belt in a shocking outburst of violence. We see that he is capable of these outbursts as he is of lying and other underhand behaviour (we witness the note he passes to the concierge regarding an earlier phone call to his mother which he doesn’t want to make yet).

The vampiric murders occurring in Ostend lend a chilling backdrop to the proceedings in the hotel. This reminds me of the murders that take place in Venice that are secondary to the main narrative in the film Don’t Look Now. This device works so well within the horror genre.

The use of the colour red in Daughters of Darkness also reminds me of the use of the same colour in Don’t Look Now, in particular the little girl’s coat. In Kumel’s film the blood looks like aesthetically pleasing red paint and is redder than red just like in the pop art masterpiece that would come later, Dawn of the Dead. The lips of both Elizabeth and Ilona are also both painted the same shade of red.

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The detective who is constantly on the edge of proceedings reminds me of Kinderman in The Exorcist and brings out the detective element which was so prevalent in Giallo films. The ‘whodunnit’ element was a key element of the original crime novels with yellow pages of which the Giallo film genre is primarily based on.

The film features stunning direction by Harry Kumel, haunting photography and uniformly stunning performances.

But theres one performance that deserves special recognition and that is of Elizabeth by Delphine Seyrig. I don’t think I’ve seen such a well rounded, bewitching and captivating turn in any other horror movie. She is utterly believeable as Bathory- alluring, seductive and every other divine quality that the character would need to entice in her prey.

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As if that wasn’t enough she has a wardrobe that is three parts Marlene Dietrich and one part Siouxsie Sioux (Kumel has mentioned that he modelled the character on Dietrich and Ilona on Louise Brooks, a perfect pair of influences). Seyrig is one of the most divine creatures to have ever graced the screen.

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When I first saw Daughters of Darkness in the 80’s on Channel 4 here in the UK, I couldn’t believe how perfect the film was. On revisiting it I’m left with the same feeling. Impeccable.

5 out of 5 stars

Review- The Black Panther (1977)

Review- The Black Panther (1977)

I remember one summer when my family was on holiday at my aunt’s house in Stoke on Trent my father took us to what appeared to be a disused reservoir within a park. He explained that under the grate he showed us a young woman was once held for ransom. Her name was Lesley Whittle and Donald Neilson, her abductor had left her tied up in this underground hell completely naked except for a hood over her head and a noose made of wire around her neck which would kill her if she tried to escape. She wasn’t found in time and so died after Neilson didn’t get the ransom he demanded. Yes, this was just an average day out for my family.

The criminal who carried out this was nicknamed in the press ‘The Black Panther’. After carrying out a series of armed robberies at post offices, he set about the abduction of Whittle so that he could demand a hefty ransom and reap more lucrative rewards.

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A couple of years after this kidnapping happened a film was made of these events. It was felt in the media that this was too soon and certain censorious channels sought to prevent the film being shown at cinemas throughout the UK. How this was achieved was by pressure being placed on local authorities who in those days had a lot of power regarding films being shown. The BBFC could make a decision on a film and whether it should be left uncut, censored and banned outright but then the film was at the mercy of local authorities and councils as to whether the film would be aired in their respective boroughs.

This is what happened with The Black Panther and why it was as good as suppressed in the UK. The TV show Tonight were part of this campaign to prevent the film playing with the show’s host Sue Lawley dubbing it a ‘sick film’ even though she hadn’t seen it.

The film resurfaced in the 80’s on VHS but aside from that remained buried as it were (pun not intended). That’s until the BFI restored the film a few years ago and issued it on Blu ray.

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So is this film really some kind of hidden gem worthy of rediscovery? In a word- YES! It’s a bleak account of a psychopathic man embarking a life using his lack of conscience to try to get rich quick after leaving the forces. In fact his time in the army is looked back on by Neilson through rose tinted spectacles as he reminisces about it but also brings that past into his present as he struts around in his attic in his old uniform reliving his glory days. He even lives in the wild as if on an army retreat for days at a time whilst he plans his crimes- firstly, the robbery of the post office substations and then the kidnapping of Whittle. We see him use his training at home also again in his attic/office to plan these projects with military precision.

The Black Panther is just like it’s main character in that it’s completely cold, emotionless and detached. This may sound like some kind of criticism but it works brilliantly well. This is the film equivalent of the objective and fact based kind of crime reportage used with no editorialising whatsoever. Even the screen captions to denote dates and places is done so by utilising the font of a typewriter to denote the fact-based reporting of facts. In fact the film brings to mind the reconstructions that were part of the true crime TV show Crimewatch UK, especially the ones featured in the earlier series that were shot on film.

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It’s also interesting to see an emotionless character like Neilson operating in the real world and with other people who possess the empathy chip even though he doesn’t. The scenes of him at home with his wife and family are darkly entertaining and sometimes downright shocking. He expects his wife to be little more than a hausfrau who serves him and him alone. He barks his disapproval at every turn and over the most mundane things that can’t be controlled (we see throughout the film that Neilson wants control over everything in his life but life doesn’t work like that. Each of his robberies are besieged and altered from running smoothly by factors that are beyond his control). One example is when he doesn’t even look at his wife but raises his tea mug to let her now that he wants it to be filled again. After she dutifully does this he then takes a sip and screams that the tea is ‘too hot!’

There also another very perceptive insight into his home life as we see his teenaged daughter ask if she can go out to see friends. He says no and explains that she will spend money whilst she’s out and that it’s better to save instead for a rainy day. His daughter then whispers to her mother that her father has said no and they both look dejected. This doesn’t last long through. Neilson announces that he will be away for two weeks on another job (he says he’s going away to work on projects like house renovations when he is in fact embarking on his army style manoeuvres). We see a sly smile spread across his daughter’s face at the news as she exchanges very knowing glances with her mother as if to say ‘Hooray! He’s out of our hair for a while!’

The film also acts as a snapshot of what life was really like in 1977. The red phone boxes the killer uses, the thoroughly ugly headboards and brown pyjama sets worn by the sub postmasters when they are rudely awoken in the middle of the night by Neilson robbing their business. The film also shows how terrifying it must have been to be woken up by a man in a blood hood brandishing a sown off shotgun in your face.

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The BFI have done a great job with the Blu ray for the film as it looks and sounds amazing. There are also exhaustive liner notes from director Ian Merrick as to the curious history of the film, it’s unwarranted suppression and it’s re-emergence on Blu ray. There are also a wealth of extras such as short films and raw footage shot when locations were being sought for the film.

The Black Panther can now be seen for what it always was- an outstanding true crime film that was ahead of it’s time.

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

Review- Despair (1978)

Review- Despair (1978)

Dirk Bogarde stars in this 1978 Fassbinder film as Hermann, a chocolate factory owner living in Berlin during the Weimar Republic who suffers from dissociation. He dreams of escape. On his travels he meets a homeless man who he thinks can imitate him in a scam. This will involve his faked murder so that he can escape his life. His wife will then receive a substantial insurance pay out because of his supposed death. In reality Hermann will vanish to Switzerland, live below the radar and start a new life. Will Hermann’s plan go without a hitch?

I love the mystery of this film. It really is a puzzle of a film and sweeps us along on it’s gorgeous journey. Twist follows turn and back again. 

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The whole cast are perfect with Dirk Bogarde being perfect as Hermann. The screenplay is brilliantly adopted from a Nabokov novel by Tom Stoppard with snappy and wicked dialogue that positively crackles.

The look of the film is muted and also beautiful because of it. It lends massively to why the film works so well as it’s visually and uniformly a treat for the eyes. Enjoy the ride which will keep you guessing until the final frame.

**** out of *****

 

 

 

 

Review- The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

Review- The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

This 1978 Fassbinder movie starts with the film’s eponymous hero Maria getting married to her husband Hermann in Germany during World War II just as a bomb being dropped threatens to curtail proceedings. Thankfully the couple’s union is officially sealed and Hermann then goes off to fight in the war himself.

After learning later that her new husband has been tragically killed Maria starts to go to a local bar frequented by American soldiers to work as a waitress. She meets a black US soldier called Bill who she then starts a relationship with. They are just getting it on one day when…to tell you anymore would be to reveal a huge plot detail that I’m not going to spoil for you!

I first heard about this film when at university studying Film Studies as one of my tutors had the poster for the movie on her office wall.

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Whilst it’s interesting to see a character doing what needs to be done to survive and indeed prosper within challenging circumstances, I found this film to be a bit, erm, flat. I’ve read great reviews regarding it with many critics and casual viewers stating the opinion that this is one of Fassbinder’s best movies. When it was originally released it not only wowed the critics but also performed very well at the box office. But I think that this is maybe because many of the more radical and idiosyncratic aspects of Fassbinder’s films aren’t present here hence making it more palatable for cinemagoers used to more mainstream and linear films.

I think that if you have a lead character who can become so detached and cold as to exploit those around her for her own gain even if it’s done in exceptionally destitute circumstances, you don’t have an especially likeable character who audiences can engage with. At least that’s what I felt. Plenty of critics and moviegoing audiences disagree though.

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Not a complete disaster by any stretch of the imagination with great acting and fantastic cinematography as ever by Michael Ballhaus who would go on to work with Scorsese after his tenure with Fassbinder was over.

**and a half out of *****