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 *****

Incredible Melting Merch

Incredible Melting Merch

I love it when I find the unexpected on the internet.

Such as this merchandise that was made for the release of the brilliant horror film The Incredible Melting Man in 1977.

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Why on Earth would a film company commission a children’s costume for a film that was rated for Adults Only?! Did they know that in fact loads of kids would flock to see the film even though it was horror as long as they had a responsible (ahem) adult in tow?

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I love this merch.

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I love forward to unearthing more inappropriate but brilliant movie related goodies soon.

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Day 25- 31 Days of Halloween- Snowbeast (1977)

Day 25- 31 Days of Halloween- Snowbeast (1977)

An abominable snowman turns up at a snow resort and starts killing skiiers. And just before their Winter Carnival! So inconsiderate!

Substitute the snow resort for a Cape Cod coastal tourist town. Substitute the Winter Carnival for the 4th of July. Substitute the Snowbeast for a killer Great White Shark. Boom!

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If this was the 70’s and this TV movie was on the tube and there was nothing else on then it might be mildly diverting. Otherwise, watch something better.

1/5 out of 5 stars

Day 22- 31 Days of Halloween- The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

Day 22- 31 Days of Halloween- The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

I first learnt of this film’s existence by walking past a cinema at the tender age of 4 and seeing a poster for the double bill of this and a TV movie that was shown theatrically in the UK called The Savage Bees (to be reviewed tomorrow night). Even the poster for this genius double bill of terror fucked me up psychologically as I was obsessed with the idea of the villians of both films coming to get me when I was least expecting it.

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I finally saw The Incredible Melting Man years later on TV- and loved it. It harks back to the horror films made for drive-ins in the 1950s. The plot involves three astronauts going on an expedition to Saturn (“You’ve never seen anything til you’ve seen the Sun through the rings of Saturn”). But something goes wrong and the only surviving astronaut, Steve West comes back to Earth to find that his body is slowly melting. We find out that to slow this down Steve who is now insane, must consume human flesh to decelerate the decomposing process.

This film is ripe for people to call it ‘so bad its good’ as if its absolutely terrible. It isn’t- and not by a long chalk.

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Yes, sometimes the acting is a little, erm, natural shall we say (the actress who plays the mother who stops off to steal lemons reminded me of Edith Massey from John Waters’ films. Yes, her acting is that raw!).

But theres also some of the best special effects I’ve ever seen which were crafted by a young Rick Baker. Yes, the Rick Baker who won seven Oscars (take that cinema elitists). The melting effects are very aesthetically pleasing and the scenes in which El Melto sheds an eyeball and leaves his oozing ear on a bush have to be seen to be believed. Watching a severed head splat on a rock after going down a waterfall in slow motion is also a beautiful sight for horror fans.

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Theres also a cameo by a young Jonathan Demme as the boyfriend of a teenage girl played by none other than Janus Blythe who played Ruby in The Hills Have Eyes. Her performance is brilliant. I love any character that goes mad at the horror of what has just occurred. She does a great job with her character alternately crying and laughing manically.

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But theres also a greater depth to this film. There are many scenes of West walking up and down hillsides with the sun setting behind him and with the sounds from the expedition in his head. These scenes show Steve to be completely alone and nomadic. West is a melting freak but not through choice and is so grotesque that he’s utterly ostracised and feels completely separated from the rest of the human race. These sequences reminded me of the melancholic piano music at the end of each episode of The Incredible Hulk or the underlying sadness to the TV programme The Littlest Hobo. The audience feels pity for West and his condition rather than his character being a two-dimensional grotesque baddie with no other sides to his persona.

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Theres also a heartbreaking scene wherein Steve reaches a barrel of water on his wanderings and sees his reflection that makes him cry out and place his head in his heads.

This film also possesses a scene which is the hallmark of a really fucked up movie- someone runs through glass. A nurse runs through a plate glass door after seeing Steve’s face when he removes his bandages for the first time. If this ‘running/throwing yourself through glass’ scene is in a film you know its special and that you’re watching high art. The scene appears twice in Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), twice in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) and once in Halloween 2 (1981)- all great, fucked up pieces of cinema.

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Any film that features the lead character melt in a great big pool of ooze at the end and is then seen being swept up and placed into a trash can by a janitor is A-OK with me.

The next time someone tells you that The Incredible Melting Man is one of the worst movies ever made tell them to fuck off. They wouldn’t know great entertainment if they fell over it.

Day 12- 31 Days of Halloween- The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Day 12- 31 Days of Halloween- The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

In the 80s I was obsessed with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Because of the popularity of this film an earlier Wes Craven film was re-released on video in the UK. That film was 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes. I first saw the video for this release on a video store’s shelves whilst on holiday visiting relatives. Some of these relatives were born again Christians and so I don’t think renting a film about mutant cannibals would really have gone down that well.

On returning to York and away from The God Squad I rented the film from my local video library. I loved it.

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The film was then released shortly after that on retail label Palace Horror and so I bought my own copy of the film which I then watched with shocking regularity.

After these releases the film then seemingly sank into semi-obscurity again. I hoped and prayed for a DVD release that was halfway decent.

It was a long wait but this actually happened courtesy of Anchor Bay. I remember seeing the request that had placed on many film industry forums for a negative that they could use as the basis for a release. When that release finally saw the light of day the wait was justified. The print had been restored as had the audio. The DVD was also chockful of extras including an alternate ending that none of the fans of the film knew about.

Whilst watching this film for this review I watched the latest release- Arrow Video’s 4K Blu ray which is the best edition of the film so far. The picture is so sharp that Post-It notes posted on a pinboard in the mobile home can be read and the sign outside the garage in the movie can be made out. Hooray for advancements in film technology. Another Arrow Video triumph.

The-Hills-Have-Eyes_ArrowThe film itself is about a family who are travelling to California but decide to look for silver mines that are off the beaten track. The family’s car and mobile home attached to it swerve off the road and the family find themselves stranded. Unfortunately they also find themselves under the unwanted gaze of a local group of mutant cannibals who have grown up in the area which is used by the Army to test nuclear capabilities. The film then develops into a battle between the All- American family and the cannibals.

On watching this film again for this review the strongest feeling I got was just how outrageous the film is. It certainly goes the extra mile in terms of plot and grittiness. In fact the film goes even further than director Wes Craven’s previous film Last House on the Left. At one point during Hills a baby is kidnapped by the cannibals for food. If that isn’t pushing the horror envelope then I don’t know what is! But whilst the film and it’s plot may be extreme there is never a sense that the film is ever gratuitous or sensationalistic but still sets precedents. A good point of comparison here is with the godawful remake from 2006. In this original version of the film there is a rape scene that is signified by the eyes of the victim widening. And thats enough for the audience to know whats going on. The same sequence in the remake is much more drawn out, unnecessary and involves the victim getting her face licked by her cannibal attacker. And thats just for starters. Enough said.

Speaking of Last House on the Left, the artistic leap between these two films seems huge. The Hills Have Eyes is positively polished by comparison to Last House in terms of technical ability, acting and direction. However, The Hills Have Eyes still feels gritty, subversive and downright dangerous- like watching a renowned video nasty classic for the first time. Both Last House and Hills use their low budgets feels to their advantage. It seems like Wes Craven believed that a lower budget just means you adapt to this and rise to the challenge creatively without sacrificing quality. Both films have a documentary and realistic feel to them rather than just being examples of exploitation cinema awash with bad acting.

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In fact, one of Hills’ many strengths is the acting. As soon as you see the name Dee Wallace on a cast list you know that the film will have a certain level of prestige and integrity. She is amazing as are all of the cast. In fact there are pieces of acting within Hills that seemingly exceed the horror genre. One example of this is when Doug gets back to the mobile home to find that family members have either been raped, shot or killed. And on top of that his baby daughter has been kidnapped. His acting on seeing his dead wife is incredible and extremely poignant.

The movie also made a horror icon of Michael Berryman. Even the poster for the film featuring Mr Berryman’s face was iconic. Imagine seeing that poster outside a cinema in 1977. Even if you didn’t know anything about the film you’d still go and see it as the poster and tagline are so brilliant.

Another example of The Hills Have Eyes as a cult classic is that it is endlessly quotable. It also goes to show that they might be nuclear mutant cannibals but they have some great oneliners. ‘Whats the matter? You don’t like dog anymore?!’

Craven has some very perceptive insights to convey regarding issues such as the family, the relationships within the family, the differences between the two families but also the less obvious similarities between them. I could go into these in much more depth along with my other theories about the film but this will be done soon in a separate article about the movie.

For me, The Hills Have Eyes isn’t just a stunning piece of horror cinema it feels like an innovative and genre-defining film that is just as important as The Exorcist, Halloween or Night of the Living Dead.

The Hills Have Eyes will always be in my Top 10 list of favourite films.