31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 2- The Honeymoon Killers (1970) ****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 2- The Honeymoon Killers (1970) ****

Fat nurse Martha Beck is joined into a lonely hearts club by her best friend Bunny. Almost instantly she starts to correspond with a man called Raymond Fernandez. Their correspondence grows more intense with the bond between them being so strong that Martha invites him to her home in Mobile, Alabama. After a night of wild passion he leaves her to go back home but not before he has secured a loan from her.

She then receives a letter from Ray breaking up with her which causes Bunny to ring him to say that Martha is suicidal because of this. When Ray is relieved to find out that neither of them have involved the police, he invites Martha to New York to visit him. When she gets there he lets the cat out of the bag- he is a professional hustler who cons lonely women out of their money and moves onto his next target. Martha is so in love with Ray that she stays by his side and even becomes his accomplice as he commits his next crimes.

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This movie is based on the true life crimes of a couple dubbed The Lonely Hearts Killers with the film using their real names. The film was also originally to be directed by a young director named Martin Scorsese (wonder what happened to him) but he was fired several days into the shoot as he was just taking so much time getting master shots set up whilst not shooting any coverage shots (according to himself. He even went on to say that it wasn’t probably for the best for the film that he was fired as the film was made on a low budget and needed to be shot quite quickly). Leonard Kastle stepped into the breach instead and does a phenomenal job. The film looks gorgeous and is framed to perfection. It’s almost like any frame from the film could be hung in an art gallery and admired. The monochrome look of the film is also astounding and reminds me (as does the film as a whole) of Brian De Palma’s masterpiece Sisters.

The cast are exceptional also with Shirley Stoler utterly iconic in her role as Martha and Tony Lo Bianco also iconic and perfect casting as the money-hungry lothario Ray.

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This movie is on The Criterion Collection as it deserves to be. In fact, when I rewatched the film for this review I was getting strong John Waters’ vibes from it. It was almost like a lost Waters film from around the time of Multiple Maniacs (also deservedly on Criterion) and I could imagine either Divine or Edith Massey playing Martha and Tab Hunter playing Ray. Maybe in a parallel universe this movie was made.

Apparently Francois Truffaut named this movie was his favourite American film. And if that doesn’t act as a high enough recommendation for you to see the film then I don’t know what will.

When the film first played in the UK it was as part of this double bill

**** out of *****

Book of the Week- The Film Handbook by Geoff Andrew

Book of the Week- The Film Handbook by Geoff Andrew

My first Book of the Week is The Film Handbook by Geoff Andrew and published in 1990.

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This is a book that lists a MASSIVE range of auteurs and directors, gives a potted history of their film career so far and then names selected highlights from their filmography that every film fan should see whether they are a casual viewer or a serious cineaste.

Sounds basic doesn’t it? But that’s the beauty of this book. The other thing I love about this tome is the fact that it introduced me to the work of many directors I had never heard of before. It’s scope is huge with prominent and obscure directors from many different countries getting the recognition they so rightly deserve but very rarely do. The same can be said regarding ‘cult’ directors with there being no film snobbery within the pages of this book. Which is perfect for this website!

There’s also an introduction by a certain Mr Martin Scorsese who voices the opinion that the book is indispensable even if he disagrees with Andrews’ opinion on some directors and films. And so, if this book is held in such high esteem by Mr Scorsese, it must be bloody good!

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Review- The Night Visitor (1971) ****

Review- The Night Visitor (1971) ****

This Swedish thriller was long thought to be lost. I’m glad it’s now newly discovered and released on Blu ray.

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It tells the tale of a mental institution resident who is thought to have escaped to take revenge on the people involved in his case who forced him to plead insanity. But if he escaped, how did he do it as it seems impossible? Also, doesn’t returning back to the asylum after he has committed the crime just as impossible?

Max Von Sydow plays Salem, the criminal in question and is (predictably) brilliant in the lead. In fact, all of the actors are fantastic with great support from acting heavyweights such as Liv Ullman and Trevor Howard. Theres even a small supporting role by Gretchen Franklin- Ethel Skinner (from 1980’s episodes of EastEnders) herself! No sign of her Willie though (but there is a parrot).

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The locales are gorgeous and provide a very picturesque backdrop to the film’s events whether it be the large imposing monolith of the institution or the gorgeous snow-laden villages that Salem escapes to.

The ending is unexpected and completely from left-field. No wonder the film ends with Salem laughing at the absurdity of it.

A low key delight.

4 out of 5 stars

Review- Dracula (1958) *****

Review- Dracula (1958) *****

I have a long history with this film as I seem to remember it being shown on daytime TV here in the UK in the early 80’s. The thinking probably went along the lines of ‘We have such extreme horror movies now and so it will be safe to show this old 1950’s horror film which couldn’t possibly be seen as being scary anymore!’ I then saw the film as part of a double-bill of Hammer Horror films that were shown every Thursday night on Tyne Tees Television. I got to see most of Hammer’s films during this period as every week there was a new double-bill of two more of the studio’s back catalogue.

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This film, to me, is the definitive Dracula. Freddie Francis’ sweeping direction is perfect when paired with the opulent and beautiful set designs that are just as sweeping. The iconography and more gruesome elements of the narrative that made the Dracula myth more explicit, shocking and graphic were also placed centre stage on the screen for the first time- the fangs, the blood (which I would have thought was imperative to the legend but was often excluded at that point in time for obvious reasons) that appears to be redder than red (and because of this reminds me of Dawn of the Dead), the searing burn marks left by a crucifix being used against a vampire, the ending that leaves nothing to the imagination.

The pace at which the film gallops along at leaves the audience with a feeling of there being no filler padding out the film. Every scene feels essential. The film has no flab whatsoever.

But it’s the casting that is the most innovative and interesting thing about this film. Cushing as Van Helsing is amazing but it’s (unsurprisingly) Christopher Lee as Dracula who impresses. He imbues the role with the authority and menace required but also with something that up until that point hadn’t been fully explored on screen before- sexuality. Dracula has always been a sexy character and Lee’s performance fully exploits and utilises this. There is a seduction and intimacy regarding the ritual he employs to bite his victim’s neck. His vampire gains access to his victims because of his brooding good looks and his aura of the exotic and unknown. He oozes sex appeal just as later the blood of his victims will ooze out of their veins. In fact, there is an impression of his female victims preparing for his visit with baited breath as they lie panting and ready on their beds for him to enter their quarters with a swoosh of his cape. He arrives out of nowhere and in secretive fashion a bit like a much more sinister but no less sexual and stylish version of the Milk Tray man.

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The brooding sexuality of Dracula

Add to this the fact that the film just flows effortlessly and an ending that is still one of the finest climaxes to a horror film ever. It contains special effects that have aged very well indeed and are still a thing of beauty.

When all of these components are added together you have the perfect rendering of the Dracula legend and possibly Hammer’s greatest film.

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Now that’s how you open a film!

Day 24- 31 Days of Halloween- Psychic Killer (1974)

Day 24- 31 Days of Halloween- Psychic Killer (1974)

Arnold Masters has several axes to grind. Hes in prison for a crime he didn’t commit (his mother who had a tumour who due to be operated on but wasn’t. The doctor who was due to undertake the procedure was then found dead in his office by Arnold who was then framed for his murder).

He tells his backstory to a fellow prisoner who confides his story to Arnold in return. His daughter was turned into a prostitute by a pimp. He says to him that he will seek revenge on this man by carving his name into his chest and slitting his throat. Lo and behold, sometime later he tells Arnold that hes done it and without leaving his prison cell. Before Arnold can ask him how, his confident scales the prison fence and jumps from the very high prison wall killing himself. It is later confirmed in the paper that the pimp indeed was murdered in the way the prisoner stipulated.

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Arnold then inherits his friends belongings one of which was an amulet. This allows the owner to leave their body and travel psychically anywhere they want. Perfect for seeking revenge against your perceived enemies and enacting revenge.

Arnold is then found to be innocent and released. Those who failed his mother are then one by one found dead in very strange circumstances that defy logic and reason.

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The original UK quad poster. What a double-bill!

I remember seeing the trailer for this film on almost VIPCO video back in the 80’s. The trailer was extremely evocative and I’m glad to say that now that I’ve seen the film it is every bit as brilliant as it’s trailer.

Early/mid 1970’s America is captured beautifully and the film has it’s own very eccentric character. Check out the murders and how unorthodox they are- whether they involve a shower, a new building’s cornerstone or a bacon slicer and mincing machine! The sequence involving the nurse before she steps into the shower from Hell could have been lifted from one of the great Russ Meyers’ movies.

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Matron!

This is a great concept for a horror movie- someone spiritually leaving their body to avenge their grievances through the power of their minds. Transcendental meditation and other New Age concepts were very fashionable in the 70’s and so it’s great that this should mind it’s way into an exploitation movie made for 42nd Street and the Drive-Ins.

And if you need any other recommendation for seeing this I’ll just say this. It stars Neville Brand!!!Now if that isn’t enough of an incentive then I don’t know what is.

4/5 out of 5 stars

Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

Blu Ray Review- When A Stranger Calls (1979)

I learnt about When A Stranger Calls after seeing the excellent horror film compilation Terror in the Aisles. I then saw the full film and was blown away. I bought the bare bones American DVD release years later and thought that was the best cineastes would get regarding this film.

So I was thrilled when I learnt that the amazing company Second Sight Films were releasing the movie on Blu ray with a ton of extra features. These include the sequel. And the original short film The Sitter that director Fred Walton made prior to the feature length film. And the soundtrack. This sounded like one hell of an amazing package. Does the reality live up to the specs?

The Film-

A young babysitter receives phone-calls asking if shes ‘checked the children’. After numerous calls to the police she learns that the calls are coming from inside the house (this plot device had only been used one time before in film terms with that film being Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in 1974).

After this extremely tense first 20 mins the film shifts gear and the second act of the film involves the killer, the cop determined to catch him and a bar patron the killer first rather clumsily tries to pick up and when that fails, stalks.

The last act of the film involves the babysitter years later again with the killer trying to kill her again.

Lazy critics and film fans will have you believe that the first and last acts of this film are great, with the middle act (and majority) of the film being boring and pedestrian. This is utter rubbish. My thoughts on the film and particularly the middle act of the film can be found here.

When a Stranger Calls is a masterpiece and I believe one of the best horror films ever made. Really. It should be mentioned in the same breath as Halloween, The Shining and Psycho but isn’t. Maybe this Blu ray release will help to rectify this situation.

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Video-

The transfer on Second Sight’s Blu ray is amazing. The picture quality is flawless and visuals crisp even though the intended look of the film is quite soft. I compared this release to the Region 1 DVD I mentioned earlier and this transfer represents a significant step up in terms of visuals especially in the scenes that happen at night or where shadows are involved. One scene that nicely demonstrates this is the nocturnal walk home the character Tracey takes from the bar.

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Audio-

The audio is just as great as the visuals. Previous releases had a tendency to sound muffled and flat in places. Second Sight’s release rectifies this to such a degree that both music and dialogue are crystal clear and easy to hear. There no need for a manual sound mix using your remote with this release as with so many other releases from other labels.

Features-

This release is jam-packed with special features and the kind of features that fans of the film were waiting decades to see.

Firstly, we get director Fred Walton’s short film The Sitter that was made as a short film with Walton hoping to expand this into a full-length feature after the success of Halloween. It’s interesting to see that a lot of the nuance and detail that are present in the When a Stranger Calls are already a part of The Sitter. The ice maker as a source of terror, Dr Mandrakis’ funny line about ‘we even have low fat yoghurt’ and the opening of the front door to reveal a detective are all in place in The Sitter showing that attention to detail was there from the very start. These elements weren’t added as an afterthought into the full length feature. I’ve waited years to see The Sitter and the wait was worth it. It certainly feels like the embryonic streak of genius that would later be more fully realised in the later film.

The Blu ray also includes the TV movie sequel When A Stranger Calls Back. It was great to finally see this film after hearing so much about it. The character arcs of Carol Kane and Charles Durning’s characters feel realistic and authentic and this is a worthy continuation of their stories. As with the main feature the video and audio on this movie are both top notch.

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Also included are interviews with director Fred Walton, stars Carol Kane and Rutanya Alda and composer Dana Kaproff. For a film of which little was known, fans suddenly have a treasure trove of information about the film’s genesis, it’s production and it’s reception. Walton’s interview is the most revealing and is full of anecdotes which shed considerable light on the film. One such is how actor Tony Beckley felt massively insecure about acting with an actress as great as Carol Kane. Colleen Dewhurst said something to him that instantly remedied the situation beautifully and restored his confidence in his abilities.

And if these special features weren’t brilliant enough we also get the film’s soundtrack on CD (a great addition as Dana Kaproff’s score is a massive part as to why the film works so well), a booklet including an excellent essay on the film and a replica of the original film’s poster.

Of all of the Blu rays I’ve bought this year this is by far the best. A great film has been given the treatment it truly deserves. But I have come to expect this kind of product from Second Sight Films as they were responsible for the amazing package released for The Changeling. I look forward to their release of Boys in the Band early next year.

5 stars out of 5.

31 Days of Halloween- Day 29- The Amityville Horror Part 2- The Possession (1982)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 29- The Amityville Horror Part 2- The Possession (1982)

I love a sequel that not only ups the ante regarding the original film but decides to be as extreme as possible and really ‘go for it’.

In this film theres a new family who move into Amityville. You know that any family that includes Burt Young and Rutanya Alda as members is going to be dysfunctional. And, by Christ, I mean VERY dysfunctional. Any film that deals with incest is going to be special. Theres also a domestic violence subplot which is just as shocking.

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Keeping it in the family

Add to that some of the grossest special effects as the teenage son is possessed and transformed into an utter beast of a nightmarish character and you have a great, twisted and truly messed up (in a good way) sequel.

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I remember this having one of the most disturbing sleeves of any horror video in my local video stores which instantly made me want to investigate this further.

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Truly disturbing VHS art for Amityville 2

There is also a scene involving a Sony Walkman which freaked me out so much that it made me question using mine for days after seeing this filth classic.

Don’t miss this messed up gem of a movie.

4 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 26- The Gorgon (1964)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 26- The Gorgon (1964)

A Hammer film that looks to Greek mythology for the basis of it’s plot with the mythical creature known as The Gorgon (a woman with snakes for hair and the ability to turn anyone who looks her in the eye to stone) being adapted and shone through the Hammer Films’ prism.

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This film features the combined talents of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Patrick Troughton who are all amazing. In fact, the storyline between Cushing, his wife and her lover overshadows the actual gorgon at one point. This isn’t detrimental to the film’s narrative though.

This film looks absolutely beautiful. I watched the restored Blu-ray version from the first Indicator boxset and they have done a phenomenal job. I hadn’t even heard of this film before the release of the boxset but I’m glad I did. It’s a brilliant film and deserves to be seen more widely. I would love a cinema release of some of Hammer’s films so that their full glory can be seen on the big screen.

4 out of 5 stars

 

31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- Bug (1975)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- Bug (1975)

An earthquake uproots cockroach-like bugs that can set fire to things and, more importantly for a horror film, also to animals and humans. But never fear, a biology professor played by Bradford Dillman is on the case.

This great little 70’s B movie is directed by Jeannot Szwarc (who would go on to make the hugely enjoyable Jaws 2 and the brilliant campfest that is Supergirl) and produced by William Castle (no introduction needed). Gorgeous Californian locations, bugs setting cats alight (is it un-PC to find this hilariously entertaining?) and also crawling into huge teased 70’s women’s hairdos and letting rip. This is a great popcorn movie.

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But then the movie changes course and gets all metaphysical as the film’s designated bug expert starts to research the incendiary insects in greater depth and even starts to communicate with them!

This is the kind of film that you could stumble upon on a late night TV channel and absolutely love. A low-key joy.

4 out of 5 stars

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31 Days of Halloween- Day 24- Maniac (1980)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 24- Maniac (1980)

William Lustig’s depraved classic was massively controversial when first released. It garnered the ultimate accolades for an exploitation film- it was HATED by Siskel and Ebert (Gene Siskel said he made it to the shotgun murder then had to leave the preview screening as he couldn’t stomach anymore!) and it was picketed by feminist groups.

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Feminists give ‘Maniac’ free publicity

The film centres around serial killer Frank Zito who likes to scalp his victims and place the scalps on top of shop mannequins in his apartment. It’s also shown that hes a victim of abuse by his mother who later died in a car accident (did he cause this?) On the walls of his apartment are paintings of deformed children amongst other things.

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Everyone should have a hobby

Tom Savini provides the special effects and does so with gay abandon. He also stars in the film with explosive results!

Maniac isn’t just a great piece of sleazy horror cinema but is also a snapshot of a time when New York really was run-down, dangerous and crime-ridden. It feels more like a gritty documentary than a film made for 42nd Street. The scene in the deserted subway station at night is the stuff of nightmares!

The movie also places actor Joe Spinell centre stage in the role of Frank. He gives one of the greatest depictions of psychotic psychopathy ever captured on film. Spinell can also be seen in Taxi Driver (he delivers that ‘You talkin’ to me’ line in Maniac) and William Friedkin’s masterpiece Cruising. An amazing actor.

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The film also looks gorgeous. Check out the framing of the murder of the couple on the beach that opens the film. It’s exquisite. In fact the film seems more like a giallo, an opera of blood, splattered brains and strands of hair.

The first time I learnt of the film was when I saw the poster for the movie in a copy of the French horror magazine Vendredi 13 in the mid-80s- a close up of the killer’s midriff and crotch (which leaves nothing to the imagination), the words ‘I warned you not to go out tonight!’ written in spiky font, a knife in one of the psycho’s hands and a severed woman’s head in the other. Even this poster wound up in trouble and had to be censored in certain countries.

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The greatest film poster ever?

The film was rejected for cinema release by the BBFC in 1980 and again in 1998 for a potential VHS release. It was then cut for a DVD release in 2002. But worry not- Blue Underground, the director’s Blu-ray label are releasing a 4K transfer in December.

A sick, disgusting film that proves itself to be worthy of the hype. Highly recommended.

4/5 out of 5 stars