Blu-ray review: The Skull

Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Christopher Lee
Director: Freddie Francis

Well, it’s one way to get ahead in the world of antiques. Peter Cushing stars in this vintage Amicus spooker as Christopher Maitland, a connoisseur of occult paraphernalia who is offered the opportunity to add the skull of the Marquis de Sade to his collection.

Unfortunately, the skull is infused with the Marquis’ spirit. And not with his fun, party animal side either. No, it seems intent exclusively on murder and satanic ritual, and Maitland soon finds himself cracking up as the skull sockets – sorry, socks it – to him with its lethal mind-controlling powers.

Christopher Lee pops up briefly in the role of warner-offer, one of the skull’s previous owners who is glad to be rid of it, but for much of the time Cushing has the screen almost to himself (sharing it with the skull, of course), and as you’d expect he delivers a commendably cool, measured, watchable performance. The person who really grabs the attention, though, is Patrick Wymark (Witchfinder General) as the shady runner who starts all the trouble by offering Maitland the skull in the first place. Sweaty, snuff-taking, endlessly seedy and shifty, it’s a remarkable piece of acting. Squint and you’d think it was Anthony Hopkins doing one his rivettingly monstrous turns.

Adapted from a short story by Robert Bloch, The Skull could probably have done with an extra subplot or two, because there’s a mounting sense of strain as the material is stretched to feature film length. However, Freddie Francis makes up the shortfall with some inventive camerawork and eerie touches – blinking lights, eddying curtains, simple but effective practical FX; prowling tracking shots that make great play with the rich, Bava-esque set-dressing of Maitland’s study; not to mention an extra-creepy skull POV shot. The build-up’s better than the payoff, but considered as a mood piece and an exercise in slow-burning unease The Skull is certainly the genuine article. 7/10

TRANSFER
The widescreen Techniscope stock looks a little coarse-grained at times, but generally this is a very good transfer, with muted tones befitting the sober Amicus aesthetic. There’s a visceral sense of depth and movement in the big set-piece camera set-ups, and all of the occult clutter in Maitland’s study comes up in sharp detail. 7/10

EXTRAS
27-min piece by Kim Newman, in which the critic discusses the place of Amicus in the pecking order of British horror and offers a brief survey of cinematic portraits of the notorious Marquis. ~ 24-min interview with Hammer expert Jonathan Rigby, who discusses the film’s development and issues with the brevity of the script, exacerbated by the fact that the censors asked for a juicy-sounding BDSM-style dream sequence with whips and chains to be excised. 8/10

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Blu-ray review: Seconds

Starring: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens
Director: John Frankenheimer

seconds 1Seconds views very much like a companion piece to The Manchurian Candidate. One offers a nightmare vision of American public life, the other paints a picture of the American psyche cracking up – Kafka meets Freud meets The Twilight Zone.

Based on a novel by David Ely, it tells of an ageing banker who avails himself of the services of a shadowy corporation offering a fake death, rejuvenating plastic surgery and a fresh identity. Emerging from the bandages as ruggedly handsome Rock Hudson, he starts a new life as a painter in Malibu, acquires a tea-leaf reading girlfriend and hangs out with proto-hippies in Santa Barbara (one of the film’s set-pieces is an orgiastic wine-pressing ceremony, complete with daring full frontal nudity). But he brings his old neuroses with him and is soon pickling his new body in alcohol.

As a gay man who made a living playing heterosexual heartthrobs, Hudson must have known a thing or two about false identities, and this shows in the intensity of his performance. Likewise, cinematographer James Wong Howe shoots the film like a man possessed, employing a myriad of eerie techniques such as mounting a camera on Hudson with a harness to give the impression that the world is moving giddily around him (an effect Scorsese was to borrow for Mean Streets).

The screenplay by Lewis John Carlino has nagging flaws – the opening section is disproportionately long, while Hudson’s fall seems a bit too precipitous – but Seconds is a fascinating film which tightens its grip on you the more you think about it. It’s packed with unforgettable images (that first glimpse of Hudson, his new face covered in stitches), the supporting cast are razor sharp (Murray Hamilton is blisteringly good in a brief cameo as another of the “reborns”), there are some decent twists in the home stretch and the ending is absolutely chilling. Don’t wait until your next life to pick up a copy. 8/10

TRANSFER
A very nice transfer, with a little grain (as you would expect) in some of the set-ups thatseconds 2 use available light, but otherwise very crisp, with detailed skin tones, dramatic high-key shots and a sparkling, windblown quality to the beach scenes. Upon its original release, the wine-pressing scene was shown only in a cut form, but here it is restored. 8/10

EXTRAS
Very lively, enjoyable 20 min interview with Kim Newman, who talks persuasively about the film’s merits and surprisingly widespread influence. ~ Excellent audio commentary with John Frankenheimer, crammed with info. He pays tribute to James Wong Howe’s contribution, describes shooting what was a real-life nudist wine festival (Frankenheimer ended up in the vat with his trunks round his ankles) and reveals that Hudson’s Malibu beach home in the movie was actually the director’s own house. 8/10

Blu-ray review: Dragon Inn

Starring: Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Lingfeng Shangguan
Director: King Hu

dragon-inn 1A highpoint of the wuxia martial arts genre, Dragon Inn is basically a western in eastern garb, but what garb it is. In Imperial China, a high-ranking minister’s death is plotted by the head of the secret service, Cao (Pai Ying), an asthmatic albino eunuch in a hairnet (how’s that for a villain?). But not content to leave it there, he dispatches his goons to murder the dead man’s fleeing children. Intending to ambush them, the baddies lay in wait at the remote inn of the title, only to find their plans foiled by a mysterious stranger (Shih Jun) who stops by for the lamb noodle soup. A cool customer who can catch a flying dagger in a pair of chopsticks, he’s soon joined on the side of righteousness by a couple of other colourful characters, including a sword-wielding female who’s about as gorgeously feisty as a girl can be while wearing a bee-keeper’s hat.

If Dragon Inn is obviously indebted to westerns for its iconography of glaring desert, lonely homesteads and gurning bandits, it’s also influenced in a less obvious way by mysteries such as The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo. Before hostilities properly break out, there is some entertaining intrigue as the opposing parties cohabit uneasily under the same roof and break bread together, culminating in a flurry enjoyable night-time shenanigans. But the film’s true raison d’etre is its action set-pieces, many of which involve one side or the other laying siege the inn  and then trying to hold it once taken. There are widescreen face-offs in the grand tradition, with some outstanding location cinematography of rocky plains and lush mountains; pleasing little touches, like the look of weary disgust on a goon’s face when he gets slyly stabbed through a door; and a memorably quirky boss fight to wrap things up.

True, some of its gambits and action choreography have grown a little creaky over the years, but the same passage of time has endowed Dragon Inn with a mellow vintage charm which makes it enormously likeable and engaging. And it has a real ace up its sleeve in the shape of Lingfeng Shangguan, one of the best action heroines the ’60s had to offer. Don’t expect the depths of a Kurosawa action movie – Dragon Inn was never intended to deliver them. It’s simply good swashbuckling fun. With a hairnet. 8/10

TRANSFER
The nature of the film stock means that the interiors don’t hold a whole lot of detail for dragon-inn 2the 4K transfer to bring out, but the exteriors are a different matter. All pale skies and yellow earth, the widescreen colour compositions have strong, burnished hues with a pleasing vintage tint. The colourful Imperial pageantry comes up well, as do minute details of the terrain. The shot of dawn breaking over the inn has particular depth and realism, and there’s also a vivid intensity to the scene where the hero has a tete-a-tete outdoors with one of the head goons, while the mountain backdrop to the final showdown is stunning. 8/10

EXTRAS
Sharp, humorous 15-min video essay by David Cairns, in which he comments on the film’s mixture of action and suspense, its camera techniques and its use of hidden trampolines for high-leaping swordplay. ~ Blurry 2-min reel of the film’s original opening in Taiwan. 6/10

Blu-ray review: Pasolini

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli
Director: Abel Ferrara

pasolini 1Perhaps the most shocking thing about Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini is that it shows the notorious film director living quietly with his mother. As portrayed by Willem Dafoe (who is certainly cadaverous enough for the role), Pier Paolo Pasolini emerges as an austere, donnish figure, who lives largely in his head and keeps his taste for rough trade on the down-low.

The film charts his last day in faithful detail, interweaving scenes of intellectual discussion about poetry, film festivals and politics with dramatisations from a novel and screenplay Pasolini was working on in his final months (the last a Bunuelian fable about a pair of holy innocents who go to a modern Sodom divided into lesbian and gay sectors).

This “final 24 hours” format was an obvious go-to for Ferrara, who has used something like it before on multiple occasions. The trouble is that, apart from in the tragic way it ended, Pasolini’s last day doesn’t seem to have been very significant. Conspiracy theories abound about how Pasolini met his end, but what is surely true is that it was a pattern of behaviour that killed him, not a random bolt out of the blue. In which case, a bolder, more wide-ranging approach might have served Ferrara better.

As we listen to Pasolini giving his views on Montale and chitchatting with friends and family, there’s a sense of cast and director working hard to establish certain documentary truths, but the film doesn’t really seem engaged in trying to elucidate either him or the epoch in which he lived. It touches on certain glaring contradictions in his character – the way, for instance, he preaches communism and the evil of possessions while dwelling in chic middle class comfort and driving around in a fast car which is the envy of the working class boys he cruises – but seems reluctant to explore them in any detail.

Instead, it luxuriates in a fatalistic reverie, the feeling of an inevitable drift towards death. The circumstances of Pasolini’s murder are presented here less as the appallingly thorough and sadistic obliteration of a human being that it was than as a darkly muffled, ritualistic slaughter not unlike the demise of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

And as a slow, hypnotic dance with death, lushly shot and well acted, Ferrara’s Pasolini has its own kind of beauty and elegance, albeit one that’s a world away from the sound and fury of the Italian director’s own work. 6/10

EXTRAS
A pleasantly chatty and light-hearted 42-min Q&A with the director and some of the cast, with Dafoe emphasising their use of factual sources including Pasolini’s own words. ~ An extremely funny and engaging 23-min interview with Robin Askwith (of Confessions of a Window Cleaner fame), who describes meeting the avowedly communist director in the swanky surroundings of the Hyde Park Hotel and then parrying his requests for real-life acts of peeing and fornication on the set of his version of The Canterbury Tales. It’s a lovely piece, although you can’t help noticing his Pasolini sounds nothing like Ferrara’s. 8/10

DVD Review: Nisekoi – False Love Season 1, Part 2

nisekoi 1To recap, Ichijo and Chitoge, children of the bosses of rival yakuza gangs, are forced to become boyfriend and girlfriend as a way of bringing peace to their warring families, despite the fact that they heartily detest one another. Not to mention that Ichijo is already secretly in love with his classmate Onodera, who is as ladylike and feminine as Chitoge is loud and brash.

What fuels his passion for Onodera is his belief that she is a long-lost childhood sweetheart whom he promised to marry many years before. But his recollection is a bit fuzzy, and by the time we’re a few episodes into this second half-season, there are at least two other likely candidates for the role.

And if it wasn’t bad enough being embroiled with two girls while in love with a third, as the series progresses Ichijo starts to wonder if he might not have feelings for Chitoge after all …

Nisokei: False Love isn’t the easiest of anime to get into thanks to its rather contrived plot devices, but its on stronger ground when it sticks to the more traditional elements of romantic comedy – crossed wires, embarrassing misunderstandings, fleeting moments of intimacy rudely interrupted. Despite the harem format, the mood is innocent and there is little of the blatant sexualising of teens which can be a problem for western audiences. Our old friends the resort episode and the end of term Culture Festival crop up, but on the whole the show ekes out its thin material cleverly, and there’s a kind of fascination to the way in which it milks maximum comedy and drama from every situation.

A lot of this is achieved through the animation aesthetic adopted by Shaft – bright and breezy if a little basic at first sight, but piling on the FX, with every gag hammered home with a chibi-styled double-take and a comedic music cue. Nothing we haven’t seen before (apart from some “zombie face” reaction shots from Ichijo which are extremely funny and look new), but Nisekoi pushes the envelope with the sheer quantity of such devices.

Add to this reams of chattering, fast-paced crosstalk and Ichijo’s frenzied interior monologues, and you have a show which might just be a bit of froth, but it’s froth that has been whipped up with some impressive skill. 6/10

Blu-ray review: Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats – Two adaptations by Sergio Martino and Lucio Fulci

Man, you should have seen them filming Edgar Allan Poe! Well, this limited edition box set from Arrow Films shows how they used to do it in the old days with a double bill of Italian adaptations of Poe’s tale The Black Cat. With the fur flying, cat lovers might want to give this one a miss, but Euro-horror fans can look forward to a tasty treat.

YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY

Starring: Edwige Fenech, Anita Strindberg, Luigi Pistilli
Director: Sergio Martino

The name of Sergio Martino might not quite hold the same caché as those of Mario Bava or Dario Argento, but his gialli have a style that’s very much their own, one that combines ’70s loucheness and decadence with Italian flair. Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) is a typically kinky and stylish tale of thwarted passions in the picturesque Italian provinces. Oliviero is a failed writer who takes out his angst on his long-suffering drudge of a wife, Irina, humiliating her in front of the house guests who troop through the fadedly opulent villa that once belonged to Oliviero’s dead mother. One such is Flo, his emancipated niece, but whose side is she on, his or Irina’s? And is it Oliviero or some other unknown culprit who’s going round slashing the throats of some of the local maidens with a sickle?

your-vice 2The script by the prolific Ernesto Gastaldi is loosely constructed, with a slightly unconvincing twist ushering in the third act, but the film gains tautness and purpose from the way Martino handles it, using lurching zooms, wide-angled lenses and blanched, backlit cinematography to whip the story along in a fever of torrid imagery. The murders are brief, bloody and brutal, and in between the twisted, constantly evolving dynamics between the three central characters is a continual source of bubbling tension.

Edwige Fenech was the supposed star of the film, but hers is more of a supporting role to Anita Strindberg’s Irina, and it’s the latter’s statuesque screen presence and amazing swooping cheekbones which dominate proceedings. The relationship between the two female characters – one young and free, one middle-aged and bound to her husband and her household chores – touches on themes to do with the changing status of women in Italy at the time, while also introducing a titillating element of lesbian domination into what is already a heady sado-masochistic brew. In short, Your Vice has pretty much everything you’d want from a giallo – sex, chills and a cinematic brio that’s absolutely to die for. 8/10

TRANSFER
The transfer copes well with the unusual look of the film stock, with earthy flesh tones, soft polaroid-ish colours and subdued, gauzy backdrops all reproduced with great fidelity. Faces are haggardly sharp, and all those loose-knit ’70s woollens come up in minute detail. A scene in which Flo and Irina are sitting on a hill-top in bristling furs has a particular windswept beauty (albeit being rather un-PC). 9/10

EXTRAS
Engaging 34-min interview with the fast-talking Sergio Martino, in which he explains the your-vice 1origin of the title (a line from one of his previous films), discusses shooting in Padua and the state of Italian cinema in the ’70s and ’80s and reveals that he talent-spotted Feneche in a dubbing studio (where she was visiting her boyfriend, an American actor). ~ 24 min ‘making of’, with more thoughts from the director, while Fenech reminisces about feasting on location on farm-made egg and onion sandwiches (which must have made the kissing scenes quite challenging). ~ Thorough and well made 29 min video essay by Michael Mackenzie about Martino’s career in giallo. ~ 29 min piece on Fenech with Justin Harries, who’s clearly a fan, looking closely at her prolific body of work. ~ 9 min appreciation of the film by Eli Roth. 10/10

THE BLACK CAT

Starring: Patrick Magee, Mimsy Farmer, David Warbeck
Director: Lucio Fulci

A leafy English village is being terrorized by a homicidal pussy in Lucio Fulci’s 1981 film. Here’s a thought, maybe it has something to do with the crazy professor trying to commune with the dead? But never mind, with Scotland Yard’s finest riding to the rescue on motorbike, the bodies shouldn’t pile up too much before the whole thing gets sorted out.

As you’d expect with Fulci, his adaptation of Poe’s classic tale has more style than substance, while also being encumbered with a rather literal turn of mind when it comes to delivering feline thrills and moggy mayhem. Consequently, it feels like a series of set-pieces in search of a story, but some of these are pretty colourful, including a sealed room murder which is memorably claustrophobic and a ghoulishly convincing FX sequence where a victim turns into a human torch. Perhaps more surprisingly, Fulci shows a lot of feeling for the bucolic Buckinghamshire locales, and the whole thing is lavishly mounted and set-dressed. It’s also nice to see Patrick Magee getting plenty of screen time in a meaty supporting role. 6/10

TRANSFER
A very strong transfer, with no grain, lots of clarity and a sense of depth to the black-cats 1widescreen camerawork. Details of stonework, textures of grass and water, all look very crisp, and scenes with directional light (such as those in the gloomy local pub) have plenty of presence. Really, you’d think it was filmed yesterday. 10/10

EXTRAS
A 24-min piece in which critic Stephen Thrower makes a solid job of looking at the film’s themes and tropes. ~ He pops up again in a 8-min featurette returning to the movie’s rather beautiful locations in Hambledon, West Wycombe Park and the Hellfire Caves. ~ 20-min interview with Dagmar Lassander in which she talks about the various highlights of her career, including working with Bava and starring in the extremely cool Femina Ridens. ~ 70 min interview with David Warbeck. Filmed in the ’90s, this is in smudgy low-def video, but it’s well worth watching for its wealth of insights into what it was like being a jobbing actor on the Italian scene (for instance, he explains how he would often turn up on set without having seen a script and make it his first order of business to set about tracking one down). 10/10

Blu-ray review: The Firemen’s Ball

Director: Milos Forman

Before cracking Hollywood with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman made his name as a leading figure of the Czech New Wave with films like Loves of a Blonde and this, his first colour feature. It’s a wry and (for the most part) gently humorous piece in which the ball of the title – an annual event taking place in a small town – slowly descends into chaos, with brandy and cake mysteriously going missing from the raffle stall and the Miss Fireman beauty pageant that’s supposed to be the centrepiece of the evening turning into a shambolic non-starter thanks to the uncooperative local womenfolk.

The film has some sly things to say about how fragile and skin-deep social order and solidarity were in Soviet countries, and how little impact the communist experiment had actually had on human nature. All the same, it’s perhaps hard now to recapture the mindset in which The Fireman’s Ball might have seemed imbued with subversive political meaning, especially for a British audience who are more likely to see echoes of Local Hero, On the Buses and Dad’s Army in the way the cast of amiably incompetent, grey-haired buffoons top off one bad idea with another as various problems confront them. Yet the warmth and charm of the film come through, as does the skill of the director in sustaining a naturalistic, ensemble-led aesthetic, while also pulling off a few well-timed gags. 7/10

TRANSFER
The 4:4 aspect ratio film stock isn’t exactly a thing of beauty, but the transfer is very good, with no grain or dirt and plenty of detail in textures of clothes and the shiny grain of wooden tables burdened with beer glasses. A long shot of the crowded hall towards the end, with heads clustered closely together, is particularly striking for its vivid flesh tones and sense of depth. The audio track is also very crisp, with the brass band background music clearly separated from the dialogue. 8/10

EXTRAS
33-min piece by David Sorfa on Forman’s career, with interesting info about his firemens-ball 1collaborators and early reactions to his film, although some of the critic’s comments about the theme of performance and pretence in The Firemen’s Ball seem rather laboured. ~ 31-minute video essay by Michael Brooke about the use of non-professional actors in Czech New Wave films (with some nice clips). He talks about the backgrounds of some of these actors and the methods Forman and others would use to capture their performances. ~ 11-min interview with Forman from 2011, in which he explains how he stumbled upon the idea for the film when he attended a real-life firemen’s ball. ~ 6-min interview with scriptwriter Ivan Passer, who tells the same story and trumps it with another about toiling over a screenplay for Carlo Ponti in a castle in Italy without furniture. 9/10