The eyes! An appreciation of The Beyond

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And you will face the sea of darkness,

and all therein that may be explored.

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The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

Look, let’s get this out of the way first – The Beyond might just be my favourite horror film ever. It’s a masterpiece of grand guignol gothic horror, combining sinister atmosphere and full blown gore freakouts into one perfect package. The plot, if you really need one, concerns Liza, who has inherited a Louisiana hotel. Naturally, the hotel is built on one of the seven gateways to hell (bet they don’t put that in the brochure) and Liza, along with her doctor friend John, find themselves centre stage of a miniature zombie apocalypse.

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It’s a film where everyone involved seemed to be at the height of their powers. Sergio Salvati’s photography is some of the most evocative the genre has ever seen, capturing the sweaty terror perfectly, the earthy browns that dominate the colour palette contrasting with the red blood of Gianetto De Rossi’s extreme splatter sequences. Special mention has to be reserved for the score by Fabio Frizzi, heavy on the mellotron and squishy bass noises. If you don’t get chills when that first choral score kicks in over the opening credits as flames erupt from the book of Eibon, then you may be reading the wrong blog.

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Even the casting, so often a weak point, is spot on. David Warbeck is the ideal macho manly-man and Catriona MacColl carries the film in what could otherwise have been a thankless damsel-in-distress role. Try and imagine this film with Zombie Flesh eaters alumni Tisa Farrow and Ian McCulloch in the lead roles and shudder in fear at what could have been!

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Everything about the film is deliciously off-kilter. People seem to walk around in a daze, speaking only in doom laden tones of ominous portent. There’s no room for small talk here. The characters for once seem to have backstories, which are alluded to but never explained. Why does Arthur seem so concerned about Joe The Plumber? Did Joe and Martha used to be a couple? Why does everyone keep exchanging strange, nervous glances? And why does no one seem concerned at all the corpses floating about in the basement?

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There are several surreal touches that push The Beyond out of the realms of the standard zombie movie and into nightmare logic territory. When Liza meets Emily, the odd blind girl with all the answers, Emily gets frightened and runs away. In a truly avant-garde moment, the sequence replays five or six times, with Liza gradually coming to the realisation that Emily did not have footsteps and may in fact be a ghost. It’s something you might expect to see in an Alain Robbe-Grillet film, not an Italian exploitation picture. Then there’s a scene about halfway through that seems to sum The Beyond up perfectly.

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Joe The Plumber’s daughter is waiting in the morgue while her mother goes in to see the body. There’s a bone chilling moment where a squeaky gurney goes past her, followed by a scream from her mother. The girl goes in to investigate and finds her mother lying on the floor with acid pouring on her face. A vaguely funky piece of horror music starts to play as the girl is chased around the morgue by a gelatinous pile of goo, until she opens a door and a corpse falls on her. None of it makes a lick of sense, but it’s carried out with such devil-may-care aplomb and skill that the lack of logic becomes a plus for even the most level-headed viewer.

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There’s almost too many great moments to talk about – the choreography and staging of Martha’s death, the abandoned hotel coming to life with zombie silhouettes in the window, the entire hospital sequence, it just goes on and on.

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All this good stuff is easily enough to make you overlook the film’s occasional flaws, like the preposterous pipe cleaner spiders or the hospital sign that reads ’DO NOT ENTRY!’, although Al Cliver hooking a decomposed corpse up to brainwave machine may be too much for some to swallow.

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But if all this talk of surrealism and experimental cinema is too much for you, then know this – The Beyond is one of the goriest, most spectacular films of the 80s. Eyes are routinely gouged or popped from sockets. A throat is torn out by dog in a scene that looks at Cujo’s canine carnage and laughs. A man’s face is torn apart by spiders, and a child gets a magnum blast right to the face.

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Fulci would never top The Beyond – I doubt any director ever could – but at least he had one more masterpiece in him, the delirious The House By The Cemetery.

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Music recommendations

Sometimes it’s nice to have a change of pace.

I’m keen to not limit myself too much with this blog. Yeah, I love horror, as I’m sure you’ve gathered. It’ll always be my number one, the gift that keeps on giving. I also love pugs, as my Instagram followers know only too well.

But man, I love music, big time. Yeah I know, who doesn’t?

SIDE NOTE – If you ever meet someone who says ‘I don’t really listen to music‘, then slowly back away. These people do exist, I’ve met them and will never truly understand them.

Music is wonderful. There are so many albums that upon listening to transport me back to the exact time I first heard it, or more accurately first fell in love with it.

Usually it takes me back to a childhood holiday, but it’s not always so glamorous. Listening to Italian power metallers Rhapsody will forever remind me of taking the X95 bus to small Scottish town Galashiels (defining feature – an annoying one way street system and a big Tesco). Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream album transports me back to sleepovers at my friend George’s house. I fell in love with Nebula’s stoner rock classic Charged while smoking in the rain outside work at 7am in the pitch black Scottish winter mornings.

Even now, I’m always seeking out new music, although it’s getting harder to find. Most modern pop and rock leaves me pretty cold, but there’s a whole world of stuff out there from the past ripe for rediscovery. With that in mind, I thought I’d recommend some bands and songs that I love. Maybe you will too?

Let’s find out, eh?

SHIVVERS – NO SUBSTITUTE (1979-1982)

Recorded around 1980, Shivvers were a power pop band from Milwaukee that released one 45′ record and nothing else. Luckily, in 2006 an enterprising label released the 20 songs they had recorded. What makes them stand out for me is the terrific vocals and songwriting from frontwoman Jill Kossoris. One of those poor lost bands that could have – no, should have – been huge.

SCOTT WALKER – TRACK THREE (1984)

Scott Walker is pretty famous. If you know him at all, it’s probably for his 60s pop band The Walker Brothers (Make It Easy On Yourself, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore). Or perhaps you know him for his profoundly depressing solo albums (Scott 1-4)? You maybe even know his mind-blowing avant-garde work in the last 20 years. Honestly, it’s all terrific. But my favourite album of his is one of his least known – 1984’s Climate of Hunter. It’s super weird, mixing the dark lyrical themes of his early work with the experimental soundscapes of his later songs, but put through a sinister 80s pop filter. This song (featuring Billy fucking Ocean!) is the most commercial on the album, with it’s synths and guitar solo, but there’s a strange atmosphere unlike any other ‘pop’ album I’ve ever heard.

BAL SAGOTH – DREAMING OF ATLANTEAN SPIRES (1995)

Ah, Bal Sagoth, the band that even metal fans seem to turn their noses up at. Sure, some of their songs can be pretty heavy on the cheesy synth trumpets, but I’ve rarely heard a band evoke such a feeling of true cosmic horror as Bal Sagoth do on their first album, A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria. Inspired by HP Lovecraft and Robert Howard, this song, the opening number, slows down halfway through for a chilling spoken word section, before blasting back at the 4 minute mark with one of my favourite riffs of the 90s.

THE BEACH BOYS – LET US GO ON THIS WAY (1977)

How about a change of pace? I could probably devote an entire blog to my love of The Beach Boys. My favourite band for nearly 20 years, they mean an awful lot to me. The 1970s were a turbulent time for them though. Their leader Brian Wilson was in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction and had serious mental health issues. As a sort of therapy, he was forced to write an album for the band (who were at this point struggling and directionless without their talismanic chief songwriter. The result was an album that you will either turn off in disgust or instantly fall in love with. All but abandoning the intricate production and complex harmonies of their earlier songs, instead we get Carl Wilson bellowing nonsense lyrics over a parping synth bass line, and it can only really be described as proto-punk outsider music.

COMUS – DRIP, DRIP (1971)

When I first saw The Wicker Man, I instantly fell in love with the extraordinary folk soundtrack by Paul Giovanni. Naturally, I then spent years looking for folk music that captured that same essence of dread that I found so appealing. I found some great bands, but Comus are surely the darkest and most frightening of them all. Everything about this song screams folk-horror nightmare, and if that doesn’t sell you on it then I don’t know what will.

QUAZAR – FUNK N ROLL (DANCIN’ IN THE FUNKSHINE) (1978)

That Comus track was pretty intense, but I don’t want to leave you on a downer. So here’s some exquisite late 70s funk from ex-members of the legendary Parliament. I’ve not much to say about this song, other than it’ll make you want to dance and that goddam bass line will lodge itself in your brain. The only problem with music this funky is that if I’m listening to it on my iPod, I can’t help but walk in time with it. I can’t help it, it’s some subconscious call of the funk.

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Horror Holidays and Movie Locations

I love visiting horror movie locations, guys.

There’s just something about walking in the footsteps of Dario Argento, Jess Franco etc that I get a real kick out of.

It all started innocently enough. My now-fianceé Heather and I were going on our first holiday together and had decided on Spain for a few days. We wanted somewhere nice and quiet to relax, and so chose a delightful little coastal town called Calpe, located just far enough away from Benidorm.

And that was where it all started.

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The Peñon de Ifach, a giant slab of limestone rising out of the sea. It’s the main tourist attraction of Calpe (and also the most dangerous – I tripped and nearly plummeted to my death), but I knew it from somewhere different.

Jess Franco’s Bloody Moon.

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The Peñon de Ifach actually crops up in several Franco films, including Attack of the Robots (1966) and Eugenie (1980).

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But that wasn’t even the best. Because after a bit more research, we discovered Calpe was the home to the architecture of Ricardo Bofill.

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Yeah, if you’ve ever seen Franco’s She Killed In Ecstasy, this building will be instantly recognisable.

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40 years later and nothing has really changed, apart from a fence put up for health and safety.

Right opposite is another iconic building featured in several Franco flicks.

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It was quite a feeling to imagine I was standing in the exact place that Uncle Jess must have stood with his camera. And it wasn’t over yet!

On our last day, we had to fly back home from Alicante, home to the Castle of Santa Barbara, where Franco shot several of his more gothic films, such as Count Dracula and Dracula Prisoner of Frankenstein!

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The next year, we decided to go on a short break in February down to the English Peak District. We booked a lovely wee cottage in a village called Castleton. I remembered that one of my favourite zombie films, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, had been shot around the Peak District (not the Lake District, as the film seems to imply.)

I did not expect to discover that Castleton was where much of the film was actually shot!

2014

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1974

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2014

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1974

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A 15 minute drive away was Hathersage, where the film’s first major zombie action was shot outside the church.

The sign outside was a dead giveaway that we had arrived.

2014

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1974

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The sign is a bit splintered at the bottom, but otherwise intact after 40 years.

We looked for the big cross tombstone to get our bearings.

2014

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1974

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And there it was. Sadly, the entrance to the cellar was padlocked, so we never got to meet Guthrie and his friends.

Not far from here was also Thor’s Cave, a magnificent cavern that you may remember from Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.

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In 2015, Heather and I headed on a mini tour around Europe, taking in Munich, Lucerne, Venice and Rome, on the trail of Dario Argento.

First up was Munich, where we quickly tracked down the location of the extraordinary opening double murder of Suspiria.

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We tried to get to the plaza where the blind man has his throat ripped out, but it was being refurbished or something.

Regardless, we moved on to Switzerland, where we didn’t find any locations, but we did get engaged, and then on to Venice, where naturally we recreated the famous ending of Don’t Look Now.

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Yes, we brought the red raincoat specifically for this photo.

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Lastly, Rome. The main one here is the Piazza Mincio, where some of the action in Inferno took place.

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This is a good time to mention that my poor fianceé Heather doesn’t actually like horror movies! Though I did persuade her to sit through Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and Bloody Moon, she had never seen any Dario Argento films…until that evening in Rome, when we got back to the hotel, switched on the telly and there it was…

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Dario’s Deep Red, in unsubtitled Italian. The perfect end to a holiday!

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Rings and the sad state of studio horror

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Rings, the latest US entry in the Ring franchise, made me wonder why I even bother going to see modern studio horror films anymore.

Sadly, I’m not joking.

It’s not even as if Rings is a terrible movie, because it’s not. It’s totally competent in every conventional sense. It is professionally made by, y’know, professionals, and it money has definitely been spent on it.

It’s just so utterly soulless, so devoid of freshness and originality and ideas, so bland and homogenised that halfway through you’ve forgotten what film you’re even watching.

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It didn’t have to be this way.

I listened to an interview with the director, F. Javier Gutierrez on the Shock Waves podcast and he spoke passionately about his attempt to marry his ‘extreme ideas’ with the studio’s wish for a mainstream movie with young, attractive stars.

Javier, I believe the studio won this particular battle.

There are glimpses at the start of what could have been. An opening scare on a plane, almost entirely unrelated to the rest of the movie, suggests an over the top rollercoaster ride of multiple Sadakos (damn, I mean Samaras) emerging from every built-in tv screen, but doesn’t actually go there.

Then, we discover a scientist (well, a biology teacher) who has set up a large scale experiment to study Sadako (Aaaargh, Samara, whatever). A line is dropped about Samara (nailed it!) getting angry about being messed around with, and all sorts of possibilities as to where this story could go are still racing through my mind when the thread is unceremoniously forgotten about to focus on a virtual remake of the original, but with added young-people-in-their-underwear.

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And so follows a plodding retread of The Ring, tiresomely trudging from one tedious expository sequence to the next. The once-fresh scares of the Japanese original are now so hackneyed, the filmmakers don’t even bother with them, instead setting up a human villain who falls totally flat.

I almost never walk out of movies (Dogma and Air Force One are still the only two), but after checking my watch and seeing the minutes crawl by for the umpteenth time, I strongly considered it. But I stuck with it, hoping my perseverance would be rewarded with a batshit crazy conclusion, an amusing twist, anything. But the climax, when it finally limps around, is the old ‘put-the-villain’s-bones-to-rest’ idea, as fresh as Samara’s corpse at the bottom of that well.

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It’s a tedious, impotent misfire of a movie, a braindead, pandering, charmless slog aimed only at the lowest common denominator. Luckily for the studios, us horror fans are so committed, we will go and see anything.

But no more.

I’ve had enough.

I’ve had enough of sequels, of franchises, of remakes, of prequels, or remaquels, of reimaginings.

I’ve had enough of films where nothing is truly bad enough to be entertaining, but nothing is good either. I’d call it Fifty Shades of Gore, if these films had the balls to go harder than PG-13.

Frankly, I’ve had enough of studio horror.

It’s no surprise that the only great horror films of the last few years have been from just outside the mainstream, where gifted directors have been allowed to follow their own paths and put their obsessions up onscreen unexpurgated. Starry Eyes, It Follows, The Devil’s Rejects, Maniac, all films that push boundaries, that defy convention and often logic, films that stick with you.

It Follows is a great example, coming under fire from, of all people, Quentin Tarantino for not following it’s own ‘rules’. I’m sorry, but who the fuck wants rules? I’d take the strange and unsettling twists and turns of It Follows over the rigorously dry formalism of Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, which devotes it’s entire last act to explaining, in detail, something that never even needed explaining. And the man supposedly loves Fulci’s The Beyond, a film that revels in it’s own nonsensical nature and emerges triumphant as one of the great surrealist horror masterpieces.

Guys, I’ve just had an image of Fulci ramming Tarantino’s head back onto a nail and his eye popping out. Let’s take a breath to enjoy that for a moment.

I think I remember seeing an interview with that most unfairly loathed of directors, the incomparable Jess Franco, where he spoke about how we need more amateurishness in movies. Now I admit I may have dreamt this – my dreams are so boring it’s entirely possible. But regardless, it’s a great quote that perfectly sums up what I look for in a movie these days. People can laugh at Franco’s films, and deride them for not being slick and professional, but they’re missing the point.

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Because what we’re seeing is unique, a one-off vision from a one of a kind man, an idiosyncratic auteurist making deeply personal films. So what if the dubbing isn’t always great, or some shots are out of focus? So what if he has the actors move slowly because they couldn’t shoot slo-mo? So what, so what, so what. There’s a beauty and a poetry alive in his films, a personality, a stunning audio-visual synthesis. The same goes for directors like Jean Rollin, Andy Milligan, Sergio Martino et al, filmmakers whose work is recognisably their own and all the better for it.

What I think I’m saying is this; we need more idiosyncratic horror films. Now I know they’re still getting made outside the mainstream, but why can the two no longer exist hand in hand like they once did? The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining, all studio films by serious directors. But they don’t all need to be classics like those, just give me something that isn’t bland teens being menaced by bland PG-13 ghosts to a bland soundtrack.

It can still happen.

There’s one studio that is bucking the trend, even if they’re not one of the majors.

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Blumhouse Films gives it’s directors a small enough budget to allow to them to have some degree of creative control, and while it’s not always successful, it has given us entertaining and memorable fright flicks like Insidious, The Conjuring, Sinister, Oculus and The Visit.

Compare, for example, Blumhouse’s surprisingly okay Facebook horror Unfriended with the DOA studio version Friend Request, which featured the usual CGI insects. crappy girl ghosts, false jump scares and dream sequences.

What other studio would release a horror film that actually stops for five minutes to allow the lead actor to sing an Elvis song to two children, in a deeply moving scene that tells us more about the characters than a thousand expository scenes? That’s The Conjuring 2, by the way.

Having said all that, you know as well as I do that we’ll still go and see the next dumb studio horror that comes out. Why? Because that’s what we, as horror fans, do.

We trawl through the shit. Sometimes the stench gets too much and we emerge gasping for air. Other times we just vomit. But sometimes…yeah, sometimes…we find that diamond. That one film that reignites our passion for horror, for the fantastic and macabre.

And that film makes it all worthwhile again.

Happy hunting guys.

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Labyrinth by Eric Mackenzie-Lamb (1980)

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IN THE DEPTHS OF THE SWAMP LURKED A GRUESOME NIGHTMARE

Nope. Not really, anyway.

Labyrinth is difficult, because I liked it quite a bit, but it also lied to me. It promised me a gruesome lurking nightmare, something ‘even more sinister than grisly human remains’. It promised a ‘terrifying secret’. It delivered on none of this.

And yet…it’s pretty good!

It’s horror in as much as Deliverance is a horror tale. There’s a killer on the loose, who we meet in the first 40 pages or so, making a mockery of another of the books claims (’til at last the crazed killer is revealed!’), as well as a professor hiding out in a swamp from a false rape claim. There’s also the mystery of some lost Mexican money, and an opening flashback that is utterly pointless. There’s ALSO some to-do about immigrant workers, and some nonsense about an old poacher who exists solely to act as a ridiculous deus ex machina…

So yeah, despite not really being much of a horror, it’s a fairly effective thriller in parts. With the exception of one scene, it chugs along quite nicely. The scene in question follows the rules of pulp horror, whereby an ‘expert’ in something has to stop the book dead in it’s tracks with a terribly boring explanation. Childmare had it’s dreaded ‘facts about lead’ sequence, while Labyrinth goes one better with the question –

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Oh god, you just know the next 5 pages are going to be eminently skippable.

Anyway, all the totally disparate storylines somehow come together in the last 50  pages or so, and it all kicks off with some vicious action culminating in a chase through the swamp.

Like I said, it’s a fun read, but I do wish it hadn’t been mis-sold as a supernatural tale of unrelenting horror. That’s just setting me up for disappointment!

WHAT BORIS THOUGHT: Boris was too busy marvelling that paperback books, only 35 years ago, cost £1.25. Now THAT is scary.

OVERALL: 3 paws out of 5

THIS EDITION: Hamlyn Books, 1980

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Bad Science 80s Horror Double Bill

 

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Hell of the Living Dead aka Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980, Bruno Mattei)

What’s this? An Italian zombie movie you say? Well, sign me right up, I love those. Zombi, Demons, The Beyond, they’re all great. Pardon? It’s directed by who? Bruno Mattei? Oh fuck off then.

Just fuck right off.

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Easily the lamest of the Dawn of the Dead rip-offs, this laughable, cack-handed garbage has eluded me for years, and I wish it had continued to do so. Scientists working at the comically named Hope Centre accidentally unleash a gas that brings the dead to life…WITH TERRIFYING CONSEQUENCES.

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It begins with a pair of eggheads deep in the kind of scientific debate that is impenetrable to us normal folk.

“She may not know much about chemistry, but she knows what to do in bed.”

“I’m not surprised, that cute little ass.”

“Ha, I’m more of a tit man myself.” 

Jeez guys, can it with the scientific mumbo jumbo already!

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We then meet our heroes in a direct lift from Dawn of the Dead, where a SWAT team is laying siege to a building. These guys are the best of the best, the toughest of the tough, the kind of elite, crack squad of bad-asses you only find in 80s Italian action movies.

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Crikey, it looks like Dario Argento’s buff older brother (Let’s call him Mario Argento) and Woody Allen.

Here’s a great shot of our unflappable boys in action. The guy on the left seems to be having a stroke and Mario really should be looking where he’s shooting.

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Inexplicably, we next find our lads driving through the jungles of Papa New Guinea, where they meet a reporter and her cameraman.

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The reporter, Lia, is a handy addition to the squad. Upon encountering a small village of natives, she does what any of us would do and strips off, wearing only a thong made from leaves. Thank goodness she remembered to pack that!

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There then follows a twenty – TWENTY- minute sequence that is comprised almost entirely of stock footage, including animals being gutted and what appears to be a real life human corpse.

That’s some way to suck the fun out of your stupid little movie, Bruno.

Once the stock footage ends, our heroes find themselves beset by more zombies and a massacre ensues, with their bullets mostly hitting innocent villagers.

Luckily, there’s an old jungle saying –

If lost in the jungle, just drive in a straight line. Eventually, 

you will come to a children’s play area in an Italian park.

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Wow, it’s true!

Did I mention that the score is just Goblin’s music recycled from Dawn of the Dead and Contamination?

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At one point, the heroine says –

“It’s terrible…those poor people can’t possibly understand what’s going on.”

Could she be talking about us?

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From Beyond (1986, Stuart Gordon)

Ah From Beyond, the curiously unloved follow up to Re-Animator. Shot the year after that film by much of the same cast and crew, in many ways From Beyond is a better film, though I’ve always had a preference for horror played straight over horror comedy.

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As you can see from the banks of computers and the grey sweater/brown corduroy combo, Jeffrey Combs plays a scientist who unlocks the gateway to an unseen dimension that co-exists with ours…WITH TERRIFYING CONSEQUENCES.

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While lacking much of the humour of Re-Animator, From Beyond succeeds on mood and an atmosphere of utter dread, along with the expected slimy gross-out monsters and Barbara Crampton’s boobs.

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It also features Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree, sporting a slick brown leather jacket and white turtleneck, instantly becoming my 2017 style icon.

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Curiously, despite all the heads-being-twisted-off and women in S&M gear, it’s one of the truest onscreen representations of HP Lovecraft’s work I’ve ever seen.

I’m sure he would have hated it, though.

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Faceless (1987, Jess Franco)

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Faceless (1987, Jess Franco)

Ah, Christmas. The season of goodwill, peace on earth, and diabolical Nazi doctors performing human face transplants.

It can mean but one thing – it’s a Jess Franco Christmas movie.

Okay, so it’s barely a Christmas movie, but look here –

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No, not at the boobs, to the left – a Christmas tree! They do reference the season of bankruptcy and consumerism a few times, and it all ends with a jolly soiree on New Years Eve, so I am officially declaring Faceless a Christmas film, alongside Home Alone and Muppet Christmas Carol.

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Faceless is another of Franco’s remakes of the French horror classic Eyes Without a Face, a film he first, ummm, adapted in 1962, as The Awful Dr Orloff. 25 years later and he’s at it again, even featuring a cameo from Orloff, played by the same actor, good old Howard Vernon.

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Faceless is that most rare and precious of commodities – Uncle Jess working with a big budget and real actors. Franco haters can breathe a sigh of relief (or perhaps disbelief), as Franco rises to the challenge and delivers a professional, well made movie that also features all his trademarks and obsessions.

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The lead role sadly falls to the worst actor in the cast, Christopher (son of Robert) Mitchum, a man so wooden he can’t even smile like a real person.

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What the fuck is that even meant to be?

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Crikey, even the corpse is more convincing. Luckily, the film is stolen at every turn by the wonderful Brigitte Lahaie, former porn actress and Jean Rollin muse.

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Whether stabbing a needle into someone’s eye, seducing a famous actress into a three-way or running a respectable health clinic, Brigitte is always on hand to grab Faceless by the collar and drag it out of the doldrums, should the need arise.

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There’s enough gore and yes, even story here to satisfy non-Franco fans. So in the spirit of giving, here’s my Christmas gift to you all – a hearty recommendation of Faceless.

What, you want more? No problem. Here’s the theme tune, which plays at least once every ten minutes.

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.

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