The Video Nasties #3 – Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A Romero)

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‘They’re coming to get you, Barbra.’

Only in early 1980s Britain could Night Of The Living Dead have been considered as a possibility for the Video Nasties list. It’s been almost fifty years since the film was released, and has come to be regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, a classic, a seminal movie etc etc. Whole books have been written on the film and its director, George Romero, and while it still holds up as a great movie, I rarely find myself watching it. Why? Because some of it is pretty damn dull.

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Despite being the only black and white movie on the list, NOTLD has something in common with a great many Nasties – it bookends the movie with its best scenes, but spends the middle part flailing around unsure of what to do next.

Oh I know, I know, it’s heresy to suggest that maybe 10 or 15 minutes could be chopped out of such an important film, but bear with me. I’m getting there.

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The first twenty minutes are dynamite. The eerie cinematography and well chosen library music create a feeling of unease from the get go, and in a matter of minutes our heroine Barbra is running for her life from a seemingly unstoppable ghoul. Incidentally, for those purists who bemoan the current trend of ‘fast zombies’, it’s worth pointing out just how quickly that graveyard zombie moves. He goes barreling after Barbra, running round her car like he’s being chased by wasps.

Barbra hides out inside an abandoned farmhouse, where she meets Ben, our stoic (and somewhat misguided) hero. Ben dishes out some pretty brutal violence for 1968 – he batters each zombie repeatedly in the head with a crowbar, before dumping a body outside and setting fire to it. If there ever is a zombie apocalypse, you could do worse than to be stuck with Ben. So far, the film has been tense, scary and exciting.

It had to end.

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The film never gets bad or anything, just…slow. The next 40 minutes grind on, introducing more characters, who argue, sit around and watch tv. It’s certainly realistic, but maybe to a fault. Barbra spends most of this time nearly catatonic, which makes it hard to root for her and Ben makes several poor decisions, not least of which is leaving a giant flaming torch right next to a gas pump. That explosion is squarely on you, pal. Nice one.

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After hours of fake newsreel footage, the film gets back into gear for the thrilling climax, which has the scene that probably caused Night to make the Section 3 Nasties list – the murder of a mother by her trowel-wielding daughter. It’s a savage moment, though compared to some of the outrageous excesses elsewhere on the list it’s tame, almost antiquated. The one scene that still shocks and resonates to this day is the bitter, cruelly ironic ending to the film. I won’t spoil it in case you are the only person in the entire world who’s not seen the film, but it’s a shocker and just as relevant today.

So yeah, Night Of The Living Dead was a game changer and hugely influential, but it’s not really my bag. Just wait til we get to the sequel though.

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The Video Nasties #2 – Blood Rites (1968, Andy Milligan)

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‘My God, it’s so gloomy out there.’

Blood Rites was one of at least five films made by Staten Island gore auteur Andy Milligan in 1968 alone, and is a period piece in which Milligan falls back on that hoariest of cliches, the reading of the will murder mystery.

Three couples, all of whom look exactly alike and are impossible to tell apart, must spend the night at an old mansion on an abandoned island and live ‘in sexual harmony’ for three days, which sounds like a lot of work. On the last day, their father’s lawyer HH Dobbs (‘HH Dobbs? The HH Dobbs? Hubert Humphrey Dobbs?’ asks one of the characters, trying to extend the film’s running time at any cost) will arrive and read the will. However, a hooded killer begins knocking them off, one by one…

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For all its occasional bursts of gore and frequent nudity, Blood Rites feels apart from most other horror films that were singled out by the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions). For a start, the period setting, however unconvincing, is unusual and highly ambitious. It’s a wonder Milligan even bothered, as the film could quite easily have been set in the modern day with no changes to the script whatsoever. But bother he did, and that pretty much says it all.

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Because one thing Blood Rites has is ambition. And enthusiasm, lots and lots of enthusiasm. The cast are game, a welcome respite from the wooden readings delivered by the Blood Feast mannequins. Of course, the muddy sound recording means that often it’s a struggle to make out what they’re saying, but don’t let that spoil your enjoyment.

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The same can be said of the camerawork. The grainy 16mm film is shot handheld (and in dire need of a wide angle lens), but the shaky cam effect adds a verisimilitude to the proceedings and gives the gore a real impact.

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Take the opening murder, which is unrelenting in it’s savagery. Had the camera been fixed to a tripod and shot on 35mm film, we could see the obvious fakery of the man’s (enormous) eyeball being torn out, or of his stomach being ripped open. Okay, so we do hear Milligan giving offscreen directions to his cast (‘Cutting away, move!’) but so what, man. So fucking what. Seconds later, the man’s female companion is similarly hacked up, and it feels like you’re watching a serial killer’s home movie. Okay, so the killer here is never seen again and this entire opening is totally unrelated to the rest of the film but I don’t care. It’s art, with a strange filthy beauty that colours my opinion of the rest of the movie. After those first five minutes, the film slows as we are introduced to the breasts of the three women and the hairy backs of their husbands.

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People are cut off mid sentence by the haphazard editing, but you won’t care because the dialogue goes like this –

‘Did you see anything?’

‘No, I just came out of my room. I heard something, but I just came out of my room.’

They like to repeat themselves. Also, they like to repeat themselves. People talk. They wander. Someone dies, but I’m not sure who – I’m not even sure if it matters. It turns out it doesn’t. A man is sawed in half. More people die and the killer is revealed as the only person it could have been.

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Blood Rites is a real trip, but not for everyone. If you’re idea of a good film revolves around technical competence, then run screaming, now. Also, I’ve got bad news for you – you’re reading the wrong blog.

If, however, you appreciate a little amateurishness in your movies, then give Andy Milligan a go. He was truly a one of a kind.

Milligan continued to pursue his bizarre single minded vision through films and theatre until his death from AIDS in 1991. Penniless, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

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The Video Nasties #1 – Blood Feast (1963, HG Lewis)

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‘Have you ever had an…Egyptian feast?’

*NOTE*

For this epic video nasty marathon, I will be covering not only the Section 1 and 2 Nasties (those that were actually taken to court), but also the Section 3 titles, which were never officially prosecuted but were liable to seizure from video stores. And yes, that means I will be covering 154 films…

We have to start somewhere, so what about here?

1963. The assassination of JFK. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. The beginnings of Beatlemania. And somewhere in Florida, a couple of nudie-film makers prepared to change the face of cinema forever, for better or worse.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the one that arguably started it all – David F Friedman and HG Lewis’ Blood Feast, the first real gore movie.

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Oh sure, there had been movies with scenes of explicit violence before, such as Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1960 Jigoku (The Sinners of Hell), which revelled in full colour scenes of torture and mayhem. But as you can imagine, this Japanese art house classic didn’t really get the chance to play to the masses in the States. No, instead of the classy and beautifully photographed horror of Jigoku, the West’s first real introduction to on-screen gore came via a newspaper with the headline LEGS CUT OFF. It came via a tongue big enough to belong to a giraffe being torn from a centrefold’s throat. It came via Blood Feast, and the world was never the same again.

The only problem? The film, for the most part, is utterly boring.

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The brutal murders of several young women have left the police baffled. The bodies are mutilated, with one victim having had her tongue removed, another her brain and so forth. Six minutes into the movie, the mystery killer is revealed to be one Fuad Ramses, Exotic Caterer. We know he’s old, because he has talcum powder in his hair and eyebrows.

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Fuad is preparing to make a sacrifice – or BLOOD FEAST, if you prefer – to Ishtar, an Egyptian goddess, played by a gold statue so tacky that Michael Jackson would have turned it down on the grounds of good taste. The killings continue until one of the moron cops realises that all the victims were part of the same book group (yes, that is correct). But Ramses is doing the catering for the party of the cop’s girlfriend Suzette, and has plans to make her the final sacrifice, setting the stage for one of the slowest moving climaxes in film history…

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Lewis himself once remarked – and by law, I have to quote this if writing about the man – ‘I’ve often compared Blood Feast to a Walt Whitman poem. It was no good, but it was the first of its kind.’ An astute man, was Mr Lewis. Blood Feast is an incompetent and slipshod production (brought to you by Box Office Spectaculars Inc, no less) that fails on every conceivable technical level. Shots are poorly framed and often badly out of focus. Actors visibly read their lines from cue cards. The pace is slug like, not helped by the fact that Fuad Ramses seems to do everything in slow motion. The dialogue, when it actually comes, is trite and unconvincing (‘Well Frank, this looks like one of these long, hard ones,’ says our brain dead lead cop, perhaps thinking he was in one of Lewis’ earlier softcore movies).

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And that score! Dear god, don’t get me started on that score. The bulk of the music is two timpani drums being hit, at regular, monotonous intervals, making the horror sequences sound like they’re being soundtracked by the footsteps of a cartoon elephant.

But none of that is really the point. This is exploitation cinema at it’s purest and most undiluted. This is two men, tired of shooting skin-flicks, looking to make a quick buck and in the process accidentally inventing a new sub-genre – The Gore Movie.

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The violence, when it comes, is pretty surprising even now, mostly due to the use of real butcher shop offal, ladled out over the nubile flesh of the naked victims.

A girl taking a bath has her eye and leg removed. Another is attacked while in her underwear and has her tongue torn out by hand. And in a flashback to ancient Egypt, a model with very visible bikini tan lines is stabbed between her breasts.

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This queasy mixture of sex and violence is the reason that Blood Feast was banned and successfully prosecuted, as the BBFC is notoriously strict on the combination. Most of the victims are in a state of undress when Ramses attacks, and the camera lovingly lingers on their bloodstained corpses, panning up and down their bodies in a bizarre attempt to titillate the audience with cold, dead flesh.

It’s a hard film to recommend. Technical quality is of very little consideration for me, but when absolutely nothing works, from the photography to the script to the score, it makes the film a real slog, or, you might say, ‘one of those long, hard ones.’

Regardless, in a perverse way, Blood Feast is the most important film on the Nasties list, as it arguably paved the way for all that followed. But like the man himself said, just because it was the first, it doesn’t make it good.

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Love Massacre (1981, Patrick Tam)

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Love Massacre is a bizarre psycho-drama that was part of the glorious Hong Kong New Wave that lasted from about 1978 to 1982. This was the era when several Hong Kong directors who had studied film overseas returned to their homeland and got to work making genre films imbued with a more European arthouse sensibility.

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Genres were mixed and turned upon their head in a way that has rarely been seen in Hong Kong filmmaking before or since, and the weirdly impenetrable localised humour was mostly absent. This is a blessing for fans of these movies from the West who will just never understand why a cross-eyed character with a huge mole is present in every kung fu film made in the 1970s.

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I’m going to be looking at a number of these New Wave films, as they seem somewhat underrepresented online and in print, despite a number of them being absolute grade-A fucking masterpieces. My favourite kind of movie has always mashed up genre elements with an off-kilter auteurist vibe, whether it be Jess Franco or Jean Rollin or David Lynch. The directors of the Hong Kong New Wave (from here on referred to as the HKNW) excelled at this, with even their kung-fu and triad gangster movies being pitch black and often insanely violent.

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Which brings us to Love Massacre, Patrick Tam’s weirdo Godard/Hitchcock hybrid. Tam’s first film was a stunning existentialist swordplay masterpiece called The Sword, and he followed it up with Love Massacre, a stalker movie set in San Francisco. When a young woman kills herself due to unrequited love, her estranged brother slowly unravels and begins to stalk his sister’s friends, culminating in a deadly game of cat and mouse in an apartment block.

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At least I think that’s what it’s about, it was hard to get specifics due to the scratchy old VHS print I watched. You see, the subtitles are white, which isn’t in itself a problem. No, the problem is that everyone wears white, often obscuring the subtitles.

Get a load of this –

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Oh, you can read that? Okay then, how about this

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Told you so.

It’s not a deal breaker, as the plot is simple enough to follow and anyway who cares about the damn plot when a film looks as good as this, faded colours and VHS wear and tear notwithstanding?

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The whole film is shot like an unholy combination of Godard and Hitchcock, and the art director is William Chang, who would go on to be production designer on every one of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies. He gives Love Massacre an old fashioned look, the clothing and decor more befitting the 1960s than the 1980s. Man, I’d love to see a remastered print of this film!

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It’s so slow and measured that in many ways it doesn’t feel like a Hong Kong movie at all, though there are the occasional giveaways, in particular, the ear-splitting synthesised pan-pipes that play over the opening credits and the presence of the extraordinary Brigitte Lin, The Bride With White Hair herself.

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It’s a hard film to love but an easy one to appreciate and enjoy. Slasher fans will certainly come away disappointed – the first half is a talky drama, full of meaningful glances and pregnant pauses, while the second half, the ‘horror’ part, tends to underplay the excitement and thrills that should ensue.

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But that’s common with the HKNW. These were filmmakers who refused to play it safe, and offered films that challenged the viewer. Love Massacre is never fun, but what did you expect from a film with that title? However, if you like films that take themselves and their subject matter seriously, while still throwing in gratuitous stabbings and beautiful people wandering through art galleries, then you’ve just hit the jackpot.

And believe me, this is nowhere near the best the New Wave has to offer.

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Worst censorship ever?

You know how sometimes an old memory just pops into your head apropos of nothing?

It recently happened to me regarding perhaps the lamest, most pathetic piece of horror movie censorship in UK history.

First of all, take a look at this original poster for Dario Argento’s masterful thriller Tenebre – A powerfully simple image that invokes the sex, style and savagery of the giallo film in one stark image.

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Pretty great huh?

Well, here in the UK we have the VPRC (Video Packaging Review Committee) to protect our sensitive eyes from extreme imagery, and they clearly took exception to eerie beauty of Tenebre’s poster.

Thus, we ended up with this

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Yeah, they added a fucking red ribbon round her neck to hide the trickle of blood. A ribbon! What is she, a cat? A Christmas present? A haberdasher’s dummy?

Mind you, just imagine how quickly civilisation would have crumbled into anarchy had the VPRC not acted, so I suppose we should all be thankful.

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Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell + my Home Video Horrors

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Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder From Hell is a 62 minute, shot on 8mm Japanese remake of The Evil Dead trilogy that has inexplicably found its way onto DVD here in the UK.

It’s bonkers, a lovingly crafted homage to 80s splatter comedies that manages a couple of decent scares before letting the OTT splatter scenes take precedence.

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Despite being three people in a couple of identical looking rooms, there’s ambition to spare, particularly the frequent stop motion effects work and the excellent ambient score that sounds like something out of a Silent Hill video game, though the less said about the incongruous techno tracks the better…

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I wonder if remaking The Evil Dead is some kind of rites of passage for young horror fans. I only ask because, back in 1994, I did the same thing in SCOTTISH NINJA 9: THE UNHOLY DEAD.

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That’s me on the left, with the Manchester United goalie top and unfortunate bowl haircut.

The Scottish Ninja series started in 1990 when my friends and I were 8 years old, but after making eight of them in four years, we were starting to run out of ideas. This is why, one Summer afternoon, I got together with my friends Duncan and David and remade The Evil Dead. Of course, I was the only one out of the three that had even seen the film, so I gave them the basics and we improvised the rest of the movie.

The wonders of childhood imagination!

We shot in my granny’s house, which was rife with such chilling props as…THE BOOGIE WOOGIE POLKA SONGBOOK!

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Costumes were limited, so when we killed off Duncan in the first few minutes…

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…we created a new character, who looked very similar to Duncan but was wearing a hat, sunglasses and a chain around his neck.

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See? Different person altogether. When that character died after a gruesome scalping…

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…we brought him back again as a new character, this time with a moustache and a different hat.

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Has there ever been a better example of the magic of cinema? If nothing else, those trousers are a great example of the magic of 90s fashion.

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I tried to stick to the plot of The Evil Dead as much as possible, and there’s a lengthy scene where I go on about Sumerian burial rites and Kandarian daggers and funerary incantations.

Guys, I was 12 years old. Horror bit me young, and it bit me hard. It’s hard to see, but for much of the film I’m wearing a Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein t-shirt.

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To this day, I’ve still never seen the film.

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This shot was my attempt to pay homage to Steve Christie’s death in Friday the 13th. I repeat: I was 12.

Luckily though, we knew how to have a good time, and the film ends in…

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…an improvised song and dance number.

Isn’t this how all films are supposed to end?

I finally wrapped up the Scottish Ninja series in 2013, with a Swedish language black and white movie shot almost entirely in slow motion and starring my parents.

Sometimes, life can be just great.

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2017 Horror Movies: Part 1

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Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele)

2016 was such a total dud for horror movies, but this year has at least gotten off to a strong start. Get Out is The Little Horror Film That Could, breaking into the mainstream whilst still satisfying the horror hardcore, a tight and unexpected thriller that deftly mixes horror and comedy in a way I’ve not seen for a while.

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It’s not a film I think I’ll have the urge to revisit anytime soon, but I left the cinema satisfied, which is more than I can say for pretty much any horror film I saw in the cinema last year.

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Kong: Skull Island (2017, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

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Another pleasant surprise was Kong: Skull Island. The original King Kong was one of the first horror films I ever saw aged about 4 or 5, and I’ve still never seen the second half of Peter Jackson’s laborious remake (my girlfriend at the time got too upset when Kong was captured and left the cinema in tears, with me dutifully following after her), but none of that matters because this is a reboot with both hairy feet firmly planted in the monster movie genre.

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A major complaint is that there are briefly some giant spiders, but then they’re gone for the rest of the film. What gives? Don’t tease me with giant spiders and then take them away from me – that’s just cruel.

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Kong won’t change your life or anything, but it was a good, fun monster romp that runs over an hour shorter than the bloated 2005 version, and that is something to be celebrated.

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Raw (2017, Julia Ducournau)

Raw, not to be confused with Eddie Murphy’s stand up film Raw (although it would make an interesting and ultimately pointless double bill) is the new French horror that people are talking about because it made wimp some vomit in a screening or something.

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It’s a surprisingly tender and blackly comic coming-of-age story that just happens to be about cannibalism. The style hews closer to arthouse horror like Goodnight, Mommy and The VVitch, though unlike those flaccid bores the horror hits hard, though there’s nothing much here to turn the stomach of the average horror-goer.

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Garance Marillier is a revelation in the lead role in a film that is equally funny, frightening and erotic. Inexplicably, this French language art movie played in my local multiplex in the biggest screen, the one usually reserved for Marvel movies. Naive hopefulness or administrative error? You be the judge.

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The Void (2017, Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski)

From the crackpots that brought you the insane Manborg and the even more insane Father’s Day comes The Void, a glorious practical effects laden throwback to the heyday of John Carpenter. It’s The Thing meets Assault on Precinct 13 meets Prince of Darkness, and is almost as much fun as that sounds.

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I have a soft spot for any film that depicts a vision of Hell (yes Event Horizon, even you) and The Void nails it, even throwing in an homage to The Beyond that both annoyed and thrilled me.

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It lacks the humour of the director’s previous films, but is right up there with Raw as the best film I’ve seen so far this year. That said, there’s still plenty of good stuff to come – The Love Witch, The Belko Experiment, IT – so hopefully there’ll be at least one stone cold classic amongst the bunch.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

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