Saturday, February 3, 2018

BRUTAL & BRILLIANT BRAWL

After the baroque brilliance of his horror western BONE TOMAHAWK (2015), S. Craig Zahler scores another home run with BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, a rousing ode to the tough prison genre starring Vince Vaughn in a powerful and literally bone-crunching performance as an incarcerated drug courier who runs amok behind bars in a bid to save the life of his wife and unborn child. At over two hours long, the movie takes its time to tell its relatively simple story, but it is never less than engrossing and builds its tension beautifully, leading to a brutally violent pay-off in the last thirty minutes. It starts off gritty and real and progressively becomes more over-the-top and comic book, but it’s a natural progression and keeps you invested in the main characters and the stakes that are being played for. Great soundtrack as well, along with a nice performance by Don Johnson as a prison warden and a very creepy Udo Kier. Zahler is definitely a filmmaker to watch.



LEATHERFACE LACKING

LEATHERFACE (2017). Now out locally on disc, this latest instalment in the line of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE sequels, prequels and reboots, has been almost universally panned, and sadly within thirty seconds of the film starting I knew we were in trouble. CHAINSAW completists and the undemanding horror fan will find it a mildly diverting watch, and there’s enough grue to make the gorehounds happy, but it is just the complete antithesis of all the elements that made Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original such an audacious and terrifying piece of work. It looks so bland and cheap and its 1950s/60s period setting has about as much authenticity as the re-enactment sequences in an average episode of FORENSIC FILES.

I’m not a fan of taking horror icons and classic boogeymen and giving them an unnecessary backstory, which only serves to dilute their original aura, but if they HAD to go that route here did they have to give Leatherface such a boring and unexceptional origin? Lilli Taylor is completely wasted in this ugly-looking meld of Bonnie and Clyde and NATURAL BORN KILLERS which accomplishes nothing other than to
remind us of just what a masterpiece the original is.



Sunday, January 28, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Though it's no traditional monster movie, THE SHAPE OF WATER still feels more like a genuine classic Universal horror film that that studio's own disastrous attempt to revive their line of famous monsters via the formulaic Tom Cruise vehicle THE MUMMY. A meticulously-crafted Cold War love story between a lonely mute woman and an amphibian man-fish captured in South America to be exploited for military purposes, THE SHAPE OF WATER has tension but very little actual horror, but I was still thoroughly engulfed and transfixed by it. The interspecies romance works extremely well and comes off as quite tender and not at all repellant, thanks to the writing and directing and endearing performance by Sally Hawkins. It's BEAUTY & THE BEAST meets THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and the beautiful photography, music and immaculate attention to the details of its 1962 Baltimore setting provides the sumptuous icing to the film's emotional heart. I'm usually not big on "Oscar Favourites" but if this one wins Best Picture it will be a brave but worthy choice.



Monday, December 25, 2017

RIP HEATHER MENZIES

Sad to wake-up to the news of Heather Menzies' passing. Must be especially tough for a family to lose a loved one at this time of year. Heather will no doubt always be best known for playing one of the Von Trapp kids (Louisa) in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), but I will most remember her for appearing in two great low-budget 70s horror flicks - the very strange SSSSSSS in 1973, and Joe Dante's 1978 cult gem PIRANHA. She was also the female lead in the short-lived LOGAN'S RUN television show, which ran for 14 episodes between 1977 - 78. My wife Marneen stunt-doubled for Heather in the LOGANS RUN episode "Turnabout", where her character Jessica 6 takes a tumble down a sand dune. She remembers her as a nice person filled with a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm.

Menzies was married to actor Robert Ulrich from 1975 until his early death from soft tissue cancer in 2002. It was a loss that clearly devastated her and she spent a lot of her time since raising awareness and funds for research into that rare form of cancer. She passed away from brain cancer yesterday at 68. Re-united with Robert.



Tuesday, December 19, 2017

STEPHEN BISSETTE'S CRYPTID CINEMA

One of the reasons why I jumped straight away on Stephen Bissette's latest tome CRYPTID CINEMA - apart from my interest in the subject and the fact that Stephen is a very knowledgeable and entertaining writer - was the magnificent piece of cover art, which is also by Stephen and reminded me so much of his classic cannibal cover for the Volume 2/Number 7 (1993) issue of Craig Ledbetter's legendary (and much-missed) EUROPEAN TRASH CINEMA magazine. I had Steven sign my copy of this magazine ("To John...Eat Up!") when I was lucky enough to meet him (and writer Joseph Citro) for a lunch at the Hartford Diner in Vermont back in late-2014.



Beautiful cover art aside (not to mention the title font used, which has the feel of a classic 70s/80s horror paperback novel), CRYPTID CINEMA is a massive volume examining the depiction of cryptids in cinema, both mythical creatures like the North American Bigfoot and purely cinematic creations such as EQUINOX (1970) and the great southern swamp monster ZAAT from 1971. Television, paperback pulps and comic books are also covered. Some of the material has been previously published in various forms, and it's not (and doesn't claim to be) a comprehensive filmography, but rather a loving and informative celebration of this rather neglected cinematic sub-genre. When it comes to cryptids the author absolutely knows his stuff, and this beautifully illustrated (B&W) book had me eagerly collating a list of "must-see" films before I was barely a few pages into it.

As a kid I was fascinated by faux documentaries like THE MYSTERIOUS MONSTERS (1975) and episodes of IN SEARCH OF that were devoted to Bigfoot, the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster. That kid in me loves CRYPTID CINEMA for the sweet nostalgic pangs that it elicits, while the adult me appreciates the astounding amount of work and research that Stephen has put into this big hairy beast.



An essential purchase that fans of outre cinema will love and refer to for a long time to come.

Available from Amazon here: CRYPTID CINEMA



Tuesday, December 12, 2017

THE BAD TWIN


Written and directed by – as well as starring – Finnish-born Saara Lamberg, INNUENDO (2017) is not only a remarkable film on its own merits, but serves as an emphatic calling card, heralding the arrival of an impressive and original filmmaking auteur (while Lamberg has directed a handful of shorts since 2013, INNUENDO is her first feature).

With a complex story structure that takes place not only in different countries but during different periods of time, INNUENDO follows the physical and emotional journey of Tuuli, a disassociated young woman who escapes her stifling childhood in Finland to find a liberated new life as a nude art model in Melbourne, Australia. Strangely disconnected but seemingly at ease with her new life amongst the city’s alternative art culture, Tuuli forms a relationship with Ben, a rather rough-edged stoner artist who creates sculptures with his chainsaw, and is a far cry from her previous boyfriend (for want of a better word), a nerdy university student.

As the relationship develops and Ben prods for more information on the mysterious Tuuli’s life experiences and beliefs, it slowly emerges that she is one very troubled and disturbed young woman. Interwoven throughout the narrative are frequent flashbacks to Tuuli’s childhood in Finland – the verbal, physical and sexual torment she suffers at the hands of her strict, religious parents and the isolation of living in the shadows of her more-loved, identical twin sister Suvi. As Tuuli begins to have strong hallucinatory fantasies that involve killing the various artists who are hiring her to pose for them, it’s only a matter of time before her mental defragmentation begins to dissolve the line between reality and fantasy altogether.

Playing the central roles of the adult Tuuli/Suvi, Lamberg inhabits her characters so completely that its easy to forget that the person we are watching onscreen is the same one who also wrote and directed what we are seeing. It is a true tour de force from Lamberg in all respects, and she is both comfortable enough as an actor and accomplished as a director that she never allows her performance to overshadow the work from those around her. Though Lamberg and her Tuuli character are clearly the centrepiece of the film, she gets fine support from a roster of actors, in particular Brendan Bacon as Ben. Also effective is Saga Tegelberg, making her debut as the young Tuuli/Suvi, who manages to convey the behavioural elements that would go into making the adult Tuuli. And Lamberg really does know how to cast male faces that may not be classically handsome but are unique and very character-defining.

Combining Euro arthouse sensibilities with the psychological horror of early Polanski, as well as a feel for the classic Australia cinema of the 1970s, INNUENDO has a cold dreaminess to its visual style which gives it a continual atmosphere of creeping dread, broken by moments of dark humour and outbursts of jarring violence (both real and imagined). Benefiting the film immensely is the wonderful, often subtle but always haunting and effective score by Charly Harrison, and the stunning cinematography by Michael Liparota (both of whom have worked with Lamberg on her earlier shorts and clearly have a good creative chemistry with her).  

Brave, disturbing and beautiful, with multi-layers and characters with depth, INNUENDO has the power to stay with you long after the final credits have rolled. Images, moments and music from it are still rattling around in my head after several days. That is always the sign of a great movie to me, and INNUENDO makes a strong late play for one of the best of 2017. I am looking forward to Saara Lamberg's next film, WESTERMARCK EFFECT, which she also be wrote, directed and starred-in, and is currently in post-production.




GIRL GANGS, BKER BOYS AND REAL COOL CATS

Looks like I have a bit of a milk moustache but it's part of the appropriately psychedelic-tinged mood lighting used at the launch of GIRL GANGS, BKER BOYS AND REAL COOL CATS at the Grub Street Bookshop last night. I am reading a passage from Ray Stanley's lurid 1970 paperback novel THE HIPPY CULT MURDERS, one of the Charles Manson-influenced titles which I write about in the book.


Getting my first look at the completed book, it looks stunning. A fantastic achievement that I am proud to have contributed to.



A peek at some of my contributions to the book.

MELBOURNE MOVIE MARKET

Hanging out with my lovely helper at the Movie Market at the Astor last Saturday afternoon. Considering I was selling mostly toys, it seemed fitting to take the table by the Christmas Tree. This Movie Market was a little bit quieter than the last few, possibly due to it being so close to Christmas. You can never predict these things. But as always we had a fun afternoon talking to people, and meeting friends old and new. Having Marneen there with me certainly helped make it a lot more fun, and still managed enough sales to make it more than worthwhile. Another great effort from organizer Stuart Simpson.





Friday, December 1, 2017

MANSON MEETS HIS MAKER

“CHARLES MANSON DEAD”


In recent years, I started wondering if I would ever live long enough to actually read those words. After cheating the executioner when the death penalty was revoked in California in 1972, Charles Manson would go on to outlive not only the man who first walked on the Moon just a couple of weeks before he sent his “Family” out on their unbelievably vicious killing spree, but the prosecutor who successfully had him sentenced to death in the first place. Manson the man was starting to appear as in-killable as the myth.

I was too young in 1969 to remember or have even been aware of the case, but I was at exactly the right age to be terrified and haunted by it when the HELTER SKELTER TV mini-series first aired in Australia in 1976. The mini-series of course was accompanied by ample TV and newspaper coverage looking back at the real-life case which it was based on, and though I was already a burgeoning film buff it was the first time in my young life that the lines between reel horror and real horror became intertwined and blurred. To a twelve-year-old boy, it was absolutely a horror story and a true nightmare that stuck with me and kept me awake at night for a long time.


Over the ensuing years I have read (and collected) more Manson-related books and magazines and watched more movies and documentaries on the subject than I could ever possibly remember, and have also written several published pieces relating to the case (mostly regarding the movies influenced by it). Though I am fascinated with the case mostly from its psychological angle and the impact it has had on history’s perception of the 1960s, I still grapple with understanding that fear that was ingrained in me while sitting in front of the family TV set back in 1976.

Though Manson himself was never actually convicted of murdering anybody, he was just as responsible and guilty as the people who actually drew blood on his command. I can never celebrate anyone’s death, but I hold no sympathy for Manson upon his passing. He not only enjoyed a bizarre celebrity status behind bars but got to live decades longer than all of those who were killed in his name, and he got to die in a lot more peaceful and compassionate manner also. Most would say that was a lot better than he deserved.



FANATICAL FANDOM


Eckhart Schmidt’s 1982 West German thriller DER FAN (THE FAN) would have to rate as one of the unsung European genre masterpieces from the eighties. The film does have it supporters, and it has recently received a lovely Blu-ray/DVD release from Mondo Macabro, so it is not a total obscurity, but nor is it as anywhere near as well-known as it deserves to be. I myself was pretty much unaware of the movie until I read a compelling review of it by Michelle Alexander, who was kind enough to lend me the Mondo Macabro disc, which I sat down to watch last night and was instantly drawn into and mesmerized by.
Starring Désirée Nosbusch in a compelling and beautifully detached performance, DER FAN tells the story of Simone, a teenage girl obsessed by the idea of meeting and falling in love with her idol, a mysterious and somber experimental new wave/pop singer known only as R (played by Bodo Steiger). Failing at school because her thoughts are dominated completely by R, when her continual stream of love letters to R go unanswered, Simone’s intense fan-ish obsession begins to tilt over into stalker territory, as she leaves home and hitches to Munich, where R is scheduled to appear on a pop music television show. When Simone finally comes face to face with her true love, she is brought into R’s inner circle but soon learns the old lesson that it’s sometimes better to keep your idols at arm’s length, as things take an unexpectedly dark and very twisted turn in the final act.
From the moment the opening credits appear against  bright red background, the first two acts of DER FAN pops with a beautifully slick early-eighties style that clearly reflects the burgeoning music video landscape of the day, and the soundtrack (provided by German group Rheingold) makes for some excellent Euro new wave listening. As the themes of the film turn darker in it’s final third, so too does the colour palette diminish and things become more stark and shadowy, and the music more unnerving. On paper the sudden tonal shift would sound jarring but under Schmidt’s assured direction the transition works beautifully, making the climax of the film a true surprise.
DER FAN works on so many levels – as a thriller, a horror film, a musical document and a compelling look at the dangerous extremes of fandom. It’s an ultimately sick but oddly moving gem, and one which is absolutely worth unearthing and admiring.

Friday, October 20, 2017

STANDING OVATION! YOU'RE THE STAR!

My lovely and very talented and creative wife Marneen has just made her fantastic new song "Standing Ovation! You're the Star!" available to listen to on You Tube, and I couldn't be prouder of her work here. A catchy tune with a cool and crisp 1980s Euro new wave techno-pop feel, it should have no trouble getting people in the clubs up and movin' it on the dance floor. Sounds especially awesome played loud through a pair of good headphones...the perfect way to shake out some cobwebs.



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

MAGNIFICENT MINDHUNT

This new Netflix drama produced by David Fincher (who also directed four of the first ten episodes) is just superb and compelling filmmaking all-round. Based on the life and career of legendary FBI agent John Douglas - who in the 1970s was the first person to believe that interviewing incarcerated serial killers could help predict behavior patterns, break unsolved murder cases and identify potential offenders before they have the chance to act - everything from the performances to the writing, music and unobtrusive 70s detail is so succinctly constructed here. It's a slow-burn for sure, more ZODIAC than SE7EN, but I am perfectly fine with that, especially since ZODIAC is my favourite Fincher film. The scenes where the two lead FBI agents interview Ed Kemper and Richard Speck in their prisons have moments of nuance to them that are absolutely chilling.

Already eager for the second season.



Sunday, October 1, 2017

DEADLY GAME


For my Sunday evening viewing I decided to check out the new Netflix original movie GERALD'S GAME, an adaptation of the 1992 Stephen King novel. Directed by Mike Flanagan, the film has a deceptively simple premise: a woman and her somewhat older husband (played by Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood respectively) take off for a retreat at their isolated holiday home, where they hope to work on their relationship and spice up their sex life a little. Unfortunately, not long after arriving, the husband handcuffs his wife to the bed, pops a Viagra, and attempts to act out his secret rape fantasy, only to keel over from a heart attack and die. Left alone, tied to the bed and with no phone or handcuff key within reach, and no hope of anyone stopping by for days, the wife’s mind starts to defragment in a wave of hallucinations and haunting flashbacks, while also having to deal with a hungry wild dog who makes periodical visits to chew on the remains of her husband (while the wife has to watch on, knowing she will be next unless she finds a way out of her predicament).
Good performances and a nice atmosphere of claustrophobia and mounting dread, along with a few moments that really made me squirm and cringe, make this a pretty decent adaptation that should please King devotees.



Tuesday, September 26, 2017

THE BUZZ RETURNS - IN 35mm

What an absolute “buzz” getting to see Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) in 35mm again at The Astor last night, especially with a huge and respectful turn-out. The print screened was apparently one of the original prints that did the rounds in Australia thirty years ago, after the ban on the film was finally lifted in this country in 1983. So chances are that it was the same print I saw at the Astor several times in the mid-80s, when it would play regularly on ...a popular double-bill with EVIL DEAD (this was back at a time when, after the screening, you could go to the Astor’s ticket booth and purchase the original daybill posters for that evening’s screening for only $5.00!).

For its age and roadwear, the 35mm print was in surprisingly good shape. It was a little washed-out and scratchy in parts, and the overexposure during the first gas station sequence was present, but it certainly didn’t detract from the experience and in fact it only added to the authentic grindhouse feel of the screening. You can feel the Texas heat and dust and smell the dried blood coming from the old slaughterhouse. I have watched this film dozens of times since 1983, and it still stands as an absolute peak of modern horror cinema for me, the perfect illustration of a waking nightmare and being caught in the middle of complete random madness. The scene where Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) grabs Pam (Teri McMinn) and drags the poor young women through his house to her doom - while she is squealing and flailing about like a terrified animal - still sends shivers up my spine and delivers an almighty punch to my stomach.

Was also nice to see the Astor put up a tribute slide to Hooper before the screening, as well playing as a few trailers for some of Hooper’s other movies (mostly his mid-80s Cannon titles like LIFEFORCE, INVADERS FROM MARS and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2).
Well done to Zak Hepburn and the Astor for putting on a fitting tribute screening to the late filmmaker. And cool to see Cooper and Dougie from TWIN PEAKS guarding the old ticket booth in the downstairs lobby (in the shape of life-sized cardboard standees).




Friday, September 22, 2017

THE SLAYER

J.S. Cardone's THE SLAYER (1982) is one of those curious, almost-but-not-quite cult horror movies from the early-eighties which found a bit of local popularity thanks to its release on the infamous Palace Explosive label, though it didn't attain the same notoriety of some of the other PE titles like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, BLOODSUCKING FREAKS, THE KILLING OF AMERICA and CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE. I only ever hired THE SLAYER out once or twice at most at the time, my main familiarity with it being the trailer which appeared on many of the other Palace Explosive releases.

I've never owned a copy of THE SLAYER on VHS, so the recent Arrow Video Blu-ray release of the film has given me a perfect chance to give it another watch. It's a strange film and it has a lot of problems but it also has a few very positive things going for it. It can't decide if it wants to be a straight slasher or a more surreal, Lovecraft-esque horror, but this schizophrenic tone actually helps enhance the dreamy subtexts which the film's narrative explores, as do the desolate and highly atmospheric locales where it takes place (the movie was filmed on Tybee Island in Georgia). Slasher die-hards might find the pace of the film to be a bit lacking, but it does offer up a couple of pretty inventive killings, and lead actress Sarah Kendall has a strange, haunted look to her that makes her character unusual and interesting to watch.

A pretty good Blu-ray release from Arrow, with the 4K scan retaining quite a bit of film grain in many of the darker shots. Extras include a making-of documentary that runs for almost an hour, a visit to the Tybee Island locations today, trailer, audio commentary (with writer/director J.S. Cardone, actress Carol Kottenbrook and production executive Eric Weston) and an illustrated booklet featuring writings on the film by Lee Gambin and Ewan Cant.