New Hammer Novella: The Quickening from Julie Myerson

The Hammer novella imprint has shown a commendable readiness to embrace non- genre authors alongside specialist practitioners; and a prestigious addition to the list has been Julie Myerson’s The Quickening, an edgy and unsettling piece (whose protagonists are a honeymoon couple) sporting a gruesome catalogue of murders in an Antigua holiday resort. As with other writers who have contributed to the imprint (including Helen Dunmore and Jeanette Winterson), Myerson has forged something provocative and unusual – a novel, moreover, which demonstrates an unerring grasp of narrative, something that would have received a welcome imprimatur from the company’s creative personnel in its glory days. In fact, a book in the genre of the macabre is not such a great stretch for Myerson, whose previous eight novels have shown a taste for the disturbing (it’s clear that the writer — who makes no secret of her love of Hammer — is drawn to the supernatural), and The Quickening marries a grasp of the exigencies of the genre with the author’s own gift for carefully nurtured atmosphere.



From The Discreet to the Explicit: Tess and Baise-Moi

TESS Roman Polanski, director/BFI Blu-ray  It’s curious how the reputation of films can grow over the years, even after a lukewarm initial reception. Such a case is Tess, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Always considered visually exquisite, there was some criticism of the luminous Nastassia Kinski as being quite some distance from Hardy’s tragic heroine with the latter’s ‘womanly’ figure (contrasted with the wispy, un-English actress). Another criticism was the use of what was clearly the French countryside standing in for England, with its replica Stonehenge (Polanski of course had no choice but to film in his adopted country, unable to leave France because of his legal problems). But while neither criticism has been vitiated by the years, the considerable virtues of the film are now even more apparent, particularly in this breathtakingly beautiful Blu-ray restoration which does full justice to the striking cinematography. And reservations about Kinski’s performance matter less in the context of the excellent players around her (such as Leigh Lawson as the manipulative seducer Alec). The film has been mastered from a 4K ultra high resolution digital restoration, and special features include three documentaries covering the adaptation, the technical challenges and the filming experience.

LE BEAU SERGE & LES COUSINS Claude Chabrol, director Eureka Entertainment Blu-ray & DVD  Lovers of world cinema are greatly in debt to Eureka, which continues to find some of the most cherishable films from the past and release them in beautifully restored editions — as in these two rarities from Claude Chabrol. Seen together (as we now can), it is possible for the first time to appreciate just how good the two male stars (Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain) are in roles which are utterly different in the two films. And one can also see the director’s dyspeptic view of humanity (with which we were to become very familiar) fully in evidence in these intriguing early films. Eureka Entertainment’s Master of Cinema has two plum rarities here. The debut outings of Claude Chabrol, Le Beau Serge, is (in fact) the first feature film of the French New Wave, while Les Cousins won the Golden Bear (Best Film) at the 1959 Berlin Film Festival.

THE PROTECTORS Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe, directors/ARROW  While some of the films being brought to our attention as part of the Scandinavian crime wave are more quotidian in their achievement, there is still plenty which is intriguing and unusual to be found – such as The Protectors, which has (among its forceful dramatis personae) an interesting character in a young Muslim woman whose ambition is to be a bodyguard in an elite unit, in the teeth of opposition from her family (who clearly consider her activities to be unIslamic). It’s interesting to note that the writer Jussi Adler-Olsen also includes a well-realised Moslem character in his books — and in neither case are conventional expectations observed. Mai Brostrøm and Peter Thorsboe are also the co-creators of the Nordic Noir series Unit One, and the eponymous protectors are the Danish national police force in charge of personal protection, responsible for the safety of high profile figures including Politicians, Royal Family, VIPs and visiting dignitaries.

THE SERVANT Joseph Losey, director/StudioCanal Blu-ray  The reputation of the films of the American director (and victim of the McCarthyite communist witch-hunt) Joseph Losey could not be higher today, but the apogee of his career may well be his films scripted by Harold Pinter in this country when the director, persona non grata in his native country, was obliged to work here. The Servant looks (if anything) better with the years, with its remarkable playing (notably Dirk Bogarde, firmly into his character-actor Indian summer) and rigorous analysis of the English class system. This hypnotic tale of psychological control features some newly created extras include the director Richard Ayoade interviewing James Fox, a new interview with Stephen Wooley and new featurettes. 

ACCIDENT Joseph Losey, director/StudioCanal Blu-ray  Impressive though The Servant was, the finest fruit of the Losey/Pinter collaboration is undoubtedly Accident, a film in which the level of achievement matches that of the playwright’s work in the theatre and – what’s more — even aspires to the kind of arthouse filmmaking on British soil that was already characteristic of Bergman in Sweden and Antonioni in Italy. And the matchless cast does perfect justice to Pinter’s text – not just Bogarde, but also Stanley Baker (who had worked on Losey’s crime classic The Criminal), who was moving into what would be his abbreviated middle age as a fine character actor. This is a new restoration completed by the BFI is also a Blu-ray premiere with new featurettes. 

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA Genndy Tarkakovsky, director/Sony  Monstrous animated fun with a lively voice cast (including the matchless Steve Buscemi) with some ingenious riffs on classic horror film characters; the colours in this version simply pop of the screen.

SCANNERS David Cronenberg, director/Second Sight Blu-Ray  So how does the once-groundbreaking Scanners look these days? In terms of its cinematography, the film has never looked better than in this shining incarnation – and the customarily mesmeric performance of Patrick McGoohan, unsympathetic as he usually is in his film work, still rivets the attention. Still problematic, however, is the underwhelming performance of Steven Lack in the central role; he is an appreciable actor, but uncharismatic in a plot that crucially requires such qualities. Scanners, one of the most iconic horror films of the eighties from director David Cronenberg, appears on Blu-ray as a limited edition steelbook along with a DVD release along with a host of new special feature including an interview with Stephen Lack, the cinematographer Mark Irwin and others.

BLOOD SIMPLE (Directors’ Cut) Coen Brothers, directors/StudioCanal  One of the great things about the DVD/Blu-ray revolution is the chance we are given to reacquaint ourselves with films that made a particular impact on first viewing. And it’s refreshing to note that Blood Simple remains (with a few reservations) almost as impressive as ever; as a harbinger of things to come from the Coen brothers, it is absolutely fascinating to view in the 21st century – even if (perhaps) the small part playing is more authoritative than the playing of the principals. What is also notable is how the machinations of the plot (already inspired by previous models) have in their turn inspired other films. And it is immediately apparent is the Coen Brothers’ fully formed command of the medium. This DVD release is a Directors’ Cut; unusually, it is three minutes shorter than the original 1985 theatrical release. The Coens have reduced the running time with tighter editing, shortening some shots and removing others altogether.

THREE STEPS TO THE GALLOWS John Gilling, director/Renown  The director John Gilling is, of course, noted for some of the remarkable work he did for the Hammer studios, but his talents were also applied with intriguing results to the crime genre — as this lively effort proves. It’s no undiscovered masterpiece, but students of British cinema will find it well worth their while. This rarity from Gilling is something of a find. Imported American star Scott Brady plays a ship’s officer who discovers that his brother has been framed for murder by a smuggling gang.

BAISE-MOI Virginie Despentes & Coralie Trinh, directors/Arrow  Let’s be honest: right from the start, it has always been the job of cinema to shock (along with its variety of other objectives) — and there is no question that this controversial, deeply nihilistic film (with nary a sympathetic character, male or female) does just that. If you prefer your cinema graphic and unstinting (and this one most certainly is — absolutely nothing is spared), then this is very much a piece for you. But if you like cosy Sunday night viewing, perhaps you should steer well clear. Arrow Video’s version of Baise-Moi is completely uncut, and is available (for the first time) in widescreen format. The film has been described as Thelma and Louise on acid. It was banned upon release in its native France in 2000 for its refusal to look away from any action (the sex, though explicit – is notably (and deliberately) joyless). Special features include a 40-minute “Making Of” Documentary with the directors and cast, a collectors’ booklet featuring writing on the film by Kier-la Janisse and Virginie Despentes and a Q&A with both directors.

EVIL DEAD 2 Special Edition Sam Raimi, director/StudioCanal Blu-ray  With the remake of Sam Raimi’s astonishing Evil Dead in the wings, what better time for cineastes to reacquaint themselves with the original film and this outrageous follow-up? By the time of the second film, Raimi had moved more firmly into the comic territory than in the first Evil Dead film, and while the laughs undercut the horror, this is still a remarkable piece of work, showing all the kinetic command of the medium which the director was later to bring to such films as Spider-man. This new special edition has the film looking better than it has ever done before. Another tempting factor is a variety of UK exclusive special features.

MOUCHETTE & AU HASARD BALTHAZAR Robert Bresson, director/Artificial Eye Two masterpieces from Robert Bresson, looking particularly impressive in these spruced-up incarnations. Uncompromising, but the unhurried, concentrated approach to the medium of cinema remains unique.

ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE Douglas Hickox, director/StudioCanal StudioCanal has issued the film version of Joe Orton’s outrageous play Entertaining Mr Sloane, extremely well cast with Harry Andrews,  a hilarious Beryl Reid and Peter McEnery, though losing some of the subversive sexual charge of Orton’s original play. The DVD features a new extra of Joe Orton’s last-ever chat show appearance, recorded a few months before his death at the hands of his partner.

RIVER BEAT Guy Green, director/Renown Renown is a company which continues to excavate some of the more out-of-the-way corners of British cinema. This is the first-ever release of a neglected British film on DVD, digitally re-mastered and restored. Directed by Guy Green and starring John Bentley, Phyllis Kirk and Glyn Houston, River Beat was the first directorial assignment for Green. Phyllis Kirk plays a radio operator aboard an American ship who is tricked into smuggling diamonds and finds that the man who tricked her is found murdered in the river. It’s a lively effort, building to a sharply-handled climax.