Stephen Volk Channels Hammer and Cushing

Whitstable Stephen Volk   As a writer with a penchant for the macabre, Stephen Volk’s considerable skills have occasionally been utilised in re-energising notions initially created by other hands, and finding new and fascinating territory to explore in previously explored paths (it’s a welcome and serendipitous predilection that the writer shares with Kim Newman, with whom Volk recently collaborated – along with other writers — on the portmanteau horror play The Hallowe’en Sessions, directed by Sean Hogan). Whitstable is a beguiling novella explores two of Volk’s favourite subjects, the great British Hammer Films and the latter’s most reliable actor, the late Peter Cushing (the title refers to the actor’s much loved seaside home). The conceit here is to place the actor’s screen personality in a contemporary setting where the kind of supernatural evil he routinely battled is given a modern equivalent. The book works both as a tip of the hat to one of the British screen’s most imperishable icons and as a piece of utterly engrossing narrative of the kind that we customarily expect from Volk.

 

Whitstable by Stephen Volk is published by Spectral Press

 

 

Barry Forshaw

Peter Cushing: A Life in Film

 

 Peter Cushing: A Life in Film David Miller  It is heartening to see the acclaim that is now routinely paid to one of this country’s finest actors, Peter Cushing, whose achievement in film (and not just in the horror genre which was his default speciality area) is now seen as considerable. This biography of Cushing has appeared before (as the Peter Cushing Companion), and the actor’s own writings are useful, but David Miller’s revised edition presents a comprehensive and informative version of the actor’s life with access to a variety of sources hitherto untapped. We are given a rounded picture of the beautifully spoken and intense star of such films as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. If Miller’s biography is not written in a notably lively fashion, that is not to deny the appeal of a valuable book, and it is an essential reference tool.

Peter Cushing: A Life in Film David Miller is published by Titan

 

 

Blu-Ray Boost for Blood on Satan’s Claw

BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW Piers Haggard, director/Odeon Blu-Ray  A company that attempted to rival Hammer in the UK and make its name synonymous with cinematic terror was the British film production company Tigon. The company was founded by the energetic Tony Tenser, an enterprising producer (with a solid, hard-as-nails commercial instinct) who encouraged the directors he hired to push the barriers of acceptable taste beyond their limits. His battles with the censors became as notorious as his maxim: only two things are guaranteed to sell a film – sex and horror. Tenser’s remarkable career as a British film producer included impressive films as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, along with two films which achieved cult status, Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and the late Michael Reeves’ massively accomplished Witchfinder General (1968). The former has now appeared in a splendid Blu-Ray restoration courtesy of Odeon. The film was initially received coolly but has steadily achieved more status over the years, and it is now acknowledged that the director Piers Haggard produced a career chef d’oeuvre with Blood on Satan’s Claw, with the reliable middle-aged character actor Patrick Wymark set against a youthful Linda Hayden (as so often in her career, seen naked), the latter channelling a dangerous sexuality. Haggard’s skill was to marry an almost Hardyesque response to the English countryside (possibly influenced by the director Michael Powell’s similarly evocative use of an Arcadian Albion) to a nasty supernatural menace – a menace which spreads form one manifestation to an almost endemic level. Haggard’s film sees a 17th Century English village caught up in a fever of demonic hysteria after the discovery of a deformed skull in a local field. But accomplished though Haggard intelligently made film is, there is no gainsaying which film was to be Tigon’s chef achievement as a film production company – and one of the definitive British Gothic films.

 

 

 

Film Freak: Christopher Fowler

The American critic Ralph Gleason once wrote of Frank Sinatra (in the latter’s heyday at Capitol records) that he (Gleason) would be happy for the singer to record every single song in the great American songbook in whatever tempo he chose or with whatever arranger. My own spin on that scenario would be for the writer Christopher Fowler to write nothing else but books about the experiences in his own very curious life. Not that these experiences are ever likely to affect the fate of nations or give an insight into the most rarefied films and literature. Or tell us how to be rich, slim, or how to arrange the most appropriate feng shui for our living rooms. None of this is Fowler territory.

Until recently, Christoper Fowler was best known as a horror writer (one of the best in the UK), something successful in the UK film trade and a collector of Lois Lane comics, but he is now celebrated as the creation of the eccentric detectives Bryant and May. Quirky fun though that series is, my favourite books in his catalogue are those which are his most personal – such as his memoir of growing up in Greenwich, Paperboy, and now Film Freak, his outrageously entertaining chronicle of his adventures in the film advertising world. And if that doesn’t sound particularly appealing, I strongly suggest you purchase the book instantly in order to be swiftly seduced; this is absolutely delicious entertainment, written in Fowler’s very individual, self-deprecating (but never mock-modest) tone of voice. The book conveys his jaw dropping knowledge of popular culture – and in particular the less respectable bywaters of British film – couched in the skilful comic writing that is the equal of any one at work in such areas today. But if the above conveys that we are in for a riotous romp through Hollywood and Wardour Street, that’s only part of the story — yes, Fowler’s dealings with the culturally challenged idiots of the film world (on both sides of the Atlantic) are scandalously entertaining, but this is in fact a deeply dyspeptic book. The section on Fowler’s desperate sojourn in Los Angeles makes it sound like one of the lower levels of hell in the Divine Comedy. As I’m someone who (largely speaking) only meets well-read and intelligent Americans visiting this country, it was something of an eye-opener for me to realise just how we Brits are regarded in Los Angeles (although perhaps things have changed since Fowler’s days there, when — on hearing Fowler’s British accent — Americans would routinely slip into a Dick Van Dyke Cockernee impression).

But the real pleasure of the book – as in the earlier, equally diverting Paperboy — is in that singular tone of voice, one seemingly possessed by Christopher Fowler alone. Whether you’ll most enjoy the very personal autobiographical elements (Fowler ironically discusses his own sexuality, something conspicuously absent from the earlier book), or the scabrous picture of the bottom-feeding sharks in the British and American film industry, or the deep pleasure to be had from bad British movies, or what London was like in the distant 1970s and 1980s, the book is absolutely essential reading. Like me, you will probably consume it at a few sittings and even forgive the few errors of fact that have tripped up even the encyclopaedic Fowler. Oh, and in case the above did not convey my message clearly enough, here it is in three words: buy Film Freak.

Film Freak by Christopher Fowler is published by Doubleday

 

Intriguing fare from Arrow, Eureka and Lionsgate

VAN VEETEREN Various directors/Arrow  Following the welcome release of their Wallander ‘Original Films’ box set last year, Arrow Films have made available a less familiar Scandinavian detective for Nordic Noir admirers: Swedish crime maestro Håkan Nesser’s Van Veeteren. The first three Van Veeteren films have been released as a DVD box .Based on the much-acclaimed series of novels by the much-respected Nesser, Van Veeteren is an veteran detective in his sixth decade dealing uneasily with retirement (he has become an antiquarian bookseller), but unable to put aside his impeccable sleuthing instincts. Håkan Nesser has expressed himself pleased with the series (with the inevitable reservation or two), but like the books, characterisation is to the fore – and a particular asset of the films is the playing of Sven Wollter as the ageing detective – full of psychological nuance.

 

THE MURDERER LIVES AT 21 [L’ASSASSIN HABITE AU 21] Henri-Georges Clouzot, director/ Eureka Entertainment MASTERS OF CINEMA Blu-ray/DVD  Eureka Entertainment have facilitated the long-awaited release of the debut film by director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s (responsible for the classic thrillers Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear), The Murderer Lives at 21 [L’Assassin Habite au 21]. The film is an intriguing is a brilliant hybrid of crime thriller and dark comedy. One of the key directors in world cinema, Henri-Georges Clouzot made a mark in 1942 with this sardonic thriller. A thief and murderer plagues the streets of Paris and is depositing a calling card from ‘Monsieur Durand’ at the scene of each crime. But then a cache of these cards is found by a burglar in the boarding house at 21 Avenue Junot, and Inspector Wenceslas Vorobechik (Pierre Fresnay) decides to stay at the address in a clandestine effort to solve the crimes, aided by his under-employed actress girlfriend Mila (played by Suzy Delair). The audacious shifts in tone (from light comedy to pitch-black noir) are handled with assurance by the director, as is as well as is understated but clear picture of tensions of France under German occupation. 

 

TEXAS CHAINSAW John Luessenhop, director, Lionsgate Lionsgate’s Texas Chainsaw, a US #1 box office hit, picks up directly where the original 1974 Tobe Hooper movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, ended, with the repercussions of the grotesque Leatherface’s multiple murders. In the new film, the townspeople – some steps up the evolutionary chain from the debased rednecks of the murderous clan — take violent action against the Sawyer family. They had long believed that the family was responsible for a variety of unexplained disappearances, and a vigilante mob of enraged locals attack the Sawyer house, razing it to the ground and killing the entire family – or perhaps not. Years later, a young woman named Heather discovers that she has inherited a Texas estate from a grandmother she never knew. A road trip with friends takes her back – and she discovers that is the sole owner of a large Victorian mansion. But there is a price; in the mansion’s subterranean cellar, another family member has survived: the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface. All of this is handled with great exuberance, if without the blackly comic tone and welcome grunginess of Hooper’s original. Interestingly, despite the greater quotient of gore, the experience of watching the new film is not as disturbing as the original. Nevertheless, it’s a lively piece of work, although there is a problem – and perhaps this last sentence is something of a spoiler, so feel free to avoid it: the unlikely behaviour of one character in the final scenes of the film (whose friends have been bloodily slaughtered by the monstrous Leatherface) takes some swallowing, and is – frankly – only explicable in the context of allowing possibilities for more sequels. This caveat aside, aficionados of the horror film should take a look.

BARON BLOOD Mario Bava, director/Arrow Blu-Ray  Arrow Video has released a never-before-seen Blu-ray & DVD premiere from the godfather of Italian horror, Mario Bava; a deluxe editions of Baron Blood. This dual format release incorporates a newly restored version of the film and a slew of special features and plentiful onus material. Originally entitled Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga on its first release in 1972, the film is a reminder of how Bava’s surrealistic, garishly-lit and mist-shrouded visuals greatly influenced the younger Argento and Fulci, and how Bava had to sometimes overcome an underwritten script. Baron Blood has a toothsome Britt Ekland being menaced by Joseph Cotton as a revived aristocratic corpse. The actor’s appearance and performance can only be charitably described as appropriate to the part, but the visuals are the thing, as ever with Bava.

THEOREM Pier Paolo Pasolini, director BFI DVD/Blu-Ray  Following a recent theatrical release, the BFI has made available a splendid Blu-ray of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s enigmatic Theorem (1968) for the first time in the UK, in a complete and uncut in Dual Format Edition (including a DVD disc). The new high definition digital transfer has restored picture and sound. A seductive, mysterious stranger (played by a young and charismatic Terence Stamp) arrives at a bourgeois household in Milan and seduces in turn each family member, including the maid. The effect of his visit is seismic. The film is a visually striking and disturbing political allegory, examining the mechanics of family interaction, class and sex. Theorem bagged a prize at the Venice Film Festival, but was subsequently banned on an obscenity charge. However, Pasolini later won an acquittal on the grounds of the film’s ‘high artistic value’.

ARNE DAHL Various directors/Arrow  After the success of their BAFTA-winning Scandi series The Killing and Borgen, and the newly BAFTA nominated The Bridge, Arrow Film’s Nordic Noir label have released a DVD & Blu-ray box set release of the Swedish TV series, Arne Dahl, based on the series of books by influential Swedish crime novelist Jan Arnald (Arne Dahl is Arnald’s pen name), with CID inspector Jenny Hultin (her gender changed from the novels’ male copper) putting together an elite police team to tackle difficult and dangerous crimes. The 10-part series adapts five of Arnald/Dahl’s novels, each with a different member of “A-group” at the fore. This is a highly enjoyable series, if demonstrably not in the class of such Scandicrime hits as The Killing (Arne Dahl himself is aware that certain elements of his books have — perforce — been obliged to be removed), but it remains a solid effort even if it doesn’t reach the Olympian heights of some of its Nordic stablemates.

MOTEL HELL Kevin Connor, director/Arrow  Yet another example of cult 80s cinema makes it onto Blu-Ray – and when the production company calls this one ‘long awaited’, they aren’t just (as the American say) ‘whistling Dixie’. Acclaimed in its day as a clever and witty horror comedy, Kevin Connor’s tongue-in-cheek horror outing has worn well — and looks better than it ever did before in this Blu-ray restoration.