Does Betty Blue still shock? (Stephen King’s acting does…)

 

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YOUNG MONTALBANO Various directors/Acorn Media  Montalbano returns, rejuvenated and recast in Young Montalbano. Following the massive success of Inspector Montalbano, the volatile Italian policeman returned to TV screens at the start of his career, with all the integrity intact, but less of the experience of his older, wiser, self. Starring Michele Riondino in the title role, the programme is set in the early 1990s and gives an insight into the private life and early crime-fighting career of the idiosyncratic Sicilian detective. The prequel series was popular in Italy and debuted on BBC Four in 2013. Exhausted by the never-ending hillsides of his rural Sicilian beat, the Deputy Inspector is in the middle of investigating a murder when he finds himself promoted to Inspector and dispatched to his childhood home of Vigata. There he is called upon to take control of the local police station and gradually build his team with both Fazio Senior and Fazio Junior, Domenico ‘Mimi’ Augello and the clownish Officer Catarella. Production values and production here are a match for the Zingaretti episodes, but if there is a caveat (apart from the continuing unreality of the policing on display), it is that the dynamic of the later series is established too quickly, with little chance for organic growth (the fractious relationship between Montalbano and idiotic comic relief Catarella is in place by the second episode, as are – similarly precipitately — several of elements of the original show.

 

CREEPSHOW George Romero, director/Second Sight Blu-Ray  George Romero’s tribute to the legendary EC horror comics is great fun (but with original stories), and has never looked as good as in this Blu-ray release. The extras, too, are commendable, with many of the creative personnel involved happy to be interviewed. Not, however – significantly — the man who wrote the screenplay, Stephen King, who is conspicuous by his absence. And how’s this for a theory as to why? King is so spectacularly, eye-rollingly, toe-curlingly awful in his ‘comic’ performance in the episode in which he appears as an actor, one senses it must now be absolutely mortifying to see just how terrible he was. And as George Romero admits that he kept encouraging King to go even further over the top (the writer’s eyes frequently cross, as he was asked to take off his glasses), King may not be grateful to Romero. But in general, things are delivered with a great deal of gusto, and it’s interesting to see that the little boy who owns the horror comic at the beginning of the film is Joe King – now, of course, famous as a horror novelist like his father under the moniker Joe Hill. 

 

THE FURY Brian de Palma, director/Arrow Films  For those who have not seen a Brian de Palma film in the cinema, it’s hard to convey just how well his films work on an audience – as in the case of The Fury, which will hopefully reach new viewers in this splendid Blu-ray dusting-down. As de Palma will probably be the first to admit, he is not Alfred Hitchcock — but it’s clear that he learned much from the director he most admired, and the film is full of Hitchcockian flourishes, even though it deals with the supernatural, a subject that did not appeal to the English filmmaker. This new version of The Fury has been painstakingly restored from the original camera negative, a process overseen by master technician James White. Marking the film’s UK Blu-ray premiere in style, Arrow’s team of restorers have breathed new life into the film – it’s crystal clear, vibrant and has been newly graded, all the while keeping true to Richard H. Kline’s original cinematography. 2013 year marks the film’s 35th birthday… it’s never looked better.

 

 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Rupert Julian, director/BFI Blu-Ray  Certainly, this silent version remains the definitive filmic treatment of Gaston Leroux’s story, more iconic than the markedly non-macabre Claude Rains version or even the uncharacteristically low-key Hammer offering directed by Terence Fisher. Although directed with striking stylistic flourishes by Rupert Julian, it is of course the imperishable Lon Chaney’s film. His Eric is one of the great sympathetic screen monsters. This writer contributed a section to the BFI’s collection of essays, Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, so this classic is most definitely my territory — particularly in such a splendid Blu-ray restoration. The BFI’s final release of 2013 is the Photoplay Productions restoration of the film, which is released in a 3-disc Dual Format Edition. Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, stars in the original adaptation of the celebrated 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux. Now newly restored, Julian’s lavish production is enthusiastically scored by Carl Davis. Numerous special features include the 1925 version of the film. 

 

HEAVEN’S GATE Michael Cimino, director/Second Sight Blu-ray  Much maligned masterpieces have been rehabilitated before, but never as resoundingly as Michal Cimino’s sprawling and beautiful Western epic – once reviled as the film that sunk a studio, now recognised as one of the glories of modern American cineama. One of its principal virtues is the stunning cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, showcased to exquisite effect in this amazing Blu-ray restoration.

 

 VAN VEETEREN SEASON 2 Various directors/Arrow Films  It is a cause for some regret that this intelligent and very capably realised series has not had the success in the UK which is its due — it has not even enjoyed a TV showing, which makes Arrow’s welcome issue of multiple series more than welcome. The Van Veeteren adaptations (and its leading actor) enjoyed the imprimatur of the detective’s creator Håkan Nesser – a man (for all his good humour) not given to showering praise unreservedly, so that factor must be taken into account in any appraisal of the series. Following the massive success of their BAFTA winning series The Killing and Borgen, and the newly BAFTA-nominated series’ The Bridge, Arrow Film’s Nordic Noir label have issued Van Veeteren Season 2. Intelligent and suspenseful psychological thrillers are now par for the course from the Nordic countries, and the Van Veeteren series is inspired by the best-selling crime novels by one of Sweden’s most popular mystery writers, Håkan Nesser, whose books have been translated into more than ten languages. Set in the fictitious city of Maardam, in an amorphous made-up country situated somewhere in northern Europe, the series details the murder investigations of retired chief inspector Van Veeteren, and his two crime squad protégés, Münster and Moreno. The series began with Van Veeteren going into retirement, buying an antiquarian bookshop, with a view to spend his declining years devoting himself to indulging his other great passion, books, and trying to spend more time with his family – especially his estranged son Erich, whose history of crime and drug abuse are at least in part a result of Van Veeteren’s deep commitment to his work. His retirement, however, is in name only, as Münster and Moreno continue to consult the master detective, who helps them with new perspectives in their investigations and invariable ends up getting actively involved himself.

 

GASLIGHT Thorold Dickinson, director/BFI  When the musical remake of Lost Horizon appeared in cinemas, prints of the original Frank Capra film were withdrawn, inevitably creating an appetite for the first (and better) movie; something similar happened with Gaslight. By turns charming and cruel, Anton Walbrook excels as the sadistic husband Paul Mallen who attempts to drive his wife Bella (Diana Wynyard) mad to prevent her disclosing his dark past. The success of Gaslight on stage and film encouraged Hollywood studio MGM to buy the remake rights, with a clause insisting that all existing prints of Dickinson’s version be destroyed. Fortunately, Dickinson had made a ‘secret’ print, which was donated to the BFI and used for reference when the film was digitally remastered by the BFI National Archive. Special features include five short films, original promotional materials and documents from the BFI National Archive Special Collections (PDF) and an illustrated booklet.

 

 STREETS OF FIRE Walter Hill, director/Second Sight Films  The esteem in which such crisply professional action directors as Don Siegel are now held in is unassailable, making the days when such filmmakers were regarded as a mere journeymen seem remote indeed. Will that process happen with Walter Hill, currently in something of a trough, who has so much in common with his illustrious predecessors? For all its virtues, Streets of Fire will not bring about that reassessment, as the characters remain stubbornly one-dimensional, with little of the economical fleshing out which Siegel afforded the protagonists of even his most underregarded films. Nevertheless, Hill’s sheer skill counts for a great deal, and much in the film is delivered with characteristic panache. Hill’s lively eighties feature finally makes its Blu-ray bow with a brand new transfer and a wealth of special features from Second Sight Films. This highly stylised rock and roll fable has gained a cult following since its original release in 1984 and with its backdrop of rain drenched, neon-lit streets, and is one of the most visually iconic films of the decade. It features an interesting cast including Diane Lane (now the Man of Steel’s mother, Martha Kent), Willem Defoe and Rick Moranis.

 

SUPERNATURAL Various directors/BFI  In the 21st century, Robert Mueller’s scripts for this fondly remembered series now seem wordy and over-literate, and the horror elements are distinctly underplayed (not by accident, it has to be said — the fact that we never see the werewolf in the ‘Werewolf Reunion’ episode is clearly an article of faith on the filmmakers’ part). Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see the material treated with such intelligence and sophistication, and the impressive roster of British acting talent in the series is a considerable plus. Werewolves, vampires and ghosts haunt the living in this much sought-after 1977 BBC horror anthology series devised by talented TV dramatist Robert Muller. Previously unavailable and much requested, it finally comes to DVD, referencing a rich vein of literary gothic stories, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Supernatural presents seven unique tales (including the admired two-parter Countess Ilona and The Werewolf Reunion) across eight unsettling instalments. Each episode opens in the Club of the Damned, where prospective entrants are required to tell a story that will chill the blood of the assembled members. But much is at stake for the storyteller, as failure to induce terror in all who attend carries the price of certain death. The acting talent includes Billie Whitelaw, Jeremy Brett (massively over the top, as he often was), a similarly operatic Robert Hardy, Gordon Jackson, Denholm Elliot and Sinead Cusack.

 

ANNO 1790 Rickard Petrolius, director/Arrow Films  The Scandinavian crime invasion shows no sign of abating, and Anno 1790 is a persuasive example of why the genre has such staying power: this compelling drama rings several very satisfying changes on established formulae. This Swedish historical crime piece (which stars Peter Eggers, Joel Spira and Linda Zilliacus) boasts an acute sense of period. Johan has served as a doctor in the Russo-Swedish war of the 18th century, but is now a police inspector in Stockholm. He is a modern man of the day: he rejects religion, inspired by the French revolution and Voltaire. An ill-advised love affair (with the wife of his commanding officer) complicates his life, as do his attempts to ensure that the revolution he desires is a bloodless one. But violent death is to remain an immovable presence in his life. The real achievement of Anno 1790 is its canny combination of vividly realised historical detail and the suggestion of a 20th-century consciousness in its hero. Peter Eggers is a charismatic actor who commands our attention throughout Rickard Petrolius’s powerfully realised drama.

 

 BETTY BLUE Jean-Jacques Beineix, director/Second Sight/Blu-Ray  By today’s standards, the graphic sexuality of Betty Blue (which caused such a stir in its day), looks relatively low-key, but the film still is a remarkable showcase for the charismatic and fascinating Beatrice Dalle, mesmerising as the increasingly deranged, sexually abandoned heroine. Be warned, though, if you choose to watch the ‘director’s cut’ version: it is immensely long.

 

 DEAD OF NIGHT Various directors/BFI  For those of us (such as this writer – at a young age) who saw ‘The Exorcism’ (the most celebrated episode of the TV series Dead of Night) on its first TV showing, its impact has remained powerful over the years– and it’s good to report that this welcome chance to see it once again shows that time has been kind to it — it is as ambitious and effective as ever, despite an over-long monologue explaining the source of the supernatural menace. After years of unavailability, the three surviving episodes from the series come to DVD. First screened on BBC2 in 1972, Dead of Night offered a series of highly personal takes on psychological disturbances, often related to contemporary social anxieties. Rarely seen since its original broadcast, the Dead of Night series has been highly sought by fans of classic TV and British horror for decades. With The Exorcism, four wealthy, middle-class friends (played by Anna Cropper, Clive Swift, Edward Petherbridge and Sylvia Kay) gather for Christmas dinner in a country cottage, only to find that the past will not rest while they feast.;

 

THE COURTNEYS OF CURZON STREET Herbert Wilcox, director/Network  Admittedly a dated period drama (form 1947), but delivered with an unapologetic conviction, it’s a reminder that such material was taken seriously in its day. As well as being an entertaining melodrama in its own right, it is now a snapshot of a particular period in British cinema, and as such has some interest.

 

 

 

The Times reviews British Gothic Cinema

The Times Saturday Review: Ketchup with your popcorn  Roger Lewis applauds a red-blooded history of British horror film British Gothic Cinema by Barry Forshaw  Palgrave Macmillan 240pp £16.99   At the BAFTA headquarters in Piccadilly there’s a David Lean Suite. Yet what a portentous and overblown figure he was. At Cambridge you can read for the Stanley Kubrick Tripos. Why? As usual the British are being very bad at honouring their truly great men, so hats off to Barry Forshaw, who in British Gothic Cinema describes what we are in fact best at, which isn’t men riding camels against desert sunsets or spaceships rotating to a Strauss waltz, but circuses of horror, houses that dripped blood, and beasts in cellars.Forshaw’s heroes are the director Terence Fisher and the writer Jimmy Sangster, who created the gorgeous X-rated trash that filled Odeons in the Sixties and Seventies. Produced by such companies as Amicus, Tigon and the ‘bijou-sized Hammer Films studios, nestling in genteel Bray’, film after film came out involving wolfmen, vampire bats, mummies, Frankenstein’s lumbering hulks, Jack the Ripper, Rasputin and Mr Hyde. What we notice now are the lurid Pop-Art colours: the gaudy purple velvet jackets worn by mad professors, the bilious green tinges of the putrid screaming skulls, the yellow swollen scars and the ketchup red of the spurting blood. Whenever a victim was about to be impaled by a poker, have their throat slashed with broken glass or their eye pierced with a hatpin, Fisher and Sangster would organise a convivial lunch with the censor. The scary moments ‘still carry a charge in the 21st century,’ we are assured. The secret of the box office success was sex. If ever a frigid Victorian bluestocking found herself in a cardboard Carpathian castle, in no time at all she’d become ‘a sexually voracious monster ‘ usually played by Ingrid Pitt. ‘Generous displays of female cleavage ‘were essential, as were topless serving wenches and interpolations of sadomasochism. This being the era of cheap package holidays, the films are almost warnings about why the British oughtn’t to travel abroad as they’ll only meet a sinister, possibly enjoyable, fate. As the chief characteristic of Gothic cinema is the eroticism, the melding of kissing and biting — ultimately the proximity of love and death — Forshaw traces the roots of the genre back to 19th century poems and novels with their fondness for graveyards, gibbets, torture chambers and women in white lost in storms. More in The Times: wwwthetimes.co.uk

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Lee and Cushing on Blu-Ray in The Mummy

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THE MUMMY Terence Fisher, director/Icon Blu-ray  What is striking today is the suggestion in this very British film that the English are given to ill-advised forays into dangerous territory, allied to a crass inability to respect information imparted by the natives they encounter. An instance of this is the Peter Cushing character’s disregard for the warning against opening the tomb of the Egyptian princess and thus unleashing chaos. And that destabilising chaos, ironically, is brought back to the British homeland when the mummy is transported to an Arcadian England – something that was also true of Bram Stoker’s original novel of Dracula but which (for budgetary reasons) does not happen in the Hammer film adaptation, unlike the original Tod Browning version. One of the most famous scenes in The Mummy is that of Lee’s bandage-swathed creature violently smashing though bay windows into the house of the Egyptologist responsible for his disinterment. The mummy is ineffectually tackled by having a spear driven through his body — it is a scene similar to that in the same director’s Revenge of Frankenstein, suggesting that a heavy price must to be paid for incursions into certain realms; not so much the supernatural as alien, non-English territory to which the British protagonists bring a little understanding or sympathy. The new Blu-Ray from Icon looks astonishingly detailed – who would have thought that films of this vintage could look so crystal clear in the 21st century?

 

Barry Forshaw

 

CINE-EXCESS VII CULT FILM FESTIVAL AND CONFERENCE 2013

CINE-EXCESS VII CULT FILM FESTIVAL AND CONFERENCE 2013: EUROPEAN EROTIC CINEMA: IDENTITY, DESIRE AND DISGUST
Cine-Excess, the annual cult film conference and festival which uniquely brings together international academics and filmmakers, runs 15th to 17th November. Now in its seventh year, for the first time the event is being jointly run by the University of Birmingham’s B-Film: The Birmingham Centre for Film Studies and the University of Brighton and staged at mac birmingham. Continue reading