HAMMER: VOLUME 1: FEAR WARNING, Various directors/Powerhouse Blu-Ray Box

HAMMER: VOLUME 1: FEAR WARNING, Various directors/Powerhouse Blu-Ray Box  In splendid new Blu-ray transfers, here’s a tempting collection of lesser known Hammer films, including Fanatic, Maniac, and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. But perhaps the most interesting film here is the one the studio (and its makers) were ambiguous in their reaction to. Almost everyone connected with The Gorgon (1964) was prepared to admit – in rueful retrospection – that a key element of the film has simply not been up to scratch — and disappointment of audiences had seriously hurt the film’s prospects. It was, in fact, the vision of the titular monster — the same syndrome, in effect, which had sabotaged another Hammer project, the distinctly non-frightening devil dog in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had similarly drawn audiences’ attention away from the excellences to be found elsewhere in the film (notably, in both films, the nonpareil acting). If this seems a touch unfair given the limited screen time these creatures were given, it was nevertheless short-sighted of Hammer executives not to see that cheeseparing and haste in this crucial respect would not be forgiven by audiences – not least because the build-up to the appearances of the eponymous monsters was so appetite-whettingly staged. But the compromise goes deeper than that, given the iconographic value of these particular ghastly apparitions.

The setting chosen for the Hammer Gorgon (Megaera rather than rather than the better-known Medusa) to wreak her petrifying havoc on those unlucky enough to cross her path was a period Prussia, some distance from the historical antecedents of the mythological Greek monster. As ever, Terence Fisher was aware that he could rely on the copper-bottomed production design of the inventive Bernard Robinson – and that the public would cut him some slack for his performers. But the fires were burning lower than usual: while Christopher Lee’s performance (for once, in a sympathetic savant role) seems less engaged than usual, Peter Cushing, as ever invested his character (a university professor) with the understated authority that was the actor’s stock in trade – and which lent such verisimilitude to so many of the films he appeared in. Nether, however, invested their role with quite the customary authority.

But the film has one other key asset – another actor quite as reliable Cushing: the luminous Barbara Shelley, lending to her role (as always for Hammer) a plausible inner life that granted a flesh and blood reality to her crinolined, corset-wearing heroine. In most of their films, Hammer’s head honchos Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds were canny enough to promote the pretty innocuous blondes who invariably served as juvenile-leads-for-the-menacing, but both men were also well aware that an actress of Shelley’s calibre was required for key female roles, such as Shelley’s in The Gorgon (and it should be noted that there is an assumption here that the reader will be familiar with the film and not disturbed by revelations). Shelley’s reined-in, self-conscious character is (as contemporary viewers of the film no doubt guessed) capable of transforming herself into the snake-headed monstrosity whose gaze can transform her victims into stone, and viewers – then and now – might speculate on how much more effective the film’s tentative mythological charge might have been had the actress herself been permitted to play the eponymous Gorgon ( the part was in fact played – to no great effect — by the actress Prudence Hyman); the fact that the creature’s face is merely that of a middle-aged woman with sinister lighting and a head full of immobile plastic snakes might be compensated for had we been allowed to see Shelley as Megaera. But while the film’s incidental pleasures are many (staging, mise-en-scène, acting), it isn’t just the fact that Fisher seems less galvanised by the project than usual – it is the writing (by John Gilling) which has not discerned any creative spin for the scenario. The interpolation of the Gorgon legend into a potentially militaristic Prussian setting is not fruitful, and even popular entertainment film such as this might have done something with the confluence of a society dedicated to war and a central character whose image is nothing less than the face of death, but that was not on the agenda here. Part of the problem is that Terence Fisher and John Gilling don’t quite know to do with their petrifying Greek monster, other than conform to what the E.M. Forster once dismissively said of several Dickens characters: simply appear in order to do the action is expected of them and then retire, with no particular development. The various quadrilles executed here by the characters between castle, asylum and other settings have a formal rigour, but insufficient eerie charge, though Fisher’s restrained but expressive romantic instincts infuse the material, through the often startling visuals, full of lustrous colour and atmospheric lighting effects. All of this hardly makes up for the fact that Hammer’s most accomplished actress, Barbara Shelley, isn’t really a given enough to get her teeth into (but to some degree that is dictated by the exigencies of the narrative, which has to withhold certain facts).

American Assassin from Lionsgate

From Lionsgate: an explosive start to the new year… the fast-paced thriller AMERICAN ASSASSIN starring DYLAN O’BRIEN and MICHAEL KEATON will be available to download and own from January 2018. After the death of his girlfriend at the hands of terrorists, Mitch Rapp (O’Brien) is drawn into the world of counter-terrorism, mentored by tough-as-nails former U.S. Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Keaton). Enlisted by the CIA the pair investigate a wave of apparently random attacks on military and civilian targets and discover a pattern to the violence. Their mission is to stop a mysterious operation intent on starting the next World War. Also starring DAVID SUCHET and TAYLOR KITSCH and based on the best-selling Vince Flynn series of novels AMERICAN ASSASSIN is a brutal espionage thriller full of epic action scenes guaranteed to get your heart pumping.

Hammer Horror Classic Themes 1958 -1974 Silva Screen Records

Aficionados of the minatory and dramatic scores for the fondly-remembered Hammer films will have several of these pieces already in various iterations; the time when such music was hard to find on disc seems, thankfully, long distant. Needless to say, the éminence grise of the Hammer film soundtrack was the late James Benard, handsomely represented here with his vampire scores and his powerful themes for the Dennis Wheatley adaptation The Devil Rides Out. A pleasing spruce-up job is done on the original soundtracks, and while there are some tracks which hardly repay listening (such as the deeply misfiring The Lost Continent), admirers will be more than happy.

Hammer Horror Classic Themes 1958 -1974 Silva Screen Records

New Books on Film and TV

Universal Terrors, 1951-1955 by Tim Weaver  McFarland  Tim Weaver is perhaps the doyen of writers and researchers on the classic 1950s era of American science fiction and horror films, and his interviews with the surviving writers, directors and actors of the period are an essential adjunct to any study of the subject. This weighty new volume might well be his most stimulating addition to the Weaver library, focusing on a more narrow range of films (just eight movies, in fact) than heretofore, but crammed full of the customary attention to detail and scholarship, which will be catnip to admirers of the genre. As with previous books by Weaver, one of the great virtues of this volume is the serious treatment accorded to a genre which in its day (and for many years subsequently) was simply not taken seriously. It is a credit to writers such as the assiduous Weaver that the situation has now changed, and his latest book will send you us back to those films he and his colleagues discusses with renewed interest.

I Am Not a Number by Alex Cox  Kamera Books, £9.99  Alex Cox is a man of many talents. There is his skill as a filmmaker (sadly underused of late) with such cult movies as Repo Man to his credit, along with his talent for communicating his immense love and scholarship concerning film – Cox’s introductions to eccentric and ambitious movies on television are firmly lodged in the memory of many a cinéaste. The ultimate cult television show is, of course, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, in which the famously curmudgeonly actor took his John Drake character from the highly successful TV series Danger Man and placed him as ‘Number 6’ in a Kafkaesque prison The Village (although McGoohan, for a variety of reasons, never admitted that it was the same character). The show initially baffled viewers with its utterly surrealistic take on the thriller format (something taken to almost Olympian levels in the show’s astonishing, nation-baffling finale), and Cox’s take on this phenomenal series (that has never lost its cult appeal) is one of the most persuasive and provocative yet — of many. Subtitled ‘Decoding the Prisoner’, Cox’s very personal view of the show renders makes any future viewing of the episodes impossible without this guidebook to hand.

Black Masculinity on Film: Native Sons and White Lies by Daniel O’Brien  Palgrave Macmillan  A contemporary writer on film who brings a totally individual approach to the genre is the perceptive Daniel O’Brien, whose volume on the Italian ‘pepla’ (or ‘sword and sandal’) genre quickly became the definitive disquisition on the subject. This provocative new volume contains more of the writer’s incisive approach to his subject (a relatively underexplored one), with a rigorous analysis of the treatment of black males in film and literature, even taking in such subjects as the treatment of race in the 007 universe, along with studies of significant black American actors through the ages. It’s a fascinating volume for anyone with even a glancing interest in the subject, studiously avoiding tendentiousness.

 

Ambitious Release Programme from Powerhouse/Indicator

The newish Blu-Ray company Indicator/Powerhouse is issuing a remarkably eclectic selection of films in an ambitious new programme, and its initial batch includes a very collectable Hammer Films box set (which is temptingly described as volume 1), containing neglected Hammer films such as Maniac and The Gorgon. The set is to be reviewed in the next DVD Choice.

 

New Blu-Rays: BFI, Network, Arrow, Warner, Final Cut

THE WAGES OF FEAR, Henri-Georges Clouzot, director/BFI Dual Format Edition (Blu-ray/DVD) Starring an impeccably cast (and sweaty) Yves Montand, Charles Vanel and Vera Clouzot, this most celebrated of French thrillers is based on the 1950 French novel Le Salaire de la peur, and has acquired a reputation – fully justified – as the great arthouse/action film, and has enjoyed not only a remake by William Friedkin (Sorcerer), but a sort-of-rejigging in Cy Enfield’s exemplary Hell Drivers. Looking at the splendid new BFI Blu-ray in 2017, it is remarkable just how well Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film stands up to the rigours of time, exerting an iron grip throughout its considerable length. The Wages of Fear was critically hailed upon its original release, propelling its director (whose other most celebrated film is Les Diaboliques) to international fame, and is now newly restored in 4K, and released by the BFI in a Dual Format Edition packed with special features. In a squalid South American village, four desperate men are hired by a US oil company to embark on a treacherous journey, transporting a volatile cargo of nitro-glycerine to a massive oil well fire. Friendships and courage are pushed to the limit in this nail-biting thriller by a director would go on to be dubbed the ‘French Hitchcock’.

THE THING, John Carpenter, director/Arrow  The classic Howard Hawks film (ostensibly credited to his associate, Christian Nyby),The Thing from Another World, has long been recognised as one of the most intelligent and authoritative of science-fiction thrillers, so when John Carpenter announced his remake, there was some scepticism, despite the director’s then-impressive track record. That scepticism was soon allayed, as this remake – now with classic status of its own — is an intelligent piece of filmmaking. Admittedly, the newer version perhaps lacks the keen characterisation of the Hawks original, but has a slew of impressive special effects. The Thing sees the director’s regular star Kurt Russell as part of the crew of an Antarctic research facility terrorised by a shapeshifting alien. Showcasing an impressive ensemble cast, a menacing score by Ennio Morricone, and jaw-dropping effects from Rob Bottin, this is an essential purchase for fans of one of the greatest sci-fi horrors put on screen, with the Blu-ray extras including behind the scenes footage, a new documentary, featurettes and a collector’s book.

MANINA THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS DAUGHTER Willy Rozier, director/Eureka Blu-ray  Slowly but surely, the missing sections of European cinema are being uncovered – and even if some of the newly excavated films (such as this deeply obscure item) are hardly undiscovered masterpieces, they are still of considerable interest. The film is basically a love letter to the young Brigitte Bardot, with the camera lovingly recording her bikini-clad form in a drama in which a Parisian student set to recover a lost treasure off the coat of Corsica; Bardot is the alluring siren he encounters.

SCARS OF DRACULA, Roy Ward Baker, director/Studio Canal  While nobody would argue that this is one of Christopher Lee’s most distinguished outings as the vampiric count, the appearance on Blu-ray of a late film in the Hammer canon will still be catnip to aficionados. The company’s well-oiled machine turned out this kind of product with authority, even when the flame of inspiration was burning low. In this new Blu-ray incarnation, it looks considerably more impressive than it did in earlier DVD issues.

DEATH BECOMES HER, Robert Zemeckis, director/Final Cut Entertainment  Admirers of this diverting comic extravaganza may look at the new Blu-ray with some trepidation – will Robert Zemeckis’s film still be as divertingly funny as we originally found it? There is no need for suspense – this is still a highly likeable couple of hours, with the only caveat being a miscast cast Bruce Willis playing against type as a henpecked husband; Willis certainly has comic chops, but not for this kind of role, which needed a Stanley Tucci type Ageing actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is persuaded to take an elixir which brings her eternal life. Her rival for her husband Ernest’s (Bruce Willis) affections, Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), has taken the same potion, and when the two of them try to kill each other, their bodies prove to be irritatingly indestructible.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, Jack Arnold, director/Arrow  For many years, Richard Matheson routinely dismissed the classic Jack Arnold, film of his novel The Shrinking Man as a travesty of his work – until he realised just what high esteem the film was now held in, and smoothly finessed his view. With this new Blu-ray, it looks better than ever. Legendary writer Matheson and Fifties creature feature director Jack Arnold delivered a thrilling and innovative sci-fi horror classic, a box office smash. Whilst on a holiday cruise with his wife, young Scott finds himself enveloped by a luminous mist which cover him in a strange, glittery dust. Several months later, he’s accidentally sprayed with an insecticide. Soon, Scott starts shrinking at an alarming rate, and before long he’s thrust into a terrifying world of gigantic cats, spiders and other over-sized pitfalls.

FOUR FILM NOIR CLASSICS, Various directors/Arrow  A highly collectable box set that assembles crystal clear high definition prints of a quartet of the finest entries in the Film Noir genre: The Dark Mirror (1946), directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers), starring Olivia de Havilland; Secret Beyond the Door (1947) directed by Fritz Lang (The Big Heat), starring Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave; Force of Evil (1948), directed by Abraham Polonsky, and starring the legendary John Garfield; and Joseph H. Lewis’ brutal and brilliant The Big Combo (1955), with Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte. Limited to 2000 copies and packed with superb extras, the Dual Format box set also comes with a highly-collectable hardback book on all the films.

GOD OF WAR, Gordon Chan, director/Well Go  While never being much more than a lively and kinetic entertainment of no great substance, this is still a diverting period piece, which is made with some assurance by its director and stars. 16th century China, the east coast of the country is being attacked by ruthless Japanese pirates from Japan. General Qi Jiguang, who has been attempting to rout the invaders, enlists the help of a younger general to train up soldiers to try different tactics against this relentless attack. They lead a small army in a series of counter attacks, facing adversity at every turn, from corrupt bureaucrats, reluctant villagers, and the seemingly unstoppable and brutal pirates themselves, who outnumber the Ming army by twenty to one. Starring Sammo Hung, Vincent Zhao and Yasuaki Kurata, the director is Gordon Chan (director of The Medallion and Fist of Legend)

MONTPARNASSE 19, director Jacques Becker/Arrow   Released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK for the first time. A biopic charting the final year in the life of the Italian painter Modigliani, this is penultimate film from director Jacques Becker (Le Trou, Touchez Pas au Grisibi), who took over the film when Max Ophuls died. It features a marvellous performance from Gerard Philipe (La Ronde) as the ill-fated painter and Anouk Aimee (La Dolce Vita) as his lover. The end results are both hauntingly beautiful and savagely ironic.

DELIVER US (LIBERAMI), Federica Di Giacomo, director/Network  Initiated as a search for stories on obsession and Director, Federica Di Giacomo found a lot more than she bargained for; a crisis surrounding a shortage of exorcists in Italy. The resulting documentary follows the day to day life of ordinary citizens, constantly dealing with the battle of possession, from violent outbursts to writhing in rebellion, they seek the help they need from Father Cataldo and his weekly mass of liberation.

CÉLINE AND JULIE GO BOATING, director, Jacques Rivette/BFI  How will you respond to Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating? The film was Rivette’s most substantial commercial hit, and its reputation has grown over the years. If this writer has to admit to being immune to its charms, it’s still is an intriguing dissertation on notions of theatricality and identity set against the actual act of filmmaking and the viewing of films. Previously released by the BFI on DVD, it now comes to Blu-ray, in a new restoration. Special features include a new feature length commentary by Adrian Martin. Céline (Juliet Berto), a magician, and Julie (Dominique Labourier), a librarian, meet in Montmartre and wind up sharing the same flat, bed, fiancé, clothes, identity and imagination. Soon, thanks to a magic sweet, they find themselves spectators, then participants, in a Henry James-inspired ‘film-within-the-film’ – a melodrama unfolding in a mysterious suburban house with the ‘Phantom Ladies Over Paris’ (Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier), a sinister man (Barbet Schroeder) and his child.

STRIKE – THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, Micheal Keillor, director/Warner  Now that the secret is out – and we know it is Harry Potter’s only begetter JK Rowling behind the masculine sobriquet “Robert Galbraith” – we were all obliged to play catch-up with a book that created barely a ripple on its first appearance. In fact, the book was an accomplished piece that deserved its retrospective success — as does the solid TV adaption. As the beleaguered military policeman-turned-private eye Cormoran Strike investigates the apparent suicide of a supermodel, we are granted a measured but subtly involving reworking of crime l mechanisms as the detective moves across a variety of class divides, finding that the police have got things wrong. Strike himself is a distinctive addition to the overcrowded ranks of literary private eyes, perfectly incarnated by Tom Burke as Strike with Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott, leading a cast of acclaimed British character actors.

THE FARTHEST, Emer Reynolds/Screenbound  Put together with considerable skill is this documentary by Irish director Emer Reynolds about the first NASA spacecraft to leave the solar system. An inspired examination of humanity’s cosmic insignificants – the Voyager Space Mission, covering interviews with the spacecraft’s designer, scientists and the data analysers, who still to this day interpret the information Voyager sends back to earth. Sharing their views, opinions and stories help bring this documentary to life. It is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. Twelve billion miles away a tiny spaceship is leaving our Solar System and entering the void of deep space – the first human-made object ever to do so.