New from Powerhouse, Eureka and Arrow

 

MINISTRY OF FEAR, Fritz Lang, director/Powerhouse Blu-ray  With Ray Milland, released after a mercy killing into a dark wartime London, the stage is set for an atmospheric and menacing thriller of the kind that became Fritz Lang’s métier when he escaped from Nazi Germany. And unpleasant Nazis are in the mix here, with Lang’s customary attention to detail making for a quixotic, highly diverting mix. It’s not vintage Lang, but anything by the director requires close attention, and aficionados will find plenty worthy of their time. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the source novel is by Graham Greene. Writers high up the ladder of literary acceptability proved ingredients for the criminal mix that fuelled the British crime film – such as Graham Greene (1904-1991). Had Greene not been the author of the ‘serious’ novels (such as A Burnt Case and The Heart of the Matter) which marked him out as one of the greatest of all English writers, his ‘entertainments’ (as the author rather dismissively described them) would constitute a body of crime and thriller fiction almost without equal in the field. Early in his career, Greene introduced an element of the spy story into The Confidential Agent (1939), in which D, the agent of a Latin government (Republican Spain in all but name), figures in a narrative that was clearly influential on such later writers as John le Carré. The latter has long acknowledged Greene’s considerable influence on his work. Brighton Rock, with its brilliantly realised picture of a violent seaside underworld, is as strong a starting point for those new to Greene as anything he wrote, but such superbly honed thrillers as the basis of this Powerhouse issue, Ministry of Fear (1943), demonstrate an authority and mastery of the narrative form that makes most practitioners look mere journeymen. Despite the writer’s long association with the cinema, the number of first-rate films associated with his work is relatively few (Carol Reed’s The Third Man, of course, and Lang’s creditable stab at Ministry of Fear). A razor-sharp transfer.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Billy Wilder, director/Eureka Blu-ray  The recent Sally Phelps adaptation for television of this Agatha Christie classic was far darker than Billy Wilder’s film (very much in the manner of the earlier Phelps updates such as And Then There Were None), but Wilder’s adaptation is unalloyed joy from beginning to end — not least for the bantering relationship between husband-and-wife actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester as the acerbic, ailing judge and his fussy nurse. Their scenes are actually the best thing in the film, which is not to say that Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich do not acquit themselves well in the main plot, and courtroom dramas don’t come any better than this. Of course, most of us know the plot twists now (and if you don’t, they will not be revealed in this review), but they are still delicious. And those familiar with the film only from its television showings will be astonished at how much care Eureka have taken over this very crisp Blu-ray transfer. However much you may have enjoyed Sally Phelps’ television adaptation, this remains the definitive take on Christie’s ingenious piece.

HEATHERS, Michael Lehmann, director /Arrow  The first question to be asked, of course, is how does Heathers look in the early years of the 21st-century? The fact that it’s a time capsule from the 80s is part of its charm (look at the big hair on the women), but it’s not hard to see why the film has such a devoted following. As the obsidian-dark high school comedy Heathers celebrates its 30th anniversary, Arrow Video marks the occasion with this impressive restoration of the outrageous satire starring Christian Slater (True Romance) and Winona Ryder (Stranger Things). Modern audiences may wonder (as they possibly did when the film first appeared): can the Winona Ryder character be quite as naive as she seems in not seeing just what bad news Christian Slater’s rebel is, however appealing she finds his unorthodox (and increasingly murderous) behaviour? But her slow awakening to the fact that she is having a sexual relationship with a psychopath is still one of the pleasures of the film.

THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE, Flavio Mogherini, director/Arrow Blu-ray  The giallo field is full of curiosities, but this little-known film is a real curio. Arrow, who have done sterling service in issuing a host of these glossy Italian murder thrillers, have arranged the UK Blu-ray debut of a giallo set not in London (a favourite giallo destination) but down under, The Pyjama Girl Case is a complex murder mystery inspired by a real-life case. A tetchy retired cop played by Ray Milland (sans toupee and somewhat older than in the film that opened this column) persuades his reluctant associates that he can help in solving a case involving the mutilated corpse of a girl. In fact, in a genre noted for its gruesomeness, the only macabre element here is the hideously burned face of the murder victim seen at some length throughout the film (even, bizarrely when her naked corpse is displayed for gawping onlookers). Perhaps this is one for aficionados only, but there is no denying the beautiful quality of the transfer — a sine qua non for the company. Copious extras including a fascinating piece on internationalism in the giallo from Michael McKenzie.

VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, Mark Robson, director/ Twentieth Century Fox Blu-ray  Frank Sinatra was well-known for his impatience on the film set and his insistence on using the first take on almost every occasion led to some notably lazy work in his career. Not so here – this, like The Manchurian Candidate, is one of his very best films, and looks particularly striking in this new transfer. Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard star in this classic war drama directed by Mark Robson. When US pilot Colonel Joseph Ryan (Sinatra) is shot down and placed in a German prisoner of war camp, he is more concerned with his own survival than escape. The top-ranking officer in the camp, he is initially reviled by his fellow British and American prisoners, who nickname him Von Ryan. However, Ryan eventually comes to lead them in a daring escape attempt, taking over from the commanding British officer (Howard), and the escapees face many hazards as they commandeer a train to make their way across Italy, closely followed by the Nazis.

THE ODESSA FILE, Ronald Neame, director/Powerhouse Blu-ray  When an author creates a groundbreaking first novel, it is a considerable challenge to follow it up. But Frederick Forsyth’s long and successful career since The Day of the Jackal has shown that it is a challenge he could pull off at intervals. Jackal sported one of the most unusual innovations in all fiction – the ultimate ‘high concept’ thriller, with an English hitman hired to assassinate President de Gaulle. The methodical detail of the book has been copied many times since, and Forsyth achieved later success with The Odessa File in 1974. The year is 1963, sometime after the Kennedy assassination. German crime reporter Peter Miller has access to the diary of a holocaust survivor who has committed suicide. Miller learns that the dead man, Tauber, had been incarcerated in Riga Ghetto, under the brutal command of Eduard Roschmann, ‘The Butcher of Riga’, and Miller’s search for Roschmann (who Tauber had seen just before his death) is to lead the reporter into mortal danger.

BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, John Frankenheimer, director/Eureka Blu-ray  Any praise for this classic of the cinema is relatively superfluous, given the ironclad reputation it has acquired over the years. Difficult to know what to praise first: Burt Lanchester’s superb performance as the longtime prisoner and ornithologist Robert Stroud, John Frankenheimer’s typically assured direction or Elmer Bernstein supple and evocative score. If the film omits the real-life Stroud’s homosexuality, that is a forgivable omission, given that it is not Frankenheimer’s focus. Birdman is the kind of sophisticated and intelligent filmmaking that is becoming more rare in the cinema, and looks particularly good in this transfer.

211, York Alec Shackleton, director/Lionsgate  ‘211’ is the police code for robbery in progress, and the robbery in this crisply handled thriller is particularly memorable. The film was inspired by real-life events, and stars the always reliable Nicolas Cage as a veteran cop anticipating his retirement. But with his partner and son-in-law Steve in tow, a routine patrol is to end in an explosive situation. The film did not make a great impression in the cinema, but looks particularly good on the home screen and will certainly lead to a few fingernails being chewed.

 

Eye of the Needle from the BFI

  

The BFI is to issue Eye of the Needle (directed by Richard Marquand) with Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan in a Dual Format Edition release on 24 September. Sutherland (Don’t Look Now) and Nelligan (The Prince of Tides) play star-crossed lovers torn between passion and allegiance in this heart-wrenching World War II-set thriller, played out against the Blitz-scarred 1940s backdrop of England and the windswept hills of the Scottish islands.The film comes to Blu-ray for the first time on 24 September, released by the BFI in a Dual Format Edition. Extras include an audio commentary, interview with Donald Sutherland and three wartime propaganda films.

Knightfall from Lions Gate

Control the Grail. Control the World… The legendary battle for the Christianity’s most prized relic – the Holy Grail – is told in all it’s bloody glory in lavish new TV drama KNIGHTFALL, out to own on DVD this September. The Knights Templar were the most powerful, wealthy and mysterious military order of the Middle Ages, entrusted with protecting the Grail and harbouring secrets capable of great destruction. KNIGHTFALL delves deep into the clandestine world of this legendary brotherhood of warrior monks.
From their bloody battles in the Holy Land to the betrayal that would ultimately lead to their tragic dissolution, the story of the Knights Templar has never been fully told until now! Produced in conjunction with the History Channel and with advice from expert Dan Snow KNIGHTFALL stars Tom Cullen (Gunpowder), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey), Pádraic Delaney (The Wind that Shakes the Barley), Simon Merrells (Spartacus), Julian Ovenden (Person of Interest), Olivia Ross (War and Peace) and Ed Stoppard (The Pianist).

We are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale

We are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale Neil Snowdon, editor & The Big, Big Giggle by Nigel Kneale 

Leaving aside writers from another century such as HG Wells, there is little doubt that the most significant of modern British science-fiction writers was the late Nigel Kneale, whose superlative writing and concepts – both on television then courtesy of Hammer Films brought a level of sophistication and intelligence to the genre which had become much rarer, banishing cliché. And many of Kneale’s innovations are still being sampled today (that’s a polite way of saying ‘being ripped off’), notably in the long-running TV series Doctor Who — which has cheerfully plundered the Kneale back catalogue for years. Electric Greenhouse and PS Publishing have made available two books which will tempt admirers – one much more than the other. The Big, Big Giggle is perhaps one for collectors only, as it is a television screenplay – and, accordingly laid out in that format. Much more essential for Kneale admirers. We are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale in which Neil Snowdon curates an absolutely definitive guide to the writer’s entire career with contributions from such admirers as Mark Gatiss. It’s a book that will not only give pleasure for its own range of ambition but will send the reader back to the classic Nigel Kneale originals. (It should be noted that The Big Big Giggle is available as an ‘extra’ as part of the Deluxe Edition of ‘We Are The Martians’ which is signed by the contributors, and presented in a slipcase as a separate volume rather than as an appendix.)

Barry Forshaw

We are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale Neil Snowdon, editor & The Big, Big Giggle by Nigel Kneale are published by Electric Dreamhouse and PS Publishing

 

 

Cult Film Books from Arrow

Arrow Cult Film Books; various authors

 

There is nothing that the true cinéaste enjoys more (other than the actual experience of watching a film itself) than reading about a film or director they have been excited by — particularly in books or articles that are informed by both scholarship and enthusiasm. Those qualities are copiously in evidence in the series of compact and colourful volumes issued by Arrow films to cover a wide range of cult items (the publishing imprint has avoided mainstream arthouse cinema and concentrated on the fascinating byways of genre films.). A good example is Kat Ellinger’s All the Colours of Sergio Martino. The writing is unpolished, but Ellinger’s love for – and knowledge of — this material leaps off the page, and makes for a fascinating (if all too brief) read. Sergio Martino is best known as a director of grisly gialli thrillers, but there are no genres that hold terrors for him, with Westerns, crime thrillers such as Suspicious Death of a Minor (Morte Sospetta di una Minorenne, 1975) and even ribald comedies on his curriculum vitae. In one area, Martino is very much like his compatriots Mario Bava and Dario Argento: while never being as consistently inspired in his work as them, he is capable of truly vivid and engaged filmmaking, alongside some by-the-numbers work.

Similarly engaging is Gregg Rickman’s Philip K Dick on Film, which combines a thoroughgoing knowledge of the subject with a clear-sighted analysis of the various attempts – both successful and misfiring – to transfer this most influential of science fiction writers to film. As one of the more substantial volumes in the series, Rickman’s entry is particularly cherishable. There are also generally well written and intelligent studies devoted to The Hitcher, The Blair Witch Project and The Man Who Fell to Earth – not to mention a substantial study of the films of Meiko Kaji. The fact that the books are very attractive little volumes (illustrated with colour stills) is less important than the fascination they will hold for the true film buff. They may, of course, cost you money, sending you out to search out some of the films discussed. If that’s the case, I can recommend a label for cult films: Arrow Video…

Arrow Cult Film Books; various authors – published by Arrow

 

 

 

 

100 Greatest Science Fiction Themes

100 Greatest Science Fiction Themes

Various orchestras and conductors/Silva Screen Records

This very collectable six-disc set is a very useful way of obtaining many key SF film themes by some of the top composers in the genre. John Williams is, of course, handsomely represented here, and if you have not been tempted by the multiple soundtrack CDs from the original Star Wars films, some of the choicest orchestral tracks are here. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg; the late Jerry Goldsmith is also in the mix here, as well as more recent composers such as Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino (and it has to be admitted that there are some unexceptional tracks on the discs, but they are in the minority). Performances are always enthusiastic and polished, and this is well up to the customary standard we expect from this company.

SILCD 1555

 

Second Look: Edgar Allan Poe from Arrow

SIX GOTHIC TALES Roger Corman, director /Arrow Blu-Ray Limited edition box set There is simply no modern-day equivalent of the remarkable American actor Vincent Price, who may have regretted his typecasting in horror roles, but rose to the summit of the genre in a fashion that nobody before or since has matched. His best work was the series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made for the talented director Roger Corman, and this handsome box set – with its excellent Blu-ray restorations — is the perfect way to collect these macabre gems. In The Fall of the House of Usher, a young man learns of a family curse that threatens his happiness with his bride-to-be. In The Pit and the Pendulum, a brother investigates the untimely death of sister, played by Barbara Steele. Tales of Terror adapts three Poe classics, Morella, The Black Cat and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, each starring a horror icon. The Raven is a comic take on the famous poem concerning three rival magicians. In The Haunted Palace, a newcomer in a New England town is suspected of being a warlock. And in The Tomb of Ligeia, filmed in Norfolk and at Stonehenge, a widower’s upcoming marriage plans are thwarted by his dead first wife. The six films boast a remarkable cast list: not just Price and Steele (Black Sunday), but also Boris Karloff (Frankenstein), Peter Lorre (M, The Beast with Five Fingers), Lon Chaney Jr (The Wolf Man, Spider Baby), Basil Rathbone (The Black Cat) and a very young Jack Nicholson. Adapted for the screen by Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone, I Am Legend) and Robert Towne (Chinatown), these Six Gothic Tales now rank as classic examples of sixties horror cinema.

 

HAMMER VOLUME THREE: BLOOD & TERROR plus new Arrow Blu-rays

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barry Forshaw writes:

HAMMER VOLUME THREE: BLOOD & TERROR: THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (Val Guest, 1958), YESTERDAY’S ENEMY (Val Guest, 1959), THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (Terence Fisher, 1959), THE TERROR OF THE TONGS (Anthony Bushell, 1961) These Blu-ray transfers are as impeccable as everything we have come to expect from the Powerhouse/Indicator label — the films have never looked so impressive. And that’s not even mentioning the extras — or the most complete version of Stranglers of Bombay we’ll ever see (we are presented with a composite edition of the film that conflates the US and UK prints, thereby restoring most of the censorship cuts). It’s now deeply ironic in what esteem the Hammer studios are held these days, given the excoriating condemnation thy received in their day. The two Val Guest war films here stand up particularly well (notably the lesser-known Yesterday’s Enemy), but the real draw here are the other two items, The Stranglers of Bombay and the Christopher Lee-starring Terror of the Tongs – both politically incorrect by today’s unforgiving standards, but massively enjoyable. As I noted in British Gothic Cinema, the blue-blooded Baron and the Count may have been the Trojan horses for Hammer’s inexorable ascendancy, but soon it became necessary to plunder other sources for material, both literary and filmic. As so often in Hammer films, grotesque physical mutilation and the erotic co-exist, as in the little-seen Stranglers of Bombay (directed by Terence Fisher in 1959) — a film which explicitly linked violence and torture with sexuality: a famous still from the film shows the actor Guy Rolfe spread-eagled on the ground, staked out by members of the Thuggee cult, while the actress Marie Devereux (whose generous cleavage was often utilised by directors in this era) displays her embonpoint while tantalisingly pouring away water within the sight of the tormented Rolfe. The attitude to Britain’s imperialist past as represented in Hammer films could not (it has to be admitted) be regarded as a balanced and enlightened one. But to criticise the film such as Terence Fisher’s notorious, much –excoriated The Stranglers of Bombay (1959) for its one-dimensional presentation of India as a cultural residue of potential evil sent to plague the sympathetic British characters is not a realistic stance. For a start, the company made no bones about the fact that they were in the business of making exploitation films, and audiences did not approach their product for considered historical insights. It might also be argued that the murderous Thuggee cult was a historical fact, and that the company was at liberty to utilise such material – although the approach remains very much in the territory of delivering the customary visceral shocks to the audience (via mutilation, dismemberment and – of course — strangulation, all performed with relish), rather than examining the interaction between two non-homogenous cultures; inevitably, it is the less-than-balanced approach of Fisher’s film (not to mention its now-frowned-upon use of non-Asian actors in key native roles) which has probably consolidated its neglect over the years. For quite some time, The Stranglers of Bombay was almost impossible to see, and then only in a heavily cut print. More recently, audiences have had a chance to assess Fisher’s original, uncut vision – but nothing like as complete as here. As with the other film he made in 1959, The Mummy, Fisher presents his British characters – while flawed – as representatives of a balanced and civilised order, in which foreign elements serve the function of threatening or destabilising this order. But there are defences to be made of Fisher’s (and Hammer’s) approach – not least in the fact that there is an implicit critique of British inflexibility, and a certain inherent weakness of character which lays open the protagonist to possible destruction; this is not flag-waving imperialism of the kind that is to be seen in many British films up to and including the 1950s, but a more subtle examination of the variety of elements within the British character (which Fisher and his colleagues imply, is – to some degree – always riding for a fall in its dealings with foreign nations). That the foreigners in such Hammer films as The Stranglers of Bombay and The Mummy are presented in a relatively unambiguous, threatening fashion may not conform to current politically correct standards but fulfils the narrative function of providing the nemesis which must be overcome for the central characters to survive. Viewed in this light – and extending to Fisher and his colleagues a certain degree of understanding of political attitudes of the day might allow for a more judicious approach to such often-despised films as The Stranglers of Bombay.

Terence Fisher himself had no great opinion of the film, perhaps perceiving that it was by no means a fully realised piece (and certainly not in the way that much else of his work for the company is); there is a glancing treatment of the class issue which is a recurrent theme in Hammer movies — in this case, a supercilious commanding officer whose authority is clearly a gift of his background rather than his accomplishments, set against the more sympathetic protagonist played by Guy Rolfe (who is less secure socially but is clearly the identification figure for the audience, precisely because of his quiet command of his own resources). The latter’s personal authority is contrasted with the craven fear of his inefficient superior officer during a vicious assault by the natives

JULIET OF THE SPIRITS & I VITELLONI, Federico Fellini, director/CultFilms  More welcome world premieres on Blu-ray. HI-def Blu-ray editions of these two Fellini masterpieces are long overdue, and they have been well worth the wait. Federico Fellini was once considered the most important of all Italian directors, and his ground-breaking middle period works (notably La Dolce Vita and 8 ½) were essential viewing. But Fellini was an over-prolific filmmaker, and as his later films diluted the spark of genius evident in their predecessors, his work began to seem like a parody of itself, and even his earlier masterpieces began to be retrospectively reappraised in a negative light. But looked at today (something I touched on in my Italian Cinema), his films of the 1960s remain some of the most ambitious and interesting work ever achieved in the cinema. I Vitelloni (1953) inaugurates the plotless narrative that was to become Fellini’s speciality. Seen at the time as a devastating analysis of the emptiness of provincial existence, it now seems like an accomplished precursor of such ensemble pieces as La Dolce Vita. The film draws upon memories from the director’s childhood, with the five directionless young men at the centre of his narrative being the vitelloni (or, derisorily, the calves, as they are known in Fellini’s home town of Rimini). The one we see most is Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), who is described as the spiritual leader of the group, and his relationship with Sandra (Eleonora Ruffo), the sister of Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), another of the vitelloni, is central to the narrative, as the shot-gun marriage and its subsequent betrayals put a strain on the life of the young men.

The observation of character and instant is as stunning as anything in Fellini’s later work, but his ambitions were circumscribed when seen in the context of the later masterpieces. Certainly, these young men aren’t going anywhere, but we are drawn less into their fates than we are into those of the characters who are played by Marcello Mastroianni in the later films.

But the film that established Fellini as a key voice in Italian cinema was La Dolce Vita (1959), followed by the autobiographical 8 ½ (1962) and Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli Spiriti, 1965), which featured a sympathetic performance by Giulietta Masina. Later films, such as Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Roma (1971) were rich in the imagery that had become the director’s trademark, but lacked the narrative focus that made the earlier films so impressive. I Vitelloni and Fellini’s first colour film Juliet of the Spirits arrive with fresh HD restorations that do justice to his original visions and come complete with exciting extras from Fellini aficionados and academics.

THE ENDLESS, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, directors/ Arrow Video  Perhaps the most striking aspect of this remarkable outing from the Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead duo blank is the readiness to throw a variety of genres into the blender and come up with something fresh and provocative. The film achieved a slew of enthusiastic reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. The Endless is a genre-splicing SF/horror synthesis in which the two brothers explore the ‘UFO death cult’ notion, succeeding their much-acclaimed Resolution; the latter is included in the Limited Edition Blu-ray release.
THE NAVIGATOR, Vincent Ward, director/Arrow Video  More genre-bending fare arrives from Arrow with The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. This New Zealand cult classic from Vincent Ward explores such SF notions as time travel along with medieval fantasy to forge something new and innovative. The film was not given a particularly good showcase on its first appearance in home cinema – now it looks absolutely splendid with a definition and clarity we have never seen before. A serious reappraisal of the films is now overdue, even though its reputation is solidly ensconced.
XTRO/Second Sight Blu-ray  One of those odd films that combines quirky imagination with hilarious ineptitude (the visual effects would put early Doctor Who to shame, looking like scratches on the film), but this is still enjoyable indulgence for fans of schlocky British horror movies. Xtro is one of the strangest, most shocking exploitation flicks to land on earth during the video nasty heyday. A film that narrowly avoided inclusion and prosecution on the original nasties list, it threw in buckets of blood and gore and some of the most outlandish plot twists of the VHS era to create a truly memorable horror piece. Now it makes its arrival for the first time on Blu-ray courtesy of Second Sight Films as Xtro: Limited Edition Box Set.