Thursday, 28 February 2019

THE UNHOLY BLU-RAY review

Following a near death experience that he inexplicably survived, Father Michael (Ben Cross) is given his own parish, St Agnes. There, he meets Millie (Jill Carroll), a teenage runaway who has become involved with a local nightclub owner with links to the occult. As Father Michael tries to save Millie and determine if the demonic goings-on are a hoax, he is forced to question the strength of his beliefs.

One of a number of religious films released in the years after The Exorcist, The Unholy takes the familiar idea of a priest trying to save a young woman but sets itself apart from the opening scene, which sees Father Dennis, the former priest for St Agnes, praying at the alter as a red-headed temptress in very see-through clothing approaches him for the last kiss he will ever have. With its garish lighting and liberal use of wind machines its like a more biblical version of Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart music video, but also with more boobs.

It turns out that when he died, Father Dennis was also trying to save Millie from her association with Luke (William Russ), the owner of a local club called The Threshold that performs on stage ritual sacrifices of debatable authenticity. Luke, a weird Billy Idol-esque bad boy with a strong 'N'awlins' drawl denies having any real association with the occult and also wants to save Millie. Is Luke really who he seems or is it possible she's leading both of them on?

It's inevitable that any horror with a heavily religious theme is going to be compared to The Exorcist, but to give it its dues, The Unholy does its best to offer something different than a simple clone of that film. At times it lacks the subtlety or restraint of The Exorcist, and that had a teenage girl masturbating with a crucifix. This is more in B-movie territory, the kind of schlocky nonsense that in the early 90s you'd find in the VHS collection of your mate's older brother, with corpses bursting into flames and voluminous bloody vomit splashing down at the foot of the alter. Nice.

It also relies more on some gloopy creature effects, that work to a varying degree in the context of the story. Some of the scenes of demonic possession are exemplified by billowing curtains and torn up pieces of paper flying around, but by and large this is a well shot film with a nice visual style. Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty and Trevor Howard pop up in small roles, but the film belongs to Ben Cross who really sinks his teeth into the role of Father Michael, giving an admirably weighty performance that keeps the film from slipping into farce. With shades of Suspiria and The Wicker Man, The Unholy is an enjoyably pulpy take on the religious horror movie.

Verdict
3/5

Special Features-
- Audio commentary from director Camilo Vila
- Isolated score and interview with composer Roger Bellon
- Audio interview with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca
- 'Sins of the Father' with Ben Cross
- 'Prayer Offerings' with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca
- 'Demons in the Flesh', the monsters of The Unholy
- Original ending with optional commentary from producer Mathew Haydon
- Theatrical trailer
- TV and radio spots
- Storyboard and stills gallery

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

PARENTS BLU-RAY review

Meet the Laemle's. At first glance they're your typical 50s American family... Dad goes to work every day whilst Mom stays at home doing housework and preparing dinner for her 10 year old son, Michael. Except Michael isn't your average child, and he's starting to question why they have leftovers for dinner every night, and what were they before they were leftovers?

Pitched somewhere between Tim Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure and David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Parents is a very weird film about a very weird family. Main character Michael (Bryan Madorsky) is not a chip off the old block, generally scared and concerned about who his parents really are behind the sheen of suburban harmony. Dad (Randy Quaid) may be all comfortable sweaters and horn-rimmed glasses on the surface, but his job at Toxico doing experiments on cadavers hides something sinister about the man inside the sweater; and Mom (Mary Beth Hurt) may look like she's straight off the cover of a family cookbook, but there's definitely some strange ingredients in her recipes.

Directed by character actor Bob Balaban, probably best known for his appearance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or his more recent work with Wes Anderson (or maybe just as Phoebe's dad in Friends), it's always interesting to see what material drives actors to make their first film behind the camera. Although this was Balaban's first theatrical directorial effort back in 1989, he had previously (and has primarily since) worked in television, perhaps most pertinent to this film on the pilot episode of the television series Tales from the Darkside.

Featuring orchestral music by David Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti, Parents has a dark and sombre tone not unlike Twin Peaks, but as a dark suburban fantasy it nails the weirdness whilst never quite managing to be scary or gripping enough to match the world created by Lynch and Frost, which to be fair, is probably asking too much of this film. Kind of like a junior school version of Society, it works best when the smiles of this perfect nuclear family start to crack and Mom and Dad start to reveal their dark secrets, although Michael is such a weird little boy it's up for debate as to how real what he thinks he sees is.

The sole acting credit for Bryan Madorsky, he's great at playing the kind of kid you'd be worried about your own offspring hanging out with, like a young Norman Bates in waiting. He never does anything more irrational than worry about his own safety, but still... you just sort of know he's a weird kid. But Madorsky is more than capable of holding his own against the likes of Randy Quaid - a man not afraid of putting in a big performance when asked to do so-, and he has some great scenes with Mary Beth Hurt's Mom, like a deadpan Wednesday Addams interacting with Laura Linney's super chipper housewife from The Truman Show.

Make no bones about it, Parents is an extremely odd, sometimes sinister and occasionally disgusting vision of the perfect 1950s suburban life, and although you many never find yourself corpsing with laughter, it's an eccentric and curious oddity that raises a few smiles in its downright weirdness.

Verdict
3/5

Special Features-
- Commentary from director Bob Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef
- Isolated score and interview with composer Jonathan Elias
- 'Mother's Day' - a new interview with Mary Beth Hurt
- 'Inside Out' - an interview with director of photography Robin Vidgeon
- 'Vintage Tastes' - with decorative consultant Yolanda Cuomo
- Theatrical trailer
- Radio spots
- Stills gallery





Monday, 25 February 2019

CLASS OF 1999 BLU-RAY review

In 1999 there is no law. Society is crumbling, and Dr Bob Forrest (Stacy Keach) thinks he has the answer in the shape of highly advanced, lifelike robots that can keep the youth of the day in check. With gangs taking over his school, Malcolm McDowell's Kennedy High principal agrees to let the robots teach classes, as long as they can deliver what the children need most... discipline.

Released from juvie and headed back to school on the same day is bad boy Cody (Bradley Gregg), former leader of the Blackhearts gang, now eager to serve his time in school and keep his nose clean, until he learns that his younger brother Angel (Joshua John Miller, aka the late 80s answer to Edward Furlong) is about to be initiated into the gang. Hoping to keep himself and his brother out of trouble and away from the mysterious new teachers at school, Cody still finds himself landing on their radar. The three teachers, 'old man-bot', 'not Arnie-bot' and 'actual Pam Grier-bot' start doling out a variety of punishments, quickly escalating from spankings and a good shove, to actual cold blooded murder. In order to uncover the real truth about the new teachers and where they come from, Cody, along with the help of the principal's daughter Christie (Traci Lind) breaks into the teachers' apartment where the robo-conspiracy begins to unravel when he find cupboards filled with (dun, dun, dun)... WD40.

What's quite impressive in Class of 1999 is that cinemas favourite rent-a-baddie Malcolm McDowell isn't even that bad a guy. Heck, he isn't even the second most evil white haired man in the film. The top honours go to Stacy Keach, introduced to us with a bright white mullet and irises to match, later gleefully covering up the murder of children whilst chowing down on a banana. All his dialogue is delivered through a maniacal grin that would give schoolchildren nightmares.

Part of the fun of re-visiting "old" genre films is how wrong (and sometimes how right) they got their visions of the future. Now, I'm not suggesting that director Mark Lester saw this scenario actually becoming a reality, but it's an added bonus to look back on this film, 20 years after it was set and enjoy the many "thank god that didn't happen" morsels. Here Lester is doubling down on the concept of outlaw school kids he used for Class of 1984 (released in 1982), but at least this time he gave a good 9 years notice for his futuristic vision to come into effect.

I think it's fair to say that this film quite liberally 'takes inspiration' from James Cameron's The Terminator, but does it in a style that would please Cameron's former mentor Roger Corman. Class of 1999 takes Cameron's idea and says "what if school teachers were Terminators?", running with the concept to its illogical conclusion. There's also plenty to snark at in the vision of the future that begins with infographics straight out of Escape From New York and then features its three 'deadly' robots orchestrating gang warfare by driving around in a nice, functional Ford saloon car. It also doesn't have the same level of special effects as Cameron's original - less Cyberdyne systems and more like Jones from Police Academy 6 stuffing off-cuts of metal up his sleeve to pass as a robot - although there is a step up come the finale when the teens are pursued by a very Arnie-like walking metal skeleton. And yet despite all these moments of ridiculousness, Class of 1999 is not a bad film by any stretch.

The latest film to be given the hi-def upgrade as part of the Vestron Video Collector's Series, Class of 1999 is derivative of other, better films, for sure, and definitely doesn't make enough of having Pam Grier in the cast, but any film that has enough sense of humour to have a teacher profess how much he likes to "mould young minds" as he drills through a students forehead is okay with me.

Verdict
3.5/5

Special Features -
- Commentary by producer/director Mark Lester
- School Safety - interviews with Mark Lester and producer Eugene Mazzola
- New Rules - interview with screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner
- Cyber-Teachers From Hell - interview with special effects creators Eric Allard and Rick Stratton
- Future of Discipline - interview with director of photography Mark Irwin
- Theatrical trailer
- TV spots
- Stills Gallery
- Video promo

Sunday, 24 February 2019

WORLD ON A WIRE BLU-RAY review


World On A Wire, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's sci-fi paranoid thriller, is out now in a deluxe blu-ray boxset.



When Vollmer, the technical director of the secretive Simulacron 1 project dies under mysterious circumstances, Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) is brought in to take over the project. Wary of what the real intentions of the project are, Stiller becomes a gumshoe of sorts, hoping to crack the case of what really happened to Vollmer, uncovering more than he anticipated about the true nature of the Simulacron project along the way.

First shown on television in 1973, World On A Wire has been billed as an influence on The Matrix, and while that is a parallel that can be seen in the high concept, big thinking ideas that question man's own existence, the visual style of the film couldn't be more different. The decor and clothing of this world are oh-so very 1970s. But this is a film all about its ideas, and it has a lot of them. The work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prolific enfant terrible of the new German cinema known for his avant-garde experimentalism, it's a lot less controversial than some of his other works, perhaps due to its television roots. World On A Wire's concerns are based on man's fear of new technology, rather quaintly in this case, "computers".

Firstly, this boxset is not just aesthetically pleasing, but also probably necessary to fit it all in. The film itself is 3 hours 25 minutes and split across the 2 blu-ray discs, both with additional extras. Personally, I'm of the argument that a perfect film is between 90 to 100 minutes, so the 3 hour plus runtime may seem a little daunting. It is probably best viewed as originally intended; a high quality TV drama that can be viewed over two nights; but if you're into it... binge away.

It's a cerebral, talky exploration of the concepts of an artificially programmed world. If we were in some sort of manufactured world, would we really know? A film with ideas coming from every direction and that moves at a pace, it would have actually benefitted the story to divide this up more and allow longer for the ideas to develop in the mind of the audience. I could see this getting a 21st century revamp at some point, where it would probably be re-imagined as a mini-series across 6 to 8 episodes. It's often po-faced, with lines such as "could you convincingly explain our computer to a layman if all of society depended on it?" delivered in such a flat, humourless manner that it was unavoidably humorous to my modern ears.

World On A Wire is at its best when evoking classic 70s paranoid thrillers like Parallax View, with Stiller doubting who to trust and which of his former colleagues are who they say they are, and even manages to have a sly wink towards Alphaville (complete with Lemmy Caution cameo). At its core it is a pre-cursor to the technology obsessed psychological thrillers that were to come in the following decade. Scanners without the head pops, Videodrome without Debbie Harry; it's at times dated and mind meltingly confusing to keep up, but it's a visionary work that has plenty to offer audiences who like to deep dive into the sci-fi genre.


Extras -
- Rigid slipcase packaging
- 50 page book featuring new essays from Anton Bitel and Daniel Bird, archival writing from Daniel Oberhaus and Christian Braad Thomsen, stills and rare on-set photos by Peter Gauhe
- No Strings Attached - an interview with assistant director Renate Leiffer
- Observing Fassbinder - a tribute to photographer Peter Gauhe
- Looking Ahead to Today documentary
- On-set featurette
- Original broadcast recap
- The Simulation Argument - an interview with professor Nick Bostrom

Saturday, 16 February 2019

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD review


During the filming of a low budget horror movie, the cast and crew suddenly find that they're under attack from the very things they thought weren't real. Zombies. As the director tries to capture the madness on camera, the action follows the lead actress in her attempts to survive this bizarre and unexpected turn of events.

Shin'ichirĂ´ Ueda's Cut of the Dead is a zombie film, the likes of which you haven't seen before. The film starts in the middle of the 42nd take of a zombie attack, breaking when the director is frustrated by the lack of authenticity in the performance of his leads. As they chat and prepare for the next run through, the single take continues to film as lead actress Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) and heartthrob Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya) find themselves in real peril when the crew starts to turn into flesh hungry maniacs. Okay, so far so meta.... but wait, as One Cut of the Dead has plenty more tricks up its bloodied sleeves.

I would recommend seeing this film (and I most definitely DO recommend seeing this film) with as little prior knowledge as possible, as the many surprises it has in store for you are an absolute delight to discover. I'm going to avoid heavy spoilers, but it's impossible to review this film without giving away something. More than just a found footage style horror, One Cut of the Dead is a story that is told to us a few times over from different angles, some following the process of making the first portion of the film and some moving onto a broader scope that will have you applauding its ingenuity. It's meta, but without the snarky 'wink wink, nudge nudge' you might associate with the practice.

It's also incredibly funny. There's a perverse joy in seeing the crazed director (Takayuki Hamatsu) continually put his cast in harms way as he puts a camera in their face, shouting "action!", and as the film piles up the body parts and rushes its camera through dense shrubbery, there's definite nods to Peter Jackson's low budget gore-fest, Bad Taste. The film isn't light on splatter and throws everything it's got towards (and sometimes on) the camera lens, and as the film peels away its layers like some sort of zombie onion, gorehounds will love the reveals of its methods.

Of the different approaches to telling us the story of the making of the film within the film (still keeping up?), the simple and effective first segment and final re-telling that puts everything we've seen before (including what appeared to be mistakes made in the long, single take) in a new perspective are the most satisfying parts, with an unfortunate drop off in energy in the middle segment when it ceases to be a single take. It has a change of style that is jarring at first and that had me worried that this film had lost its edge, but thankfully it doesn't take long to recalibrate yourself when you understand (or when you think you understand) what the film is doing, with plenty more crowd pleasing reveals still to come.

More of a film about filmmaking than anything else, the greatest triumph of One Cut of the Dead is how it is able to re-invent and re-contextualise itself, right before your eyes. In every way imaginable this is a vibrant love letter to the creative, collaborative spirit of independent filmmaking. It's Living (Dead) in Oblivion for the digital filmmaking era, proving there's life in the zombie genre yet.

Verdict
4/5

Saturday, 9 February 2019

CRUCIBLE OF THE VAMPIRE DVD review


When a family reports that they may have found the missing piece of the ancient Stern Cauldron, research student Isabelle tries to uncover what lead to the cauldron being split in two. But how was it only just uncovered, and is there a reason why now?

It's not nice to give a little film like this a kicking; after all, I've never made a film, have I? I have to appreciate the boldness of director Iain Ross McNamee, who clearly has grand ambitions for his material, releasing a graphic novel tie-in for this film, and his next effort I Saw Black Clouds some sort of cross platform multimedia experience with an accompanying video game.

It's a shame then, that Crucible of the Vampire is not very good. At all. There's a huge disparity in the level of acting ability, with Neil Morrissey leagues ahead of a whole number of stilted dialogue deliveries and sneering looks given by lesser actors; and without wanting to sound incredibly cruel, that's Neil Morrissey from Men Behaving Badly, AKA the voice of Bob the Builder we're talking about. Morrissey is hardly known for his dramatic performances, is he? But he is rather good here, playing the groundskeeper for the family who have uncovered what may be the missing half of an ancient cauldron.

In charge of uncovering the truth about the cauldron is trainee museum curator Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch), sent to research the artefact whilst dealing with the owners of the estate and their oddball daughter Scarlet (Florence Cady). The locals keep warning Isabelle of strange goings on at the mansion, and Robert (Morrissey) is keen to help this outsider navigate her way through the family's dark past.

It was only at about 55 minutes in that I remembered this film has the word 'vampire' in the title, as up until then it's like a slightly gothic episode of Midsomer Murders. There's a variety of creepy things happening, including a brief flashback to the 1640s where an old man who may or may not have been looking for his cat gets hung from a tree by the Witchfinder General; but vampirism plays a very small part in it. It's a shame that McNamee hasn't drawn more from classic British horror influences, as a Hammer-esque telling of this type of story would have worked better and been more warmly received. Instead, there's some blatant cinematic influences that simply weren't achievable at this level.

The obvious Wicker Man parallels start to become a bit laughable when Isabelle reveals to a barmaid she's known for the time it takes to order two drinks that she is a virgin due to her strict catholic upbringing; religion being something she has referred to earlier in the film as something she doesn't practice. Eh? And as the film approaches its finale and Isabelle darts around the house like it's the Overlook Hotel, the "borrowed" shots from The Shining seem less an homage and more a fan fiction film that would go straight to YouTube.

Crucible of the Vampire is a cheap, low stakes Brit horror that's light on scares and overstuffed with lore and mythology. Sadly, it's not able to match the overwhelming weight of the influences it draws from and arrives undercooked.

Verdict
1/5