Monthly Archives: August 2010

DVD Round-up: The Innocents, Flash Gordon, While the City Sleeps

Forget everything you know, or think you know, about modern thrillers and horror films: until you’ve watched 1961’s The Innocents (BFI) you ain’t seen nothing yet. 

Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, the new governess of two young children in a remote country house, children whose previous guardian who died in mysterious circumstances. As Giddens tries to settle into the home, she becomes aware of ghostly figures around her, seemingly those of the last governess and her lover.


Though the children claim not to be able to see the ghosts, Giddens becomes sure something is wrong, her relationship with them altering as she tries to get to the bottom of the strange goings-on.

Kerr’s motivations are never entirely clear, something which isn’t usually the case in a horror film. Her young co-stars, in particular Martin Stephens’ Miles, are excellent child actors, Stephens character old before his time, though this doesn’t make the more tender moments between him and his governess any easier to swallow.


Filmed in crisp black and white by cinematographer Freddie Francis and director Jack Clayton, the everyday nature of the children playing at odds with the sinister world around them, this is one of the most chilling films ever made and a worthy addition to the horror library of anyone who thinks the Saw films or remakes of 1970s slasher movies are the best on offer.


This new Blu-ray edition looks stunning and, when combined with a raft of extras including a commentary and filmed introduction from Sir Christopher Frayling alongside two more short films from Clayton, this becomes even more desirable.


Better known than The Innocents but not necessarily deserving its notoriety, is 1980s Flash Gordon (Optimum), a Technicolor extravaganza now released on Blu-ray, which sees football icon Flash Gordon (Sam J Jones) shot into space where he meets the evil Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) and hi-jinks ensue.

Arriving on the planet Mongo with Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and Dr Zarkov (Topol), the trio soon encounter the cream of British acting talent, including Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde and Blue Peter’s Peter Duncan.


Understatement isn’t a word in director Mike Hodges’ vocabulary, the OTT nature of the film one which you either accept or risk being swamped by garish costumes and a feeling that nothing seems to make much sense.

The soundtrack from Queen is a high point of the production, and those curious about the production or who have witnessed it before in non-HD will no doubt get a kick out of it.

Finally, it’s back to the New York of the 1950s for a new release of Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (Exposure Cinema), one of the lesser-remembered films from the man who brought us Metropolis and Doctor Mabuse. 

Vincent Price is top newspaper publisher Walter Kyne, who decides that three of his best reporters will go on the hunt for news about a serial killer who has hit the headlines.

As the men try to out-scoop each other for the story of their careers, romantic problems rear their head, particularly as one of them, Harry (James Craig), has an affair with Kyne’s wife, Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming).
 

Dark and morally ambiguous, as any good film noir must be, While the City Sleeps also has a smattering of humour, while the depiction of the frustrated killer, living with his mother and ridiculed on television by Mobley (Dana Andrews), is a chilling one. 

Lang is reputed to have felt this was one of his best films, though it doesn’t have the power of Mabuse or M. This is still an arresting thriller, its top-notch cast, including George Sanders and Ida Lupino in supporting roles, giving a sheen of quality that prevents it falling into the abyss of forgotten noirs.

No celebrations for Sir Sean’s 80th? Shocking. Positively shocking.

He may have saved the world countless times, helped train an immortal Highlander to fight for his life and worn a giant nappy in space, but the years are finally catching up with Edinburgh’s finest export: yes, Sir Sean Connery hit the big 80 on Wednesday, though the city’s residents would be forgiven if they didn’t know anything about it.


Milkman. Coffin polisher. Multi-millionaire film star. Sean’s career trajectory is an impressive one and an inspiration to anyone who thinks the Scots are hard done by. He may not live in Fountainbridge anymore (would he be going tenpin bowling of a weekend if he did?) but he’s back every year for the Edinburgh International Film Festival.


But, things are changing. Sean recently announced that this year’s Film Festival was his last as patron. Recent years may have seen the actor attend special public events to celebrate his birthday, but for his 80th, surely something of a milestone, we saw nothing.


A few years ago it was announced that plans were underway to redevelop the current Filmhouse on Lothian Road into a larger space, with extra screens added and the name changed to the Sean Connery Filmhouse. Those plans fell through, meaning there’s little evidence to locals or visitors that we’re proud of our favourite son.


Budgets may be tight at the council, but isn’t it time we did something to celebrate the actor’s legacy? It seems sad that other cities can remember those who make a mark on the world, but Edinburgh saves its cash for an unwanted tram system.


What to invest in? A James Bond statue erected in Festival Square? Sean Connery Airport? A national holiday on 25 August? Free copies of Goldfinger for every household? What about a Connery tour of his old haunts? The tourists would lap it up.


On the subject of locations, I recently discovered that Sean hosted a 1982 documentary entitled Sean Connery’s Edinburgh, which took him to various parts of the city. I hope to have more to say on that subject in a few weeks time, but until then I recommend you head to iTunes and download what I consider to be Sean’s finest film, 1965’s The Hill


You can’t buy it on DVD, but if you want to see the actor getting his teeth into a role, this is perfect, and, until the authorities get in on the act, a fitting birthday tribute to Big Tam.

Book Review: Inside the Wicker Man or How Not to Make a Cult Classic

These days “cult classics” are everywhere, any film with even a slight whiff of sci-fi or horror in its script seemingly worthy of the tag. But, there was a time when a film had to earn the label, something about its cast, production history or story unique enough to genuinely inspire a cult, however benign, to form around it and worship at its metaphorical feet.

One such film is 1973’s The Wicker Man, the Scottish-set chiller starring Edward Woodward as devout Christian policeman, Sergeant Howie, sent to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of young Rowan Morrison.

On arrival, Howie is greeted warmly by locals, including the charming Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and buxom landlord’s daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), but it soon becomes clear that the island has its secrets and that Howie is about to become the pawn in a very complicated game…

Now, author Allan Brown has returned to The Wicker Man in his newly revised history of the film, a book which originally appeared in 2000 to lay bare the troubled production to a fan base which appears to grow with every passing year.

This edition naturally covers much of the same ground as before, starting at the project’s genesis as a means for Lee to escape the trappings of his Dracula persona, honed to perfection in seemingly endless Hammer movies, at a time when the British film industry seemed to have had a stake driven through its heart thanks to audiences abandoning cinemas in their droves.

From here things get murky, the machinations of various money men impacting on the work of the cast and crew as they took to the Highlands of Scotland to make this odd little film that nobody, except Lee, seemed to have much faith in.

With financiers keen to pull the plug on production, uncomfortable shooting conditions which saw blossom taped to tree branches to hide the fact that it was bitterly cold, demands from the studio to add an upbeat ending and the destruction of the only negative, this is a story almost as odd as the one at the centre of the film itself.

Brown has pulled together interviews with most of those involved, adding new content for this re-release which includes additional contributions from cast and crew, more behind-the-scenes stills and, perhaps most excitingly, the screenplay for the unmade Wicker Man II.

Overall, it’s a fascinating record of the production which acts as a salutary warning for anyone planning their own move into filmmaking. It’s also a treat for movie buffs keen to delve into the making of a film which, had the executives got their way, really shouldn’t be remembered at all.

Inside The Wicker Man is out now from Polygon

DVD Round-up 11 August 2010: The Seven-Ups, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

Made at a time when leading men didn’t have to look like underwear models and New York was still grimy enough to have copious cardboard boxes on street corners on the off chance there may be a car chase along in a few minutes to knock them over, 1973’s The Seven-Ups (Optimum) arrives on DVD with attitude.

Roy Scheider stars as Buddy Manucci, leader of a team of covert New York cops dubbed The Seven-Ups due to the fact that the criminals they catch tend to receive prison sentences of seven years…and up. 

When one member of the team is killed on duty, his colleagues set out to find his killers, uncovering a complex web of crime that stretches across the city and requires them to put their unorthodox methods to the test.

Produced by many of the same crew that worked on The French Connection and Bullitt, with the same director taking charge and Scheider returning after his appearance in Connection, this is a lesser film but one which still has its charms. Scheider is always watchable and the script, though confusing at times, does keep the viewer wondering how things will pan out when so many disparate forces seem to be involved.

New York also looks impressive, if cold, plenty of rusty browns and dark back alleys helping to give it character. The Seven-Ups may not have the staying power of Connection or Bullitt, but the lengthy car chase halfway through does help make it memorable for one aspect at least.

Far from the mean streets of the Big Apple, we head back to 1950s Spain for the DVD release of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Park Circus), a somewhat forgotten classic from director Albert Lewin, featuring the incomparable James Mason and Ava Gardner as star, or rather time, crossed lovers.

Gardner is the beautiful Pandora Reynolds, a soon-to-be married socialite who is the object of desire for most of the men she encounters in the fishing village of Esperanza. When a boat arrives in the harbour, Pandora swims out to meet Hendrick van der Zee (Mason), a sailor who is painting a portrait which looks uncannily like her.

As the film progresses, we learn that van der Zee isn’t quite who he claims to be and that the pair have more of a connection than Pandora first thought: he is the Flying Dutchman of legend, a man doomed to sail the world in search of the woman who will die for him.

Perfectly pitching his performance somewhere between melodramatic and self aware, Mason is a magnetic force throughout, while Gardner portrays Pandora with the requisite air of coldness towards her admirers and confusion at her feelings for the Dutchman.

Supported by a strong cast which includes an extended cameo from John Laurie and lensed by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who imbues the film with a dreamlike quality, Pandora is a film which demands to be discovered by a new audience, this gorgeous looking new DVD and Blu-ray release the next best thing to seeing it on the big screen. 

DVD Round-up, 3 August 2010: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Paranoiac, Emergency Call, Marilyn & Stock Car

Based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name, telling the story of a group of Australian teenage schoolgirls who mysteriously vanish while on a day trip in the Victorian bush, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (Second Sight) finally arrives on Blu-ray in a Director’s Cut.

Set in 1900, the film introduces us to Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the tough headmistress of a girls school in the Australian bush. When a day trip, composed of pupils and teachers, sets out on Valentines Day, fails to return intact, confusion reigns as to the reason behind their disappearance.

Setting up the various personalities of the staff and students with some care and attention, the script then carefully weaves in layers of mystery around subsequent events, a gradual build-up of tension ensuring the viewer is effortlessly pulled into the drama.

Were they killed by human hands or was it something more supernatural that led to their disappearance? Complete with an eerie backdrop and a dreamlike state hanging over proceedings, Picnic is unique amongst both Australian and thrillers, and as such deserves being given a spin on this new hi-def edition which ensures Weir’s landscape looks its best.

With a new documentary which runs longer than the film itself, as well as numerous extras taken from the vaults which help increase the viewers understanding of the production process and feelings of cast and crew during shooting, this is a gorgeously crafted package which manages to enhance the main feature.

Hammer Horror may be best known for its many outings for Dracula and other assorted ghouls, but Paranoiac (Eureka!), a nifty little psychological thriller from 1963, proves there was more to the house that dripped blood than, well, blood.

Oliver Reed is Simon Ashby, a playboy with a trust fund which is rapidly running out. Simon’s plan to send his sister, Eleanor (Janette Scott), insane so he can inherit the full inheritance from his dead parents, stalls somewhat when his supposedly dead brother, Tony (Alexander Davion) arrives on the scene claiming to be very much alive.

The scene is set for a battle of wits between Simon and Tony, Simon understandably confused by events due to the fact he personally murdered Tony years earlier, a memory which still haunts him today and which appears to have driven him more than a touch mad in the process.

Director Freddie Francis ensures that the film’s crisp black and white photography impresses throughout, while Jimmy Sangster, better known for his work on The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, produces a dark script with shades of Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Oliver Reed is also on good form, his over-the-top style perfectly suited for the mentally unstable Simon. Reed verges on the edge of taking his portrayal too far, Francis putting him to the fore of most scenes to keep things fresh. Scott may be overly hysterical at times and Davion hardly the most engaging, but the film holds attention till the bitter end.

Also out this week are three British B-movies from Renown Pictures which show that it wasn’t just glossy high-end features that were bothering our cinemas in the 1950s. 

Emergency Call, from 1952, is a melodramatic thriller starring TV’s PC George Dixon himself, Jack Warner, as a police inspector sent to track down a missing man who holds the key to the survival of a young girl who is dying from leukaemia. Anthony Steel and Sid James co-star, as the coppers move from boxing ring to hospital and onto the mean streets to find their man.

Directed and co-written by future James Bond director Lewis Gilbert, the curious nature of the plot is offset by the admirable attempt at race relations and brief commentary on the state of the NHS. Sid James, a familiar face in these old B-movies, is a welcome presence, and this is an enjoyable little tale which, as the DVD cover proud announces, was at one time elevated to first feature on the cinema circuit.

The other release, a double bill directed by Wolf Rilla featuring 1953’s Marilyn, aka Road House Girl, and 1955’s Stock Car, proves to be a less rewarding experience, though not without its merits.

Marlilyn features Sandra Dorne as Marilyn and Leslie Dwyer as George, a married couple whose relationship is put under duress by the latter’s suspicion that his wife is having an affair with his mechanic, Tom (Maxwell Reid). When the jealousy comes to a head and George is killed, the pair go on the run and bring a whole heap of trouble upon themselves.

Stock Car is a grittier tale of lies and double dealing as young Katie Glebe (Edinburgh’s own Rona Anderson) fights to save her father’s garage after his death.

The appearance of an American saviour, Larry (Paul Carpenter), is tainted when Turk McNeil (Paul Whitsun-Jones) decides to take back the garage, violence soon following.

It’s a heady mix of drama and romance, albeit one diluted by the rules governing on-screen violence which ensure it’s never too bloodthirsty. Both films are a welcome insight into the filmmaking styles of yesteryear and a glimpse of the less polished titles which appeared at local cinemas while the blockbusters stormed ahead in the popularity stakes.

Head over to www.renownpicturesltd.com for more on these films.