Death Train 1993 ***

deathThe Alistair MacLean cycle of blockbuster action/espionage movies had well and truly run its course by the time 1993’s Death Train came along, dropping this thriller into the dustiest distribution hole imaginable until the internet came along and offered salvation. The YouTube copy of Death Train under review has a cool 4 million viewers; using Netflix’s famously shonky calculator, on a $20 a ticket multiplier, that’s equal to an $80 million opening, bigger than Bad Boys for Life or any 2020 release so far. Presumably your friends, workmates and family have been sneaking off and covertly watching this engagingly hokey film without telling you. Either way, it’s time for you to take a free ride on the Death Train, also known by the equally duff title Detonator.

A tv movie with a script based on a novel based on a screenplay sounds less-than-promising; this is a vague sequel to 1980’s laughable Hostage Tower, and features UNACO, the United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, on the trail of a stolen nuclear bomb held by terrorists on a German train. No longer played by Billy Dee Williams, CW (Clarke Peters) is left to interrogate the scientist who built the bomb for a rogue Russian General (Christopher Lee). Centre-stage are Malcolm Philpott (Patrick Stewart) and his old chum “Mike’ Graham, played by Pierce Brosnan and introduced sympathetically throwing a motorbike-race to avoid running over a bunny-rabbit.

The terrorists in David Jackson’s thriller are led by The Silence of the Lambs’ Ted Levine who plans to smash his way through to Iraq and force the Russians to invade, creating a new adversary for the US. There’s a quite exciting action scene about twenty minutes in when Graham and his team try and board the moving train; MacLean never saw a helicopter he didn’t like, and the lack of CGI leaves space for some decent stunts. The plot is kind of ridiculous, and resolves itself rather predictably; Maclean seems to have enough access to imagine a nuclear crisis, but the mechanics by which things are resolved are Boys Own stuff.

Death Train is no masterpiece, but it’s undemanding, slump-in-your-chair stuff. It just about manages to entertain, mainly by casting a few well-kent faces most of which went on to bigger things, and also by dint of some decent sub-Bond second unit action. If nothing else, the Siberian locations, hopefully labelled either Kentucky, Germany or Russia, provide some mirth, as does the glimpse of LaGuardia airport in New York, which looks remarkably like an empty stretch of Eastern European airstrip. And the title on the version reviewed comes up as ‘Death Train Hollywood Action Movie Action Thriller Hollywood Cinema’, which is probably an apt description of the shenanigans contained.

The Hound of the Baskervilles 1959 ****

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Any vaguely annoying dog still gets referred to as the Hound of the Baskervilles to this day; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is a cultural touch-stone as popular as Sherlock Holmes himself. Film and tv version of this celebrated story are rarely up to snuff; this Hammer production, directed by Terence Fisher, plays down the hound itself in favour of a meticulous attempt to nail the original narrative; with strong atmosphere and a perfect cast, it’s a welcome addition to the Holmesian canon.

Who better to play the great detective that Peter Cushing? The length of Cushing’s career, and the number of films he made in old age, might blind us to what a vigorous and dashing figure he cuts here, quite literally bouncing of the scenery at some points. But there’s also method in his madness; Cushing nails the mood-changes in his first dialogue scene as he considers the request of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), seeming to dismiss, then engage with his client. Holmes is a spikey wit here, while Watson (Andre Morell) is anything but a buffoon. Fisher even keeps with the source by having Holmes off-stage at key moments, but with Christopher Lee a saturnine Henry Baskerville, and John Le Mesurier as the butler, there’s no lack of good manners on show.

What really works here is the deductions; what Holmes sees, and how he puts it all together, perhaps because for once, this is not pastiche Conan Doyle, but a fair reworking of his actual plot-lines. Flickering lights on the moor, strange paintings, ravenous devil dogs; all the elements are in place, and although the final masked pooch effect is rather underwhelming, the conclusion still packs a punch.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps too violent to be a tv staple, and yet too cerebral to appeal to horror fans; either way, it’s a real genre classic that deserves to be exhumed and enjoyed. Cushing and Lee are both in strident form here, and Fisher displays the kind of barn-storming style that made him the pick of the Hammer House of directorial excellence.

 

The Diamond Mercenaries aka Killer Force 1975 ***

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‘They’re mercenaries, not idiots’ is a telling line from The Diamond Mercenaries, but the matter is very much up for discussion. Sure, if your idea of a good Saturday night romp is watching the late Peter Fonda suffering an intrusive rectal examination, then Val Guest’s 1975 thriller is likely to be just what you’re looking for. But Fonda’s indignities are only a small part of what’s on offer here, from Telly Savalas’s turtle-neck wardrobe to Christopher Lee in khaki; if you miss the simple virtues of a 1970’s potboiler, the Force assembled here is all Killer and no filler.

Savalas is Harry Webb, the head of security at the “Syndicated Diamond Corporation’ which sounds like a trip-hop band and that vibe seems to have influenced Savalas to play Webb like a night-club owner complete with a garish wardrobe. The random picks for the opposition include OJ Simpson, Christopher Lee and Hugh O’Brian, while Bond girl Maud Adams slinks about on the side-lines as a glamorous tv reporter. Fonda was coming to the end of his leading-man status, his bankability drained by the vogue for anti-heroes having ebbed by the mid70’s, and he gives a strange performance behind a Seth Rogen beard and mega-shades.

Having excoriated Amazon Prime for some of their awful prints, I should note that The Diamond Mercenaries looks crisp and the desert scenes are rather beautiful. As are, in a different way, the 1976 interiors, which have a luridness worth catching. And it’s worth appreciating that the South African setting allows for a certain largess in terms of action, which many bullets and explosions in a frantic half hour.

For Guest, late in his career and sandwiched between Confessions of a Window Cleaner and Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys in Blue, this is a surprisingly zestful actioneer in a sub-Alistair Maclean style. The bright yellow jeeps may well be the most memorable thing here, but streaming is probably the best shot that this forgotten movie has of any kind of redemption.

 

One More Time 1970 ***

One More Time‘We know what turns you on’ says the opening song in One More Time, but if stars Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Junior actually do know what turns us on, there’s little evidence of it in this slapdash comedy. Writer by the brother of Dr Who’s Jon Pertwee, Bill, and directed by Jerry Lewis, it’s a sequel of sorts to 1968’s Salt and Pepper, but is mainly designed as a showcase of the talents, resistible as displayed here, of Davis Junior.

Davis and Lawford are Charles Salt and Chris Pepper, two hipster nightclub owners who fall foul of the law in some kind of Merrie England as featured in Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. Lawford plays a double role, Pepper and his twin brother Sydney, who is murdered with a deadly dart and replaced by his brother, swapping the dead body for his living one to investigate the crime. Although the two are supposedly best buds and partners in crime, Chris Pepper doesn’t tell Charles Salt, and allows his friend to think that he’d dead.

This means a good hour or so of Sammy Davis Junior wandering around an English country house vaguely synching to some incredibly maudlin tunes; a sequence in which Davis descends a staircase singing Where Do I Go Now? seems to last for weeks. The personable Lawford is stranded with some character comedy, which isn’t his strongest suit; Lawford can barely be bothered playing a thinly veiled version of himself, so playing another variation on the same person is something of a strain to watch. Meanwhile Lewis indulges himself with some strange set-pieces, including snorting snuff and a lengthy parody of the final scenes of Kubrick’s 2001 as Davis reacts to a country-house bedroom with the same awe that Kier Dullea reacts to the Monolith. It’s an odd, vaguely racist scene which fits with the general indignities that Davis goes through here, having drinks thrown over him, called a ‘chocolate dandy’ and generally side-lined in a way that constantly has him breaking the fourth wall to complain.

One More Time is probably best remembered for one single scene, seemingly improvised without reason, in which Salt finds a hidden doorway that leads to a cellar where Dracula (Christopher Lee) and Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) are working; the gag seems to be that Gothic horror lies beneath traditional British values. Otherwise, when the words ‘that’s it’ appear instead of “the end’, One More Time must have had even the most hipster-cat audiences begging for it to stop; with Lewis directing Davis Junior well beyond excess, it’s the audience who must truly have felt mugged. As a side-note, One More Time offers a good argument against smoking; everyone quaffs fags like their lives depend on it, and there’s even huge close-ups of full ashtrays to present bona-fide testimony to the performers’ enthusiasm for cigarettes.

 

Poor Devil 1973 ***

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Fancy spending 73 minutes in hell with Sammy Davis Junior? That’s the resistible premise of Poor Devil, a ragged tv series pilot that resolutely failed to launch back in 1973, and has promptly been festering inside the dustiest bin of cultural history until Amazon Prime decided to feature this benighted offering as part of its 2019 line-up.

Sammy Davis Junior plays, well, himself as Sammy, the put-upon messenger boy of a big-wheel power-broker. But before you can say Frank Sinatra, it’s revealed that Sammy’s boss is Lucifer himself, played by Christopher Lee, not entirely escaping the bad-boy type-casting which he regularly cursed. Lucifer summons Sammy from his regular gig shovelling coal into the fires of hell, and offers him a fresh start by collecting the souls of wayward human beings in San Francisco, namely Quincy star Jack Klugman as Burnett J Emerson. Identified as Burny by Amazon’s permanently off-kilter subtitling, Klugman’s character is disaffected by his department store job, and seeks revenge on his boss (Batman’s Adam West). Sammy offers to utilise the collective might of San Francisco’s Church of Satan to empty the department store on Xmas Eve as a practical joke, and seeks Burny’s soul as reward for the deed.

If the above synopsis appeals to you, then please get in touch and explain why; it’s kind of like It’s A Wonderful Life but in reverse, and it makes no sense that Lucifer and his cohorts seems to be so civically minded as to want to punish selfish department store bosses. Indeed, Poor Devil feels like a feature-length ad for the wholesome ethos and deeds of the Church of Satan, with which Davis was allegedly, from some accounts, involved. Vanishing and appearing in an underwhelming special effects, Davis prowls around in hideous garb shouting ‘Right on!’ and other hip phrases, while Lee looks genuinely mortified by the depths to which he has sunk.

Awful as this film is, it’s also a fascinating picture of human desperation as a number of household names create a work of non-art that probably wasn’t even the best thing in the timeslot on the day of transmission, My on-going campaign to embarrass Amazon by capturing their half-assed and inherently disrespectful nonsense subtitling continues with the choice offering below.

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And you can see the whole marvellous shebang by clicking the link below…

The Wicker Man 1973 *****

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The resounding flop of Midsommar should send horror fans back to a rather more effective treatment of similar ideas in the form of Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man, generally voted to be one of the best, if not the very best, of tBritish horror films . That’s quite an accolade, because Robin Hardy’s thriller is quite an odd proposition for any number of reasons. Largely shot in daylight, there’s no violence until the final scenes, the main character is devoutly religious, and the stakes are deliberately low; the failure of the story to work for sequels or reboots indicates what a unique proposition this singular film is.

The expanded cut fleshes out Sgt Howie (Edward Woodward) in more detail that the more widely seen version; arriving in a small village, he disparages graffiti saying “Jesus saves’; ‘ There’s a time and a place for it,’ he says, indicating that his beliefs are best kept private. Although in a relationship, Howie is a virgin, and does not suspect that he may be the victim of entrapment when an anonymous letter reaches him telling of a young girl’s disappearance.

Standing between Howie and the truth is a village of pagan-worshippers who openly fornicate outside the pub, worship phallic symbols, and allow their children to understand the world in sexualised terms. Howie is shocked, and his attempts to assert himself over his environment are blocked by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) in tweed jacket and elbow pads. Ingrid Pitt and a dubbed (and body-doubled) Britt Ekland also make an impression, as does Lindsay Kemp as the pub’s landlord; there’s a gallery of strange locals for the honest copper to deal with.

The Wicker Man’s true horror is that of dying for nothing; Howie realises too late that his faith is no protection against unbelievers, and that his death will do nothing to alleviate their plight. In an original twist, the hunter becomes the hunted, and Howie’s investigation is turned on its head, revealing that he, in his hubris, is the real victim. Locating a beating pagan heart behind Scottish superstitions, The Wicker Man shows civilised man at a loss, out of his depth and helpless in the face of a fervent radicalism he thought had long-since vanished.

The City of the Dead 1960 ***

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Also known as Horror Hotel, The City of the Dead is a rather staid but also rather unnerving black and white horror that makes up for in atmosphere what it lacks in pizazz. Christopher Lee is top billed in John Moxey’s chiller, but he’s a minor player here. He plays university professor Alan Driscol, who directs a young witchcraft student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) to the Massachusetts town of Whitewood, where she stays in an inn recommended by Driscol, The Raven’s Inn. Whitewood offers more fog that a Carl Dreyer smoke machine testing, and the local minister has long gone without a congregation. The reason is witchcraft; a prologue establishes that the town is cursed, and a witch is amongst the residents who wish Nan ill-fortune…The City of the Dead is often mentioned alongside Carnival of Souls or Night of the Eagle; it’s got a similar low-fi evocation of witchcraft, and a strange mood; the sombre nightly dances at The Raven’s Inn seem beyond improbable. There’s also a plot-twist that predates Psycho and some very crisp photography; Desmond Dickinson’s lensing comes up sharply in a new print which does the film justice. If there’s a lack of surprises here, there’s also a British restraint that, despite the rather fancifully realised US setting, creates a genuinely eerie atmosphere that few genre films can match.

To The Devil, A Daughter 1976 ***

 

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In the 1970’s, Dennis Wheatley was a literary phenomenon, with a slew of bestsellers; he was pretty much the biggest brand-name for horror in the UK. Wheatley has been a friend of Ian Fleming, and an advisor to Winston Churchill during World War II, and knew his way around all manner of government secrets., He wrote spy novels too, but the notion of having access to hidden information seemed to inform his most popular work; They Used Dark Forces is a typical title. Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out was pretty good, special effects aside, but not particularly scary, and when Hammer was looking to take on The Exorcist, The Omen and the devil worship cycle of the mid 1970’s, it turned to Wheatley’s To The Devil A Daughter. With genre favourite Christopher Lee as a villain, imported star Richard Widmark as the occult writer tracking him down, and Natasha Kinski as the nubile Bravian nun set to be sacrificed to Old Nick himself, what could go wrong? Throw in Rising Damp’s Francis De La Tour as a Salvation Army singer, Bond girl Honor Blackman, saturnine Anthony Valentine and of course the always welcome Denholm Elliot, and there’s nothing boring about Peter Sykes’s film. There’s nothing very scary about it otherwise, but that’s to do with the source material. Wheatley was an adventure writer who used black magic themes; To The Devil A Daughter was the wrong selection of weapon, club or instrument by the Hammer executives, but shorn of expectations of the next big thing in horror, it’s a fun ride for specialists.

https://www.amazon.com/Devil-Daughter-Richard-Widmark/dp/B01K8I8UKA/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=to+the+devil&qid=1565011208&s=gateway&sr=8-1

The Skull 2019 ****

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‘This isn’t just any skull…’ says seller Marco (Patrick Wymark) to potential buyer Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing); it’s not even a Marks and Spencer skull, it’s the actual noggin of the Marquis de Sade himself, and no good can come of it being hawked around occult dealers in this Freddie Francis horror/thriller. With a script by Amicus regular Milton Subotsky and based on a short story by Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch, The Skull is a cut above the usual fare, with an unusual straight role for Christopher Lee, plus a perfect supporting cast including Patrick Mcgee, Michael Gough and Nigel Green. It’s quite tame by modern standards, but the quaintness is charming, and Francis whips things up to quite a frenzy by the end. The art of this kind of gentleman’s horror film is long gone; The Skull popping up on mainstream streaming services is a nice reminder of the genre’s charms. And according to Wikipedia, the actual skull of the Marquis is still unaccounted for, so in the light of what happens to the esteemed gentlemen here, best avoid any rash ebay purchases…

The Mummy 1959 ****

Terence Fisher’s sense of style often seemed to be at odds with the cheeky cheap and cheerful production values of Hammer films; this retelling of the classic Mummy story has a garish colour scheme with dynamic greens and reds splashed across the screen. Peter Cushing is amongst the party of foolhardy Brits who happen across an Egyptian tomb; murdered one by one by a mysterious assailant, it’s clear that something evil has been awakened, and that something is a mummy played by Christopher Lee. The Mummy’s narrative is straightforward enough, but there’s a lengthy and substantial flashback that details the history of Kharis (Lee) giving the star a chance to do something more than swan around in bandages and moaning in a threatening way. There’s a sense of colonial guilt at work here; although John Banning (Cushing) describes the forces disturbed as ‘evil’, it’s clear that the wrong being committed here is the desecration of the temple, and a reincarnation sub-plot involving Banning’s daughter manages to create some genuine sympathy for the monster. Jimmy Sangster’s script may feed on fear of a foreign unknown, but doesn’t shy away from identifying a genuine grievance in terms of how the Egyptians might view entitled Brits.