The Masque of the Red Death 1964 *****

masqueYou have to be careful what you wish for; the universe has a way of conspiring to give you what you want in a way that you don’t. It’s a staple theme of the horror, from the EC Crypt-keeper to Amicus, and the key text is probably WW Jacobs’ short story The Monkey’s Paw.  With streaming becoming the opiate of the people circa 2020, the audience for this blog has swollen, rising over 50 per-cent this year so far, but at some unwelcome cost; cinemas lie closed worldwide, the schedule of hotly anticipated gems abruptly emptied, the future uncertain.

Shot by the great director Nicolas Roeg as a gun for hire, The Masque of the Red Death is based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and was originally published back in 1842. Poe knew all about cholera and tuberculosis from personal pain, but the Red Death featured is a fictional disease, as befits a writer’s fantasy. Writer/director Roger Corman and Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont shift the story to Italy, where the plague ravages the country, and the rich seek to protect themselves by building a wall to keep the victims of the pestilence out of their reach, as well as their sight. The amoral Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) plans a feast to celebrate their good fortune, little imagining that the barriers he’s created to keep the disease out will in fact seal it inside the palatial compound he’s constructed. Although his actions have made the plight of the locals considerably worse, Prospero is in denial; he forbids anyone to wear red to his party in case is evokes thoughts of what he seeks to keep outside. Instead, Prospero creates opulence, hoping to distract with his own wealth, a series of rooms in different colours, leading to the Black Room where Prospero will eventually confront the red-cloaked figure that pursues him.

Producer Sam Arkoff thought the result was ‘too arty farty’ but this is the best of Corman’s many and varied body of films, providing a ingenious gloss on Poe’s story, with lots of cruel action to demonstrate how the lack of a moral compass in a leader leads to physical decay. Genre fans will enjoy seeing Hazel Court and Jane Asher, Patrick Magee and Nigel Green, while Roeg’s vision brings something unique to Corman’s well-upholstered series of Poe-inspired works. Price makes a perfect Prospero, a Satanist wrongly believing that money will prove his salvation; no matter how elaborate his castles and parties are, the corruption he imagines that he can escape is baked into his very soul, wriggle on the hook as he might.

There is nothing new under the sun; fictional plagues run from Greek tragedy to Contagion, but Poe’s dark imaginings, borne from personal experience, are worth reviving in these troubled times. Horror provides a healthy look at what scares us, so we might make a better job of the lives we lead. The Masque of the Red Death is a classic story, with a clear message that Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities brilliantly appropriated to consider the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. But like most great horror stories, the terrifying notion here is a timeless one; that the die is already cast, and we, in our hubris, just don’t know it yet. At the end of the movie, we return to our lives, and strive to make sure that Poe’s dark fantasy does not become our unwanted reality.

The Company of Wolves 1984 ****

Featured-180401-CompanyOfWolvesThe Britbox streaming service has a way to go to convince the public that it can be an alternative to Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney + in the UK. A joint BBC/ITV venture, it is, like early Netflix, reliant on existing content, but tv content is not as timeless as the best movies are; the result feels like a pacifier for the elderly, rather than a new force in streaming. And with so many great films turning up on You Tube, it wouldn’t be hard to gather up the rights to a better selection of movies than the paltry last-turkeys-in-the-shop offered here.

And the exception that proves the rule is Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, a rather striking riff of werewolf myths and mythology based on a script and story by Angela Carter. Jordan feels that this is not a horror film, and certainly it doesn’t adhere to most of the clichés of the genre. It also doesn’t match the description on Britbox; ‘starring Terence Stamp’ reads the blurb, but Stamp has roughly twenty seconds of screen-time, playing the Devil, and says precisely one line.

Instead, the star of the film is the attitude of the author, Carter’s take on fairy-tales could be nicely summarised by the phrase ‘don’t bet on the prince’. Alive to the way that traditional stories re-enforce male dominance, Carter turns the hymn-sheet upside down and depict exactly how the werewolf legend might inform and inspire womanhood. Thus the stories told by Rosealeen (Sarah Patterson) by her granny (Angela Lansbury) deal with men who are hairy on the inside, with Stephen Rea undergoing a memorable transformation as a groom who comes home years after his wedding night.

Lansbury is not the only name here for genre fans; Brian Glover is a perfect villager, David Warner a father determined to protect his family, and Graham Crowden, a veteran of Lindsay Anderson’s sci-fi satire, plays the local priest. Micha Bergese, the choreographer, also has a striking scene. Their faces are right for a low-budget yet creatively imaginative production that evokes a dream-world that might have forerunners in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The influence of The Saragossa Manuscript is evident in the episodic structure, but the curious narrative form allows Jordan to be true to the spirit of Carter’s work.

This was a hard X at the cinemas, and seeing at as a schoolboy circa 1985, The Company of Wolves for, for sure, a horror movie for me, right up there with Alien. The gruesome effects haven’t dated at all, and there’s also some striking moment where wolves burst through the airs and graces at a costume dinner party, or Lansbury gets casually decapitated. The horror is real, but comes from a different source that other films; the imagery is re-set from a feminist POV, and that gives The Company of Wolves a unique flavour. Goodness knows what casual Britbox viewers will make of it, but The Company of Wolves is a neglected classic well worth tracking down.

https://www.britbox.co.uk/ or

White Zombie 1932 ***

whitezombie1932A withering indictment of the gig economy and zero hour contracts in the Haitian workforce circa 1932, White Zombie is a horror movie with a sociological point. This is not White Zombie the band, but the 1932 film, coming in at a hefty 25 quid on blu-ray, but a reasonable £2.50 on Amazon Prime. Victor Halperin’s horror feature is a fairly primitive affair, even for 1932, but it’s got a certain something about it that has reserved a special place in cinematic depictions of hell on earth. So just to be clear; this doesn’t match up to modern cinematic standards, unless you enjoy stilted dialogue, over-ripe performances and unknown actors speaking extremely slowly. But if you’re prepared to overlook the faults, there’s something bubbling up rather nicely here.

These aren’t just any zombies, they’re cheap labour organised by Murder Lengendre, whose name sounds like he might be a rapper but is in fact performed by Bela Lugosi in a performance so ripe that even he must have wondered if he should tone it down a notch. Murder controls the zombie workforce by holding his hands together in the zombie grip; in this method, he runs his Haitian sugar cane plantation without any interference from health and safety jobsworths. Along come couple Madeleine and Neil (Madge Bellamy and John Harron), looking to get married, but the local boss Charles Beaumont (Ronald W Frazer) has designs on Madeleine and wants her for himself. So Beaumont consults with Murder, and decides that he’ll turn Madeleine into a zombie and get control of her in this unconventional method.

This is, in itself, a neat story idea; Murder uses his supernatural power for an economic gain, but wires are crossed when the same techniques are used for personal or sexual motives. You can insert your own capitalism metaphor here, but there’s a reason by Tobe Hooper wanted to remake this film, and it’s because there’s a genuine potency in the idea. It’s true that things get a bit bogged down here before a cliff-top climax where the characters fling themselves onto the rocks with gleeful abandon as the co-incidences and contrivances pile up. And while White Zombie is inferior to seminal works by Val Lewton or Carl Dreyer, it successfully evokes a similar primitive, haunting feel; the sound of the drums and the images of tortured souls have gained resonance over the years.

Even the most subtle of Lugosi’s acting techniques can still be seen from space, and yet his big performance is the heart of the film. Halperin even experiments with a couple of camera moves and some strange visual juxtapositions; there’s a brilliant use of silhouettes in a key dramatic scene. So while White Zombie works as a horror comedy, since there’s many unintentional laughs, it’s also something of a key text for horror fans, one that uncovers ideas about male control/economic mastery that still resonate today.

Frightmare 1974 ***

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More Tony Tenser movies on Flick Vault, the HD You Tube channel for off-the-wall movies; this one is from Pete Walker, the British film-maker who single-handedly created his own distinct horror imprint in the 1970’s. Frightmare has probably never looked as good as this; a tricky little tale of cannibals at work in the SW10 area of London, Frightmare is worth a look for genre aficionados by dint of a patient script and a remarkably over-qualified cast.

A mom-and–pop cannibal couple go to jail in 1957 for unspeakable acts; in 1974, Edmund (Rupert Davies) and Dorothy (Sheila Keith) may well be up to their old tricks now that they’ve done their time. Edmund’s daughter Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) suspects that her dad isn’t keeping to a strict vegan diet and smuggles animal brains to them, pretending to be feeding their cannibal impulse. Jackie’s step-sister Debbie (Kim Butcher) is a rebellious teen pushing to get out from under her wing, while psychologist Graham (Paul Greenwood) in romantically interested in Jackie, but realises that there’s something strange in her family life.

For British movie fans, there’s more than a few attractive names here; Rupert Davies was known for his Inspector Maigret, while Paul Greenwood was a household name in the early eighties for his portrayal of whimsical copper Rosie. Keith was also a regular in Walker’s films, and the level of acting seen here is impressive, particularly given the potential for low-brow sleaze in the subject matter. There’s a couple of excellent scenes, notably a tense tarot card reading during which Graham’s attempt to deceive the suspicious Dorothy begins to fragment under pressure. Oscar nominee Leo Genn also has a role, although the square stylings of Graham’s old man specs and retro sports–jacket combination are the real stars here.

Walker’s films have been somewhat neglected by tv programmers, but have gained a cult following, and Frightmare is a prime facie example of why is work is worth exhuming. Sure, some of the detail is rather nasty, but this kind of realistic horror was non-recurring phenomenon, and horror completists will want to seek out and savour this pungent sample of British kitchen-sink gruesomeness.

Demon Seed 1977 ***

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With the world moving towards an as-yet-undefined period of self-loathing circa March 2020, it’s worth looking back to another cultural and social crisis point, 1977. Star Wars was round the corner, and a new era of family-friendly fare was about to dawn, but in 1977, things were tough all over. Attendances were down, terrorism was on the up, oil prices were rising, governments were failing, dystopian sci-fi, horror and pornography were the hot subjects of the day, and in an alternate universe, Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed would have been the movie that caught and reflected the bleakness of the time.

The Exorcist has married old-school fire and brimstone with new-fangled medical detail, and Demon Seed takes energy from that, as well as science-gone-wrong entries like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Hal in Kubrick’s 2001. Filmed in Germany, it’s the story of an artificial intelligence called Proteus who turns on his creator Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) and incubates a child via his wife Susan (Julie Christie). The method of Proteus’s take-over was tricky to understand in 1977, but makes more sense in 2020. The Harris house-hold is supervised by a voice-activated computer (think Siri or Alexa), and Proteus takes over the home by supplanting the existing program, trapping Susan.

Demon Seed has a few wild stabs at visualising this; unfortunately these involve a wheelchair with a metal arm attached, which looks easy to resist. More effective is the sight of Proteus forming itself in an elemental way, a kind of Rubic’s snake which coils around and then decapitates a suspicious scientist. And oddly, Proteus speaks with the silky, saturnine tones of Robert Vaughn, rarely betraying anything but omnipotent power. With the action largely confined to one location, Demon Seed needs a good actress for the central role, and in Julie Christie, it gets a great actress, with Christie remaining empathetic through some difficult narrative transformations.

The kind of movie that the BBC used to show as a prime-time, 9pm, Saturday night treat in the early 80’s, Demon Seed is dark, unpleasant and eventually psychedelic, as might be expected from the visionary behind Performance. Horror would seem a reasonable reaction, and yet Cammell, a Scotsman raised with an interest in Aleister Crowley, seems to be clinically interested rather than repulsed by this formation of a new being that fuses flesh and metal. The final scenes involve a baby with a metal shell which Alex and Susan gingerly remove; after a series of bombastic light-show effects, the effect is strangely tender.

Demon Seed is a pretty horrid film, but it’s a way-ahead-of-it’s time entry in the sci-fi stakes; this was the third time I’ve seen it, but the first with proper framing, and it really makes a difference. What seemed murky and undefined in pan-and-scan seems more precise in widescreen; Cammell was a genuine talent and visionary, even if what he saw was disturbing and hard to fathom.

Nomads 1986 ****

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Did you know that John McTiernan made a film before his Predator/Die Hard double-bill that made him one of Hollywood’s biggest action directors? McTiernan’s work on 1986’s Nomads prompted Arnold Schwarzenegger to give him the initial Predator gig, and blowing the dust of Nomads, it’s obvious that the Austrian muscle-man had a good eye for talent. Nomads was a disaster on release, but looks pretty good now, with muscular direction and an unconventional urban horror-story that’s hard to pigeonhole.

Nomads also marked a first lead role for Pierce Brosnan, somewhat irrationally cast here as a bearded French anthropologist Jean Charles-Pommier. Poor Pommier dies in the opening moments of Nomads, but Eileen Flax (Lesley-Anne Down), the LA hospital medic who tries to save him, starts to experience key moments from Pommier’s life in flashback form. If that sounds odd, things get stranger still as Pommier tangles with a group of leather-clad ‘nomads’ led by a wordless Adam Ant who may, or may not, be Eskimo shape-shifting spirits who want to use his house as a place of worship for a dead serial killer.

If Nomad’s already sounds completely barking, we’re not even halfway done. How about a score from Rocky’s Bill Conti? B Movie queen Mary Wonorov as Dancing Mary? Nina Foch as an estate agent? And the whole style of Nomads is truly bizarre; McTiernan is clearly working out a few moves, and the famous Rickman fall from Die Hard is road-tested here. Yet the editing looks like it was completed by Nicolas Roeg’s janitor, skipping backwards and forwards in time in a way that dislodges and unsettles.

Nomads, written by McTiernan, is more in the vein of The Hunger, Cat People or Wolfen in that it belongs to an early 80’s sub-genre of finding supernatural interlopers in a collapsing modern society. It’s a baffling, yet hugely entertaining film that works its way to a strange yet unforgettable trick-ending. I honestly didn’t know this film existed until a couple of days ago, but having seen it, I’d absolutely love to hear from anyone that’s familiar with it. Do you know Nomads? Have you seen it? I’m here with a trained team of therapists ready to hear your experiences of this astonishingly odd film…

Color Out of Space 2020 ****

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Of course, in 2020, we drop the “The’ from the title, and the spelling is Americanised, and that’s not all that’s new; Lovecraft’s short story is really just a jumping off point in terms of narrative elements. A meteorite, a blasted heath (still named Arkham), mutated animals; Stanley remixes the ingredients and adds a strong family drama, with the aptly-named Gardners facing all kinds of weird distortions in nature. Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) want to protect their kids, but she slices off a couple of fingers while cutting vegetables, and when she gets back from hospital, things have changed for the worse. There a strange purple hue on everything, the family dog is missing, and there’s all sorts of arcane creatures flying from the hole where the meteorite landed.

Stanley puts the wit back into the horror genre with his deft handling of the ideas here; Nathan’s deep horror at his tv interviews being tarnished by the on-screen description ‘UFO witness’ catches the right vibe of vain indignation; there’s tension about what will happen next, but despite their protests, the Gardners recognise are going to hell in a hand-basket, and there’s not much more they can do than struggle. Effects are carefully eked out, the visuals are unique and imaginative, and the whole package just works; horror films change over the decades, but Color Out of Space feels like the first real horror film of the 2020’s.

In the UK, COLOR OUT OF SPACE comes to Blu-ray, DVD & Digital on 6th April 2020 and is available to pre-order here – http://bit.ly/COOSAmzDB. The Blu-ray edition features exclusive UK artwork by Dude Designs. A limited Special Edition Blu-ray will also be available exclusively from HMV, as part of their First Editions range, featuring a fold-out poster and booklet and slipcase. Available to pre-order here – http://bit.ly/COOSHMVAll.

 

The Lighthouse 2019 ****

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There was always something cinematic about WW Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle, which was based on true events. The three man crew of a remote lighthouse, mysteriously vanished, a Marie Celeste on dry land. The sight of three birds in the distance, suggesting some supernatural force at work; it’s an ancient touch-stone that’s simply begging for a fully-developed narrative. That didn’t happen in 2019’s risible The Vanishing/Keepers, in which Gerry Butler chewed his beard to no effect in a dull story of rivalry and mercury poisoning. As his follow-up to The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers takes a far more daring and cinematic approach that mixes semen and sea-monsters to both comic and alarming effect.

Shot in black-and-white, and with set-ups that recall early silent and sound films, The Lighthouse might seem like a pastiche, but it plays out without a wink to the audience. Wickie Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is joined by newbie Epharim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) on the remote lighthouse he maintains; the young man doesn’t share his penchant for booze and sea-shanties, but the two of them make a decent fist of holding things together. Winslow seems obsessed with fingering a figurine of a mermaid that he discovers inside the stuffing of his mattress, and the younger man’s sexual desires seem to set him up as a target for the older man’s derision.

The Witch seemed to take an eternity to get to a supernatural punch-line; The Lighthouse is more subtle in the mechanism by which it delivers chills, mainly through the dreams and hallucinations of the two men. The games are multi-layered; at times, Pattinson and Dafoe are seen doing actors exercises together, and Eggers seems to be playing on audiences awareness of the actors and the type of genre film he’s subverting. This is horror here, but it’s something more insidous than just jump-scares.

The Lighthouse is a cheeky provocation, cleverly made and making great use of two deservedly popular actors. Pattison makes something other-worldly of Winslow, while Dafoe’s monolithic monologues are something to behold in the style of Melville’s Moby Dick. The Lighthouse will have some frustrated customers; this isn’t the unvieling of a new horror talent as it is a black-comedy merchant, but  Eggers’s film has a playfulness that makes it a must see, even if there’s certain images you’ll be keen to unsee afterwards.

Terror Train 1981 ***

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The Shining is such a one-off, a scary film that takes place largely in brightly lit interiors, that features few deaths and no explanation; there’s literally nothing quite like it. Kubrick’s cinematographer, John Alcott, was quite a talent, and his gifts were immediately put to good use in this unassuming little slasher movie which did no harm at all to the reputation of director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire, Tomorrow Never Dies) star (Jamie Lee Curtis) or even the budding career of a young magician named David Copperfield.

Terror Train also has a very clever idea that makes it somewhat unique. Yes, it’s Halloween on a train, in which a maniac boards a booze-cruise-on-rails full of partying medical students, including Curtis. The killer is wearing a disguise, and seeking revenge for a prank played many moons ago. But each victim he kills leads to a costume change, making it quite a tricky business to keep track of his movements; the audience is constantly looking for a man in a mask, but it’s the mask of the last victim you’re searching for.

Alcott goes to town on the train, framed by a beautiful exterior shot in the opening credits, and then with each compartment framed in very different light; Alcott’s use of colour certainly evokes memories of the Overlook’s past glories, and his use of diffuse lighting is very Eyes Wide Shut. And there’s lots of action on the train, including a very odd house band who conjure up a number of moods, and the novelty of several routines from Copperfield which derail the film’s momentum with their variety-show pacing.

Overall, Terror Train is something of a curiosity; back in 1981, it must have seemed like the slasher movie fad would never end, but Terror Train now appears to be one of the best of a rather tatty bunch. Cast, technical aspects and conception are all first rate; horror fans used to scraping the bottom of barrels may well find that Terror Train is worthy of a return ticket.

Child’s Play 2019 ****

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There’s an art to a good reboot, and the 2019 version of Child’s Play was a genuine surprise in that it got the mix of familiar and new just right. Don Mancini’s Child’s Play movies were a good example of the diminishing returns that sequels provided in the 80’s and 90’s. Taking the Zuni-doll from Trilogy of Terror and giving it some slasher-movie moves was a potent force back then, so potent that the films were banned by the UK government after being cited as inspiration for violent acts we won’t go into here. Invention curdled, the concept got stale and the whole package needed a re-think; Lars Klevberg’s film does exactly that.

Firstly, the notion of a serial killer’s soul entering a doll is junked, perhaps wisely given that rival properties The Prodigy and Annabelle both riff on that idea. Instead, Child’s Play as a socially relevant sci-fi angle whereby a disgruntled employee at the Kaslan corporation sabotages a doll at the company’s Vietnam factory. By footerimg with the dolls circuitry, he turns a Buddi doll, trusted and loved by children, into a creature with no sense of right or wrong; the children are initially stunned and then attracted by Buddi’s ability to swear and act irresponsibly (Mark Hamill provides the creepy voice). By positioning Buddi, or Chucky as he’s briefly known here, as something created and developed by 2019’s economic apartheid, Tyler Burton Smith’s script removes much of the hokiness involved in the conceit, and offers opportunities for trenchant satire.

And the reboot also finds a happy centre in Aubery Plaza, an actress closely associated with hipster values via Parks and Rec, but also someone who embodies snark; she’s just the right cynical person to be set against Chucky’s sarcastic quips. She’s slow to realise that the doll she’s gifted her son is a murderous monster, but it’s fun watching her figure it out, with gruesome killings for interlopers including death by lawn-mover and a severed head wrapped in wrapping paper and gifted to an unfortunate neighbour.

Genre fans will enjoy the casting of Brian Tyler Henry and Tim Matheson, and there’s also a wild department-store finale that sees drones, dolls and all manner of inanimate objects springing to life and attacking shoppers. It’s easy to see why the Stephen King of Maximum Overdrive would get a kick out of this film, which offers a nice mesh of black humour, social satire and outrageous gore.