Aria 1987 ***

ariaCritics both loved and hated Don Boyd’s portmanteau film which pitches ten major directors (Robert Altman, Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, Jean Luc-Godard) against ten classic operas and invites them to use their imagination. What that means, when the directors chosen are mainly white, male and slightly past their best, is a whole lot of undraped female breasts and bums; this didn’t raise much comment at the time, but looking back on Aria, it doesn’t reflect well on the kind of product created via the male domination of directing as recently as the 1980’s.

With a different talent taking up the baton every ten minutes, Aria isn’t a dull film to watch, and there’s some striking moments. Charles Sturridge offers a short MTV-style segment which matches Verdi to a massive close-up of newsreader Alistair Burnett, then fragments to show London kids stealing a car and watching a news-report about themselves. Altman riffs on Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade with an opera being premiered for the inmates of a mental asylum circa 1734; Julie Hagerty from Airplane appears here. Roeg throws himself into the assassination of King Zog of Albania circa 1931, with the king played in a gender-bending casting coup by his wife Theresa Russell. And Bill Bryden’s framing story has John Hurt miming to an ancient recording in full clown costume.

But this is an early film from the Miramax brand, and most of the directors interpret opera on annoyingly limited terms. Jean-Luc Godard imagines naked women in a gym, Bruce Beresford hears Wagner and imagines a naked Elizabeth Hurley, Franc Roddam’s take on the same composer involves Bridget Fonda stripping in a Las Vegas hotel room for her lover before their slash their wrists, Ken Russell imagined the naked body of a woman mutilated in a car crash but festooned with gems. What these visions have in common is an objectification of women, and that’s what makes Aria feel more than a little distasteful in 2020.

There is a gem here, and it comes from Julien Temple. Buck Henry, avuncular writer of The Graduate, appears as a frustrated husband who takes a hit of ecstasy to clear his mind to cheat on his wife (Beverly D’Angelo from the National Lampoon’s Vacation films). What he doesn’t imagine is that she has a lover too, and it’s only when their sex-tapes get mixed up after a tryst that he realises the error of his ways. (Henry is seen negotiating with “Woody’ over the phone about directing a segment of the film, but Allen declined to take part in Boyd’s project, as did Orson Welles and Fellini for different reasons.) It’s a funny little bit of storytelling, but notable because it subverts the notion of men being in control of women, and reveals male fantasy as pitiful, empty machismo.

Aria is a sporadically interesting project, but what it shows clearly in 2020 is that diversity is something that cannot be ignored. If all films are directed by elderly white men, then self-indulgence and juvenilia result. It’s understandable that many complaints are made about shoe-horning diversity into projects, but the supposedly inclusive and global vision of Aria feels like being locked in a cell with a collection of dog-eared soft-core VHS tapes. One good thing about the MeToo era will be that films like this will, surely, not longer be made.

Dead of Night 1945 *****


Horror in British cinema has a classy past; this influential portmanteau film from Ealing studios glides by like a Rolls Royce. Part of the charm is the directness; Dead of Night doesn’t use pop culture references or homage to other directors; the stories are raw, simple and effective. While the ghostly golfing tale is really just light relief, the opener, about a racing driver who has a premonition of his own death, is striking and shocking in all the right ways. Based on a 1906 short story by EF Benson, it sets the mood nicely for Alberto Cavalcanti’s chilling Christmas party and Robert Hamer’s haunted mirror, both of which have a strange poetry of their own. And if Cavalcanti’s final sequence is the most iconic, with Michael Redgrave as the ventriloquist who loses a battle of wits with his dummy, the wraparound story ties the whole package together perfectly, adding a strand of philosophical horror that pulls the meta-narrative together in a highly original way.

The Uncanny 1977 ***


The name of director Dennis Heroux may not be well-known in horror circles; the presence of producer Milton Subotsky (Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror) indicates the real driving force behind this off-beat portmanteau thriller. Peter Cushing is writer Wilbur Gray, who dons his spectacles and carries his manuscript round to publisher (Ray Milland). Gray unfolds three tales involving feline horror to prove this thesis that household moggies are the devil in disguise. Another entry in the rare cat-spolitation genre (Eye of the Cat, Persecution), The Uncanny has some neat work from Donald Pleasance as moustachioed Hollywood actor Valentine De’ath, and genre favourites such as Susan Penhaligon as a maid who battles cats to get at her employer’s will. Best of all is the wrap-around, with Cushing amusingly pussy-whipped as the mild-mannered exposer of the cat conspiracy. Surprisingly graphic in places, The Uncanny is an enjoyably silly entry in the horror canon.

Trilogy of Terror 1975 ***


Dan Curtis contributed a notable entry to the TV movie stakes with Trilogy of Terror, a straightforward portmanteau film that rises to a memorable climax that’s taken a place in pop culture history. Karen Black excels as a series of women in jeopardy in tales written by William F Nolan and Richard Matheson; the first, Amelia, sees her play a self-conscious teacher who is taken advantage of by an unscrupulous student, and plots her revenge. The second raises the stakes with Black portraying both Millicent and Therese, sisters with very different personalities who hide a dark secret. Both stories are well paced and performed, but it’s the final story, in which Julie (Black) engages in a battle of wits against an African tribal doll, that steals the show. Black’s opening monologue on the phone to her mother sets a creeping unease, and some clever creative decisions make the doll’s threat surprisingly tangible; the final shot is the stuff of nightmares and still casts a genuine chill in this accomplished and influential horror film.

The Monster Club 1981 ***


The last of the Amicus portmanteau films is a genuine curiosity, mixing pop music performances with stories by R Chetwynd-Hayes. The wraparound story sees Hayes (John Carradine) vampirised by Eramus (Vincent Price) and introduced to a nightclub that’s akin to the Star Wars cantina. A horror film seemingly aimed at kids, it includes such child friendly items as songs from Scottish Springsteen BA Robertson and UB 40, a lengthy striptease section and three full-blooded horror stories; one examines a mysterious creature called The Shadmock who offers a job to Angela (Barbara Kellerman), a family vampire story in which Richard Johnson is tracked down by Donald Pleasance, vampire hunter, and a creepy finale in which a horror director (a haggard Stuart Whitman, presumably another children’s favourite) is trapped in a village inhabited by Humghouls. As the synopsis suggests, this is a very eccentric film, peppered with familiar faces (Simon Ward, Britt Ekland, Patrick Magee) and marking something of a sea change in the history of horror; by the 80’s, horror was less about old-stagers than doing it for the kids. And even if Price’s speech about the dangers of nuclear power seems a little apropos of nothing, Stevie Lange’s song The Stripper is a belter.

Black Sabbath 1963 ***


Writer/director Mario Bava delivered a classic and surprisingly colourful portmanteau feature with these three tales from 1963; despite a low budget, they’ll all tightly wound and full of tension. The first, The Telephone,  is a clear jumping-off point for the opening of Wes Craven’s Scream, as a woman is terrorised in her apartment by a series of knowing phone calls. Things jump up a north with The Wurdelak, in which an 1880’s rural family are terrorised by vampires, namely Gorca (Boris Karloff), the twist is that the vampires only come after those they love. Both are good value, but the third, A Drop of Water, is arguably one of the most frightening sequences ever filmed, as a woman spending the night in the same room as a corpse, makes the fatal mistake of stealing its ring. Based on a story by Dostoyevsky, A Drop Of Water is as intense and highly charged as anything in Bava’s illustrious career, and the whole package is an ideal selection of brief, to-the-point horror.

Kwaidan 1964 ****


The perfect film for those who prefer ghosts to gore, Kwaidan is a portmanteau film, with four stories of the supernatural linked in chronological order. Adapted by Yoko Mizuki from the writings of Lafcadio Hearn circa 1903, and shot of luscious sound-stages, this 183 minute film rewards perseverance, with The Woman In the Snow the most haunting of the stories. It tells of a young woodsman lost in the snow, who happens upon a little cottage where a young woman rescues him. He promises never to tell the story of what has happened, but revenge is swift when he breaks his promise. Black Hair, Hoichi the Earless and In A Cup Of Tea are all similarly absorbing stories, rendered in a painterly manner by Masaki Kobayashi and the overall effect is soothing rather than disturbing. In a digital age, Kwaidan’s lengthy running time is best enjoyed over four nights, a book at bedtime for aficionados of Japanese culture and discerning horror fans alike.

Grindhouse 2007 ****


Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 double-feature is often found online in separate parts, Planet Terror and Death Proof, a shame because only by watching the full 191 minute cut are the pleasures of this valentine to bargain basement movie-making fully realized. Planet Terror catches the splattery playground atmosphere of 80’s video fodder pitch-perfectly, as the denizens of a hospital battle against zombie-aliens, with Freddy Rodriguez a leading man with hidden depths such as the ability to run up walls during a fight. When the action switches to Austin Texas for Tarantino’s Death Proof, part of the joke is the way that locations, actors and props are re-used; in the aftermath of Stuntman Mike’s horrific act of vengeance, the action returns to the same hospital, miraculously unscathed by the carnage of the preceding drama. There’s a wealth of in-jokes, cameos and references to enjoy, but most critics missed the point; Grindhouse isn’t about making fun of specific films, but an appreciation and a tribute to the happy-go-lucky ingenuity of low-budget film-making.