Thursday, 24 July 2008

ZHAN SHEN TAN/Beach of the War Gods (1973)

I first heard of BEACH OF THE WAR GODS when a clip of the final fight scene was shown on a television film magazine. A few weeks later the film opened at the Casino cinema in London's Old Compton Street. My girlfriend who had also seen the clip dragged me along, not unwillingly, to see it. We both came out as Wang Yu fans and over the next few years criss crossed London seeking out Wang Yu movies. We managed to track down DEADLY SILVER SPEAR, GOLDEN SWALLOW, SEAMAN NO.7, TEN FINGERS OF STEEL, MAGNIFICENT CHIVALRY, THE MAN FROM HONG KONG, DESPERATE CHASE, THE ONE ARMED BOXER and ONE ARMED BOXER VS,THE FLYING GUILLOTINE. Of these ONE ARMED BOXER and BEACH OF THE WAR GODS remain my favorites. BEACH is a reworking of the SEVEN SAMURAI/MAGNIFICENT 7 scenario, with Wang Yu recruiting six heroes to defend a village agains marauding Japanese. The opening with Wang Yu trudging across a windswept beach and entering a semi-deserted walled village to order a bowl of noodles at the saloon is pure Clint Eastwood and the ensuing fight where he decimates Japanese advance guard (killing the first one by propelling a chopstick through his skull) is like a Toshiro Mifune fan's greatest wish fulfilment. There is much leaping over buildings by Wang and several members of his regular stock company including Tien Yien and Lung Fei. The final battle scene lasts about 45 minutes and climaxes with Wang and Lung Fei clashing swords while hanging from the sails of a revolving windmill! Seemingly this film is not available on DVD but back in the late 70's it was released on VHS by Rank in England - surprisingly (for the time) in uncut and widescreen prints (as was ONE ARMED BOXER) and my copy is taken from a third generation VHS copy of this....not perfect but acceptable. Wang Yu himself is a fascinating character with a long career in both Hong Kong and Taiwanese movies. His attempts to break into English language films with such titles as THE MAN FROM HONG KONG, QUEEN'S RANSOM and ATTACK FORCE Z didn't really got far despite THE MAN FROM HONG KONG being a medium sized box-office success and featuring a big hit single. Perhaps this was partly because of Wang's off screen reputation which included a brawl with one of his co-stars on QUEEN'S RANSOM and a latter arrest for murder which was dropped for lack of evidence. He doesn't seem to do much these days and his blog on MySpace is little more that reproductions of film posters. There is more about Wang Yu and THE MAN FROM HONG KONG on Terry Frost's Paleo-Cinema blog (see link on sidebar). Rating ***

Friday, 18 July 2008


This was the first of what is often referred to as Anglo-Amalgamated's "Stabbing trilogy", the other two films being Sidney Hayers' CIRCUS OF HORRORS and Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM. These films introduced a nastiness that was virtually unknown in British films. Powell particularly, because he was regarded by the staid English critics as a "respectable" film director, was especially singled out for vilification (although, as often happens, his film is now regarded as a classic.) As for CIRCUS OF HORRORS and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, today they are what Vincent Price laughingly called "classics of their kind!" Much loved by fans for reasons that totally bemuse more serious minded cineastes.

HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM is directed by Arthur Crabtree, a former cinematographer, who turned to directing to embrace the artificiality of the Gainsborough Studios. It is debateable whether Crabtree ever directed better films but he certainly didn't direct anything more deliriously entertaing than BLACK MUSEUM and FIEND WITHOUT A FACE - the two horror movies made at the end of his cinema career before he disappeared into television episode land. FIEND had wonderfully animated brain creatures leaping on people and sucking out their brains while BLACK MUSEUM has Michael Gough spitting out his venom at everybody as a crimewriter who murders people with exhibits from his own Torture and Murder museum before writing bestselling true crime books about his own crimes. To be honest its all a bit crappy but great fun in garish colour and awful acting (which may or may not include Gough's scenery chewing performance, depending on your taste in such things, but most certainly includes young Shirley Ann Field giving the first of what became a whole career on monotone performances). It's all here : spiked binoculars, guillotines, acid baths, ice tongs, fun fairs, sexy dances, book siignings (what?) and make sure you count the number of scenes where Michael Gough ends a scene by walking out of a room closing the door behind him. And can anybody explain how he kept gaining access to the detective's office in Scotland Yard to taunt the cops with their inefficiency ? Rating ***


Fred Schepisi is a good Australian director who seems to turn up on unexpected projects (FIERCE CREATURES etc) but I remember him best for the grim Australian feature THE CHANT OF JIMMY BLACKSMITH and this wonderful Western, BARBAROSA, which has sadly been neglected and mistreated. I don't think it got a cinema release over in England and I first caught it on television. Being a big Willie Nelson fan I recorded it on VHS and over the next few years wore the tape out watching it. Now I have it on DVD but am disappointed to find that except for the main titles it is presented in full screen - which most certainly does the film a grave disservice. BARBAROSA tells the story of a German farm boy(Gary Busey) who is on the run after having accidentally killed his brother-in-law and who is now pursued by his inlaws. He teams up with Barbarosa (Willie Nelson) who becomes his mentor for living the outlaw life and surviving of the land. Barbarosa is pursued by his own inlaws - the family of his wife - who have vowed to kill him after an incident at his wedding (we hear two versions of what happened but the film never really tells us which is the true version). His father-in-law (a wonderfully hate filled performance by Gilbert Roland) tells the huddled children of his Hacienda horror stories of Barbarosa's supposed misdeeds ("...and his beard was dripping red with fresh blood") and selects an endless stream of young men from his clan to ride out to kill the outlaw. "Will you know him?" asks Roland of his latest selection. "I will know him from the songs we sing!" answers the young man, elevating Barbarosa to mythic status. The building of the Barbarosa legend is central to the film and points inexorably to the film's climax. At one point Barbarosa crawls out of his grave to take revenge on the Mexican bandit who thinks he has killed him and symbolically the outlaw does become almost a supernatural figure to the Mexican who both sing songs about him and seek his death and it is significant that the most effective weapon used against him is a knife concealed in a crucifix (similar to the one used to dispatch the "vampiric" outlaw in THE WRATH OF GOD). Barbarosa cannot die and through his apprentice he gains immortality. A great performance by Willie Nelson as the outlaw who kills his pursuers before kissing their corpses and won't have a word said against them : "They're good people, the Zavalas". Gary Busey is always an interesting and unpredictable actor and here he is in more restrained mode than usual. Roland is terrific in what must have been one of his last performances and Isela Vega is perfect as Barbarosa's long suffering wife. Perhaps one day this excellent Western will get a DVD release that is worthy of it. It would be great to have a commentary by writer Bill Witliff and director Schepisi. Rating ***

Monday, 14 July 2008


14 July 1918 - 20 July 2007









Saturday, 12 July 2008

A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO : My Ten Favourite Ghost Films


Have you ever seen a ghost ? I believe I have - twice. Both times the experience was totally unexpected and was over in a flash. I'm not saying that anybody standing next to me would have shared my experience and accept it as being subjective. Even now I'm not 100% sure I believe in ghosts....but I know I saw them. Which would seem to me the best way to make a ghost film. To qualify for my list of favourite ghost films the ghosts in the movie must be genuine - which immediately disqualifies the very enjoyable William Castle version of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. I present the films in no particular order of preference although I will indicate my all time favourite when I get to it......

My first choice is, coincidentally, probably the first ghost film I ever saw. It is Rene Clair's charming 1936 production THE GHOST GOES WEST and far from being a scarefest it is a gentle romantic comedy with Robert Donat as the son of a Scottish Laird who, because of a perceived act of cowardice during the rebellion against the English, is cursed to wander the halls of the family castle forever. Problems and fun begin when an American family decide to buy the castle and relocate it across the Atlantic. Although it borrows some of its elements from the film versions of Oscar Wilde's THE CANTERVILLE GHOST it can more than stand on its own as a first class comedy. Second on the list is Lewis Allen's THE UNINVITED(1944) starring Ray Milland and Gail Russell as the man who moves into a Cornish house only to discover it is haunted by the ghost of a previous tenant. Gail Russell plays Stella (the classic song "Stella by Starlight" comes from this film) who is the object of the ghost's attention. Off hand I can't think of a "serious" ghost movies before THE UNINVITED which, along with being a genuinely spooky entertainment is perhaps why so many people remember it so fondly. My next choice is my all time favourite cinematic ghost story. It is Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS (1961) starring Deborah Kerr in her best ever role as Miss Giddens, the nanny hired to care for two young children, Miles and Flora, in a creepy old mansion. The film is intentionally ambiguous about the whether the ghosts are real or simply figments of Miss Giddens sexual and religious problems. I'm prepared to give the ghosts the benefit of the doubt while fully embracing the idea that Miss Giddens has serious psychological problems. I re-watched it recently and it has lost none of its power to chill. Only a fraction below THE INNOCENTS in my estimation is Robert Wise's 1963 film THE HAUNTING based on Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House". One of the reasons that Jack Clayton's film just pips Wise's to the post is that despite its technical excellence and the superb

cast (with a special mention of Rosalie Crutchley's wonderfully sinister housekeeper) is that despite the big buildup about the scientific investigation of Hill House nobody ever really seems to be doing anything. Despite that it is a wonderfully creepy movie and one in which the house itself almost steals the show, from the actors. Next up is THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE directed by the underrated John Hough. It is, despite being based on a novel by the excellent Richard Matheson, a bit of a rip-off of THE HAUNTING. But it stands on its own feet as a terrific scary movie with some very well staged fright scenes (the scene where medium Pamela Franklin - who was Flora in THE INNOCENTS - discovers something crawling around under the blankets of her bed is classic) and a great cast led by Clive Revill and Roddy McDowell. There is also a surprise appearance by a unbilled actor which is worth waiting for.

Peter Medak's THE CHANGELING is a slowly unfolding mystery of the "why is this house being haunted" variety with George C.Scott as a composer who rents an old house only to discover he isn't quite as alone as he thought. Have you noticed how many cinematic hauntings tend to centre on children and nurseries. THE CHANGELING is one of these..and the ghosts of children can be among the most disturbing (M.R. James story "Lost Hearts" which has been adapted successfully for television is a first class example.) and children play a big part in THE OTHERS which has a great performance from Nicole Kidman as a mother living in a secluded house in the Channel Islands.

The children have a rare disease which means they are allergic to sunlight, the servants are growing more sinister by the day and there are noises in the house....everything is definitely not as the seem (certainly not an understatement here!). Peter Straub's GHOST STORY is one of my favourite horror novels but, unfortunately, it was totally mutilated for the screen. Happily this did not happen to another of his novels when it was filmed as FULL CIRCLE with Mia Farrow. As well as being deliciously creepy this film has the added attraction for me of being filmed in an area of London where I used to live. The film seems to be almost forgotten now (along with another decidedly weird Mia Farrow vehicle, THE SECRET CEREMONY) so if you get a chance to see it don't miss out. No list of favourite ghost films would be complete without an entry from Japan. Japanese cinema has a great tradition

ion of ghost stories and in recent years they have virtually dominated the genre with films like JU-ON to the point where the films are being, automatically it seems, being remade by Hollywood. My choice comes from an early period that produced such classic traditional ghost tales as KWAIDAN. My choice is the extremely spooky KURONEKO. The story is set in medieval Japan and tells of two women who are rapedand murdered by marauding samurai. The return from the dead to take a terrifying revenge. For my final choice 1s the 1947 romantic ghost story THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR directed by Joseph L.Mankiewicz with Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney in the eponymous roles I was first introduced to this story in an excellent BBC radio production and later saw the rather enjoyable television series but neither can match the charm of the original movie.


Well, that's my ten favourites....others spring to mind, such as THE WOMAN IN BLACK(1989)THE SHINING(1980) and POLTERGEIST(1982) and, of course, the excellent films in the BBC "Ghost Stories for Christmas". Any of these titles could have made it on to the list, as could Nicolas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW, but in that case I decided that it didn't really fit the criteria of my list, brilliant though it is.

Friday, 11 July 2008

THE OMEN (2006)

To be totally honest, I really enjoyed this. I bought the boxed set of OMEN movies and was surprised to find the remake included. It is very well done but the question that you have to ask is : Why was it done ? Recast, the spectacular deaths "reimagined" - it all works rather well without ever wiping out the memories of Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and David Warner et al. The producer has said that as far as the role of the nanny (originally played by Billie Whitelaw) went they decided to go more "Mary Poppins" this time around and cast Mia Farrow. Not only is Mia Farrow pretty creepy at the best of times as far as I'm concerned, we now what Rosemary did after the end of Polanski's film - she became a child minder! There isn't a lot more to say about a film that is perfectly o.k. but which joins the growing list of pointless remakes. Rating ***

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

IT'S ALL TRUE (1993)

Trust me...I'm a film director!

Boasting several directors including Orson Welles and his associates Richard Wilson and Norman Foster as well as the guys who put the whole thing together, this doctumentary tells the story of the film that Orson was making at the behest of the U.S. Goverment's Good Neighbour scheme during WW2 and which was directly responsible for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS being taken away from Welles. Like most unseen footage by Orson the film has almost mythic status. But while welcoming the chance to see it and hear the story I found nothing here to get me very excited and, if anything, the documentary is a little dull in its attempts to make something out of very little. Best is the very beginning with Orson in bullshitting mood telling of his encounter with a Brazillian voodoo priest. Much better might have been a full length documentary telling the full story of The MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS debacle if only to see Robert Wise (and I do have a certain amount of sympathy for Wise here) squirming his way through an explanation of his betrayal of Welles. Rating ***

Choking the Alligator!

Just like to draw your attention to a new addition to my link list. CHOKING THE ALLIGATOR is a pretty cool movie blog by Sarah Janet. I loved it and I think you will. Please go take a look.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Horror Chamber of Georges Franju....

I first encountered Georges Franju when I was at school when the school film society screened his famous short film LE SANG DES BETES. I must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time and the film nearly turned me into a vegetarian. The film is a "poetic" evocation of a day in a Paris abattoir. Some of the images haunt me even today, the slaughter of a beautiful horse, calfs on a conveyer belt having their throats cut before air is pumped into the still writhing bodies to create veal (something I still cannot eat today) and all done quite casually by workers who might just as well be opening cardboard boxes. I vividly remember several of my schoolmates passing out during the screening yet, horrified as I was (and nothing could induce me to watch the film again) I already had a sense of cinema that made me continue to subject myself to the images on the screen. Even hating the film one has to admit that it is a powerful piece of film-making. Franju made a whole series of highly regarded documentaries before moving into feature films with his masterpiece LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (Eyes without a Face).A few years ago I watched this film again and decided to catch up with some of the other Franju films like THERESE DESQUEYROUX, JUDEX, THOMAS L'IMPOSTER and NUITS ROUGES. BUT NONE WERE AVAILABLE!!!! Only EYES WITHOUT A FACE in circulation - even in France : a national disgrace, I thought. Now, the situation has been somewhat improved because on August 25th a DVD is being released which contains not on his 1963 remake of Feuillade's JUDEX but NUITS ROUGES (a thriller also known as THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE). Hopefully, more Franju films will follow including the bizarre thrillers he made for French television towards the end of his career.


1901 - 1970
Somewhere out in monster land...

Sunday, 6 July 2008

SOMMARNATTENS LEENDE/Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Directed at a faster pace, Bergman's SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT would have turned something like a French farce. But Ingmar Bergman's pace is slower and more studied so than instead of a frantic farce we get an elegant comedy of manners, a comedy of carnal confusion. It is well known that the great director was going through a particularly painful period in his personal life and credits this film with saving him from suicide. A group of people living in Sweden at the turn of the last century are involved in a series of convoluted relationships. Everything comes to a head when they are all invited to spend a weekend at the mansion of a famous actress. I hardly need to mention (after all this is a Bergman film) that the acting is first class throughout and the ensemble cast (led by the great Gunnar Bjornstrand) are superb. This film was the basis for Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (filmed twice) and was spoofed by Woody Allen in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY. The film (like the previously reviewed TORMENT) ends with one of the great life-affirming moments in the cinema, all the more effective because it comes from Ingmar Bergman. Rating *****

TORMENT/Frenzy (1944)

Directed by Alf Sjoberg from a script by Ingmar Bergman, TORMENT is an engrossing film. Part school drama, part rites of passage story and part thriller, with none of the elements overpowering the others. A student preparing for graduation is tormented by a sadistic teacher. One night after returning from a trip to the cinema he sees a woman seemingly unwell in the street. It turns out she is drunk and is a local shopgirl who also seems to be working part-time as a prostitute (in 1944, even in Sweden, this is not actually stated). The boy goes to her assistance and ends up spending the night with her. They begin an affair but the girl lives in terror of one of her "visitors" who turns out to be the the sadistic school master. To tell more would be unfair as this is an engrossing film with several surprising twists. Performances are excellent throughout with the lovers played by the young Alf Kjellin and Mai Zetterling. But it is Stig Jarrel as the teacher who steals the film. He reminded me of a cross between Walter Slezak and Anton Walbrook. I've commented before on this blog about the moments of pure gothic horror in many of Berman's films and there is a real heart-stopping moment in this film, which, although Sjoberg is the director, I must believe was in Bergman's script. The film ends on a real moment of hope which is beautifully conveyed. Rating ****

Maria! I've just met a robot called Maria......

Great news for all movie buffs, especially fans of the great director Fritz Lang. Just as Kino International has completed its restoration of Lang's masterpiece METROPOLIS for 2009 release, a complete print of the film has been discovered in Argentina. The newly discovered print runs for nearly three and a half hours - much longer than any print in circulation today. Although badly scratched the film has been shown to critics and Kino International hope to include the newly discovered footage in their 2009 release.