Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Himesh Patel
Words – Daniel McMonagle
2020 has been one of the cruellest years for cinema on record. Unlike many films rescheduled, shelved and sold off to streaming services, the latest feature from Christopher Nolan is too big and expensive to go straight into the digital land of video on demand. With the ongoing pandemic, Tenet has been seen as the film to save the reopening of cinemas…
Fortunately, Tenet exceeds expectations and delivers everything audiences could want from a film of this magnitude. Returning collaborators such as cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley have crafted what looks and sounds like the most “Nolan” film experience yet. With bombastic scenes running back and forth, we follow the unnamed protagonist played very charismatically by John David Washington, accompanied by Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, as they try to prevent the start of World War 3 by a Russian Oligarch played with absolute venom by Kenneth Brannagh.
Time has always been one of the principle themes of Nolan’s films. With Tenet, he explores the concept of time running back and forth on itself as the protagonist is thrust into a world where the future can communicate with the past. Like a lot of key time travel plots, the characters get to explore past events they previously experienced. Reverse footage never looked so exciting than it does here as explosions invert and bullets fly back whilst character motivations and plot twists are unveiled in a non-linear fashion due to the nature of time travel.
Nolan’s films have often been criticised for their heavy reliance on exposition. However, Tenet is actually less exposition-heavy than its closest relative film Inception. We are thrust into events along with the characters and are forced to pick things up as the plot charges along. Razor sharp editing and a propulsive score by Ludwig Goransson ensure a relentlessly up-tempo pace.
Nolan has always expressed an interest in the Bond movies, and we have previously seen hints of this with Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy. Tenet is as close to a Nolan ‘Bond movie’ as we’re ever likely to get, he has taken everything that’s great about James Bond such as globetrotting exotic locations, high stakes plotting and action scenes and given them a science fiction twist. The film is set against the backdrop of some truly outstanding scenery that IMAX takes maximum advantage of. As far as the action scenes play out, this is Nolan’s best work yet. Tenet is full of shoot outs, chases and espionage, all helped by a complete reliance on practical effects.
On first viewing, the plot may seem convoluted and, at times, difficult to follow. However, Tenet is undoubtedly the best movie-going experience of the year that demands multiple viewings.
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Starring: Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Enzo Cannavale, Isa Danieli, Leo Gullotta, Agnese Nano, Leopoldo Trieste
Words – Christian Abbott
“The old movie business is just a memory”, a line which summates so much feeling through nostalgia, perfectly capturing the essence of this film. The old movie business may indeed just be a memory now, but it is here that its power lives on, and its legacy and impact will never be forgotten.
Released over three decades ago, cinema has changed profoundly since this time, but the power of the cinematic remains true.
A story following the life of a now renowned filmmaker, Toto, as a message to return to his hometown sparks the memories of his upbringing both in and around his beloved Cinema Paradiso. It’s a timeless tale of childish naivete and young love, between him and cinema. It’s a perfect foundation to explore cinema’s glittering lure.
There is something uniquely wonderful about films that capture this unique love of cinema. Perhaps, this is because it is a rare display of genuine appreciation for the art form of the cinema itself, or, more likely, it is because those that appreciate film with the same youthful infatuation that Toto has for the projection room, sometimes need nothing more than two hours of cinematic self-indulgence.
From writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore, it is clear this was crafted by a loving hand; there is scene after scene of people gathering, laughing, cheering, and celebrating the sheer potential of the big screen. People brought together into a dark room to share in its emotions, cinema is a truly unique experience and this champions it like no other.
There are consistent low-angle shots of Toto, as he is transfixed by the screen; the projectors beam of light above him, Tornatore creates a mythic feeling. In conjunction, Ennio Morricone provided an angelic score, a soundtrack to cinema itself, and one of his absolute finest pieces in a career of consistent greats.
There is a lesson Toto learns in his young life, that sometimes you need to step away from something to truly appreciate it, as hard as that may be. We may all take the cinema for granted, after all, it has always been there and through works like this, it always will be. But like Toto, when you take a step back things become clear, and through his eyes, through the lens of Tornatore, we see that cinema should never be taken for granted, because its effects both on the personal and on the public can never be fully understood, though Cinema Paradiso is the best understanding of why we will always go to the cinema.
See details of a forthcoming 4K restoration and cinema re-release here:
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Daisuke Katô, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yoshio Inaba
Words – Christian Abbott.
All great films can be traced back to other works of art from decades past. The cynical would say that nothing is original anymore, but what it truly shows is that art, and especially cinema, is a never ending cycle of inspiration and reinterpretation. Often, this comes at the detriment to the previous work, as it slowly becomes overshadowed by the piece that exists because of it.
Arguably, one of the most obvious examples of this is when it comes to The Magnificent Seven (1960). Almost everybody knows of this film and understands its cultural impact, but some may not realise what inspired it. To take nothing away from John Sturges’ classic re-imagining, one shouldn’t forget the original, as its impact reaches far beyond its Hollywood remake – it defined and helped create genre-fiction as we know it today.
Released in 1954 by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai was the result of years of research and heavyweight talent coming together. The result was one of cinema’s most impressive and enduring ensemble casts, and a cinematic eye that is still sharper than most.
An old samurai in need of work is hired by a town to protect them against a series of bandits. To do this, he enlists 6 more samurai’s to protect and supply the town with aid. The sequence of events is a familiar one to modern audiences, but it is told so expertly, with genuine ingenuity and cinematic innovation that it still can hold its own against any modern action blockbuster.
From the initial hire, through building a team, holding the bandits back piece by piece and ultimately leading to a massive battle still excites now. Sometimes you need nothing more than a classic tale of redemption and honour; and this is that film.
Kurosawa’s editing and Asakazu Nakai’s cinematography have been written about at length and their impact can be felt across cinema. But understanding it is one thing, to see it yourself is another. The sweeping shots, silhouetted framing and persistent, gilding changes from wide and close-up captivate in a way only cinema achieves.
Seven Samurai has good company in Kurosawa’s canon for reinterpretation. The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) were both famously re-worked into Star Wars (1977) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), respectively. Great work inspires future great artists, which in turn inspire more.
Today, the words remake and reboot feel tainted by consistent failure – the mere mention of a remake can turn audiences away and actively annoy others for perceived disrespect to the original work.
Yet, the legacy and history of Seven Samurai stands as a testament to its merits. Without it, so much of cinema we enjoy and define ourselves by wouldn’t exist. So many great filmmakers wouldn’t have seen 7 samurai warriors protect a small village, inspiring them to create stories that will inspire us.
This is truly a milestone in cinema and should never be side-lined or forgotten. Kurosawa’s filmography is a catalogue of greats, but Seven Samurai stands alone. For a reminder of why cinema is great – watch Seven Samurai.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Park So-dam, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Ji-so Jung
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Rarely does a film defy all cinematic conventions and pull it off flawlessly. Even more rare is for a film to please so many different genres, yet seem almost completely genre-less.
There is so much to say about Parasite, none of which should be discussed openly in a one-way format such as this: it is highly recommended going into this film without any prior knowledge of what it is or where it will go. So how to go about describing this artistic feat, aside from the obvious statements that it is undeniably Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, and easily one of the best films in decades?
Let’s start with painting as simple a picture as possible. Whereas Bong’s previous films, the irreverent Okja and dystopian future incision Snowpiercer, focussed on alternative realities, the social skewering in Parasite is distinctly tangible.
The Kim family live in a small semi-basement and all struggle to hold down employment. They rush around their squalid home trying to connect to free WiFi and leave their windows open when the fumigators spray the streets to try and clear the stink-bugs moving in.
One day, the Kims are visited by son Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk, who gifts them a mysterious rock which is said to bring wealth to those who possess it. When Min-hyuk suggests Kim-woo pretend to be a university student and take over his job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, what follows is an opportunistic snowballing plot devised by the Kims which is equal parts genius and dangerous, rational and absurd.
By exploiting the credulous Park matriarch, using a creative variety of props from underpants to peaches, the Kims find a way for each of them to secure work within the concrete walls of the Park’s modernist mansion, a risky endeavour which involves usurping the family’s loyal housekeeper.
After all of the Kim clan have secured their posts in the Park home, the latter depart for a camping trip to celebrate their son’s birthday. While they’re away, the Kim’s spend the night in the luxury of their employers’ home, enjoying the kind of food and beverages they would seldom have access to back in their semi-basement. This marks the transition into the film’s second act; the Kim’s gestation period has been successful, remarkably so, and the rug is about to get violently pulled from under them.
Bong’s commitment to the nuances of social reality allows Parasite to not only traverse the audience’s constantly changing expectations (are the rich going to use their wealth and resources to outsmart the poor? Are the Kims going to overthrow the house?) but also shift gears from jaunty comedy to a white-knuckle thriller as faultlessly as Ki-taek turning corners on a busy road, smooth and confident as the ignorant but judgemental Mr Park looks on haughtily from the backseat.
As the story unravels and your jaw gradually makes its way to the floor, you quickly come to realise that it’s hard to distinguish who the ‘bad guys’ are here—an intentional move which speaks to the title of the film. There are the haves, basking in their fortune in the comfort of their sun-lit houses in the hills, and the have nots, confined to chthonic basements and subservience to the thankless demands of their employers.
Everything here is ‘metaphorical’, to steal a frequently recurring term from the film, but it is also everything you could ever want from a film: suspenseful, beautiful, at times hilarious, and always compelling.
Director: Ishiro Honda
Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai
Words – Rebecca Kirby.
It took fifty years for the original, uncut version of Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” (or Gojira) to receive an official release for western audiences. In that time the films powerful message has not diminished.
“Godzilla” may be the first Kaiju (literally translated as strange creature) movie and it might feature a man in a rubber suit crushing a miniature version of Tokyo, but this is so much more than the standard B movie creature feature western audiences were accustomed to. Made less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA, Godzilla explores a very complex set of emotions.
With an air of dread and a bleak theme, “Godzilla” embodies the destructive atomic realisations of the Japanese nation, the worlds first post apocalyptic society. It’s a window into the soul of a nation that had its psyche crushed in unimaginable horror, rebuilding under US occupation and trying to come to terms with its past and future.
Director Ishiro Honda, who had been drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during wartime, not only witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 but also saw first hand the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It’s clear to see how this influenced Godzilla‘s scenes of devastation in Tokyo, full of haunting visions of a city on fire.
The film was considered so bleak, particularly for American audiences, that the version released to western audiences in 1956, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” was re-edited to remove around forty minutes of footage, including some key plot points and to incorporate twenty minutes of new footage featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter. This version was dubbed into English and featured a more uplifting final statement from Burr.
Originally conceived under the working title of “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea“, the initial creature designs were very different from the Godzilla we now know and love. The original outline featured a giant octopus, while later a gorilla or whale inspired creature was considered, with the monster to be christened Gojira – a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira) before settling on the now iconic dinosaur inspired design.
The Godzilla suit was constructed from latex and molten rubber over a frame built from bamboo, wire and metal mesh. Weighing over 200 pounds, the suit was so heavy that performer Haruo Nakajima would pass out after only three minutes inside and lost 20 pounds during filming. Godzilla’s distinctive cry was created by composer Akira Ifukube by running a leather glove along a stringed instrument after recordings of various animals were dismissed.
Opening with the destruction of a small fishing boat by a unknown force off Odo Island, itself a reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident in 1954, where a Japanese trawler was caught in the radioactive fallout from a US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, “Godzilla” spells out it’s intentions from the start.
When a further incident causes destruction on Odo Island, killing nine people and dozens of farm animals in the process, the Government sends paleontologist Dr Yamane to investigate. Dr Yamane discovers giant radioactive footprints along with a long extinct trilobite, before he has the opportunity to glimpse the terrifying Godzilla himself. He concludes that Godzilla is an ancient sea creature whose habitat has been disrupted by the hydrogen bomb tests conducted in the area.
After a plan to destroy Godzilla by using depth charges fails, the government seeks advice from Dr Yamane on how to kill the monster. Dr Yamane insists that having survived the H-bombs, Godzilla cannot be killed and the only course of action is to study him to understand how he has survived the nuclear blasts and even grown stronger as a result.
Emiko, Dr Yamane’s daughter seeks to break off her engagement to Dr Serizawa, a colleague of her father, in order to marry Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain that she is in love with. When Emiko visits Dr Serizawa he reveals to her the secret project that he has been working on. This demonstration causes Emiko to flee in horror without breaking off her engagement.
After Godzilla emerges in Tokyo Bay and devastates Shinagawa Ward, a further plan to kill him is put into action involving electrified fences and military force but this too fails. Tokyo suffers further destruction and hospitals are filled with casualties.
A distraught Emiko reveals the existence of Dr Serizawa’s research, a superweapon named the Oxygen Destroyer, to Ogata. Together they approach Serizawa to persuade him to use this against Godzilla. Serizawa is reluctant to use the Oxygen Destroyer as he fears it falling into the wrong hands but after seeing the aftermath of the devastation of Tokyo he finally agrees to it’s use.
Before boarding a Navy vessel to plant the Oxygen Destroyer in Tokyo Bay, Serizawa burns his notes so the weapon cannot be replicated. Once the ship has reached it’s destination, Serizawa insists on deploying his creation alone, deliberately cutting off his own oxygen supply in the process.
The Oxygen Destroyer succeeds in killing Godzilla and the film ends with a sober and grim warning from Dr Yamane that the continuation of nuclear testing would risk the emergence of more Godzilla’s.
It’s perhaps worth noting here the contrast between Dr Serizawa, who would rather sacrifice himself than allow his invention to be used for war, with the initial celebration in the US of the “father of the atomic bomb” J Robert Oppenheimer, who would appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1948. Ironically, Oppenheimer would appear on the cover of Time once again in 1954, the same year Godzilla was released, when he was stripped of his security clearances after suggesting that controls should be placed on the development of nuclear power.
Ultimately, the death of Godzilla is not seen as something to celebrate, the film never shying away from the fact that man is responsible for creating this monster. While his path of destruction must be stopped, Dr Yamane serves to remind us that Godzilla is also a victim of mankind’s nuclear ambitions, an unintended but inevitable consequence of the human disregard for the natural world.
Considering the current state of the planet’s climate and the continued stock piling of nuclear weapons by the world’s superpowers, it seems that in the 66 years since Godzilla was first unleashed we have still yet to learn those lessons.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Words – Rhiannon Topham.
Describing a film as a ‘historical drama’ conjures particularly priggish dress, dialogue and narrative, none of which is typically original or disruptive to the staid all ways of the genre.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, however, is not one of those historical dramas. There is still a plentiful of corsets and petticoats, and there’s at least one character who’s a countess, but there is also something else: a genuine, recognisable sense of human desire, embroiled with obsession, fear, and of course, lots of sexual tension.
Set in Brittany in 1760, Portrait recounts a tale of forbidden love. When we first meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter now posing for her class of female students, it would almost be befitting for her to turn, look down the lens of the camera, and do a Fleabag: “This is a love story.”
We then go back in time to unravel the slow burning and passionate romance that flourished during Marianne’s brief stay on the northern coast of France. It was here where she was drafted by an Italian noblewoman to paint a portrait of her elusive and reclusive daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which will then be shipped off for approval from her betrothed, an unknown but wealthy man based in Milan.
Marianne’s stay is under the guise of companionship to Héloïse, who has just returned from a convent following the death of her sister. Not only is she mourning the loss of her sibling, but she also vehemently opposes this engagement and has sabotaged the attempts of previous portraitists by refusing to sit for them. Marianne is to accompany Héloïse on her walks to the seafront by day, and then privately paint her from memory by night.
Sciamma establishes the essence of forbidness from the outset, keeping Héloïse’s face hidden from both Marianne and the viewer until a pivotal moment when suddenly her physiognomy is brought to the fore for all to see, like the rediscovery of a masterpiece thought lost or destroyed.
Initially there seems to be a relative froideur between the two women, who are, beneath the pretence of amity, basically strangers. Marianne is both perplexed and transfixed by Héloïse’s mysteriousness, and on the surface one could mistake the latter’s distance as mere pretentiousness or formality. But the truth is all in the sly, yet often obvious, stolen glances; the slow-burning infatuation of discovering something new about someone every time you look at them, and the sheer pleasure and confusion of savouring those moments to yourself and then, in this case, eventually having to share those memories with an unknown other elsewhere on the continent.
There have been plenty of obvious comparisons between Portrait and Blue is the Warmest Colour. What’s distinct and profound about this story is that there’s no immediate attraction or lust; an easy narrative device that male directors so readily employ in retelling relationships between women. Rather, this is about seeing and being seen, the corporeal as much as the spiritual and emotional, and this goes beyond the romance.
This notion speaks directly to the central theme of repressed womanhood: Héloïse is to be married to someone she has never met, and is to sit for a portrait which successfully sells her as a suitable wife; her doting maid, Sophie, is forced to make a historically significant choice about an unwanted pregnancy, a momentous decision which Marianne later depicts on canvas; and Marianne’s very profession is a display of defiance, during a time when women were either heavily restricted in their access to creativity and art or were shut out completely.
Reversing the male gaze has never been done with quite the grace and poignancy as shown in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and every element works in harmony to create something so subjectively accessible and objectively beguiling, from the chemistry between the all-female cast to the masterful direction and prophetic script, and the opening scene in Marianne’s studio to the climactic grand finale in the opera house.
Director: Shannon Murphy
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Our first flame is usually a clumsy affair, defined more by how awkward everything is than any real or lasting affection. The majority of these ‘relationships’ end swiftly with the heartbreaking realisation that things seldom last forever; but for Babyteeth’s 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen), this has particular poignancy as she knows that her first love is probably going to be her last.
Milla has an unnamed form of terminal cancer, for which her doting parents, the gifted pianist Anna (Essie Davis) and psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), bestow a great deal of anguish that Milla does not share. When 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) charges into Milla on a train platform, nearly tossing her onto the tracks, a tempestuous and often dangerous romance ensues. In addition to the age gap, and rather predictably, these two darlings are completely different in almost every possible way; Moses is a drug taker and dealer who has been exiled from the family home, whereas Milla lives in a leafy middle class suburb, attends a girls only school and plays the violin.
Scanlen strikes a subtle balance in negotiating Milla’s amorphous emotions, moving from fury to acceptance to vulnerability and back again. Mendelsohn and Davis are also on fine form, each bringing a different quality of helplessness to their parenting responsibilities as well as nuances in how they distract themselves from the reality that their baby will probably never get better and the kindest thing to do would be to let her savour what life she has left, no matter how questionable those choices may be.
Despite Milla’s displays of defiance, the good days are woven in with the bad and we are reminded of her frailty at several key stages of the film, marked out by chapter titles such as “It didn’t feel like a love story that day” and “What the dead said to Milla”, an especially delicate scene of introspection where Milla is allowed some space to breath outside of Moses’ raucous nature and the deafening clamour of her parents walking on eggshells.
As a debut, Babyteeth is a compelling tragicomedy of family, love and acceptance. It is by no means the first teenage cancer indie film, yet this consummate cast keep this one from crossing into cliche on the well-trodden ground of coming of age romcoms, interjected by overtly concerned and covertly struggling parents.
Director: Rose Glass
Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle
Words – Rhiannon Topham
It takes a very rare beast of a directorial debut to make you wince, laugh and question the capacity of the human mind in less than 90 minutes.
Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, a sinuous saga of madness and torment respects the many religion-inspired films in the horror genre, but suggests a surprising range of stylistic and narrative inspirations, from Lynn Ramsay’s grit to Edward Hopper’s loners in diners.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative nurse in a dilapidated seaside town who we first see crouched in a corner covered in blood. As far as first impressions go, it’s about as menacing as it can get. When she’s drafted to care for Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer and choreographer now rendered housebound by illness and disability, the initial apprehension between the two eases into admiration and intrigue before regressing to outright repulsion; Maud for Amanda’s decadent lifestyle and coterie of hedonistic creatives, Amanda for Maud’s myopic opinion of how life should be lived.
Maud is a character of extremes; self-destructive in one ‘life’ and ascetic in another. Her obsequious quest to strive in her newfound piousness is juxtaposed with Amanda’s lucid, albeit anaesthetized, compos mentis. Maud’s religious conversion has granted her a moxie seemingly absent in her past, when, it transpires, she wasn’t a Maud at all. The fresh Maud persona is one she has crafted to support her search for the ‘greater purpose’ God has planned for her, an unassailable transcendental goal which swallows her whole and greedily possesses her in mind, body and spirit.
Maud’s nascent life of righteousness comes to an abrupt end when she is removed from her post as Amanda’s carer. Where to go when you are stripped of your purpose in life? All of her feelings of jealousy, confusion, virulence and an almost psychedelic bodily experience of spirituality reach fever pitch as she succumbs to the darker forces chipping away at her sanity and she becomes mimetic of the hellish creatures depicted by William Blake in a book gifted to her by Amanda.
As an addition to the horror-Renaissance of recent years, Saint Maud is an alarmingly accomplished debut by a talented and — dare I say it — innovative director to get excited about. Glass has clearly wasted no time on narrative trumpery with this, and at a tidy 84 minutes, all the key proponents harmonise perfectly to create an unnerving atmosphere in which neither Maud nor the audience are sure what our Saint will do next.
This is no average God-fearing horror; it is the fragility of the human mind that is the most frightening.
1981 – 2023
Words: Oliver Innocent.
Evil Dead is a franchise built on blood, sweat, tears and determination. Unusual in a series encompassing four (soon to be five) feature films and a three season TV series, the core creative group of director and producer Sam Raimi, producer and actor Bruce Campbell, and producer Rob Tapert have been involved with every entry.
This lends the Evil Dead saga a consistency in quality, care, and respect of its roots severely lacking in other franchises that continue with no creative input from their original creators.
Following their 1978 proto-Evil Dead short film, Within the Woods, Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert unleashed the original The Evil Dead in 1981. While the familiar setup (remote cabin location, demonic possession, characters picked off one by one) may be nothing new, the execution certainly is.
Raimi’s dynamic, experimental camerawork, the atmospheric sound design (the unnerving, constantly howling wind), and the handmade demon makeup and stop-motion effects set The Evil Dead apart from its contemporaries. Its predilection for pushing the genre’s extremes to the max also helped it stand apart from the crowd. A heady cocktail of uncomfortably drawn-out tension, jolting jump scares, and scenes awash with bloody gore, The Evil Dead remains an intense viewing experience to this day.
The film’s cult status is further bolstered by introducing viewers to B-movie legend, Bruce Campbell’s most iconic character, Ash. While underdeveloped here, Ash would become the face of the franchise in the next instalment, 1987’s Evil Dead II.
Bigger and bolder than its predecessor, Evil Dead II is one of those rare sequels that is as good as, if not better than, the original. A larger budget, more professional acting, and refined effects certainly contribute to this, but it’s the shift in tone that really stands out.
Where the original was a full-blown bloodbath of a horror film shot through with a streak of black humour, Evil Dead II brings this humour to the fore. This radical change from horror to comedy-horror works in the film’s favour. It’s such a different beast that, despite it being almost a remake of the first film, it performs just as well as a standalone entity as it does part of the wider Evil Dead series.
Evil Dead II’s wonderfully silly, gross-out slapstick comedy really allows Campbell’s Ash to shine this time. Carrying the first half of the film almost singlehandedly, Campbell endears Ash to the viewer by allowing him to be the butt of the joke. Apparently, Raimi relished torturing Campbell, finding it amusing to put him through all manner of hell. And it’s hard not to side with Raimi when laughing at Campbell smashing through plates and furniture, fighting his own hand, and getting sprayed with gallons of multi-coloured goop.
Continuing the tradition of torturing Bruce Campbell, 1992’s Army of Darkness sees Ash catapulted back to medieval times, forced to do battle with an army of deadites led by an evil version of himself. This second sequel veers even further towards comedy, jettisoning much of the horror and gore of the previous entries.
Ash, despite his monster-battling prowess, appears even more of a bumbling fool here, thinking himself above the medieval folk, even though it’s his stupidity that unwittingly summons an army of the dead. Like a stylised cartoon character, Ash spouts a plethora of cheesy one-liners (‘Yo, she-bitch, let’s go!’, ‘Hail to the king, baby’) in a pastiche of ‘80s action film machismo a la Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
Army of Darkness proves the series can work outside the confines of both the cabin setting and the horror genre as it turns the Evil Dead into a fish-out-of-water comedy, set against a backdrop of swashbuckling sword and sorcery spectacle. Indeed, some of the film’s biggest influences are the stop-motion epics of Ray Harryhausen, in particular the iconic skeleton battle of 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts serving as the basis for Ash’s climactic confrontation with a legion of skeletal knights.
After Army of Darkness, the closest we got to another Evil Dead (outside of homages like Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell AKA The Japanese Evil Dead) was Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell in 2009. Although nothing to do with the franchise, it very much feels like an Evil Dead film in spirit, with its merging of gross imagery, jump scares, and offbeat comedy.
Following a 21-year hiatus, the Evil Dead officially returned with an inevitable remake in 2013. The success of the 2003 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake led to a slew of horror classics being re-booted for a new generation. While many of these new takes failed to live up to the originals, the Fede Alvarez-helmed Evil Dead remake is a more than worthy re-imagining.
The antithesis of Army of Darkness’s goofy humour, Evil Dead sees the series go back to its extreme horror roots. Serious scares and impressive practical gore effects are in-keeping with the spirit of the original, as is the cabin in the woods setting and the book of the dead / demonic possession setup.
However, it’s clear that more modern horror influences have crept in. The jerky, spider-like movements and croaky vocalisations of the deadites are obviously indebted to the evil spirits of J-horror films like The Grudge (unsurprising given that Raimi was such a fan of Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) that he and Tapert produced a remake in 2004). The bloody atrocities of torture porn (the Saw and Hostel films) can also be seen in the lingering, gore-drenched close-ups of nails being extracted from flesh, and stretching, snapping tendons.
Following a fantastic, blood-drenched finale culminating in one of the most impressive chainsaw kills committed to celluloid, Ash appears for an extremely brief post-credits cameo teasing his return to the franchise. Fans didn’t have to wait long as the small-screen spin-off, Ash vs Evil Dead was released in 2015.
Made with real love and respect for fans of the original trilogy, Ash vs Evil Dead blends the gross-out comedy gore of Evil Dead II with the goofy slapstick and one-liners of Army of Darkness. Although sadly cancelled after 3 seasons, the series remains a fitting send-off for Campbell’s Ash.
Outside the main franchise, the Evil Dead has been kept alive with numerous video games (many featuring voice acting from Campbell himself) and comic books. Making-of documentaries and non-fiction books like The Evil Dead Companion and Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, have provided fans with a wealth of behind-the-scenes info.
However, it’s the sheer volume of home video releases, from VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, to 4K Ultra-HD that shows just how enduring the Evil Dead legacy really is. No matter how many copies they already own, fans will continue to rabidly collect each new release. People just can’t get enough of the Evil Dead.
Evil Dead Rise (2023), directed by Lee Cronin, is released in the UK and US on April 21st
Words: Scott Burns.
Founded in 1934, Hammer Films was a genre-film studio specialising in B-movies made with low budgets but impeccable standards. After making successful movies in several genres, mostly lurid thrillers, the studio would become a household name when it produced a series of Gothic horrors based on classic literature.
Beginning with The Curse Of Frankenstein in 1957 and continuing with Dracula (aka: Horror Of Dracula) in 1958, the studio had a couple of hit movies here, in Europe and across the pond, starting a chain reaction of similar films being produced all over the world, notably the series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations from American International Pictures, starting with Roger Corman’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher in 1960; also Riccardo Freda’s The Mill Of Stone Women (1960) and the films of Mario Bava in Italy, and the films of actor Paul Naschy in Spain.
The films were typified by strong performances from the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, both of whom became cult superstars as a result, a pushing of the boundaries of sex and violence then permissible in British cinema (usually in the form of wanton sexuality and lots of bright red fake blood, nicknamed “Kensington Gore”, the liberal use of which would bring Hammer into constant trouble with the BBFC), and solid film-making from industry veterans like Terence Fisher, utilising fantastic cinematography and production design as well as outdoor location filming (quite rare in genre cinema).
The Curse Of Frankenstein and Dracula were directed by former editor Fisher who brings a high-energy and pace to the pictures, focussing on performance and atmosphere as well as dynamic photography and editing. The scripts, by Jimmy Sangster, were well-crafted, unpretentious and unapologetically mainstream. These were not art movies but entertainment for the masses, and the masses ate them up, responding to the universal narrative of Good vs. Evil and enjoying the gruesome thrills.
This was the Hammer “formula”, and Reel Steel are presenting a quartet of their later works, all fine examples of the company’s dedication to making quality low-budget cinema for the widest audience imaginable.
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See our retrospective feature on
The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
See our retrospective feature on
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
See our retrospective feature on
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
See our retrospective feature on
The Gorgon (1964)
Director: John Gilling
Cast: Brook Williams, Andre Morell, Diane Clare, John Carson, Jacqueline Pearce
Words – Scott Burns.
Hammer’s zombie movie (released two years before George A. Romero and John A. Russo’s Night of the Living Dead) remains a strong contender in the living dead sweepstakes and is a fan favourite despite the lack of recognisable stars and without being based on a classic story.
After a string of mysterious deaths in a Cornwall mining town, Dr. Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) calls upon his former teacher Sir James Forbes (Hammer mainstay Andre Morell) for help. Forbes and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) travel to the town where they run into of a bunch of loutish upper-class fox hunters (who disrupt a funeral procession) and an angry, scared local population. Thompson and Forbes investigate claims that the recent dead have been spotted near the local tin mine, owned by the squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson), a strange idea confirmed when Sylvia sees a grey-faced man carrying the dead body of her friend and Thompson’s wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce). But the truth is even more terrible: the dead are being brought back to life, via Voodoo ritual, to become slave labour for the squire’s mine. Only Forbes can stop this evil from claiming more lives.
Directed by John Gilling, who rose through the ranks to become a director having been with Hammer since the 1930s, and written by Peter Bryan from a story by Bryan and Anthony Hinds (originally pitched to Universal as The Horror Of The Zombie, but rejected for being too gruesome). Gilling wrote a couple of films for Hammer (including The Gorgon) and graduated to directing. His first film for the company was The Shadow Of The Cat (1961) and his association with Hammer continued with The Pirates Of Blood River (1962) until The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). He had a reputation for being combative with his actors, crew and his bosses. Although not as famous as his Hammer contemporary Terence Fisher, his films are comparable in quality of craftmanship. He died in Madrid in 1984 aged 72.
Andre Morell had worked with Hammer before, most notably as Dr. Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in Terence Fisher’s adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1959) as well as roles in The Camp On Blood Island (1958) and The Shadow Of The Cat. Known for being particularly acerbic to people he took a dislike to, Morell has a fantastic presence to rival Cushing or Christopher Lee. Here he plays a rational man forced to confront and defeat the supernatural and he turns in a great performance. He became a household name after appearing in the must-watch television sensation Quatermass And The Pit as Professor Bernard Quatermass. Other notable films he appeared in include The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) and Ben-Hur (1959). He died in 1978 aged 69.
Another Hammer icon appears in this film, the character actor Michael Ripper. He became a sort of totem for the company appearing in more films than Cushing or Lee, usually in a small role (here he is a policeman). His last appearance in a Hammer film was in the comedy That’s Your Funeral in 1972. He worked steadily until retiring fully in the nineties. He died in 2000 aged 87.
The treatment of zombies in this film is closer to that seen in White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943): a recently dead man re-animated by black magic to do the bidding of a powerful Voodoo priest. The zombies’ blank-eyed stare and rotting features pre-figures the ghouls in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and wear muddy smocks like medieval serfs. Gilling gets the maximum scare effect out of them, especially in a creepy dream sequence where Thompson is surrounded by walking corpses, who have clawed their way out of the grave in the town cemetery.
The Plague Of The Zombies adds an element of class warfare with the aristocratic Hamilton and his bully boy, fox hunting friends (not the first time screenwriter Bryan used fox hunting as a symbol of upper-class privilege as seen in his script for The Hound Of The Baskervilles) using Voodoo to exploit the working classes. This was a common trope in Hammer movies where the villains were usually aristocrats who dabbled in the dark arts or arrogantly pursued power or knowledge at the expense of human life. The most disturbing scene in the film sees Hamilton’s friends, still wearing their fox hunting red jackets and brandishing horse whips, using playing cards to decide which of them will ravish Sylvia first.
A superb B-movie (it played in a double-bill with Dracula: Prince Of Darkness) and a huge fan favourite, it is almost a pity Hammer never returned to the zombie idea until their seventies swansong The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires (1974). But this unique movie still has the power to send a shiver down your spine.
See details of our upcoming
Hammer Horror weekender
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Nike Arrighi, Patrick Mower, Charles Gray, Paul Eddington, Sarah Lawson, Leon Greene, Patrick Allen
Words – Scott Burns.
Based on the popular novel by Dennis Wheatley, starring Christopher Lee in a fantastic performance and directed by the legendary Terence Fisher, who had helmed the incredibly-successful Frankenstein and Dracula movies that made Hammer the name for horror movies around the world, this film should have heralded a brand-new era for the company.
Lee stars as the Duc de Richleau, a student of the occult and adept at white magic, who, with his friend Rex Van Ryn (played by Leon Greene and dubbed by Patrick Allen), drops in on old friend Simon (Patrick Mower) who is throwing a party for a social group he wants to join. Richleau discovers to his horror that the group is steeped in dark magic and attempts to stop Simon and his friend Tanith (Nike Arrighi) from being “baptised” by the group’s leader, the powerful dark magician Mocata (a fantastic Charles Gray). Mocata, determined to grow his coven, unleashes the forces of Hell to return them to him, leaving only Richleau and his extensive knowledge of the dark arts to fight back.
Hammer were approached by Lee, a fan of Wheatley, to make the film, believing it could be a huge success for the company and a change from the classical Gothic stories that had been their bread and butter for the past few years. The Gothic horror market had become saturated with films from other independent producers both home and abroad, thanks to Hammer’s popularity. The company agreed, resulting in a rip-roaring horror thriller from start to finish, directed by Fisher with his usual seriousness and attention to pace.
Lee, who considered this his favourite of all his Hammer appearances, is rarely better as Richleau, a dedicated warrior against evil. Greene is good, if somewhat subdued, as Rex Van Ryn, the action man contrasting Richleau’s more cerebral character who leaps into fights and car chases to protect his friends, putting aside his natural scepticism when the gates of Hell open. Also on the side of the angels is Richard and Marie Eaton (played by Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson respectively), who become involved at the behest of Richleau, Marie’s uncle. Representing the dark side is Gray’s Mocata, an outwardly polite gentleman who can mesmerise and control the unready and can summon monsters and phantoms (even the Angel of Death) to attack his enemies.
The task of adapting Wheatley’s novel fell to author and screenwriter Richard Matheson, a veteran of film and television whose work includes several episodes of The Twilight Zone, and the acclaimed adaptations of the work of Edgar Allen Poe directed by Roger Corman (themselves inspired by the success of Hammer’s gothic horrors in the States) as well as the writer of the hugely-influential novel I Am Legend. A better writer could not have been found and Matheson’s script distils Wheatley’s narrative with wit and imagination, keeping the cracking pace of the best pulp fiction. With all this talent, the movie couldn’t fail and indeed became another success for Hammer both in Europe and the United States (where it was released as The Devil’s Bride), thrilling audiences with terrifying special effects beyond anything Hammer had attempted before.
However, the company did not continue in the same vein, reverting back to the Gothic form for more outings for Dracula (featuring an increasingly fed-up Lee) and Baron Frankenstein well into the Seventies. Even though the company made interesting and effective films like Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Countess Dracula and Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde (both 1971), as well as the odd noble failure like The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires (1974, a co-production with Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong), their output seemed positively antiquarian next to the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). They did make one other Wheatley adaptation: To The Devil… A Daughter (1976), but the film so offended the author that Hammer were banned from making any more films based on his work. A pity Hammer never took the initiative to show the world that there was more to them than cleavage and Kensington Gore.
See details of our upcoming
Hammer Horror weekender
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Philip Latham, Barbara Shelley, Charles Tingwell, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Andrew Keir
Words – Scott Burns.
After the success of The Brides Of Dracula (1960), which nonetheless disappointed fans because it didn’t feature the title character (only Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing returned), Hammer reunited with Christopher Lee (who feared being typecast as the vicious vampire) and director Terence Fisher (who was being taken seriously as a major film-maker of the macabre) for a brand-new film resurrecting the Count for more blood-curdling thrills.
After a brief prologue featuring the final scene of Dracula (1958) where Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) destroys the vicious Count, the story begins with four English tourists, Alan and Helen (Charles Tingwell and Barbara Shelley respectively) and Charles and Diana (Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer), chatting in a pub with monk Father Sandor (played by future Quatermass Andrew Keir) who warns them not to travel to neighbouring Karlsbad. They, of course, travel there anyway but are abandoned by their terrified driver on the road. They are then transported (by a driverless black carriage) to an old castle where they find dinner ready for them, their luggage taken to freshly-made rooms and the old retainer Klove (Philip Latham) ready to serve them. Only Helen seems perturbed by their “good fortune”.
That night, a curious Alan is killed by Klove and his blood is used to resurrect the butler’s master: Dracula, in a feat of gruesome (if strangely charming) special effects. Dracula turns Helen into a vampire and sets his sights on Diana too. Only Charles, with the help of Father Sandor can stop the fiend and send Dracula back to the grave.
Despite the titular villain not making an appearance until the halfway point, the film is never dull, thanks to the usual quality direction from Fisher. Though Cushing was unavailable to play Van Helsing again, both screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (using the pseudonym John Sansom) and Andrew Keir make the character of Father Sandor a capable and worthy adversary to the forces of evil.
Photographed in Techniscope 2.35:1 by Michael Reed with production design by Bernard Robinson, the film looks great and completely authentic with Reed especially effective in his lighting of Helen when she has turned and tries to seduce Diana. The music, again by James Bernard, builds on his work for Dracula, complimenting the atmosphere of the piece, coming to life during the sudden action scenes staged with great care by Fisher.
Lee, at this point in his career, was afraid of being typecast in monster roles and refused a part in The Brides Of Dracula as a result. Charmed back into the role by Hammer boss James Carreras, Lee stipulated that Dracula should be mute for the duration of the film. Lee explained that this decision was motivated by the poor quality of the dialogue but this has been disputed by Jimmy Sangster who claims that Dracula never spoke because “vampires don’t chat”. Lee would appear in a further five films as the Count for Hammer, and finally laid the vampire to rest in the French comedy Dracula And Son (Dracula pere et fils) in 1976.
The rest of the cast are great but special mention must go to Shelley in this, her most famous role. Shelley was a model-turned-actor who, after finding no parts for her in England, became a sensation in Italy. Upon her return to the UK, she found employment at Hammer in the film The Camp On Blood Island (1958) and appeared in Blood Of The Vampire (1958, for rival company Eros) and sci-fi classic Village Of The Damned (1960). After Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, she appeared in the highly successful and popular adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s smash-hit television series Quatermass And The Pit (1967) with Andrew Keir. She worked steadily in film and television until her retirement in 1988. She passed away on the 3rd of January 2021 aged 88.
This film is probably what you imagine when you hear the words “Hammer horror”, namely a snarling Lee with bloodshot eyes and a whirling red-lined cape or the Count biting the neck of a buxom maiden. But what else shines through is the high quality of the film-making thanks to the dedication of Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster and the cast and crew. British genre cinema at its best.
See details of our upcoming
Hammer Horror weekender
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Prudence Hyman, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe, Patrick Troughton, Richard Pasco
Words – Scott Burns.
Featuring Hammer’s first female monster, Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon is a unique and enjoyable monster movie starring both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for the first time for the company since The Mummy in 1959.
Cushing appears as Dr. Namaroff, the untrustworthy head of a mental hospital, and Lee as Professor Karl Meister, the savant character who pieces together the mystery.
The story concerns a series of mysterious deaths in the town of Vandorf in the early twentieth-century where all the victims have been turned to stone. When young artist Bruno Heitz is wrongly implicated as the killer of the latest victim his father, Professor Jules Heitz (Michael Goodliffe) travels to Vandorf to clear his son’s name. What he discovers is a terrified population and a conspiracy of silence by the authorities represented by Dr. Namaroff and Inspector Kanof (Doctor Who alumnus Patrick Troughton). When he too falls victim to the Gorgon, named Megaera of ancient Greek mythology (although she was actually one of the Furies not one of the Gorgons: Stheno, Euryale and Medusa), his death is investigated by his other son Paul (Richard Pasco) and his professor, Meister. Paul further complicates matters by falling in love with Carla (Barbara Shelley) who is coveted by Namaroff, inspiring one of Hammer’s characteristically kinetic fight scenes. Paul and Meister must fight the authorities to uncover the truth and slay the monster before anyone else is transfixed by the Gorgon’s glare.
Terence Fisher was probably Hammer’s most important director. He entered the film industry fairly late in life (he was affectionately known as “the oldest clapper boy in the business”) but quickly rose to become assistant director, editor to finally become a director with his first film A Song For Tomorrow (1948). With Hammer he directed the pivotal double hit of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) and the company became known for its horror movies exclusively. Although seen as a journeyman in a disreputable genre in the UK, in Europe he was considered one of the great fantasy film-makers. It took a while but his talent was finally acknowledged in his own country with retrospectives at the National Film Theatre. He also has the honour of being chosen by Martin Scorsese (when the director was invited by the BFI to select his favourite British films) and being namechecked by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favourite British directors. He died in 1980 aged 76.
The film was the result of a public appeal for new scripts and based on a submission by John Llewellyn Devine. Despite Llewellyn Devine’s inexperience as a screenwriter, the company responded to the rare female monster and the script was extensively re-written by John Gilling (director of The Plague Of The Zombies). However, the script was reworked further by executive producer Anthony Hinds. Gilling, who retains his credit, was appalled by the changes. Despite this, the film moves at a fast pace thanks to Fisher’s fat-free direction, making sure the subject is treated seriously and never slides into camp, and the performances, especially Pasco and Cushing, are strong. James Bernard contributes a strong score reminiscent of his previous work for Hammer but with an eerie, almost ethereal quality, provided by an electronically-treated voice, belonging to soprano Patricia Clark, that emphasises the mysterious and monstrous female at the heart of the film. The production design and cinematography by Bernard Robinson and Michael Reed respectively are of the usual high standard, especially the creepy lighting in the empty house that the Gorgon uses as its lair.
Reviews were mixed as usual with many praising the atmosphere and suspense as well as the quality of the performances, and the film (in a double-bill with The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb) did very well in the UK and the United States where it was released by Columbia Pictures. The film doesn’t have the largest fan following but remains a fun entry in the Hammer horror catalogue.
See details of our upcoming
Hammer Horror weekender
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman, Nadia Litz, Tanaya Beatty, Lihi Kornowski, Welket Bungué
Words: C. Abbott
“Surgery is the new sex.” A line that feels quintessentially David Cronenberg. It punctuates the very heart of his latest work, and first sci-fi horror in nearly 20 years, Crimes of the Future. It’s an explosive fusion of technology, sensuality, brutality and our slow decline of basic human instincts. Essentially, it is a culmination of a lifetime of filmmaking, harking back to his work in Videodrome (1983), Crash (1996) and of course his 1970 short which shares the same title as the new release, though is squarely independent from it.
Set in a strange future, humanity is rapidly adapting to its synthetic environment. Evolutionary progress is running rampant, causing a divide between people in the classical sense, and the birth of a new species. There are transformations, mutations and mutilations – the “new sex”. Saul Tenser, played with a claustrophobic intensity by Viggo Mortensen, is a celebrity performance artist that is praised for his open-surgery artwork. He finds himself caught between the old and this uncomfortable new, in a brutalist landscape that blurs the line between the technological and the physical.
The visual landscape seemingly calls back to other seminal works, with bizarre, wheezing breakfast chairs straight out of the pages of HR Giger, a melding of body and tech that comes from the world of Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and a synth soundtrack that is pulled from the glorious depths of the 1980s. For the latter, Cronenberg’s frequent collaborator returns, Howard Shore, providing a heavy electronic rhythm that perfectly pulsates throughout the film.
Though, what audiences will be immediately struck by, and remember long after leaving the cinema, is the consistent gore. It’s strangely hypnotic as intended, with humans no longer feeling pain in this world, they open themselves up in a deeply intimate way. Saul literally enters an “inner beauty contest,” with the physical form becoming indistinguishable from the soul itself. As he opens himself up to the orgasmic awe of his audience, the thrill they derive from it is both disturbing and enlightening.
Léa Seydoux’s alluring Caprice, Saul’s artistic partner, shares these performances with him, with the two in sync with their desires, no different from the sexually charged and often disturbed relationships at the core of Cronenberg’s filmography. Sex is everywhere here, and also completely absent. Children are no longer born, they are an “invention” by altered humans. Saul himself admits to not performing the “old sex” well. The intimacy we understand has all but vanished, instead only fetishized mutilation remains.
The entire film appears to be a statement on how technology is changing, not only society, but the very core of humanity. The more we allow tech to enter our lives, dictate it, the further we drift away what it means to live a human experience. Could our synthetic world take us away from our most basic instincts? Cronenberg seems to suggest it isn’t out of the question.
Director: Neil Marshall
Starring: Emma Cleasby, Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham, Sean Pertwee
Words: Scott Burns.
“Six Men. Full Moon. No Chance.”
Making a long-overdue appearance on UK Blu-ray and streaming is Neil Marshall’s lad’s-mag inflected and gore-soaked horror debut Dog Soldiers from 2002.
The story is simplicity itself: a bunch of raw squaddies and their superiors, Cooper (Kevin McKidd) and Wells (Sean Pertwee), are on a training mission in the Highlands when they discover another group of soldiers, actual Spec Ops ones, have been butchered by something that dwells in the woods. Only Ryan (Liam Cunningham), the Spec Ops unit commander, whom Cooper has met before, has survived but is gravely injured. Chased by something fierce and fast which kills one of the men and wounds Wells, they bump into local Megan (Emma Cleasby), and travel to a lonely house in the woods (as usual, a bit of horror movie knowledge would have come in handy here) to get help, only to find themselves alone and surrounded by ravening werewolves. The lads (and lass) must use every bit of their training to survive until sunrise, but who will survive…and what will be left of them?
Inspired by John Carpenter and John Landis, Marshall wrote a genre-literate script which crackles with dark humour (mostly coming from the resolutely working-class attitudes of the main characters), “splatstick” violence (guts are spilled, especially those belonging to Wells who has to fight a dog for his intestines), macho attitudes are tested (Spoon, played by Darren Morfitt, has a deathless final line, spat into a snarling werewolf snout, that could have come from North East institution Viz Comic), conspiracies are laid out (the real reason for the “training mission”) and pop-culture is referenced. Apart from the usual movie-centric werewolf lore, there are nods to Aliens (“Remember, short controlled bursts”), Zulu (“Know what this reminds me of? Rorke’s Drift”) and The Matrix (“Where is Spoon?” “There is no Spoon”.) as well as very British references like Esther Rantzen and her novelty television show That’s Life (upon seeing his guts Wells deadpans “Sausages”)!
It’s some fun if you’re in the right mood, but for many, Dog Soldiers is nought but a blip in British Film History(TM).
So why look back upon this title? Because the Blu-Ray of Dog Soldiers (released from Second Sight) almost didn’t happen in the form it is in now. When a Blu-ray edition of the film was first released, the elements necessary for a good transfer of picture and sound were missing, presumed lost. The first releases ended up using two beaten-up prints and Marshall was unable to correctly grade the film to his vision. Only after the original camera negative (the film was shot on 16mm) was discovered could a proper 4K restoration, with Marshall’s approval, take place.
Such is the fate of many other independent movies where haphazard archiving and storage is seemingly the norm. Dog Soldiers is one example of a film that would have existed on a sub-standard digital form for new and existing fans to discover and enjoy were it not for the tireless work of companies (Vertigo Films) and boutique labels (Second Sight) trying to make these films look and sound as good as possible.
In today’s world of streaming, where movies can be removed from a service or altered beyond the vision of the makers (remember the aspect ratio slip-ups of shows like The Simpsons and Buffy The Vampire Slayer?), having a physical copy of a film in the form of a negative AND a digital “print”, approved by the director and cinematographer if possible, of ALL FILMS, not just the studio-made heavy-hitters and the “classics”, is absolutely crucial to the future appreciation of cinema. The treatment of a much-loved, financially-successful genre flick like Dog Soldiers should ask pertinent questions about the state of indie film archiving and restoration.
Words: Scott Burns.
The Eighties: Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands War, David Hasselhoff. But what about the good stuff?
Well, there was Rik and Ade, Factory Records, the Summer Blockbuster (if, like me, you were of an age in single digits) and films on video were available uncut and uncensored to the discerning. Well, for a short time anyway…
Home video was a technological revolution, especially in the UK where sales and rentals of video recorders were extremely healthy. The ability to record television transmissions and replay them at will was incredibly enticing to sports-obsessed Brits.
Alongside this, a cottage industry blossomed. As Hollywood was initially sceptical about the format (not to mention the threat of piracy), small companies sprang up to fill the content void. Also, small video rental stores were opened up and down the country where, for a modest fee, one could hire a film on videocassette and keep it overnight to watch. The usual genres ruled the roost: action; cartoons; thrillers etc.
But, above these, the horror genre reigned. Brits were used to seeing their gory gut-spillers in editions heavily cut by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) in cinemas. Sometimes, the BBFC would refuse a film a certificate if they felt that it was too controversial for the British public. The films most affected by this attitude were the extreme horror movies coming out of Europe (mostly Italy) and the US (most famously, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was refused a certificate despite being passed by the Greater London Council with an ‘X’ rating).
But video did not fall into the remit of the BBFC and thus did not have to be pre-approved by the Board to be released. The floodgates were opened and a tidal wave of extreme, gory horror washed over the country. Films cut for cinema (Sam Raimi’s extraordinary The Evil Dead) or banned outright (Ruggero Deodato’s horrific Cannibal Holocaust amongst others) or those never even seen by the Board were bought by small companies at festivals and sales events and made available to the general public. These films would be advertised with especially gruesome poster artwork and it was this that first attracted the attention of the “moral majority”.
After a successful campaign against gory posters the censorious forces, led by national “Clean-Up Media” campaigner Mary Whitehouse, turned their attention to the actual films themselves. Thanks to a national campaign, boosted by hysterical headlines from the press, the Conservative government promised to look into the issue. Enter Graham Bright, an ambitious Conservative back-bencher who tabled a Private Members’ Bill looking into the video industry.
At the same time there was action by the authorities that seemed incredibly overzealous prompting the video industry to beg them for clarity. So the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) prepared a list of 72 potentially impoundable titles so video dealers and the shops they supplied knew what films not to stock. Over the months, 33 films were dropped from the list leaving 39 still considered problematic by the authorities. But the full “nasties” list remains definitive for horror fans obsessed with seeing them all. Bright’s bill became the Video Recordings Act 1984 which brought video films into the remit of the BBFC (which had changed its name to the British Board of Film Classification), who would routinely tell distributors not to submit certain “nasty” titles. Those that did re-submit usually found their films cut to shreds or refused a certificate, disappointing horror fans.
Throughout the eighties and nineties horror films and their supposed effects on people remained a controversial issue but attitudes changed in the new millennium. The BBFC became much more liberal in terms of previous policy and much more open to scrutiny by the public. As a result many films thought beyond the pale were released in trimmed versions (including the controversial “Cannibal” films, especially their scenes of animal cruelty and slaughter, and the still-problematic I Spit On Your Grave) or completely uncut (one of the first successes being The Evil Dead). Films that were considered corrupt and evil by the powers-that-be were now released upon the British public and society survived (or to put it better, society remained as complex and unpredictable as usual).
One film, Wes Craven’s harsh debut picture The Last House On The Left, was resubmitted by Anchor Bay UK and cut by 18 seconds by the BBFC. Anchor Bay UK appealed the decision but the verdict was that the Board were too lenient and doubled the amount of cuts. To recoup costs, Anchor Bay UK had no choice but to release a censored edition of the film to the public (although, seemingly to troll the BBFC, a step-through gallery of screen-grabs of the deleted sequences was passed and included on the DVD). The film was then released completely uncut by the Board a few years later, prompting bemused reactions from anti-censorship campaigners.
While the BBFC has still rejected “nasties” more recently, with two examples being from the deliberately-controversial “Naziploitation” genre, Love Camp 7 and The Gestapo’s Last Orgy, other films still remain cut (I Spit On Your Grave for sexual violence, the “Cannibal” films for cruelty to animals) but many “nasties” are now available to the British public, as the director intended.
Director: Gordon Flemyng
Words: Scott Burns.
The ambitious sequel to 1965’s Dr. Who And The Daleks and based on the popular William Hartnell-era story, The Dalek Invasion Of Earth by Terry Nation, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD sees a returning Peter Cushing as the time-travelling grandad facing his deadliest enemies again in widescreen and full colour.
Also returning were director Gordon Flemyng, producer Max J. Rosenberg, screenwriter/producer Milton Subotsky (again assisted by David Whitaker who gets a credit this time around) and Roberta Tovey, the young actress who plays Susan, apparently at Cushing’s request. Roy Castle and Jennie Linden were committed to other projects so they were replaced by Jill Curzon as the Doctor’s niece Louise and Bernard Cribbins (who would later in life become a major character in modern Doctor Who) as beat cop Tom Campbell.
After failing to stop a robbery, Campbell runs to a nearby Police Box to raise the alarm and, wouldn’t you just know it, stumbles into the TARDIS, the occupants of which are about to head off on another adventure. They arrive in London 2150 AD to find the city utterly destroyed and the people hiding from the conquering Daleks and their zombie enforcers the Robomen.
Following the plot of the serial, Dr. Who and his companions join the weakened resistance, led by Dortman (Godfrey Quigley) and Wyler (future Quatermass actor Andrew Keir), to foil the Daleks plan to destroy the molten core of the Earth and use the planet as a giant spaceship. Thrills and surprisingly violent spills ensue.
Even though Dr. Who And The Daleks was a disappointment at the box office, the huge success on television of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, with its imagery of Daleks patrolling around the Palace of Westminster and Trafalgar Square melting the minds of fans up and down the country, perhaps inspired Subotsky, Rosenberg and exec. producer Joe Vegoda to have another go. The film even repeats the startling moment where a Dalek emerges from the river Thames.
Despite being set in 2150, the London of the film has evolved surprisingly little. No skyscrapers, flying cars or robotic butlers here, just ruins that perhaps reminded the parents of the little ones watching the film of the destruction caused by the Blitz. The city is virtually identical to the London of 1966. Another bizarre inclusion is the heavy product placement for Sugar Puffs (as part of a finance deal with the Quaker Oats company who promoted the film heavily with a competition, the top prize of which was a full-size Dalek), along with Del Monte tinned fruit and other retro favourites. No doubt this contributed to the increased budget: we get more Daleks; more action (a chase between the Daleks’ flying saucer and a clapped-out van) and more scope (more location shooting), outspending the studio-bound first film.
Speaking of the Second World War, the film bears some resemblance to the events in Nazi-occupied France with the resisting forces made up of ordinary people fighting against an authoritarian invasion with improvised explosives and found weapons. The Robomen obey their new masters without question, destroying and enslaving their fellows. There’s also opportunistic profiteers who prey on the situation, like the character of Brockley (Philip Madoc) who sells food at a premium to starving slaves. At one point, our heroes Wyler and Susan are betrayed to the Daleks by two women for a sack of vegetables.
All this plus a surprising seam of eye-opening violence, where people are blown up, microwaved with laser rifles and sprayed by the Daleks’ fire extinguisher gun sticks, not to mention the odd stabbing of a Roboman and starving slaves being beaten and whipped. There’s also a lot of inventive Dalek deaths too. Seeing the supposedly-indestructible metal marauders getting blown up, tumbling into mineshafts and, my personal favourite, crushed like a soda can by powerful magnetic forces is immensely enjoyable. The BBFC’s reaction at the time? A ‘U’ certificate (upgraded to a ‘PG’ for the new restoration).
Alongside the crowd-pleasing violence and dark ideas, the pantomime comedy of the first film also makes an unwelcome return with Cribbins doing some tonally-inconsistent comedy schtick (in a scene that follows a brutal failed attack on the Dalek saucer) as a disguised Roboman.
Remastered in 4K by StudioCanal and returned to British cinemas, serving as an introduction for the unfamiliar and the nostalgic enjoyment of fans, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD, like its predecessor, deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Yes, you might see the strings holding up the Dalek saucer as it hovers over a Papier-Mache cityscape but surely that’s part of the fun.
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