Saturday, December 26, 2009

BLACK TORMENT (1964) d. Robert Hartford-Davis

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

As time passes, what once was a staple interest of people becomes passé as fresh and more exotic pastimes replace the old standbys. As a child, I saw the final days of the joy of collecting and playing with marbles. I was transfixed by the seemingly endless assortment of agates, cats-eyes and other styles and by the myriad sizes that could be obtained. While I was a boy who tended to be more interested in “active” pursuits, playing with marbles was a pleasure in which I would occasionally indulge when the more contemplative side of my nature emerged, the same side that motivated me to build models and to illustrate science fiction scenes. I can no more imagine children today playing with marbles than I can envision them drinking Moxie. Just as that carbonated beverage of another era is an acquired taste, one of the most popular genres of film from bygone days has also become somewhat of an “offbeat delicacy” to modern masses, the Gothic Thriller. Once, that type of motion pictures thundered across the cinematic landscape like the buffalo, but now is just as rare and not nearly as fascinating to the young mind as the plains-darkening herds once were. Gothic novels and movies seem “quaint” and “old-fashioned” and perhaps they are. Sadly, an entire series of generations will likely miss out on this once proud genus, for this type of movie is just not being made anymore, and most would just pass by something like BLACK TORMENT. It is a shame, for while not an outstanding film, BLACK TORMENT is entertaining and even a little informative when it comes to old mores and fashions.

BLACK TORMENT is the story of Sir Richard Fordyke and his lovely new bride, the Lady Elizabeth. Sir Richard has just returned to his family estate after more than three months of sojourn in London. During his return and once he arrives, whispers and rumors begin to spread that it is Sir Richard who is to blame for the recent rape and murder of the daughter of one of his tenants. Before long, eerie incidents and ghastly goings-on cast even deeper suspicion over Sir Richard, a man whose first wife Anne died under mysterious circumstances and who now may be haunted by her spirit. Sir Richard’s sanity comes under assault as a doppelganger seems to be perpetrating new crimes, or is it Richard himself and he can no longer control his mind and body? Only the servants know the truth in this convoluted tale of 18th Century duplicity, murder and revenge.

BLACK TORMENT starts off a bit slowly and winds its way through a narrative that has more in common with Gothic soap operas like DARK SHADOWS than it does a horror movie. By the mid-point of the tale, the drama begins to escalate and the pace picks up, weaving in very delicate threads akin to ghost stories, mysteries and romantic suspense. While some may not make it to the pay offs late in the film, BLACK TORMENT does deliver some pleasant “shocks and surprises” that may seem obvious to the modern, cynical audience, but are still quite enjoyable and charming none-the-less. The plot is both predictable and yet gripping, and it is only in the last acts that some of the “knowing looks” of the villains tip off “who done it”. It is the wonderfully dramatic overacting coupled with the atmosphere of the film that helps to make BLACK TORMENT a very satisfying experience. Just as with an 1960s English, Regency Romance, the performances are meant to be a little “over the top” and when stitched together with the sumptuous costuming, attractive and even opulent interior sets and the emotively archaic score, there is a deeply authentic feel to BLACK TORMENT. While not the grandiose spectacle of the typical early 60s Hammer Films production, this British cousin still radiates a charm all of its own. The aristocratic men are dashing and suave, the peasants thoroughly rustic, the ladies bedecked and coiffed beautifully and just as impressively heaving out of their scoop necked décolletage. From the overly dark “day for night” scenes, to the cerulean-tinted hues of the evening interiors, to the wide-eyed portrayals of Enlightenment-era characters pushed to the brink of madness, BLACK TORMENT is a delightful admixture of daytime TV and London stage performance that is probably not for the “adrenaline junkies” of today, but I liked it for what it was.

From a technical standpoint, BLACK TORMENT is a mixed bag. The audio is crisp and clean, which is not always typical of early 60s Euro-cinema. While not as gaudily colored as it Hammer Films rivals, there is still a visually alluring element to this flick that probably has more to do with the very competent manner in which it was shot than anything else. Scenes are well-framed and well-composed and over the last one-third of the movie, there are some excellent and creative camera angles that help to intensify the shift in mood and tone. The transfer that Redemption Films had to work with may be the culprit when it comes to final quality. There is a slightly grainy and washed-out look to most of this dvd and the brightness and contrast come and go at times. All too likely, the people at Redemption had to work with either a variety of quality levels for film stock and/or negatives and the end result was uneven, but still impressive. That this none-too-well known film survives at all is notable and from a purely historical standpoint, that is cause for praise. Classic Dr. Who fans will certainly recognize Patrick Troughton as The Ostler in this film. For that cameo alone, BLACK TORMENT has its own fascination.

The bonus features of this disc are thin but better than most dvds that aren’t “special editions” or “big releases”. There are two small stills galleries. One is called “Artwork” and features promotional literature, while the other is a series of black & white photographic stills. There are five Redemption trailers of a wide variety. Strange to say, only one I had seen so far, so that was a bit of a treat. The jewel in the crown was the 13 ½ minute interview with director Robert Hartford-Davis, who died in 1977. The interview was done with “TV legend” Bernard Braden and is a compelling look back at this project and the era in which the interview takes place, which seems to be shortly after BLACK TORMENT was released. Much like the feature itself, from a purely historical standpoint, this is a rare treasure and should be regarded as such.

BLACK TORMENT is certainly not the finest Gothic Thriller I have ever seen nor the best British film has to offer, but it is still worth your time if you have a hankering for “old school” cinema, or looks and sounds of an era long gone, or a story that just doesn’t get told anymore. I doubt that many of today’s young people would find all that tempting, but then again who knows? My 10 and 11 year old students enjoy having J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels read to them and that is as Victorian as it gets. Possibly, we are seeing the pendulum swing back the other way and that more effete times are upon us once more.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


12 Simon Street, Nashua NH
Reviewed by Rick Trottier

For two years now, it has been the distinct pleasure and privilege of Saturday Fright Special to have had the chance to film more than 70% of our Scarewolf host links at Fright Kingdom, a 50,000 square foot haunted house just off the Everett Turnpike in Nashua, NH. When we have filmed those two sets of footage in March of 2008 and 2009, Fright Kingdom has been in its typical and essential off-season state of “beauty rest” consisting of rebuilding, restructuring and improving, so that what we have seen has always been impressive, but has never been in “full swing” shall we say. On Saturday night, October 31, Mark, Cricket and I took a drive over to Nashua and were the guests of Mr. Tim Dunne, the proprietor of Fright Kingdom. We were given the chance to experience “The Haunt” as they so affectionately call it in all of its full power glory, with all the lights and sounds turned up, the entire spectacular lineup of actors decked out in their costumes and makeup and all of the sets and props in their appropriate places. It was a journey and a visit that was worth the wait and one that everyone who likes a good scare should take advantage of, lest they miss their chance as the grains of life’s sands slip through their fingers. Fright Kingdom is one of those “once in a lifetime” opportunities and we were all quite thrilled with how we spent our time this Halloween.

Fright Kingdom’s immense floor plan is divided up into three main sections; Bloodmare Manor, Psycho Circus and the newly constructed Vampire Castle. Bloodmare Manor is a quasi-Victorian haunted house that winds through a series of rooms that are a mix of old-style horror themes, modern gore fests and imagery straight from the annals of Edgar Allen Poe. It is a perfect way to start your trip into the Heart of Darkness, for while it is wonderfully creepy and unsettling, much of the iconography is very familiar and wonderfully evocative of old films and TV shows crammed to the gills with disturbing and scary scenery. Next up is the Psycho Circus, a garishly colored, 3-D maze made from the warped and demented dreams of sadistic clowns and other harlequins of madness. To each visitor, 3-D glasses are given and the resulting shift in perspective is enough to induce a profound sense of emotional vertigo once the depth of color, shape and form become so terrifyingly clear. However, it is the addition of lurking denizens of a carnival gone horribly wrong that make this next phase of Fright Kingdom a jewel of the troublingly gaudy hues and most disquieting shades. Last is the Vampire Castle, the final stage of the journey, and what a splendid addition to Fright Kingdom this is. Between the supremely impressive sets, the wonderfully garbed actors and the effective use of strobes and shadows, the atmospheric nature of the third section of “The Haunt” is so palpably impressive as to feel like you’ve somehow landed in one of the “Hammer Dracula” movies. It was a PERFECT way to end the travels of three scare-loving miscreants.

All of the twists, turns, corners and crevices benefit from superb attention to detail when it comes to set design, prop construction and utilization of mood lighting. The rich and disconcertingly beautiful illumination scheme looks as if it has been dreamed up by the master himself, Mario Bava. The cunningly hidden doors and trap windows allow for the actors to engage you on many levels. Sometimes it is a shocking entrée into the scenario, while at other times it is the sinister sneaking up on an unsuspecting victim that lends such an ominous and unshakably spooky sense of atmosphere. The actors themselves are clearly well-trained and while most are meant to be as menacing as possible, others have a delightful sense of humor. All are superbly clad in costume, and benefit from makeup artistry so beautiful that at times I forgot the horrific emotions I was suppose to be feeling and simply stared at the awesome loveliness of master craftsmanship on display.

In addition to their usually fearsome fare, Fright Kingdom also offers a toned-down version of their terrifying tour called “Hardly Haunted”, typically scheduled twice a month on Sunday afternoons during the matinee hour of 1-4PM. This set of spooky scenes and stories is far more appropriate for the much younger set whose tender sensibilities may not be up the force of Fright Kingdom unleashed. Fright Kingdom’s regular hours are 6:30-11PM Friday and Saturday nights from the last weekend in September until Halloween. Fright Kingdom is very easy to get to and simple directions can be found on their website.

Fright Kingdom may be closed for 2009 now that October is no more, but one of the most enjoyable qualities of any scare is the inexorable escalation of anticipation. Start prepping yourself for the visit you know you need to make. Get your costume together, read a few old stories by Ray Bradbury or H.P. Lovecraft, and for goodness sakes watch some classic horror films, preferably on Saturday Fright Special, where you can get an inkling as to what the environs of Fright Kingdom are like if you check out Seasons 3 and 4. After you’ve engaged in all that training, you might be ready for a visit to “The Haunt”, but I doubt it. Tim and his marvelous cronies have put even more time into getting ready for you and they won’t let you leave unless you’ve seen the darkest side of the macabre there is to offer. You won’t be disappointed. Get yourself to Fright Kingdom next year, or one of us will have to haunt you down!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981) d. J. Lee Thompson

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Not all of the wonderfully pithy but frequently accurate wise maxims are totally sovereign for every situation. For example it could be said that, “the more things change, the more they often DON’T stay the same”. As we age, our tastes in music, food and film expand and alter. Our friendships and relationships grow, transform and end. Even our bodies go through stages of maturity and then decline. More often than not, very few things in life really remain constant and just as my eyesight and hearing have steadily varied through the years, my opinion of films does not always remain steadfast. There are motion pictures like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY which I grow to like more each and every time I see it, while THE HOWLING is a flick that I still enjoy, but it does not deliver the shock to the system that it once did. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is that surprising example of a movie that has improved in my eyes as the years have passed and it is not entirely clear to me whether I expected too much back in 1981 or that I see with a deeper mind now almost 30 years later or a combination of the two.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is the story of Virginia “Ginny” Wainright, a young and promising student at Crawford Academy. Ginny joins an elite cadre of fun-loving co-eds known as “The Top Ten”, who come from privileged backgrounds and seem more interested in “sucking dry the marrow of life” than learning. For Ginny, the path to knowledge is a convoluted one, for as she uncovers the mysteries of academia, she also peels back the layers of a very complicated past. As each day passes and Ginny nears her 18th birthday, memories of her mother’s death and her own traumatic physical and psychological ordeal are dredged up, even as a killer begins to stalk and slash through the members of “The Top Ten”. As the body count rises, Ginny must confront painful realities and even more trying circumstances to uncover lost recollections and avoid the grasp of a maniacal killer stacking up college-bound corpses like cordwood.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is a perfect subject worth analyzing when it comes to mutating opinions over the corridor of years. Like many film lovers, when I saw this flick right around its original release, I enjoyed it for what it was worth, but was not enlightened nor was I transformed. It seemed to lack the unrelentingly somber and ominous feel of HALLOWEEN, neither did it have the esoteric bloodthirstiness of FRIDAY THE 13th. What I didn’t realize then but now can see with more experienced eyes is that HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME actually has more in common with films like Dario Argento’s DEEP RED or Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE than it does classic 70s/80s slasher fare. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is not nearly as stylish as an Argento or Bava film, but it is far more diverse in tone and structure than it is given credit for. At first glance, it appears to be a generic slasher flick with some elements of the “slob comedy”. The bare bones of the plot are pure slasher ancestry and the adolescent hi-jinks and chicanery of the “student bodies” feels like a hybridization of an endless parade of 80s “school stories” that proliferated in that decade after the 1978 release of ANIMAL HOUSE. What sets HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME apart from the thundering herd of slasher clones in the years after HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13th is its Italianesque aura. While the tom-foolery keeps the pace moving, most of the kill scenes are shot and executed very patiently. There is an attempt to create real suspense, an authentic sense of mystery and palpable atmosphere. While the camera work in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME is not terribly novel, it is very competent and it does its job admirably. Like a good Italian western, the photographic focus on the characters is totally upon their facial expressions, the emotions passing across their eyes, and for the victims and the shadowy killer, there is often a very impressive panoply of body language that conveys more to the astute viewer than the rapidly paced and edited action sequences that so thoroughly strip modern horror of any sense of mood. There is a thoughtful balance between the psychological components to HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, high-spirited foolishness, dramatic character interplay and restrained but still highly effective gore. The end result is a motion picture that appeals more to me now, after I have had nearly 30 years to watch scads of stylish and powerful Euro-horror flicks and almost as many American exploitation films that often create just as profound a response through different means. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME combines the best of both worlds, trading on its slasher/exploitation roots but mining some of what made Italian and European giallos and thrillers so very enticing.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME heavily benefits from its full restoration, both visually and musically. Large segments of this film were quite dark and for those of us who saw it first on the Silver Screen, but then saw the murky VHS transfer, we wondered what we were watching the second time around. What emerges from this very strong re-issuing of the original film is a movie that is bright and colorful when it is meant to be so, and deeply dismal when the lights dim and the tone slides down into a pit of gloom. The original score has been restored as well, which for some may not mean much, but for those who saw HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME in its original form means a great deal. What made the score of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME special was its almost small orchestral ensemble feel that blended the modern visuals with a much older audio element. The resulting feel of the film was and especially is far more intricate than one would imagine from what is considered to be a second tier slasher film.

The disappointment for those wishing for an even more penultimate re-release is the lack of bonus features. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME has the theatrical trailer on the dvd menu and a pair of auto-play Anchor Bay trailers that engage at the onset of the play function and that is all for dvd extras. Normally, I would rail until hoarse at the lost opportunity here, since the majority of the cast and crew is both still alive and has gone on to the occasional bigger and better project. I will still admit my dejection over a lack of interviews or mini-documentaries when such an undertaking would have been glorious, but this time around I am going to try to be content. That this film was re-issued at all, only five years after its first dvd release and during a time of economic downturn and significant retraction in the genre film dvd market, is rather astonishing. Getting a chance to experience this movie looking and sounding so very good once more will have to be reward enough. If another chance does present itself to re-issue HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME one more time and load up the supplemental features with all kinds of goodies, I hope it happens. I am not a deep devotee or an aficionado of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME like I am THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL or THE OMEN, but it is often those little, less remembered tidbits of the past that give us the greatest joy in the present when we learn all about them anew and see them through fresh eyes.

Getting the chance to reappraise some experience like a band you thought you didn’t like or a restaurant that didn’t rock you back on your heels can sometimes be as enjoyable as discovering something wonderful for the first time. It is almost like realizing that we can get a second ride on the Merry-Go-Round or that we really can live a great day over again. I am glad that I saw HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME as a young man first and then once more as a much older adult because it has given me the opportunity to reconsider its place in film history as well as reassess its place in my own cinematic life. Watching HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME was not a re-awakening, nor did it rejuvenate me by washing all the years away between then and now. It did reconnect me briefly with a vanished time and reminded me that old opinions may not always be ones we should hold onto forever. Maybe I should go give PAINT YOUR WAGON another try? Maybe not.

Friday, July 31, 2009

PLAGUE TOWN (2008) d. David Gregory

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The miracle of birth is often romanticized as being a blessed and joyous event, but that is not always the case. There are often times when other emotions well up after the delivery of child: sorrow when it is stillborn, anger over abnormality, horror in the face of dreadful mutation. The perversion of children has long been a staple of shocking cinema, from cerebral classics like LORD OF THE FLIES to lesser known terror-fests like WHO CAN KILL A CHILD. When you combine a demented dream with miserable metamorphosis and sinister somberness, you get a motion picture that will be delightfully deranged, and that movie is PLAGUE TOWN.

PLAGUE TOWN is the story of a small “family” unit on holiday in the British Isles. Jerry and his bickering teenage daughters Molly and Jessica are lost in the fields and hedgerows of a quiet rural community accompanied by Jerry’s fiancé Annette and Jessica’s newly acquired boyfriend Robin. While the family squabbles about minutiae and squanders precious daylight trying to find the main road and the bus to safety, they wander deeper into territory that is not meant to be explored and as darkness falls stumble upon a town of nightmares. It is here that the five find monstrosities prowling in the shadows and must battle against a maniacal force of children left to their own devices by the adults who brought them into misshapen being. Before long it is evident why Robin, Jessica and Molly’s lives have been spared while the older adults have been dispatched ruthlessly. Try as they might, a horrific fate awaits the three remaining travelers.

PLAGUE TOWN is a wonderful throwback to a time before ridiculously gratuitous and poorly crafted violence, when movies weren’t replete with cheats and bad CGI, but were about being creepy, disquieting and deeply disturbing in a most psychological and visceral manner. Starting off with some daylight pastoral sequences that were attractive and well shot but without needless grandiosity, the initial onus of the story is on the dysfunction Molly and Jessica’s family and their specific relationship. Molly is dark, somber, troubled and haunted but Jessica is pretty, spoiled, selfish and chatty, and all the while their father is intelligent but ineffective and weak. Both the visual and narrative elements in this early segment of the rising action are an effective feint to distract the film fan from what is coming. The half-seen menace and carefully hidden morbidity are interspersed with some sickening sights that help to move along the patiently woven plot, but without haste or needless waste. As the darkness of night deepens so too does the tone become more ominous, and the imagery (while still thoughtfully constructed) becomes more brutal and twisted. All the while this is happening, the viewer becomes privy to where this saga is likely to end up, but it doesn’t matter. Each and every twist in the tale is luridly painted with the grisly colors of ghastliness that are not predictable and yet are also not overdone. What emerges is a chronicle of madness that creeps over the onlooker like any deadly pestilence, it is slow in the beginning but once the grip has been established, it cannot be thrown off. PLAGUE TOWN ends exactly as a lethal bacillus would, it is wonderfully overwhelming as it winds down into an irresistible gloom.

From a technical standpoint, there is a lot to like about PLAGUE TOWN too. Despite some moments of shakey-camera action and some rapidly edited close-ups, most of this film is well shot, effectively lit and thoroughly atmospheric. Whether it is menacing woods, misty paths and roads, dark-enshrouded houses or murky rooms, each and every stage of the movie is bursting with starkly scary but not stupidly sculpted sights. More often than not, the makers of PLAGUE TOWN obviously know that it is what cannot be seen and is lurking in the shadows is far more frightening than what jumps out at you with a bang and a flash. To further augment the aura of the macabre the music and sound effects of this film are perfectly suited to its look and could be some of the best I’ve come across in a long time. There are child-like musical strains that blur the line between youthful whimsy and the insane notes of a sinister song. Ordinary noises and everyday images blend in a sinuous fashion to become horrible and distasteful, further adding to the impact of PLAGUE TOWN. The actors are not well-known nor are they terribly experienced, but they do their jobs well and deliver steady, stable, convincing performances that are a credit to their craft as well as that of the director and the screenwriters. What was possibly the most effective element of PLAGUE TOWN was it reliance on old-school special effects, especially when it came to creating the look of the deformed children of the town. Instead of over-blown prostheses or foolishly unnecessary CGI, PLAGUE TOWN goes for the tried and true formula of taking something holy and making it profane using very delicate means to taint and distort. The end result is a populace of freaks that is not laughable like the “crazy town” in GYMKATA but possibly more malevolent than the cherubs of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The monsters of PLAGUE TOWN are the ace in a hand full of face cards and when used so brilliantly in combination, it is absolutely unbeatable.

To go along with all these strengths is a bonus features menu that while not a flood of extras, is very impressive for its quality. First up is a superb 29 minute featurette called “A Visit to Plague Town” that is a mix of cast and crew interviews and a look behind the scenes at the genesis and the making of PLAGUE TOWN. Nicely balanced in this mini-documentary is the need for the addition of some film clips with all the fine anecdotes of the principles, as well as a peek at the production process. After that is an equally impressive 16 minute featurette called “The Sounds of Plague Town” that explores the musical and sound effects elements of the motion picture. There is a theatrical trailer and for those wise enough to take advantage of it, an outstanding audio commentary with director David Gregory and producer Derek Curl. As has been the case when I’ve had dealings with the films David Gregory has been involved with through Dark Sky and Severin, I have thoroughly enjoyed my experiences and am now looking forward our next meeting of the ways.

PLAGUE TOWN is the proof needed in this modern degenerate age that old-style creepshows can still be made, can still be chilling and can still delight a viewer. We don’t need to take the ill-advised road of torture porn or the unsatisfying plunge into the action/horror film. Imagery can still be subtle and yet sublimely scary. The cadence of the flick can be patient without being slow, the gore can be unsettling without being tedious and the premise of the narrative can be intelligent and yet still evocative. If you once loved the wonderfully morose and yet stylishly gaudy horror epics of Italy and Spain from the 1960s and 70s like HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB or THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE, then PLAGUE TOWN is your cup of tea. Understand that the brew will not be sweet, but acrid and bitter, but that is what real horror movies are all about. It shouldn’t be a pleasant ride through the Fun House, but a bloodcurdling swoop through the graveyard, twig fingers grasping at you and howls freezing your blood all the way.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

NATURE’S GRAVE (2008) d. Jamie Blanks

Reviewed by Richard J. Trottier

The wilderness has long been a domain mankind has had a uneasy relationship with, and as such it has caused us to form a sense of attraction and revulsion. Most people today would say that wild places are a realm of beauty and serenity, but in our not too distant past, hardy souls like the Pilgrims thought differently. The early North American colonists viewed the Great Outdoors with emotions akin to enmity and deeply-seated mistrust, a haunt of darkness and a place of rough savagery desperately needing to be “subdued”. In today’s world of respect for “green” and political correctness, painting the wild lands in a light other than the most reverent of tones just isn’t done. Certainly “monster” movies dealing with forces of nature make the beasties out to be baddies, but to demonize the back country just isn’t proper anymore. NATURE’S GRAVE (aka LONG WEEKEND) is a film with some clear strengths and an equal number of glaring weaknesses, and possibly because it is of Australian origin it is a bit more daring than the average American flick, since it takes a tack that isn’t too common today by pitting man against both himself and Mother Nature in a desperate battle for survival and ending up the loser.

NATURE’S GRAVE is the story of Peter and Carla, a 30-something married couple struggling with intense relationship friction borne of grave past mistakes that have created cracks that reach to the core of their commitment. In an effort to rekindle their dying romance, Peter makes plans for a camping trip on “Moondog Beach” where the surf is up and the landscape is untamed. Despite Carla’s misgivings and a strong penchant for more “civilized” surroundings, they make the long trek to meet some friends and get some “R & R” over a long weekend. Small problems begin to bedevil them and darker hints at trouble to come arise, even as Peter and Carla’s efforts at marital renewal sputter and then die like a candle left in a sconce too long. As it becomes increasingly obvious they are unable to combat their personal demons, Peter and Carla also become aware that something sinister is happening at “Moondog Beach”. Before long, they are racing to escape the noose that is being drawn around them and escape the snare that seems intent to snuff out their lives even more effectively than they squelched their love.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, there is a lot to like about NATURE’S GRAVE. Except for the last act of the film where a small degree of shakey-cam is introduced (probably for the reason of intensifying the instability of the situation and the characters), most of this movie is well shot, even superbly filmed. There is a multitude of spectacular landscape scenes starting right from the opening credits and going all the way to the end of the action. Whether it is panoramic vistas of sky and surf or beach and brush, if it was the purpose of the film makers to tempt the viewer into visiting Australia and increasing tourist traffic there, they could have scarcely done more. NATURE’S GRAVE is absolutely breathtaking during much of its run and the impressive thing is it is done both on the big and small scale. The small-set camera work looks very compelling, just as the expansive scenic views were simply staggering. Someone who had been deeply inspired by the awesome scope of the Australian coastlands scouted locations with a fervor that is evident and then the film crew shot those exteriors with equal passion. In addition to stunning visual components, there is a subtle but engaging incidental music score and soundtrack that helps in developing the sense of tension and threat that slowly builds in this motion picture. Like any good play, NATURE’S GRAVE is totally focused on the two main characters, stays in one general place for the duration and requires the onlooker to experience their pain without distraction. As a result, a degree of emotion counter to the joyousness of the landscape photography is created by the plot and setting concentration and the contrast between the two is a strength that can’t be overlooked.

From a story and character’s point of view, NATURE’S GRAVE has its problems. For the average American horror fan raised on gruesome slasher fare or psychologically bruised by torture porn, NATURE’S GRAVE will feel sluggish, maybe even slow. It is a VERY patient film that takes its time getting where it wants to go in the end and if you are not willing to give it the time it needs, NATURE’S GRAVE will likely end up as a disappointment. The story works hard to strike an early balance between drama and thriller with little about it that would cause it to be considered a horror film. Towards the middle of the narrative, the drama element takes center stage and for those hoping for the action to intensify, this is where NATURE’S GRAVE might lose them. It is only towards the end when the “wheels have come off” that the thriller/horror aspect of the film reasserts itself and the payoff occurs. Most may be able to see what was coming in the conclusion, but it is a spectacularly gloomy and grisly downer ending, and for someone like me who is sick of “safe and happy” denouements like WHILE SHE WAS OUT, an audacious finish like NATURE’S GRAVE where bad things happen is a welcome change of pace. From a character perspective, NATURE’S GRAVE has more problems for there even tough there was a dark and unpleasant chemistry to Peter (James Caviezel) and Carla (Claudia Karvan), there are difficulties that tainted the ultimate outcome. Both actors are screen veterans and know how to portray their characters effectively, but the problem lies in the way they were scripted. In an effort to create the successful downer ending and play up the angle that “Mother Nature knows best”, Peter and Claudia are callous, uncaring people who start as slightly unsympathetic and steadily degenerate into deeply disagreeable characters. Their dysfunction and dislike for each other is poignant and very patiently developed, but the plot concept is that the viewer will come to take sides against them if they are detestable. This is always a mistake and it does not work once again. However, if we had come to root for them had they been sympathetic, then the climax would have been even more predictable, but possibly more heart-wrenching. In the end, I did not abhor Peter and Claudia as too often I do when screen roles are crafted to be somewhat loathsome, but I could not fully relate to them nor their ultimate fate, fascinating and wonderfully gruesome as it was.

NATURE’S GRAVE has an even greater weakness than pacing or character development and that is a total lack of dvd extras. There are two auto-play trailers at the head of the main menu and that is it. I realize that companies are cutting back in these tough economic times, but so are consumers. To charge more than $20 retail for a dvd and then not to include any extras is a colossal blunder. Film enthusiasts want to know more about a project. James Caviezel was Jesus in PASSION OF THE CHRIST and to not talk to him about NATURE’S GRAVE or to not include a commentary with director Jamie Blanks who was also the main editor and created the music is an enormous faux-pas analogous to going on a safari expecting to see kangaroos and getting wombats instead.

NATURE’S GRAVE is a film that is probably not marketed appropriately. The dvd box art and tag line are likely to attract classic horror or monster movie enthusiasts, but that is not what this film is about. It isn’t an overt action or thriller rocket ride, so people expecting an adrenaline rush will be disillusioned. It is clearly not going to attract viewers wanting to see a drama, but that element may be its strongest suit. If you want to see a very patient movie about people who put themselves into a terrible fix and then fall apart at the seams, all the while surrounded by some glorious scenery, NATURE’S GRAVE is right up your alley. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many people in that narrow demographic.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD (2009) d. Alex Horwitz

Reviewed by Richard J. Trottier

It is always nice to do something a little different. Since 2006, Saturday Fright Special’s Fangtastic Features has seen A LOT of feature motion pictures pass through our hands, many of which we have reviewed. The only problem is that feature films, like novels, can get a little formulaic, and it is nice to “step outside the box” every now and then. Just as reading short stories is a superb change of pace for the literature buff, short film formats are a very welcome diversion for the movie lover. ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD came to us from Strange Case Films, and it stars two veteran performers of note, Adrienne Barbeau of THE FOG and CREEPSHOW as well as John La Zar of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Teaming up two iconic actors in a short feature (21 minutes) dealing with a topic that is a hallmark concept of the horror genre feels like something right out of The Twilight Zone, and that is exactly the kind of impression that ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD leaves you with.

ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is the story of Dr. Ben Jacobs and his wife Alice. Dr. Jacobs is the world famous creator of the Z-Virus serum, which saved the planet from the devastating effects of a contagion that ravaged the populace and the infrastructure of The Earth. Slowly struggling to rebuild society with the help of the temporary salvation of the serum, Dr. Jacobs’ attention is less focused on the renewal of the world’s life and more on his own personal goals. His wife Alice, thought to be long dead as a result of the Z-Virus, is living in seclusion in their home, still heavily infected by the insidious plague. Dr. Jacobs races against time to save Alice from total surrender to the bacillus, but in giving way to his undying love for his wife, Dr. Jacobs makes a series of ethically questionable choices leading to a sequence of terrible outcomes and then final disaster.

For anyone who ever has watched a George Romero movie or the film THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, there is nothing surprising about the story of ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD, but it doesn’t matter. ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is a tale of all-consuming love and how terribly blinding that can be to a person who should be calculating the cause and effect nature of their actions. It is a story built around the juxtaposition of romance/beauty and revulsion/horror. The plot is spun patiently and moves in gentle waves towards a climax that you know is coming but cannot turn away from. Like a good Greek tragedy, the viewer hopes for salvation, knowing full well that catastrophe looms on the horizon. What is most interesting about the narrative of ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is that its quiet beginnings and steady progression towards calamity are deeply reminiscent of older anthology television series like One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery or even Dark Room. It is only a few curse words and the bloodiness of the climactic scene that separate ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD from its TV cousins and land it firmly in the genus of short film.

From a technical standpoint, there is also a lot to like about ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD. It is well shot and well lit, the sound is crisp and clean and the acting is clearly that of seasoned professionals. While ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is a dark tale and the lighting scheme is clearly meant to be “ominous and moody”, I can clearly see what is going on without straining my eyes, as is too often the case when it comes to most modern camera work. There are no deleterious effects of “shakey-cam” either as well as no mumble-a-thon epics. Like a well-made TV episode of yore, ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is competently done. Watching the narrative progress, I was struck by the fact that in a short amount of time I was no longer looking at actors I knew so very well, but at the characters they had become. The contrast of the coldly logical and barely animated but haunted Dr. Jacobs and the hardly contained, distinctly unglamorous and yet repellingly creepy Alice Jacobs was brilliantly done. Their heartbreaking love and even more horrific end was palpably powerful and that was as much a testament to the acting skills of Adrienne Barbeau and John La Zar as it was to a tried and true story that I had seen done many times, but still enjoy.

For those who enjoy a good short-story in film form and like their imagery subtle at the start and then savage at the close, ALICE JACOBS IS DEAD is worth your time. I felt like a kid again sitting down to something that would have fit right into a half hour block like The Twilight Zone. The only thing that was missing was the Alka-Seltzer and Ballantine Beer commercials.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

SEA BEAST (2008) d. Paul Ziller

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Imitation is often referred to as one of the sincerest forms of flattery. That is certainly the case in the creative world where modern painters pay tribute to ancient masters by referencing their older efforts in new pieces. In the music world, sampling was all the rage a number of years ago, and while it may not have been all that sincere an effort at paying respect, there was a backhanded compliment there to be sure. Photographers often reuse old poses and concepts in their work, trying to update the brilliant ideas that have gone before. I don’t know how many times I have seen that image of Marilyn Monroe revisited where she is wearing a white angora sweater pulled down over her bare legs and set against a red backdrop. In the film world, it is VERY common to see old ideas rehashed or reworked in new films. The problem with such kind-hearted emulation is that if you have a good memory, and I do, and you’ve seen it done before, and I have, and it has been done better, than the end result may not be fully satisfying. Such is the case with SEA BEAST (aka TROGLODYTE), a film that borrows from several older sources, including very ONE famous wellspring in particular, and as a result it has its entertaining moments, but it doesn’t quite live up to some of the more innovative or at least wacky installments in The Maneater Series.

SEA BEAST is the story of the McKenna family, who are a part of a fishing community somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Will McKenna is a down-on-his-luck salmon boat captain whose fortune turns even sourer when a couple of crew members of his ship die under some very uncanny and unpleasant circumstances. Before long, Will becomes convinced that a “sea creature” is wreaking havoc, but no one believes him. This bloodthirsty monstrosity kills quickly and then vanishes, is not completely visible at all times and no one else has been an eyewitness to its ghastly killing methods. With the help of a plucky young marine biologist named Arden and his daughter Carly, Will goes on a hunt to bring down this menace before the rest of the village ends up as fish food.

SEA BEAST has a very good premise that is none the worse for wear, in which some denizen of the deep has come ashore, it can’t be seen and it even evidences predator tactics reminiscent of the angler fish or the “sea devil”. While none of this is terribly novel, it doesn’t have to be. The thought of a slimy, barnacle-encrusted fish-reptile that has the power to cloak itself and then kill in a variety of terrifying manners is perfect “monster movie” fare and can be entertaining for even those of us who have seen this kind of flick or TV episode before. The problems begin when the story begins taking on the elements of JAWS and JAWS 2, not that JAWS hasn’t been ripped off in an thousand ways over the past 35 years. When “sampling” from a famous predecessor, the best way to sincerely imitate is to do so in narrative but not conceptual fashion. For example, SNOW BEAST (1978) borrows from JAWS quite steadily, but since it is a story about an abominable snow-monster and is set in a ski-resort, the parallels are less obvious. In the case of SEA BEAST, the similarities strike the viewer in the face with the force of a cast-iron skillet. The settings are both sea-side villages. The main character in JAWS is a police chief; while in SEA BEAST the main character’s older brother is the police chief. The main character Will however, struggles with people not believing his stories about a monstrous killer, just as Chief Brodie dealt with doubters in JAWS. In SEA BEAST, there is a Quint-like character named Ben who is an old salt willing to sell his life for the kill. The main difference in SEA BEAST and JAWS, beyond the creature that is being hunted, is that a second story emerges in SEA BEAST taken right from the pages of JAWS 2. There are randy teenagers in trouble and threatened by the dangerous beasties, one of them being the main character’s daughter. If that weren’t enough, the demise of the villainous and venomous bottom-feeder in SEA BEAST bears a striking similarity to the death of the Great White in JAWS. I’ll say no more. To add to the pig-pile, if you like further references from the past, there is even a pair of scenes where the characters prepare to do battle with the creatures by creating weapons from handy-dandy objects lying around and fortifying their dwelling against all manner of fishy assault. To anyone familiar with 1980s television, this felt right out of The A-Team or McGyver. At no time during SEA BEAST did all of this imitation of older plot concepts and story ideas feel like thievery, rather it truly felt like sincere flattery by utilizing a proven formula. The difficulty here is that for veteran film lovers, instead of feeling fresh and creative, it will only feel worn-out and hackneyed.

On a technical level, SEA BEAST is a mixed bag. There is some lovely photography of the soaring ocean side cliffs and islands where this film was shot. Many of the shots were done at sunset or on bright, colorful days, or on misty, foggy mornings. As a result, a viewer is briefly treated to some thoughtful and well-executed camera work on occasion. Most of the shots of the characters are effectively done as well and the scenes are well lit. Unfortunately, that kind of quality is not consistently seen throughout the picture. The action scenes suffer from the modern plague of being shot too close, edited too rapidly and they evidence hand-held techniques or replications of those tactics that continue to induce nausea and frustration in the movie-lover. The visual effects are also of low quality at select times as well. While the creatures themselves are passable, the storm-tossed boat scenes to open the film are appallingly bad and looked no better than an old video game. The same can be said of the conflagration that ends SEA BEAST. I’ve seen more convincing flames drawn on my student’s depictions of the Battle of Fort Sumter. To add to the sense of mediocrity, the acting in SEA BEAST was not stellar despite the cast being a mix of seasoned adults and young people. Some of the cast has clearly had some experience in the acting world, but most of the performances were a little flat, not bad, just uninspired, as if the cast members realized they were walking over a well-traveled path and felt like their efforts were not going to be enough to enliven this somewhat weary old nag. Was it me or did the two female leads, Miriam McDonald and Camille Sullivan look suspiciously like Tory Spelling and Kate Winslet? More sincere flattery here in the form of imitation or was it my imagination?

As has been the case far too often with a Maneater Series disc, there are NO supplemental features. In the case of SEA BEAST, part of this may be somewhat forgivable since there aren’t many recognizable names, Corin Nemec (of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose fame) being the lone exception. Herein lies another problem. If you’ve got a film that may not have much zing, you’ve got to do something to jazz it up. Why not put in a screenplay writer’s commentary or a short director’s interview? With that addition, you inject immediate interest and the astute film-lover can find out answers to questions as to why SEA BEAST was so imitative and why the cast seemed to sleep-walk their way through this motion picture. Including only four auto-play trailers at the opening before the Main Menu engages continues to not be a Bonus Features section. I feel like a broken record saying the same thing over, and over, and over, and over, and……, sorry, I thought I was an RHI-TV dvd producer.

SEA BEAST is not a bad film and it could be very entertaining for someone not initiated in JAWS lore or other cinematic elements emulated throughout its entirety. In the end, I wasn’t bored or disgusted, as I too often am by what passes across my desk. Having said that, I felt like SEA BEAST was a missed opportunity. Any story about ocean oddities munching on people’s parts and snacking on their sinews has something going for it. Why not make the salt-water baddies Wall Street anarchists who hijack a jetliner to New York and start snapping at financiers and insider trading scum in an attempt to manipulate the commodities market? An insane idea I realize but it might have worked and it would certainly be new and out of left-field. Remember, I thought of it and expect a cut when WALL STREET WALLEYES becomes the next big cult classic.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

BACKWOODS (2008) d. Marty Weiss

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It has long been the province of “TV Movies” to follow trends and emulate the successful concepts of popular films. The problem with such behavior is that TV movies often do not have enough money nor do they have the freedom (due to censorship rules) to do all that they would wish. The special effects of a derivative TV Movie may not be as impressive and neither will the more “provocative” story elements. For nearly a decade, “torture porn” has become one of the more shockingly chic subgenres of the horror film universe despite its exceedingly distasteful qualities and for some reason such fare continues to make money at the box office and in DVD rentals. It was inevitable that TV movie versions of this loathsome offshoot of the purer horror strain would emerge. What do you get when you have a TV movie that was originally made for a theatrical release and has been reworked for television broadcast? You get BACKWOODS, which despite a weak start and some obvious difficulties, has some praiseworthy characteristics and may find its audience, a narrow one to be sure, but still a potential achievement.

BACKWOODS is the story of a group of corporate twenty-something gaming software engineers and managers who are sent on a “paintball retreat” in order to hone their business and leadership acumen so that their usefulness to the company will be increased. Once out in the wilderness of Jasper Park, CA, the group begins to amuse themselves with chicanery and drinking, but never losing their focus as to why they are there. All the while the execs are preparing for their “battle”, they are unknowingly being observed by eyes with the most malevolent of intentions. What no one knows is that this is the domain of a religious/para-military community/family who have annexed the land and is ready to fight and kill to maintain their bizarre way of life. Our “heroes” are captured and subjected to imprisonment, torture and outlandish rites, all aimed at the furtherance of a mystical/political doctrine that relies on breeding new members for the cult. The office types are forced to fight tooth and nail for survival or they face worse than death.

BACKWOODS did not look promising and it started with even less promise, but fortunately, that did not stay that way. The dvd box design was obviously created for the purpose of luring fans of SAW or HOSTEL into watching/buying this disc. The horrendously irritating openly credits with their herky-jerky and furry-blurry filming and editing style, mixed with “extreme” speed metal musical accompaniment, made me almost pull this dvd out of my player. That desire arose again when I was treated to the miserably unpleasant and asinine behavior of the main characters, which never really abated until the last one-third of the motion picture. For anyone who dislikes absolute blockheads as characters and abhors modern film-making techniques, you have to trust me that neither lasts the length of the movie. What actually gave me hope was that there were some early landscape scenes that were shot VERY well and added a sylvan charm and visual splendor to BACKWOODS. While not up to the level of THE FOREST or even GRIZZLY PARK, that immediate goodwill went a long way to restoring my faith in BACKWOODS. After that, I noticed that the indoor sequences were well lit and shot competently too. As a result, my confidence rose a little more. There were continued issues with the visual sequences throughout the run of BACKWOODS. Too many of the scene fades/dissolves or cuts were augmented with “cool” new effects that just stink and don’t add any sense of suspense, but rather make a movie feel more like a cheap kids’ cartoon. However, every time my exasperation level climbed, an outstanding exterior scene captured the grandeur of the excellent setting or a compelling and colorful interior sequence was utilized and I was drawn back into this flick.

The story followed a similar pattern, and since that means it got better, for those who are patient, they may be gently rewarded. Even with the obvious set up of the captured hikers and their creepy abductors, and even with some very well constructed “implied” torture porn sequences to further flesh out the set up, the first one-third of BACKWOODS is slow and struggles with focus. There are sequences like the “swimming hole” scene that felt like padding and that may have been the case considering this is a short feature at 84 minutes. It is after the main characters are captured and as we are exposed to the “Mother and her Family” and their reasons (religious, political and capitalistic) for being out in the wild that the narrative takes on some real profundity. Rather than going down the all-too-often used route of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which has been aped too many times by movies like WRONG TURN or THE HILLS HAVE EYES as well as so many others BACKWOODS borrowed from films like BELIEVERS and made the bad guys less bestial and more bellicose. As a result, we leave behind a messy opening that has little or no menace and enter the meat of the film where bad things are happening, worse could be yet to come and some sincere suspense is created. While we know what the outcome is likely to be and it does turn out exactly that way, at least the path was a little less clearly marked and the minor surprises along the way made me want to watch a little more. The acting was inconsistent, but there was enough of a mix of screen veterans like Mark Rolston and Deborah Van Valkenburgh and promising youngsters like Ryan Merriman to overshadow some of the overacting. Haylie Duff’s performance is unremarkable but not bad and with some more experience and coaching, she may have a future in the business. Certainly she added some impressive eye candy to a flick that couldn’t deliver on all the goods that most people would want to see, but the young Miss Duff fills out her clothes nicely and writhes on a bed bound and helpless with the best of them, and I am sure plenty of teenage boys will enjoy both.

As is too often the case with RHI-TV movies, there are no extras on this disc. There were a series of auto-play trailers and that was all. While I have railed about this topic many times before, I must admit even greater disappointment this time around. BACKWOODS was meant to be a theatrical release supposedly and as such, most theatrical films are shot with supplemental features in mind for the DVD release. Those bonus goodies needed to be on this disc and since they are not, it does not increase the chance of BACKWOODS garnering an audience, it decreases it.

BACKWOODS may be a hard sell to audiences for another reason. Since the “torture porn” aspect of the film is downplayed, those who find pleasure in drek like CARVER will be disappointed by the lack of filthy content in BACKWOODS. All the terrible things except some of the gore are implied and you never really see rape or brutal savagery visited on anyone. In addition, those who want another HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES will not get it either as this is a simpler film without the budget or the balls to go that direction. However, for anyone who is not familiar with this subgenre or does not have the intestinal fortitude to sally forth into sicker, more depraved or at least some insanity-inducing motion picture mayhem, BACKWOODS may be exactly the ticket. It is violent without overdoing it. It strongly hints at grotesque goings-on without actually taking part. The story has some rather impressive gaps in logic, and the characters can be real pricks in the earlier sections, but both get somewhat better. This is not a great film, it isn’t really a good film, but it was watchable and that is high praise in these degenerate days. Enjoy the beach-girl appeal of Haylie Duff, bask in the glorious outdoor footage and then realize there really are disturbing groups like this out there in the wilds of Idaho and you might feel a little frisson up your back, which is more than I can say for SAW, which left me with a shudder in my bowels.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

THE ESCAPEES (1981) d. Jean Rollin

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Quirky character pairings made even more dynamic by the thespians that portray those roles have been a plot device and story vehicle as long as the Big and Small Screens have been around. Whether it was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon or even Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, pairing two performers for comedic or dramatic effect can be a powerful strategy. When your duo are a pair of young women who are also unstable escapees from a mental institution, the nature of your story and its impact is going to be quite dissimilar from the average acting/performing tandem. Add to that the well-known directorial skills and idiosyncratic tastes of Jean Rollin and you know you’re likely to be viewing something not representative of your average flick. Such is the “lost” motion picture THE ESCAPEES, which is uneven and atypical of Monsieur Rollin, but still an addition to his canon that may delight the more avid of his fans.

THE ESCAPEES is the tale of Marie and Michelle, two very young women who seize a chance at flight from the insane asylum in which they are imprisoned. Marie is a deeply damaged and therefore only partially socially competent person, whose dreamy and fearful outlook on life makes her clingy and timid. Michelle is a spirited and combative tigress wrestling with her own demons, but very much interested in living life to the fullest. After their initial escape, the two ingénues, meet up with a traveling burlesque troupe run by Maurice and board with them briefly in an attempt to set off across France. Later, the girls make the acquaintance of Sophie and her lover Pierrot who promise to smuggle them aboard a freighter heading for exotic locales and a date with destiny. Before Marie and Michelle can stowaway on their ship of fortune, an act of impetuosity lands them in a circle of debauchery and their final lot is cast, leaving them at the end of their road in one of the bleakest endings possible.

THE ESCAPEES is a serious departure in style, content and tone for Jean Rollin, a director best known for his erotic horror films and supernatural skin flicks. THE ESCAPEES is considered to be “lost” for many good reasons, but despite some obvious weaknesses it has some very enjoyable characteristics so very typical of a Jean Rollin film. Like all of his previous movies, THE ESCAPEES is well shot and shows particular attention to careful composition, thoughtful camera angles, a mix of wide shots and close-ups, as well as some compelling examinations of the minutiae of transient life. What keeps M. Rollin’s work from being as strong as it normally can be is the inconsistent quality of the film print, transfer, which is a bit dark and grainy at times and marred with lines at very infrequent intervals. Worse were M. Rollin’s settings in most cases throughout the film. The vast majority of the exteriors were a mix of slate gray and other dull shades mirrored in dreary swatches of sea, sky and street. Most of the “street” scenes were equally lacking in visual vibrancy. The hallmark of most of Jean Rollin’s films was splashes of color, deeply fascinating architectural and landscape elements, but that is missing in THE ESCAPEES. Only the pastoral country exteriors of the opening segments of the film and the interiors of Madame Louise’s nightclub/domicile had any real dynamism to their visual elements. Without his customary aesthetics, one of the great pillars of his film-making prowess was weakened. The real visual strength of THE ESCAPEES can be found in the loving cinematography of the beauty of the three main female character’s faces. Between their long and shining hair, their profound and soulful eyes and their full and sensuous lips, Marie, Michelle and Sophie are a visual delight for anyone who enjoys the feminine glory of Gallic femmes. What is missing from M. Rollin’s usual paean to the exquisiteness of women is his penchant for nudity. It is only in the last acts of the movie that all of the principal and some of the secondary female characters are either partially or totally disrobed. For a Jean Rollin film, this is another immense diversion from the norm.

The great strength of THE ESCAPEES was its focus on characters, their personas and the interaction between them. The great trio of Marie, Michelle and Sophie are deeply engaging for their powerful inner natures and their painful frailties. Marie’s ethereal and haunted affect and her drifting, lost soul behavior make her both sympathetic and unapproachable. Michelle is filled with barely suppressed rage and bitterness making her initially unsympathetic but as the plot meanders forward, she becomes a deeper and more alluring character. Her strange mix of impulsive fury and youthful lack of self-confidence make Michelle a more complex if not as interesting a character as Marie. Then there is Sophie, a fresh-faced and exuberant pickpocket with dreams of freedom and joy as lofty as a philosopher. Her idealism is grounded by the street-wise nature of Michelle and the weighty emotional struggles of Marie, and yet the three seem to work as an amorphous unit that you can’t help but root for despite the knowledge that disaster can’t be far away. What keeps this rather interesting character study from being as gripping as it could be was a plot that wandered at best, crawled slowly through its runtime at worst and came perilously close to being miserably dull. It is only at the end that any violence and gore was to be seen, which is also highly atypical of a Jean Rollin film. Most of the rest of THE ESCAPEES is surprisingly PG-rated and if it weren’t for the deeply somber tone and earnestness of the look at people on the fringes of society, the first two-thirds of this movie would not be something that couldn’t be viewed on TV except for the burlesque routines. This was also another dramatic left-turn for Jean Rollin, for his earlier films always seemed to border on hedonistic, but THE ESCAPEES feels Spartan and solemn, sometimes bordering on dismal. Certainly the last act is a punishingly dark look at the wrong turns life can take. In the end, THE ESCAPEES is a contemplative movie, but one lacking in the necessary punctuation points that relieve the starkness of the poignant panorama that is depicted. Without that colorful dappling, the cinematic palette is not quite as exciting as it could have been.

The extras menu of THE ESCAPEES is a trifle small but still worthwhile. There is a Stills Gallery which evidences the same stylishness that the usual Redemption bonus features typically display. The ubiquitous set of Redemption Trailers can also be viewed, all of which I had seen before. The Great Gemstone of this set of supplements section is the 28 minute “Exclusive Jean Rollin Interview” from 2008, set partly in a Parisian cemetery. While somewhat inconsistently paced, this interview sheds a great deal of light on M. Rollin’s thoughts and recollections of THE ESCAPEES as well as some of his other films. For the Jean Rollin fan, this interview is a “must-have” and helps to spice up what is otherwise a slightly less zesty DVD.

THE ESCAPEES is not a bad film, but it is a cautionary tale of what happens to directors when they change their style as movie-going tastes, mores of a decade and social interests shift. Just as I can never just stop writing and suddenly become a ballet dancer, once a director has carved a path for themselves in the motion picture landscape, they can’t just abandon what made them successful and strike off in the direction of a trail that doesn’t really exist. THE ESCAPEES is praiseworthy for being a brave experiment on the part of a man who was unafraid to tackle some taboo topics, but it is also just as disappointing for not being as good as it should have been.

Friday, June 19, 2009

AN EROTIC WEREWOLF IN LONDON (2001, released in 2008) d.William Hellfire

Reviewed by Tim Hulsizer

Late review, me? Ya crazy!

Let's get right to the goods. Straight from the hallowed vaults of Seduction Cinema and Factory 2000 comes the semi-lost Misty Mundae feature AN EROTIC WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Clocking in at a lean, mean 67 minutes, this Beta SP/MiniDV movie also stars Anoushka, Darian Caine, Julian Wells, Zoe Moonshine, Ruby La Rocca, Linda Murray, Jeff Shields, and John Link. Astoundingly, they actually shot scenes and location shots in the UK and US, a feat not generally achieved in low-budget cinema of the erotic-horror/fetish/softcore genres. Writer/Director William Hellfire admirably oversees the proceedings and manages to ably navigate the convoluted plot, delivering a surprisingly ambitious feature that's packed with vitamins T&A just like grandma used to make. Ewww, scratch that last part...unless your grandma is Kitten Natividad, in which case I salute your bloodline.

The plot goes like this (brace yourself and expect spoilers): First we start with a lesbian scene in Misty's bar with her and Ruby. A strange foreign woman (Anoushka) arrives and wants to call a cab, and Misty takes the opportunity to get a little Euro-loving with the individual in question. Halfway through the deed, Anoushka werewolfizes and kills Misty, then leaves. The filmmakers decided to put Anoushka's wolf fangs on her bottom teeth instead of the top. Interesting choice. Then there's Ruby's dream in the bath of hitting it with Anoushka, and she is awakened by the scream of Misty.

We cut to London, where the offices of the Daily Limey are situated. A terrifying man with half his teeth missing (John Link) sends a brunette reporter with an unknown accent (Southern US meets British) to interview Anoushka about being a werewolf. When she arrives, Anoushka is wearing a tasteful ensemble consisting of shirt & panties that say "fuck" all over them. Cut to NYC: Misty's alive! Dr. Douchebag tells Nurse Jaded to watch her but not to put her finger in the pudding, if you catch my drift. Then it's back to the Anoushka interview, and I found myself wishing the disc had subtitles so I could understand Anoushka's broken English.

Back in NYC, Nurse Jaded needs some Misty Pudding after all. Next morning Nurse Blonde arrives to find Nurse Jaded missing. Misty promptly seduces Nurse Blonde. Speaking of blondes, back in London miss Anoushka has tracked one to her home and gets it on with her in the shower. No Teeth Man sends the reporter brunette to NYC to "finish the story." I don't think the NY Times has that kind of budget, much less a back alley rag like the Daily Limey. Ruby has a dream of doing Anoushka and is woken up by the reporter, who warns Ruby about Misty's lycanthropic transformation.

That night Ruby finds Misty in bed, horny as heck and fully healed from her original injuries. Misty gets chained to the bed for safety, but can mere chains hold her? I dare not ruin the shocking ending. See for yourself.

Also included on this enjoyable disc is the 12-minute feature "Reminiscing With Ruby," in which the comely lass talks about filmmaking and how she came to join Misty in the studio's stable of muff. The film itself boasts a very entertaining commentary with Billy H. himself as well as producer Michael Raso and Media Funhouse host Ed Grant. They provide information on how the studio got started, how they met the girls, how everyone acts on set, and more. They're smart, funny fellas and I enjoyed it more than a lot of big-budget Hollywood feature commentaries I've heard. While I can't say I'm a collector of this particular type of film, I dug the viewing experience and I think there's plenty here that will appeal to erotic-horror and Misty Mundae fans. The menus, packaging and extras are all put together very well, right down to the nifty painting on the cover.

The second disc is devoted to an entire bonus feature entitled NIGHT OF THE GROPING DEAD. On the EROTIC WEREWOLF commentary the guys talked about how they make private fetish films for paying clients, and I believe this client must be into dead people groping live ladies, because that's precisely what you get in this 48 minute flick. It seems like a pretty small group of folks who would be into something like this, even at a brisk 48 minutes, so it makes sense that they would include it as a bonus with another feature. And hey, what better to team it with than another erotic horror movie like AN EROTIC WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

NIGHT OF THE GROPING DEAD, shot sans tripod on low-grade video, stars Misty and Ruby again, and they're looking lovely as usual. Here we begin the story with a young lady doing laundry, diddling her skittle on a laundry table, then falling into a sleep so deep that she doesn't notice the zombie janitor who arrives and starts fondling her goodies. She finally awakens when he attempts a bit of the ol' mop handle rape, and she flees to her car which is clearly empty in the shots outside of it. Once inside the car, an undead dude from a 1970s prom materializes in the backseat somehow, causing her to flee into an alley and get caught by 3 undead gentlemen.

Milady finds herself trussed up in the unfurnished apartment of Marcus DeSade who commands an army of "S&M zombies" who strip, grope, and softcore rape her. They "tenderize" (read: spank) and "eat" (read: cunnilingate) her, making her a zombie in Marcus' army. He berates her and demands a zombie S&M BJ but she bites his member off and attacks his neck in an unconvincing manner (you can actually see the Tupperware container of fake blood behind them). She stands over his dead body and masturbates, then he somehow wakes up and screams his final scream.

Out on the street, Misty Mundae gets an amulet from a street corner dude in zebra pants. It turns out Zombie Queen Esmerelda wants the "Crack of Dawn" amulet for herself, so she sends undead folks out to get Misty. "Soon the whole world will be a zombie!" she cries. She gropes and chews on Misty, then we cut to sometime later. The Queen and Misty are now goth-zombie-lesbians making plans to get an army of zombies together. Misty observes, "You still have the power to make a dead woman cum. Not just anyone can do that." Indeed. They discuss their plans a bit more and the question is asked: "Don't you want to be queen?" The reply is given: "I just want to get fucked by her majesty." And so they make the bold decision to move to a trailer park instead.

"What about world domination?"

"Fuck it."

Erotic Werewolf info at Alternative Cinema

Sunday, May 31, 2009

SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS (1982) d. Sergio Martino (aka Christian Plummer)

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Tombs, cemeteries and burial grounds are some of the most fascinating strips of real estate the world has ever known. Despite their morbid nature, silent and forbidding affect and occasionally sinister decrepitude, they can also be places of charming serenity, stylish art and architecture as well as islands of sylvan loveliness leading to spiritual reflection. Depending on your personal bent, a tomb or a cemetery can be a wonderful or a frightening place, but it also depends on the condition of the cemetery. If gorgeous marble and fluted columns are the first thing that meets your eye, you may very well feel at ease, whereas moldered and scabrous headstones leaning drunkenly to one side in a burial ground filled with the rotting skeletons of old trees will not lend itself to a feeling of comfort. SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS (Assassinio il Cimitero Etrusco) is a lot like the tombs in which much of its story takes place. Despite the ominous nature of a tale of murder, the attractive and compelling nature of the statuary and pagan architecture makes it gripping enough on a visual level to keep you going even when the story, much like walking past endless gravestones, gets a little tiresome.

SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS is the story of beautiful Joan Barnard, an Etruscan language expert whose husband Arthur has just discovered an amazing new Etruscan tomb. Just before Arthur’s murder, Joan experiences the first in a series of bizarre dreams and waking visions where she sees people she knows sacrificed in the ancient Etruscan manner of having their necks broken. Arthur is the first in a succession of grisly murders, all seemingly tied to Etruscan rites and supernatural powers. It is as Joan probes deeper into the mystery that she is drawn into a drug trafficking plot and the machinations of grave robbers, both of which are schemes that could prove as deadly as the strange rituals of the Etruscans.

Originally conceived as an Italian television mini-series and then scaled down to be a feature film, SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS is a perfect example of a film that is mostly style with a very inconsistent level of substance. From the outset, there are many characteristics of this motion that are deeply reminiscent of 1970s Italian giallo masterpieces like DEEP RED or SUSPIRIA and that is not to be wondered at considering that director Sergio Martino (using the nom de plume Christian Plummer) was at the helm of ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK a decade before. Since that flick is one of the more iconic examples of a stylishly occult mystery/slasher with Gothic horror overtones, one could expect a similar vibe from SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS. It is an attractive film that would have benefited from either a better transfer or a better source print. There are moments when the imagery is grainy, out of focus or washed out, but most of the time the colors are sharp, the images are crisp and what we are seeing is clear and that is all to the good. The exterior shots of the Italian countryside were quite lovely and there are some striking moments of very old and modern architecture, both real and contrived, that are very impressive. The Etruscan tomb sets, genuine and imagined, are also quite stunning and lend a deeply ensconced sense of authenticity to a movie that trades heavily on being atmospheric, like so many of its predecessors. To add to the aura of being part of a long, cinematic ancestral line, the music of Fabio Frizzi sounds very evocative of something that Claudio Simonetti would have composed for a Golden Age Dario Argento film. The modern strains weave a strange magic with the primordial imagery and create a bizarre sense of occultism that is probably the greatest strength of SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS. To add to the otherworldly feel of this movie, there is the haunting, cold and almost statuesque beauty of actress Elvire Audray who plays Joan. Her rich brown eyes and river of golden locks is somehow at odds with her wintry and slightly emotionless countenance, and yet she is regularly seen screaming during SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS, so she obviously feels the emotion within her body. All of these cinematic traits make for a motion picture that is visually appealing and with its compelling imagery you are somehow pulled into the events irresistibly.

It isn’t the story, the acting or the dubbing that holds your attention in SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS though. While the pace does intensify as the plot advances, the narrative starts quite slowly, has a tendency to wind in gentle loops that don’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere. As the pace picks up, the ties between the supernatural events, the drug smuggling crime thriller components and the grave robbing are ever so slightly stitched together, but it is a bit of a stretch. Fortunately, a steady stream of murders takes place that adds a palpable sense of hidden menace and malevolent mystery that keeps the slow story from grinding to a halt. What makes SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS a VERY strange addition to the film canon of Italian cinema is that while its aura may remind you of 70s giallos, there isn’t a lot other than that which should. One of the hallmarks of many 60s and 70s Italian giallo films was the propensity of blood and tasteful yet undeniable gore. While many a character is dispatched in SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS, there is very little blood. This is likely to be due to its television roots, but it stands out and possibly not as something that is a strength. On a similar note, by the early 1980s, Italian exploitation flicks of the killer, rapist, cannibal and crime thug type were thundering across the Mediterranean motion picture landscape. As a result, there were usually all kinds of perversity and salaciousness to be had if one wanted such content. Scandalous offerings are not to be found in SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS, which is quite surprising considering its “pagan sacrifice” central concept. Once again, starting its life as a TV mini-series probably has much to do with it, but the outcome is a film that looks like a lot of its late 70s and early 80s cousins, but feel and plays so much more like something from much earlier in the 1960s due to its PG nature. Add to that a cast that has a couple of Americans, John Saxon and Van Johnson, who were long past their heyday and a mix of Italians of varying acting talent and then a pair of language options (a bad English dub job or Italian without subtitles) that make viewing this film a little more challenging, and you’ve got a flick with loads of potential but that may miss its audience. Most people who enjoy slightly more modern Italian horror films are fans of Lucio Fulci and his ilk, but SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS has very little in common with a Fulci film except a small similarity when it comes to occult mind twistings. For those who prefer older Italian horror fare like that of Mario Bava, SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS will lack that classic feel and will not have the sense of pageantry.

As extras go, SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS has a few interesting tidbits. In addition to being able to choose your language option, there is a small and somewhat redundant poster gallery. What can be enjoyed are the existing excerpts from the original TV version, which are a collection of three deleted scenes and an alternate opening credits sequence, all of which are in Italian but thankfully have been subtitled in English. The TV mini-series excerpts were quite interesting and shed further light on the history of this ambitious project.

Whenever you’ve got a movie that can’t easily find its home among viewers, there is a potential problem. SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS wasn’t a bad film, it just didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be. It looked good on many levels and had a very good premise. Had it not been a TV mini-series to begin with and had a few more bloody and spicy bits, it may have been a better version of LAND OF THE MINOTAUR which had a bit more salaciousness but lacked palpable atmosphere. If you like a film that feels right and has got a much older sensibility to it, SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS is probably right up your alley.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SAINT FRANCIS (2007) d. Ezra Allen Gould

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Art, sex, religion and depravity can often coexist, just ask the Ruling Theocrats of the Medieval Catholic church. Few denizens of the world have more grotesquely welded these ideals into a mantra of twisted existence better than the Borgia Family. Authors have more easily and acceptably wound the themes of art, sex, religion and depravity into novels both sacred and profane. Painters and photographers have also tried to combine these seemingly disparate elements with a degree of success as well. Putting four such powerful concepts together in a film can be done, but it is a daunting task. The brevity of a motion picture’s runtime and the need for narrative cohesiveness often precludes the chance of really tackling all of these ideas and there is a good reason why. A film can become of tad too “avant-garde” or far too lascivious if any part of the delicate equation becomes unbalanced, tipping the overloaded tale towards disaster. SAINT FRANCIS is an ambitious and somewhat artistic effort to tell a grim tale that fails of its promise in the end despite some strong qualities, all because it can’t quite get the balance right.

SAINT FRANCIS is the story of the Bernard Family. The father, Dr. P. Bernard, is a sleazy televangelist who is more interested in acquiring cash than saving souls and is also the likely cause of his wife’s suicide that occurred when their three children were young. The children are Francis, Soul and Sid, all of which are caught in a maelstrom of debauchery swirling towards a vortex of ruin. Francis is a mentally disturbed drug addict, while Soul is an introspective and glamorous flesh peddler, and then there is Sid, the boyish-looking drug dealer. Their ineffective machinations and self-destructive personal habits intertwine in such a way as to create a despicable and depraved dance of debauchery spinning steadily out of control. By the end of their tale, all three of the Bernard children have been victims of each other’s violent ways and whose names are etched farther down on the tablet of doomed spirits, while their father ignores their helpless declines and preaches an empty message that no one seems to hear.

From a narrative standpoint, the general premise of SAINT FRANCIS is somewhat compelling. The juxtaposition of a Holy Man who is neither holy nor human with his terrifically degenerate trinity of damaged children has an excellent idea at its core of showing how truly barren either end of the spectrum can be. Neither the preacher nor his thrill-seeking offspring have found anything lasting that buoys the spirit or have done anything that leaves an enduring legacy. Interweaving their miserable chronicles has benefit as well, for what emerges is akin to a sickening kaleidoscope of personal and societal misery that bewilders the mind and is crushing to the soul. Yes, this is a depressing yarn, but looking into the mouth of madness is a good thing sometimes. What shatters the plot on the anvil of its own simplicity though is that there isn’t enough depth to the story, complexity to the characters or profundity to the themes twined about them. Too often we are treated to characters interfacing inanely on their cell phones, looping back over old ground about topics that we have already visited to our profound boredom and that were thin to begin with and/or somewhat meaningless, or worse the dialogue just existed to pad out the length of a fairly short film. What makes these narrative weaknesses even more distressing was that a really good story can sometimes cover for the lack of acting talent. In the case of SAINT FRANCIS, the sparsely spun tale highlighted the poor acting and it was only the propensity of sordid and steamy scenes swollen with salacious skin that helped to distract the viewer from the lack of strong performers just like any good sleight of hand trick, but not quite. At least in the case of Dita Von Teese (Soul), one can say that her spectacular loveliness, elegance and barely contained sensuality makes up to a small degree for her inexperience and underwhelming portrayal of her character, but in the case of Charles Koutris (Francis) and Casey Anderson (Sid), their performances were either overblown and irritating (Mr. Koutris) or downright wooden (Mr. Anderson). On a final acting note, Zalman King (Dr. Bernard) has never been anything but a third-rate actor and while he may add some name recognition to a cast of relative unknowns, was the cost of adding a “lead balloon” worth it?

On the visual side, SAINT FRANCIS was a bit harder to call. In general, I am not usually a fan of “nouveau” visual effects and camera techniques, but in this case they seemed to almost work. There were constantly shifting panoplies of color, shade, lighting schemes and a contrasting chiaroscuro of bright and dark that added imagery similar to a collage to the attendant narrative mosaic. In addition, there were fades and dissolves, out of the ordinary shot compositions and angles as well as expressionistic additions of graininess, soft and stilted focus, quasi-fish eye or POV perspectives that kept the viewer’s gaze moving and the psyche engaged. The otherworldly effect of this miasma of stylishness was not as impressive as the Ken Russell-directed vignette from ARIA called “Nessun Dorma” but it seemed to be going for that same general effect. What it did find a way to improve upon was the morass that was IRREVERSIBLE with its unwatchable methods and mean-spirited mindset. While gloomy and brutal there was thought behind the visual design of SAINT FRANCIS and it nearly achieved what most low-budget modern film efforts are never even remotely able to approach, a degree of artistic success. The problem lay in the repetitive nature of some of the film segments like the heart surgery of Francis which was repeated over and over again. That concept worked in ALL THAT JAZZ for there was a payoff waiting in the wings, but that never had the same punch here. The other problem was the delightful but still somewhat unsuccessfully integrated naughty bits in SAINT FRANCIS. Being that this a Salvation Films release, one knows they are in for some sin and skin. Adding plenty of those elements wasn’t a bad thing but they felt a bit forced at times and rather than intensifying the “debauchery” category, it just seemed to keep the “art” side of the film from reaching consummation while never really delivering on the promise that one expects when watching something that is really going to be spicy. At least that was the case until one reached the extras menu and a bit more of a bang was delivered for the buck.

The supplements section of SAINT FRANCIS was reasonably strong as Redemption releases go. There were three “extended erotic scenes” of roughly 6-8 minutes each, which were the full scenes in finalized form before they were edited into the film sequence. For anyone looking for loads of sexy skin and gorgeous babes, these extended scenes are worth your time. There is a short music video called “The Devil is Laughing” that I found dull and dreary. More interesting were the two different SAINT FRANCIS trailers which were fascinating in how differently they were constructed and edited. The contrast between the two gives the astute film lover the chance to see how very diverse the methods are of marketing movies to the masses. While a tad short, the Stills Gallery has a very eclectic mix of screen captures presented in an artsy-classy manner that adds a degree of savoir-fare to the bonus features. Finally, there were a series of Redemption Trailers, all of which I had seen before in one way, shape or form. While not the “Tomb of the Pharaohs” when it comes to extras, I was pleasantly surprised by my ambles through this supplemental menu.

I have had the chance to view quite a few Redemption discs over the past few years and while not the joy that the Jean Rollin films are or the surprise of SLASHERS, at least SAINT FRANCIS was not a disaster like THE WITCHING HOUR or some of the other modern film releases. I found SAINT FRANCIS to be more like NATURE MORT, a sincere effort at a creative project with some praiseworthy elements that didn’t quite work. Given more resources, experience and practice, Ezra Allen Gould may be capable of bringing forth a motion picture of surpassing artistry and compelling nature someday, or maybe not. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

NIGHTMARE CASTLE (1965) d. Allen Grunewald aka Mario Caiano

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It has been almost 45 years since NIGHTMARE CASTLE (aka GLI AMANTI D’OLTETOMBA) arrived on the scene and since that time much about the world has changed, mostly for the worse. As film-loving goes, one of the saddest transformations has been the disappearance of the Gothic Ghost Story from the cinematic landscape. Once upon a time, the Gothic Ghost Story was one of the most common of genre films that could be found on the Silver Screen horizon, and its moodiness and delightfully formulaic but still wildly entertaining nature made it a fan favorite for decades. As tastes shifted in the latter half of the 1970s and as those market trends accelerated throughout the 1980s, the Gothic Ghost Story began to vanish into the mists in much the same fashion as did the apparitions haunting the lavishly ornamented halls of the aristocratic manors where so many of these films were set. Whether they were laughable or lugubrious, sinister or salacious, Gothic Ghost Stories often had a little something for everyone, whether it was lovely ladies for Dad, ravishing romance for Mom, ominous spirits for junior and equestrian elements for sister. NIGHTMARE CASTLE is back in public eye again, having been marvelously restored by Severin Films. For those of us who have enjoyed this flick in the past despite its less than perfect former presentations, it is a chance to revel in the lush tapestry of sights, sounds and seductive stories that we have enjoyed before but are getting harder and harder to come by today. For those who have never seen NIGHTMARE CASTLE, it is a chance to see why Gothic Ghost Stories were a profoundly fertile field of cinema’s lost youth.

NIGHTMARE CASTLE is the story of Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith, a brilliant but sadistic scientist tormented by the infidelity of his beautiful wife Muriel. Catching Muriel in the act of betrayal, Stephen visits terrible retribution upon both Lady Arrowsmith and her lover David. After Muriel’s dispatch, Stephen must find a way to insure that Lady Arrowsmith’s fortune remains his and those plans include marrying Jenny Hampton, Muriel’s step-sister and the heir to Hampton Manor and Muriel’s riches. Weaving ever more convoluted schemes with the help of his striking house servant Solange, Stephen attempts to nudge the mentally unstable Jenny over the edge into the abyss of madness, but little does he know that for every move he makes on the chessboard of duplicity, two ghosts are several moves ahead in an attempt to exact their vengeance.

Sourced from an original Italian film print, the DVD of NIGHTMARE CASTLE has an endless number of reasons why it is a jewel to be treasured. First, it is 104 minutes long, the original uncut version of the film instead of the considerably shorter 90 minute American cut. Seeing the entire film for the first time in my life after so many other “abbreviated” screenings was a real treat, for one of the lost strengths of NIGHTMARE CASTLE was its sense of softly modulated menace built patiently and yet inexorably throughout the move. Despite a small amount of film print damage that occurs VERY infrequently at the heads and tails of the reel changes, Severin Films’ restoration and remastering of NIGHTMARE CASTLE is outstanding. For the first time, I was able to see a clear difference between the parts of the motion picture that were suppose to look misty since they were dream sequences and the rest of the movie that was meant to be clear, and how VERY clear it turned out to be! This black and white film, lit so very simply and yet set in such a stunning manner within the confines of such an exquisite Italian villa has never looked so good. The black, grays and all the shades in between are starkly crisp, clean and wonderfully sharp. Every little shadow and nuance of the lighting is thrown out in clear relief so that a textural quality emerges and one can finally appreciate the richness of the fashions, the lavishness of the décor and the opulence of the interior and exterior locations. Whether it is the sumptuousness of the Victorian-age villa’s rooms or the stately elegance of its gardens, none of the grandeur of NIGHTMARE CASTLE’s visuals truly came across until now, and it isn’t just the inanimate elements that benefit. For the first time, I could really bask in the myriad of enigmatic expressions on the lovely face of Ms. Barbara Steele (Muriel/Jenny), delight in the heart-shattering eyes of Helga Line (Solange) and be equally repulsed by the soulless countenance of Paul Muller (Stephen). The superb transfer allows the Barbara Steele fan to finally feel like they can almost glimpse the fabulous curves of Ms. Steele’s matchless figure under the gauzy glamour of her filmy peignoirs. What also comes across with so much greater impact is the simple and yet effective makeup work applied to the ghosts in this story. Most of the terror of NIGHTMARE CASTLE comes from the psychological and occult trappings of the story, but the “gore” that is woven into this rich tapestry is made all the more effective by a crisp film transfer and a professional restoration effort.

Speaking of the story, what makes NIGHTMARE CASTLE a little surprising is its mix of plot characteristics that is a bit of a Mulligan’s Stew as Gothic fare goes, but it works. There is a heady blend of ghost story and Gothic horror, but liberally applied to that core is a thick veneer of Regency Romance starkly contrasted with some Euro-sadism. As a result, there are some shocks, but they are punctuation to the long and thoughtful statements that are the atmospheric foundation of this film. There are long holds on the emotive faces of the talented and capable cast. Those poignant interactions are even more powerful when coupled with the atypical and yet still masterful score of the legendary Ennio Morricone. The camera work of NIGHTMARE CASTLE is excellent and while not ground-breaking, it is much more impressive then I had originally thought due to my past viewing experiences. We are treated to scene after scene where the skills of the actors must carry the moment, but the cinematography helps to build a detailed and wonderfully complex mosaic of sights and sounds. Now that NIGHTMARE CASTLE has been restored to its former glory and looks probably as goods as it did when it first appeared on the Silver Screen in Rome in 1965, lovers of European Gothic Ghost stories can revel in a movie that is as good an example of the genre as you are likely to find with the exception of a few iconic classics like BLACK SUNDAY or CASTLE OF BLOOD.

As Bonus Features go, the offerings on NIGHTMARE CASTLE are about average when it comes to quantity but simply OUTSTANDING when it comes to quality. First up is the prize we have all been hungering for, a 30 minute interview feature called “Barbara Steele in Conversation”. This “exclusive new featurette with the Queen of Horror” is the grail that many of her devoted fans have been awaiting for many years. This interview looks at Ms. Steele’s career from its beginnings in the late 1950s, through her glory years in Italian cinema of the 1960s and then through her later work in grindhouse flicks of the 1970s, all the way to her work as a producer in the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout her thoroughly enjoyable recollections of her film days, Ms. Steele also recounts her life experiences, reminiscences on directors and co-stars and it is all related in her delightfully dramatic vocal style. Accompanying Ms. Steele’s many anecdotes is a dizzying array of old modeling and promotional photographs and clips from her many films. For someone like me who can never get enough of this elegant and glamorous icon, I was inundated by sounds and imagery that was so multitudinous as to almost quench my thirst for such fare. Almost, but at least I can say that this may be one of the top five most exhilarating bonus features viewing experiences I’ve ever had. All praise to director David Gregory for his work on this supplement. Next is a 14 minute interview segment with director Mario Caiano called “Black, White and Red”, which is a look at Mr. Caiano’s film experiences, but unlike that of Ms. Steele, his focus tends to be more upon NIGHTMARE CASTLE. It is another excellent offering on this disc, and the two featurettes complement each other perfectly and when added to the UK and US trailers, this set of supplements is a plethora of joy to be unearthed once you’ve reveled in the feature and then are ready to bask in the extras.

My only concern when it comes to Severin Films outstanding release of NIGHTMARE CASTLE is that the audience for this motion picture may not be as sizable as it once was. The older folk like me may not be as willing to stroll down memory lane as I am and the younger folk may not see the appeal. Too many of them are beguiled by glitz and other saccharine silliness and they may not be able to appreciate the subtlety of a flick like NIGHTMARE CASTLE. I hope that such is not the case for like so many other Severin Films gems, NIGHTMARE CASTLE is a precious stone of surpassing beauty and value. As has so often happened I am both deeply impressed and even more grateful for Severin’s healthy respect for the lesser known treasures of yesteryear. For those of us who still love the Gothic Ghost Story and still swoon over Barbara Steele, NIGHTMARE CASTLE is succor for the jaded spirit.