The Pact

directed by Nicholas McCarthy
2012 | Preferred Content | 89′ 

The death of her abusive mother brings Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) back to the family home she and her sister Annie (Caity Lotz) thought to have left behind for good. Annie’s even less happy with going back than Nichole, and only some fine sisterly pressure convinces her to return at all, and much later than Nichole does.

When Annie arrives “home”, Nichole has disappeared into thin air after – as the audience knows – some rather disquieting things happening there. Annie assumes Nichole, with her history of drug use and disappearing acts, has just fallen back into old habits, leaving her sister alone to deal with a house and a funeral she only thought of going to for her sister’s sake, and her cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) to take care of her little daughter Eva (Dakota Bright).

But when Annie meets her Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) and Eva (Dakota Bright), at her mother’s funeral. she isn’t quite as convinced of Nichole’s disappearance having a comparatively harmless explanation anymore. Liz argues Nichole would never have left her daughter alone this way; after all she has turned her life around for her.

Because Annie is more than a bit freaked out about staying at her mother’s place another night, she invites Liz and Eva to stay the night with her. At night, everyone is woken by strange noises, and now it is Liz’s turn to disappear while Annie has an encounter with an invisible force that can only be explained by supernatural agency. She barely manages to get out of the house with Eva before whatever happened to Nichole and Liz can happen to her too.

When Annie goes to the police with her story, the part about poltergeist phenomena does not exactly improve her chance for being taken seriously about anything else she says. Only Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien), a cop who knew Nichole – and one suspects also knows something about the family history – is willing to actually listen to her. Creek isn’t willing to believe in any of that spooky stuff, but at least he’s still taking Annie seriously enough to help her in the few ways actually in his power. However, if Annie wants to find out where her sister and her cousin went, and what is haunting her mother’s house, she will have to do most of the investigating alone and with a messed-up sensitive named Stevie (Haley Hudson) she knows from her high school pointing the way. Annie might just find some terrible family secret hidden nearly in plain sight.

 
 
 

Say what you will about (or against) the last decade in horror movies, but it has – probably via the successes of Japanese cinema in this regard – brought about a minor renaissance in movies about hauntings and ghosts, some of which, like Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact, can stand their ground next to any movie in that particular sub-genre you’d care to mention.

The Pact is a brilliant example of a movie closely concentrated on creating a mood of dread and fear very close to the kind of fears I remember too well from my childhood. The movie manages to create a feeling of tension even though it isn’t a permanent barrage of Completely Shocking Things™. There are some truly shocking and some truly creepy things happening throughout the movie, but there’s never the feeling any of them are in the movie because it needs to include a shock every ten minutes. Rather, everything here happens for a reason closely related to the film’s plot and the film’s mood, two elements as organically entwined as possible.

McCarthy’s direction is very stylish (the Internet tells me of Argento but also Val Lewton productions as an influence, and I believe her in this case), yet he never gets too flashy. McCarthy instead opts to put his stylistic abilities exclusively into the service of creating the film’s particular brand of tension. For most of the time, the camera glides through the cramped and claustrophobic spaces of Annie’s mother’s house, looking over Annie’s shoulder, lingering on blackness and the place’s quotidian and bleak interior until they become threatening in their near normality.

I also love how willing McCarthy (also responsible for the script) is to not outright state a lot of what is going on with his characters and their lives but to subtly show it through details of the interiors they move through and Caity Lotz’s body language (insert gushing praise about Lotz’s performance here). It’s not that the film is vague about anything, The Pact is just not the kind of film feeling the need to spell everything out an attentive audience will understand in other ways.

It’s all part of the film’s overall spirit of tightness and concentration, virtues it doesn’t even leave behind when its plot later on takes a turn towards a somewhat different type of horror film than it initially seemed to be, fortunately without doing the boring “look at this surprising twist!” routine. What could have been flabby and digressive in less capable hands feels organic and logical here.

Finally, it’s also worth mentioning – seeing as this is a horror movie – how creepy the film is throughout, how successful The Pact is at combining Annie’s struggle with her past (her own childhood fears), the idea that however horrible one’s past was, there might always have been something more horrible lurking unseen just a (literally and metaphorically) thin wall apart, and the more general images of childhood fears it conjures up in pictures that seem archetypally effective – and willing to be strange if it suits the film – to me.

That, dear reader, means I was freaked out more than once during the course of The Pact, which is the sort of compliment I can’t give many horror films.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Devil Story

a.k.a. Il était une fois le diable – Devil Story | Devil’s Story
directed by Bernard Launois
1985 | Condor Films Production | 72′ 

This October, the agents of M.O.S.S. are digging deep into the heart of Halloween, taking a look at films about demons, the devil, and every kind of fiend. You can find our collected annals of evil here. Today, I take a look at a film that may or may not have anything at all to do with the devil, but sure as hell contains Halloween costumes.

Somewhere in what I think is supposed to be Florida, but sure looks like a picturesque part of France to me, a guy (probably Pascal Simon) in a Halloween gnome mask that is supposed to be his face wearing a uniform jacket with SS insignia – so I think we can call him Adolf Gnome – randomly kills various people in rubber-gory ways.

After fifteen minutes of these shenanigans, the film cuts to a married couple driving through what might be the same area. They stop, and the woman (most probably Véronique Renaud) has a nasty encounter with a black cat that might at least in part be hallucinatory. Anyhow, it’s enough to drive her into the first of many bouts of hysteric screeching (therefore I dub her “Screechie”).

That very same night (I suppose), the couple is still driving around the countryside, having lost their way terribly. Fortunately, they come upon a gothic palace inhabited by two weird yet friendly members of the elderly demographic who invite them to stay the night. For some reason, Elderly Guy wears a camouflage outfit, but this sort of thing doesn’t invite comments here. The rather strange hosts ramble on about the terrible things that happen in the area “before, during and after the equinox” (which I translate into “always”) and then proceed to tell the young couple a pointless story (historical flashback the film can’t afford time!) about five brothers who lured a ship to its doom but somehow drowned in the proceedings, plus some stuff about their descendants supposedly having made a deal with the devil.

Remember Adolf Gnome? He is one of said descendants, living alone with his equally crazy elderly mum. The female half of our husband and wife protagonist team will eventually meet those two, for during the night, she is awakened by a black horse that makes one hell of a racket outside and will proceed to do so in the most annoying fashion throughout the rest of the movie. Obviously, Screechie decides to go out in her nightie and investigate. That decision is the beginning of an epic journey during whose course Screechie makes the acquaintance of Adolf Gnome and Mum (they think she looks like Gnome’s newly dead sister, so they decide to bury her alive), a mummy with a bulging crotch that randomly kills people and digs out said dead sister (she’s a zombie now, I think) to walk around holding hands with said dead sister, and has random shit happen to her.

Also featured are Adolf Gnome bringing fists to a hoof fight, the usefulness of powder kegs and petrol when confronted with the backside of a mummy, Elderly Guy’s epic (he’s shown to shoot at it for hours out of what I assume to be his starting gun – that does at least explain the infinite ammo) obsession with the black horse he declares to be “the Devil Beast”, the ship from the story, and a random (or rather, even more random) gotcha ending featuring the black cat from the beginning and a very hungry patch of ground.

 
 
 

It looks as if France during the 80s had its own little tribe of people making the really awesome kind of backyard horror films, the sort full of rubbery gore, random nonsense, and a narrative that makes most dreams look coherent. As my attempts at giving you a feel for the absurd randomness of its plot should have made clear, Bernard Launois’s Devil Story is a proud and unapologetic part of that group of films, leaving no brain undamaged and no narrative rule unbroken. It’s not as mind-expanding as N.G. Mount’s improbably awesome Ogroff, but it sure is a film doing its damndest to overwhelm its audience with pure weirdness.

If you want to be all serious about it, Devil Story‘s randomness is obviously influenced by European folklore and fairy tales. The black horse and black cat as creatures of the devil are important parts of that tradition, and stories about smugglers luring ships to their doom and paying for it later on are parts of many local folklores too. However, where fairy tales and folklore usually have quite clear thematic connotations and an understandable subtext, the film at hand just grabs some outward signifiers from the folk tales, adds impenetrable rambling, screeching, some rubbery gore, a mummy and a serial killer and calls it a story in a way that suggests the writer (not surprisingly also Bernard Launois) to be either twelve years old or under the influence of mind-expanding substances like wine or strong coffee. The whole project is awe-inspiring in its stubborn insistence on making no sense at all beyond “bad magical things that may have something to do with the devil – or not – happen to people in this area – or not”.

On the technical front, Devil Story is a curious beast. It’s well photographed in so far as Launois knows how to frame and block scenes and everything he – well DP Guy Maria – shoots looks rather picturesque, but everything else about the film is a (hot) mess. As already mentioned (and obvious), the narrative structure is more or less non-existent, with no really discernible plot, no characters (let’s not speak of the acting beyond giving Elderly Guy the day’s price for most excited line delivery), and no feeling of progression or dramatic escalation.

This problem is further emphasised by the most curious, a-rhythmic editing decisions – every possible moment of suspense is sabotaged by recurring, random cuts to the devil horse being an obnoxious – and very loud – animal, the Elderly Guy shooting and shooting and shooting and shooting, the horse, the shooting, etc, until the little structure there is just turns to goo, very much like the mummy’s lower lip once Screechie has ripped off a few of its bandages. And even if Launois could keep away from Elderly Guy’s horse adventures, all action scenes are so awkwardly staged, and so overly long, they become befuddling instead of exciting, with cause and effect obviously divorced from each other, actors and the things they are acting on clearly not at the same place at the same time, and the same little thing going on and on and on for seeming hours, turning moments that could have been semi-exciting highlights like the scene when Screechie is playing tug-of-war with a gravestone against Adolf Gnome’s Mum who is trying to bury her alive into improbable slogs through the swamps of time and space.

So, clearly and obviously, Devil Story is a horrible movie. And yet it’s also a fascinating and quite riveting artefact of filmmaking that cares so little about – or misunderstands – the way films are supposed to be made, to look and to feel it nearly invents its own filmic language, entering the space so beloved by a certain type of film fan (that is, me) where the objective badness of a movie turns into something quite loveable and beautiful. I know, I do like to go on about films feeling as if they came from another world/dimension, or were made by aliens who once watched a movie and are now trying to make their own, but that is still the best way I’ve found to describe films like Devil Story in all their glorious, unapologetic oddness.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Blu Notes: Night of the Living Dead ’90

It’s been 22 years since Tom Savini’s official remake (scripted by Romero himself) of the landmark 1968 horror Night of the Living Dead first reached theater screens, more than long enough for a certain nostalgia to build up around it. I must admit to having not much liked the film upon first seeing it, but in the years since I’ve developed a respect and even an affinity for it. As such I was eager to revisit Savini’s Night as film, but such a kerfuffle has erupted with regards to its Blu-ray presentation from Twilight Time that it’s utterly distracted from that process. So in lieu of a film review (one will follow later, I promise) here are my observations on the release itself.

To state the obvious, this presentation of Night of the Living Dead is significantly different, aesthetically, from any that has been made available before. There is typically no shortage of praise to be found in these pages for Sony’s archive restoration department, but their approach here certainly raises questions. Given Sony’s usual approach (either to work directly with someone involved with the production to develop the film’s aesthetic on video, or to go by past knowledge – release prints, etc.) it’s difficult to imagine the changes here passing muster without the approval of someone involved in the original production, though just who that might have been remains unknown (edit to add: The source is evidently a 2010 HD master minted with the involvement of DP Frank Prinzi. Thanks, internet!). What is known is that Tom Savini has now given his approval to the Blu-ray’s new look, making the answers to what’s “right” or “wrong” with Night of the Living Dead‘s appearance rather more ambiguous.

Now for the changes. The first major alteration to how the film has appeared begins almost as soon as the film does. The first twenty minutes of the film, straight daytime sequences in all past editions, now shift from daylight to day-for-night (or twilight, more specifically) over the course of Barbara’s opening flight from the cemetery and the early events at the farmhouse. Colors cool, contrast flattens, and darkness pervades. It’s a dramatic difference in comparison to past editions, and one I can’t say that I’m really enamored with. The problem here is that the shift just doesn’t work within the previously existing language of the film, which is veritably screaming daytime (the ambient soundtrack, full of chirping birds, is a good example) even as the new timing tells us otherwise. Minor details unnoticed before, like Ben arriving with his truck lights off, now pose problems for the new continuity, and what of the film’s montage noting the changeover from day to night? It’s still here, of course, calling into question the whole rationale of artificially clarifying a point the film already makes.

While those first 20 minutes mark the most significant diversion from the past, the rest of the film has been treated as well. The whole appearance has been flattened, from the contrast to the color, leaving the majority of the picture with a darkened and dulled, almost antique appearance. While I don’t find the overall effect objectionable within the context of the film I do find the dimness of the white levels a bit of a distraction. Areas of the image that should be hot (flood lights, a basement lamp, muzzle flashes, even the film’s one big explosion) are unnaturally cold and grey, as though the image were being projected with a defective bulb. The same (or at least a similar) effect has been applied to the daylight sequence that closes the film, lending it a similar quality to “flashed” pictures like Deliverance and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Aside from the alterations Sony’s transfer appears sound, presenting with a very healthy level of detail and a consistent, refined layer of film grain that only rarely descends into noisiness. The image appears free of the usual brand of digital tampering, with no evidence of edge enhancement or adverse noise reduction, though the new color filtering has resulted in some unpalatable posterization effects at times (see the zombie’s face and surrounding sky in the sample below). Twilight Time have given Sony’s contentious HD master a healthy technical backing – the video is encoded Mpeg-4 AVC at a reasonable average bitrate of 26.8 Mbps, and compression artifacts are never an issue.

The audio will prove another sticking point for many. Sony, typically quite astute in their mastering of surround remixes, obviously weren’t paying quite as much attention here, and at least one key sound effect – the shutter click heard over the closing credits montage – is absent from the mix entirely (I can’t vouch for any other missing bits as I’m just not that familiar with the film). Otherwise the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track sounds quite good, with Paul McCollough’s electronic score (also available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track) given substantially more room to breath than in more compressed past editions. Per the usual for Twilight Time’s Sony-licensed titles, optional English SDH subtitles are included. The release arrives with a Tom Savini audio commentary (ported over from the older DVD) as well as the original theatrical trailer in HD, and Julie Kirgo contributes another fine booklet of liner notes.

Twilight Time went out of their comfort zone in responding to fan requests and releasing Night of the Living Dead ’90 on Blu-ray, and while it’s a shame that the release hasn’t matched expectations the outrage that’s developed against it has been a little… well… outrageous. The label is doing their part in accepting returns from the unsatisfied customers, and otherwise there’s always the bloated resell market (this limited edition was out of print before it was even released, and is already fetching lofty prices from third party scalpers). I consider it fortunate that Night‘s sellout status has alleviated some of the pressure on me for a yea or nay recommendation. Personally speaking, I can live with the disc even as much as I don’t care for some of the changes – I’ve been relying on a decades-old VHS up until now and my pack-rat home media sensibilities mean it’s always there if I need it. Those looking to purchase are encouraged to know what they’re getting into1, particularly at the current going rates. Director Tom Savini has approved of it and I may be fine with it as well, but it’s ultimately up to your personal preferences, and mileage will vary.

1 I realize this wasn’t an option for most, as the title sold out before reviews were even possible. This is the assumed risk of limited edition collecting – either buy early, with the possibility of being disappointed by the eventual result, or wait for coverage and risk paying out the nose.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Night of the Living Dead was reviewed from a screener graciously provided to this site by Twilight Time.

Black Zoo

directed by Robert Gordon
1963 | Allied Artists Pictures | 88′ 

Superficially, Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) leads a charmed life. He is the owner of a small, yet successful private zoo in Los Angeles, where he can live out his love for animals by holding a lot of big cats in way too small cages and feeding a guy in a gorilla suit. By night, the lions, tigers, panther and cheetahs are chilling in Michael’s living room while he plays the organ for them. Curiously, seeing as he’s obviously quite mad, Michael isn’t living alone with his animals. He is married to chimp trainer Edna (Jeanne Cooper). She copes with Michael’s erratic and abusive behaviour (he’s one of those “I hit you but it won’t happen again” types) with the help of lots of booze.

Then there’s Michael’s mute assistant Carl (Rod Lauren). The zoo owner has had the young man under his thumb for years, systematically destroying his self respect to have a better class of helper than the mere hired help like his animal-hating zoo keeper Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.) can offer.

Of course, this very particular idyll can’t last forever. Various people are real and imagined threats to Michael’s lifestyle, and the zoo owner deals with these threats by letting his very cooperative animal pals loose on them, puzzling the hilariously incompetent police exceedingly with his murders.

Things come to a climax when Edna realizes how mad her husband truly is, and packs up her chimps and Carl and tries to leave.

 
 
 

Robert Gordon’s Black Zoo is the classic case of a film that has all the elements that could make a thriller, digging deep into the messed-up relationships and power imbalances in a deeply dysfunctional family by way of not exactly healthy psychology, but instead applies all its energy to being as silly as possible.

Although it’s easy enough to be disappointed by Gordon’s – or producer and writer Herman Cohen’s – decision not to make a film that’s as much in the vein of Peeping Tom or Psycho as the better written parts of the script pretend it to be, the film’s utter silliness does make it practically impossible not to be entertained by it. It all starts out innocently enough, if Michael Gough throwing pointed gazes around as if he were a basilisk is one’s idea of innocence, at least. But before long, the film juxtaposes typical psycho thriller scenes about Michael Gough being a jerk to everyone close to him with scenes of a lot of big cats our villainous protagonist calls his children looking very relaxed on couches and settees in his living room (there’s a big painting of lions on the wall, of course) while their buddy Mike makes an unholy racket on his organ.

And that’s before the film presents us with a dignified big cat burial with the whole cat gang in attendance, again chilling very relaxed on a blue-lit, foggy graveyard set right out of a gothic horror movie, listening to a heartfelt speech by Gough about the deceased’s kitty virtues.

Another moment of great hilarity follows when our hero visits the multi-cultural animal-lover cult he is a member of (which I didn’t mention in the little synopsis because it has no import at all on the film’s plot). There the soul of his dead kitten is transferred to an adorable tiger cub by a high priest wearing the upper half of a dead tiger on his head (that is how true animal idolators dress) while a shirtless black guy plays the bongo and the audience mumbles rhythmically. In one of the greatest moments of acting I have ever had the joy to witness, Gough manages to keep not just a straight face throughout the scene, but one that is so full of fake intense emotion I found myself riveted and laughing tears.

 
 
 

There’s also an awesome swirly flashback late in the movie that explains Carl’s origin story, a final battle to the death in the rain that would be dramatic and poignant if not for all the awesome nonsense that happens before, a gorilla costume that looks really good if you can overlook the fact that it doesn’t look like a gorilla at all, and oh so much intense, overly dramatic ACTING by Cooper and Gough, who both manage to treat their roles with total, unwinking earnestness like the true professionals they are.

Surprisingly, given the usual budgetary standards of Cohen productions, the tenor of the script, and director Gordon’s nature as typical hired gun director, all this intense, ridiculous beauty is presented with a degree of style that came unexpected to me until I realized that Black Zoo‘s director of photography is Floyd Crosby. Crosby was of course also the cinematographer of most of Roger Corman’s best gothic horror films (and of some other fine budget productions too). His use of contrasting colours – just look at the interplay of deep blues and reds in some of the film’s silliest yet most effective scenes – work exceedingly well with William Glasgow’s (himself a man with an interesting filmography) more carefully realized art direction, creating a style for the film which may not be as gloriously dream-like and artificial as that of the best Corman productions of the time, but that still lifts the ridiculous up towards the sublime more than once. In fact, the sillier the given scene, the more creative energy the crew seems to have invested in its look, with the burial and the organ playing scenes as particular aesthetic high points.

It’s this obvious effort everyone involved put towards a script that really doesn’t seem to deserve it that explains Black Zoo‘s particular charm for me.I see in this not just a demonstration of dogged professionalism, but the result of a group of filmmakers putting everything they have into their cheap drive-in movie fodder instead of just phoning it in. It is this on-screen enthusiasm that helped turn every moment where I should have been laughing at the film into one where I was laughing with it, congratulating it on a job well done.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace is out now on Region B-locked Blu-ray from Spirit Media, a division of Koch Media, and can be purchased through Amazon.de.

Though his name is plastered practically everywhere distributor American International Pictures could find to put it, both within the film itself and on its advertising, this moody slice of early 60s horror is a Poe adaptation only in the minds of those who marketed it. 1963′s The Haunted Palace, filmed by Roger Corman at the height of his directorial career, instead holds a more precious honor, and stands (at least according to whole minutes of research) as the first credited film adaptation of the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Though infused with touches from other tales (including The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow over Innsmouth) and altered substantially besides, The Haunted Palace is in its foundation a loose version of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, with none other than Vincent Price (of late a regular with both AIP and Corman) in the title role.

The tale begins in the coastal village of Arkham at some point in an intangible, diffused past. The locals are on edge, and justifiably so. Young woman in the community have been disappearing into the night with disturbing regularity, only to reappear some time later, their minds traumatized by some unremembered thing. Blame for the trouble is heaped solely (and correctly) at the feet of resident warlock Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price again), who’s been putting on a fiendish twist on the Dating Game in his basement courtesy of a conveniently located pit-to-beyond. When yet another fertile young lass wanders off to the foreboding confines of Curwen’s mansion the local men decide they’ve had enough, and divvy out the stocks of torches and pitchforks for a good old-fashioned witch burning. While his complicit mistress Hester is spared Curwen is not so lucky, though he gets the last word in the usual way – by promising to beset Arkham once more from beyond the grave.

An oddly specific 110 years later Arkham still dwells under the Curwen curse, and its shadowed alleys crawl with the half-human great-grandchildren of the warlock’s bizarre experiments. The men of the town, an unintentionally hilarious set of familiar faces (amusingly also all the same age as their long-dead ancestors) still grumble, but their grumblings take on a newfound seriousness when Charles Dexter Ward and his young bride (Debra Paget) roll into town. The Wards are there to take on their inherited estate, the Curwen mansion, ignorant of the dark history of the place (Mrs. Ward muses at the quaintness of the name of the town tavern – The Burning Man!). As anxieties stew in town the Wards settle into their new home, finding the mansion unexpectedly livable thanks to the similarly unexpected presence of housekeeper Simon (Lon Chaney Jr!). Charles settles in especially well, even as his wife finds his behavior increasingly peculiar. Particularly strange is his fixation on a portrait that hangs over the fireplace, a painting of a man long dead, yet all too familiar…

It must be said that, as an adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Haunted Palace is pretty lousy. A standard ancestor-possession angle (Price on Price!) takes over for the story’s more corporeally sinister model and indeed, too many alterations otherwise have been made to list. Though it may fail strictly as a Lovecraft film it does maintain interest as a Lovecraftian one, and while undeniably quaint by the standards of the writings themselves it remains notable as cinema’s first real stab at the mountainous legacy of weird the author left behind. Odd as it seems to say of such a traditional Gothic horror picture, this was pioneering stuff, with the inescapable usual-ness of Charles Beaumont’s screenplay (completed, it’s said, with an assist from one Francis Ford Coppola) balanced by the incursion of Lovecraft keyphrases – “Necronomicon” and “Cthulhu”, “Yog-Sothoth” and “Elder Gods”. It’s an uneasy mix to be sure, but it paved the way, and when Die Monster Die! arrived from AIP two years later Lovecraft and his tale The Colour out of Space were duly noted as the inspiration.

The Lovecraft connection aside The Haunted Palace presents precisely what one came to expect from its generation of Corman productions. Though made for what was doubtless an insubstantial sum Corman does his damnedest to give every penny its due, and deceptively spacious set design coupled with the keen art direction of Daniel Haller (soon to direct two of AIP’s Lovecraft productions himself) keep the film from ever feeling so compact as it really is. The style here is squarely in line with that of Corman’s earlier Poe films (complete with a seaside castle, cobweb-draped interiors, and endless dark and stormy nights), and that’s just fine with me – in terms of the genuine artistry displayed this generation of features remain his best work as a director. Also of note is the cast, another fine mix of aging big-name talent and B-movie regulars. Price and Chaney Jr need no introductions here, but the supporting cast is full of familiar faces as well, including house favorites Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, House on Haunted Hill), John Dierkes (The Naked Jungle, The Hanging Tree) and television regular Frank Maxwell.

This isn’t exceptional cinema, not by a long shot, but those looking for an atmospheric bit of classic horror could certainly do worse than The Haunted Palace. Beaumont’s writing may be suspect (what should really be expected of he who gave us Queen of Outer Space?) and the tropes all too familiar, but Corman’s direction is certainly on the mark, at least until the limp and perfunctory “we’ve gotta have a monster!” finale. Still, I’m a forgiving sort (at least where this kind of cinema is concerned), and The Haunted Palace pushes more than enough of the right buttons to earn my recommendation. See it, and keep the hell out of the cellar!

I suppose we had to start somewhere with bringing Roger Corman’s cycle of Poe films to Blu-ray, and even if The Haunted Palace just barely fits that bill (there is a Poe quote at the end…) it’ll do in a pinch. Working from a fine high definition master minted by MGM (who appear to have transferred practically everything AIP, including the lamentable/lovable In the Year 2889, to HD) German outfit Spirit Media have produced a similarly fine disc here, and with Premature Burial already out from the same label the future of Corman’s best films on Blu suddenly looks bright indeed.

The Haunted Palace is presented in full 1080p at the original Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (actual AR 2.36:1), and despite giving the impression of being largely unrestored the image here is quite strong for the most part. There are smatterings of minor damage (dust, specks, scratches and so on) throughout the video presentation, most notably during the many optical shots (there are a lot of fades here, as well as a few special effects outright), but nothing really untoward for a film of its age and production standard. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s ace photography ranges from crisp interiors and close-ups to soft-diffused exterior takes, and all is properly preserved here with a reasonable level of definition. The Pathe Color shows some intentional restraint, but appears natural throughout, and contrast is rich in the frequently dark image. It’s not a perfect presentation – several of the frequent opticals are overwhelmed with grit, due perhaps to limitations in the source elements for these segments, and there are shots, especially early on, that have the appearance more of video than of film. Still, the benefits of this HD offering substantially outweigh its few limitations, and for the most part this looks very good.


One of the opticals mentioned above, which looks substantially rougher than others of its ilk seen throughout the film (compare to the castle shot below).

Spirit Media’s single layer approach leaves the technical specifications modest for The Haunted Palace, not that the film appears to suffer for it. The video receives a middle-of-the-road Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 19.6 Mbps, evidently more than enough for the production’s modest visual charms – I noted no egregious encoding faults, and have no complaints. Audio arrives in two flavors – original English and German dub, both presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 monophonic – and sounds very strong across both. Ronald Stein’s tremendous score, a waltzy and atmospheric affair that becomes a star of the show in its own right, benefits particularly from the lossless bump. There are no subtitles to be found (not even German), and an original trailer in English (SD, and in very rough shape besides) is the only extra. The Haunted Palace is coded for Region B, and those itching to import will require multi-region capable hardware to play it.

Given its regional coding, price (around $22 to import for me), and dearth of supplemental content Spirit Media’s Blu-ray of The Haunted Palace isn’t going to be for everyone, but for fans of Corman in general and his Poe films specifically this is tough to resist. If there’s a proper indicator of my personal feelings it’s that upon viewing the disc I wasted no time in ordering the same label’s Premature Burial as well (for those keen, the two arrive as a Blu-ray double feature in late October), and provided that disc turns out as well as this one I’ll be a happy man. Fans unencumbered by region-locking may wish to indulge, and for the rest of you there’s always the old MGM DVD.

Blu-ray screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click each image below to view at full resolution.

The Haunted Palace is available now through Amazon.de

Hammer Definition: The Reptile

Before I begin, a huge thanks is owed to my readers, without whom this Blu-ray review of The Reptile would not currently be possible. It was your support of this site, through our Amazon affiliate links, that allowed for the purchase of the disc here reviewed, as well as The Plague of the Zombies, which is to be reviewed here shortly. Thank you!

The final in an unsuccessful four-film experiment by producer Anthony Nelson Keys to make Hammer Film Productions’ operations at Bray Studios more cost effective, John Gilling’s The Reptile was produced back-to-back with the same director’s The Plague of the Zombies and released in the Spring of 1966 on a double bill with Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk. A small-scale horror produced with modest resources, The Reptile was the only of Keys’ four experiments to come in both on time and under budget, but it proved a case of too little success too late. Hammer Films’ operations at Bray Studios wrapped in October of 1966 with the conclusion of production on The Mummy’s Shroud, coincidentally also a Gilling film (this time under producer Michael Carreras), and scarcely four years later Bray was sold outright.

Though in scope only a minor Hammer horror, noticeably constrained by the limits of both time time and budget (the title for the original concept, The Curse of the Reptiles, hints at greater things, if by plurality alone), The Reptile ultimately rises above its modest ambitions through a keen sense for atmospherics and a generous helping of weird. More than that, The Reptile stands as a quintessential example of English Gothic horror cinema, replete with suspicious locals, strange happenings on the moors, and deep family secrets, and anchored with a downright Jamesian perspective on the dangers of venturing where one doesn’t belong.

After the unexpected, unexplained death of his brother in a small Cornish village, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett, of Thunderbirds and Stingray fame) and his young wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniels, Kiss of the Vampire) take over his small cottage estate as their own, much to the consternation of superstitious locals. Suspicious as to the nature of his brother’s untimely demise Harry sets about investigating, and finds an unlikely co-investigator in friendly barkeep Tom (Michael Ripper, Hammer’s preeminent regular). It seems a regular spate of unusual deaths has the populace spooked, convinced that pestilence is afoot, but an examination of exhumed victims reveals things stranger still. The afflicted present with grotesquely swollen, blackened faces and, more bizarre, puncture wounds not at all unlike those inflicted by the King Cobra – a creature not exactly native to Cornwall.

Meanwhile the Spaldings become increasingly acquainted with Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman, ), a domineering theologian who keeps a stranglehold on his beautiful daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) with the help – or is it hindrance? – of a mysterious Malay servant (Marne Maitland). Dr. Franklyn, who spent his professional years investigating the obscure cults of Southeast Asia, keeps the temperatures within his sprawling isolated estate at tropical levels, perfect for the exotic plants that fill his greenhouse and fit, perhaps, for a reptile…

The Reptile certainly isn’t the first film to ponder the cinematic potential of people who moonlight as monstrous snakes (it’s a sub-genre especially well represented throughout Asia), but it may be the first to attach to them the principals of Gothic horror – and indeed, the transposition of such an alien thing upon Victorian English sensibilities is a deliciously odd one. More interesting still is the context for it all. Though far from loaded with subtext The Reptile‘s premise does offer a bit of intellectual bite by way of an oblique criticism of England’s colonial past. In his travels through Asia Dr. Franklyn trespasses where he isn’t wanted, presuming the sanctity of his own research in an invasive investigation of local rites, and finds himself cursed for so long as he lives by a feared and secretive snake cult. As repayment for his own assumptions of superiority he must now watch as his own beloved daughter is regularly transformed into a malignant inhuman beast, powerless all the while to control her murderous impulse.

For his part character player Noel Willman is superb in the role of the tormented yet dominating Dr. Franklyn, a man trying desperately, if ineffectually, to keep the family secret under wraps. It certainly helps that Willman’s character is the one most developed in the screenplay (courtesy of regular Hammer producer / writer Anthony Hinds), but the actor layers the part with genuine pathos, backing a cold and icy demeanor with a palpable sadness. Jacqueline Pearce’s Anna evokes a comparably conflicted nature, but underwriting keeps her from being truly memorable beyond her exotic looks (including those plastered so thoroughly on the film’s advertising, the intriguing if not entirely effectual creation of ace make-up artist Roy Ashton). Pearce had starred in Hammer’s previous production The Plague of the Zombies, but isn’t the only carry over here. Fifth-billed Michael Ripper takes a substantial second turn as well as the good-hearted barkeep, and seemingly the only friendly sort in town. Ripper remains one of Hammer’s most recognizable faces (and voices), and though never so prominent as mainstays Cushing and Lee he would go on to appear in more of the studio’s productions than either.

Hammer’s close-knit staff of artisans were masters of style in their time, and despite the limitations of its production The Reptile is a pre-eminent example of the same – no small feat given that director Gilling was veritably hounded to bring the film in as swiftly as possible. The set and production design of studio regulars Don Mingaye (They Came From Beyond Space) and Bernard Robinson (These Are the Damned) is stellar, dominated by sprawling Gothic interiors that belie the compactness of the production. Ace DP Arthur Grant (Quatermass and the Pit) treats Mingaye and Robinson’s work right, demonstrating again his keen understanding of the importance of shadow, while director Gilling (The Flesh and the Fiends) does his best to elevate a shoestring production to something more. By my estimation he and his crew succeed admirably. The Reptile may not always work, but it’s rarely if ever a bore.

StudioCanal disappointed with the lackluster video presentation on Dracula: Prince of Darkness, a particularly embarrassing development given its status as a flagship Blu-ray from the most recognizable of Hammer franchises, but to their credit they appear anxious not to repeat the mistakes of that release here. Quatermass and the Pit still reigns as the superior HD Hammer presentation, but The Reptile certainly isn’t far behind.

Restored from a fresh 2K scan of the original negative (with the exception of the ratty opening title sequence), The Reptile looks absolutely marvelous in its new Blu-ray edition. The 1080p 1.66:1-framed transfer isn’t entirely spotless, and still kicks up the occasional speck or vertical scratch, but a substantial effort has obviously been undertaken (as the included restoration comparison attests) to ensure that it appears as good as is reasonably possible. The fine film grain isn’t quite so well rendered as on Quatermass, but it does appear demonstrably filmic and goes blessedly unperturbed by the kind of egregious digital manipulation that ruined Dracula: Prince of Darkness – in motion it looks damned good. Otherwise, contrast is at robust levels and the level of detail is impressive, with some of the close-ups looking mighty impressive. I really have no complaints, and can’t imagine The Reptile looking much better.

Technical specifications are similarly impressive. The Reptile receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at an average bitrate of 31.9 Mbps, with peaks reaching as high as 35.0 Mbps. The encode is stable and free of issues, thoroughly avoiding the issues of posterization and noticeable artifacts. Perhaps the best thing one can say about this sort of thing is that it’s transparent, and doesn’t obscure the strengths of a transfer. The Reptile‘s encode fits that bill, and I’ve no complaints. It’s more difficult to laud the audio presentation, though the issue rests soundly with the quality of the original mix and not with any error on the part of Hammer / StudioCanal. The Reptile simply sounds no better and no worse than other efforts of its place and time, and while the mix will rarely impress its 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic rendering here is authentic and trouble free, and remarkably clean to boot. A set of optional English SDH subtitles is included, and as with the rest I’ve no complaints.

Supplements are a bit lighter here than with Quatermass and the Pit or Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but no matter – any love at all for this modest film is appreciated. Newly produced is the short documentary The Serpent’s Tale (22 minutes, 1080i / 25fps HD), featuring interviews with writer / actor Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen), Hammer historians Marcus Hearn and Wayne Kinsey, critic Jonathan Rigby, film music specialist Dr. David Huckvale, Pinewood restoration manager Jon Mann, and The Reptile‘s surviving art director Don Mingaye. Other feature-related content is limited to a nifty theatrical trailer (2 minutes, 1080p 24fps HD) that wisely avoids showing Pearce’s make-up and a brief restoration demonstration (2 minutes, 1080p 24fps HD) that reveals the not inconsiderable work that has been done to restore the film. Rounding out the package is the World of Hammer episode Wicked Women (25 minutes, PAL SD), which is perhaps most interesting in that it doesn’t discuss The Reptile at all!

The double play package includes both the Blu-ray disc reviewed here and a PAL format DVD that duplicates its contents for standard definition viewers. The package is region locked, region B for the Blu-ray disc and region 2 for the DVD – as such viewers outside of those respective territories will need multi-region capable hardware in order to view it.

I have to admit that when I first saw The Reptile many years ago it didn’t do much for me, but with time the film has definitely grown on me. Imperfect as it may be it’s rarely less than interesting, and at times it manages to be quite an arresting Gothic horror experience. Words cannot express how much it pleases me to say that there’s nothing at all wrong with Hammer / StudioCanal’s Blu-ray edition, which so thoroughly trounces the mediocre standard definition representations of the past that they don’t even bear mentioning. Even with the distraction of region locking (which can be circumvented easily enough these days) this gets an easy recommendation – fans of the Hammer horrors are heartily encouraged to indulge.

Order The Reptile on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

Screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.
 

Order The Reptile on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

 

POV – A Cursed Film

a.k.a. POV – norowareta firimu
directed by
 Norio Tsuruta

2012 / Toho Visual Entertainment / 92′
written by Norio Tsuruta
starring Haruna Kawaguchi, Mirai Shida

During the shoot of the low rent idol show of Mirai Shida (playing herself) with special guest Haruna Kawaguchi (playing herself too), something disturbing happens. The show’s gimmick of the week is to have the two teenagers watch ghost videos, but the videos that appear on screen aren’t the ones the director and the girl’s manager have vetted beforehand.

In fact, these videos contain much better footage than this sort of video usually does, and they all seem to be shot at Haruna’s former junior high school, which must be the most haunted school in Japan. Oh, and the videos continue playing when the DVD they are on isn’t actually in its laptop anymore. Haruna, who spent some time at her junior high hunting but never finding exactly the ghostly apparitions she now sees on screen, is convinced she is cursed, an idea that does not become weaker once the crew films the reflection of a female ghost in one of the studio windows.

Clearly, this situation affords a fine possibility for the show to hire the world’s most matter of fact psychic (who, we will learn, is psychic, not a mind reader) to help Haruna and finally get some really exciting footage. Alas, the psychic is sure that Haruna’s little ghost problem can only be solved inside of the junior high. Of course, once the film crew is inside the place, they’ll get to see more of ghosts than they asked for.

It looks like the found footage/POV horror sub-genre is suddenly somewhat hot again in Japan. This does not come as much of a surprise seeing as how ideally the genre is suited to low budgets, with footage that is generally supposed to look cheap, no need for complicated camera set-ups or sets, scripts that tend to the simple, and hordes of idols willing to act in everything being churned out by the Japanese entertainment machine. Somewhat surprisingly going by the standard of the POV genre in the USA and Europe, a lot of the newer Japanese POV films I have seen are actually decent or even better, with Koji Shiraishi’s Occult and this one being particular stand-outs that manage to fulfil all genre expectations yet also give the clichés they are working with small, effective twists.

POV and Occult invite some comparisons in other aspects than their respective quality, too. Both films are directed by men who have done good, sometimes great, work in the second row of Japanese horror directors. POV‘s Norio Tsuruta does not have anything quite as brilliant as Shiraishi’s Noroi or A Slit-Mouthed Woman in his filmography, but his films clearly show him to be someone who understands the horror genre and is intelligent enough to know that the point of making genre movies isn’t just giving people what they want from them but also surprising the audience with slight twists on and tweaks to a given formula.

POV is a perfect example of the latter. In its basic set-up, the film seems as generic as possible, with the usual non-characters going about their horror movie days, and the expected ghosts (though a lot more of them than you usually see in a film like this) doing the expected ghostly things. And what ‘s more generic than a middle part that mostly consists of people shaking their cameras, screaming, and running through a dark building? The film’s plot, however, is decidedly more clever than it at first appears, using the comfortably familiar spook show elements in service of something more sinister and more creepy, going into a semi-apocalyptic post-ending titles climax that is surprising and highly effective in its nature.

POV also one of the few films of its sub-genre that seems interested in using the discomfort the basics of Japanese idol culture can produce in a viewer who isn’t a total idiot, presenting the low rent entertainment biz in a subtly bad light, possibly even suggesting this sort of entertainment and its unspoken greed would be the perfect in-road for actual evil (or, ironically, that certain ghosts would see idol culture as a nice way to finally become famous).POV does not explore this aspect all that deeply (which is not coming as much of a surprise from a film that by necessity is itself a part of perhaps dubious, always looked down upon, circles of pop culture), but that does also mean it’s not getting preachy – and therefore annoyingly hypocritical – about it. It’s just an element that’s there to add more cultural resonance to the film.

Of course, all of POV‘s interesting subtext would be quite wasted if it did not also succeed at the bread and butter parts of a horror movie, the shocks, the moments of discomfort, and the all-purpose creepiness. Many of the film’s fright scenes are based on sometimes imaginative variations of pretty traditional Japanese ghosts and traditional POV horror shocks. About half of them tend to the more carnivalesque jump scare mode, and the grating on audience nerves by having the characters screech and shake their cameras, but there are also some exceedingly creepy scenes based on clever sound design, shadows, and my eternal favourite (that also turns a ghost story into something Weirder for me), scenes of time and space losing their usual consistence to threaten the characters. That last element is especially finely realized in the film’s first major climax, a scene I find too delightful/disturbing/effectively tense to spoil by describing it. Let’s just say it involves a disappearance, a camera, and a ghost moving towards the characters making rather disturbing noises (as Japanese ghosts are wont to, of course), and that it actually got to me.

Tsuruta – who also wrote the film – shows itself as a director very capable of using the more subtle parts of horror craft even in a context like POV horror that often doesn’t seem all that interested in them, with a real gift for pacing the suspense scenes beyond the usual running and screaming.

Thanks to him, POV is a surprisingly excellent piece of filmmaking.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Score One for the Old Country: The Universal Classic Monsters Blu-ray Debacle

When I reported not so long ago that Universal’s new Classic Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray was due in October, I was under the impression that Amazon’s pre-order price for the title – $111.99 for the 8-disc set – was perfectly reasonable. That was before news of the UK edition arrived, and I’ve since changed my tune dramatically.

Quoting from Amazon.co.uk, the specs for the release are as follows (region coding is unknown at present):

For the first time ever, eight of the most iconic cinematic masterpieces of the horror genre are available together on Blu-ray as Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection. Digitally restored in perfect high-definition picture and perfect high-definition sound. This essential set includes a never-before-seen featurette about the restoration of Dracula and the first ever offering of Creature from the Black Lagoon in its restored Blu-ray 3D version.

Contain hours of bonus features, a 44 page booklet and 8 exclusive art cards with original theatrical posters.

Dracula (1931):
The original 1931 movie version of Bram Stoker’s classic tale has for generations defined the iconic look and terrifying persona of the famed vampire. Dracula owes its continued appeal in large part due to Bela Lugosi’s indelible portrayal of the immortal Count Dracula and the flawless direction of horror auteur Tod Browning.

Bonus Features: Dracula: The Restoration – New Featurette Available for The First Time!, Monster Tracks: Interactive Pop-Up Facts About the Making of Dracula, Dracula Archives, Score by Philip Glass performed by the Kronos Quartet, Feature Commentary by Film Historian David J. Skal, Feature Commentary by Steve Haberman, Screenwriter of Dracula: Dead and Loving It , Trailer Gallery

Frankenstein (1931):
Boris Karloff stars as the screen’s most tragic and iconic monster in what many consider to be the greatest horror film ever made. Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) dares to tamper with the essential nature of life and death by creating a monster (Karloff) out of lifeless human body parts. Director James Whale’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel and Karloff’s compassionate portrayal of a creature groping for identity make Frankenstein a timeless masterpiece.

Bonus Features: The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster, Karloff: The Gentle Monster, Monster Tracks: Interactive Pop-Up Facts About The Making of Frankenstein, Universal Horror, Frankenstein Archives, Boo!: A Short Film, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, Feature Commentary with Historian Sir Christopher Frayling, 100 Years Of Universal: Restoring the Classics, Trailer Gallery

The Mummy (1932):
Horror icon Boris Karloff stars in the original 1932 version of The Mummy in which a team of British archaeologists accidentally revives a mummified high priest after 3,700 years. Alive again, he sets out on an obsessive-and deadly-quest to find his lost love. Over 50 years after its first release, this brooding dream-like horror classic remains a cinematic masterpiece.

Bonus Features: Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed, He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art Of Jack Pierce, Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy, The Mummy Archives, Feature Commentary by Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns and Brent Armstrong, Feature Commentary by Film Historian Paul M. Jensen, 100 Years Of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era

The Invisible Man (1933):
Claude Rains delivers an unforgettable performance in his screen debut as a mysterious doctor who discovers a serum that makes him invisible. Covered by bandages and dark glasses, Rains arrives in a small English village and attempts to hide his amazing discovery, but the drug’s side effects slowly drive him to commit acts of unspeakable terror.

Bonus Features: Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, Production Photographs, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, 100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935):
The acclaimed sequel to the original Frankenstein has become one of the most popular horror classics in film history. The legendary Boris Karloff reprises his role as the screen’s most misunderstood monster, now longing for a mate of his own. Colin Clive is back as the proud and overly ambitious Dr. Frankenstein, who creates the ill-fated bride (Elsa Lanchester). The last horror film directed by James Whale features a haunting musical score that helps make The Bride of Frankenstein one of the finest and most touching thrillers of its era.

Bonus Features: She’s Alive! Creating The Bride Of Frankenstein, The Bride Of Frankenstein Archive, Feature Commentary with Scott MacQueen

The Wolf Man (1941):
Originally released in 1941, The Wolf Man introduced the world to a new Universal movie monster and redefined the mythology of the werewolf forever. Featuring a heartbreaking performance by Lon Chaney Jr. and groundbreaking make-up by Jack Pierce, The Wolf Man is the saga of Larry Talbot, a cursed man who transforms into a deadly werewolf when the moon is full. The dreamlike atmospheres, elaborate settings and chilling musical score combine to make The Wolf Man a masterpiece of the genre.

Bonus Features: Monster by Moonlight, The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth, Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr., He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce, The Wolf Man Archives, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver

The Phantom of the Opera (1943):
This lavish retelling of Gaston Leroux’s immortal horror tale stars Claude Rains as the masked phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House. A crazed composer who schemes to make beautiful young soprano Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) the star of the opera company, the Phantom also wreaks revenge on those he believes stole his music. Nelson Eddy, as the heroic baritone, tries to win the affections of Christine as he tracks down the murderous, horribly disfigured Phantom.

Bonus Features: The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked, Production Photographs, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Scott MacQueen, 100 Years of Universal: The Lot, Theatrical Trailer

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954):
Captured and imprisoned for scientific study, a living “amphibious missing link” becomes enamored with the head researcher’s female assistant (Julie Adams). When the hideous creature escapes and kidnaps the object of his affection, a crusade is launched to rescue the helpless woman and cast the terrifying creature back to the depths from which he came. Featuring legendary makeup artist Bud Westmore’s brilliantly designed monster, Creature from the Black Lagoon is an enduring tribute to the imaginative genius of its Hollywood creators.

Bonus Features: The Creature From The Black Lagoon in Blu-ray TM 3D, Back to The Black Lagoon, Production Photographs, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver , 100 Years of Universal: The Lot, Trailer Gallery

The only substantial differences between this list and the specs for the US edition is the exclusion of the Spanish version of Dracula, considered by many to be the superior film, but don’t fret. While I’m unsure of why it is excluded from the spec sheet, Universal Pictures UK have confirmed that it will be included on the release itself, making this set nigh identical to its upcoming US counterpart with the exception of the possible differences in packaging.

Now for the kicker: The UK Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray, including the same 8 discs of films and supplemental material, is currently available for pre-order at a whopping £37.49 through Amazon.co.uk. At present exchange rates the total comes to just $54.00, shipping included, for orders originating in the United States, or less than half the price of ordering the domestic equivalent!

Needless to say I’ve since cancelled my US pre-order – $55 plus in savings is too much to pass up on. While there is a slim chance that the set will be locked for Region B (the majority of Universal’s UK releases are region free duplicates of versions they’ve made available worldwide), those unencumbered by the troubles of region compatibility are encouraged to go the same route.

The UK Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray is due for release on October 1, 2012.

The Black Door

directed by Kit Wong
2001 / NGK Film Production93′
written by Laurent Courtiaud and Julien Carbon
cinematography by Francois Reumont
music by Shane Koss and Christopher Rosa
starring Sergio Gallinaro, Staci Tara Moore, Kevin Blatch, John Hainsworth, Teri O’Sulivan and John Prowse

Steven (Sergio Gallinaro) is found covered with deep, peculiar lacerations all over his body after a nightly visit to an abandoned house. Following his wishes, his girlfriend Meg (Staci Tara Moore) calls in a friendly documentary crew to film what is happening to him. The doctors can find neither the cause of Steven’s wounds nor can they prevent his health from further deteriorating (might have something to do with seemingly no attempts being made to close or dress those wounds but hey, what do I understand of medicine?).

While Steven is on what is fastly becoming his death bed, the documentary crew and Meg are retracing the steps that led him into the old dark house. During his research into completely harmless economical history, Steven became fascinated by a man named Fuentes-Balsameda (Carlos Parra) who disappeared in 1932. His investigations finally led Steven to an old film reel that shows Balsameda’s death (and short-time resurrection) during a satanic ritual. That’s probably the point where most people would have stopped and dropped the film reel off at the next police station for them to sort it out, but Steven continued his investigation (and contacted the Vatican, of all things). He managed to get into contact with the only person connected to that ritual who did not die a violent death, a (as he will later turn out to be) creepy old man named Morgen (John Hainsworth). Morgen then lured Steven to the house where the young man was attacked by something.

Parallel to the documentary crew finding out about these occurrences, a perpetually pissed-off priest (Kevin Blatch) appears and tries to help Steven come through his paranormal encounter alive. Too bad he’s as ineffectual as a puppy.

The Black Door (a HK/Canadian co-production – I think – with a director from Hong Kong, screenwriters from France who predominantly worked in Hong Kong, and filmed in British Columbia) belongs to the post-Blair Witch era of POV horror, before the film law mandating all POV horror to be about people running through the woods went into effect.

The film’s construction as a documentary generally makes sense, and – as the filmmakers seemingly are supposed to be professionals – allows director Kit Wong to use rather more elaborate camera set-ups and to shoot scenes from angles from which you’re actually allowed to have a good view of what’s happening. Thanks to a script that is rather clever in this regard, Wong can also dip into other shooting styles for a few scenes. There’s the calm and mostly disturbingly unmoving camera in the 1932 ritual footage that gives the film’s strongest horror sequence an especially realistic feel. Then there’s Steven’s traditionally difficult to parse shots from his doomed expedition into the old, dark (he’s going in by night, just like the horror movie character he is) that actually manage to make long minutes of a guy mumbling and filming stuff in a dark house look rather tense.

  
  
  

Some of the “normal” documentary footage is also very strong, going for that documentary style where the camera lingers so closely on people’s most emotional moments the viewer – and of course the crew shooting – becomes something of a voyeur. In one of the small flashes of genius that make me love the film showing them, this aspect even becomes a plot point that is vaguely yet effectively connected with the way the film’s initial ceremony was worked, the camera – and therefore the audience watching what it films – becoming accomplices in the perpetuation of something quite dark.

Wong is really good at distracting a viewer from the deficiencies of a script that is full of great ideas, yet also seems awfully disinterested in real world logic even in situations where real world logic should apply. Still, thanks to Wong’s direction, it was no problem at all for me to believe in a world where people meet with someone they know to be involved in at least one ritual murder alone, in an empty house, by night, or where people learning about a ritual murder in the past contact the Vatican (probably their well-known ritual murder hotline 666-EXORCIST) instead of the police for most of the film’s running time.

Wong is able to keep a mood of high tension up through large parts of a film where not much is happening the audience doesn’t know will happen after its first thirty minutes or so are over, dropping little hints of further complexities and some quite horrifying details (if you don’t overlook them) that kept me watching with more attention as I usually have for scenes of people getting melodramatic in front of a camera.

And melodramatic people get, there’s no doubt about it, for the acting is of that slightly grating indie horror movie type where every line delivery seems slightly off, and where all outbreaks of larger emotions become scenery-chewing and mugging; especially Blatch and Hainsworth are guilty of the latter. Ironically, I feel that in The Black Door‘s particular case the slight to heavy wrongness of the acting actually enhances the film’s effect. The artificiality of the acting and the perfectly believable documentary style of its filmic surroundings rub against each other and produce a friction that makes the film a more uncomfortable experience. I also can’t help but notice that an acting style that emphasises the actors playing roles is a neat parallel to the fact that the characters they are playing are also unwillingly filling roles in the continuation of a decade old ceremony. Of course, I don’t believe the actors are doing this on purpose for one second. As a rule, I don’t think it’s important if effective elements of a work of art are included on purpose or by accident; it’s just important they are there.

The Black Door is one of those films where I can’t say at all if anyone other than me will get as much out of watching it as I have, for the things I took to most about the film (that friction and that feeling of wrongness) are also the things most dependent on a given viewer’s susceptibility for the very specific way a happy combination of creepy details and happy accidents creates a mood here. However, I can say it’s worth trying to watch the film to find out.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Occult

a.k.a. Okurato
directed by
 Koji Shiraishi

2009 / 110′
written by Koji Shiraishi
cinematography by Koji Shiraishi
starring Koji Shiraishi, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Peko Watanabe, Shinobu Kuribayashi, Akira Takatsuki, Takashi Nomura

Director Koji Shiraishi (in not the only moment of meta in the film played by Occult‘s very own director, writer, cinematographer and editor Koji Shiraishi; he actually has played himself now in so many of his movies we may see them as their own sub-genre) is shooting a documentary about a spree killing that happened a few years before at a picturesque tourist spot. During the course of the project, Shiraishi and his small crew interview survivors and bereaved, and stumble upon strange events surrounding these people. More than one of the victims had heard voices enticing them to the place of the massacre, and the bereaved have strange dreams of their loved ones; one of them even has a new photo of his dead girlfriend looking very much alive to show.

Shiraishi’s investigation into the matter soon centres on a man named Eno. The killer didn’t use his knife on Eno to kill him like his other victims, but carved strange symbols into his body, telling him that “now it’s your turn”. Eno clearly hasn’t been the same ever since. He’s barely surviving through temp work, spends his nights sleeping in manga cafes, and just doesn’t seem to be quite right in his head anymore. Eno insists that ever since the attack on his life, he’s been witnessing “miracles”: UFOs, objects in his surrounding moving on their own accord, that sort of thing. Oh, and he also hears a voice talking to him, though he doesn’t understand what it’s trying to tell him, or so he says. The only thing he is sure of is that the spree killing was some sort of ceremony to please a god, and – though he’s not really clear about it – Eno does seem to have ideas about a ceremony of his own.

Once Shiraishi has witnessed one of the poltergeist phenomena that are a daily occurrence to Eno, he and his team start researching the symbol. Turns out Eno’s attacker had the same symbol on his body as a birthmark. Shiraishi doesn’t realize yet that he himself has a connection to these symbols, but that will come to him soon enough, as well as the truth about the “ceremony” Eno plans.

 
 
 

With Noroi and A Slit-Mouthed Woman (aka Carved), Koji Shiraishi made two of my favourite Japanese horror movies of the post-2000 era. Both are films mixing modern and more traditional Japanese mythology with the horrors of contemporary life. What I have been able to see of Shiraishi’s last few films – which isn’t always easy, for neither English nor German language DVD labels seem to be much enamoured of his films – has been rather frustrating, culminating in the “girl group screeches forever” horror of Shirome, until now the last film of the director.

Occult was made two years earlier, and it shows the director in much better form, again using the fake documentary format that served him so well in Noroi and would later serve him so badly when filming the exciting ghost adventures of a Momoide Clover. For its first half hour or so the film feels a bit disjointed and silly, with Shiraishi seemingly hell-bent to squeeze in every paranormal phenomenon he can think of, from UFOs, to telekinesis to blobs on the camera. But once the film begins to concentrate on Eno and the things happening around him, it begins to make more sense, developing focus and even the sort of narrative drive you don’t usually get from the fake documentary format.

As already mentioned, Shiraishi is particularly good at mixing very Japanese feeling mythology (with hints of Lovecraft hanging in the background if you want to look at the film from a certain perspective) with very contemporary anxieties. The film does, after all, ask the question: “what if the cult-ish spree killers and suicide bombers were actually right and god is speaking to them?”, only to then take the whole thing further and ask if the god speaking to the spree killers is actually telling the truth about its own nature or why it wants what it wants from its servants. What if their god is malevolent?

 
 
 

Occult also does some equally clever things with the meta elements it introduces, going far beyond the cameos of great director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and mangaka Peko Watanabe as themselves – or in Kurosawa’s case as horror director and hobby archaeologist Kurosawa and in Watanabe’s case as mangaka and automatic writer Watanabe. There’s a really clever plot twist I don’t have the heart to spoil based on Shiraishi’s position as a character in his own film that demonstrates a clear eye for audience psychology, a sense of self-irony, and quite a degree of ruthlessness, and that really gave me the feeling of just having had the rug pulled from under my feet when it occurred. It also fits right in with the very quiet, and very dry sense of humour that’s also running through the film.

The only element of Occult that just does not work at all are its special effects. These are just plain atrocious, looking as if the effects budget had consisted of the spare change Shiraishi found in his trouser pockets, and really ruin at least one final moment that should have been supremely creepy but turns out to be rather hilarious in just the wrong way. If you want to be prepared, I have provided a screenshot of the moment in question. Fortunately, the film doesn’t need the effects to be convincing for most of its running time – its effect on a given viewer is much more based on its own intelligence working with the viewer’s imagination. Still, it would have been nice if someone had provided Shiraishi with the $500 he could have used to upgrade the effects from ridiculously bad to horrible.

The problem of its “special” effects notwithstanding, Occult is a film that should delight anyone interested in Japanese low budget horror with a brain. It’s a film well worth ignoring its effects, and digging up the fansubs to understand what’s going on in it.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.