Category Archives: Retro Reviews (RetViews)

RetView #55 – The Giant Claw (1957)

Title: The Giant Claw

Year of Release: 1957

Director: Fred F Sears

Length: 75 mins

Starring: Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Lou Merrill, Edgar Barrier

1947 was a pivotal year in the development of the human race in many ways. Two separate incidents occurred that had a profound effect on popular culture (in particular writers and filmmakers) and, if you believe some of the conspiracy theorists, science and technology. First, in June, there was the Roswell incident. Then, the following month, Kenneth Arnold made his famous UFO sighting and inadvertently coined the phrase ‘flying saucers’. These two seismic events, coming so soon after World War II was effectively brought to a sudden halt by America’s two-pronged nuclear assault on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had a wide-ranging influence on America’s psyche, and by extension, the rest of the world. It was a period of great change and infinite possibilities. Over the next decade countless movies tried to tap into this rich vein of fear, paranoia and uncertainty running through the public consciousness, and The Giant Claw (sometimes referred to as the Mark of the Claw) is a fine example.

Whilst engaged in a radar test flight, civil engineer Mitch MacAfee (Morrow, who also starred in the Twilight Zone episode Elegy) spots what he thinks is a UFO. Three jet fighter aircraft are scrambled to pursue and identify the object, but one goes missing. Officials are initially angry at MacAfee over the loss of a pilot and jet over what they believe to be a hoax. When MacAfee and mathematician Sally Caldwell (Corday) fly back to New York, their aircraft also comes under attack and crash lands in the mountains. A farmer (Merrill) comes to their rescue and tells them about a local legend speaking of huge birds. Again, MacAfee’s report is met with skepticism, but the authorities are forced to take his story seriously when several more aircraft disappear. They discover that instead of some alien craft, a gigantic bird “as big as a battleship” purported to come from an anti-matter galaxy, is responsible. MacAfee, Caldwell, Dr. Karol Noymann (Barrier), and General Considine (Ankrum) set to work finding a way to defeat the seemingly invincible creature before it wreaks havoc on America. They are partially successful, and eventually invent a weapon capable of killing the creature, but not before it strikes at the very heart of capitalism by attacking New York. This is when it becomes obvious that the giant bird is a damn commie (on a subliminal level, the monstrous entity also probably represents the looming, destructive fear of the unknown, which is arguably the same thing) because it wastes no time venting its fury on the United Nations building during a cheesy, yet fun-filled and strangely intoxicating climax.

The movie was distributed by Columbia Pictures as a double feature with The Night The World Exploded (1957) and was directed by Fred Sears, a legend of the B movie genre most famous for Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956) and Rock Around the Clock (1956). Tragically, shortly after The Giant Claw was released he was found dead by a security guard in the washroom of his office at Sunset Studios of Columbia Pictures at the age of 45. By then, he had directed over fifty films and acted in many more, usually in uncredited roles. According to Richard Harland Smith of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the inspiration for the story may have been taken from media reports about scientific discoveries in the field of particle physics, dealing with matter and antimatter. Other influences included the Japanese film Rodan (1956) and the Samuel Hopkins Adams story “Grandfather and a Winter’s Tale,” about a mythical bird-like creature prominent in French-Canadian folklore called la Carcagne, which appeared in the January 1951 issue of The New Yorker.

Critical reception was extremely negative, with the special effects in particular roundly mocked. Film writer and historian Bill Warren commented, “This would have been an ordinarily bad movie of its type, with a good performance by Jeff Morrow, if the special effects had been industry standard for the time. That, however, is not what happened. The Claw is not just badly rendered, it is hilariously rendered, resembling nothing so much as Warner Bros. Cartoon-character Beaky Buzzard. Once seen, you will never forget this awesomely silly creation.”

Wowzer.

Trivia Corner

Jeff Morrow later confessed in an interview that no one in the film knew what the monster looked like until the film’s premiere, since it was added later. Morrow himself first saw the film in his hometown, and hearing the audience laugh every time the monster appeared on screen, left the theatre early, went home and started drinking.


RetView #54 – The Burning (1981)

Title: The Burning

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Tony Maylam

Length: 91 mins

Starring: Brian Matthews, Lou David, Leah Ayres, Brian B, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexanda

Like The Slayer and the original Evil Dead, this is another film that got caught up in the whole ‘video nasty’ storm of the early eighties. Not that it did The Burning any harm. Quite the opposite, actually. Directed by Englishman Tony Maylam and featuring an original score by Rick Wakeman of Yes fame, it was partially based on the Cropsey Maniac urban legend and produced by Miramax, but let’s not talk about that. Yet.

One night at Camp Blackfoot, some teenaged fun-seeking campers pull a thigh-slappingly funny prank on an alcoholic caretaker named Cropsy (David) by placing a skull next to his bed with candles in the eye sockets and banging on the window to wake him up. Being a bit pissed (the British version, which means ‘drunk’ rather than the American version of pissed – angry – though by this point it’s very possible he’s both) he accidentally knocks the skull onto his bed starting a fire, which soon engulfs both him and his cabin. Still ablaze, the caretaker runs outside and stumbles down an embankment into a river as the boys flee. Years later, the disfigured and vengeful Cropsy is released from an extended stint hospital, where he had also become the butt of jokes (“This guy’s burned so bad he’s cooked. A fucking Big Mac!”) and goes on the warpath with a set of garden shears. Marvellous.

The early eighties were the peak of the slasher film, and The Burning almost got lost in the crush. As slasher films go, it has to rank near the top end of the scale, if only because there have been so many worse ones. The effects are sketchy and it seems formulaic and derivative at times, but the plot has enough about it to it to keep you entertained. Plus there are some textbook jump scares and a kill every ten minutes or so. Which, incidentally, is by design rather than happy accident. It’s also notable for marking the big-screen debuts of Holly Hunter, who went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1993 for her role in The Piano, Jason Alexanda whose greatest triumph was playing George Castanza in Seinfeld, and Fisher Stevens, who appeared as Ben in the Short Circuit films.

These days, however, The Burning is probably most famous (or infamous) for launching the career of one Harvey Weinstein. In 1980, he was a fresh-faced young concert promoter desperate to break into the movie business. Recognizing the success of low-budget horror films such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978), he began swapping horror stories with various acquaintances, including producing partner Michael Cohl. Having heard about the aforementioned Cropsy legend as a youngster, Weinstein sounded out the concept to Cohl, who loved the idea. They roped in Weinstein’s brother, Bob, as a screenwriter and together the trio came up with The Burning. It would be the first film put out by Miramax, the production company named after the Weinstein brother’s parents, Miriam and Max.

In light of the later Weinstein controversy, there are several uncomfortable themes running through The Burning; horny boys forever trying to coerce unwilling girls into having sex with them and voyeurism being just the tip (sorry) of the iceberg. There are more than a few uneasy moments, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons, like the camera lingering on a topless girl in the shower far too long and the wholly unnecessary premature ejaculation scene (“I’ll do better next time, baby.”) I don’t know, maybe this movie is just a product of its time. As the cliché goes, things were different then. Sure, you could say Weinstein and his crew were simply portraying teenage life, testosterone-driven urges and all, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s definitely full of creepy vibes and it’s difficult to imagine a world where any of this was ever okay.

The film originally had a vastly different ending, and Maylam has since said that there was talk of a sequel around the time it was wrapping. However, Maylam was weary of being type-cast as a horror director and the disappointing box office performance of the original stalled the sequel’s production. It has since attained cult classic status, but upon release it made back less than half of its $1.5 million budget in the US. It was, however, very popular in Japan, which probably tells its own story.

Trivia Corner:

To create Cropsy’s distorted POV shots, the cinematographer rubbed Vaseline on the outside edges of the camera lens. I bet he didn’t learn that in film school.


RetView #53 – Flatliners (1990)

Title: Flatliners

Year of Release: 1990

Director: Joel Schumacher

Length: 114 mins

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt

If Lost Boys was director Joe Schumacher’s Highway to Hell moment, Flatliners was his Back in Black. The 1990 blockbuster produced by Michael Douglas (yes, that one) and Rick Bieber, and distributed by Columbia Pictures, took its inspiration from a Jack London short story originally published in 1899 called A Thousand Deaths, which was about a patient being deliberately killed and resuscitated by a mad scientist. Propelled by an uber cool Brat Pack cast, on its theatrical release Flatliners was a smash hit, instantly claiming the No 1 slot at the Box Office and raking in a cool $10 million-plus on its opening weekend.

When medical student Nelson Wright (Sutherland) convinces a bunch of his classmates to help him discover what lies behind the veil of death, you know it’s all going to go wrong. They help him flatline (hence the title) and he ‘returns’ to verify that there is indeed something there. The classmates Joe (Baldwin), David (Bacon), Randy (Platt) and Rachel (Roberts) all decide to follow suit, and each have very different, but invariably harrowing experiences. After the experiments, they begin to suffer what they think are hallucinations, all related to some unresolved issue in their past. One-by-one the students confront the demons of their past, with some coming out of it better than others, eventually allowing them to move on with their lives. The overriding message here seems to concern coming to terms with the more tragic side of life, and learning how to learn and move on from it. Joel Schumacher was intrigued by the spiritual and horrific aspects of Flatliners, and enthused about the possibilities of creating a visually exciting film. He said: “[This] is a story about atonement and forgiveness involving these students who, in a sense, violate the gods and pay a price. I think we would all like to know what’s in store for us after we die. There have been thousands of reports from all over the world from those who have encountered ‘near death’, and most of them have reported pleasant experiences. Our movie, however, is saying that you’re not to tamper with death.”

Despite boasting a stellar cast, the movie has always proved divisive. As with many films of the era, in occasion it falls victim to being more about style than substance and for some reason never quite tapped into that all-forgiving nostalgic vibe. On Metacritic it’s score currently stands at a modest 55% from ten ‘mixed or average’ critical reviews, while on the same site its user rating is a much more healthy 9.2/10. The New York Times said, “Flatliners is a stylish, eerie psychological horror film laced with wit, a movie that thrives on its characters’ guilty secrets and succeeds on the strength of the director Joel Schumacher’s flair for just this sort of smart, unpretentious entertainment While at the other end of the spectrum, The Orlando Sentinel said, “Far-fetched as the premise is, I was willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt for the sake of the impressive cast. But as Flatliners rolled along, its pretentiousness became increasingly toxic.”

A perfect example, if ever there was one, of not being able to please all the people all the time.

In 2017, a new version was released, confusingly with the same name, which functions as both a remake and a stand-alone sequel. Repeating the pattern of the first film, reviews were generally negative, the general idea being that the movie once again failed to live up to an interesting premise. Despite this, again it proved to be a moderate Box Office success. Interestingly, a deleted scene from the movie establishes Kieffer Sutherland’s character Dr. Barry Wilson to be an older version of Nelson Wright having changed his name and begun living under a different identity.

Trivia Corner:

Though they are all supposed to be approximately the same age, in actual fact Kevin Bacon was many years older than the rest of the main cast having made his film debut 12 years earlier in National Lampoon’s Animal House which, ironically, also starred Kiefer Sutherland’s father, Donald.


RetView #52 – Shutter (2008)

Title: Shutter

Year of Release: 2008

Director: Masayuki Ochiai

Length: 83 mins

Starring: Joshua Jackson, Rachael Taylor, Megumi Okina, David Denman, John Hensley, Maya Hazen

“From the executive producers of THE GRUDGE and THE RING,” the poster screams, in reference to Takashige Ichese and Roy Lee, who were indeed responsible for at least the US remakes of those movies (only Ichese was involved in the Japanese originals). And it shows. This film, a remake of a 2004 Japanese/Thai movie of the same name was just a little too eager to jump on the A-Horror bandwagon which was then running out of control and really could have gone awfully wrong. But it didn’t. Instead, despite some early mixed reviews, the US version of Shutter was a huge commercial success, grossing almost $48 million from a measly $8 million budget. That’s some achievement. And the numbers are justified. Though derivative at times, like a lot of Asian horror movies tend to be, Shutter is a truly exceptional piece of work.

Newlyweds Ben (Jackson) and Jane Shaw (Taylor) leave New York and head for a new life in Japan. Ben, a photographer, has lived there before. While driving through the countryside, Jane runs over a girl standing in the middle of the road and crashes their car into a tree. However, when they come to their senses and go looking for the body they find nothing, not so much as a drop of blood. After the emergency services come and clean up the mess, they try their best to put the whole sorry episode behind them. But from then on, all the pictures the couple take are ruined by some weird white mist. Ben’s assistant Seiko (Hazen) identifies the photographs as examples of spirit photography and introduces Jane to her ex-boyfriend who works on a spooky magazine. It turns out the paranormal is big in Japan. Who knew?

From there, things deteriorate further for the couple. The white mist begins to morph into what looks like a ghostly figure, Jane suffers nightmares, and Ben experiences physical pain in his shoulder, which he attributes to the car crash, that makes him a virtual hunchback. Both feel the ominous sensation of being stalked. Matters come to a head when Jane has a close encounter with the ghost. There are many kinds of supernatural entities in Japanese mythology and folklore, which we in the West group together as ‘ghosts’ for our convenience. This particular kind of ‘ghost,’ which has died a violent death or is motivated by revenge or sorrow, is known as Yurei. Jane learns that the yurei’s name was Megumi Tanaka (Okina). Furthermore, as with a lot of married couples, it turns out Ben and Jane have a few secrets from one another. Ben knew Megumi from when he worked in Japan. Intimately. When confronted, Ben admits being in a relationship with her but claims he broke it off when Megumi became too clingy, doing a runner with the help of his ex-pat friends Adam (Hensley) and Bruno (Denman). In despair, Migumi commits suicide. Hence the rather pissed-off yurei. She first targets Adam and Bruno, for reasons which become crystal clear later on, then goes after Ben and Jane who run back to New York. Little do they know, their nightmare isn’t over and the small matter of 6,500 miles isn’t going to put a damper on Migumi’s pity party. There’s one more sting in the tail. Several, actually. And at the very end, we see the real cause of that phantom pain in Ben’s shoulder. That scene alone cements Shutter’s place in the RetView series.

Shutter packs a lot into its 83 mins (90 mins unrated cut) running time. True, it features many of the classic triggers and tropes we’ve come to expect from Asian (and in particular, Japanese) horror movies; unrequited love, revenge, folklore, technology gone bad, and wraps them all together in a slick little bundle ripe to be consumed by Western audiences. It works. I think the reason Shutter was no negatively received by critics is the fact that it came so soon after Hollywood remakes of The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, Pulse and others. In 2008 alone, Shutter arrived arm-in-arm with a slew of comparable efforts such as The Eye, Mirrors, The Echo and One Missed Call. By then, the backlash was beginning, and Shutter perhaps fell victim to that. In the cold light of day (or even better, in the dead of night) Shutter is essential viewing.

By the way, if you’re a fan of the genre you might like to check out what happened during my J-Horror movie marathon.

Trivia Corner:

Shutter does a great job of picking up actors better known for their comic ability and brought them kicking and screaming over to the dark side. Joshua Jackson made his name as Charlie Conway in the Mighty Ducks trilogy, while David Denman is best known for playing Roy Anderson, Pam Beesly’s fiancé (before she got together with Jim Halpert) in the US version of The Office.


RetView #51 – The Gorgon (1964)

Title: The Gorgon

Year of Release: 1964

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 83 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco, Jeremy Longhurst, Prudence Hyman

Methinks it’s high time we paid another visit to the Hammer Horror vault. The plot of this camp classic, which has more cheese than a stuffed crust Domino’s pizza (just look at that poster!) was based on an idea submitted by Canadian fan J. Llewellyn Divine after Hammer placed an advert in The Daily Cinema magazine reading (in part), “Got an idea you think would make a good film? One with an exciting title to match? Good, compulsive selling ideas with the right titles are what hammer are looking for right now.” The original story concept, which was based on ancient Greek mythology, was expanded into a screenplay, and the film eventually succeeded in reuniting the stellar partnership of Cushing and Lee after a four-year absence. It also marked the return to Hammer of director Terence Fisher, who hadn’t worked for the company since the failure of Phantom of the Opera (1962) several years earlier. This film is often listed as one of Fisher’s personal favourites, and is fairly typical of his work which is characterised as being a, “Blend of fairytale myth and the supernatural alongside themes of sexuality, morality, and ‘the charm of evil.’”

It’s the year 1910, and the setting is a picturesque German village called Vandorf, where a mysterious creature is attacking people and turning them into stone, which nobody thinks is weird at all. When his girlfriend falls victim, Bruno (Longhurst) becomes prime suspect and commits suicide. However, professor Maister (Lee) isn’t convinced of Bruno’s guilt and harbours suspicions that Magaera, a sister of snake-haired Medusa, is responsible, a creature so ugly that she turns everyone who lays eyes on her into stone (which might explain Cardiff City’s defensive frailties this season). He then sets out to help Bruno’s brother, Paul (Pasco) find her and wreak vengeance. Unfortunately, Magaera has the ability to disguise herself and could be any one of a cast of characters including the creepy Dr Namarov (Cushing) and his assistant Carla (Shelley) who, conveniently, work at the local mental hospital. What unfolds is an intriguing build on a simple, millennia-old premise, complete with hammy acting, lush scenery and period stage sets.

Though the name of The Gorgon character is “Megaera (Jealous),” in ancient mythology, Megaera is one of the three Erinyes (or Furies), the goddesses of revenge, not a proper Gorgon. According to Hesiod, the three Gorgons were, in fact, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. Film lore maintains that leading lady Barbara Shelley wanted to play The Gorgon using a special wig fitted with live green garden snakes woven into it for a more realistic effect, but her idea was vetoed due to budget restrictions. Which was a crying shame because I think that’s something many cinema-goers would love to see. In fact, a different actress altogether (Hyman) was brought in for the climactic Gorgon scenes with the producers blaming a tight filming schedule, though the real reason was probably an attempt to maintain an air of secrecy about who was playing which character amidst all the media speculation the film was generating. Strangely, Hyman is given the credit Chateline, a character not mentioned in either the script nor the film.

When producer Anthony Nelson Keys saw the abysmal Gorgon effects in the finished movie, he told Shelley that he should have listened to her and got her the snake wig. As it happened, the only snakes on show were mechanical prompting Sir Christopher Lee to later quip, “The only thing wrong with the Gorgon is the Gorgon.” True, after a big set-up, the final appearance of the monster is slightly deflating, something the Monthly Film Bulletin picked up on dubbing it, “Vague and insufficiently spectacular.”

By contrast, Peter Cushing loved working on the film, commenting during production, “Hammer have got to the heart of the matter. When so-called ‘horror’ films first came in, everyone got on the bandwagon and some awful stuff was churned out, but over the years Hammer have made better and better films.”

Trivia Corner:

During filming, Prudence Hyman was almost decapitated for real. She was supposed to duck when Sir Christopher Lee swung the sword, but forgot to do so at the critical moment. The Assistant Director pushed her aside just in time. The scene was then redone with a dummy, just to be on the safe side. The scene took over a month to shoot. Hyman and Lee had met years earlier when Hyman had been a travelling ENSA artist, and a young RAF lieutenant called Christopher Lee piloted the plane she was on through a terrible storm.

GO HERE for previous RetView installments.


RetView #50 – Jaws (1975)

Title: Jaws

Year of Release: 1975

Director: Steven Spielberg

Length: 124 mins

Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary

I wanted to do something a bit special for this landmark 50th RetView, and you could probably count on your fingers the number of movies, of any genre, that have had more of a cultural impact than Jaws. In fact, these days it is widely considered one of the best films ever made. It was based on the novel of the same name Peter Benchley was commissioned to write by Doubleday in the early seventies, though rumour has it that he was ejected from the film set for making a nuisance of himself. To date, the movie has spawned three sequels despite declining popularity and commercial performance, the franchise reaching its nadir in 1987 with Jaws: The Revenge which, conversely, is generally acknowledged as one of the WORST movies of all time. The Jaws franchise is a prime example of how to go from hero to zero in four easy steps. It’s probably fair to say that by 1987, the killer shark premise was beginning to wear a little thin. They probably did well to take it as far as they did. But while the series ended badly, upon its release in the summer of 1975 the original movie was nothing short of a revelation, terrifying beach-goers everywhere, raking in an astonishing $470 million at the Box Office from a $9 million budget, and going on to win no fewer than three Academy Awards, making it one of Universal’s biggest ever triumphs. All things considered, it’s well worth a closer look.

If, by some miracle, you’re unfamiliar with the plot, it’s pretty easy to swallow (sorry). When a giant man-eating Great White shark starts terrorizing a nondescript New England town called Amity, threatening not only swimmers but local businesses much to the chagrin of the local mayor (Hamilton), police chief Martin Brody (Scheider) is called into action. After getting slapped in the face and shouted at several times by affected locals, he eventually enrols a grizzled professional shark hunter called Quint (brilliantly portrayed by Shaw) and a witty marine biologist (a pre-Close Encounters of the Third Kind Dreyfuss) and together the trio head off into the open sea on Quint’s too-small boat called the Orca (named after the only natural enemy of the Great White) to hunt down the pesky fish. Incidentally, if you didn’t get the reference, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” is a classic line from the movie delivered by Brody upon seeing the size of the shark they were dealing with and has been ‘meme famous’ ever since. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb later revealed that the line wasn’t scripted, but ad-libbed by Scheider.

The musical score, which went on to become a classic piece of music synonymous with impending doom, was composed by John Williams. Widely regarded as one of the greatest film composers of all time, Williams also wrote the music for Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones films and, er, Home Alone. During his distinguished career he has won 25 Grammy Awards, five Academy Awards (including one for the Jaws theme) and four Golden Globes. Discussing the piece that kick-started his career, he described the Jaws theme as, “Grinding away at you, just as a shark would do. Instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.”

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Jaws was the first major motion picture to be shot on the ocean, resulting in a troubled, prolonged shoot that far exceeded its budget. Among the issues the crew had to contend with were unpredictable weather, vessels drifting into shot, the effects of salt water corrosion on equipment, everyone getting seasick and problems with the life-sized mechanical sharks. There were so many problems the story goes that disgruntled crew members dubbed the film, “Flaws.”

So what made Jaws so popular? And why does it remain so?

In a nutshell, not only does it feature a great director, a solid plot, a memorable script, a brilliant cast, impressive special effects and an awesome soundtrack, but it appeals to our primal fears. People don’t belong in large bodies of water. We know this. The stuff living in there don’t like us and that particular environment is not conducive to having a good time. On re-watching the movie with a critical eye, it is noticeable how little screen time Spielberg actually gives the shark. This is testament to his unparalleled film-making skills and ability to ramp up the tension using only dialogue and, in one memorable scene, a drunken sing-a-long. Gottlieb would later reference the original 1951 version of The Thing, amongst other classics, where, “the suspense was built up because the creature was always off-camera.” This enabled the crew to concentrate on showing the ‘effects’ of the monster (or in this case, the shark) rather than the monster itself. Given the post-Watergate political landscape the movie was released into, it’s inevitable that critics drew certain conclusions. Perhaps overthinking things a bit, film critic Andrew Britton has suggested that narrative alterations from the book (Hooper’s survival, the shark’s explosive death) help make it “a communal exorcism, a ceremony for the restoration of ideological confidence,” and suggested that the experience of the film is “inconceivable” without the audience’s jubilation when the shark is annihilated, signifying the obliteration of evil itself. In his view, Brody serves to demonstrate that “Individual action by the one just man is still a viable source for social change.”

In perhaps the most serious bout of overthinking ever, Fredric Jameson went even further, highlighting the polysemy of the shark and the multiple ways in which it could be taken, from representing alien menaces such as communism or the Third World to more intimate concerns like the unreality of contemporary American life and the vain efforts to sanitize the concept of death. He asserts that its symbolic function is to be found in this very “polysemousness which is profoundly ideological, insofar as it allows essentially social and historical anxieties to be folded back into apparently ‘natural’ ones … to be recontained in what looks like a conflict with other forms of biological existence.”

‘Kay then.

Trivia Corner:

According to Spielberg, the prop arm used in the scene where Chrissie’s remains are found looked too fake. So instead, they buried a female crew member in the sand with only her arm exposed. Simple, yet effective.


RetView #49 – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Title: The Curse of Frankenstein

Year of Release: 1957

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 83 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urqhuart, Valerie Gaunt

Like Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Curse of Frankenstein was another Hammer Films production and, along with Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959), is now seen as a cornerstone of the British institution’s considerable repertoire. The premise is obviously based on Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 tale Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. It was the first of the Frankenstein series, the very first Hammer movie to be made in colour, and has retrospectively been dubbed the first “Really gory horror film” by Professor Patricia MacCormac. It has also been credited with revitalizing a stagnating genre. All things considered, it makes perfect RetView fodder.

The story is told in flashback form when, in 19th Century Switzerland, Baron Victor Frankenstein (Cushing) is on trial for murder and confesses his story to a visiting priest. The film then cuts to a newly-orphend 15-year old Victor who hires a private tutor, Dr. Paul Krempe (Urqhuart), to teach him science. Together, the pair start a sequence of experiments geared toward bringing dead animals back to life. The experiments are successful, but when his cousin Elizabeth (Court) moves in and Frankenstein suggests making a ‘perfect’ human being from scavenged body parts, Krempe opts out. However, he is brought back into the fold when the monster (Lee, who was awarded the role primarily due to his 6’5” frame and his modest £8-a day fee), now equipped with a damaged (ie defective) brain, escapes into the nearby woods and kills a blind man. What a blind man is doing in the woods by himself is anyone’s guess, but anyway…

Realizing it is out of control, Krempke shoots the monster and the men bury it in the woods. However, as soon as Krempke departs, Frankenstein digs it up again and reanimates it. The rotten bastard. Back at the house, his maid Justine, with whom he has been having an affair, reveals she is pregnant and threatens to expose his grisly experiments unless he marries her. This doesn’t sit too well with the rampaging Victor, and he quickly has the monster dispatch her which is what lands him in jail. The visiting priest doesn’t believe his story. Krempke and Elizabeth, who are now happily shacked up together, refuse to corroborate it, presumably in an attempt to stop the same thing happening again, and ***SPOILER ALERT*** Victor is led away to the guillotine.

The film was an immediate smash hit for Hammer, it’s comparatively low budget contributing heavily to its financial success as there were comparatively fewer costs to offset. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who adapted Mary Shelley’s book for the screen, was so anxious to keep costs down he didn’t write in scenes of villagers storming the castle as seen in other Frankenstein films, “Because we couldn’t afford it.” The ploy worked. The movie was produced on a budget of just £65,000, and some sources estimate the film recouped at least 70 times that figure. For many years, it held the distinction of being the most profitable movie to be produced in England by a British studio and has always been much-loved by the public, which is reflected in various contemporary reviews and its Rotten Tomatoes rating which currently sits at a respectable 77% from 3,815 ratings. However, it was given a luke-warm reception upon it’s original release, a review in the New York Times dismissing it as a “Routine horror film,” and the Tribune of London calling it, “Depressing and degrading.”

Okay, then.

A quick word on the fate of Hammer Productions; the company effectively ceased production in the mid-1980’s. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In May 2007 the company name, along with its entire library of some 295 movies, was bought by a consortium headed by Dutch media tycoon John de Mol which vowed to, “Take it back into production and develop its global potential.” True to it’s manifesto, the company financed a return to the fold in the form of contemporary horror Beyond the Rave (2008). That isn’t a typo, by the way. It really is a horror movie about a rave. That was followed by a steady stream of offerings including Wake Wood (2011) and, more recently, The Lodge (2019), which proved a surprise hit. In September 2019, hammer signed a worldwide distribution deal with StudioCanal for its catalogue, so after some uncertain times, the future is looking bright.

Trivia Corner:

Although Hammer’s two great stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee had appeared in several pictures before, including Hamlet (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1952), their long-lasting friendship was cemented on the set of Curse of Frankenstein when Lee stormed into Cushing’s dressing room saying, “I’ve got no lines!” To which Cushing allegedly responded, “You’re lucky, have you read the script?”


Retview #48 – Siren (2016)

Title: Siren

Year of Release: 2016

Director: Gregg Bishop

Length: 82 mins

Starring: Chase Williamson, Justin Welborn, Michael Aaron Milligan, Mayes Mercure, Randy McDowell, Hannah Fierman

As a rule, the RetView series focuses on movies a decade or more old, though I do break that rule from time to time for exceptional offerings. Siren (not to be confused with 2019’s THE Siren), a feature-length interpretation of Amateur Night, David Bruckner’s segment from the first V/H/S film (2012), is definitely that. You know the bit I’m talking about, where the three hopeless misogynists take a couple of chicks back to a hotel room for sex and shenanigans, not realising one of them is a scary AF supernatural entity which then proceeds to chase them down and rip them limb from limb. Coincidentally, Siren’s director Gregg Bishop made a splash in 2014 when he wrote and directed the Dante the Great section in V/H/S: Viral. Here, he takes the basic concept from the first V/H/S film and extrapolates it. There was always a danger that there might not be enough material to do this successfully, but I’m happy to report that isn’t the case. Reminiscent of the Species series, despite some indifferent reviews, Siren is one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years. Happily, I wasn’t the only one to think so, with the LA Times dubbing it a, “Clever and confident expansion of a terrific short.”

A week before he marries his childhood sweetheart, Jonah (Chase Williamson from Beyond the Gates) and his bros go on a last drink and ‘shroom-fuelled bender. They end up in a dodgy strip joint, where they meet a stranger who tells them about a secret underground club, where they will be able to indulge their wildest fantasies. There, they find a waif-like beauty called Lily (aka ‘the Lilith’) who they assume is an innocent girl who has been unwillingly trafficked into the sex trade, thereby proving that even misogynists on drugs have hearts. Sometimes. The well-meaning dopes free her, only to realize she is, in fact, a succubus. And not a very nice one at that. In fact, she’s pretty fucking terrifying. The tag line, “No man can resist her. All men should,” is scarily apt.

The first poor Jonah sees of her angry succubus status is when Lily sprouts a massive tail and brutally slaughters one the guards where she’s being held captive. He and his boys wisely make a swift exit, but then find themselves pursued by both Lily and the bad guys. Bummer, dude. However, the twist is that Lily doesn’t really want to kill Jonah. She just wants to kill his friends because she feels they are standing in her way. She is attracted to Jonah because he showed her kindness, and even tells him so. Right before she does some unspeakable things to him with that massive tail of hers. Of course, being a stand-up guy about to marry the love of his life, Jonah isn’t interested in a romantic hook-up with a succubus. However, he might not have a choice.

A nice touch is the retaining of Lily’s character (again played by Hanna Fierman) which makes this film both a continuation and a spin-off of the original short. Despite her propensity for disembowelling people and eating their insides, you can’t help but root for her. She’s the archetypal damaged heroine. Actually, it’s quite hard to judge who the good guys and bad guys are throughout this film, something else that makes it more interesting than the usual horror-by-numbers. That and the sad fact that there just aren’t enough movies about succubuses (or succubi?). None of the bachelor party are what you might call likeable characters, and the club owners come across as a particularly cruel bunch, but in reality are doing a public service by keeping Lily away from the general populace. This, I feel, is a deliberate ploy designed to toy with the viewer’s emotions. Another example comes half-way through when some cops, who as we all know are supposed to protect and serve, turn out to be interested in doing anything but protect and serve. So yeah, Lily is the real star of Siren, which is why I feel we should have been treated to more of her mythology and back story. I bet she has a few tales (sic) to tell. An origin film would be brilliant. Maybe next time, eh?

Trivia Corner:

For the parts where Lily sings, the plan was to have Hannah Fierman lip sync to a guide track. But she impressed the producers so much they opted to stick with her vocals.


Retview #47 – The Grudge (2004)

Title: The Grudge

Year of Release: 2004

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Length: 91 mins

Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Bill Pullman, KaDee Strickland, Takako Fuji

First up, let’s address the big fuck off elephant in the room and put to bed any lingering speculation; this is the 2004 Hollywood remake of the 2002 J-Horror classic Ju-On: The Grudge, not the original (though both were written and directed by Takashi Shimizu). I was torn as to which version to write about for this series, this one winning on account of having Sarah Michelle Gellar in it who, when this first came out, was riding the crest of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-shaped wave. Yes, I’m that shallow. This project came at an interesting junction in her career as she was trying to capitalize on her Buffy fame but in serious danger of being typecast as a modern day scream queen after earlier roles in the teen classics I know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2 (both 1997).

Hiring Shimizu for this project was a masterstroke, as the movie largely keeps it’s Japanese flavour. Being filmed in Tokyo and featuring several notable Japanese stars also helped. Yuya Ozeki, Takako Fuji and Takashi Matsuyama all appeared in the two Japanese films upon which this was based, reprising their roles as the doomed Saeki family. The movie is also notable for an appearance by Ted raimi, younger brother of Sam, one of the film’s producers and creator of the legendary Evil Dead series. This version of The Grudge distributed by Columbia Pictures was itself followed by two sequels in Grudge 2 (2006) and Grudge 3 (2009), the latter going straight-to-video, but has very little to do with The Grudge (2020) which is known in the trade as a sidequel, a totally different movie (with the same name) taking place concurrently with events in the original series. Is that clear? Good. Let’s move on.

Somewhat unusually, the movie is told in a non-linear fashion and features several storylines that end up converging. The first thing we see is expat college professor Peter Kirk (Pullman) jump out of a window to his death, which instantly draws the viewer in and makes them ask WTF is going on. It soon transpires that a local housewife, Kayako (Fuji), had fallen hopelessly in love with him and been murdered by her jealous husband as a result, along with their young son, Toshio. From here on in, Gellar steals the show as Karen Davis, an American expat living in Tokyo with her boyfriend (Behr) charged with filling in for another worker, Yoko, who seems to have neglected her duties in looking after dementia-suffering patient Emma. At the house, Karen encounters the ghost of Toshio sealed up in a wardrobe and witnesses Kayako’s spirit descending from the ceiling to claim Emma. All very unsettling. When the police arrive they find the bodies of the Williams family who had unwittingly moved into the cursed house in the attic, along with Kayako’s jawbone, and the family of vengeful ghosts set out to tear it up some more. Watch out for the infamous shower scene which is probably second only to the original Psycho (1960) in the all-time list of infamous shower scenes. Now, if you found the above synopsis confusing at all, critic Roger Ebert simplifies things massively in his scathing 1-star review, “There is a haunted house, and everybody who enters it will have unspeakable things happen to them.” There you are, then.

Despite this, and a few other negative reviews, The Grudge was a huge initial success. On its opening weekend alone, it grossed $39 million, becoming the first horror film since House on Haunted Hill (1999) to top the Halloween box office and, until the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, had the highest grossing opening weekend in history for a horror remake. On May 17, 2005, the unrated director’s cut was released on DVD. Notably, this version included several scenes that were cut (including one where Takeo drags Kayako’s body through the house whilst carrying a box cutter, implying this was the instrument he used to kill her) from the original in order to achieve a lower rating from the MPAA. Incidentally, this version of the film was used on the theatrical run in Japan, which only goes to show just how hardcore Japanese audiences are. If you are a fan of J-Horror you might appreciate this or this.

Trivia Corner:

Jason Behr and KaDee Strickland met on set and began dating due to their mutual interest in Japanese culture (which is why they accepted their roles in the film) eventually marrying two years later despite not sharing any scenes together in the film.


RetView #46 – Threads (1984)

Title: Threads

Year of Release: 1984

Director: Mick Jackson

Length: 112 mins

Starring: Karen Meaghr, Reece Dinsdale

If you grew up in the 1980’s, you inevitably grew up in the looming shadow of the Cold War and all the associated bullshit. The prospect of nuclear Armageddon was never far from anyone’s thoughts, the tragedy being that none of us even knew it at the time. That highly-strung, stressed-out climate, the antithesis (or the antidote) to eighties excess and extravagance, was just normal to us. We didn’t know anything different. When Frankie Goes to Hollywood hit the charts with Two Tribes and the news was full of Thatcher and Reagan having crisis meetings, not many of us could put the pieces together and grasp the true implications. Only in retrospect are we able to put things into context, and see that we were born into a world of fear and oppression. This acclaimed BBC film does a pretty good job of depicting your worst nightmare in that it shows, “The full horror of nuclear war and its aftermath.” In many ways it served as a British version of The Day After, which had been released the year before and was nominated for no less than seven BAFTA awards, winning four of them.

Jimmy (Dinsdale, perhaps best known for his role in the Brit comedy classic Home to Roost, which debuted the following year) is a working class lad living with his parents and trying to scrape a living in Sheffield. Nothing glamorous about that. All he wants is to build a life for him and his pregnant girlfriend, Ruth (Meaghr). But rising tensions in the Middle East trigger the apocalypse, and soon World War Three between the US and the Soviet Union erupts. Britain is caught in the crossfire, with places like Sheffield in particular being targets because of their industrial heritage.

After an unremarkable opening sequence, despite its heavy use of stock footage the middle section of the film is gritty, fast-moving and harrowing, mirroring what (I imagine) it would be like if anything like this ever befell us in real life. On seeing a mushroom cloud in the distance, one of Jimmy’s colleagues looks up says, and in a tone filled with equal parts wonder and resignation, “They’ve done it.” Amidst the ensuing carnage, East and West trade blows in a seismic race to destroy each other and we are witness to widespread devastation, confusion, and blind panic, all summed up in a scene where we see a woman pissing herself in the street, which nicely demonstrates her newfound “who cares now?” attitude.

The scale of the carnage means that simply waiting for the emergency services to restore order is out of the question, chaos ensues, and it is up to those left in the wreckage to find ways to survive. For me, this is where the movie really comes into its own. Most of the population is dying slowly as a result of radiation poisoning, the power grid is down, and dwindling food stocks are controlled by a decimated central government typified by one official who says, “What’s the point of wasting food on people who are going to die anyway?”

The hangry masses are soon deposited in detention camps, Jimmy goes looking for Ruth and promptly disappears, while Ruth herself teams up with one of Jimmy’s old workmates and chows down on a dead sheep they find in the rubble. We never see Jimmy again. Instead, for the rest of the film we are left wondering what might have happened to him, this crude but effective plot device giving the viewer some insight into the uncertainty Ruth must be feeling. Months pass, Ruth has her baby, and the country struggles to achieve some sense of normality amid the misery and destruction. There is something to be said about the strength and resilience of the human spirit, yet there can be no escaping the futility to it all. The prize for survival is another day of hardship and despair.

Raw, powerful, and thought-provoking, Threads is a snapshot both of how things used to be and how things could have been, illustrating the latent fear that permeated society and, by extension, popular culture, in the heady eighties. This is grim in the extreme, but war is never glamorous or pretty and Threads does an excellent job of conveying that harsh reality. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw hailed it as a “masterpiece,” going on to say that, “It wasn’t until I saw Threads that I found something on screen that could make me break out in a cold, shivering sweat,” while Sam Troy of Empire gave the film a perfect score, stating that it, “Teaches an unforgettable lesson in true horror.”

Trivia Corner

As part of their preparation, writer Barry Hines and director Mick Jackson travelled extensively throughout the UK and US consulting leading doctors, scientists and psychologists gathering intel to help them recreate the most realistic depiction of nuclear war possible. At one point Hines visited a Home Office training centre for ‘official survivors’ which, he said, showed just, “how disorganised [post-war reconstruction] would be.”


%d bloggers like this: