Tag Archives: classic

Retview #45 – The Beast Must Die! (1974)

RetView #45

Title: The Beast Must Die

Year of Release: 1974

Director: Paul Annett

Length: 89 mins

Starring: Anton Diffring, Calvin Lockhart, Marlene Clark, Charles Gray, Peter Cushing

As regular readers of the world-renowned Retview series will know, I’m a sucker for a good werewolf movie. Or even a bad one. You could say werewolves are my favourite mythical supernatural beastie, as evidenced by previous instalments covering An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Dog Soldiers, and Hound of the Baskervilles. Okay, spoiler alert, that last one turned out to be more of a massive painted dog than a werewolf, but the viewer doesn’t know that until right at the very end when Sherlock Holmes helpfully breaks it all down. Ironically, Peter Cushing, the actor who played Holmes in that classic pops up again here in a role so fitting that it could have been (and perhaps was) written especially for him. Even before the opening credits kick in, the brief is laid bare with a bold voiceover proclaiming, “This film is a detective story in which you are the detective. The question is not, ‘Who is the murderer?’ but, ‘Who is the werewolf?’

Dum, dum, DUM!

And we’re off. Millionaire Tom Newcliffe (Lockhart) has invited an eclectic bunch of acquaintances including an artist, a famous pianist, an archaeologist and a diplomat to his mansion in rural England, every inch of which has been placed under surveillance by a high-tech security system featuring CCTV, motion-detectors and all manner of other (then) advanced technological wizardry. In time, Newcliffe and his wife (Clark) reveal to the group that one of their collected number is a werewolf, and the reason for the soiree is to find out who it is and then kill it, hence the title.

And so the fun begins.

All manner of lycanthropic lore is then called upon in a concerted attempt to uncover the beast in question, from using the wolfsbane flower to silver bullets. Needless to say a few suspects get eaten along the way, along with someone’s dog, when the werewolf goes on the rampage and starts steadily reducing the list of suspects. In fact, it probably can’t believe it’s luck. As intimated earlier, it is then up to the viewer to solve the mystery and unmask the beast.

Like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors almost a decade before, the Beast Must Die was made by Amicus Studios, a production company based at Shepperton Studios which flourished between 1962 and 1977, and came near the end of their reign. This was an era when horror movies were just beginning to come into their own, and many studios tried to be innovative and push the boundaries in a variety of ways. This particular effort was marketed as a horror mystery, and challenged the viewer to uncover the identity of the werewolf by picking up clues along the way and distinguishing them from the multitude of red herrings typical of 1970s cinema.

Conversely, near the climax there is a 30-second semi-interactive ‘werewolf break’ where viewers are encouraged to put their momney where their mouths are and name their suspect, which you can see would provoke some discourse between viewers. Though it also heavily features elements drawn from elsewhere, The Beast Must Die is based on the short story ‘There shall be No Darkness’ by American sci-fi writer James Blish, which was published in the pulp magazine thrilling Wonder Stories.

Despite a campy, seventies feel exasperated by a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in Shaft and some gloriously hammed-up acting, since it’s release, The Beast Must Die has enjoyed several re-issues, most notably in 2006, and garnered some generally favourable contemporary reviews mostly along the lines of, “Absolute Cushing classic,” and “Cracking little horror film that deserves a wider audience,” all of which which make it the very epitomization of a cult classic. An alternate version of the film omitting the ‘werewolf break,’ of which Annett was reportedly never a fan (he blamed the whole thing on producer Milton Subotsky), was later released under the title Black Werewolf (which rather gives a lot away) and you can watch the full movie, including the controversial ‘werewolf break,’ RIGHT HERE.

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Trivia Corner:

Due to the miniscule production budget, the ‘werewolf’ was played by a German Shepherd kitted out in shaggy dark fur to give it a larger, more ‘otherworldly’ look.


RetView #42 – The Blob (1958)

Title: The Blob

Year of Release: 1958

Director: Irvin Yeaworth

Length: 86 minutes

Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Olin Howland, Stephen Chase

the blob

This gets off to a thoroughly bizarre start with some bouncy, sax-led dance hall number called, imaginatively enough, Beware of the Blob by a group called the Five Blobs. All five blobs in this case were actually the same person, actor and singer Bernie Knee, who had his vocals overdubbed five times. The song was written by Mack Davis and a young Burt Bacharach, who would go on to win six Grammy Awards and three Academy Awards for his music, and became a surprise Top 40 hit in America. The nature of the theme tune was an indicator that the Blob never did take itself too seriously, and it can still be found on numerous horror and Halloween-themed compilation albums.

The premise is eerily reminiscent of War of the Worlds (the 1953 original, not the later Tom Cruise vehicle) and several other period classics. A courting couple, Steve Andrews (a 28-year old Steve McQueen in his first leading role) and Jane Martin (Corsaut) are out one evening when they see a shooting star and decide to go looking for it. Instead of finding it, they stumble across an old man (Howland) who has some weird jelly-like substance attached to his hand. Good citizens as they are, the young couple take him to the local doctor (Chase). As you can probably imagine, things escalate quite quickly after that. The Blob makes short work of the poor old man, increasing in size exponentially as it does so, then moves on to the nurse, and finally the doctor himself. Steve and Jane turn up just in time to see his grisly demise. In a panic, they go to the police, who dismiss them as pranksters.

Police Officer: They’re just kids.

Police Sergeant: Just kids? That’s the craziest argument I ever heard. Every criminal in the world was a kid once!

Both logical, and totally brilliant.

For me, this piece of dialogue, marks an interesting shift in cultural attitudes. This was the 1958, just three years after Rebel Without a Cause came out, when the battle between teenagers and various authority figures was still raging. In this not-untypical case, the film paints the teenagers as misunderstood victims who are basically good kids who just want to help, but are not given the opportunity to do so. Instead, they are unfairly judged and demonized, an attitude which tapped into the zeitgeist of the day.

Realizing that it is down to them to save the town, Steve and Jane recruit some of their friends and go about warning everyone about the (now) massive, shapeless blobby-thing going around consuming people. When the Blob appears and ransacks a movie theatre, they are vindicated and eventually work out that the best weapon against this slimy enemy is the cold. To cut a long story short, the air force then shows up and airlifts the Blob to the frozen wastes of the arctic. As the end credits begin to roll, it is acknowledged that the creature isn’t dead but has at least been stopped, to which Steve replies, in what is obviously an early comment on global warming, “Yeah, as long as the arctic stays cold.”

In keeping with its overriding theme of teen angst (for which, you can argue, the blob itself is a handy metaphor) the movie was aimed directly at the then-lucrative drive-in market, and released as a double feature with I Married a Monster from Outer Space. It was originally the B-movie, but soon proved so popular that the slots on the bill were reversed. Since then, it has gone on to achieve cult status. A sequel, Beware the Blob (aka Son of Blob, which indicates that the original blob was somehow able to procreate) was eventually released in 1972. Directed by Larry Hagman from Dallas, it used the tagline ‘The movie JR shot.” The original was remade in 1988, and yet another remake (at one time mooted to be directed by Rob Zombie) is in the works. Most impressively of all, since the year 2000, the town of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where most of the movie was filmed, has hosted an annual Blobfest in homage.

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Trivia Corner

Steve (for the first and only time listed in the credits as ‘Steven.’) McQueen received a flat $3,000 fee for his role, turning down an offer for a smaller up-front fee in return for a 10% percent share of profits. He thought the film would never make money, and needed money quickly to pay for food and rent. However, The Blob ended up being a huge a hit, costing only $110,000 and grossing $4 million.


RetView #40 – Mysterious Island (1961)

Title: Mysterious Island

Year of Release: 1961

Director: Cy Endfield

Length: 101 mins

Starring: Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Dan Jackson, Herbert Lom

mi

I remember seeing this film one wet afternoon as a kid, and being absolutely captivated by it. It’s the kind of boy’s adventure that just appeals to your sense of boldness and wonder. The original story was written by Jules Verne in 1874, and became an integral part of the so-called Voyages Extraordinaires, a sprawling series of no less than 54 novels published between 1863 and 1905 which included such classics as Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The book has been adapted at least eight other times over the years, most recently in 2012, but this 1961 version from Columbia Pictures is perhaps the most popular and enduring. It was directed by Cy Endfield, whose career highpoints came when he directed the seminal war film Zulu (1964) and wrote the sequel, Zulu Dawn (1979).

The year is 1865. It’s the height of the American Civil War, and a huge storm sweeps through a Confederate POW camp where a ragtag crew of Union soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Craig) are planning an escape. Using the storm as cover, they grab a couple of Confederates who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, pile into an observation balloon (the 19th Century equivalent of a stealth bomber) and make their getaway. The balloon carries them clean across America and over the Pacific Ocean, until another storm strikes and the balloon starts losing gas forcing them to land on, you guessed it, a mysterious island. The escapees quickly regroup and assign roles, with one poor bloke becoming designated ‘vegetable finder’ which must have looked great on his CV. It doesn’t take long before the intrepid group run into a giant crab. As you do. Now if you’ve ever wanted to see a bunch of men fight off a giant crab with sticks, this is the film for you. They eventually succeed in tipping it over into a conveniently boiling geyser and eating it. Brilliant. At various points they also encounter a giant flightless bird and some massive bees, along with a couple of very prim, unconscious English ladies who have been shipwrecked. Apart from the volcanoes and all the crazy big animals running around, the island begins to resemble utopia, but the group are still determined to leave and make their intentions clear by building a big boat from scratch. Personally, I’d rather chill on the island with it’s plentiful supply of food and wait to be rescued than take my chances at sea with no supplies in a boat I made myself, but that’s just me.

Then things start turning weird. More weird, I mean. The group stumbles across a lovely cave and a treasure chest containing guns, maps, and other useful shit, and then they find the mother of all payloads, the Nautilus (Captain Nemo’s legendary submarine) hidden in a subterranean passage. But before they can investigate fully, they are attacked by a rogue pirate ship, which is promptly sunk in a mysterious explosion, and most bizarrely of all, Captain Nemo himself (Lom) walks out of the sea dressed up as a giant shellfish and delivers the best line of the whole film: “Contact with my own species has always disappointed me.”

Burn!

Over a nice meal aboard the Nautilus, Captain Nemo reveals to the castaways that the giant creatures are the result of a series of genetic experiments designed to solve the world’s food shortages. He also claims responsibility for sinking the pirate ship, and reveals the entire island is about to be destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Bummer. But not to worry, Captain Nemo uses his ingenuity to refloat the knackered pirate ship and help the group make their getaway.

Mysterious Island is now widely known for the (then) groundbreaking stop motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, which became known as dynamation. In many ways it paved the way for other Harryhausen vehicles like Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981). His first feature film, Mighty Joe Young (1949) won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. The scene where the Union soldiers bust out of prison and escape in a hot air balloon were filmed in Church Square, Shepperton, Surrey, while most of the indoor scenes were filmed in nearby Shepperton Studios, and the beach scenes were filmed in Castell-Platja d’Aro in Catalonia, Spain. It would perhaps be too much of a leap to say this film still stands up today, especially in the special effects department. The truth is, it’s horribly dated. But the acting is superb and as slices of nostalgia go, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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Trivia Corner:

Fifty minutes into the movie, Sgt Pencroft (Herbert) sings a song from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However, Treasure Island wasn’t written until 1883, while the movie is set in 1865. Oops.


Retview #39 – They Live (1988)

Title: They Live

Year of Release: 1988

Director: John Carpenter

Length: 94 mins

Starring: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason

they live

And now we arrive at yet another worthy entry in this series for horror maestro John Carpenter following The Fog, The Thing and Christine, and we haven’t even come to Halloween yet. Despite making back its entire budget of $3 million in its first weekend in theatres, upon release They Live offering was largely met with lukewarm reviews and indifference. Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post, “It’s just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate.”

Ouch.

However, like so many other Carpenter films, They Live soon gathered traction and built a dedicated cult following further down the line. Since then, it has become known in underground circles as a bona fide sci-fi horror classic in the vein of Terminator and Robocop, containing all the elements essential for such an illustrious title such as satire, social commentary, a healthy dose of humour and, of course, some explosions. Its cultural impact is so profound that more than three decades after it came out, those perma-woke hipsters over at Rolling Stone are still writing articles about it.

The plot is pretty basic. Renowned wrestling star Roddy Piper, now sadly departed, plays Nada, a good-natured drifter who befriends construction worker Frank Armitage (David, who also played Kurt Russell’s sidekick in The Thing). Near a soup kitchen in a local shanty town he discovers a church full of scientific equipment, shortly thereafter the entire place is razed to the ground by police and Nada salvages a box of sunglasses. He steals one pair, and hides the rest in a dumpster.  Upon trying out the glasses the first thing he notices is that all the ads that surround us in our daily lives are really vehicles for hidden subversive messages or commands like ‘obey’ and ‘marry and reproduce.’ And that’s just the beginning. The glasses also allow him to see for the first time that the legions of yuppies populating Los Angeles, and presumably the rest of the world are, in fact, aliens. When the nasty aliens learn that Nada is well on the way to uncovering the truth, he essentially takes TV worker Holly Thompson (Foster) hostage, until she throws him through a window. Now a fugitive, Nada meets Armitage and, after a marathon six-minute street fight, finally succeeds in forcing a pair of sunglasses on his disbelieving buddy. Now alert to the truth, the two pair up to try to stop the alien invasion.

The idea for the movie came from a short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight o’clock in the Morning,” which was originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1963. It was later developed into a comic with the much snappier title Nada which was published in the Alien Encounters anthology in 1986. Carpenter acquired the film rights to both the original short story and the comic book, and used them as the basis for the screenplay which he wrote under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, which was also the name of David’s character. The name is actually an allusion to H.P. Lovecraft, one of carpenter’s favourite writers, who named a character in his classic The Dunwich Horror Henry Armitage. Ironically, most Lovecraftian horror involves a hidden or unseen world, a core element of They Live.

In the years since it came out, the movie has been taken as a metaphor for Reagan’s America, with Carpenter himself throwing fuel on the fire in various interviews. In a nutshell, the more political elements of the movie are derived from the director’s growing distaste with 1980’s commercialisation and consumerism, especially the economic policies promoted by the president which were dubbed Reaganomics. Carpenter once said, “I began watching TV again [and] quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something.”

In keeping with the OTT eighties trend of cramming as many naff one-liners in each film as was humanly possible, Piper’s peak comes with the sublime, “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum,” second only to, “Life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

A remake has been mooted since around 2010 but details remain elusive. One thing is certain, if any cult movie would benefit from a big-budget, modern-day makeover, it’s this one.

Trivia Corner

Even politically-conscious pop punk stalwarts Green Day paid homage to They Live in the video for their single Back in the USA from the 2017 compilation Greatest Hits: God’s Favourite Band.


RetView #38 – Rabid (1977)

Title: Rabid

Year of Release: 1977

Director: David Cronenberg

Length: 91 mins

Starring: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan

rabid 2

Before Scanners, Videodrome, and the 1986 remake of The Fly made Canadian writer and director David Cronenberg a household name, came this comparatively little-known cult classic. Despite the implications of the title, Rabid has nothing to do with sick animals, and everything to do with a woman who undergoes experimental surgery and spontaneously develops a strange penis-shaped appendage under her armpit. This instrument, though, isn’t for fun, it’s for sucking blood and spreading disease. Hence the ‘rabid’ of the title. Okay, I guess some more information is required.

Rose, played by porn star Marilyn Chambers in her first attempt at a ‘serious’ role, is riding pillion on a motorcycle driven, not very well, by her boyfriend Hart (Moore), when they take a nasty tumble. They both survive, but find themselves in a clandestine plastic surgery clinic overseen by the slightly creepy Dr Dan Keloid (Ryshpan) who decides to perform radical new surgery on the comatose Rose, who is the more badly injured. When Rose finally awakens from her coma, she inadvertently injures a fellow patient. It is then revealed that Dr Keloid’s experimental procedures have caused a mutation in Rose’s body, leaving her able to subsist only on human blood. Furthermore, anyone she takes blood from soon morphs into deranged, murderous zombie-like creatures, which isn’t really ideal for anyone. Understandably freaking out, Rose discharges herself from the hospital (but not before causing some more mayhem) and sets off on a cross-country hitchhiking trip whilst the police and medical fraternity try desperately to apprehend her in the face of a swelling epidemic. With the situation now out of control, a state of martial law is declared in Montreal whilst an array of scientists and doctors work feverishly to develop a cure.

Sure, as many films of this era were, Rabid is camp as hell in places and it takes a while to get going, but there is a lot to admire here. Not least the performance of Chambers, who plays the role of Rose with clarity and impressive depth. Her transition to mainstream movies, however, ultimately failed and she was back in the porn industry several years later amid claims she’d been ‘blackballed’ by Hollywood. Tragically, on 12th April 2009 she was found dead by her 17-year old daughter the cause of death determined to be a cerebral haemorrhage and aneurysm linked to heart disease. She was 56. In hindsight, it’s highly likely that Cronenberg cast her largely because of her porn background, rather than in spite of it. There is a raw sexuality bubbling beneath the surface throughout, from the penis thing growing out of Rose’s armpit to the almost orgasmic reaction she has when she feeds. Some of the special effects aren’t so special, but Rabid benefits from a cohesive narrative and a solid plot, something missing from a few more lauded Cronenberg movies. The bleak ending also sticks in the mind, which I won’t spoil for you here. When it was released, most of the Western world was being swept away on a tide of spit, vehemence and punk music, and some of that attitude bleeds through into the movie which when viewed in retrospect seems to portray Rose as a vulnerable, even unwilling, catalyst for change.

Rabid is seen by many Cronenberg aficionados to be inexorably linked with his 1975 offering Shivers and true, the two films do share many similarities. The Den of Geek website points out that if Shivers represented Cronenberg’s brief foray into zombie territory, Rabid can be seen as a tentative exploration of the vampire genre, if only for the blood sucking. There has been no shortage of discussion about Rabid in the forty-something years since its release, with the overriding opinion being that whilst it fades into mediocrity when compared to some of his later work, it marks an important junction in the then-fledgling writer/director’s career. A largely-faithful remake directed and co-written by Jen and Silvia Soska and starring Laura Vandervoort premiered at the London Frightfest Festival on August 26th 2019.

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Trivia Corner:

Cronenberg has stated that he originally wanted the sassy Sissy Spacek to play the lead, but the studio vetoed his choice because of her accent. Okay, then. Interestingly, Carrie, Spacek’s tour de force, was released during the production of Rabid, and a poster can be seen when Marilyn Chambers, Spacek’s eventual replacement for this role, walks past a movie theatre.


RetView #37 – The Thing (1982)

Title: The Thing

Year of Release: 1982

Director: John Carpenter

Length: 109 mins

Starring: Kurt Russell, T.K. Carter, A. Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Joel Polis,

the thing

This is the third entry in this series featuring the work of John Carpenter, following The Fog and Christine, and I haven’t even got to the most obvious one yet. I remember having this particular movie on VHS as a teenager. I’d recorded it off the TV, so my copy was without the swears and a fair bit of gore had been subtly edited out. I thought it was brilliant then, but with all the swears and gore included, it’s ten times better. Coming immediately after his career-defining turn as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (yet another Carpenter film), this is undoubtedly a Kurt Russell vehicle. He was involved in the production from the very early stages in helping Carpenter develop his ideas, though strangely he was the last to be officially cast. It’s pretty difficult to imagine anyone else playing MacReady, but early discussions reportedly evolved around using Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte or even Jeff Bridges as the lead.

In the frozen wastes of Antarctica, a Norwegian helicopter is shown chasing a sled dog, which runs into an American scientific research station. The helicopter lands, and is accidentally blown up by the passenger (doh!). The surviving pilot, in between stamping his feet and shooting at the poor dog, is yelling something in Norwegian, but the Americans can’t understand him, see him as a threat, and shoot him dead. ‘Murica! So then, the investigation begins. A delegation is sent to the Norwegian base, which is found to be deserted, though evidence suggests they may have found something buried in the ice. Meanwhile, the surviving sled dog is left to mingle in the kennels with the other dogs. However, it soon transforms into a gore-tastic alien creature, and is eventually killed by Childs (David) with a flame thrower. Data recovered at the Norwegian camp leads the team to a remote excavation site containing a massive partially-buried flying saucer. Now things start swimming into focus. However, it might already be too late. The team medic Blair (Brimley) autopsies the incinerated creature, and the group finally realize that they are dealing with a shapeshifting alien entity capable of assimilating not just into a sled dog, but into any of them, too. This knowledge sends Blair round the twist, and he sabotages all the vehicles to stop ‘The Thing’ escaping and locks himself in a shed in a huff. Coming to the conclusion that nobody will be safe until they categorically know they are all human, the group try to devise a test, but obviously the alien doesn’t want to be found and takes evasive action. In the end, there are just MacReady (Russell) and Childs left, and as the camp burns around them it becomes abundantly clear that one way or another, their days are severely numbered.

First, let’s talk about that ending, which has been the source of much discussion over the years, in a little more depth. It was left deliberately ambiguous, leaving the viewer to pretty much draw their own conclusions as to which one The Thing actually is; MacReady or Childs (or both, or neither). My own feeling is that Childs was looking decidedly sheepish at the end there. Carpenter actually filmed two alternative endings, one showing The Thing transform into a dog (again) and running off into the snowy wastelands, presumably to be picked up at another arctic research facility, and the other depicting MacReady being rescued and given a blood test, which he passes. Told you I was right about Childs.

In essence, the movie explores themes of paranoia and mistrust, and examines what could happen when people’s belief systems are compromised. Several critics have since suggested that it is also influenced by a latent fear of homosexuality which, in the early Eighties, was still something to be afraid of. It is indeed interesting to note that there are no women in the film, and an awful lot of phallic tentacles.  The screenplay was based on the story Who Goes There by John W Campbell, Jr (writing under the pseudonym Don. A Stuart) which was first published the August 1938 edition of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It was actually adapted once before, for the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, but the John Carpenter version is much more faithful to the source material. Pointedly, Carpenter and his team originally wanted to film in black and white  to further replicate the 1951 version but were discouraged from doing so by Universal who feared for the commercial repercussions of such a bold move.

Amazingly, upon release The Thing was ravaged by critics and, compared to Carpenter’s other films, became a relative failure, barely managing to recoup its $15 million budget. Carpenter later said: “I take failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit… the movie was hated.” He reputedly lost out on directing the 1984 adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter due to its poor performance. Which could have been, in part, a reaction to the feelgood success of ET, which showed alien visitation in a completely different, altogether more encouraging, light. However, in the years since, The Thing has become the archetypal cult hit. It is often cited among one of the best sci-fi/horror films ever produced, and now regularly receives the kudos and plaudits it so richly deserves. Despite being almost 40 years old, it still holds up well and spawned a decent prequel in 2011.

Trivia Corner

The infamous ‘chest chomp’ scene, The Thing’s equivalent to the ‘chest buster’ sequence in Alien, where Dr. Cooper tries to revive Norris with a defibrillator following a suspected heart attack, were filmed using a double amputee fitted with prosthetic arms which are then ripped off.


RetView #36 – The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Title: The Blair Witch Project

Year of Release: 1999

Director: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez

Length: 81 minutes

Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard.

 

blair_witch_project_ver1

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty-one years (yep, that long) you must have heard a lot about this month’s #RetView entry. Among other things, The Blair Witch Project has been labelled a cult classic and credited with both exposing the world to viral marketing and ushering in the now loved and equally-loathed Found Footage genre. Personally, I’m in the former camp. Like I’ve said before, I fucking love a good Found Footage flick. The whole point of this series is to watch old(ish) films through a new lens, to see how they (or other things) have changed. Sometimes it’s useful to have a whole new set of eyes to look through, too. The first time I saw this movie was with my then-girlfriend in Wales. The second time I saw this film, over two decades later, was with a different girlfriend in a different country, who knew very little about The Blair Witch Project and the impact it made. The effect was remarkable. While it was by no means the first movie to use the found footage technique, it was the first to expose the general public to what was then a largely experimental form.

You’re probably familiar with the premise. But in case you’re not, The Blair Witch Project tells the story of a trio of student film makers who head off into the woods to investigate a local legend. Smart move. It won’t surprise you to find out that they all disappeared, leaving behind their equipment. The footage in the movie, showing the spooky events leading up to the disappearances, was supposedly discovered a year later.

I don’t know how many people reading this can remember the pre-internet world. Probably not many. Before websites and social media platforms dominated our lives as they do now, us horror buffs got most of our news and information from magazines and newspapers. The internet was there, obviously, but still in its infancy and ripe to be exploited. When it was released in 1999, the world was feverishly prepping for the Y2K bug which would apparently wipe out life as we knew it. It was a weird time. In that paranoid, twitchy climate, The Blair Witch Project rode a wave of publicity based on the fact that at first, most people didn’t know if the footage used in the movie was actually real or not. Rumours and speculation, both online and in the press (fuelled by the fact that the actors all used their real names rather than those of characters adding yet more ambiguity and realism) were rife. Artisan, the company that bought the rights to the film, allegedly spread false rumours about the actors’ demise, and deliberately failed to quash online speculation. Just the thing that makes a marketing department smile. It was one of those rare moments in cinematic history where the planets align and a little indie film destined for obscurity goes global. In this case, raking in over $248 million from a budget of just $60,000 (some sources say the true figure was closer to $25,000) proving that miracles really do happen, even in Hollywood.

Truth be told, Myrick and Sanchez squeezed an awful lot out of that $60,000. The then-innovative shooting style meant that they could get away with a lot that would be noticeable in a conventional film, but this is still remarkable in its simplicity if nothing else. It was spliced together from 20 hours of raw footage taken over eight days in Maryland, and much of the dialogue was improvised on the spot. Rumour has it that they wanted have the Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out of this Place’ playing on the car stereo at the beginning, but had to veto the plan when they realized that they couldn’t afford the rights.

Even now, when you’re fully aware that most of the hype was just that, you can’t fail to be impressed. The acting is superb and there are some genuinely jumpy moments. Just for the record my second viewing companion, who was completely oblivious to all the hype, agreed. I tried convincing her the footage was authentic, and she almost believed me for a while. But people who grew up with the internet are much more savvy and less easily fooled. Regardless, The Blair Witch Project is a modern classic. If you’ve already seen it, I urge you to watch it again. Preferably with someone who hasn’t. And if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? Go discover the legend.

blair witch flag

Trivia Corner:

In one notorious scene, the teeth Amanda who, incidentally, is now a medicinal marijuana grower, found in the twigs were actual human teeth, supplied by Eduardo Sanchez’s dentist, and the hair belongs to Josh.

 


RetView #34 – Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Title: Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors

Year of Release: 1965

Director: Freddie Francis

Length: 98 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman, Max Adrian, Ann Bell, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle.

dr terrors house of horrors

I love a good anthology film. It’s like getting four stories (or in this case, five) for the price of one. This little gem, not to be confused with the unrelated Dr. Terror and his Gallery of Horrors (1967), was the first in a series of horror omnibuses made by the Shepperton Studios-based Amicus Productions between 1965 and 1974.  Later, more accomplished efforts included The House that Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and the outstanding Vault of Horror (1973). One of the company’s founders, American Milton Subotsky, also wrote the screenplay for Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, among other things, and later in his career went on to work on several Stephen King adaptations, notably Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Sometimes They Come Back (1991).

Five men board a train at a London station and are joined by a mysterious sixth, the enigmatic and, quite frankly, scary as fuck Dr. Schreck (Cushing). The name, he helpfully explains, is German for ‘terror,’ like that’s going to make anyone feel better. Dr. Schreck then whips out a deck of tarot cards, which he calls his ‘house of horrors,’ and proceeds to reveal the destiny of each of the travellers in turn. Again, not creepy at all. By this time, you are beginning to think that this dude is an absolute riot at parties. The preamble provides the backdrop and framework in which to tell five separate stories, all connected by the aforementioned scenario.

Werewolf: The title kinda gives this one away, except it doesn’t really, if you know what I mean. The narrative follows Jim Dawson (McCallum) who returns to his ancestral home on a remote Scottish island where he finds himself embroiled in the culmination of a family curse and a centuries-old feud. This isn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, and the twisty ending is really quite clever.

Creeping Vine: Bill Rogers (Freeman) and his wife (Bell) return from holiday to find a creepy (boom!) vine growing in the garden. Soon, the vine develops a life of its own, along with a killer instinct. This one could almost be lifted straight from a vintage edition of Tales from the Crypt.

Voodoo: Biff Bailey (Castle) is a jobbing musician who accepts a gig in the West Indies where he stumbles across a voodoo ceremony. He memorizes the tune they are playing, and despite being warned, goes back to London and plays it, thereby unwittingly unleashing all manner of fuckery. Plagiarism is not cool, kids. ‘Probably’ based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich who, ironically enough given the subject matter, is uncredited.

Disembodied Hand: This one is, ahem, hands down the grisliest, and probably the best, story of the lot. It follows the misadventures of pompous art critic Franklyn Marsh (Lee) who falls victim to karma after causing a tortured artist to lose his hand.

Vampire: Dr. Bob Carroll (Sutherland) returns to the states with his new French bride. Back home, a spate of killings occurs, which seem to have been carried out by a vampire. Bob’s friend (Adrian), convinces him that his pretty new wife is responsible for the murders and Bob kills her. However, as he is being led away by the police, the friend says to himself that the city isn’t big enough for two doctors, or two vampires, and turns into a bat. The bastard.

As you can see, all the stories have twists, and this tradition is continued within the wraparound story, as in the end it is revealed that all five men were already dead, having copped it when the train they boarded crashed, and Dr. Schreck was actually death himself. Wow, right?

As they did in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and just about every other film they ever appeared in together, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the horror film equivalent of Starsky and Hutch, put in a couple of truly memorable performances. In fact, the entire cast excels. A special mention should also go to the director Freddie Francis, who achieved most of his success as a cinematographer, winning two Academy Awards and working on classics such as The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) and Cape Fear (1991). All this natural talent, combined with the overall tongue-in-cheek approach and clever, quirky writing, makes Dr. Terror’s House of Horror a worthy addition to any horror collection.

Trivia Corner:

Jazz musician Acker Bilk was originally cast to play the part of Biff Bailey, but he suffered a heart attack and was replaced by Roy Castle, later of Record Breakers fame, in his theatrical movie debut.


RetView #33 – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Title: The Serpent and the Rainbow

Year of Release: 1988

Director: Wes Craven

Length: 98 mins

Starring: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings

serpent_and_the_rainbow

We’re all familiar with brain-eating movie zombies like the ones immortalized in Night of the Living Dead, Train to Busan, and 28 Days Later, to name but a few. But what about real zombies?

“Wait up,” I hear you say. “Real zombies?”

Yup. This Wes Craven masterclass in terror is based on a non-fiction book by American anthropologist and researcher Wade Davis, who investigated Haitian voodoo at length before concluding that the process of ‘making zombies’ was rooted in reality. But alas, it has more to do with the ingestion of poisons and hallucinogenic plants than voodoo, hexes and black magic. The right concoction lowers the victim’s vital signs and metabolic rate to such an extent that they appear to be dead. They are then buried, only to be revived later using a different cocktail of drugs. By that time, they usually suffer some form of brain damage. If they have any memory of their ‘past life’ left at all, they believe that their soul has been stolen. As a case study, the book examined in depth the famous case of Clairvius Narcissi, a Haitian man who was supposedly placed into an induced coma by local witchdoctors as a punishment, before being ‘brought back from the dead’ and strolling back into his village years later.

Of course, his claims were later called into question, as were some of Davis’s conclusions, and all this is quite difficult to corroborate as Narcissi died again in 1964 and, as far as anyone knows, stayed dead that time. All we have left is a very strange, far-fetched story, along with the investigative efforts of Wade Davis. Davis is portrayed in the film (and re-named Dennis Allan) by Bill Pullman, who is approached by a pharmaceutical company and given the task of researching the real-life zombification of a man called Christophe (Clairvius Narcisse in disguise) and more importantly, securing a sample of the drug allegedly used in the zombie-making process. Given funding, he heads to Haiti. When he arrives, he finds the country in the grip of a revolution (inconvenient), and despite having an ally in the form of Marielle (Tyson), soon meets opposition from both the locals and what passes for the authorities who are keen to keep their secrets under wraps. Allan is kidnapped, tortured, stabbed in the balls, and given a stern warning by witch doctor extraordinaire Dargent Paytraud (Mokae). But when he still refuses to leave the country, he is framed for murder and just manages to get his sample before being bungled onto a plane bound for America. However, his nightmare is only just beginning.

Nightmares and hallucinations are a key element of the Serpent and the Rainbow. I usually find dream sequences in books and movies boring and somewhat redundant, but here they are so terrifying and immersive you can’t fail to be sucked in, even when you know you are in the middle of a(nother) dream sequence. The film has aged remarkably well compared to most eighties outings. A post-Spaceballs Pullman turns in an impressive all-round performance, and is well supported by Cathy Tyson in her pre-Emmerdale days. There’s barely a trace of a scouse accent, despite being brought up in Liverpool and suffering the ignominy of being married to Craig Charles. Zakes Mokae also deserves a mention as he is thoroughly menacing as Pullman’s nemesis.

Much of the movie was shot on location in Haiti (Or at least it was until it got too hairy and production was moved to the Dominican Republic) giving it an authentic feel, which is reinforced by spliced TV footage featuring the dictator ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier being ousted. In a favourable review, the film critic Roger Ebert said. “In most voodoo movies, voodoo itself is taken only as a backdrop, a gimmick. This movie seems to know something about voodoo and treats it seriously as a religion, a way of life, and an occult circle that does possess secrets unexplored by modern medicine.”

Ultimately, it’s the fascinating subject matter that sets The Serpent and the Rainbow apart from its peers. Perhaps what it does most effectively, much the same as movies like Ringu and Turistas, is remind us that beyond the sanctity of our comfort zones lies a crazy, crazy world.

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Trivia Corner:

Unlike most of his other movies the original cut was three hours long, but Craven thought this too long and talky. It was eventually cut down to 98 minutes.


RetView #32 – Alien (1979)

Title: Alien

Year of Release: 1979

Director: Ridley Scott

Length: 117 mins

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronoca Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm.

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Stone cold classics don’t come much colder or more classic than Alien. Widely regarded as one of the best films ever made despite being produced on a comparatively small budget, it was a smash hit and a critical success, even winning a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Visual effects, along with numerous other accolades. Every aspect of the film has been scrutinized and invariably come to be revered, even the above poster. However, had it not been for the unprecedented success of Star Wars, the film would probably never have been made. Eager to capitalize, 20th Century Fox rushed to produce a movie in a similar vein. Alien was shot in just 14 weeks in the second half of 1978, primarily at Shepperton Studios, and Bray Studios in Berkshire, where many Hammer Horror films were made before the site was redeveloped into luxury apartments.

Alien follows the crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo in the year 2122, which is returning to earth with its seven crew members in an induced hyper sleep. Upon detecting a distress signal from nearby a Moon, the ship’s computer, Mother, awakens them and they send a search party out to investigate. On the mission, one of their number, Executive Officer Kane (Hurt) is attacked by an alien creature which attaches itself to his face (hence the name ‘facehugger).’ Kane is taken back to the Nostromo where, some time later, he wakes with seemingly no ill effects. That is, until the crew are all sharing a meal and the iconic chest bursting scene goes down. That’s enough to put anyone off their food. Now beginning to realize that the Nostromo has been infiltrated by a killer alien entity, the surviving crew set out to seek and destroy the now fully-grown, and scary as fuck, transgressor who, of course, picks them off one by one. As if this isn’t bad enough, Ripley (Weaver), now in command as ship’s captain Dallas (Skerritt) is one of the first to bite the dust, is attacked by another crew member, Ash (Hulme) who is then revealed to be an android with a pre-programmed agenda which is vastly at odds with the rest of the crew. And common sense. The whole thing climaxes in sole survivor Ripley destroying the Nostromo, taking Jones the resident cat, and escaping in a mini shuttle. Until she’s called upon to go back to work in the 1986 sequel, imaginatively titled Aliens.

In the years since its release, one of the most interesting aspects explored by critics is the film’s supposed sexual overtones. The adult xenomorph bristles with sexual imagery and a sex scene between Ripley and Dallas was scripted (though never filmed) to illustrate how crewmembers dealt with long periods of abstinence. Several critics have compared the fecehugger’s exploits with male rape, and Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the original screenplay under the working title ‘Star Beast’, has said that the chestburster scene is a metaphor for the male fear of penetration, and that the oral invasion of Kane by the facehugger functions as payback for the many horror films in which sexually vulnerable women are attacked by male monsters. This would seem to be in keeping with the rest of the movie, which contrary to the (then) norm, boasts a strong female lead in Sigourney Weaver who would go on to star in The Year of Living Dangerously, Ghostbusters, Working Girl and a host (sorry!) of others. Even the Alien is female. To go one step further, it has been suggested that Alien is a movie ALL about rape, as the driving force behind the antagonist is reproduction by non-consensual means.

Alien certainly struck a nerve, perhaps tapping into the late-seventies zeitgeist which encouraged people to ask fundamental existential questions such as what is, and what could be. Alien was an unprecedented success, raking in an estimated $104 to $203 million from a measly $11 million budget and spawning three direct sequels, as well as a series of crossovers with the Predator franchise. In 2003 when 20th Century Fox released the Alien Quadrilogy DVD box, which included the original Alien plus the three sequels, it was decided that the box should also include alternate versions of all four films. The alternate version of Alien, labelled the ‘Director’s Cut,’ has been re-edited to restore several deleted scenes (such as one where, during her escape from the Nostromo, Ripley discovers Dallas and Brett cocooned) but omits several others meaning the Director’s Cut is actually shorter than the original. Scott explained, “The traditional definition of the term ‘Director’s Cut’ suggests the restoration of a director’s original vision, free of any creative limitations. Such is not the case with Alien: The Director’s Cut. It is a completely different beast.”

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Trivia Corner

The newly-dead facehugger that Ash autopsies was created using shellfish, oysters, and a sheep kidney, while the ‘egg tube’ section is actually a piece of sheep intestine and the ‘slime’ used on the aliens was K.Y. Jelly.


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