Tag Archives: classic

RetView #64 – Death Line (1972)

Title: Death Line

Year of Release: 1972

Director: Gary Sherman

Length: 87 mins

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Christopher Lee, Clive Swift

As this series of deep dives into the land of movies past has progressed, I’ve actually discovered a lot about myself. One thing I’ve found, as you might have gathered from previous entries like Severance, Witchfinder General, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, The Descent, and 28 Days Later, is that I have developed a deep appreciation for British horror. I guess it’s not that remarkable. Being a Brit myself, it just feels more relevant and relatable. And the accents are funny. Death Line, lauded by Time Out as “One of the great British horror films,” and a classic example of what Hellraiser director Clive Barker calls ’embracing the monstrous’ is an undisputed classic of the genre. The stiff upper lip, ‘keep calm and carry on’ ethos is exemplified in an early scene where Inspector Calhoun (Pleasence) yells, “We’d better do something. Quick. And the first fing we’re going to do is get some tea!”

It might sound stereotypical, cliched, cheesy or even borderline offensive to some (in the current climate, virtually everything is offensive to some), but the thing is, that’s probably exactly what the majority of British coppers say at the beginning of murder investigations. Or at least they did in the early seventies. These days they probably prefer a glass of sparkling spring water.

Released in the US under the alternative title Raw Meat in a slightly edited form (in order to avoid a potentially-damaging X rating) Death Line was actually a joint US/British enterprise. It was directed by American Gary Sherman (Dead & Buried, Poltergeist III and the TV series Poltergeist: The Legacy) but as it has a predominantly British cast and is set in London, we are claiming it.

Much of the action takes place in and around Russell Square tube station in Camden, a Grade II listed building, but most of the underground sequences were actually filmed at Aldwych which was closed in 1994. There’s something iconic about the London Underground, like the Paris Catacombs or the ampitheatre in Athens. It’s broody, dark, and somehow menacing, something which has been put to good use in several movies, most notably in the black comedy Three and Out (2008) and that famous sequence in American Werewolf in London (1981). It also comes complete with a rather bloody and chequered history, something which is more than hinted at here, making it the perfect setting for a horror film.

The plot follows a couple of journalism students, Patricia (Gurney) and Alex (Ladd) who almost literally stumble across a man lying in a stairwell. Dismissing him as a drunk, they do the proper thing and report their finding to the police. Cue the aforementioned Inspector Calhoun, who discovers the drunk, revealed as a wealthy Conservative minister (no change there, then), has since disappeared. A colleague then tells Calhoun about an urban legend telling of a group of descendants from an 1892 cave-in who still live below-ground surviving on the flesh of commuters.

Cor blimey!

Unperturbed, the amiable Patricia and Alex continue to frequent the Underground and become separated one night, which leads to Patricia getting up close and personal with the chief cannibal (Armstrong) who is now on a murderous rampage having just seen his pregnant lover die. A brutal climactic showdown sees said chief cannibal, credited simply as ‘The Man’ incapacitated and left for dead, but we all know how that usually plays out. As movie villains go, The Man is a complex character who elicits both compassion and repulsion. When he abducts Patricia he is torn between eating her and caring for her, and despite his grisly antics the viewer can’t help feel a twinge of sympathy. Not least because he’s been lumbered with perhaps the weakest and least-threatening catch phrase in horror movie history. He does inject some impressive vigour into it, though.

Death Line was well received by both audiences and critics, with Robin Wood of The Village Voice writing that it, “Vies with Night of the Living Dead (1968) for the most horrible horror film ever. It is, I think, decidedly the better film: more powerfully structured, more complex, and more humanly involved. Its horrors are not gratuitous; it is an essential part of its achievement to create, in the underground world, the most terrible conditions in which human life can continue to exist and remain recognizably human. [It] is strong without being schematic; one can’t talk of allegory in the strict sense, but the action consistently carries resonances beyond its literal meaning.”

Interestingly, a 2017 article in Little White Lies claims that Death Line offers an, “Oddly prescient message about social inequality in London. From the very first scene, a member of the establishment (James Manfred, the wealthy conservative minister) is framed as corrupt, with Manfred’s perversion and hunt for flesh effective exposition to the cannibal horror that follows.” True, the only people the Man slaughters probably had it coming, which would make him a hero in most movies. The article goes on to use the film as a metaphor for the then-recent Grenfell fire, noting that, “The film’s soundtrack consistently features the haunting sounds of screams and digging; echoes of an industrial revolution that has benefitted one side of society more than the other.”

Quite.

Trivia Corner

The part of the cannibal was originally offered to Marlon Brando, but he had to pull out when his son Christian contracted pneumonia.


RetView #63 – Re-Animator (1985)

Title: Re-Animator

Year of Release: 1985

Director: Stuart Gordon

Length: 86 mins

Starring: Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Sampson, Jeffrey Combs

It’s been at least a couple of months now, so I think it’s about time we had another 80’s cheese fest. Re-Animator, aka H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-animator on account of being loosely based on Lovecraft’s 1922 work ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ fits the bill perfectly. Directed by Stuart Abbott, who also directed From Beyond (1986), Dolls (1987) and wrote Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and The Dentist (1995), it was originally intended to be a stage play, before given The Treatment, and that sense of intimacy has largely been preserved. With it’s a small cast, tightly-woven plot, and snappy dialogue, it’s easy to see why Re-Animator is now considered a bona fide cult classic. Shot in only 18 days, it is the first film in the Re-Animator series, and was followed by Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003), neither of which hit the heights of the original.

After leaving his last place of education under something of a cloud, medical student called Herbert West (Combs) enrols at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts (a fictional educational establishment in a fictional town in a real state), moves in with fellow student Dan Cain (Abbott), and then proceeds to turn the apartment into a laboratory. His experiments include killing and then re-animating Dan’s cat Rufus several times, much to the horror of Dan’s girlfriend, Megan (Crampton). Don’t worry, cat lovers, Rufus gets his own back. Dan tries to tell the Dean of the university (who happens to be Megan’s father) about West’s experiments but he is ridiculed, and the pair kicked out. They then hatch a plan to sneak into the morgue to use the reagent they have developed on a human subject to prove it works. It does, except the dead guy returns as a zombie-like crazed person. That’s when the Dean stumbles upon the scene, and shit gets really wild.

Producer Brian Yuzna (who played one of the hospital corpses, largely for his own amusement) described the film as having the “sort of shock sensibility of an Evil Dead with the production values of The Howling.” There are more than a few scenes to keep the gore hounds among you happy. My absolute favourite shows Dr Hill (Gale) in a role that the great Christopher Lee allegedly refused, removing skin from a corpse’s head on the way to extracting their brain, which he does with the words, “It’s very much like peeling a large orange.” According to IMDB, the special effects department went through 24-gallons of fake blood during the shoot, special-effects guru John Naulin said that Re-Animator was the bloodiest film he had ever worked on. In the past he had never used more than two gallons, which has to be some kind of compliment. Upon release, Re-Animator received an X (adults only) rating, and was later edited to obtain an R rating for video rental stores because some stores’ policies prohibited them from renting ‘unrated’ films with an MPAA rating of X. In the R-rated version, much of the gore was edited out and replaced with various scenes which had been deleted for pacing purposes, including a subplot involving Dr. Hill hypnotizing several characters to make them more suggestible to his will. A short scene was also added showing Herbert West injecting himself with small amounts of the reagent to stay awake and energized, which may have affected his thinking over the course of the film. On the other side of the pond, British Film Censors weren’t impressed with the scene where the severed head Dr. Hill attempts to rape Megan and refused to pass the film for release in the United Kingdom until the sequence had been cut. In Japan, the film is titled “ZOMBIO” though the title is dropped for the sequel because it translates as “Drifting Spirits” and makes no sense in the context of the film.

Re-Animator was received well, winning over many of the more arty critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Re-Animator has a fast pace and a good deal of grisly vitality. It even has a sense of humor, albeit one that would be lost on 99.9 percent of any ordinary movie-going crowd.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas said, “The big noise is Combs, a small, compact man of terrific intensity and concentration,” and David Edelstein, writing for Village Voice, an influential New York tabloid that closed in 2017, placed the film in his year-end Top Ten Movies list. In their book Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft, Andrew Migliore and John Strysik write, “Re-Animator took First Prize at the Paris Festival of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, a Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and even spawned a short-lived series of comic books. Even though it was a hit with audiences, the film generated a huge amount of controversy among Lovecraft readers. Fans thought the film a desecration of Lovecraft; their literary hero would never write such obvious exploitation!”

Trivia Corner

In December 1986, the year after Re-Animator was released, Barbara Crampton did a nude pictorial in Playboy magazine under the title, “Simply Beastly. Behind every successful monster, there’s a woman.” In an October 2020 interview with Entertainment Weekly, the then 61-year revealed that she was only given a second round of auditions for the role of Meg because the girl who won the part the first time around turned it down after her mother read the script and said “Oh, no. You’re not doing this.”


RetView #62 – Little Devils: The Birth (1993)

Title: Little Devils: The Birth

Year of Release: 1993

Director: George Pavlou

Length: 100 mins

Starring: Russ Tamblyn, Marc Price, Nancy Valen, Wayne McNamara, Stella Stevens

Little Devils: The Birth is one of those films that got lost in the shuffle. Marketed as a comedy horror in the Gremlins or Ghoulies vein, it’s not really funny enough to be a comedy and not horrific enough to be a horror. It didn’t even have a hard rock soundtrack for Christ’s sake, and lacking big industry backing and a massive distribution deal, when it was released it fell between the cracks of the two genres and quickly became forgotten. In horror circles, just being aware of it granted you entry into some kind of exclusive club governed by knowing winks and secret handshakes. It doesn’t get more ‘cult movie’ than that.

It was reportedly conceived as a TV pilot for a new anthology series along the lines of The Hitchhiker and Tales from the Crypt, but when that plan fell through the makers decided to press on and turn it into a feature film instead. It received a timely boost when released by Shivers Entertainment on limited edition remastered DVD for the first time in 2017, but even then flew under the radar, the only media coverage being canned copy recycled from the press release churned out by bored journos with pages to fill. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy afoot to ensure the movie stays underground where it can build upon its growing reputation year on year until it eventually grows horns and takes over the world. I for one think it deserves a wider audience, so here we are.

Like all the best films, it begins when an unpopular, debt-ridden mad scientist. This one, Dr. Lionel (McNamara), literally goes to hell and back, and returns with a souvenir in the form of some runny mud that looks a lot like melted chocolate. Possessed and compelled to work, he sets about creating an army of tiny, impish figures who come to life, break out, and start terrorizing the apartment block in which he lives. First stop is the apartment downstairs which is home to Ed (Marc Price, of Trick or Treat fame – in which his character name was also Ed, weirdly enough) a frustrated writer reduced to producing smutty stories for a sleazy magazine to make ends meet whilst being pursued by strange, lust-filled landlord, Clara Madison (Stevens). Clara treats Dr. Lionel with complete disdain, yet has the hots for Ed. Ed isn’t interested, though. Especially after he meets exotic dancer Lynn (Valen) while researching a book at the local homeless shelter and the two begin a tumultuous relationship. Ed and his motley crew of friends, lovers and acquaintances then have to battle the rampaging horde of ‘little devils’ before things get (any more) out of hand.

Though very much a product of its time, given the pedigree of some of the people involved, it was something of a surprise that Little Devils: The Birth didn’t make a bigger splash. It was the brainchild of British director George Pavlou, who’d made his name on the Clive Barker vehicles Underworld (1985) and Rawhead Rex (1986), and writer Elliot Stein, fresh from the similarly-themed TV movie Gray Clay Dolls (1991). The biggest coup in front of the camera came in the form of the legendary Stella Stevens who had successfully made the transition from Playboy to the big (and small) screen, appearing in scores of movies and TV shows in a career spanning half a century including The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Manitou (1978) and Monster in the Closet (1986). Despite the lowbrow, tongue-in-cheek subject material, her star quality shines through in every scene she’s in and its a bitter disappointment when *spoiler alert* the little devils get her half way through. In fact, all the actors do a decent job and the script, though played mostly for laughs, is also surprisingly good (sample dialogue: “You write porno. That doesn’t necessarily make you a pervert, even though you are one”).

Yes, the plot is silly, the effects are cheesy, and at times the whole thing feels a bit like one of those early Ratt videos MTV would play after midnight back when they still played music, but all things considered this forgotten gem is well worthy of its cult status. The title suggests that at least one sequel was planned, but that never transpired. Not yet, anyway. We can but hope.

Trivia Corner

Before becoming an actress, Stella Stevens was a member of the five-voice vocal ensemble The skip-Jacks who performed the theme song from The Flintstones, among other things. She went on to forge a long-term relationship with famed producer and one-time Kiss guitarist Bob Kulick, which lasted until his death in 2020.


Where’s my F***ing Sweatband?

I really like Dire Straits. You could say they are my guilty pleasure. I don’t think they are as respected or as widely known these days as they probably should be. Most of the people who do know them are left with that eighties caricature image of Mark Knopfler in the Money for Nothing video, wearing a jacket with shoulder pads and the sleeves rolled up, and a fucking neon headband. That’s more a representation of the eighties as a whole than the band.

The first DS record I ever bought was Brothers in Arms, which I sought out largely as a consequence of the copious amounts of TV advertising that went into promoting it. I mean, when it was £5.99 in Woolworths (which would probably amount to around £15 in ‘today’s money.’) you fucking knew about it. I only found out years later that most of the songs had been horribly edited down to fit on the vinyl.

brothers-in-arms-album-cover

Released over 35 years ago, Brothers in Arms, their fourth and most successful studio album, was a bit of a double-edged sword for Dire Straits. It was their Born in the USA. Actually, a lot of parallels can be drawn between Dire Straits (essentially singer/songwriter/lead guitarist Mark Knopfler with some other blokes) and The Boss, not least that both have working class roots and traded off the same kind of ‘everyman’ image. Of the two, Knopfler is without the doubt the better guitarist. He has a distinctive style, as do many of the greats from Jimmy Page to Brian May, in this case developed through ‘picking’ at the strings with his fingertips rather than using a plectrum. You wouldn’t even have to know the song to know who was playing guitar on it. On the flipside, The Boss is by far the better showman and probably the more consistent (and prolific) songwriter.

Another common denominator is that in effect, the Born in the USA and Brothers in Arms juggernauts alienated huge swathes of the respective artists’ existing audiences and attracted the ‘pop crowd.’ In the eighties, much like today, the Pop Crowd brought money, but no loyalty. They weren’t going to stick around. You’d be lucky to keep them interested for two albums, after that they’ll be into Fergal Sharkey or the Blow Monkeys for six months. The vast majority of bands don’t even get that two albums worth of grace.

It’s not enough to have talent and great songs. To attract the Pop Crowd and plug into the mainstream you need something else, some X Factor. In the case of Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms arrived within the eye of a perfect storm. It was released just as ground-breaking new tech was emerging in the form of CDs and CGI graphics, and MTV was just taking off. It soon became one of the bestselling albums of the era.

Dire Straits ended up paying a price for that success. By the time grunge hit a few years later they were typecast as a bunch of try-hard dad rockers and became a virtual laughing stock. Grunge, well, mostly Nirvana who spearheaded the whole thing, had a seismic effect on rock and metal. It almost killed off hair metal on its own, like a nuclear blast. Overnight, bands like Poison, Ratt, Cinderella, Motley Crue, Warrant, and approximately seven million others, all became irrelevant and then turned into shocked-looking parodies of themselves as they were reduced to playing 250-capacity rock clubs again instead of 20,000-capacity arenas they’d been used to. Def Leppard tried to fit in by recording Slang, for fuck’s sake. It was ugly.

Most of the artists who were left retreated into themselves. To use Springsteen as a yardstick again, he fired the E Street Band and released the limp one-two punch of Human Touch and the only-marginally better Lucky Town on the same day, just to try to stay relevant, and in 1991 Dire Straits put out On Every Street, their last studio offering. It’s not a bad album, just a bit tired-sounding in places. At best it was comfy and warm, at worst vapid and unrewarding. It was the sound of Dire Straits desperately trying to tread that middle ground between being true to themselves and pleasing their new legion of fans. The result was a big long sigh. Afterwards, the band fell into live archive releases and odd compilation territory and Mark Knopfler went solo.

Bloated and overlong, On Every Street was made for the CD market and it may be no accident that my top two Dire Straits studio albums, 1980’s Making Movies and 1982’s Love Over Gold would both fit on a single CD with room to spare. Although for the most part typically restrained (only Industrial Disease, Expresso Love and Solid Rock attempt to lift the mood a bit), those albums are focused and precise, a lot of the music dark and brooding yet filled with restrained passion. The musicianship is exemplary. I must have played those albums thousands of times. Earlier albums 1978’s self-titled and the following year’s Communique both had their moments, there were just fewer of them. Probably my favourite DS track of all time is Telegraph Road. At over 14-minutes long, it’s a stroke of genius. It takes a lot to keep me interested in anything for that long. I’ve had shorter relationships. I prefer the version found on Alchemy Live. I love the narrative, and how the song builds from little more than an understated whimper to a furious scream. Those power chords.

Alchemy, recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1983 on the Love Over Gold tour, is pretty much the perfect live album if you can overlook the weak opening. Once Upon a time in the West to open a show when you have ready-made firecrackers like Tunnel of Love in your repertoire? Really?

Dire Straits are the consummate live band. But more the kind of band you’d like to see in a smoky club, or at a push, a theatre. They were a bit lost in those stadiums. the bigger the venue, the bigger the entourage and when you have a touring band numbering in double figures, it all gets a bit dramatic. If you’re interested, and you should be, there are also a few excellent bootleg recordings floating around. Koln ’79 is recommended (notable because they play Sultans of Swing twice having fucked the first one up), as is On Location – Live in Wiesbaden 1981 and Live in Sydney 1985. Recorded on the Brothers in Arms tour, that one is worth seeking out if only to hear the band wowing audiences at their commercial peak. For a while there, nowhere was safe from the Knopfler shoulder pads and sweatband.

500full-mark-knopfler

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy my recent tribute to London Calling or one of my several Springsteen posts.  I’ve also written about my personal musical odyssey and various other related shit.


RetView #61 – Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Title: Creature from the Black Lagoon

Year of Release: 1954

Director: Jack Arnold

Length: 79 mins

Starring: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning

There aren’t many movies that start with the big bang. Where can you go after that? In the first two minutes or so of Creature from the Black Lagoon we are treated not only to a massive explosion, but also a potted history of 15 million years of life on earth. And if that wasn’t enough, we end up tracking a team of explorers somewhere in the Amazon when they find a gigantic petrified claw which apparently belonged to some kind of amphibious creature they dub ‘Gill man’. In the wake of this discovery, the expedition shifts its focus to seeking out a live specimen, and then trying to escape when they realize the live specimen doesn’t much fancy a life in captivity and strikes back, a pivotal moment coming when the hunted becomes the hunter. It’s enough to make you dizzy. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that when this movie first hit cinemas, it did so in 3D. 1950’s technology was a far cry to what we have going on at the Cineplex these days, but let’s give them credit for trying. Upon release, the movie also broke several records for the amount of underwater filming it features, all of which is stunningly shot using a variety of (then) innovative techniques.

The story goes that producer William Alland was attending a dinner party during the filming of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane (in which he played a reporter) when Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him about the myth of a race of half-fish, half-human creatures living in the Amazon River. Alland wrote some story notes using the imaginative working title The Sea Monster, which eventually morphed into Creature from the Black Lagoon years later. Just as he did on the Incredible Shrinking Man, director Jack Arnold does a masterful job. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface (sorry). First we have the simmering sexual tension between Kay (Adams) and her two male leads, who are both competing for her affections in vastly different ways. There’s David (Carlson) who dotes on her, in an old-fashioned, wrap-you-up-in-cotton-wool, slightly controlling way, while love rival and pantomime villain Mark (Denning), seems to take a more preening, misogynistic approach, parading around in his tight shorts whenever possible and being vocally resentful of Kay’s mere presence, which seems a bit counterproductive. Let’s not forget that this was an era when it wasn’t unusual to see leading men in movies wallop their woman about the chops if she dared step out of line. To be brutally honest, this pair of numb nuts make Gill-man seem like a real catch (sorry again). He’s also a bit creepy, by the way. Not only does he have scales, big bulbous eyes and massive clawed hands, but he likes to swim underneath Kay mirroring her movements whilst she unwittingly frolics about in the water. Tellingly, though, at the end when he finally kidnaps her, the creature doesn’t literally puts Kay on a pedestal.

In some quarters, the creature has become a metaphor for repressed sexual tension, which must have been rife in 1950’s America, what with the twin threats of communism and nuclear armageddon hanging over everyone. He is forever lurking insidiously behind the scenes, always threatening to break through to the surface and create havoc but never quite managing. The cultural impact of Creature from the Black lagoon has long been debated, the discourse summarized here.

The subtext is clear, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. It’s those pesky humans messing about with nature again. The poor amphibious creature and his relatives and cohorts had been quietly pottering about minding their own business in remote parts of the world for millennia. And quite possibly would’ve stayed there, too, had a bunch of selfish assholes not turned up and ruined everything. Shades of King Kong here, and even The Thing. The plot could even be a thinly-veiled attack on colonialism, or marauding white people in general. Watching it now, you can’t help rooting for the monster. In a contemporary article on Tor.com, Ryan Britt writes, “You never wanted them to kill that poor sea monster. In fact, you kind of wanted to see him take every single person on that boat out.” Adams herself later said, “There always is that feeling of compassion. I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that long to be loved and think they really can’t ever be loved.”

Despite it’s modest beginnings, Creature from the Black Lagoon was a monster smash (That’s the last one, I promise) leading to two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), and making an indelible mark on the movie-going public. Stephen King has said it was the first film he remembers watching. There has long been talk of a remake, mentioned in connection with such luminaries as John Landis, John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro, who credited the original for influencing his 2017 masterpiece The Shape of the Water, but it hasn’t surfaced yet (Okay, I lied).

Trivia Corner

After Universal had finished making the third and final film, a studio worker threw the creature’s costume in a dumpster, from where it was retrieved by a young man who repurposed it as a Halloween costume before selling it to Forrest J. Ackerman, a writer for Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine.


RetView #58 – Doomwatch (1972)

Title: Doomwatch

Year of Release: 1972

Director: Peter Sasdy

Length: 92 mins

Starring: Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, John Paul, Simon Oates, Jean Trend

Given what we’ve done to our world, you could argue that we’re already living in an age of ecological terror. Movies like Doomwatch may exaggerate certain elements for dramatic effect, but in essence they serve to ram home the point. This is what happens when man interferes with the delicate balance of nature. The movie was based on the BBC TV series of the same name which ran from 1970-72 and focused on a government department charged with combatting technological and environmental dangers, making it a kind of eco-friendly X Files. Ironically, as was standard practice back in the day, after airing the master tapes were wiped by the BBC and recorded over as a cost-cutting measure, meaning that many of the episodes have been lost forever. Luckily, we still have the movie spin-off produced by Tigon British Film Productions, who had previously made Witchfinder General (1968) which was released in March 1972. In the the United States, it was released by Embassy Pictures with the alternative title Island of the Ghouls.

So… what’s this all about? Well, we have Doctor Del Shaw (Bannen), an investigator from the British ecological watchdog group nicknamed Doomwatch, who is dispatched to an insular fishing village on the island of Balfe off the Cornish coast to file a report on the effects of a recent oil tanker spill. There, he finds a child’s body hidden in the woods and becomes fascinated with the mysterious behavioural disorders of the locals who display rudeness and random aggression and generally act like a bunch of arses as they rebuff his attempts to solve the mystery. One woman loses her shit when Shaw tries to take her picture, yelling, “We don’t like that! Taking people’s likeness! We don’t like that kind of carry on at all, in fact!”

Shaw teams up with another outsider, a schoolteacher called Victoria (Gleeson), and notes certain physical abnormalities, such as a strange genetic prevalence of thick lips and sloping brows, in many of the local populace. His investigation reveals that the villagers have been suffering over a prolonged period from hormonal disorders, which are likely being caused by leeking drums of growth stimulants that have been dumped offshore by callous business types. The islanders have been infected by eating fish and as a result are developing acromegaly, (usually the result of interbreeding, wink-wink) which produces aggression and eventually madness.

Though the movie was well-received by the public, writing for Radio Times, Tom Hutchinson only awarded the film two stars out of five, stating, “This mystery thriller crash-landed unhappily in the swamp of horror instead of on the firmer ground of science fact or fiction. It’s risibly alarmist, certainly, but the environmental dangers it pinpoints are only too topical.”

True, the movie comes with a great premise and both starts and finishes well, but it sags slightly in the middle and is weighed down with far too much long-winded, redundant dialogue which seems to exist purely for clever people to show everyone just how clever they are. Sometimes, less is more. There is also some confusion as to how the locals are portrayed. You get the feeling director Peter Sasdy would like you to sympathise with them, which is hard, because frankly, most of them have been dicks throughout and have very few redeeming qualities. I like to think that this conflict is intentional, though it that doesn’t make it any less jarring. A contemporary review for cultmovieforums.com notes, “It has to be said that while Doomwatch ultimately remains something of a missed opportunity by any standard of judgment, Peter Sasdy’s film is still in all fairness, probably a slightly better film than what its poor reputation might suggest.”

Generally, the all-too believable storyline of corporate greed combined with the overriding sense of isolation make good use of Sasdy’s talents, a man who made his name directing Blood of Dracula (1969) and Hands of the Ripper (1971) for Hammer before turning his attention to the TV production of Sue Townsend’s classic The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 133/4. Curiously, references to a certain Castle Rock will no doubt strike a chord with some of Stephen King’s constant readers and could offer clues as to where the Master acquired the name. In 1999, Channel 5 in the UK bought the rights to Doomwatch from the BBC and in December that year screened a 100-minute TV movie, which was a continuation of the story rather than a remake. Though the movie was well-received it didn’t lead to the anticipated series, perhaps due to the amount of money it would require. Still, it’s a great concept, and could be a huge success in the right hands.

Go HERE for more entries in the RetView series.

Trivia Corner:

Both the film and the original series was created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, who had previously collaborated on scripts for Doctor Who. Their interest in the problems of science changing and endangering human life apparently led them to create the popular cyborg villains the Cybermen.


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 #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?”


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