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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 #59 – 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Title: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Year of Release: 2016

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Length: 87 mins

Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallacher Jr.

10 cloverfield

Apart from Quarantine 2 – Terminal I haven’t covered any sequels in this series thus far. There are reasons for that, but it might change in the not too-distant future. For now, you’ll have to make do with this, that rarest of things; a sequel on a par with the original. In fact, 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t a bona fide sequel at all. In the words of uber-geek producer JJ Abrams, it’s more of a ‘blood relative’ of Cloverfield. The original script was called The Cellar, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the original movie. It was written by Josh Campbell and Matt Steucken back in 2012 before being acquired by Abram’s production company, Bad Robot, and adapted to suit.

When the first Cloverfield movie, a found-footage monster flick, was released in 2008, it became an unexpected smash hit, prompting Abrams to turn it into a loosely-connected franchise which, to date, consists of three films all taking place in the same universe, known as the, ahem, Cloververse, with a fourth in production. Each movie deals with creatures from different dimensions attacking earth as a repercussion of experiments carried out aboard the Cloverfield Station in outer space.

If it’s monsters you’re after, though, you may be disappointed with this particular instalment as it would be more accurately defined as a very effective psychological thriller. It follows twenty-something Michelle (Winstead, who previously starred in Final destination 3 and the 2011 prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing, also called The Thing, confusingly enough ) who, after splitting up with her boyfriend, is involved in a car accident. She wakes up in an underground bunker with a broken leg and is told by the bunker’s owner Howard (Goodman) that he took her there for her own protection because the air outside has been poisoned as a result of earth coming under some kind of attack. Suspecting Howard deliberately ran her off the road and abducted her, Michelle is immediately suspicious but has little choice but to play along. The mystery thickens when she is introduced to the bunker’s third occupant, Emmett (Gallacher Jr), who tells her he had been employed by Howard to help him build and stock it. He saw an explosion in the sky and, fearing for his safety, forced his way inside, injuring his arm in the process.

Still dubious, Michelle makes up her mind to steal the keys to Howard’s truck and make good her escape. But before she can open the hatch leading to the outside world, she sees a woman outside covered in skin legions and begins to think Howard may be telling the truth. Bunker life isn’t THAT bad. They have plenty of food and water, and enough books, DVD’s and board games to keep them occupied. However, as the unlikely trio settle down to ride out the metaphorical storm, certain troubling details begin to emerge about Howard. What happened to his missing daughter? What kind of ‘waste’ is he disposing of in that vat of acid in the bunker? What made him flip out playing charades? And why does he dislike Emmett so intensely? All this, added to the tension, growing cabin fever, and general air of paranoia, makes for a powerful movie with a nerve-shredding climax. I’m not going to give away the ending here, but suffice to say it’s one of the most unexpected and breathtaking in recent memory.

Perhaps surprisingly, the movie was met with generally favourable reviews, levelling out at an impressive 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. The Guardian said it was “More Hitchcock than Xbox” and Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times praised the cast and cinematography, saying, “Sneakily tweaking our fears of terrorism, ‘10 Cloverfield Lane,’ though no more than a kissing cousin to its namesake, is smartly chilling and finally spectacular.” Its critical success was replicated at the Box Office, where it grossed over $110 million from a $15 million budget. Not quite as impressive as the first instalment, but close enough.

GO HERE for more RetView entries.

Trivia Corner

In one scene, Howard is watching the 80’s classic Pretty in Pink. In this movie, Molly Ringwald’s character has a hobby of making dresses. This is a subtle reference to Michelle, who had earlier confided to Howard that she dreams of being a fashion designer.


RetView #55 – The Giant Claw (1957)

Title: The Giant Claw

Year of Release: 1957

Director: Fred F Sears

Length: 75 mins

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

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

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

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

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

Wowzer.

Trivia Corner

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


RetView #54 – The Burning (1981)

Title: The Burning

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Tony Maylam

Length: 91 mins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trivia Corner:

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


RetView #52 – Shutter (2008)

Title: Shutter

Year of Release: 2008

Director: Masayuki Ochiai

Length: 83 mins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trivia Corner:

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


RetView #49 – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Title: The Curse of Frankenstein

Year of Release: 1957

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 83 mins

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, then.

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

Trivia Corner:

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


Retview #48 – Siren (2016)

Title: Siren

Year of Release: 2016

Director: Gregg Bishop

Length: 82 mins

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

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

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

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

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

Trivia Corner:

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


Retview #47 – The Grudge (2004)

Title: The Grudge

Year of Release: 2004

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Length: 91 mins

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

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

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

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

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

Trivia Corner:

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


RetView #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.


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