Tag Archives: movies

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

RetView #45

Title: The Beast Must Die

Year of Release: 1974

Director: Paul Annett

Length: 89 mins

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

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

Dum, dum, DUM!

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

And so the fun begins.

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

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

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

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

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Trivia Corner:

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


Retview #44 – Predator (1987)

Title: Predator

Year of Release: 1987

Director: John McTiernan

Length: 107 mins

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke, Richard Chaves

The story goes that after Rocky IV came out, a joke circulated around Hollywood that since Sly Stallone had levelled all earthly opponents, he would have to fight an alien if a fifth film were to be made. In the event, he fought Tommy Morrison instead, but screenwriters Jim and John Thomas took some inspiration from the joke and wrote a screenplay around it. When the latest instalment in the franchise, unimaginatively called THE Predator, dropped in 2018, it did so to a chorus of disapproval and a slew of negative reviews. Much like the first instalment, which was labelled “Grisly and dull” by the New York Times. Ouch. Not to be outdone, the LA Times wrote that it was, “Arguably one of the emptiest, most derivative scripts ever made as a major studio movie.” Double ouch. Also like the first instalment THE Predator was still a… wait for it… monster hit. The main criticism of the franchise as a whole are the thin plots, papered over with explosions and witty one-liners. Therefore, you might be wondering why Predator merits inclusion in this series. Well, because it’s fucking brilliant. That’s why.

Admittedly the plot, what there is of one, is as weak as wet tissue paper. Dutch, a US Army Special Forces Major Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and his team, which includes Dillon (Weathers who, ironically, had just played Apollo Creed in Rocky IV), a former CIA agent who has a lot to hide, are charged with the task of rescuing an official being held hostage by some insurgents in some generic Central American setting. However, when they arrive they find a crashed helicopter and a bunch of skinned corpses, which kinda sets alarm bells rining. After a textbook firefight with some bad guys, the mission is revealed to be a set-up and Dillon’s deception is laid bare. But that’s just the start of their problems. Before they can make it to their extraction point, they realize that something in the jungle is stalking them. Yep, it’s the predator, a vicious, war-mongering alien entity with dreads that hunts people (and, apparently, other species of alien) for sport.

The first Predator movie not only laid the foundations for three sequels, but also a spin-off franchise (Alien v Predator) and a torrent of comics, novels, videogames, action figures and even theme park attractions creating a multi-billion dollar cottage industry. That’s something most movie franchises can only aspire to. Though they flatter to deceive at times and benefit from bigger budgets and better tech, the truth is none of the other entries in the Predator franchise ever reached the dizzy heights of the 1987 original. Arriving just as Schwarzenegger was riding high on show-stealing performances in the likes of Terminator, Commando and Raw Deal, Predator was very much a feather in his cap. He got to run around in the jungle with some mates covered in mud sporting unfeasibly large weapons and even larger biceps. What was not to like?

One thing I found interesting about Predator is the way it gives the alien interlopers some depth of character, whereas most movies of this type are content to just paint them as bad guys and be done with it. We even get a glimpse of their motivations. Granted, these motivations don’t amount to much, they hunt for ‘sport,’ but it’s a start. No doubt all the eighties bombast was a recipe for success, as Predator raked in almost $100 million at the Box Office against a modest $15 million budget. It also made a lasting impression, earning an 87% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes compared to a score of just 34% for the 2018 instalment, and as recently as 2015 it was named fourth in a Rolling Stone reader’s poll to ascertain the best action movies of all time. All of which is worthy acclaim.

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Trivia Corner:

Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast as the Predator, the idea being to match his martial arts skills with Schwarzenegger’s muscle, but he wasn’t happy being crammed into the suit all the time and constantly complained about it. The part eventually went to Kevin Peter Hall who stood over seven feet tall. He died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of just 35.


RetView #43 – Outpost (2008)

Title: Outpost

Year of Release: 2008

Director: Steve Barker

Length: 90 mins

outpost

Starring: Ray Stevenson, Julian Wadham, Richard Brake, Michael Smiley

I talked about my fondness for undead Nazi films in my post about the 1977 Peter Cushing vehicle Shock Waves. There’s something fundamentally terrifying about the juxtaposition of two evils, and the unholy malevolence that just won’t die. Outpost is a great example of this creepy sub-genre, and has all the elements you would look for in such a movie; symbolism, violence, action, gun fights, violence, survivalism, machismo, and violence. And did I mention the violence? Shortly after its release, debutant director Steve Barker described it simply as, “A boy’s film. It’s a good old fashioned siege horror.” That pretty much sums it up.

The film opens in a bar (always a great place to start a film) in some unnamed, war-torn location where corporate engineer and scientist Hunt (Wadham) is recruiting a career-mercenary going by the name DC (Stevenson) and a crack team of ex-soldiers. The proposed mission is to protect Hunt as he ventures into an Eastern Europe war zone in search of Nazi gold. Sounds simple enough. But along the way, they stumble across a forgotten World War II bunker (the outpost) and decide to investigate. When they do, they discover that the outpost was apparently used by the SS to carry out experiments fusing science with the occult. The result of these shadowy experiments was the creation of a battalion of bloodthirsty, unkillable, vengeance-crazed Nazi zombies who begin hunting down the intrepid team of mercenaries and picking them off one-by-one. Heads are crushed, eye balls are plucked out, nails are hammered into flesh, and people are stabbed in the mouth with swords. That’s just for starters.

Of course, the discovery of the outpost is all-too convenient, and it soon becomes apparent that the entire purpose of Hunt’s mission was to recover the machinery developed by the SS at the behest of the company he worked for which ‘could be worth billions.’ Some of them discuss leaving. Which would have been a good idea. Except by then, of course, it’s too late and shit is going off.

Sample dialogue:

Q: Did you kill him?

A: Well, his brains are all over the wall. That’s good enough for me.

The clever thing about this movie is that fact that much like the SS experimenters it describes, it attempts to blend fact and fiction (or, in another sense, science and the occult). The Nazis were renowned proponents of the supernatural and allegedly did indeed conduct experiments to produce regenerating ‘super soldiers’ as well as lots of other gruesome stuff. Try a Google search using the term ‘Nazi human experiments’ and you’ll see what I mean. The film even references the Philadelphia Experiment, an alleged disastrous attempt by the US military to ‘cloak’ the SS Eldridge. However, logic seems to be the enemy here. At one point, we see the nasty unkillable Germans demonstrating the unnerving ability to spontaneously appear and disappear wherever they want. But later, they are held back by a door. Still, who needs logic, eh?

Despite the occasional plot hole, Outpost is widely acknowledged as a classic budget Brit horror in the vein of Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later. It’s a deliciously taught and atmospheric offering which ticks most horror fan boxes and gathered a sizeable cult following. The acting is decent, the writing (by Rae Brunton) tight, and though the dialogue is a little cheesy at times, the kills come thick and fast and all involved from the actors to the lighting engineers make the most of their limited budget. Most of the action takes place inside the bunker, giving an oppressive, claustrophobic feel to proceedings. The cinematography and is top notch, combining with the funky lighting and other special effects to make your skin crawl as if you were really in that grimy concrete-lined underground hole, waiting for death to find you. At times, it’s almost like you are playing a live action RPG rather than watching a movie.

Outpost spawned two sequels, Outpost II: Black Sun (2012), which was released direct-to-DVD, a medium where the first film did especially well, prompting a modest UK cinema run, and a prequel entitled Outpost: Rise of the Spetsnaz (2013). The first film was largely well-received, with www.manlymovie.net saying, “Outpost is a minimalistic Brit horror film in all aspects, with a narrow scope and little in the way of flashy special effects. It’s also really, really damn good, and just as satisfyingly violent and gory as any contemporary horror picture.” However, both sequels were widely panned. Personally, I found both of them more than watchable. But then again, I’m easily pleased.

Trivia Corner

Scottish couple Arabella Croft and Kieran Parker re-mortgaged their Glasgow home in order to raise £200,000 to finance production, which they did via their company Black Camel Pictures.


RetView #37 – The Thing (1982)

Title: The Thing

Year of Release: 1982

Director: John Carpenter

Length: 109 mins

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

the thing

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

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

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

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

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

Trivia Corner

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


RetView #36 – The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Title: The Blair Witch Project

Year of Release: 1999

Director: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez

Length: 81 minutes

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

 

blair_witch_project_ver1

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

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

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

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

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

blair witch flag

Trivia Corner:

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

 


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

Title: Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors

Year of Release: 1965

Director: Freddie Francis

Length: 98 mins

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

dr terrors house of horrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trivia Corner:

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


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

Title: The Serpent and the Rainbow

Year of Release: 1988

Director: Wes Craven

Length: 98 mins

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

serpent_and_the_rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GO HERE for more RetView entries.

Trivia Corner:

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


RetView #31 – Christine (1982)

Title: Christine

Year of Release: 1983

Director: John Carpenter

Length: 110 mins

Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Prosky, Kelly Preston

christine-movie-poster-1983-1020489472

A major reason behind this series of posts is to look at movies that had an impact on my childhood and adolescence not just from a whimsical, rose-tinted view, but through the cold, hard, unimpressed eyes of an adult to ascertain how the films stand up and how my perceptions have changed. From that perspective Christine, the second Stephen King adaptation I have looked at following Thinner, is perfect fodder. I was in my early teens when I first read the book, which was released the same year as the film (unusual in itself, as the journey from publication to silver screen is usually a lot longer) and I think I saw the movie around the same time. Both are shot-through with nostalgia, and though set in the late 1970’s, feel as if they could have been placed in a much earlier time. This is perhaps a result of Christine’s radio being permanently tuned into 1950’s, the era she was manufactured (or ‘born’) rock n’ roll. In many ways, both the book and the movie also capture the angst and confusion of being a teenager, which often goes hand-in-hand with the thrills and naked optimism. All of which is testament to King’s sublime storytelling. Something else that comes through loud and clear is how intrinsic cars and driving is to American teen culture. It’s probably important to most teenagers, wherever they are from. Obviously, cars represent freedom. But they mean so much more in America.

It’s unlikely that any of this would be so prevalent had it not been for the direction of John Carpenter, who had been exploring the horror/suspense genre ever since 1978’s classic Halloween, most impressively on The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981) and the Thing (1982), a run he continued with Christine. His trademark sinister musical score, on this occasion cut with rock n’ roll classics, is a permanent reminder of his involvement, but his influence is immediately apparent during the opening credits, which roll over the sound of a throbbing engine. Overall, Carpenter brings a kind of savage warmth to proceedings, which is surprising as in later interviews he said the film was more of a ‘job’ than a personal project.

The plot is simple enough, but when you think about it most great plots are. Things are usually only complicated by sprawling, convoluted storylines which you have to concentrate so hard on following, everything else falls by the wayside. Arnold ‘Arnie’ Cunningham (Gordon) is an unpopular and socially awkward teenager living in the (fictional) town of Rockbridge, California. He has only one friend, Dennis (Stockwell). However, things begin to change when he purchases a beaten-up 1958 Plymouth convertible named ‘Christine’ from a used car dealer. He invests all his time and money in the car, and slowly develops a new image, that of a 1950’s greaser, to go with it. He even lands his first girlfriend, Leigh Cabot (Paul). But then things turn ugly. Arnie isn’t the boy he used to be. These days he’s an arrogant dickhead, and when Leigh almost chokes on a hamburger whilst sitting in his prized car, his friend Dennis does some investigating. He discovers that Christine has a long history of death and tragedy tied her. But that can’t be right. It’s only a car. Isn’t it? Dennis’ worst fears are confirmed when, after an altercation, Christine begins to hint down a group of local bullies. As the violence escalates, Arnie is sucked further and further into his now-murderous alter-ego. Is there any way back for him?

As ever, the thing that stands out most in both the book and the film version of Christine is the characterization. You actually feel for the characters, and despite many of the film cast being novices (an attempt, you feel, to portray the fresh innocence of youth) the acting is impressive right across the board. Word is that the role of Arnie was originally offered to Kevin Bacon, who declined it to take his career-defining role in Footloose, which came out the following year. The exception to the novice rule is the casting of grizzled veterans Harry Dean Stanton and Robert Prosky, who are superb as Detective Junkins and Darnell respectively. Producer Richard Kobritz had first been introduced to the work of Stephen King through his involvement on the ‘Salem’s Lot TV mini-series, and in the aftermath of that project was presented with several other novels King wanted to adapt for the screen. Among these novels were Cujo and, of course, Christine.

Trivia Corner

Because only 5,303 1958 Plymouth Furys were ever made, by the time filming began in April 1983 they were in short supply. Carpenter decided to place ads seeking two other Plymouth models, the Belvedere and the Savoy, and eventually got hold of 24 of them in various states of disrepair. These were then used to build a total of 17 versions of the Fury.


RetView #30 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Title: Night of the Living Dead

Year of Release: 1968

Director: George A. Romero

Length: 96 mins

Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner, Kyra Schon

night of the living dead

Few films have had anything like the same impact on the horror genre as Night of the Living Dead. It was the brainchild of New Yorker George A. Romero who, until then, been involved mainly in producing short films and TV commercials. In his late-twenties, he and a group of friends (many of whom appear in the film) decided to form a company called Image Ten Productions, Night of the Living Dead being one of their first projects.

According to Romero, the story was inspired by the post-apocalyptic Richard Matheson novel I am Legend, about vampire-like creatures roaming the earth after a plague, and was designed to capitalize on the film industry’s ‘thirst for the bizarre.’ Produced on a shoestring, the film had an original budget of just $6000, raised by the ten members of the newly-formed production company, before additional funding was found to stretch the budget to $114,000. It became an instant drive-in hit, and soon recouped over 250 times its budget. However, Romero himself saw little of this, thanks to his lack of industry knowledge regarding distribution deals.

The plot follows a brother and sister, Barbra (O’Dea) and Johnny (Streiner), who travel to Pennsylvania to visit their father’s grave. In the cemetery, they are attacked by a ghoulish stranger. He makes short work of poor Johnny, and chases Barbra on foot. The understandably shaken woman makes her way to a nearby remote farmhouse where she is attacked again (not her day) before being rescued by Ben (Jones) who fights off the assailants and takes Barbra inside the farmhouse. The pragmatic Ben then sets about boarding up the doors and windows, while Barbra has a not-so-quiet meltdown in the corner. They then discover a family hiding out in the cellar and are joined by a teenaged couple who turn up seeking refuge after hearing an emergency call about a series of brutal murders, and the cast is complete.

But not for long.

As you’ve probably guessed, the zombie hordes spend the rest of the movie trying to break into the farmhouse and picking off the small gaggle of survivors one-by-one. Obviously, that’s a drastic oversimplification, but you get the drift. As things develop, the horror gradually, and terrifyingly, shifts from those on the outside trying to get in, to those already inside, not least the daughter, Karen (Schon) who has been bitten by a ghoul (Romero’s original name for what we now know as zombies) and spends most of the film in a catatonic state. Until the end, and if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie before, you can probably guess what happens then. This is the mechanism that poses many of the questions which make the final third of the film so effective. To what lengths would you go to save a loved one? Where would you draw the line? And what do you do when you realize that innocence and beauty mask a ruthless monster? And you’re stuck with it? As Jones says in one of the most memorable lines of the film, “It must be tough for a kid when her old man is this stupid. Now go and be boss down there [in the cellar]. I’m boss up here.”

Add to the mix a satisfyingly gory, ruinous climax and a twist ending and you have a piece of cinematic history. That said, I imagine modern audiences, raised on the sequels and rip-off’s, might be a touch disappointed with what they find here. This is the archetypal indie movie; raw, gritty, and about as far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood as it’s possible to get. That, for me, is part of its strength. It might seem predictable now, but only because you’ve seen the best parts replicated so many times in other places from likes of Shock Waves and Train to Busan to the Walking Dead. Imagine seeing this back in 1968, when the Vietnam War was still raging and the American political landscape was still struggling to come to terms with the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The latter, forever associated with the civil rights movement, makes the casting of Duane Jones as Ben even more interesting. At that time, it was highly unusual to see a black male lead dominating a cast of white folk. While some saw the choice as controversial, Romero distanced himself from any controversy by maintaining that Jones ‘simply gave the best audition.’ Jones’ performance is certainly remarkable, and it’s a surprise to me that he didn’t go on to greater things. That could be because he was also a director and teacher, and maybe that was where his true passions lay. Tragically, he died from a cardiac arrest on July 22nd 1988 at the age of just 51. It is also worth noting that Night of the Living Dead was released at the height of the Space Race between America and the Soviet Union which was still very high in the public consciousness, and various allusions are made to Venus probes and radiation as being possible causes of the zombie apocalypse.

Despite its being heavily criticized upon its release for allegedly being exploitative and excessively gory, Night of the Living Dead quickly garnered critical acclaim and became a much-loved horror classic, birthing many of the familiar horror tropes we still see today. Its success led to five sequels between 1978 and 2000, all directed by Romero (along with two remakes and scores of imitations) and it was eventually selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, as a film deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

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Trivia Corner:

In the scene where the zombies are eating bodies in the burned-out truck, they were actually eating roasted ham covered in chocolate sauce, which was used as a substitute for blood. This was obviously only possible because the film was shot in black and white. Elsewhere, entrails used in the film were donated by one of the actors who owned a chain of butcher shops.


RetView #26 – Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)

Title: Quarantine 2: Terminal

Year of Release: 2011

Director: John Pogue

Length: 86 minutes

Starring: Mercedes Mason, Josh Cooke, Mattie Liptak, Ignacio Serrichio, Bre Blair, Noree Victoria

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Before we start, let’s clear up the inevitable confusion. Quarantine 2: Terminal is the sequel to Quarantine, which was the 2008 English-language remake of Spanish masterpiece REC (2007). REC also had a sequel. Three sequels, in fact. REC 2 (2009), REC 3: Genesis (2012) and REC 4: Apocalypse (2014). Quarantine 2 is none of those, and follows a totally different story arc. Geddit?

Good.

Unlike any other zombie flick, Quarantine 2: Terminal, written and directed by John Pogue (who had previously picked up writing credits on Ghost Ship and the 2002 remake of Rollerball) takes place on a commercial plane and later at a quarantined airport. In fact, you could argue that it isn’t even a zombie flick. These are the Infected, rather than the walking dead brand of zombie previously encountered in movies like 28 Days Later.

It is suggested through passengers listening to news reports that the events play out concurrently as those depicted in the first Quarantine film. It starts off as a typical domestic flight. But I guess they all do, until something happens to make them less typical. Things take a sinister turn when one of the passengers, Ralph, starts frothing at the mouth, throws up all over the place, freaks out and tries to storm the cockpit. Then, in a final flourish, bites half the face off one of the flight attendants before being forcibly restrained. Definitely not what you expect or want from your in-flight entertainment. Ralph has been bitten by a hamster, which in actual fact is a disease-carrying lab rat which has been brought onto the plane by teacher Henry (Cooke) for his students.

No spoilers here, but there’s something deeply suspicious about Henry and all is revealed in due course. Disobeying orders, the pilot radios for assistance and lands the plane at the nearest airport where the passengers disembark and encounter lowly baggage-handler Ed (Serrichio) while the pilots stay on the plane to look after Ralph, who is proving to be quite a handful. As is the rat, who duly escapes the plane and proceeds to make full use of his newfound freedom. Flight attendant Jenny (Mason) bravely attempts to takes charge of the situation, but her plans spiral out of control when a bunch of military types with hazmat suits and machine guns appear, and aren’t overly friendly. They try to administer drugs to the group, which later transpire to be experimental antidotes to the rabies-like virus which is apparently being spread through bites. With Ed’s help, the survivors soon realize that the only means of escape is via an old disused tunnel. If they can find it before the infected, or the military, find them.

Quarantine 2: Terminal, apart from the genius play on words of the title, succeeds mainly because it carries over the same brand of claustrophobic terror and general believability so perfectly executed in both the original Quarantine and [REC]. Things are so tight, it could have been filmed in a cupboard. Bonus points have to go to the makers for attempting to do something different with the franchise, rather than simply taking their cues from the original REC films. Like the first Quarantine, the sequel is notable for its complete lack of musical score, which adds to the eeriness of it all.

Despite being a straight-to-DVD release by Sony Pictures, Quarantine 2: Terminal was well received by critics and at the time of writing boasts an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, far above the average for this kind of film. The website Horror Freak News said in its review, “Expectations were low for this sequel to a remake, but the film pleasantly surprises. The gore is great, the characters elicit some caring about what happens to them, and the resolutions to a few lingering mysteries from REC/Quarantine are quite welcomed.”

I concur.

Trivia Corner:

This is Mercedes Mason’s first role in a zombie outbreak production. It wouldn’t be her last, as she would later have a similar role from 2015 in Fear the Walking Dead. Ironically, the webisodes Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462 also centered on a zombie outbreak aboard a commercial passenger plane.


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