Tag Archives: movies

RetView #60 – Death Ship (1980)

Title: Death Ship

Year of Release: 1980

Director: Alvin Rakoff

Length: 85 mins

Starring: Richard Crenna, George Kennedy, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, Saul Rubinek

I’d never even heard of this Bloodstar Films production until I read about it in an issue of the venerated Fortean Times magazine (FT396, if you’re interested). I’ve always had a thing for Nazi zombies, as referenced before in previous RetViews Shock Waves and Outpost. I also recently discovered that I have a thing for horror set on ships. I have no idea why that is. It could be something about the bleak, all-encompassing emptiness of being at sea, but it’s probably more to do with the fact that if some supernatural shit befalls you in a house, or even a cabin buried in the woods, you can always just count your losses and run. You can’t do that on a ship. You have to stay and face whatever evil shit is about to befall you. Anyway, the potential for Nazi zombies and an evil sea-faring vessel combo suckered me right into Death Ship. Throw in Richard Crenna from the Rambo films, Saul Rubinek from True Romance (and Frasier) and George Kennedy from, er, Cool Hand Luke and Earthquake, I was already sold. And if all that wasn’t enough, just look at this poster!

So what’s it all about?

Well, stuffy Captain Ashland (Kennedy) is on his final cruise before handing over the reigns to Trevor Marshall (Crenna) who has brought his wife (Howes, in her final film appearance) and kids along on the trip. At a glitzy on-ship party there’s a band playing, some drunk people, and lots of terrible dad dancing. Everyone is having a great time. Except Captain Ashland, who you doubt could have a great time anywhere. But all the decadence and debauchery comes to a sudden halt when the cruise liner smashes into something and sinks, leaving just a handful of survivors unfortunately including Marshall’s annoying kids, a lecherous young officer, and a near-hysterical passenger, floating around on a makeshift raft. The next morning they find the grumpy captain in the water, which is a stroke of luck, or maybe not, then they come across a massive, ominous-looking black ship anchored in the middle of the ocean with a ladder down ready to receive them, which seems like another mad stroke of luck but turns out to be quite the opposite. Thinking they’ve found salvation, the survivors board the strange ship to find it deserted. Still, it’s better than being on the raft, or so they think. The first sign that something isn’t right comes when ship’s entertainer Jackie (Rubinek) is suddenly scooped up by a possessed winch and dumped screaming head first into the sea. Bye, Jackie. It was fun while it lasted. Things degenerate from there. The remaining survivors, whilst trying to navigate this mysterious vessel full of disembodied voices, creepy shadows and inanimate objects that take on lives of their own, get picked off one-by-one, until only the good-natured Trevor Marshall, his wife, and those annoying kids are left and ultimately find themselves back where they started on another flimsy-looking rafty-thing in the water. There’s probably a message there.

Life and soul of the party Captain Ashland and the underlying friction between him and his would-be replacement Marshall is instrumental in all this.

“You don’t know how to handle a crew or passengers!”
“Maybe so, Marshall. But I know how to handle ships.”

At one point, Ashland even dons a discarded German navy uniform and appears to channel the ship’s long-dead and rather sadistic head honcho whilst embarking on a murderous rampage. It all leads up to the highly anticipated revelation, which ties things up nicely and makes for a nice, satisfying conclusion. Especially after the evil Captain Ashland comes to a suitably sticky end and, of course, good triumphs over evil.

It’s easy to see why Death Ship got lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t have the immediacy of other popular horror flicks of the day like Cannibal Holocaust, Friday the 13th or Prom Night. It could, however, be a distant cousin of The Fog. It has a much more brooding atmosphere and, dare I say, slightly more substance reinforced by some remarkable cinematography, an impressive plot, and a killer (sorry) cast. It’s picked up a few retrospective reviews like this one on Warped Perspective, which is a real indicator as to whether a movie is truly attaining cult status, and review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes gives it an overall score of 4.2 out of 10 based on 5 reviews, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. One review states, “Death Ship is a terrific, low-budget cheesy supernatural tale that should definitely appeal to midnight movie horror fans. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I feel that this is one of the most underrated films in the genre.”

It’s hard to argue with that, and those sentiments are echoed by Jeremy Blitz of DVD Talk, who said, “It isn’t a perfect film, but it is an enjoyable one, especially for fans of the somewhat lower tier horror efforts of the late seventies and early eighties.” Its flaws, however, are plain to see. Many called it unimaginative or derivative, with a shower scene in particular said to mirror the famous one in Psycho a little too closely. Incidentally, the shower scene in Death Ship was shot in one take, as it was deemed too expensive and troublesome to clean up the blood and shoot it again. It wasn’t all plain sailing (boom!). Damningly, TV Guide called the movie “ludicrous” and gave it a one-star rating. It’s probably safe to say that despite its considerable merits, this won’t be something that many of it’s stellar cast will look back on with much pride. For one delightful moment whilst researching this piece, I thought I’d stumbled across a modern(ish) remake. But that turned out to be nothing more than the result of some artwork someone mocked up in Deviant Art. Good effort, though.

Trivia Corner

As the ghost ship collided with the cruise liner, brief scenes of an explosion, a grand piano falling between decks, and the engine room flooding were cut in from another movie entirely. The movie in question was The Last Voyage (1960).


RetView #56 – Fright Night (1985)

Title: Fright Night

Year of Release: 1985

Director: Tom Holland

Length: 106 mins

Starring: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys

Something occurred to me recently. So far, I haven’t covered many vampire movies in the RetView series. In fact, the only ones I’ve featured have been Lost Boys and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Personally, I just find the whole vampire thing a bit naff and predictable. If you’ll excuse the pun, it’s been done to death. Hurrah! That’s why, to my mind, the vampire legend is best done with a splash of humour, like both the aforementioned did with great success. Another vampire comedy horror classic is Fright Night from 1985, the year of Brothers in Arms, Live Aid and Miami Vice. It became the second highest grossing horror movie of the year behind A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and is notable for being the directorial debut of Tim Holland, who went on to direct Child’s Play (1988) and Thinner (1996) as well as episodes of Amazing Stories and Tales from the Crypt. The movie also benefited from a Big Eighties Soundtrack featuring the likes of the J Geils Band, who performed the title track, Autograph, April Wine and Ian Hunter, the irony being that most of these artists were already streaking into irrelevance having peaked long before. Much like the vampire itself. If the producers had been a bit more adventurous and signed someone a bit more contemporary (like the Elm Street franchise did a couple of years later when they hired Dokken to record the seminal Dream Warriors, or when the makers of Shocker persuaded Megadeth to get involved) it could’ve made all the difference. Still, Fright Night didn’t really need the Big Eighties Soundtrack, it was a massive hit anyway, winning three Saturn awards and grossing over $24 million, despite Columbia having very low expectations of it.

17-year-old Charley Brewster (Ragsdale) is a fan of horror films and a late-night TV series entitled Fright Night hosted by former ‘vampire hunter’ Peter Vincent (McDowall). One evening, Charley discovers that his new next door neighbour, Jerry Dandrige (Sarandon) is the blood-thirsty sucker responsible for several mysterious disappearances. In desperation, he alerts the authorities but, unable to find any evidence, they brush off Brewster’s claims and leave him at the mercy of an angry and vengeful Dandridge. Fearful for the safety of himself and his girlfriend Amy (Bearse) and with no other choice, Brewster goes to best friend Evil Ed (Geoffreys) and his idol, Vincent, for help. Together the motley crew battle the forces of evil. Or try to. But far from being a fearless vampire hunter, Vincent turns out to be a bit of a scaredy cat, as well as a fraud, Brewster’s best friend is a bit of a dick, and his girlfriend appears to have the horn for his nemesis.

The writing in Fright Night is top-notch, as are some of the performances. Stephen Geoffreys (who, ironically, went on to star in 976-EVIL a couple of years later) is brilliant as Evil Ed, but it’s Roddy McDowall who steals the show. One of those saturn awards went to him for ‘Best Supporting Actor.’ His character was named after horror icons Peter Cushing and Vincent price, for whom Holland had specifically written the part. However, at this point in his career, Price had been so badly typecast that he had stopped accepting roles in horror movies. Hollywood badboy Charlie sheen auditioned for the part of Brewster, and I can’t help feeling he would have been amazing as the bumbling teen, but Holland thought Sheen was a ‘hero’ while Ragsdale was, quite literally, “the guy next door.” For her final transformation as a busty vampire, Amanda Bearse wore a prosthetic breast plate to enhance her cleavage. Legend has it that in 2012 she took it to a horror convention and encouraged fans to ‘feel her boobs’ while she signed autographs. Brilliant.

Fright Night as a franchise has grown to include a sequel, imaginatively entitled Fright Night Part 2 (1988) and a remake in 2011. When later asked his thoughts about it, Tom Holland said, “Kudos to them on every level for their professionalism, but they forgot the humor and the heart. They should have called it something other than Fright Night, because it had no more than a passing resemblance to the original.”

Ouch.

The remake was itself followed by a sequel Fright Night 2: New Blood (2013), as well as numerous comics, graphic novels and a video game. Interestingly, the movie even made the crossover to Bollywood in 1989 with a version called Kalpana House (1989), and was adapted for the stage in 2018. Proof positive that, just like the vampires of myth and legend, Fright Night lives on. And on.

Trivia Corner

The makeup for Evil Ed’s wolf transformation took 18 hours to complete. While he had the wolf head on, the crew began pouring what they thought was Methylcellulose into his mouth to create the illusion of saliva, but when Geoffreys began to complain about the taste, the crew realized they’d been using prosthetic adhesive, which was gluing his mouth shut. Doh.


RetView #53 – Flatliners (1990)

Title: Flatliners

Year of Release: 1990

Director: Joel Schumacher

Length: 114 mins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trivia Corner:

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


RetView #51 – The Gorgon (1964)

Title: The Gorgon

Year of Release: 1964

Director: Terence Fisher

Length: 83 mins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trivia Corner:

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

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RetView #50 – Jaws (1975)

Title: Jaws

Year of Release: 1975

Director: Steven Spielberg

Length: 124 mins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Kay then.

Trivia Corner:

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


Retview #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.

 


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