Celebrating Gay Pride

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As a film journalist I have often tried to focus my attention on underappreciated films, actors and directors. Unsurprisingly, this has led me to write about a number of gay/LGBT films as well as gay/LGBT filmmakers and actors. So in celebration of Gay Pride weekend and the Supreme Court decision that now makes gay-marriage a constitutional right (as it always should have been) I decided to collect some of the film writing I’ve done under the banner of “Gay Interest” to share in one post.

Enjoy!
James Fox – Subverting Sexual Identity & Social Class in British Cinema (2007)
At Home With Dirk Bogarde (2007)
Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray (2007)
Kerwin Mathews (1926-2007) (2007)
Introducing Jason King (2007)
The decadent world of the Black Lizard (2008)
David Bowie is The Image (1967) (2008)
A few thoughts about Anthony Perkins (2008)
10 Questions with Shane Briant (2009)
Modern Mondays: Love Songs (2007) (2009)
Spend Your Day With Dirk Bogarde (2009)
The Fool Killer (1965) (2009)
Modern Mondays: Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy” 2002-2005 (2009)
Old Rubber Lips (2010)
Seduced by Pierre Clementi (2011)
Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971) (2011)
In Search of Sascha Brastoff (2011)
Velvet Goldmine: Celluloid Pictures of Living (2011)
Reinventing Lolita (2011)
Remember My Name (1976) (2011)
The House That Screamed… “Murder!” (2011)
Derek Jarman: An Appreciation (2011)
Girls Will Be Boys (2012)
“A film is a petrified fountain of thought.” – Jean Cocteau (2012)
Dirk Bogarde – The Reluctant International Man of Mystery (2012)
Summer Reading – including a brief look at Tab Hunter’s autobiography (2012)
Telefilm Time Machine: That Certain Summer (1972) (2013)
In the Trenches with James Whale (2013)
Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be? (2013)
Telefilm Time Machine – Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) (2013)

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On Vampyres and Other Symptoms

I recently had the opportunity to view Celia Novis’ new documentary, ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS (2011), about the life and work of director José Ramón Larraz. Larraz is one of Spain’s most fascinating horror filmmakers but his work is hard to get a hold of and I’ve only managed to see a handful of his films myself including VAMPYRES (1975), DEVIATION (1971), THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED (1974), BLACK CANDLES (1982) and most recently SYMPTOMS (1974), which literally knocked me off my feet. SYMPTOMS was so damn good that I’ve been too intimated to try and write something about it. I also enjoyed Novis’ fascinating documentary, which is an intimate and deeply personal look at Larraz as well as a creative companion to his films. Here’s a brief excerpt from my post about ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS that you can currently find at the Movie Morlocks.

ON VAMPYRES AND OTHER SYMPTOMS takes a look back at Larraz’ early years through a series of comic book panels that Celia Novis brings to life with lighting effects and sweeping camera movements. These scenes are intermingled with footage of Larraz discussing his work while Novis shoots the aging director taking long walks through old cemeteries and twisted hotel hallways. These walks seem to trigger a flood of memories for Larraz and the ghosts of his past begin to materialize. The director quietly expresses his disappointment with the business side of filmmaking that he encountered at film festivals like Cannes where “exhibitionism and opportunism” were rampant. But most of the conversations revolve around his thoughts about aging, his appreciation of family, regret over lost loves and the lack of critical respect for his work. He also discusses his lifelong fascination with the supernatural and the desire to find a new approach to the horror genre.”

Please follow the link if you’d like to read more:
On Vampyres and Other Symptoms @ TCM’s Movie Morlocks

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All Aboard the HORROR EXPRESS!

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At the Movie Morlocks this week I took a sneak peek at Severin Films upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray Combo Package for HORROR EXPRESS (1972). This entertaining Spanish/British production directed by Eugino ‘Gene’ Martino is finally getting the red carpet treatment from Severin that it’s long deserved and if you’re a fan of the film you’re going to want to pick up this release. A brief outtake from my post:

HORROR EXPRESS has often been described as an unusual mix of THE THING (1951) and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974). But it also contains a dash of QUATERMASS AND THE PITT (1967) and a touch of TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (1971) during its suspenseful final moments. The direction is somewhat static but the film manages to maintain a steady momentum throughout its 90-minute running time. In an interview with Spanish director Eugenio Martin included on the DVD he constantly refers to the film as an ”action” movie instead of using the word “horror” and I think that’s understandable. HORROR EXPRESS has plenty of horrific moments and it’s surprisingly gory for its time. But the film also features some effective action sequences including an explosive ending that’s particularly well-staged. Like many of Eugenio Martin’s westerns including BAD MAN’S RIVER (1971) and PANCHO VILLA (1972), the characters in HORROR EXPRESS also exchange some funny banter that lightens the mood without lessening any of the tension. This low budget fast-paced thriller is sure to gain many more fans thanks to Severin’s careful restoration. It’s a particularly modern horror film even though it takes place in a period setting and I think it’s aged well.”
HORROR EXPRESS (1972)
HORROR EXPRESS (1972)
HORROR EXPRESS (1972)
HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

You can read my full review if you follow this link:
“All Aboard the HORROR EXPRESS!” @ TCM’s Movie Morlock’s

I’ve also created a an image gallery for HORROR EXPRESS at Flickr that you cam view here.

The House That Screamed… “Murder!”

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Mod Macabre continues over at The Movie Morlocks today where I take a look at Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s horrific thriller The House That Screamed (1969) featuring a great cast that includes Lilli Palmer, Cristina Galbo, Mary Maude and mod wonder boy, John-Moulder Brown. Here’s a brief description of The House That Screamed from my post:

“THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED takes place at an isolated boarding school where troubled young women are being taught by a sadistic headmistress called Madame Fourneau (Lilli Palmer) who enjoys disciplining her female students with a whip followed by a tender kiss. After an attractive young French girl named Theresa (Cristina Galbó) enrolls and is given a tour of the grounds, it quickly becomes apparent that something odd is going on at the school. Unseen eyes seem to follow Teresa’s every move and the tense atmosphere is punctuated by the headmistress’s cursory behavior. The other young women at the school immediately take an interest in Teresa and she becomes an object of adoration and scorn for one particular student by the name of Irene (Mary Maude). Irene is Madame Fourneau’s right-hand girl and she enjoys helping the headmistress discipline ill-behaved girls. Adding to the tension is the addition of Madame Fourneau’s handsome son, Louis (John Moulder-Brown) who is kept at the school due to his poor health. His mother insists on isolating him from the young women who she feels aren’t “good enough” for him. The headmistress wants her son to meet someone like herself who will look after him and keep him safe but Louis isn’t interested in following her advice. It soon becomes apparent that he’s been spying on the girls at the school as well as starting up relationships with a few them. So when an unknown killer begins stalking the students it’s easy to assume that Louis might be the murderer but he’s not the only suspect. There’s the lurking gardener (Vic Israel) who seems to also enjoy spying on the students and of course the headmistress herself comes under scrutiny along with the cruel Irene. Director and co-writer Narciso Ibáñez Serrador keeps the audience guessing until the film’s final moments and the plot’s unpredictable twists and turns should surprise many viewers.”
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Pictured: Teresa Hurtado and John-Moulder Brown (1969)

To read more just follow the link:
The House That Screamed… “Murder!” @ TCM’s Classic Movie Blog

Reinventing Lolita

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Top: Sue Lyon in Murder in a Blue World (1973)
Bottom: Sue Lyon in Lolita (1961)

From my latest post at The Movie Morlocks:

One of the most iconic images to emerge from the cinema in the 1960s is the figure of a young Sue Lyon, peering over her sunglasses at a leering James Mason in Stanley Kubrick’s LOLITA (1961). And I’m definitely not alone in my view. The Spanish genre director Eloy de la Iglesia must have agreed with me when he decided to cast Sue Lyon in his intriguing futuristic thriller, MURDER IN A BLUE WORLD (aka CLOCKWORK TERROR; 1973). Eloy de la Iglesia’s film has often been labeled a low-budget and poorly constructed Spanish knock-off of Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and it’s easy to understand why. But its meta-referencing goes way beyond A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and tips its hat in equal measure to Kubrick’s LOLITA. In fact, MURDER IN A BLUE WORLD is really an homage to Kubrick himself and arguably one of the most interesting films released in Spain during the early ‘70s.

Murder in the Blue World (1963)

Murder in the Blue World (1963)If you’d like to read more about Sue Lyon in Eloy de la Iglesia’s MURDER IN A BLUE WORLD please follow the link:
Reinventing Lolita in MURDER IN A BLUE WORLD (1973) @ TCM’s Classic Movie Blog

I’ve also compiled a Flickr gallery of images from the film that you can find here.

Paul Naschy 1934-2009

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I was gutted by the news of Paul Naschy’s death today due to complications from cancer. He was 75 years old and had a very full and productive life but I didn’t realize he was so ill. Naschy directed and appeared in some of my favorite Spanish horror films and as I’ve mentioned before, I came up with the name for my blog thanks to one of the movies he directed and starred in. I had been going over blog names in my mind for a week back in 2006 and suddenly after watching Paul Naschy’s gothic horror extravaganza Panic Beats I was inspired to come up with the name for Cinebeats and the rest, as they say, is history.

If I wasn’t feeling so awful I’d write something more in-depth about the director and actor who I admired a lot. But after a year of notable deaths I’m more than a little burnt out and not all that motivated to write another obituary. Instead I’ll just share a clip from Paul Naschy’s last interview done for the DVD release of The Hanging Woman (1973), which was recently released by Troma.

To learn more about Paul Naschy visit The Mark of Naschy.

Modern Mondays: Before the Fall (2008)

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Before the Fall (aka Tres días) is a terrific Spanish thriller with an end-of-the-world setting. This thoughtful genre-mixing film takes place in a small Spanish village as the news breaks that a giant meteor has begun rapidly descending towards earth. The meteor is expected to hit the planet in just three days and scientists predict that the world will come to a sudden and violent end when it does. As these events begin to unfold director and co-writer F. Javier Gutiérrez focuses his camera on one very troubled family that is struggling to live with some deep scars caused by a traumatic encounter with a serial killer many years earlier. Unfortunately the family is forced to face their past head-on when the killer escapes from jail in the chaos following the frantic news announcement of the meteor’s decent.

In most films with a doomsday plot line the characters act as if they don’t have a past. But they’re willing to fight for a future that often seems vague and undefined. Characters might struggle with family matters before the action starts and occasionally make reference to it as the drama progresses, but once the adrenaline kicks in their personal history mysteriously seems to vanish into thin air. This lack of emotional depth and character development in many science fiction films and thrillers can be distracting and exasperating for some viewers. Before the Fall is smart enough to reject typical scenarios found in countless apocalyptic films and instead director F. Javier Gutiérrez managed to craft a taut psychological thriller that never forgets about its very human characters.

The film’s deep sense of humanity is what separates Before the Fall from countless other end-of-the-world films that have preceded it. Throughout the course of the film the flawed protagonists in Before the Fall are never allowed to forget their past and the events that have shaped them. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez knows that death is inevitable whether it comes in the form of a giant falling meteor, suicide or a serial killer so the meteor plunging towards earth in Before the Fall is only a minor distraction that never gets in the way of life’s bigger questions and conflicts. The film unapologetically allows viewers to forget about the impending disaster facing planet earth and embrace the troubled family in their very personal plight.

Besides some surprisingly creative directing choices by Gutiérrez, the film also features some wonderful performances from Víctor Clavijo as the reluctant hero of the film as well as Mariana Cordero as his mother and Eduard Fernández as the determined killer. These three characters really make up the heart, soul and mind of this unusual movie that happens to be one of my favorite films of the last decade.

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20 Favorite DVD Releases of 2008: Part I.

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I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but overall 2008 was somewhat of a lackluster year for new Region 1 DVD releases of ’60s and ’70s era films when compared to the previous two years (See: 2006 and 2007). Some of my favorite DVD companies such as BCI Eclipse and most recently New Yorker Films have folded. Boutique DVD companies are releasing fewer products and what is being released is often of questionable quality. With the failing economy and the rise in popularity of Blu-ray discs, it seems like the number of new worthwhile DVD releases might continue to drop dramatically in 2009. Many companies such as Blue Underground and Criterion are choosing to re-release films that have already been available on DVD, while big studios like Warner Brothers and Paramount seem to be focusing a lot of their energy on re-releasing titles on Blu-ray instead of releasing old films from their vaults.

Even with this disappointing turn of events, fans of ’60s and ’70s cinema were still offered some great DVD box sets from companies like Lions Gate as well as Criterion. Sony Pictures has also released an interesting batch of DVDs under their new “Martini Movies” label. And with curiosity about Japanese pink films on the rise, companies like Mondo Macabro and Media Blasters took full advantage of this and released some unexpected gems last year. 2008 was also a great year for British horror fans. Besides multiple Hammer DVD releases including the Icons of Horror: Hammer Films Collection and the Icons of Adventure Film Collection, there were also some great Amicus films released such as Freddie Francis’ The Skull and The Deadly Bees.

In previous years I’ve shared a list of my Top 30 Favorite DVD releases, but this year I’m narrowing my list down to my favorite Top 20 releases. This is mainly due to my disappointment with last year’s DVD offerings and I wanted to focus on a limited selection of new releases that I really enjoyed. As always, my list only features films that were originally released between 1960 and 1979 on Region 1 DVD. I tried not to include any DVD re-releases on my list or TV shows, but there were plenty to choose from. My selections are listed in alphabetical order and I’ll be posting them in two parts in the coming week. Below are selections #1-10.

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Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in La Piscine (1969)

1. Alain Delon – Five Film Collection (Lions Gate)
Anytime an Alain Delon film finds it’s way onto DVD for the first time there’s a celebration in my home! The Lions Gate Alain Delon DVD boxset was a real treat and offered viewers the opportunity to see five films starring my favorite French actor. I thought the best films in the collection were easily La Piscine aka The Swimming Pool (1969) and Diaboliquement vôtre aka Diabolically Yours (1967), which I reviewed back in 2007. But The Widow Couderc and Notre Histoire also make for some worthwhile viewing. Le Gitan aka The Gypsy (1975) is a bit like sitting through Zorro II, but it’s missing the catchy theme song. I actually enjoy Delon’s original Zorro (1975) film, but Le Gitan left me a little cold. For more information about this DVD release please see my previous comments about it here.

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Christopher Walken, Stan Gottlieb and Sean Connery in The Anderson Tapes (1971)

2. The Anderson Tapes (Sony Pictures)
The Anderson Tapes (1971) is one of the hidden gems that can be found in the recent batch of “Martini Movies” released by Sony Pictures. This ’70s caper film was directed by Sidney Lumet when he was at the top of his game and it’s based on a novel written by Lawrence Sanders. The movie features a great cast that includes Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Alan King and a very young and incredibly cute Christopher Walken in his first major film role. The premise of the film involves a group of con men that Anderson (Sean Connery) brings together in order to pull off a major heist at an upper-class apartment building in New York. Unfortunately for Anderson everyone he contacts is under surveillance for different reasons, so every move he makes is being carefully monitored. Sidney Lumet does an impressive job of filming the events as they unfold through the use of surveillance cameras and sound. And I really liked the adult way that Connery’s relationship with Dyan Cannon was handled. The film was released a year before the Watergate scandal made headlines and three years before Francis Ford Coppala’s seminal film The Conversation, which tackled similar themes. I was surprised by how much The Anderson Tapes had obviously influenced Coppola’s later films and I’m not just referring to The Conversation. Clearly writer Lawrence Sanders and director Sidney Lumet were well aware of the way surveillance was starting to play a role in modern society and the film does a terrific job of exploring the way it invades the life of one unsuspecting man. Quincy Jones created the film’s soundtrack and I think is one of the composers most experimental and unusual efforts. Jones used electronic sounds and noise to convey various emotions and ideas in the film and it works really well with the way Lumet handles the material. The film is presented in widescreen and the print looks terrific. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of extras on the DVD besides the original trailer and the Martini Movie features which come with every one of their releases.

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Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976)

3. Assault! Jack the Ripper (Mondo Macabro)
This is not an easy film to recommend and many will undoubtedly be shocked by the film’s subject matter. Some hardened horror fans will even shy away from the graphic nature of the film, but Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976) is easily one of the most transgressive and fascinating violent pink movies I’ve seen and in turn, one of my favorite DVD releases of last year. Assault! Jack the Ripper was directed by Yasuharu Hasebe who has made some of my favorite Japanese films including Black Tight Killers (1966), Bloody Territories (1969), Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973) and the Stray Cat Rock films. The movie centers around the violent and erotic adventures of young working couple who accidentally discover that they get sexual satisfaction from torturing and murdering other women. The film used true crimes such as the notorious Chicago nurse murders committed by Richard Speck for inspiration. It’s propelled by an incredible Euro-flavored soundtrack and some breathtaking cinematography. Assault! Jack the Ripper is not light viewing and audiences should be prepared to watch the DVD extras that come with the film in order to get a deeper understanding of the movie’s subversive themes, but it’s well worth the effort for adventurous viewers. The DVD extras include an insightful interview with author Jasper Sharp who wrote Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, extensive notes about the film and a great documentary called The Erotic Empire which discusses Nikkatsu Studios “Romantic Pornographic” aka Roman Porno films.

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Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973)

4. Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (Special Edition) (BCI / Eclipse)
A lot of Paul Naschy films found their way onto DVD last year, but Carlos Aured’s Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973) was my favorite of the bunch. In this Spanish giallo Paul Naschy plays a deeply troubled ex-con who gets hired as a caretaker for a lavish estate owned by three beautiful sisters who seem to all vie for Naschy’s affections. After Naschy takes the job, a serial killer begins terrorizing the countryside and removing the eyes of his blue-eyed victims. Is Naschy the cold-blooded killer or is someone else to blame for the horrible murders? You’ll have to watch the film to find out! No one in Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll is particularly likable, but I found that aspect of the film strangely compelling. Carlos Aured does a good job with the dream sequences in the film and Paul Naschy ‘s script features plenty of unusual twists and turns to keep viewers entertained. Fans of European thrillers should find the film enjoyable. The DVD comes with some great extras including audio commentary with Paul Naschy and director Carlos Aured.

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Reiko Oshida in Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

5. Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams (Media Blasters)
For more information about this release please see my lengthy review of the film here.

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Serge Gainsbourg, Delphine Seyrig and John Abbey in Mr. Freedom (1969)

6. The Delirious Fictions of William Klein – Eclipse Series 9 (Eclipse / Criterion)
This Eclipse/Criterion DVD collection was one of the best things the company released last year and for my money, possibly the best DVD film collection of 2008. Previously William Klein’s films were incredibly hard to come by and the prints that were floating around from various sources were often very poor. Criterion’s choice to release three of William Klein’s films was a real surprise and a treat for anyone like myself who enjoys avant-garde cinema from the ’60s. Director William Klein was a fashion photographer and an American expat living in Paris when he made these films, which satirize the fashion industry, pervading cultural values and American political policies. Although some may see the films as mere products of the times that they were made in, I think they’re still extremely relevant today. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? aka Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1966) and Mr. Freedom (1969) are the standout features in this three film set and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite from the two. Both films feature some incredible visuals and lots of dark humor. The Model Couple (1977) is also well worth a look even if it’s lacking the style and intellectual punch of the other two films in the collection. This terrific set of films deserves a lot more attention than I can give it now but I briefly mentioned how excited I was about this DVD release last year and you can find that post along with a clip from Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? here. Unfortunately like all the Eclipse/Criterion DVD releases this DVD collection is very bare bones, but still well worth owning.

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The Gorgon (1964)

7. Icons of Horror: Hammer Films (Sony Pictures)
I’m always happy to see any Hammer horror films finding their way onto DVD and the 2-disc Icons of Horror collection contained one of my long-time favorite Hammer productions, Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) as well as Seth Holt’s exceptional thriller Scream of Fear (1961). This four film collection also featured Michael Carreras’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). I hadn’t had the opportunity to see Terence Fisher’s The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll before this DVD release and I was really surprised by how well done the film was. I personally think it’s one of the better films based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story thanks to Paul Massie’s excellent duel performance as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is definitely the weakest film in the collection, which still means it’s better than most of the horror films you’ll find playing at your local multiplex right now. All the films look terrific and are presented in widescreen. Terence Fisher and Seth Holt were two of the finest directors that worked with Hammer studios so it’s nice to see them both represented in this great new DVD set. Unfortunately it suffers from a lack of extras which plagues many Hammer DVD releases, but it’s hard to complain when you can currently purchase all four films for a mere $16.99 at Amazon (see link above).

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Oliver Reed and Carol Lynley in The Shuttered Room (1967)

8. It!/The Shuttered Room (Warner Home Video)
I have so much I want to say about these two joint British/American productions that I hate trying to sum up my feelings in one paragraph so I may revisit them later, but in an effort to get this list finished up I’ll try and formulate a few quick thoughts. It! (1966) is a highly entertaining horror movie directed by Herbert J. Leder and it stars the talented Roddy McDowall. McDowall plays a mentally disturbed museum curator (playing homage to Anthony Perkins) who finds himself in all kinds of trouble after he displays a strange statue at the museum where he’s employed. The highly improbable plot gets more and more ridiculous as the film unfolds, but I won’t spoil it for potential viewers. It! is a really fun movie that has to be seen to be believed and Roddy McDowall is terrific in it. The second film in this two movie set is David Greene’s The Shuttered Room (1967) and it’s the real reason you should purchase this DVD. The movie features a great cast and two exceptional performances from the film’s star Carol Lynley and her co-star, the late great Oliver Reed. The script is based on a story written by August Derleth, who was H. P. Lovecraft’s posthumous collaborator and Derleth used many of Lovecraft’s own notes and ideas to compile his tale. The finale result may seem a little uneven to some, but I think The Shuttered Room is one of the few films that successfully captures the unsettling mood found in some of Lovecraft’s best fiction. David Greene’s direction is impressive at times, but the film is really elevated by the experimental avant-garde score composed by controversial British jazz musician Basil Kirchin. Kirchin composed music for other British horror films such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and The Mutations (1974), but his score for The Shuttered Room just might be his most effective. Unfortunately this is another bare bones DVD release with no worthwhile extras, but it’s great to see these deserving horror films finally being made available. I’d previously only seen washed out and cut-up prints of The Shuttered Room on television so I was thrilled by the print quality of this new DVD from Warner.

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Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos (1963)

9. Le Doulos (Criterion)
Le Doulos (1963) is one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s earliest crime films (aka “policier”) and while it’s missing some of the polish of the director’s later efforts, it’s still an exceptional film featuring a truly memorable performance from the great Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo charms his way through the film playing a surprisingly ruthless gangster named Silien, who may or may not be a police informant referred to as a “Le doulos” in French slang terms. The film borrows from many classic noir films, but Melville brings his own trademark style and edginess to the proceedings, which gives Le Doulos lots of modern appeal. Criterion did an exceptional job on their release of Le Doulos and one can only hope that they’ll continue to release more of Melville’s films on DVD in the future. Besides a beautifully restored print of the film, the new DVD comes with some great extras including archival interviews with Melville and actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani, audio commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, the original theatrical trailer and a thoughtful new essay by film critic Glenn Kenny.

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Helmut Berger in Ludwig (1972)

10. Ludwig (KOCH Lorber Films)
Few directors know how to create epic historical dramas like Luchino Visconti and Ludwig (1972) is one of the director’s most ambitious efforts. This four hour film is not without its flaws, but if you take the time to watch this dramatic retelling of the life of the “mad” Kind Ludwig II of Bavaria you’ll be rewarded with some lush cinematography, grandiose set designs, fabulous period costumes and great performances from the film’s impressive cast. Like many of Visconti’s previous efforts, the film offers viewers an intelligent critique of the powerful and wealthy, while celebrating their extravagances and mourning the passage of time. One of my favorite actors is the Austrian born Helmut Berger who stars as King Ludwig here and this film offered him one of his most expansive and fascinating roles. Visconti and Berger were long-time lovers and they work extremely well together. Visconti indulged Berger during the making of Ludwig and gave the actor plenty of freedom to bring the mad King to life, but he also knew when to rein him in. The film also features Trevor Howard as composer Richard Wagner, Silvano Mangano as Wagner’s mistress Cosima Von Buelow and Romy Schneider was smartly cast as the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The lovely and talented Romy Schneider had previously become a star due to her sympathetic portrayal of the young Empress Elisabeth in the popular Austrian Sisi films and she brings a lot of experience and skill to her role. This impressive two disc DVD set from KOCH Lorber Films features a digitally restored and re-mastered widescreen print of the film and it’s loaded with extras including a documentary about director Luchino Visconti, a profile of actress Silvano Mangano and an interview with costume designer Piero Tosi. I wish one or two of the extras included with the DVD focused a bit more on the film’s star Helmut Berger, but that’s a minor complaint. This release is a real treat for Luchino Visconti fans like myself.

The second half of my Favorite DVDs of 2008 list can be found here.

Jess Franco’s Rites of Frankenstein (1972)

The Rites Of Frankenstein (1971)

The Rites Of Frankenstein (1971)

The Rites Of Frankenstein (1971)

My love for Jess Franco definitely clouds any objective opinion I have about his work, but I truly believe that The Rites of Frankenstein (aka Les Experiences erotiques de Frankenstein, 1972) is one of the director’s most surreal and interesting efforts. Unfortunately this erotic horror film doesn’t really live up to what it could have been if Franco had access to a bigger budget and a more enthusiastic cast, but it’s still an imaginative movie filled with some memorable sequences and a strange sensuality that manages to transcend its many flaws.

The cast is very good, but some of them don’t appear to be very invested in the film which can be distracting at times. Horror film veteran Dennis Price delivers an uninspired performance here as Doctor Frankenstein and a seemingly perplexed Jess Franco also appears in his own film playing Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant Morpho. Frankenstein’s daughter is played by Euro horror queen Britt Nichols who I usually enjoy watching, but sadly she’s rather forgettable here as is Franco regular Lina Romay, who is almost completely obscured in shadows and barely recognizable at times. Thankfully the films does contain some inspired performances that really help bring this project to life.

Franco favorite Howard Vernon appears in one of his most interesting and unforgettable roles in The Rites of Frankenstein playing a hypnotist called Cagliostro, undoubtedly named after the infamous Italian occultist. Cagliostro kidnaps Frankenstein’s monster (Fernando Bilbao) for his own diabolical plans and keeps the creature imprisoned in his castle. The erotic film actress Anne Libert also stars as a blind and sadistic flesh eating “bird woman” known as Melissa who is also being controlled by the malevolent Cagliostro. Howard Vernon and Anne Libert keep the film entertaining even during its most sluggish moments and they both seem to be truly enjoying their star turns as the ruthless Cagliostro and Melissa. The film offers both of the actors the chance to shine and they really make the most of their roles.

In an unusual twist Frankenstein’s monster has metallic looking skin that makes the creature seem more like a robot than a walking corpse stitched together from discarded body parts. The modern makeup used in the movie adds a nice psychedelic touch to The Rites of Frankenstein. The creature’s metallic appearance also seems to allude to the ancient tales about Golems with alchemical properties, which were inspiration for Mary Shelley’s original novel.

The film’s score was composed by Daniel White (aka Daniel Whitte) who is responsible for creating soundtracks for some of Franco’s most memorable films including The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962), The Secret of Dr. Orloff (1964), The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966) and The Girl from Rio (1969). When I first watched the film I didn’t really appreciate it, but while watching it a second time I was struck by how different it was from the composers previous work and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s easily one of White’s most experimental scores and he manages to evoke an uneasy mood throughout the film even if it lacks the energy of his previous work. I was occasionally reminded of Jack Nitzsche’s unforgettable soundtrack for Performance (1970) while listening to White’s score for The Rites of Frankenstein and I’m not sure how I managed to overlook the similarities between the two earlier. The Rites of Frankenstein also features some interesting and unusual sound effects that I found very effective. I was especially impressed with the haunting bird-like sounds used by the character of Melissa to communicate.

Jess Franco has expressed a deep affection for Universal horror films made in the ’30s and ’40s, and The Rites of Frankenstein contains some story elements from those classic films, in particular James Whale’s unforgettable Bride of Frankenstein (1935). But Franco seems much more interested in exploring the alchemical elements of the Frankenstein myth as well as using the story as a backdrop to express his own endless fascination with sadism and surreal dream worlds. In this regard the film owes much more to the work of the Marquis de Sade than Mary Shelley.

As I mentioned earlier, the film is not without its obvious flaws such as the unconvincing day for night photography, occasional blurry camera work and erratic editing, but it also contains some beautifully crafted scenes and truly stunning location shots. Franco has a wonderful eye and few directors know how to use space as well as he does. The director is also fond of using fisheye lenses and extreme closeups to evoke a heightened sense of unreality in his films and these techniques are used abundantly in The Rites of Frankenstein to infuse the production with an eerie other-worldly quality. Even though the film’s artistic ambitions fall short, this unusual and erotic take on the Frankenstein story is just plain fun to watch. As someone who considers herself somewhat of “connoisseur” of Frankenstein cinema, I personally regard this film as one of the better and more original efforts produced during the ’70s, but I’m in the minority. The Rites of Frankenstein only seems to appeal to a select group of Franco fanatics who appreciate the Spanish filmmakers more esoteric efforts.

The Rites Of Frankenstein (1971)

The Rites Of Frankenstein (1971)

The Rites Of Frankenstein (1971)

I was really disappointed with the 2005 Image Entertainment DVD release of The Rites of Frankenstein currently available at Amazon. The Image Entertainment disc only includes the edited Spanish version of the film instead of the complete uncut English Language version known as The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein. The uncut scenes are included as part of the DVD extras, but I wish the company would have released a complete uncut version of the English Language film on DVD instead of this censored version that suffers from poor editing. I don’t know how many prints of the film exist, but the one featured on the DVD is often extremely dark and the film might be more enjoyable if some effort was made to restore and lighten up the print so the film was easier to watch. Hopefully a complete and restored version of the film will become available on DVD in the future. The Image Entertainment disc does feature a widescreen print of the movie with English subtitles, but it claims to also contain a “Stills Gallery” which is missing from my DVD. I can’t really recommend purchasing the DVD unless you’re a Franco completest or some strange person like myself who happens to enjoy collecting Frankenstein films.

If you’d like to see more images from the film you can find them in my Rites of Frankenstein Flickr Galler

– An edited version of this review originally appeared in Cinedelica 05.27.2007

Scream… and Die! (1973)

Despite its somewhat misleading title, Scream… and Die! aka TheHouse That Vanished (1973) is a fascinating film directed by José Ramón Larraz that’s well worth a look if you enjoy unusual European thrillers. Larraz is a talented Spanish director who is mostly known by American film audiences as the man behind the erotic horror film Vampyres (1974) and only a few of his other films are easily accessible on DVD and video in the U.S. His 1973 feature Scream… and Die! has been available on video since the ‘80s but it was recently released by Jef films on DVD.

Larraz’ films tend to generate strong reactions from their detractors and fans. The director enjoys playing with genre expectations and the eroticism and violence in his movies can be explicit but if you’re willing to give Larraz the benefit of the doubt and go into his films without any preconceptions, you might be surprised by what you find there. One of Larraz’ strong points is his ability to mix complex and adult story elements into his horror films that can also be enjoyed simply for their entertainment value. His early movies like Scream… and Die! are also extremely stylish and creatively shot, especially when you factor in the low budget he was usually working with. He was definitely one of the most interesting directors to come out of Spain in the seventies and his film Symptoms was nominated for a Golden Palm at Cannes in 1974. In recent years his work has begun to be  reevaluated thanks to books such as Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill ‘s Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956-1984 (1995), but even among Larraz’ dedicated fans Scream… and Die! is often considered one of the director’s lesser films.

Scream… and Die! features the beautiful British actress Andrea Allan as an aspiring model named Valerie who’s dating a rather seedy fellow named Terry (Alex Leppard). One foggy night Valerie finds herself alone with Terry in the English countryside when he decides to loot an old estate hidden away deep in the woods. The couple finds more than they bargained for after the home’s owner unexpectedly arrives at the house with a female guest. Valerie and Terry slip inside a closet and from their hiding place they watch a strange sexual encounter unfold between the homeowner and a woman that suddenly turns deadly. After witnessing the brutal murder of the woman, Valerie flees the crime scene and runs out of the house. When she realizes she’s being chased by the killer she stumbles into the woods and finally finds herself in an old junkyard where she hides in an abandoned car until morning comes. Once the sun rises Valerie hitches a ride back into town without Terry.

At home Valerie is left to contemplate the situation that she’s found herself in when she suddenly realizes the killer has returned Terry’s car and parked it outside her flat. Inside the car is Valerie’s modeling portfolio, which is missing a photo. It’s clear that the killer not only knows who Valerie is but he also knows where she lives and he’s apparently stalking her. Unfortunately for Valerie she was never able to get a good look at the killer so his identity is a mystery. After consulting with friends about the horrible situation she’s found herself in, they tell her not to worry and warn her to be weary of going to the police since she could also be charged with a crime. They’re convinced that Terry must be involved in the bizarre events somehow and they offer to take Valerie back to the house where the murder took place. But in a strange turn of events she’s unable to locate the house again. Like a bizarre dream, the killer and the crime scene seem to have vanished into thin air leaving Valerie confused and troubled.

The story takes another odd turn when Valerie meets a charming young man named Paul (Karl Lanchbury) selling Japanese-style Noh masks he designed at the photography studio where she works. Paul immediately takes an interest in Valerie and she’s instantly drawn to him as well. They quickly start up a romantic relationship, which seems to bother Paul’s Aunt who he lives and works with. As the film progresses it becomes clear that Paul and his Aunt are involved in a troubling, incestuous relationship and the masks they make together seem to hide a deeper mystery.

In the meantime an unusual bearded man has moved into the first-floor flat of Valerie’s building. He’s a pigeon keeper and the birds he cares for are keeping Valerie awake at night and affecting her dreams. When Valerie’s roommate returns from a trip to Europe and is suddenly murdered, Valerie can no longer temper her fears and she’s forced to deal with the police and tell them everything that has happened. Her bohemian friends, the photographer she models for, the young mask maker and the pigeon keeper all become possible suspects but most viewers will probably immediately begin to suspect who the killer is.

Scream and Die! has many elements of classic giallo films such as a killer who wears black leather gloves and multiple red herrings, but I don’t think the director was very interested in the mystery aspects of his film. José Ramón Larraz’s approach to the material seems to confuse audiences who expect Scream and Die! to be a typical European thriller. Instead, Larraz offers observant audiences plenty of visual and verbal clues as to who the murderer is early on in the movie. Larraz has never seemed too care much for straightforward narratives so there’s no reason to expect typical storytelling here. It’s obvious the director is much more intent on exploring various themes about voyeurism and identity with Scream… and Die! instead of offering up simple thrills.

The film is filled with many telling visual motifs, including countless shots of people peering through windows and cameras that bring to mind Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). As a model, Valerie is constantly the subject of voyeurism from the photographer who takes her photos, the audience who watches her primp and pose and finally the director himself. Larraz clearly enjoys photographing his star and his camera spends a lot of time focused on her. As we watch her undress, take baths and simply drink a cup of coffee in her flat, it’s almost impossible to not feel like a “Peeping Tom” yourself while watching the film. Like Rear Window, an obvious streak of paranoia also runs through Scream… and Die!. Early in the film Valerie questions if she really witnessed a murder and as the film progresses she becomes more and more weary of everyone around her.

Many critics complain about the nudity in Lazrraz’s films and Scream… and Die! does contain nudity but I didn’t find it gratuitous at all. As I mentioned above, Larraz’s camera clearly enjoys photographing the film’s female star Andrea Allan but her casual nudity in the movie is never very explicit and the mildly graphic sex scene is more disturbing than erotic. The scene in question has gotten a somewhat notorious reputation over the years when it’s mentioned in various horror books and publications and has even been called “Larraz’s most explicit sojourn into sordid sexual depths.” It involves the charming young mask maker Paul and his much older Aunt in a passionate, but deeply troubling sexual encounter. As I mentioned above, it’s clear that they’re relationship is incestuous and the sex scene bluntly conveys the domineering sexual power that Paul’s’ Aunt has over him.

Paul is played wonderfully by the talented British actor Karl Lanchbury who was a regular in some of Larraz’s early films including Whirlpool (1970), Deviation (1971) and Vampyres (1974). He’s really terrific in Scream… and Die! but he isn’t given much to do in the film even though he makes the most of his limited screen time. I wish the director had used Karl Lanchbury more here but Larraz always appeared more interested in his female stars and the male actors in his films are often given secondary roles. Andrea Allan is also very good as Valerie but she’s a little too reserved at times and doesn’t always seem fully committed to her role.

The script for Scream… and Die! was written by Derek Ford who often worked with the talented horror director Robert Hartford-Davis in the 1960s. Ford was also an interesting director in his own right mostly remembered for a series of British sexploitation films he made in the 1970s. One aspect of Scream… and Die! that I really enjoy is the creepy soundtrack by composer Terry Warr, which adds considerable depth and an eerie mood to the film. Warr had worked with Derek Ford before on some of his sex comedies but this seems to be the first and last time he ever composed music for a horror film.

I wish I could recommend the new Jef DVD of Scream… and Die! but it appears to be a copy of the old video transfer. The film is extremely dark and it’s hard to make out what’s happening sometimes, which can be a little confusing. Hopefully a company like Severin will release Scream… and Die! on DVD in the future. I would love to see a restored widescreen print of the movie made available.