2012 Film Challenge #10 - The House That Dripped Blood

An Amicus portmanteau horror with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. There was no way this one could fail.

And it didn't. It really, really didn't.

Each of the stories were somehow linked to the same old scary old house – a wonderfully creepy Victorian Gothic manor with a creaking grandfather clock, a library full of leather-bound Poe and a fantastic skull whose jaw flipped open to reveal an inkwell.

As a framing story, this seems a lot less contrived than the “group of strangers meet up and talk about their dreams” conceit that usually takes place in films of this nature. Each of the house's four successive inhabitants met some kind of sticky end, and this spate of death was in the process of being investigated by a dry and brittle old detective. No-nonsense in his outlook of life, he primed himself from the moment he appeared for a bit of good old fashioned supernatural comeuppance.

Of the four stories, the first was undoubtedly the best. It played with the idea that those who create fictional characters will, if they're not careful, become said fictional characters. In this case it was an unbearably creepy strangler called Dominick. And, whilst each of the stories ended with a twist, in this case the twist was the most unexpected, the most shocking and, as a result, the most chilling.

Then came the second story – yer standard “man falls in love with a fake woman” fare so beloved of the horror genre. This particular spin of the yarn, though, was stronger than most, as it starred Peter Cushing – otherwise known as “the loveliest man who ever did live”. It was hard to share his attraction of the false woman (a waxwork of Salome), but impossible not to feel moved by his plight. Here, the majority of the action took place in an incredible looking “Museum of Horror” - if it's real, I do so want to visit now.

This segment also featured one of the most endearing moments I've ever seen in any film. One of Mr. Cushing's old friends came to see him. He opened the door and happily exclaimed “Neville!” Such moments will do, you know? They'll just do.

Next came Christopher Lee tormented by his witchcraft-practising daughter (further misunderstandings of voodoo lore, here) in a story which suffered a little as a result of slightly wooden acting on the part of the child actor. Nyree Dawn Porter, though, was excellent as her nurse/teacher, and Mr. Lee delivered, as usual. I always find that he delivers. Only, in this case, he delivered as the victim rather than the tormentor. Do you know what we call that, friends? Range.

Finally came Jon Pertwee the Great playing Gruff Rhys Jones playing Christopher Lee: A veteran horror actor with a voice like bitter cake. His role involved a monologue concerning the lacking state of modern horror. This was something of a revelation for me: Perhaps it's always been the case that people have despaired over the state of their generation's horror films. A story as old as time itself, perhaps. But all the “classics” I've been watching have been – well, excellent. To an extent.

This is good news. It means that all the forgettable throwaway trash that dominates today will soon be – well, forgotten. Only the excellent will still be watched decades from now.

I think.

Affairs ended in the same way they always end in these Amicus portmanteau affairs – with the sinister star of the framing narrative addressing the audience directly and hinting that they – that's you! - might be next.

Only this wasn't as chilling a proclamation as it usually is. Take Vault of Horror (or was it Tales From The Crypt?) in which people apparently just stepped straight from their lives into inescapable doom.

To be told that that could happen to you is quite a disquieting thought. But it's comparatively easy to ensure that the fates that befell the cast of The House That Dripped Blood don't come to you. All you have to do is make sure you never, ever, ever rent the house in question.

That, however, might be easier said than done. The library alone would make the place irresistible for many.


2012 Film Challenge #9 - Beowulf

Well, at first I was downright outraged by the amount of crucifixes on show. To place the earliest surviving piece of (pagan) Old English fiction in a Christian context is nothing short of an insult to those of us who wrote their BA (Hons) Dissertation on this period. I demand historical accuracy from my motion-captured blockbusters, dammit.

But this ain't no ordinary motion-captured blockbuster. This one was scripted by Neil Gaiman and his bezzy-mezzy Roger Avary. Based on the brilliant notion that Beowulf was an unreliable narrator (what did happen in Grendel's cave?), they've transformed him into a flawed, tragic hero – with Grendel as a misunderstood outcast and Grendel's mum as the only thing a lot of people will remember once they stop watching.

And it makes for a fascinating romp of tremendous depth beyond that I've come to expect in films of this ilk. It's rare that films featuring a grizzly, beardy protagonist should “ask questions” and “deal with themes”.

But - there's always a “but”, isn't there? And it's always saved for last. I can only imagine how irritating that must be – the problem lies in the motion-capture approach to film-making. I haven't got a problem with the technique per se – I love The Polar Express, and I'm quite disappointed to have missed out on Tintin – it's just that, I've no idea at all what the point is.

CGI has advanced to such a terrifying level that, in many cases, it's no longer possible to tell the difference between what's real and what's not. It's only when too much is used that the lines stop blurring. So, when absolutely everything is crafted by computers, absolutely everything looks artificial. No matter how excellent the writing, the film's power is thus greatly diminished and, with every passing year, it will unfortunately look more and more dated.

So why did they use this technique in the first place? With a budget $150,000,000, it's not as if it was used as a money-saving technique. And the Lord of the Rings films have shown us that stories of this nature can be brought to the screen using real, physical actors (rather than just their movements).

It's a terrible shame when one of what must be the only three poems that will ever make it to the screen (alongside The Night Before Christmas and The Raven) will ultimately fail on account of the very thing which was supposed to make it stand out in the first place. All the elements here are perfect. It's just let down by the delivery.


2012 Film Challenge #8 - Boo

We've moved into a fantastic new house. One of the best things about it is that we now have a crystal clear signal on The Horror Channel. This means that I can now watch the dubious delights they have on offer without having to tolerate judderiness and jerkiness and I don't know what.

So to usher in what will be, I know, an awesome new phase of my life, I watched a film called Boo.

Boo featured a haunted, derelict asylum located just across the road from a haunted, derelict funeral parlour. The two were connected by an underground tunnel inhabited by an eviscerated zombie dog, who happened to be the highlight of the whole film.

You had a group of thirtysomething teenagers spending a night in this derelict asylum. The men had sent a friend ahead to rig the place full of scares in order to scare the girls. Of course, before long there were a few instances of “I didn't do that” or “but I'm over here” or something – then they were locked in on the haunted third floor with a little girl and that.

And one of the ladies had a sort of psychic link with the asylum. The overall feel was thus somewhere between the nineties remakes of The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill.
And it did have some nearly-brilliant moments. Such as the aforementioned sinewy dog, and a floating clown who had distended maggots instead of feet.

Unfortunately, the acting, effects, sets and soundtrack all had a sort of daytime television feel to them. You know those cheap washes of sound which stand in the place of music in contemporary low-budget films? They really do ruin the mood, don't they?

Good, but not great.

Watchable, but not rewatchable.

That said, should I ever find myself flicking idly through channels and it happens to be on, I probably would watch it again. I'm only human.


2012 Film Challenge #7 - Plague of The Zombies

It was almost a rite of passage watching this one, as a still from it in one of our visual horror encyclopedias caused I don't know how many nightmares between the ages of six and twelve.

The zombies in this film are terrifying. Inconsistent, but terrifying. Big, wide, dead eyes – leering grins, banshee shrieks, lumbering strangling intent and peeling chalky flesh. The scene where they emerge from the ground and advance inexorably is literally the stuff of nightmares.

And yet, they're unfortunately underused. And, when they are used, it's in a ridiculous Scooby Doo “I would have got away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids” sort of way.

See, our slimy squire owns a tin-mine in which conditions are so bad that nobody will work there. So, rather than addressing the issue head on with a couple of surveyors and a snag list, he decides that his best course of action is to begin a clandestine operation which sees him murdering locals and reanimating them as zombie slaves.

He does this using a frankly insulting misunderstanding of Voodoo in his cavernous cellar. He uses his Caribbean servants as tribal drummers (forcing them to dress in offensive “native” outfits which probably aren't native to anywhere in the world) and allows for his insufferable toady fox-hunting friends to whip their undead workforce indiscriminately.

Luckily, we have an aged curmudgeonly professor on hand to sort everything out. But what we're really witnessing is the worst possible weekend getaway to Cornwall. What was supposed to be a visit to an old friend with a bit of fishing on the side swiftly becomes a plodding rigmarole of death, funerals, grave-robbing, attempted gang-rape and amateur investigations.

Worse is that most of the action is supposed to take place at night, yet they don't even seem to try and make things look dark. A creepy midnight graveyard scene is completely ruined by a background of cloudy blue sky.

But did I mention how marvellously creepy these zombies are? This was Hammer's only attempt at a zombie film. Presumably it didn't receive too good a reception. Which is a dreadful shame. They must have made a dozen vampire films, but we have but this on which to judge their undead potential. Imagine what unholy power could have been wrought had these guys been cast in less ridiculous surroundings?


2012 Film Challenge #6 - To The Devil a Daughter

I tried to watch this a few days ago on The Horror Channel, but the signal wasn't strong enough. Can you believe that?

Luckily, not one week later an opportunity arose to dip into a Hammer Boxset. So we did, and we started like this. It was unfinished business.

And it really wasn't bad, you know. Based on a Dennis Wheatley novel (who I've never read, but have heard described as “abhorrent” and “odious”), it felt lacking in depth and cohesion. But Christopher Lee was in it, coming across as a sort of deranged Christian version of Lord Summerisle. Scary intensity, his leering grin at the bloodbath satanic birth wasn't the sort of thing you'd want looming over you.

Then there was Richard Widmark – an occult novelist with a great dockside flat – who was working really hard to save the day in a meddlesome above-his-station Diagnosis Murder sort of way.

I can imagine that films like this reaped a lot of stick for glorifying Satanism. Well, I didn't get that at all. The lies, subterfuge and dark rituals were terrifyingly potent – I doubt anyone would emerge from a viewing with fresh evil intent.

But perhaps that's more owing to the rushed “will this do” ending? Throughout we're haunted by a weird sinewy foetus puppet who, after crawling into a girl's vagina, is sort of forgotten about. Then things get suddenly psychedelic, a bloody stone acquires magic bullet qualities and we're done.

Roll credits. Did we miss something?

What will become of poor Anna now? After all, she was groomed for a life of Satanism and, with a throw of a rock, her entire world has just come crashing down around her. Now what? Is she going to be content living as a secretary-with-benefits for a creepy American pulp novelist?

Well, for me that will always be a dream. In the meantime, we have a film which contains one of those lines which will be forever etched into my memory as a sterling example of the knife-edge that can exist between the sublime and the ridiculous:

“With your permission, I would like to read the grimoir of Asteroth.”

Oh, yes please.

2012 Film Challenge #5 - The Howling

Clunky technology, an abundance of moustaches, that hazy washed-out neon soaked feel – everything in this film tasted strongly of orange-flavoured milk.

This 80s sheen, I found, served to overpower a lot of the visceral grittiness necessary for films like this to work. It felt slightly anaemic, as a result – despite the marvellous woodland beachhead setting which could, with slightly different production values, have made for a wonderfully earthy Friday the 13th sort of atmosphere.

But still. This is less “missed opportunity” than a perfectly decent product of its time. It was full of glorious little details – like the morgue worker who leaves his sandwiches next to the brain he's dissecting, the amazing occult book shop (which I really want to visit) which comes complete with a couple of disdainful nuns, and that truly mouthwatering closing shot.

And the werewolf transformation scene is certainly impressive. It's not as good as An American Werewolf in London, but Christ, it makes the Twilight Saga look like an embarrassment for humanity in general (but then, what doesn't?).

Thinking about it, it's about on par with Michael Jackson's transformation in the Thriller video.

But why our heroine stops to watch rather than bolting immediately is just one of those things.


2012 Film Challenge #4 - Women In Love

They're currently doing a big old tribute to the oeuvre of Ken Russell over at Mounds & Circles. It's coming across as a lot more learned, charming and, let's face it, sexier than I could ever hope to be. But no matter. I was never in a position to steal their thunder, so here we go.

Women in Love was preceded by an affectionate documentary on The Man Himself which proclaimed him to have exactly the sort of restlessly creative impish nature I cherish in so many. Clearly, I need to explore his work in much greater depth.

Now, I've already seen Tommy and The Devils. Women in Love completes the triptych necessary for me to start taking a film-maker very seriously indeed.

But is it wise to take Ken Russell at all seriously? For clearly, as his career progressed, he began to take himself less and less so.

Yet it's impossible to not take seriously something that moves you in so deep and profound a way, surely?

D.H Lawrence seemed to be very concerned about the struggles of the human spirit against the stifling influence of industry, progress and technology. In Women in Love, Mr. Russell demonstrates this struggle in so subtle and elegant a manner that already I feel that any cry of “genius” is more than justified.

The scene everyone will always think of when considering this film is that in which Oliver Reed and Alan Bates grapple naked in a desperate attempt to find something tangible in their muffled, claustrophobic world. Lit almost entirely by the glow of the fireplace, the scene has a visceral sensual feel which I found transcended any and all homoerotic giggles that may have transpired.

Afterwards, glistening with sweat, they were finally feeling. Finally living rather than existing. But what does Mr. Reed go and do? He switches the light on. Suddenly the entire scene is bathed in cold, harsh, unfeeling electricity. The humanity has been eclipsed by technology – literally at the flick of the switch.

This is nothing short of cinematic poetry, and such flourishes were all over the shop. The term “visual feast” was surely coined to describe films such as this.

Add to this the fact that most of it was filmed in and around Belper – where we're moving in about nine days! - and you're onto a film with such weight and gravity that I can already feel a new obsession growing.


2012 Film Challenge #3 - Kull The Conqueror

It was the golden age of video. Our local (Pick A Flick – gods amongst men – upon whom later) had a three for two offer going. You rented two videos and got the third free. We watched a lot of videos, my brother and I: We watched a lot of videos.

The thing is, whilst we'd watch almost anything, by and large all of these videos were a product of their time. They were the sort of films which could be showed to future generations in order to explain as to exactly what the 90s were like.

I'm getting increasingly nostalgic for the 90s. They're often remembered as quite a boring decade but, by jove, compared to these days, they were so beautifully innocent.

Now, don't get me wrong, Kull The Conqueror isn't a good film by my or anybody's standards. However, I've watched it twice over the past few days and I can't shake this feeling:

This is exactly the sort of film that we might have once taken home from Pick A Flick.

We never did, of course (you wouldn't be reading this, if we had! It wouldn't count as a fresh film for inclusion in my challenge). But we watched what felt and feels like thousands of films like this.

It's a brash, camp, unashamedly naff nineties source & sorcery & sandals & swords gay comedy epic.

Kull The Conqueror becomes king somehow, and sets about freeing slaves and that. This upsets a lot of people, so they resurrect an evil sorceress to destroy him. But then she acts the dreadful turncoat and decides to populate the world with her demon brood. So suddenly Mr. Unpopular Barbarian King is indispensable. He has to get some god's breath to put a stop to all this. Or something.

Look, I didn't pay too much attention to the plot. After two viewings, it's still the case that all that matters is the amount of old-fashioned nostalgic fun to be had.

It's Fifth Element. It's Demolition Man. It's Xena Warrior Princess. It's Robin Hood: King of Thieves. It's Judge Dredd. It's dated terribly and, as such, it's essential viewing for you, me and everyone.

Case in point? The new warrior king Kull has a eunuch attendant who wears make-up and sort of blunders his way through everything.

I've not seen such a comedy sidekick since Steven Brand in The Scorpion King. And that was ten years ago.

Watching this film, you can sort of feel your horizons contracting. They really don't make them like this any more. And, whilst some would emit a snarky “good!” at this, I couldn't disagree more.


2012 Film Challenge #2 - California Man/Encino Man

In the 1990s, Brendan Fraser starred in at least three “out of time and place” romps. We chortled as he swapped one jungle for another in George of the Jungle. When emerging from his anti-commie time capsule in Blast From the Past, he stole our hearts with little more than a collection of priceless baseball cards, 1950s chivalry and a deep appreciation of the finer points of Perry Como.

But before all that, he starred alongside a bumbling Sean Astin as a caveman who, after a millennia of frozen stasis, is defrosted - retaining all of his critical faculties ready for a none-more-nineties party in California.

It’s dated quite horribly and pretty much comes across as “1990s: The Movie”. However, when you consider the atmosphere of terror, paranoia and blandness which has so far prevailed throughout the 21st century, the lurid extremes of the 90s seem wholly innocent, adorable and – dare I say it – preferable.

The ending’s quite inexplicable and will leave anybody not attuned to nineties jargon utterly baffled. It’s fun, though. But where does it rate on the old “Brendan Frasier Anachronistic Nineties Comedy” scale?

Well, it’s not as good as George of the Jungle and not nearly as good as Blast From the Past – the undisputed king of this particular niche. A close yet distinct third, then. Good, but not great.


Happy New Year/Film Challenge 2011/Film Challenge 2012/Bruno

In 2011 I challenged myself to watch 100 films I'd never seen before. It didn't prove to be much of a challenge. I already had 100 in the bag by September and, though I'd stopped counting by early November, the final tally must have breached 150 when the amount of films I watched over Christmas are taken into account.

This year I'm challenging myself to watch another 100 fresh films. But this time, the actual watching isn't the challenge. No, last year I found the viewing itself to be nothing short of mind-expanding. I exposed myself to what must have been some of the strangest images ever set to film (the strangest of which was, without a doubt, the sight of Warren Ellis clutching a Tesco bag). I'd be stupid not to do it again this year.

But no, the challenge this year won't be the watching so much as the writing.

Though I tried to write about each successive film last year, I made the mistake of doing so in the form of vast impenetrable blocks.

This year, the number of films viewed isn't important (but let's say another 100 for the sake of cohesion) so much as the need to write about them afterwards. One at a time, one after the other.

So, let's start with the first fresh film I saw in the year that was (is) 2012 – Bruno!

I saw it on New Year's Day and thought it was quite good.

Yeah, that's all I planned on saying.

Look, if I'm to blog about every single film I see, I can hardly afford to ramble now, can I?

But might I add that whilst the structure was very similar to that of Borat, Bruno had much bigger balls – and he wasn't afraid to show them.

He who riles an arena full of burly cage-fighting fans into a homophobic furore before passionately kissing and stripping a man right in front of them is no doubt a dangerous, dangerous man. I'm so very glad he's on our side.

So there you go. One down, 99 to go.

And for those who're interested, here's the list I made of all the films I watched in 2011. It's not the full list as I stopped counting around November time as it occurred to me that I had already completed the challenge and that I probably never would get round to writing about the remainder:

1. The X-Files: I Want To Believe (06/01)
2. The Weatherman (07/01)
3. 127 Hours (08/01)
4. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (08/01)
5. Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging (09/01)
6. Run, Fatboy, Run (09/01)
7. Constantine (12/01)
8. True Romance (23/01)
9. The King's Speech (29/01)
10. Horror Express (9/02)
11. They Live (10/02)
12. Never Let Me Go (13/02)
13. The Royal Tenenbaums (17/02)
14. Fantastic Mr. Fox (19/02)
15. Where The Wild Things Are (19/02)
16. Coraline (19/02)
17. Shine A Light (21/02)
18. American Pop (25/02)
19. Crumb (28/02)
20. The Fog (03/03)
21. Lifeforce (04/03)
22. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (05/03)
23. Story of One Crime (10/03)
24. The Glass Harmonica (10/03)
25. Tale of Tales (10/03)
26. Ghostwatch (14/03)
27. Fears Of The Dark (16/03)
28. Infamous (27/03)
29. Lonesome Jim (28/03)
30. The Big Easy (04/04)
31. Submarine (05/04)
32. District 9 (06/04)
33. Bottle Rocket (09/04)
34. Vault Of Horror (09/04)
35. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (13/04)
36. Monsters (15/04)
37. Factory Farmed (15/04)
38. The Constant Gardener (17/04)
39. Hostage (18/04)
40. Mimic (22/04)
41. Zatoichi (29/04)
42. A Bothersome Man (03/05)
43. World Of Glory (03/05)
44. Girl Chewing Gum (03/05)
43. The Adventures of Mark Twain (06/05)
44. Shrek Forever After (08/05)
45. Gorillas In The Mist (08/05)
46. Lou Reed's Berlin (13/05)
47. Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (15/05)
48. The Happiness of the Katakuris (15/05)
49. Mirrors (23/05)
50. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tide (24/05)
51. Valerie & Her Week of Wonders (26/05)
52. Persepolis (07/06)
53. Tropic Thunder (09/06)
54. Step Brothers (09/06)
55. Romance & Cigarettes (11/06)
56. Monster Squad (11/06)
57. The Sea Shall Not Have Them (12/06)
58. The Boys In Blue (12/06)
59. Follow A Star (12/06)
60. Definitely, Maybe (12/06)
61. Monster-In-Law (12/06)
62. Secret Window (20/06)
63. Hotel Chevalier (29/06)
64. The Darjeeling Ltd (29/06)
65. Conspiracy Theory (04/07)
66. Pitch Black (05/07)
67. Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows pt. 1 (06/07)
68. Ladies Of The House (08/07)
69. The Ladykillers (08/07)
70. Dark Water (09/07)
71. Bridesmaids (10/07)
72. How To Train Your Dragon (10/07)
73. Grown Ups (11/07)
74. Wizards (11/07)
75. Fantastic Planet (12/07)
76. Les Escargots (12/07)
77. How Wang-Fo Was Saved (12/07)
78. Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows pt. 2 (18/07)
79. A Town Called Panic (19/07)
80. Mirrormask (20/07)
81. Iron Man (21/07)
82. Happy-Go-Lucky (21/07)
83. (500) Days Of Summer (23/07)
84. The Tree Of Life (23/07)
85. Spirited Away (27/07)
86. Battleship Potemkin (03/08)
87. Bridget Jones 2: The Edge of Reason (04/08)
88. Good Luck To The Barley Mow (05/08)
89. The Haunting (06/08)
90. The Seventh Seal (06/08)
91. Never Been Kissed (10/08)
92. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (17/08)
93. Gangbusters (22/08)
94. Beyond Image (30/08)
95. A Short Vision (30/08)
96. Street of Crocodiles (30/08)
97. 13 Cantos of Hell (30/08)
98. The Universe of Dermot Simm (30/08)
99. Whistle & I'll Come to You (30/08)
100. One Day (04/09)
101. Mission Impossible III (05/09)
102. Playtime (11/09)
103. The Tell-Tale Heart (24/09)
104. Jane Eyre (28/09)
105. Stand By Me (01/10)
106. Tadpole (07/10)
107. The Gay Divorcee (08/10)
108. The Importance of Being Earnest (08/10)
109. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (08/10)
110. No Country For Old Men (08/10)
111. The Inbetweeners Movie (12/10)
112. Powers of Ten (13/10)
113. The Haunted House (13/10)
114. The Mad Doctor (13/10)
115. Lumpkin The Pumpkin (18/10)
116. Dispicable Me (21/10)
117. All Tomorrow's Parties (21/10)
118. Blithe Spirirts (23/10)
119. Metropolis (24/10)
120. The River of No Return (25/10)
121. Brief Encounter (26/10)
122. Spider (29/10)
123. The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (01/11)
124. Viy (02/11)