Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Distant Shadow

Director: Howard J Ford
Writer: Mark Andrews
Producer: Mark Andrews
Cast: Rosie Fellner, Stephen Tiller, Trevor Byfield
Country: UK
Year of release: 2004
Reviewed from: UK DVD

Distant Shadow is listed on the Inaccurate Movie Database as ‘Horror/Mystery/Thriller’ and the UK DVD sleeve carries the line “A gritty and relentless urban chiller.” On this basis, I added it to my master list of 21st century British horror films. The fact that it was directed by Howard J Ford, who went on to make the magnificent The Dead and its sequel added to my impression that this was an obscure, forgotten, early entry in the British Horror Revival.

Well, I’m here to let you know that Distant Shadow is not in any way, shape or form a horror film, no matter how much you stretch the genre. In 100 minutes there are precisely two moments that could be conceivably viewed as ‘horror’. A very brief dream sequence in which someone in bed is stabbed by an intruder, and a momentary hallucination when our heroine thinks she sees a recently killed person in the bathroom mirror but it’s actually her boyfriend. That’s it. There are in truth far more humorous bits than scary bits but it ain’t a comedy so it definitely ain’t a horror picture.

It’s a thriller, and an okay-ish one in a low-rent, late ‘90s, DTV sort of way. It’s not terrible but it’s unlikely anybody has ever watched it more than once and you’re not missing anything by never having seen it (or, quite possibly, ever heard of it).

Rosie Fellner (Nine Lives) stars as Michelle Wallace, a 20-year-old unemployed woman who lives in a bedsit in a somewhat dodgy boarding house owned by a somewhat dodgy landlord. Stephen Tiller (who now directs operas) is Charles Paskin, the middle-aged man who moves into the room opposite. Not that you would know this from the UK sleeve which lists (and depicts) Shane Richie as the main star with Mark Little and Trevor Byfield either side of him.

EastEnders’ Richie (also in The Reverend) plays Paul, a knobhead colleague of Michelle’s boyfriend Steve (Andrew Faulkner) who doesn’t even appear until the 40-minute mark, although he does actually become peripherally relevant to the plot later. Neighbours’ Little turns in a commendable comic relief performance as the landlord, whose only concerns are (a) getting his rent and (b) Elvis. Only Byfield (Beyond the Rave, Slayground) is a major character as John Clay, who starts out as Paskin’s boss and ends up as the main villain.

Although he claims to be a writer, Paskin is actually a secret agent working for a shady, unspecified department within the UK Government. He’s trying to track down some crucial information about a secret project from the 1980s called Magog which has been stolen. Two thing stand out about this. The first is that the documentation is somehow encoded on a microcassette, of the sort that I used to record my interviews on. On a couple of occasions, people connect a Dictaphone to a PC, across the screen of which scrolls a large amount of binary which then somehow decodes itself into a formatted text document (all in green text on black of course). This seems highly unlikely. Basically the microcassette is just a MacGuffin – which later in the film is replaced without explanation by a 3.5” diskette anyway.

The other notable thing is that absolutely everyone pronounces the Biblically derived codename name ‘Magog’ with a short A (as in ‘mad’) and emphasis on the second syllable. Whereas I have always understood that it is correctly pronounced with a long A (as in ‘made’) and equal stress on both syllables. Even though this is completely irrelevant, it annoyed me enormously. So much so that I just checked the pronunciation on Wikipedia, which agrees with me.

Anyway, Michelle was orphaned at the age of four in a prologue when she saw her mother murdered by a man with a distinctive scar. He was seeking a folder intended for Michelle’s often absent father who had apparently already been killed. Hidden in a cupboard, young Michelle clearly saw the convenient label on the envelope, which read ‘Magog’. So we know there’s some connection between Michelle and Charles.

And that’s probably the film’s biggest flaw: the plot is based entirely on the coincidence of these two people living in adjacent bedsits on the same corridor of the same floor of the same building. Although we later find out that Charles knows who Michelle is, there is no suggestion that he deliberately moved in next door to her, nor is there any reason on God’s Earth why he would do that, except to kick-start the plot.

There are quite a lot of minor characters whose paths cross that of the MacGuffin and it seems at first like this might be one of those hard-to-follow, twisty-turny thrillers but it is to the credit of both Howard Ford’s direction and Mark Andrews’ script that the plot unfolds and explains itself in a way that makes a reasonable amount of sense, curious IT ideas notwithstanding.

On the downside, once things move up a gear and bullets start flying, we are presented with a succession of professional hitmen who make Imperial Stormtroopers look like Olympic rifle-shooters, failing to hit targets who are only a few yards away in a narrow corridor. A lot of people do get killed, including some significant characters, most of whom are entirely innocent and are just casually despatched for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, there are too many really obvious, clichéd ‘surprises’ such as characters we thought dead turning out to be alive and turning up in the nick of time, or gunshots which turn out to be fired by and aimed at people other than the ones at whom we were looking.

As for Project Magog, this is revealed to be some sort of unethical biological warfare experiment in Africa which was disguised as a vaccination programme and has resulted in the deaths of ‘millions’ (so implicitly AIDS, although mentions of Ethiopia glimpsed in the decoded document alternatively suggest that it could have been an artificial driver behind the famine which devastated that part of the continent). But absolutely nothing is made of this.

Distant Shadow was apparently shot in 1998 as a diary page from 16 years previously is clearly marked ‘1982’. It premiered at the ‘Cherbourg-Octeville Festival of Irish and British Film’ in October 2000 but didn’t appear on DVD until March 2002, when there was a US release. The British disc, on the Lighthouse label, followed in May 2004.

This was actually Howard Ford’s second feature, his first being an even more obscure thriller called Mainline Run way back in 1994, which was executive produced by Mark Andrews. Howard also edited this film while brother Jon was the DP. Guy Michelmore provided the music, after starting out on things like The Interrogation but before establishing his niche as the go-to guy for Marvel superhero cartoons. First AD Stefan Smith also AD-ed A Day of Violence and directed his own BHR entry Aggressive Behaviour aka Unwelcome. The special effects were provided by Alastair Vardy whose low-budget credits include Hellbreeder, Darkhunters, LD50, Sudden Fury and Edgar Wright’s A Fistful of Fingers, while his big budget gigs include Die Hard 5, World War Z, Victor Frankenstein and Game of Thrones.

The cast also includes Andrew Pleavin (Attack of the Gryphon, Return to House on Haunted Hill) and Glenn Salvage (The Silencer, Ten Dead Men). The Demon Headmaster himself, Terence Hardiman, is suitable aloof as Clay’s boss.

Distant Shadow kept my attention throughout, which is more than many films I’ve watched recently have managed. It has some decent production values for its budget and Howard’s direction gives it a class one might not expect, helped by Jon’s photography. It’s probably weakest in its characterisation, especially Paskin who is a bit meh for a secret agent. He doesn’t have anything approaching the flair of a Bond or a Bourne, but he also doesn’t have the subdued parochialism of a George Smiley. He also has very little chemistry with his female co-star, leaving the film somewhat hollow, with interesting supporting characters but nothing strong or distinctive at its centre.

Whatever, this is definitely neither a horror film nor a relentless urban chiller, just a production line British thriller with a slightly daft, clichéd plot and a few good aspects but nothing that lingers in the memory.

MJS rating: B-

Monday, 26 September 2016

Satan's Blood

Director: Carlos Puerto
Writer: Carlos Puerto
Producer: Juan Piquer Simon
Cast: Mariana Karr, Jose Maria Guillen, Sandra Alberti
Country: Spain
Year of release: 1978
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Redemption)

The latest release from Redemption is this 1970s Spanish offering which is one of those Dennis Wheatley-esque, middle-class Satanism films where the orgies look about as interesting and inviting as the dinner parties.

Young professionals Ana (Argentinean soap actress Mariana Karr making one of her very few big screen appearances) and Andres (Jose Maria Guillen, who was in a 1964 Spanish TV version of The Canterville Ghost) are out for a drive round Madrid with their Alsatian Blackie when they meet Bruno (Angel Aranda: Planet of the Vampires) and his wife Berta (Sandra Alberti, who has a face like a man). Bruno is adamant that he went to school with Andres but Andres doesn’t remember him and their memories of the school seem to differ.

Nevertheless, A&A accept an offer to go to B&B’s place for dinner and drinks, although this turns out to be a very large house, behind a high wall, in the middle of nowhere over an hour’s drive from the city. Further claims of shared schooldays between the two men continue to seem flawed but the visitors don’t want to be rude to their hosts. They are persuaded to join in a Ouija board session which reveals that Ana may still have the hots for Andres’ brother Juan and that Bruno will die by suicide.

And ever onwards, things get weirder, leading to A&A - persuaded to stay over - venturing downstairs in the middle of the night to find their hosts naked in a pentagram, which leads to a four-way romp that fails to be even slightly erotic. Andres’ car is tampered with, Blackie is found dead and strung up in the pantry, Bruno is shot (offscreen) and when Berta calls a doctor he all but accuses Andres of murder. Berta tries to commit suicide, someone unidentified tries to rape Ana, etc etc etc.

There are some interesting ideas but they’re never developed and nothing is ever explained. Things perk up briefly about ten minutes from the end when the whole house becomes embroiled in supernatural strangeness but the film swiftly falls flat when it descends into illogical, inconsistent, inexplicable, gratuitous weirdness, before juddering to a halt with a ‘twist’ that we have been expecting since the film started. (I forgot to mention the pointless pre-credit sequence in which a woman is ceremonially raped on an altar by a beardy bloke.) I know it’s meant to be like a nightmare but it’s also meant to be a conspiracy and in respect of the latter it just doesn’t add up.

The highlight - such as it is - is a sequence when Ana awakes to find a large, porcelain-headed doll (featured prominently in the background of earlier scenes) walking into her room, followed by a knife-wielding Berta clad in a diaphanous shift, intent on sapphic seduction. This swiftly turns out to be a dream but it is at least imaginative. For the most part, Satan’s Blood is simply rather dull.

There have been some good Spanish horror films and some bad ones. This is not as unwatchable as much of Jess Franco’s oeuvre but it’s not nearly as enjoyable as a Paul Naschy monsterfest. The direction is competent but that’s all. There’s not much actual horror - it’s all one long build-up which doesn’t really know what to do when it reaches the pay-off. And far, far too much of it is unexplained or inexplicable or both.

Writer-director Carlos Puerto’s best known credit, apart from this, is scripting the 1976 Journey to the Centre of the Earth starring Kenneth More. The director of that film, which shares numerous cast and crew with this one, was Juan Piquer Simon. Executive producer on this picture, his other credits include Supersonic Man, Extraterrestrial Visitors and Pieces.

The only recognisable name in the cast is Luis Barboo (credited here as ‘Luis Bar-Boo’) whose 120+ films include A Fistful of Dollars (and numerous other paella westerns), Daughter of Dracula, The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, Dracula - Prisoner of Frankenstein, A Virgin Among the Living Dead, The Loreley’s Grasp, Night of the Werewolf and the aforementioned Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Redemption’s usual lucky dip of extras includes ten stills, presented almost full-frame, and two unrelated trailers: an un-narrated English one for Requiem for a Vampire (also on the Night of the Bloody Apes disc) and a deliriously awful one for British sex-comedy Au Pair Girls, one of Val Guest’s less noteworthy efforts (I doubt if Gabrielle Drake puts it prominently on her CV either). “They’re here to help us - and Gawd help us!” intones the voice-over, which also points out guest appearances by John Le Mesurier and Rosalie Crutchley. To be honest, this one trailer is more entertaining than the whole of Satan’s Blood. There are also sampler tracks from 15 albums released on Redemption’s two music labels, some of which are unlistenable and most of which have titles and artist names so clicheed that one wonders whether they’re a spoof. The only one I was able to suffer for more than ten seconds was ‘Webcam Girl’ by the Courtesans which sounds like the Primitives or the Darling Buds. [Just realised, many years later - that's Eileen Daly's band! - MS]

The sleeve says that “this rare film has been remastered for this DVD from a new hi-def master and looks stunning!” Well, I don’t have an HD TV so neither know nor care about that side of things. The subtitled print looks good in terms of colour and contrast and the only noticeable imperfections are some flicks and flecks at reel ends. However “84 mins approx” is a bit cheeky as this runs 79’40”. There are no obvious cuts so this may just be the 82-minute version, available elsewhere, time-compressed for PAL. The sleeve also claims that the film dates from 1971 which might be believable, given the fashions and hairstyles on show, were it not for a huge Star Wars poster clearly visible about five minutes in.

(The film’s original title, Escalofrio, was also the Spanish title for both the Bill Paxton-directed horror-thriller Frailty and Larry Fessenden’s snowbound monster flick Wendigo.)

MJS rating: C+
Review originally posted 17th June 2007

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Video Killer

Director: Richard Mansfield
Writer: Richard Mansfield
Producers: Daniel Mansfield, Richard Mansfield
Cast: Victoria Falls, Darren Munn, Michael Lieber
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: online screener

The latest feature from the director of The Secret Path, The Mothman Curse and Wolfskin is as idiosyncratic, distinctive and downright creepy as one would expect. An actress named Victoria Falls (really?!) stars as Amy, a young woman living alone who receives an anonymous gift of a manky old VHS tape. She gets her old VCR out of the loft (by standing on a Workmate adjustable bench, which you are explicitly not supposed to do!) and watches this.

It turns out to contain simply animated child-like drawings (think Charlie and Lola, but a bit rougher) which show a boy dying horribly when his kite hits power lines – after he is distracted by a dark figure with bleeding eyes.

Amy receives further tapes with similar unpleasant animations and also starts to glimpse an unnerving figure – who may be the one depicted in the cartoons – on the periphery of her vision. More disturbing still is that the tapes include brief live action clips which seem to show someone being killed.

We also meet Michael (Darren Munn: The Mothman Curse, Paranormal Sex Tape and vampire feature Drink Me, produced by Richard but directed by his husband, Daniel), who has evidently been receiving these tapes for some time and believes that the answers lie in a local country park (the same one where The Secret Path was filmed). Both Amy and Michael record their thoughts on their iPhones although this is thankfully not found footage. Mansfield adroitly cuts between the characters’ video selfies and more conventional camera-work.

By uploading her videos onto the web, Amy establishes contact with Michael. We have also met some other people who are similarly haunted by this dark figure, also filming themselves. Gradually our understanding of what is happening in these people’s lives deepens until Amy and Michael meet – briefly – and he gives her a bag of tapes, leading to a powerfully ambiguous (if slightly predictable) conclusion.

Our glimpses of the figure throughout (or perhaps there’s more than one) just show us a hooded anorak or parka and a creepy mask. (It’s actually a face for a Resusci-Anne CPR training mannequin. Richard reckons that the cost of this mask, plus a can of spray paint, constituted the film’s entire budget.) There are also a couple of very effective dream sequences in which someone is attacked by a big bundle of loose video tape, crawling across the floor like a giant amoeba then wrapping itself around the victim, smothering them. This effect has of course been achieved by pulling the tape away then reversing the footage but it is amazing how good it looks, even with that knowledge at the back of one’s head.

Mansfield hasn’t skimped on genuine film-making techniques, with plenty of establishing shots, different angles and cuts, the sort of camera-work and editing that distinguishes a real film from something lazily cobbled together. Care has been taken to tell a story, albeit one that raises as many questions as it answers. The result is genuinely creepy, a fascinatingly unnerving tale of justified paranoia (helped by an absolutely cracking performance by 'Falls', full of credibly wide-eyed terror). You may occasionally wonder: well, why doesn’t she go to the police, but what is there to report? “Someone rang my doorbell and left a VHS tape of strange cartoons on my doorstep, and now I think I am catching glimpses of some sort of supernatural entity.” Not much to go on, is it?

There’s something of an unavoidable J-horror influence in Video Killer but there’s much more at work here. If forced to sum this up as a high concept ‘X meets Y’ idea, I’d say it’s a four-way mash-up between Ringu, The Last Horror Movie, The Blair Witch Project and Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Richard Mansfield is of course a huge MR James fan and the monstrous entity here is definitely James-ian, while the scene of Michael giving Amy his bag of tapes has a certain ‘passing the runes’ quality to it.

The cast also includes Henry Regan (Theo in The Secret Path and narrator of some of Mansfield’s animated shorts), Michael Lieber (Rancour), Jennie Fox (The Scared of Death Society, The Sickhouse) and Jenny Lee (whose scenes were shot by Mansfield’s husband Daniel). The three actresses were also all in Daniel Mansfield’s drag queen comedy You Crazy Bitch!

Wild Eye Releasing put out a US DVD of Video Killer in September 2016 and it is also available through Google Play. Richard’s next feature, in among his continuing work on animated shorts, should be Scare Bear while Daniel is in post on a thriller called Watch Me (not to be confused with this 2006 Australian film).

MJS rating: A-

Saturday, 24 September 2016

interview: Terry Jones

I'm not sure of the exact date of this interview, but it was done as part of my research for Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, so probably around 2002. Terry Jones very kindly allowed me to email him some questions about his memories of Douglas and returned these fascinating insights. I feel very lucky to have interviewed 33% of the Pythons - see also my Terry Gilliam interview.

When/how did you first meet Douglas?
“I first saw him on stage doing some sketches in a Cambridge Revue that had been up in Edinburgh. I thought the sketch was funnier than Douglas's performance but I remembered him because of his size. He then started writing with Graham and started coming to Python rehearsals and read-throughs during the last series in 1974-5 (or whenever it was). Douglas and I started going off to drink real ale together and became good friends.”

How would you describe Douglas' working relationship with Graham Chapman?
“Well I don't really know - I didn't really see them working together. But I owe it to Graham for bringing Douglas along otherwise I wouldn't have become a friend.”

Did you ever see/read any of Douglas' material for Footlights or the Adams-Smith-Adams revues?
“Yes. The first time I ever saw Douglas he was performing as sketch about (I think) a meeting of the Paranoid Society.”

During Douglas' 'wilderness years' between leaving Cambridge and the success of Hitchhiker, how much did you stay in touch? And did you discuss any possible collaborations?
“I can't remember talking about collaborating, but he and I used to drink quite a lot of beer together and Douglas was a regular dinner party guest down here in Camberwell.”

What was Douglas' ambition in those days, and what was his confidence like?
“Good question - not sure I’ve got an answer though. He seemed reasonably confident. But as far as I can remember (which isn’t very much - probably owing to the beer) we tended to talk about life in general and beer and that rather than careers. He seemed to enjoy working for Doctor Who and the radio stuff he was doing.”

What was your initial reaction on hearing about the idea of Hitchhiker, and on hearing the show itself?
“Well, one day Douglas asked me and Mike along to hear a radio show he'd just finished. So Mike and I went along to Broadcasting House and sat in a room while Douglas and his producer played The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This was some time before it went out. I can remember we listened to about three shows and then couldn't really cope with any more. It was a bit too intense with Douglas and his producer watching our every move and waiting for us to laugh. I think I was a little critical of some of the performances. I know Mike and I both thought it was pretty funny - but we had absolutely no idea that it would become as successful as it did.”

You were one of the very first people ever cited as possible director of the Hitchhiker movie (ref. 1981 interview: "Then the whole thing reopened when Terry Jones said he'd like to think about making a film of Hitchhiker. But in the end Terry and I said, 'It'd be nice to do a film together, but let's just start from scratch and not make a Hitchhiker'."). What sort of discussions did you have with Douglas about the Hitchhiker movie, in those early days and over the ensuing years?
“Well, I think we hit on the basic problem of making a film out of Hitchhiker. That is that Arthur Dent doesn't really have much character and there really isn't a lot of character-development in the story. In fact there really isn't a story in terms of a ninety minute film. It's a wonderful wander through space with lots of interesting and funny and thought-provoking things happening – but not narrative exactly. No beginning middle and end - which I know I shouldn't be interested in as a Python, but they sort of count when it comes to ninety minutes in a cinema.”

How did you come to collaborate with Douglas on 'A Christmas Fairly Story' for the Comic Relief book? (And why has this never been reprinted?)
“I don’t know why it's never been reprinted. I think I wrote something and then Douglas improved on it - but I can't remember much about it.”

When I interviewed Douglas in June 1997 he had the idea of making the Hitchhiker film in IMAX, but only using parts of the screen to show normal sized figures, etc. Shortly afterwards, you used this idea in the short film you made for the London IMAX screen. Did the two of you discuss this at all or was it just coincidence?
“Ah - coincidence I think. This is the first I've heard of Douglas's IMAX thoughts.”

In all the 150 or so interviews with Douglas that I have on file, I can't find a single reference to Graham Chapman's passing. Douglas talked about working with Graham, but never even alluded to the tragic early death of his mentor. Can you recall how Graham's death affected Douglas, or offer any clues as to why he never mentioned it?
“No, I can't remember seeing Douglas around the time of Graham's death. Graham was a strange absent sort of figure. He was a lovely man but there was always a feeling that he wasn't really there. When we were filming you always felt Graham's spirit was somewhere else. For a some of the years his spirit was in the spirit (gin) and maybe that's where his soul was too. But when he came out of that he still seemed to be elsewhere much of the time. When I read some of the stuff in A Liar's Autobiography that he wrote about filming the Grail, for example, it seemed to me that Graham really hadn't understood what was going on at all - or how the films or the TV shows got made.”

How did the success of Hitchhiker affect Douglas?
 “I remember Douglas arriving late at a dinner party down here in Camberwell and saying how sorry he was but he'd been at his first book-signing - it was for the paperback of Hitchhiker and he'd signed a thousand books! He looked absolutely stunned. I think it was the first time he had any real indication of just how popular he was going to become. The worst effect success had on him was that it seemed to make it more and more difficult for him to write. He'd always had problems with writing, but the more they paid him up front, the less he felt he could possibly justify what they'd paid him.”

What about his burgeoning interest in computers?
“This did indeed become an obsession - I remember him showing me his first Apple - and it was almost as if we'd lost Douglas. He'd become a convert - a zealot - and somehow everything was related to the possibilities of the computer.”

Do you recall when he was researching and writing Last Chance to See?
“He loved doing that. He always said it was his best book and also the thing he'd mostenjoyed  making.”

Douglas' legendary parties - what were they like?
“They got too grand for me. I enjoyed being with Douglas most when we used to go off for a beer together in the early days. There was a sense in which Douglas seemed to get stuck in star-worship. He seemed to become very impressed with the incredibly famous people he'd got to know - and that was a little disappointing, since it somehow diminished himself. When Douglas was narrating a Bill Gates party or whatever it was as if he'd lost himself amongst the stars. Odd really for the author of a Guide to the Galaxy.”

What memories do you have of your Starship Titanic US signing tour with Douglas? (Is there any truth in the legend that the British edition was delayed because the publishers couldn't catch up with you to get the corrected proof back?)
“That might be true - rings a bell. I'd agreed to do the signing tour because I really hadn't had the chance to spend time with Douglas for - I don't know - ten or fifteen years. It was like returning to the early days of our friendship. We'd forgotten how well we got on together and what fun we had. I don’t think we stopped talking for the duration of the tour and we never ran out of subjects for discussion. It was a magic time and one of my very best recollections of Douglas.”

What was the Starship Titanic film treatment like on which you based your novel? Did you ever see the earlier (rejected) novel by Robert Sheckley?
“The treatment was about twenty pages. It had all the characters - or at least all the character names, and it had most of the plot. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever had to write. Douglas asked me if I'd do it because he owed Simon & Schuster a book and they were going to publish the Robert Sheckley version with Douglas' name on it if he didn't come up with an alternative by 5th June. I'd read the treatment and made some comments on it – and Douglas rang up and asked if I'd be prepared to write the book. Well, there were then five weeks before 5th June. I loved the idea of just stopping everything else I was doing and concentrating on that. It was great fun to do because as far as I was concerned all the really hard work had been done. Douglas had the whole structure and world and ideas there - all I had to do was fill it in. It's like you imagine writing but like writing never is. Every time I got stuck I just had to refer back to the treatment and off I’d go again. In the end I finished it in three weeks. Douglas said well this is perfect - we must do more - he liked writing the outlines and I liked writing the details.”

Did you and Douglas have any plans for collaboration beyond Starship Titanic?
“So yes, there was some talk of doing more books. But I think the initial negative responses to the book put a damper on the idea. I personally blame the publishers. I think it was a stupid idea to call it ‘Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic a novel by Terry Jones.’ They were so anxious to push it as a Douglas Adams book that some of his fans felt they’d been cheated. If they simply put ‘Starship Titanic by Douglas Adams and Terry Jones’ there wouldn't have been the problem."

Finally, I have been told by someone else researching Douglas' life that John Cleese politely declined to be interviewed, saying he didn't really know Douglas that well. Which is odd, given that they worked together several times (Video Arts, Doctor Who, Starship Titanic). Can you offer me any insight into why John might feel this way?
“John I think didn’t have any opinion about Douglas - I suspect he never read the books - maybe he even didn’t like Douglas filling the vacant place he’d left working with Graham - I’ve only just thought of that and have no idea if it's true. Probably not, because John was very relieved not to be working with Graham.”

Sunday, 18 September 2016


Director: Aman Chang
Writer: Lee Kwing Kai
Producer: Bee Chan
Cast: Sam Lee, Jerry Lam, Myolie Wu, Angela Tong
Year of release: 2001
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed from: Hong Kong VCD (Universe)

iLoopy Hong Kong horror comedy nonsense doesn’t come much loopier than this. Skinny geek Joe (Sam Lee: Gen X Cops) is a journalist and wannabe screenwriter who shares a flat with his fat geek friend Herpes (Jerry Lam). No, honestly - the character’s called Herpes. They’re investigating a femme fatale (Angela Tong, the Canadian born actress who voices Dee Dee in Dexter’s Laboratory - I kid you not!) who is luring men to her flat and killing them in nasty, supernatural ways.

Joe seeks help from a mysterious internet source on the mainland who sends over his daughter, the gorgeous Yan (Myolie Wu). Both Joe and Herpes fall for her, the former quite sweetly, the latter more crudely, but neither stands a chance. She wants a man like her favourite romantic novelist, who clearly understands women - but oh, irony, that’s Joe under a pseudonym. How can he convince her?

Meanwhile, Herpes becomes surrogate mother to a baby spirit brought over by Yan to help out, who quickly grows to an adult, in body at least. Only Herpes can see him and, in a really gross plot twist, has to develop magical breasts so he can suckle him.

The climax of Jing Sheng Jian Jiao is a desperate fight against the witch (or whatever the hell she is) and the zombie thing she’s been feeding her murder victims to. The ‘plot’ wanders all over the shop and the whole thing is played for knockabout laughs and features comic mugging that would make Three Stooges fans say, “Goodness me, that’s a bit unsubtle.”

It’s okay in a desperately silly sort of way but there’s no aspect of it you could actually commend. Fortunately, the great thing about VCDs - this one has the usual mangled English subtitles - is that they’re dirt cheap (about five to eight quid in London) so you’re not investing much money and therefore not expecting much return. Which is handy.

MJS rating: C
Review originally posted 13th April 2009

Wednesday, 14 September 2016


Director: Uwe Boll
Writer: Uwe Boll
Producers: Uwe Boll, Shawn Williamson, Paul Colichman
Cast: Casper Van Dien, Eric Roberts, Michael Pare, Catherine Oxenburg
Year of release: 2000
Country: Germany/Canada
Reviewed from: Festival screening (Cannes 2000) and UK rental tape (Metrodome 2001)

Seattle detectives Renart and Smith (Michael Pare - Space Fury, Lunar Cop - and Jennifer Rubin: Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Little Witches, Last Lives) are on the hunt for a serial killer dubbed the ‘Monkey Maker’ by the press. So far he has killed an impressive 15 times(!): the first six had their eyes gouged out, the next six had their ears cut off, and the most recent three had their tongues cut out. That’s one sick puppy.

Meanwhile yuppie stock trader Tom Turner (the far, far too good-looking Van Dien: Starship Troopers, Sleepy Hollow, Revenant, Dracula 3000), who works in an extraordinary, ultra-modern, darkened office with only a bank of high-tech monitors and a telephone headset, is getting bored. He visits an underground fetish club where a select few can, in a back room, watch snuff movies being made. Renart has a tip-off about the snuff studio but arrives just too late to catch anything or anyone, so he returns to his heavily pregnant wife (Oxenburg, who is of course Mrs Van Dien in real life and played Princess Diana in at least two telemovies).

The Monkey Maker claims another victim, and this time there’s a witness - Tom Turner - whose story is full of obvious holes but who has a good lawyer. Despite being warned off by their boss (Eric Roberts: The Shadow Men, that Doctor Who TV movie), Renart and Smith investigate further into Turner’s world - but who is controlling the game? Them or him? Sanctimony builds to an extraordinarily nasty third act, which sees one of the main characters hideously murdered, another almost murdered in a staggeringly sadistic trick, another murder shown live on TV and a poetically filmed two-gun rampage in a restaurant.

It would be very easy (and lazy) to see this as a lower-budget spin on American Psycho, which came out around the same time, but the only similarity is that the killer is a yuppie, and we know his identity pretty much from the start. Sanctimony is a gripping detective thriller with a side order of serial killer horror; not a whodunnit but a willtheystophimfromdoingitagain? Boll had previously made a German serial killer movie, Run Amok, and subsequently directed the zombie-packed movie of the Sega game House of the Dead.

Also in the cast are David Millbern (Slumber Party Massacre, Deep Freeze), Crystal Lowe (Children of the Corn: Revelation), Dolores Drake (who was also in that Doctor Who TV movie) and Ken Camroux who has the bizarre claim to fame of having made two movies in 1999, both called Y2K.

A minor gem, Sanctimony is exciting, scary and highly recommended.

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 3rd March 2005

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Shunned House

Director: Ivan Zuccon
Writers: Ivan Zuccon, Enrico Saletti
Producer: Valerio Zuccon
Cast: Giuseppe Lorusso, Federica Quaglieri, Emanuele Cerman
Year of release: 2003
Country: Italy
Reviewed from: screener DVD

Ivan Zuccon, without a doubt the most exciting young genre director in Italy, has stuck with the works of HP Lovecraft for this, his third feature. But whereas The Darkness Beyond and Unknown Beyond were generically Lovecraftian, La Casa Sfuggita (co-scripted with Unknown Beyond writer Enrico Saletti) adapts three specific HPL short stories.

Rather than a straightforward anthology, however, Zuccon and Saletti have set all three tales in the same building, interweaving them to achieve a dreamlike sense of horror. So in the present day we have paranormal journalist Alex (Giuseppe Lorusso) and his sceptic girlfriend Rita (Federica Quaglieri) in an adaptation of ‘The Shunned House’ itself. Alex is investigating an old inn which has seen scores of mysterious, often violent deaths over the previous three centuries. Much to Rita’s displeasure, they are going to camp out in the derelict building until Alex has finished his research.

In the same building, 50-60 years earlier, Luigi Montella (Emanuele Cerman) is a young mathematician, who is investigating the non-Euclidean geometry of the inn’s plans and playing chess against his neighbour Nora (Silvia Ferreri). This part of the film is based on ‘Dreams in the Witch House.’ Finally, right back in the 1920s, a writer name Marco del Vespro (Michael Segal - not the British actor who was in I Claudius etc) becomes bewitched by the haunting violin music emanating from the next room, where lives the beautiful but mute Carlotta Zann (Cristiana Vaccaro). That’s ‘The Music of Eric Zann.’

With three stories set in different times - perhaps more: who/what/when is that mysterious masked figure? - The Shunned House is not an easy film to follow, which is entirely in keeping with the complexities of Lovecraft’s work. Zuccon (who also edited the film) doesn’t just mix smoothly between stories; the whole point of the film is that these three tales interact, as characters from one time see/hallucinate those from another. It would be pointless for me to be specific; the film must be seen as a whole.

And there’s blood. And dead people. And people get killed in awful ways. This is a horror film in the grand tradition and confirms Zuccon’s place as the natural successor to Lucio Fulci. Luigi may be a somnambulist child-killer; Rita sees dead people; there’s a mysterious girl repeatedly hitting her bleeding forehead against a wall; and when Carlotta’s last violin string breaks... Christ, it’s horrible! It all comes together in a bloody, scary conclusion.

Zuccon’s camera, often roaming around a room, brings the audience right into the world(s) of these people. There is nothing workmanlike here. Every shot is just right: the angle, the movement, the lighting, the cutting. It’s just a shame that this was shot on video and not film. Please, someone give Ivan Zuccon the budget to shoot in 35mm!

The cast all cope well with the English dialogue. Particularly notable are Cerman (also in both Beyond films, as was Segal) whose boyish good looks and sensitive-yet-unnerving performance reminded me of Brendan Fraser in The Passion of Darkly Noon, and Vaccaro, who overcomes (in fact, uses) her lack of dialogue to bring exceptional depth to her role as the troubled violinist. Massimo Storari’s make-up effects are as gruesome as ever, and kudos also to costume designer Donatella Ravagnini and set designer Roberta Romagnoli, and indeed everyone involved with this marvellous film.

Ultimately, what does it all mean? I’m not 100 per cent certain (and I’ve read the script!) but frankly the film wouldn’t be true to the Lovecraftian source material if I was. It is all (I think) connected with the mathematics of the inn’s design, thus putting The Shunned House into the tiny subgenre of mathematical fantasy horror, along with the brilliant Pi, the disappointing Solid Geometry, and a handful of other titles. I think that ultimately the building itself is ‘the monster’, much like The Fall of the House of Usher or The Shining. But I strongly suggest that you take any opportunity to see this film and decide for yourself.

MJS rating: A
(Warning: this film contains some scenes with strobe effects.)

Addendum: The Shunned House is now available on DVD in the UK from Salvation. The disc includes an ‘original trailer’ (a short teaser), an ‘international trailer’, four short deleted scenes, a stills gallery and two essays by Salvation boss Nigel Wingrove. The one about HP Lovecraft is okay but the one about Italian horror is rather a waste, saying nothing about why the genre flourished in Italy or why horror fans hold spaghetti spook-flicks in such high regard. Also, the text of the essays is small and hard to read and, on my machine at least, flickers somewhat.

The extras are rather difficult to navigate and I found myself having to go back sometimes because of the confusing and inconsistent navigation system. (I know this is picky, especially as I was given the disc for free by Ivan, but it’s irritating and would be easy to solve for future releases.)

Also on the disc are trailers for The Bunker (which was written by Clive Dawson) and The Playgirls and the Vampire (an odd pairing of films!), a Jake West-directed video for a song called ‘White Slave’ by The Nuns (all gothic lesbian fetish vampires - quelle surprise!) and Philip Ilson’s rather dull short Blood.

Review originally posted 5th December 2004