Monday, 28 November 2011

Ken Russell's The Fall Of The Louse Of Usher (2002)

Sadly, legendary director Ken Russell has passed away. A long time favourite of mine, and genuine cause celebre of the British film industry. Never one to pander to the mainstream, his films polarized audiences more than almost any other film maker in history.
So, as a tribute, I decided to watch a film I'd had in my collection for a while, and shamefully never got round to watching. Who doesn't have a whole load of them? It would also be Russell's last full length film, although he did contribute a tale in the 2006 anthology 'Trapped Ashes' (the interestingly titled The Girl With Golden Breasts) which I have yet to track down.

Set in Orange County, but filmed in Russell's own back garden on what looks like a normal home camcorder, The Fall Of The Louse Of Usher tells the story of Roddy Usher (James Johnston from band Gallon Drunk) singer of a goth rock band, who kills his wife, Annabelle Lee (Emma Millions), plucking out her eye and eating it, then bricking her up with her pet dog. He is sent to a mental institution over seen by the rather odd Dr Calahari (played with amazing relish by Russell). After watching a music video of the singer, the mad doctor becomes more than a little enamoured by Usher's sister, Madeline (Lisi  Tribble, Russell's wife from 2001 til his death). 
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There is a party planned for the staff and inmates of the asylum, Trying to pursuade Usher to sing at the do,  Nurse Smith (Marie Findley) injects him with Viagra and putting his boner at risk with a swinging knife pendulum.
Alongside other 'plot twists' we have the doctor trying to sustain life at the point of death - resulting in Ernest Valdemar (Pete Mastin) being a comatose, bitter zombie. A trip to the house of Usher - actually Russell's garden shed - and it's 'fall' is beautiful staged.  A mummy, mad psychic and a gorilla all add to the fun.
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Subtitled A Gothic Tale For The 21st Century,  Usher is a mix of Poe stories and a touch of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, Usher is everything but boring. An opening monologue paraphrased from The Tell Tale Heart, leads in to 80 mins of low rent gore, madness and musical numbers (based on Poe's poems) some  preposterous but hilarious dialogue, and the best use of everyday items you have seen - including one of those awful 'Big Mouth Billy Bass' things that were popular with the great unwashed a few years ago. DIY special effects make it feel like you're watching your mate's attempt at film making. It's a credit to Russell that this rises above what could have been an awful endurance, but his fertile imagination and glorious sense of humour and fun make it a joy to watch.

The cast and crew were all Russell's friends and acquaintances, but they do a good job, despite all the wonky accents and lack of acting ability. Russell's ruddy faced doctor is wonderfully manic and he looks like he's having a load of fun, surrounded by naughty nurses, and throwing himself into his part - even if he slips out of his 'Allo 'Allo type German accent from time to time. Watch out for classical music wenches Mediaeval Baebes romping around in the music video early on! (Sadly, they keep their kit on). At times it reminded me of a feature length version of that advert skit in Crimes Of Passion, (you know, the one with the couple that turn into skeletons?) All fast edits and surreal images. Not saying that's a bad thing though.

Despite it's low budget, the film is whole lot of fun, and shows you can make use with house hold items for effects (steam irons for a defibrillator anyone?), even if it just adds to the camp amusement rather than look realistic.

I'm sad that it took the great man's death for me to get round to watching this, but I'm glad to it was worth the wait. A hell of a lot of fun, but it's a shame no one would give him the finances to make something more on par with his famous works.
8 out of 10.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Reto review: Mario Bava's Blood And Black Lace (1964)

mario bava giallo black lace
Long before the slasher films of the 70s and 80s, Mario Bava was making his glorious gory masterpieces in Italy. Blood And Black Lace (aka Sei donne per l'assassino).

At the Haute Couture fashion studios, owner Contessa Cristina Como (Eva Bartok) and her secret lover, Max Marion (Cameron Mitchel) are having to deal with more than the usual model strops. Someone is killing the cat walk girls! A trench coated, masked killer is brutally knocking them off, and becomes more crazed when one of the girls' diary appears and looks like it might contain some very incriminating evidence. 

Everyone seems to have something to hide, from elicit affairs to drug addictions. Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner - looking a little too much like Mark Kermode for my liking) takes no chances and brings in five male suspects, all with links to the girls, and detains them overnight. While they are in custody however, the killer strikes again, leaving the law more perplexed than ever, and no nearer to catching the 'sex maniac'.

A true classic, Bava uses some brilliant, fluid camera movements and use of colour and shadows to create an atmosphere that are completely absorbing, and pre-date Argento's luscious Suspiria. A sequence focusing on a handbag containing the diary is shot so perfectly, you don't care that nothing actually happens! The body count story line, coupled with the grisly murders are way ahead of their time, not going too far over the top, but very suspenseful and at times brutal. The famous (because it's in all the film's publicity) murder in the bath tub is practically movie poetry. Beautiful, if cinematic murder could be seen as such. The killer's look is haunting enough to give Jason and Michael Myers more than a run for their money. The who done it aspect of the film is revealed with quite a bit of film left to run, so adds a new dimension to the climax, rather than the usual police procedure reveal. 
The whole film looks so beautiful on the current DVD releases, a far cry from when I first saw it on a battered, cut and dubbed UK VHS back in the late 80s. It was a bargain shop release, in a cardboard slip case rather than proper clam case. Now, however the luscious colours are wonderful reproduced and the film doesn't look like it's nearly 50 years old. 

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The word seminal gets bandied around a bit with some films, but Bava's Blood And Black Lace is one that deserves the title. 
8 out of 10. 

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Retro review: The Soul Of A Monster (1944)

Doctor George Winson (George Macready) is dying. A selfless man, who always went the extra mile for others is at his deathbed from an infection caught when his glove tore. "It's a cock eyed world"; people on the street can't believe it. His wife, Ann (Jeanne Bates) won't believe it. Over the open fire in the room he is set to die in, she makes a plea to anyone - anything - that can save him.

Across the town, a strange woman is walking almost trance like, with purpose. She causes cars to almost run her over, electricity wires come falling down spraying sparks in her wake. She keeps on walking until she appears at the Doctor's room. Lillian Gregg (Rose Hobart) is there to take control. She has come to save the doctor when no medicine can help. "You called for me" She insists on everyone leaving, Ann, and the doctor's friends, Fred (Erik Rolf) and Dr Roger Vance (Jim Bannon). Having hours alone with Lillian does the doctor wonders, and he fully recovers within weeks, but he is a changed man. The nice, kind, generous man is no more. He is now cruel, foul tempered and suspicious. George even makes fresh flowers wither and die with just a touch.

Lillian however, has other plans for George. She begins using a her power over him to her advantage.
Back at work, with his assistant Dr Vance, things are getting tense. A minor squabble nearly breaks into a fight, and, holding George's wrists to protect himself, Vance discovers George has no pulse! While examining a young boy, George accidentally gets cut by a pair of scissors, but no blood! Could it be that bringing back George from the brink of death has robbed him of his mortal soul?

A rare Columbia Pictures release, The Soul Of A Monster is a strange little film. At times it feels like a lost Val Lewton classic, then it goes all preachy and could be a morality tale straight from of the Bible belt. It's the heavy handedness of the spiritual side of the film that lets it down, you are practically bashed over the head with metaphysics of the soul and how one who looks to any other 'God' for guidance is wrong and soulless.
Towards the end, characters end up saying the same lines that have just been spoke. A caption card at the end of the film says it all "For the man who walks with evil walks alone; he who walks with evil has no soul,no hope; he lives but a life without faith, and without faith there is no life."

Ok, so I'm not a 'believer' so maybe that's why this felt a little heavy for me, but by the end, it did feel like it was bashing you over the head with it! Enough already! Just show me the horror! Still, it's effective in it's atmosphere in parts and features some unusual jaunty camera angles and tricks that you don't often see in films of it's age (as Lillian appears, then disappears at the end the film briefly goes into negative) , while not living up to it's poster hype, doesn't drag on too much.
5 out of 10.