Thursday, 15 August 2013

Blu-ray review: Deranged (1974) classic Ed Gein inspired shocker

 deranged poster
An overlooked and forgotten gem from 1974, available for the first time in the UK uncut and in high definition to boot! Based on the infamous case of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin ghoul, infamous for grave robbing and wearing the flesh of the dead, but is thought to have only killed two people (it is rightly pointed out during the fantastic extra features that Gein was not a serial killer). Anyone who has read the Gein case will instantly realise how close Deranged follows his story.
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Presented as a pseudo-documentary, complete with an on-screen narrator (played by the brilliant Leslie Carlson, instantly recognisable from films such as Videodrome and The Fly), who appears every now and again to move the narrative along. Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom, who is simply fantastic as the Gein inspired loner) is so upset when his mother dies that he eventually decides to dig her up and move her back into the family home. Alarmed by the state of decay, he starts digging up freshly buried bodies to use the skin.
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Remembering his dying mother's words, he seeks out her only friend, Maureen Selby (Marian Waldman, the wonderful drunken fraternity mother Mrs Mac in the original Black Christmas), whom he can trust because "she's a big fat woman". Maureen is taken with Ezra's interest, and in order to get permission from her late husband, conducts a hokey seance. This sequence provides a welcome bit of comic relief, with the woman, channeling her husbands voice, teling Ezra to look after her carnal needs; "Carnival?" he asks naively. It doesn't end well, as when she takes him to bed he recalls his mama's words: "The wages of sin are gonorrhea, syphilis, and death", and promptly shoots her.
The film varies from the real life story in a number of ways: the real Gein didn't dig his own mother up, and his two victims were a lot older than depicted in the film (the family friend just mentioned is a film elaboration). Arrow's HD release restores the often cut sequence in which Cobb gouges an eye and scoops brains from a unearthed head; a scene played so straight - no need for shock sound design or over dramatic music - that it just adds to the documentary feel. The score, by Bob Clark regular Carl Zittrer, is an understated funeral parlour style organ which suits it perfectly. The make-up effects, early work by Tom Savini, are basic, but perfectly suitable and believable.
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Gein has influenced horror cinema more than most, his story being the basis for stories and films such as Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs, but they don't have the kick in the teeth realism of Deranged. Tobe Hooper's 1974 film, filmed at almost the same time as this, takes the elements of the story but takes them into different, albeit equally disturbing places. With Deranged, writer/co-director Alan Ormsby, who also made Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things with Deranged's (uncredited) producer Bob Clark, and Jeff Gillen have created a disturbing film, which quietly manages to get under your skin, making it crawl when needed. Blossom's effortless performance is so believable, you can guarantee the next time you see him wink at that kid in Close Encounters of the Third Kind you'll read something so much more sinister into it.
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I first saw the film in the late 80s, via a late night screening on the just launched Sky channel. After years of seeing stills and reading of this film, it didn't let me down. Re-watching it again after all these years it is not disappointing. If anything, the film has become even more powerful over time, the gritty realism of some scenes only offset by the on-screen narrator.
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Full marks to Arrow, as always, for their fabulous bonus features on the disc. As well as an informative, enlightening, amusing, if meandering, commentary from Tom Savini (talking to respected genre writer Calum Waddell, whose company High Rising Productions also provide some of the other featurettes, and who made the brilliant Slice & Dice: The Slasher Film Forever documentary), there are interviews with Intruder producer Scott Spiegel, discussing working with Roberts Blossom (this extra is worth watching for the hilarious animated title sequence alone), Laurence R. Harvey (The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence) on the legacy of Gein, and a great archive interview with co-director Jeff Gillen which also includes rare on-set footage. The set is completed by a chunky booklet, packed with even more fascinating material. You really have to admire Arrow Video, don't you? Who else would spend so much love and care on, what is to many,  just an obscure grindhouse film from the 70s?
Highly recommended.
9 out of 10

Saturday, 3 August 2013

DVD Review: The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1973) Reg Varney

At the time when Reg Varney was riding on the success of both the TV and film versions of On The Buses (the film outings made more for Hammer than their blood and boobs films at the time), this tragi-comedy hit the screens. Adapted from an ITV Playhouse drama (which also starred Varney) it is a touching look into the life of a showman whose life is collapsing around him while he is completely unaware.

best pair of legs in the business reg varneybest pair of legs in the business reg varney
Varney plays holiday camp drag queen and all-round entertainer "Sherry" Sheridan, his act watched by bemused punters who are more interested in the beer (a great appearance by Bill "Harry Cross" Dean and Reginald Marsh), obnoxious kids and OAPs while all the time his wife Mary (Diana Coupland) is having an affair with the camp boss Charlie (Lee Montague). When his son (Michael Hadley) turns up announcing his marriage, and the camp is to be taken over by acerbic Emma (Jean Harvey) things start to unravel.
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This film is something of a revelation; as one comes to it expecting Varney's chirpy character as we know and love. We do get that, to a certain extent, but only under the cracked veneer of the faded performer who still believes his own hype. Varney manages to inject the character with pathos, and we are soon feeling sorry for him, even when it's infuriatingly obvious he has brought his woes upon himself.
You get a real sense people are pitying this old fool who camps it up (no pun intended) and plays the fool, while all the time he is being made a fool, and carries on regardless. 
best pair of legs in the business reg varney
There's a great double act in young chancers George Sweeney and David Lincoln, hoping to pull the only really eligible girls, played by Clare Sutcliffe and the ever lovely Penny Spencer (Please, Sir!, Under The Doctor, The Playbirds); this includes an amusing interlude while they attempt to purchase contraception.
Formerly Coronation Street's Mike Baldwin and bit part player in several 70s sex comedies, Johnny Briggs props up the bar as the on-the-make bartender; I became used to seeing him propping the bar up from the other side at the Lime bar in Salford Quays where he had a home, but I never plucked up the courage to talk to him about these early roles.
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Jane Seymour makes a pre-Live and Let Die appearance and queen of the cameo, Claire Davenport pops up in a couple of scenes.
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This was director Christopher Hodson's only big screen film, most of his output being for TV, but give or take the occasional use of over sentimental music, he handles the subject really well. I must try to track down the Playhouse version to compare notes (it would have made an excellent bonus feature).
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Released by Network DVD in their The British Film strand, it looks and sounds as good as it should. I really must commend Network for putting out so many obscure and financially risky titles recently, so please do support them and buy (they tend to be less than a tenner on the Network website). Now, if only they could follow this up with the other, more traditional Varney feature, Go For A Take (1972; also starring the wonderful Norman Rossington and a host of cameos including Dennis Price as Dracula) it would be brilliant. (hint, hint)

7 out of 10

Friday, 2 August 2013

DVD Review: The Lovers! (1973)

Spin offs from 70s TV comedy shows tended to have two things in common: they were invariably produced by the Hammer studio, and the plot often involved the characters going on holiday, with hilarious results. This 1973 feature version of the often overlooked hit The Lovers bucks that trend by being produced by British Lion, the studio behind The Wicker Man and Goodbye Gemini, and having a plot which basically encapsulates the series formula into just under 90 mins.
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Eschewing the canon of the TV series (which ran 13 episodes), the film version follows our unlikely lovebirds from their first awkward meeting. Geoffrey (Richard Beckinsale), the Manchester United loving bank clerk hooks up with romantically minded but hesitant Beryl (Paula Wilcox) more by accident than design. The plot, such much as it is, revolves around the pair's off and on relationship, his per-occupation with wanting to join the permissive society, and her more traditional desire for wedding bells and family life. As per the TV version, Geoffrey's advances, as naive and clumsy as they are, are met with a firm N-O spells no! This was the show which brought the term 'Percy Filth' into the lexicon of at least my upbringing.
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The TV version doesn't get wheeled out as often as other sit-coms of the time, certainly nowhere  near as much as Beckinsale's big hit, Porridge, so the material isn't as over familiar. So, even though the look of the film has dated somewhat it is still an amusing look at the trials and tribulations of dating. A plus factor, at least for someone like myself who lives in the town, is the wonderful location footage of Manchester in the early 70s. From the opening scene set outside The George Best Boutique, to the old GM bus colour scheme, Albert Square and the Piccadilly Hotel, this is a Manchester I barely remember but still seems familiar. Football fans (there must be some somewhere I guess) may get a kick (ha!) out of seeing the Old Trafford ground before the corporates took over. Without going over the top, the film manages to poke fun at both the permissive attitudes and the "groovy man" crowd; a brilliant scene has Geoffrey try 'grass' for the first time, only to be made even more sick when he's informed it actually was just grass!
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The playfulness (and pain) of 'courting' is suitably shown. The pair 'just happen' to be at the same places and so much rings true without being heavy handed or slapstick, thanks to Jack Rosenthal's wonderful script. Beckinsale and Wilcox are wonderful, playing characters they obviously had gotten used to, and the pair's natural likability helps a great deal.
As an interesting footnote, it's directed by Herbert Wise, who made the infamous TV version of The Woman In Black for ITV.
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The Lovers! has been released by the good people of Network DVD as part of their The British Film series and is a worthy addition to any collection, whether you are familiar with the TV show or not (although they also have that in their catalog too should you wish to try it). Without resorting to the Percy Filth or bawdiness to sell the picture, this good-natured film is certainly worth a look.
8 out of 10