Sunday, 25 May 2014

Short Film Review: HOPSCOTCH (2014) Directed by Kirsten Walsh

hopscotch kirsten walsh
A complete change of pace to the usual short horror film, Kirsten Walsh's Hopscotch is a brooding, malignant piece which has the viewer anticipating the sick 'delights' to come.
Bridget (Amanda Ayres) is an escort whose latest job brings her out of town, where she is met by Jolene (Christin Easterling), the 'assistant' of the hooker's host for the night. It turns out the pair actually knew each other at school, and it's clear that Bridget (or Shannon as she was then) was a bitch to Jolene before they parted ways. Heading to the house, they are met by Rebecca (Karen Overstreet), who unnerves Bridget with some Sapphic flirting, but wins her over when she discovers she is part of a big candy-making company. Jolene is uncomfortable when Bridget mentions they knew each other, and Rebecca makes her tell the full story while Jolene fixes some drinks - mixing a little something more than sweetener in one. When she returns, she is made to do her 'magic trick', escaping from handcuffs. They convince Bridget to have a go, and she becomes frustrated when she can't remove them. Rebecca quizzes her about her career choice, and continues her seductive advance, only not sexually this time...
hopscotch karen overstreet
Karen Overstreet
The mood is set during the credit sequence, as bloodied torture equipment is seen cut between television footage of Bill Clinton's inauguration. There's a constant feeling of something else at play, and the tension keeps building until we finally find out what's going on.With political undertones and a growing sense of dread, it's a talky film but it works for the benefit of the payoff. It's also interesting that although it's an all-female cast (even the dog is a bitch!), the script was by a man (Christian Nelson), and it doesn't fall into the trap of sounding awkward.
Behind the scenes shot from the film's Facebook page - Amanda Ayres, Christin Easterling and crew
Proficiently directed, with some interestingly creative cinematography choices (selected focus, and some shallow depth of field), with the only negative aspect is some hiss on the soundtrack, noticeable especially during the conversations. And this being such a dialogue-led film it is noticeable. It's no doubt a side effect of having such a low budget to work with, (little or no looping) and by no means too annoying, but there nevertheless.
The cast  are all great, and believable in their roles. Exuding raw sexuality and confidence, Karen Overstreet dominates the proceedings, but both Amanda Ayres and Christin Easterling are fantastic and very watchable.
Behind the scenes shot from the film's Facebook page. Christin Easterling, Karen Overstreet (back) and Amanda Ayres
It's an impressive debut, and shows that Ms Walsh is worth keeping an eye on in future.
It is hoped Hopscotch will appear at film festivals in the coming year, you can find out more on the Facebook page.
7 out of 10

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

DVD Review: Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story (2014)

A gloriously well-informed look at the rise (and continual success, in a fashion) of the American 'top-shelf' magazine, Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story is naturally not one for prudes, but is a fascinating and eye-opening insight into a business often dismissed as just seedy and immoral.
Director  Michael Lee Nirenberg, whose father Bill was the art and creative director for the magazine, has managed to interview dozens of people involved in the production of the magazine as well as his father; models, photographers, editors and of course original publisher Larry Flynt. Spawned from what was essentially a small newsletter advertising Flynt's strip bars it was expanded as the antithesis to the 'lifestyle' style and airbrushed, glossy spreads of Playboy and Penthouse, Hustler took the rawness of Al Goldstein's newspaper format Screw, but in colour. Goldstein himself is interviewed, clearly very ill (he would later die on December 19th, 2013) and unrecognisable from the famous boisterous cigar-smoking image we are used to, and it's quite sad to see but at least he still possessed his famous sass.
Perhaps most surprising for UK viewers who may not have come across (!) the magazine other than by name is the strong political stance it had, often handled with biting satire. No mainstream companies would advertise with them, so they ran their own parody ads, often highlighting the hypocrisy of the multinationals. These included anti-tobacco and pro-police ads, which showed the power of Flynt's convictions. Purposely tasteless, the publication's story is full of ups and downs; from a being born again Christian to atheist, via presidential campaigns.
As is usually the case, the truth is often stranger than fiction. Having seen the 1996 drama, The People vs. Larry Flynt you may think you know about the man, but hearing what his colleagues have to say, and the tapes of some of his rants, Flynt really does come across as an unsettled person. But he is also an amazing advocate for free speech and despite his mostly acerbic nature, it's profoundly touching hearing him talk about not being able to save his late wife, Althea from drug addiction which eventually led to here contracting AIDS. This is more than just the Flynt story, despite the magazine being his baby. Past contributors and editors are just as important, and people such as Ron Jeremy, Kitten Natividad, Nina Hartley as well as Chris Gore, founder of Film Threat magazine, who later edited the humour section of Hustler and photographer Suze Randall.

Joseph Franklin, the man who famously shot and paralysed Flynt, is also interviewed in prison. Blaming an inter-racial photo-spread for his motivation for the attempted murder, he certainly seems unhinged. Chillingly, he says, "Flynt is the only person to be shot by a .44 Magnum and live". Close-up photos of his wounds are graphic and disturbing, but show the reality of the incident. It wasn't the Flynt shooting which he was convicted of, as Franklin was sentenced as a serial killer in 1980 for at least seven murders. He was executed by lethal injection on November 17th, 2013.
Matched to the visuals is a cracking soundtrack of underground punk music, which suits the outsider and subversive nature of the material. As you would expect, there is plenty of raunchy imagery, but the more explicit parts (ironically, the 'pink' which made the mag famous) are obscured, but it's never meant to be titillating (so to speak) nor exploitative. Instead, it's an engrossing and entertaining history lesson on a subject so often swept under the carpet, but one which is important, nonetheless. Highly recommended. 
Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine- Official Trailer November 2013 from Michael Lee Nirenberg on Vimeo.
9 out of 10

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Blu-ray Review: Theatre of Blood (1973) Vincent Price, Diana Rigg

theatre of blood poster
A genuine classic from the early '70s, this wonderful piece of Grand Guignol is both a tour de force of acting from Vincent Price, but a great ensemble piece, with many instantly recognisable stars from the period.
Edward Lionheart (Price) is an famous stage actor, so disgusted that the critic's choice award was given to someone else when he thought he Shakespeare season would have clinched it, that he throws himself into the Thames, with the scoffing hacks watching. He's saved by a group of tramps, however, and plots a diabolical vengeance on those who he ridiculed his work.
Using the many deaths in the plays he performed as inspiration he offs them one by one.
While the film is very well known, and has played on TV numerous times - indeed, I'd wager most of the people who buy it would have seen it on a late night screening when they were in their teens, it's a very welcome release. Not only is it incredibly enjoyable as a horror film: the deaths are particularly gory and rather brutal - especially the first couple, but it has a great streak of black humour, which makes repeat viewings a delight.
Among the stellar cast, there's some 'old' greats such as Michael Hordern, whose death occurs within the first few minutes and is especially nasty. The great, but fading, Dennis Price (who by this time had been in several low budget horror films, the best of which was Horror Hospital) also suffers a really gruesome fate; as well as being speared, he is dragged by a horse in front of the mourners at Hordern's funeral (cemetery geek point: this was filmed at the glorious Kensal Green Cemetery). Lovable Arthur Lowe is decapitated in his bed while his wife (Joan Hickson) complains of his snoring (it's actually the saw going through bone). Harry Andrews donates a pound of flesh while Coral Browne (with whom Price started an affair and later married) is electrocuted while having her hair done by a wonderfully camp Butch (Price, in bubble-perm wig and hippy clothes). Boozy Robert Coote (My Fair Lady) is drowned in a vat of wine, and Jack Hawkins (voiced by Charles Gray since cancer had taken his voice box) is locked up for life for being tricked into killing his wife (Diana Dors). The most audacious and hilarious in it's own sick way is Robert Morley, being fed his 'babies' (his poodles) baked in a pie. Ian Hendry (Repulsion) is the critic helping the police, but he too has a run-in with Lionheart. You don't have to be an expert on the Bard to get the references in the murders, as they are all signposted and mentioned.

Diana Rigg pops up as Lionheart's daughter - and only the less observant will fail to spot her elsewhere, and the police investigating are played by Milo O'Shea (Barbarella) and Eric Sykes, although not necessarily a stooge roll, he stills manages a few gags thanks to his genius at physical comedy. It's Price's film, though and despite the fact he's meant to be overacting and hamming it up, his renditions of Shakespeare lines are truly spectacular. You can see he is obviously relishing the part; particularly as critics often wrote him off as a hack too. There's a great morality at play, these writers, who make it their business to criticise a performance - often ruining careers with their words purely because they wield the power - don't often think of the consequences of the bad notices they give. Of course, if something is terrible it needs to be said, but one should never resort to personal attacks or name-calling, something they do when they don't like a particular actor (naming no names, but I'm sure there's a few people you could think of). The pen might be mightier than the sword in theory, but not when it's going through your stomach.

The film is released on Blu-ray from the wonderful Arrow Video, and once again they do a fantastic job. Not only is the film presented in stunning quality (the screenshots presented here are from an earlier DVD release - I don't have the facility to grab HD shots), it's worth pointing out that it is fully uncut too (some earlier releases are missing some shots of Arthur Lowe's head on a milk bottle).  There's also the wealth of  supplementary features we have come to expect from the arguably the best cult film distributor in the UK, if not the world. *side note: let's hope it stays this way, and the planned changes to the BBFC submissions system forcing extras features to be classified - and as such paid for - don't go through the way they are threatened.* To start with, the beautiful booklet is packed full of info and rare stills, then on the disc itself, there's a cracking commentary from The League of Gentlemen (Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson and Steve Pemberton), which is very entertaining, full of info and very much like ear-wigging on a group of mates in a pub, having a jolly good chat about films. Then, a series of short interviews with some key people about the film. The lovely Madeline Smith (one of only two - Dame Diana Rigg being the other - of the main cast members who are still alive) talks frankly about her time on the set, including some of the low points (such as the fact they were made to run through the burning building for real). American critic and fan David Del Valle talks of the horror star's career, while Vincent's daughter Victoria tells of her father's love for the film, and, in a surprisingly quirky and entertaining interview, composer Michael J. Lewis (The Man Who Haunted Himself) explains how he got involved. Kudos once more to Calum Waddell's High Rising Productions for putting together some great extras.

9 out of 10