Blu-Ray Review: Carnival of Souls – Criterion Collection

Director: Herk Harvey
Screenplay: John Clifford
Starring: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, Stan Levitt
Country: USA
Running Time: 78 min
Year: 1962
BBFC Certificate: 12


Once in a while, a film that was initially deemed a failure finds a new lease of life several years later, becoming what is often referred to as a cult classic. One such film was the 1962 horror Carnival of Souls, which was originally released as a double bill with The Devil’s Messenger, to little fanfare. Over time the film found its fanbase though, leading to a re-release in 1989 which helped cement its cult-status. What’s particularly sad about this very long road to recognition though was that the director Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford never made any other feature films, as they were retired by the time people’s love for Carnival of Souls finally appeared (and they have since passed away). The pair worked for Centron Corporation, an industrial film company that made corporate and public information films. They made Carnival of Souls in their holidays, then went back to their day jobs at Centron, which is a real shame as it’s a fantastic film and I’d have loved to have seen what else they could do.

Carnival of Souls opens with a car full of young women, including Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), getting into a road race with a car full of young men. What starts as a bit of fun ends in tragedy when the girls’ car careens off the side of a bridge into the river below. The car can’t be found, but hours later Mary appears from the river, dazed but physically healthy. She’s so traumatized by the event, she feels she has to leave town to escape the memory of what happened. So she heads off to Utah to be a church organist. On the way, she drives past a strange abandoned pavilion on the Great Salt Lake and finds herself strangely drawn to it. It triggers visions of a strange, pale-faced man though who keeps appearing and drawing ever closer. As no one else seems to see him, she begins to question her sanity. Being a strong-willed woman, she feels the need to face the problem head on.

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Blu-Ray Review: Le Plaisir

Director: Max Ophüls
Screenplay: Jacques Natanson, Max Ophüls
Based on Stories by: Guy de Maupassant
Starring: Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Simone Simon
Country: France
Running Time: 97min
Year: 1952
BBFC Certificate: PG


Max Ophüls is a hugely respected director, but his work isn’t often seen or spoken about these days. I must admit, I’d never watched any of his films before now either. I guess his penchant for what look like grand romantic melodramas didn’t appeal to me, nor to the modern cinephile who tends to lean towards darker, grittier fare. My tastes are broader these days though, so I was keen to take the Ophüls plunge when a screener for Le Plaisir, one of the director’s last few films before his death in 1957.

Le Plaisir translates to ‘the pleasure’, and the film is made up of three stories that each examine different aspects of the sensation. The first sees a masked man burst his way into a dance hall and stiffly, but exuberantly dance around the room, before collapsing. A doctor (Claude Dauphin), on removing his mask, realises he’s actually quite an old man and takes him home to recover, where he finds out about his past through the man’s wife (Gaby Morlay). The second is the longest story of the three, and sees brothel-madam Julie (Madeleine Renaud) take all of her girls on a trip to the country to attend the first communion of her niece. The final short tale sees a painter (Daniel Gélin) fall deeply in love with his model (Simone Simon), then endlessly argue after they move in together. The painter leaves her, but they end up married in the end through tragic circumstances.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Party

Director: Blake Edwards
Screenplay: Blake Edwards, Tom Waldman, Frank Waldman
Starring: Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Herb Ellis, Denny Miller, J. Edward McKinley, Steve Franken
Country: USA
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 1968
BBFC Certificate: PG


The Party is a film that has a strange personal relevance to me. I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it fully before watching this screener (although afterwards I felt pretty sure I had), but it’s a film I know best from some catchphrases (particularly “birdy num nums”) that my uncles used to quote with my dad. Due to this, I felt I had to take up the offer of reviewing the film, to better know this title that obviously had a big impact on my family.

The Party takes quite a simple premise and simply lets it play for the duration of its running time. Peter Sellers stars as Hrundi V. Bakshi, an Indian bit-part actor working in Hollywood whose clumsiness ruins a film shoot. The director (Herb Ellis) rings his producer Fred Clutterbuck (J. Edward McKinley) to ask him to make sure Hrundi never works in Hollywood again, but Clutterbuck’s secretary accidentally takes Hrundi’s name as being down to invite to the producer’s exclusive party. The bulk of the film takes place at this party where Hrundi gets into all manner of trouble and social faux pas, helping the gathering degenerate into chaos. During all of this, Hrundi falls for aspiring actress Michèle Monet (Longet), who’s also having a hard time at the party due to her rude and aggressive date.

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Blu-Ray Review: Miracle Mile

Director: Steve De Jarnatt
Screenplay: Steve De Jarnatt
Starring: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar, Mykelti Williamson, Lou Hancock
Country: USA
Running Time: 87min
Year: 1988
BBFC Certificate: 15


I‘ve often talked about how expectations can greatly affect how you enjoy a film. With Miracle Mile I didn’t know a huge amount about it before watching, other than the fact it was about the end of the world. However, I’ve long known about it and been interested in seeing it due to its inclusion in a top 1000 movies guide that came free with Neon magazine (which went out of circulation back in 1999). That guide was split into top 10 lists for specific categories and Miracle Mile was their number one pick for ‘apocalyptic movies’. An image of Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham sharing an embrace was the image they chose (see below). That guide was a bit of a bible to me as my love of cinema was blossoming at the time, so I’d try to track down anything topping a category. However, Miracle Mile wasn’t a film that showed up in my local video store and it never made it to DVD. That is until Arrow announced they’d be giving it their spit and polish treatment and bringing it out on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD this month. So, being one of the titles from the guide that had ever evaded me, I was eager to review Miracle Mile when it was offered. The listing in Neon’s guide was all I was really going on though and the image they used always made me think the film was a quietly sad and subtle rumination on love and life at the precipice of disaster (that’s what I got from the image at least).

How wrong I was…

Miracle Mile sees museum guide and jazz trombone player Harry (Anthony Edwards) fall in love with the equally quirky Julie (Mare Winningham). They fix a time and place to go on their all-important third date (as Julie puts it beforehand, “I’m going to screw your eyes blue”), but a power cut causes Harry to sleep through his alarm to wake him for their midnight rendezvous. When he wakes in the wee small hours, he desperately tries to get in touch with Julie and ends up answering the phone at the diner where she works, hoping it’s her. It isn’t. The panicked voice at the other end thinks Harry is his father, and tells him that nuclear missiles are on their way to the USA and will flatten the nation in 70 minutes. A violent end to the call suggests this is no prank and as Harry describes what happened to the customers at the diner, a government worker there makes a call that further cements the fact that they should be worried. The people at the diner quickly make plans for escape via helicopter, but Harry won’t leave without Julie. He dashes off on a wild quest to find her and hopefully still make it to the chopper to have some tiny chance of survival.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Seven-Ups

Director: Philip D’Antoni
Screenplay: Albert Ruben, Alexander Jacobs
Based on a Story by: Sonny Grosso
Starring: Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Victor Arnold, Ken Kercheval, Jerry Leon, Richard Lynch, Bill Hickman
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1973
BBFC Certificate: 12


I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but I’m a massive fan of a good car chase. As such, I was very excited for Baby Driver (to be reviewed at a later date) prior to its release and loved the fact that the press build up to it featured a slew of ‘best car chases ever’ lists. Eager to find more films to add to my collection, I was sad to see most lists included titles I was well aware of and had already seen. One film I saw listed that I hadn’t come across though was The Seven-Ups. Noticing its director, Philip D’Antoni, was producer on two of the best car chase movies of all time, The French Connection and Bullitt, I was even more excited about the film, so it shot straight to the top of my ‘to watch’ list. Luckily Signal One Entertainment were on hand and offered me a copy of The Seven-Ups to review on Blu-Ray. My thoughts on the film follow.

The Seven-Ups shares more than a producer and star (in Roy Scheider) with The French Connection. Both films are based on the real life work of Sonny Grosso and his team of plainclothes police officers, who helped clean up the mean streets of New York back when they really were mean. Scheider plays Buddy (clearly based on Sonny, as with his character in The French Connection), a cop who uses unorthodox methods to catch criminals. When he and his team of ‘Seven-Ups’ (a name that comes from the average prison sentence the guys they chase end up with), come across a Mafia-Don kidnapping plot, one of their number gets killed and Buddy becomes hellbent on catching the culprit.

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Blu-Ray Review: Blood Feast & Scum of the Earth

Herschell Gordon Lewis, who died last year, was a genre film legend. Although he worked in most realms of exploitation films, from ‘nudie-cuties’ to juvenile delinquent films and even children’s films, he is best known for creating the ‘splatter’ sub-genre of horror movies. The first title of his that bludgeoned open the horror mould, was Blood Feast, which Arrow Video have released on Blu-Ray alongside another of Lewis’ 1963 features, Scum of the Earth.

Blood Feast

Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis
Screenplay: Allison Louise Downe
Starring: William Kerwin, Mal Arnold, Connie Mason
Country: USA
Running Time: 67min
Year: 1963
BBFC Certificate: 18


Blood Feast sees an Egyptian caterer, Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), butcher up attractive young women in order to extract the ingredients required to put on an authentic Egyptian feast as had been previously ‘enjoyed’ 5000 years ago. The feast is an offering for the Egyptian goddess Ishtar, who Ramses worships. The mother of Suzette Fremont (Connie Mason) foolishly thinks the feast sounds like a great way to put on a party for her daughter, so Ramses busies himself in preparation, hacking up a handful of women in the lead up to the ‘big day’. Meanwhile, two inept cops, including Suzette’s boyfriend Pete (William Kerwin), try to figure out who’s responsible for the spate of murders around town.

Despite his reputation and my love of genre movies, I’d never actually seen a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie before now. He certainly lived up to his reputation as the “Godfather of Gore”, but his limitations as a filmmaker are also evident. Luckily I was prepared for this and I actually had a lot of fun with Blood Feast, even if I’d never call it a great film. It’s generally a case of ‘so bad it’s good’, where I enjoyed laughing at some of the daft dialogue and frequently shoddy deliveries. Writer Allison Louise Downe and Lewis know their limitations though, so never take things too seriously, with some lines knowingly ridiculous. “I was thinking about those murders. They just take the joy out of everything” was a standout for me.

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Blu-Ray Review: Black Widow

Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Ronald Bass
Starring: Debra Winger, Theresa Russell, Sami Frey, Nicol Williamson, Dennis Hopper
Country: USA
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1987
BBFC Certificate: 15


The late ’80s and early ’90s saw a slew of erotic or at least sexually charged thrillers that took the idea of the film noir ‘femme fatale’ and gave her a modern, more blatantly sexualised twist. At surface value, this might seem like a forward thinking trend of giving women powerful roles instead of throwaway ‘eye-candy’ appearances, but, as film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman discuss in the commentary included on this release, the reason behind this wave of strong villainous women was likely down to the still male-dominated industry (and male-dominated business world in general) being scared of the growing power women were enjoying at the time. Back in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when film noir was born, women were more frequently entering the workplace due to the war, so men were afraid of them taking their traditional places as the breadwinners. In the ’80s, women were finally starting to attain positions of power in the business world (although things still aren’t balanced), so the fear came back.

Black Widow was part of this wave and sees Theresa Russell play the titular Black Widow, a chameleonic character (of too many names to pick one here, so I’ll stick with the title) who makes a living by seducing rich men, marrying them, then undetectably murdering them, so she can keep their fortunes to herself. She then changes her identity and moves onto the next victim. So it’s very much playing into those ’80s fears then, but writer Ronald Bass put a bit of a spin on things to prevent the film from being too blatantly a symbol for male fear, by making the protagonist a woman too. Debra Winger plays Alexandra, a Federal Investigator who is bored of her desk-bound research job and longs to be in the field, solving cases first hand. She comes across some strange deaths of wealthy men and looks into the cases to find the wife of each victim looks similar, even if on paper they are different women. She begs her boss to let her take on the case, which he lets her do, as he thinks she’s crazy. There’s no evidence of murder and the Black Widow’s hair and make-up changes make it hard to prove she’s the same woman.

When Alexandra gets close to catching the Black Widow in the act though, her next victim, William (Nicol Williamson), is found dead. Alexandra is devastated as she had a chance to tell William about her theory about his wife, so she quits her job and heads to Hawaii (the last known location of the Widow) to put an end to her reign of terror herself. To do this, she must learn to be like her nemesis and the closer she gets to the Widow, the more she discovers her own sexual powers, turning from a tomboy into a ‘true’ woman.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Howling

Director: Joe Dante
Screenplay: John Sayles, Terence H. Winkless
Based on a Novel by: Gary Brandner
Starring: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone, Belinda Balaski, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens
Country: USA
Running Time: 91 min
Year: 1981
BBFC Certificate: 18


Hollywood has a history of releasing two similarly themed films to fight for an audience in the same year (memorably, 1998 had a double bill of double bills with A Bug’s Life competing against Antz and Armageddon up against Deep Impact). Back in 1981 it was the battle of the werewolves, with three films released that featured the mythological creatures – An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen and The Howling. Wolfen was the most expensive of the three but bombed and is largely forgotten these days. An American Werewolf made the most money, but The Howling hit theatres first and was still fairly successful (particularly as it cost far less to make than the other two). It certainly went on to spawn the greater legacy, with its seven sequels and a remake coming soon. That said, it’s always stood in the shadow of An American Werewolf, especially since both films take a humorous approach to the subgenre. I couldn’t help but compare the two either, so my review is definitely affected by the fact that I’m a fan of John Landis’ film and have seen it quite a few times, whereas this viewing of The Howling was a first time watch.

The Howling opens with newswoman Karen White (Dee Wallace) being tailed by police as she goes to meet a possible serial killer, Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who is obsessed with her. The killer is shot dead whilst he tries to sexually assault Karen, who is left disturbed by the experience. It affects her marriage and work, so she is sent to a retreat called The Colony by her TV station’s resident doctor, George Waggner (Patrick Macnee), who runs it. Once there, her husband Bill (Christopher Stone) gets bitten by a wolf and starts acting strangely. Meanwhile, a couple of Karen’s colleagues, Chris (Dennis Dugan) and Terry (Belinda Balaski), investigate Eddie for a story, but find his body missing from the morgue and uncover links between him and the Colony, so Terry heads over there to warn Karen. As more werewolves crop up, it becomes difficult to say who’s in danger from who.

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Blu-Ray Review: Man Hunt

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols
Based on a story by: Geoffrey Household
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Bennett, George Sanders, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall
Country: USA
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1941
BBFC Certificate: PG


I haven’t seen a Fritz Lang film I haven’t liked, in fact I’ve flat out loved most of them, so it didn’t take much convincing for me to choose to review this Signal One re-release of his war time thriller Man Hunt. A few years into his career in the US after leaving his home country of Germany, the film is a blatant indictment of Hitler’s actions there during the early years of WWII.

The film opens in bold fashion by following our hero Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) as he creeps up on a secret military compound with a sniper rifle in hand, taking aim at Hitler himself. With his first ‘shot’ we realise he hasn’t loaded the rifle, but after he loads a bullet for the second attempt, he’s seen and jumped on a fraction of a second before pulling the trigger. He’s captured, beaten and taken to Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), who demands that Thorndike sign a confession stating he was sent by the British government to kill Hitler (which would spark war – the film is set just before WWII). Thorndike refuses, claiming he was acting alone and didn’t intend to kill the führer. He only wanted to prove he’d be able to do it, as he’s a master game hunter, so famous in his field that Quive-Smith was already aware of his name. With Thorndike’s refusal to sign the document, the Major is forced to throw him off a cliff, faking a suicide. Thorndike survives though and makes a perilous journey back to England. Even when he makes it, the Germans are hot on his trail though, intent on getting him to sign the false confession before killing him. Along the way, whilst he keeps a low profile, Thorndike enlists the help of a young cockney woman named Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett) who takes a shine to him.

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Blu-Ray Review: Kiss of Death

Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer
Based on a story by: Eleazar Lipsky
Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark, Coleen Gray, Taylor Holmes, Karl Malden
Country: USA
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 1947
BBFC Certificate: 12


I hit another of Signal One’s film noir re-releases this week with Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death. Hathaway is a director with quite a few classic titles to his name (True Grit, How the West Was Won, Niagara), but he’s hardly a household name. Looking through his filmography, his work is largely in typically ‘macho’ genres like westerns, war movies and film noirs. Kiss of Death falls into the latter category and came close to the end of a string of noirs he’d directed, including acclaimed titles like 13 Rue Madeleine, The Dark Corner and Call Northside 777.

Kiss of Death sees Victor Mature play Nick Bianco, a criminal that goes to prison after a jewellery store heist goes sour. He gets an offer from Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to avoid jail time if he squeals on his accomplices that got away, but turns it down. When he finds out his wife has committed suicide after cheating on him with one of those accomplices, leaving his two young daughters in an orphanage, he has second thoughts about the offer though. D’Angelo talks Bianco into an elaborate ploy to put the psychopathic killer Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in jail, which he accepts, getting him put on early parole and back with his kids and new wife Nettie (Coleen Gray). Unfortunately things don’t go quite to plan though and Bianco and his family’s lives are put in danger.

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Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Producers: Adam Bohling, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore, Pedro Pascal, Hanna Alström, Colin Firth, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 141 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


The general attitude for making a sequel is “more” and Kingsman: The Golden Circle follows that straight to its demise. There’s more action, more style, more CGI, more characters, and it all drowns whatever this movie could have been, turning it into a barely tolerable assault on the senses that’s all confection and nothing more. The first Kingsman movie was a breath of fresh air, bringing a subversive tongue in cheek edge to the current glut of franchise movies that are so tired and repetitive, with each one feeling like an imitation of everything else. Of course, making a sequel to such a film creates the dilemma of how you can keep things consistent while still bringing that level of creativity to the table. Matthew Vaughn and company clearly weren’t up to the task, and their solution was apparently just to overwhelm this beast (running almost two and a half hours for god knows why) by throwing as much at the screen as they possibly could.

To be fair, The Golden Circle isn’t all bad. As far as the style and sense of humor goes, it does still feel unique among the rest of the pack of franchises out here, even if it can’t achieve the level of success in either of those departments that the first film did, particularly in the case of the comedy as a lot of the jokes in this one fall very flat. The action is still incredibly fun and inventive, although again they definitely do overdo it and nothing can compare to the incredible church fight in the film’s predecessor. Perhaps its finest asset though is the charm of leading man Taron Egerton. As is the case with the other compliments I can give the film, this does come with a caveat. A large part of the appeal of the first film was watching Egerton’s Eggsy on his Pygmalion arc from street thug to super spy, and inevitably we don’t get to enjoy any of that this time around since he starts the film off already established as a Kingsman. At the same time, it allows us to enjoy the charm of Egerton fully embracing that role from start to finish, and there’s plenty of fun there.

The counter point to that, unfortunately, is the incredibly misguided decision to bring back Colin Firth’s Harry. I won’t spoil how they justify this return in the context of the film, suffice it to say that the direction/explanation they take with it is unbelievably disappointing and retroactively damages one of the things that made the first film so great. It’s just one example of how messy and awkwardly written The Golden Circle is. Julianne Moore’s villain is completely isolated, removed from the action, and doesn’t have any interaction with the main cast until the very end for an incredibly brief period of time. It’s such a shame when you compare it to how great the first film handled Samuel L. Jackson’s memorable villain. It wouldn’t be hard to forget that Moore was even in this, and she’s the big baddie!
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