Blu-Ray Review: The Saragossa Manuscript & The Hourglass Sanatorium

Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript is a film I’d heard of just through word of mouth from some of the writers and podcasters at Row Three. Championed by Matt Gamble, it was picked for discussion on the Movie Club Podcast back in 2010. After listening to that episode, the title had stuck in the back of my mind as something to try and watch, but at that time it wasn’t available in the UK. In passing years Mr Bongo have brought it out on DVD, but I never got around to checking it out. I’m glad I waited though, as they’re now releasing the film on Blu-Ray alongside Has’ The Hourglass Sanatorium, which holds similar esteem amongst those aware of the director, and I was lucky enough to be offered screeners of both of them to review.

The Saragossa Manuscript

Director: Wojciech Has
Screenplay: Tadeusz Kwiatkowski
Based on the Novel by: Jan Potocki
Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Elzbieta Czyzewska
Country: Poland
Running Time: 182 min
Year: 1965
BBFC Certification: 15

After giving my standard introduction to a film, I usually launch into a summary of the plot, but you’ll have to bear with me for both these titles because it’s not so simple. 1965’s The Saragossa Manuscript opens with a military man getting abandoned by his troops. He hides out in a house where he discovers an unusual book. An enemy captain finds him there and is about to take him prisoner, but the book catches his eye too and, noting a reference to his grandfather, he sits down and the two read it together. The film then moves to the story within the book. In this, Alfonse Van Worden (the captain’s grandfather, played by Zbigniew Cybulski) is trying to find the quickest way to Madrid from a remote village in the mountains. When he ventures into an inn to find shelter, he comes across a palatial cave which houses two beautiful women. They claim to be his relative and want him to marry them both after first renouncing his faith to join theirs. He gets put under a sort of spell and finds himself caught in a loop, unable to leave the village.

When he finally does break free and begins his travels, he ends up meeting a cabalist who takes him to his home. It’s from here that the story begins to get really complicated and I’m not even going to try to summarise everything. Basically, in this second half of the film, characters keep telling new stories and the film adds a new story layer to the pile. At one point I think it became a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story (i.e. 6 layers deep)!

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Blu-Ray Review: Videodrome

Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Starring: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits
Country: Canada
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1983
BBFC Certificate: 18

David Cronenberg is a director whose work I’m not as familiar with as I’d like. I’ve seen a fair few of his films, but largely when I was a teenager, so I can’t remember much about them other than the more famous scenes. I’ve not seen a couple of his classics at all in fact and only just got around to seeing his take on The Fly last year. In terms of his later work, I keep missing most of that too. The latest of his films I’ve seen is A History of Violence, which came out ten years ago.

So I’ve been keen to delve into Cronenberg’s career properly now that I’m a more experienced film lover and Arrow answered my call by releasing a ridiculously extensive 4 disc set of Videodrome. It’s one of the films I’d not seen for about 15 years, so was on my list of titles to watch.

It’s hard to sum up the plot of Videodrome as it’s quite a surreal film, particularly in the second half, and part of the pleasure of watching it is getting caught up in its nightmarish world. The first half seems more straight forward though, tricking the audience into thinking they know what they’re signing up for.

James Woods plays Max Renn, a TV executive working for Civic-TV, a cable channel that shows seedy low-rate programmes and films. Max is getting tired of the usual softcore crap that he peddles though. He thinks audiences want harder and more extreme entertainment and thinks he’s found it when a techie associate manages to access a mysterious broadcast called Videodrome. Basically just a series of violent torture scenes, the show grabs hold of Max and won’t let him go. After he gets more obsessed with it, he starts to experience hallucinations and gets drawn ever further into a twisted, bizarre world of sex, violence and television.

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Blu-Ray Review: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Director: W.D. Richter
Screenplay: Earl Mac Rauch
Starring: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1984
BBFC Certificate: PG

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is a cult classic from the 80’s that I’d never seen, but always wanted to. I didn’t really know much about it, but I found the title strangely appealing and was aware of its status as an oddball cult classic. Luckily for me, Arrow came to the rescue once again and offered me a chance to review their new feature-packed Blu-Ray re-release. So I strapped myself in for a trip across the 8th dimension.

Buckaroo Banzai (played by Peter Weller) is a half-Japanese, half-American brain surgeon, daredevil scientist and rock star. He and the Hong Kong Cavaliers, his band of hard rock scientists (as described in the opening crawl), are famous around the world, with their own branding and even a comic strip and arcade machines.

After successfully removing a tumour from a patient’s brain, Banzai heads to the salt flats to test a jet powered car which houses an Oscillation Overthruster. Banzai manages to use this device to open a door to the 8th dimension in the side of a mountain. He sees some crazy stuff in there before re-appearing out the other side with a strange creature/thing attached to the car.

This test is celebrated as a great success, but it draws the attention of the Red Lectroids, an alien race (led by Christopher Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli) who have teamed up with the deranged Dr Lizardo (John Lithgow). In the past, Lizardo had worked with Banzai’s scientist partner Professor Hikita (Robert Ito) on the prototype Overthruster, which went wrong and let the Red Lectroids escape from their inter-dimensional prison. Lizardo and the Red Lectroids now want to get their hands on the Overthruster so they can regain power over the world they were originally banished from, which is currently in the hands of the Black Lectroids. The Black Lectroids meanwhile, although friendly to the humans, feel their only hope of survival is to blow up the Earth if the Reds aren’t stopped in time. Banzai, with his team of agents/band members, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, must stop both sides before it’s too late!

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Blu-Ray Review: Milano Calibro 9 (a.k.a. Caliber 9)

Director: Fernando Di Leo
Screenplay: Fernando Di Leo
Based on a Novel by: Giorgio Scerbanenco
Starring: Gastone Moschin, Barbara Bouchet, Mario Adorf, Philippe Leroy
Country: Italy
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1972
BBFC Certificate: 18

The Italians spawned a number of subgenres that have remained popular amongst lovers of cult and genre cinema. I love a good spaghetti western myself and I’ve been starting to work my way through more giallos recently. One Italian subgenre I wasn’t particularly aware of until watching Arrow’s new release of Fernando Di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (a.k.a. Caliber 9) though is the poliziotteschi. This is a form of crime and action film that came from Italy in the late 60’s and 70’s, cashing in on the success of tough American cop thrillers like Bullitt, Dirty Harry and The French Connection. Although Di Leo’s film wasn’t the first in the subgenre, it was a critical and commercial success and helped boost the popularity of the poliziotteschi and the director. I’d heard of Milano Calibro 9 through a podcast and I’ve been keen to see it ever since, so I was very happy to hear Arrow Video got their hands on the title.

The film opens with a classic money/drugs exchange which goes wrong, resulting in some gangsters being out of pocket by $300,000. They quickly take their anger out on all those who could have done it, in a spectacularly violent fashion. They find nothing, although they didn’t quite get to everyone. Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin) was sent to prison shortly after the deal. Mobster nutcase Rocco (Mario Adorf) is waiting for him as soon as he sets foot outside the prison gates, and harasses him for the money. Ugo claims he doesn’t have it, but Rocco tells him that he has to pay the money back to his boss The Americano (Lionel Stander) or there will be devastating consequences. The police believe Ugo has the money too and also give him a hard time. Ugo does his best to keep both sides at bay, enlisting the help of his former gangster ‘family’ Chino (Philippe Leroy) and his Don. As expected, things don’t quite go to plan though and the bodies begin to pile up.

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Blu-Ray Review: Society

Director: Brian Yuzna
Screenplay: Rick Fry, Woody Keith
Starring: Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards
Country: USA
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 1989
BBFC Certificate: 18

After producing Stuart Gordon’s first few films (Re-Animator, From Beyond and Dolls) and having trouble retaining control over their script for what would become Honey I Shrunk the Kids (yes the pair behind Re-Animator wrote the story to this family favourite!), Brian Yuzna decided to direct his own film. A script he’d been sent, combined with some of his own ideas as to what he wanted to make, resulted in the controversial cult classic Society.

It’s a film about Bill (Billy Warlock) who, like most teenagers, feels he doesn’t fit with the rest of his family. His wealthy socialite parents care for nothing but social status and have a disturbingly ‘close’ relationship with his sister (although Bill’s intentions towards her veer in this direction too). When a classmate presents him with some shocking evidence as to what really happens at one of the upper class ‘coming out’ parties, Bill begins to think that his fears are more than just the usual adolescent rebellion. After doing some digging himself, Bill finds himself more and more worried as to the nature of not just his family, but the whole of the upper classes around him. When he gate crashes one of their soirees, he finally learns the disturbing truth.

I’d heard so much about Society before watching it this week, that it was strange to finally see it. It’s a film that’s notorious for its shocking finale which must have absolutely fried people’s minds on release and sent them running for a sick-bag. Unfortunately I’d seen so many images and clips and read a fair few reviews of the film over the years that I knew pretty much exactly what was going to happen. Because of this I felt like I spent most of the film just preparing for the climax.

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Review: Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

Director: Mark Hartley
Screenplay: Mark Hartley
Starring: Menahem Golan (archive footage), Yoram Globus (archive footage), Sam Firstenberg, David Paulsen, Luigi Cozzi
Country: Australia/USA/Israel/UK
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: 18

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films was one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Yes I’m excited about some of the big name films coming out (particularly the new Star Wars of course) and couldn’t wait to catch Mad Max: Fury Road a couple of weeks ago. However, those are/were all still risky ventures. They could quite easily be a huge disappointment, but given the subject matter of Electric Boogaloo and the excellent job writer/director Mark Hartley did of the fairly similar cult movie doc Not Quite Hollywood, it was highly unlikely I wouldn’t enjoy this documentary and, what do you know, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

As the title clearly points out, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films looks at the history of the notorious film studio, Cannon Films (or Cannon Group for the wider corporate title), that battered its way through the movie world during the 80’s before coming crashing down and dissolving in the early 90’s. The company was actually formed in the late 60’s by youngsters Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey, but it’s better known as being run by its 80’s owners, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and this film largely focuses on their work in making the Cannon brand notorious among cinema-goers and eventually running it into the ground.

For those not familiar with Cannon Films, they were a company that got a name for themselves by producing a veritable stream of trashy movies. Operating a production line mentality, they made low-rate genre films on the cheap and threw everything into the mix (particularly sex and violence) to try and appeal to every possible lower common denominator. They helped boost the career of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme as well as drag out the career of Charles Bronson. This was their public image at least, for actually they backed a few respected directors when they were struggling to get work financed (e.g. John Cassavetes, Jean-Luc Godard and Franco Zeffirelli) and they also made a few underrated gems such as Runaway Train, 52 Pickup and Barfly. Unfortunately their terrible reputation made them a source of ridicule and their over-eagerness to make as many films as quickly and cheaply as possible, among other problems, caused everything to implode.

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Blu-Ray Review: Youth of the Beast

Director: Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay: Ichirô Ikeda, Tadaaki Yamazaki
Based on a Novel by: Haruhiko Ôyabu
Starring: Jô Shishido, Misako Watanabe, Tamio Kawaji
Producer: Keinosuke Kubo
Country: Japan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1963
BBFC Certificate: 15

I‘ve been aware of Seijun Suzuki in the Japanese cult cinema landscape for some time. I’ve seen his two most famous classics, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, but I haven’t ventured beyond those yet, which is a bit mad seeing as I enjoyed both quite a lot and he’s directed over 50 films so far. His career has been an unusual one though which resulted in (supposedly) quite a hit and miss collection and his story is possibly more well known than his films have actually been seen.

In the mid-50’s, the Japanese entertainment company Nikkatsu started producing films again after a hiatus which began during WWII and, in a bid to keep productions fresh and exciting, they hired a number of young assistant directors from other studios, promising to promote them quickly to full director status, which was unheard of in the traditional Japanese studio system back in those days. Among those directors were Shōhei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. Whereas Imamura started making his unique glimpses of the underbelly of society pretty much straight away, Suzuki found himself churning out cookie-cutter releases for the studio by the dozen, largely yakuza/gangster pictures. By all accounts, most of the 20-odd films he directed in his first 7 years or so at the studio weren’t particularly memorable. However, growing tired of this workmanlike practise and getting jealous of the freedom allowed to his peer Imamura, he finally tore off his shackles and made what is considered his breakthrough film with Youth of the Beast in 1963. It didn’t make much of a mark at the time, but in retrospect, it paved the way for his most highly regarded period which culminated in Branded to Kill which may have got him fired from Nikkatsu, whose head thought it was “incomprehensible”, but cemented his name in the pantheon of cult classic cinema.

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Occultober – Day 9 – The ‘Burbs

The ‘Burbs
Ah The ‘Burbs…A film that leaves some unmoved, but (after repeated exposure) settles comfortably into many people’s personal Top 20 lists. My own first encounter with it 25 years ago left me unconvinced. Fortunately, I felt a pull back to it years later…

When the film was released, Tom Hanks was already a “star” comedy name and had a few big hits under his belt (most notably Splash and Big), but also a few klunkers. Name recognition still got people to the theatres in 1989, but then they weren’t sure about what they found there – the comedy in The ‘Burbs was both subtle and broad, it had action, horror & satire and it warned us of the hidden evil that lurked in the bedroom communities of our major cities (not the first to do so, but one of the more clever attempts). Director Joe Dante certainly liked using the suburbs as his playground of choice and in this case even reduced his focus to mostly just one particular block.

New neighbours (as typically happens) get the tongues wagging and curiosity turns to suspicion turns to obsession. Outside influences and out of the ordinary behaviour in the cozy suburbs can be considered potential malevolent forces to be reckoned with, so Ray (Hanks) and his neighbours begin to track the movements of The Klopeks. There’s something amiss about them, so of course they must be piling up the bodies in the basement for some kind of cult-like activities. Whether or not there are indeed occult happenings on the same street where kids ride their bikes, six packs of beer get guzzled and newspapers are the only obvious signs of the corrupt big cities is almost besides the point – the movie revels in the paranoid actions of its trio of husbands trying to “protect” their environment.

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Occultober – Day 6 – Event Horizon

Event Horizon
One of the few science fiction films featured here, this should be no surprise, because few are crazy enough to merge genres in this fashion and talented enough to pull it off.

I would never say that Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon is perfect. But it does have some incredibly scary moments, and a pretty sustained level or creepiness across the entire runtime of the film. That is if you can stomach the gorier moments in the film. It is kind of amazing that this was a studio released film with a sizeable budget, considering how graphic the imagery on display. Perhaps this is what endeared the film to me back when I caught in the theatres, the reviews were toxic and the film was a financial failure, but it has just a bit of je ne sais quoi (and two talented actors) to make the whole thing work. And it works well in the dark.

Laurence Fishburn captains rescue ship, commissioned by a scientist (Sam Neill) who hopes to find out what happened to the vessel knowns “Event Horizon” which disappeared, seven years prior but suddenly resurfaces in a decaying orbit around Neptune. The engine was a prototype designed to give faster than light travel by folding space, but instead, it may have opened a portal into another dimension, possibly to Hell.

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