Monday 5 June 2017

Perversion Story

“Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly”... Yes, the Dalai Lama really said that in a chain email forwarded round and round the world in 1999 by people who probably also owned refrigerator magnets saying “Forget love, I'd rather fall in chocolate.”

Or perhaps he didn’t. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s generally good advice and, if you look at the evidence – Picasso painted realistically as a teenager; Stephen King was a high school English teacher – it also holds true. It’s certainly a good argument to use when you want to counter anyone who claims that “Godfather of Gore” Lucio Fulci couldn’t tell a coherent story.

Prior to his whirlwind run of insane splatter masterpieces beginning in 1979 with Zombie, Fulci crafted dozens of straightforward comedy, drama and action films – as well as a number of neatly-constructed gialli, including the widely-praised Don’t Torture a Duckling and, my favourite of his, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.

But it’s his first giallo, Perversion Story (aka One on Top of the Other), which he also co-wrote, that shows him demonstrating his tightest grip on plot. It’s a kind of giallo spin on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, even set in San Francisco, and focusing on a man (Jean Sorel) who becomes obsessed with a woman who looks just like his dead wife. In this case, however, she’s a nightclub stripper fond of disrobing atop a golden motorbike in front of a screen covered in psychedelic blobs (ah, the Sixties) and he’s an adulterous surgeon who may have been responsible for his wife’s death in the first place (ah, the giallo genre).

While, naturally, the situation quickly descends into a complex web of deceit and murder, the perhaps surprising thing is that it never stops making sense and, particularly as it moves into its final third, becomes extremely tense. There’s no killer on the loose stabbing prostitutes in the eye with a melon baller but, what Perversion Story lacks in gimmickry, it makes up for with pacy plotting and a couple of genuinely surprising twists. And what it lacks in kitchen utensils, it also makes up for in fabulous Sixties fashion and decor (seriously, it’s one of the most sumptuously designed 60s flicks I think I’ve ever come across).

If there is a fault, it’s that none of the characters are particularly likable, although this is tempered by the fact that Jean Sorel and his co-star Florinda Bolkan are two of the best-looking stars in all of giallo, and together share a subtle but devilish kind of chemistry. The ending, while conclusive, also falls perhaps one scene short of being totally satisfying, but not in a way that spoils proceedings. Well worth checking out, it’s also the Dalai Lama’s favourite film... Honest.

Rating: 4/5
Review originally published at Retro Slashers, 22 August 2011.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

Jack's Back

I've beamed this review over to AiP from the Retro Slashers website, where it was published on 26 September 2011. Things have changed a little since then... Jack's Back is now available on Blu-ray. And, oh yeah, we now have Blu-rays.

With its twins, dead prostitutes and copious dream sequences, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jack’s Back is a lost Brian De Palma movie. In fact, it was written and directed by Rowdy Herrington, who – although probably best-known for the 1989 Patrick Swayzefest, Road House – specializes in hard-edged thrillers like Striking Distance (1993), A Murder of Crows (1998) and I Witness (2003), the latter of which reunited him with his leading man from this project, James Spader.

Spader plays rebellious medical student John Wesford, who splits his spare time between working at a free clinic and getting interviewed for the local news about the plight of L.A.’s homeless people. Also on the local news – and aggressively foreshadowed every time any character so much as walks past a TV set – is the ongoing police investigation into a serial killer who’s copycatting the crimes of Jack the Ripper one hundred years after the fact to the very day! Why he’s doing it in Los Angeles, however, is never actually addressed. Anyway, the gist of all this is that (a) prostitutes are turning up dead in very messy crime scenes, (b) a pregnant woman is probably going to be butchered next, and (c) Wesford is somehow going to get dragged into all this, along with his super-hot secret admirer and fellow med student, Cynthia Gibb!

That’s all you’re getting on the subject of the plot, however, because Jack’s Back is one of those films that works better the less you know about it on the way in. I’m tempted to draw a comparison with De Palma’s Dressed to Kill – not because this movie is anything like as good, but because the twists come satisfyingly thick even if you’ve guessed the identity of the killer (which, admittedly, isn’t a massive kick in the grey cells). That also means it’s good for a re-watch, making it all the more unfortunate that it hasn’t yet had a proper DVD or Blu-ray release. The closest is a full-frame video transfer put out on DVD in the UK a few years ago by a company I’ve never heard of before or since, called 111 Pictures.

That being said, Jack’s Back is a movie that really isn’t harmed by a VHS viewing. It’s one of those lumpy little late-80s gems like I, Madman or 976-EVIL that takes place largely at night in a world of its own making, where common sense gives way to a kind of frenzied internal logic that carries you along on a suspense-high, despite the surfeit of silliness if you actually stopped to think about it.

There’s solid work from Spader, who’s always an interesting actor but never more so than when he’s asked to be ambiguous – a quality that this tricksy whodunit explores from all angles. Cynthia Gibb is also on fine, hyper-likeable form as the love interest who gets to be a little bit more than the standard woman-in-peril.

The really fun thing about this film, however, is a characteristic it shares with a handful of sometimes less-than-perfect slashers like Cutting Class and Fatal Games: the frequent use of plot devices requiring characters to sneak out in the middle of the night, leaving the safety of their homes to prowl around deserted buildings, strangers’ houses, and anywhere else the killer might be lurking in search of clues. To me, this “scary adventure” quality is the chief pleasure of a good midnight movie, and one that can sometimes even be heightened by the nostalgia factor of fuzzy VHS. If it’s that you’re after, Jack’s Back provides it in spades.

Rating: 3/5

Monday 15 May 2017

Terror Stalks the Class Reunion

Get a load of that title Did you ever hear anything that sounded more like a slasher movie? Unfortunately, Terror Stalks the Class Reunion isn’t a lost slasher – for a start, there’s no slashing – but, while part of me is writing this review to stop others repeating my mistake, it’s also worth pointing out that there’s a little something here to entertain slasher fans looking for a fix slightly off the beaten track.
First off, Terror Stalks the Class Reunion (1992) is based on a Mary Higgins Clark short story and, as such, joins roughly fifteen other TV movies inspired by the works of “America’s Queen of Suspense”. Bar some atmospheric 70s offerings, the small screen isn’t exactly famed for its classic slasher output – and, fittingly, its thirty-year flirtation with Higgins Clark adaptations has resulted in nothing more than a barrage of glossy but middling potboilers that form the very definition of safe Sunday-evening viewing.
It’s interesting to note, however, that when a certain Sean S. Cunningham was looking to follow up his breakthrough Friday the 13th with something more mainstream but still in tune with his slasher sensibilities, he turned to Higgins Clark. Her novel A Stranger Is Watching was the basis for the 1982 thriller of the same name, which allowed Cunningham to indulge his nasty streak with a succession of showpiece deaths built around a hostage scenario played out in the deserted depths of Grand Central Station.
Terror Stalks the Class Reunion is a similar tale of a kidnapped woman held prisoner by a lunatic. But where Stranger had an incomparably brutish Rip Torn as said psycho, here we get Geraint Wyn Davies as the once “Fat Tony”, who’s lost 110 pounds – along with most of his marbles – over the course of an eight-year obsession with his old teacher Kay (Kate Nelligan).
That’s where the class reunion connection comes in: Kay and her friend Virginia (Jennifer Beals) are in town for a get-together of staff and pupils from a US Army base school in Germany. Amidst the frivolities, Kay gets a message purporting to be from her husband and, heading back to her hotel, bumps into her former student in the parking lot except the meeting was no accident, and Tony’s plans for his favourite teacher involve handcuffs, humiliation and a harrowing stint in an escape-proof cabin deep in the woods.
But don’t get too excited – Terror Stalks the Class Reunion is no horror film. There’s no Misery-style hobbling, no Captivity-like poodle-killing mindgames. Instead, there’s the threat of an enforced “marriage” performed by a videotaped priest on a TV screen, and a lot of time spent on a largely unrelated subplot about an escaped killer thought to be stalking the area. Tension mounts in the sequences where Kay (predictably) tries to escape from her shackles while Tony’s truck (inevitably) pulls up outside; and excitement peaks as the climactic wedding ceremony turns into a violent fracas involving concealed nail scissors and a gun hidden inside a Bible. But then everything goes up in smoke in an explosive ending that stops somewhere slightly south of satisfying.
Nelligan whimpers convincingly throughout but doesn’t really do anything to make you care about her character – which is probably more of a fault with the writing, considering the feeble nature of her escape attempts. Beals on the other hand has even less to do but manages to come across as smoking hot in a slightly gutsier role. On a sad note, Werner Stocker, whose local detective, Franz, is the only character with any real charisma, died from a brain tumour a year after filming.
Terror Stalks the Class Reunion is available on DVD in the UK under the far less fun but generally more apt title For Better and for Worse. Picture quality is pretty poor; in fact, if the DVD hasn’t been ripped from an old VHS (most likely the 90s US release) I’ll eat my hockey mask. The film’s just about worth a look if you like woman-in-peril movies but don’t go looking for slasher-movie thrills There’s more to be found in National Lampoon’s Class Reunion.
Rating: 2/5
Review originally published on Retro Slashers, 25 March 2010

Sunday 14 May 2017

My Dear Killer

Italians would use the term “giallo” to describe any mystery or thriller story, particularly those tales in the tradition of Agatha Christie, whose novels were originally published in the yellow-backed format that gave the genre its name. In fact, it’s only amongst us film fans that “giallo” has come to refer exclusively to the particular brand of violent, titillating shocker of which Tonino Valerii’s My Dear Killer (1972) is often cited as an example. But My Dear Killer also falls firmly into the first camp, being driven by a traditional whodunit narrative that some might say outweighs the lurid thrills. So which is it? A gruesome giallo or a more conventional mystery?

Show me an over-the-top, style-heavy thriller full of gruesome murders – like Tenebrae or Dressed to Kill – and I’m a very happy slasher-fan, although I’m just as likely to be found pondering over the more reserved convolutions of a drawing-room puzzler like The Honey Pot or Sleuth. Thankfully, movies like My Dear Killer prove that you can have it both ways: while carefully and densely plotted, it’s also one of the more fast-and-furious gialli I’ve seen – one that whistles briskly through its dark twists and turns like an underground train hurtling down a tunnel, before bursting out into the light with a clever and satisfying resolution.

George Hilton plays Inspector Peretti, called out to a flooded quarry to examine the decapitated body of an insurance investigator, but soon drawn into an older case involving the kidnapping of a little girl called Stefania, whose body was found nearby. Convinced the two cases are related, he visits the family of the dead child, only to initiate a further string of increasingly nasty murders. As Peretti probes further, the killer proves always to be one step ahead.

I’ve seen Hilton in several other gialli – and, having made around ten, he probably qualifies as the male equivalent of Edwige Fenech – but this is the first time he’s struck me as an irremovable part of the film. Definitely not just a serviceably bland leading man, he seems fully in charge of this investigation, revealing and explaining each new clue for the audience in such a logical way that you can’t help but be drawn in. In a romantic subplot that for once doesn’t feel extraneous, we also see the effects his workaholic nature have on his relationship, culminating in a confrontation with his girlfriend that indirectly breaks the case.

Though more concerned with plot than many a giallo, My Dear Killer also has the requisite visual touches: the quarry location returned to again and again is always bleached in eerily harsh sunlight; the camera whirls around the apartment of a victim in an extended POV scene, before closing in on a blood-spraying murder using a circular saw. There’s even a little homage to Orson Welles’ celebrated hall of mirrors scene from The Lady from Shanghai, as Peretti encounters the killer in a darkened room full of smashed glass. Like all the best gialli, the most important clue involves looking at a picture in a new way – in this case, a child’s drawings (an element that also effectively incorporates another of the genre’s obsessions, childhood trauma).

Fittingly for a film that juggles whodunit and slasher elements so well, we arrive at a double-climax: the first is a gruelling stalking sequence with an unlikely (and likeable) final girl; the second a traditional unmasking, with all the suspects gathered in one room in the manner of an Hercule Poirot mystery, and Peretti beginning by announcing, “The story of Stefania is also the story of your insanity, my dear, sick killer!”

Whilst not quite on the level of some of the classic gialli, which transcend the genre to become horror/mystery masterpieces, My Dear Killer is a more-than-solid outing and one that’s a good introduction for anyone interested in getting into the genre as a whole. Just bear in mind that things can get much more crazy and colourful than this.

Rating: 3/5
Review originally published on Retro Slashers, 11 August 2011

Saturday 13 May 2017

Skull Mountain Symbolism

Seventies horror film The House on Skull Mountain doesn't seem to draw much praise these days, other than for a clever recreation of Charles Allan Gilbert's visual pun, All Is Vanity. But here are three more great shots that gave me pause -- or at least made me press pause. (Also includes spoilers!)

The sequence where Lorena and Andrew scoot into town for a somewhat inappropriate cousins-in-love musical montage comes off as a bit of a mood-breaker, considering it's also one of the few set outside the ol' mansion. But this layered composition rescues it for me. Dried-up old terrarium thingies -- like the one Andrew picks up in a shop here -- are a major motif in the film, their glass domes and murky contents representing the deathly bubble the characters find themselves trapped within. And what do the couple do after their morning of happy-go-lucky freedom? Buy themselves another little trap, of course -- a queasy reminder of the inescapable evil surrounding them. I also like that Lorena watches the transaction from behind yet another layer of glass... Is the real trap inside or outside the bell jar? Shudder! 

Snakes appear throughout Skull Mountain (even inside a terrarium at one point) but, most notably, coiled around the vertical wooden posts in the subterranean voodoo den. This kind of snake-on-a-stick treat also goes by the name of the Rod of Asclepious, a Greek symbol associated with medicine and health care -- and also resurrection. In this shot, Harriet stumbles over a shrine riddled, as shrines tend to be, with religious imagery. The centrepiece is a Virgin Mary figurine wearing a not-so-feathered boa (of the constrictor kind), which conjures up all kinds of associations with resurrection and the return from the grave... all of which very nicely foreshadows the climactic reappearance of Mrs Christophe, whose death set the story in motion. 

Finally, notice the machetes stabbed into the ground around the body of poor Louette at the film's climax. I don't think we see how they get there but what they do achieve is a neat reference to the Eight of Swords tarot card. (I know we're four blades short but this sort of symbolism doesn't happen accidentally.) The Eight is a card of hopelessness, helplessness and fear, and dealing it out at this point marks the grisly fate of one character and the agonizing powerlessness of another -- the scene's main protagonist, Andrew, who's forced to stand by and watch it happen. 

A bit of a cheesy film, perhaps, but with its rich symbolism of death in the Deep South, Skull Mountain is well worth another visit.

Friday 12 May 2017

Red Mist

Here's another review rescued from the depths of the Deep Web... originally published by Retro Slashers on 22 July 2009.
I never thought I’d live long enough to see a remake of Aenigma – Lucio Fulci’s blending of Carrie and Patrick, which featured killer snails and death by Tom Cruise poster. But that’s essentially what the recent British horror Red Mist (known as Freakdog in the US) is, albeit one that’s short on molluscs and big on Jason Goes to Hell-style body-hopping.
The premise is simple: What would happen if you inadvertently sent a mentally retarded hospital janitor into a coma when a hastily organized prank designed as retaliation for a blackmail plot went wrong, only to discover that secretly injecting him with an untested wonder-drug gave him the ability not only to astral-project into the bodies of your friends, but also to stalk and kill your friends in a variety of gruesome ways while seeking misguided revenge for a crime you weren’t entirely responsible for in the first place?
Yes, we’ve all been there, and in Red Mist it’s the turn of junior doctor, Catherine, played by highly likeable Katherine Heigl-a-like, Arielle Kebbel, who’s since gone on to star in the uninvited remake of A Tale of Two Sisters (itself called The Uninvited, aptly enough). Since it’s not until the halfway point that Catherine actually gets handy with the hypodermic, it’s a bit of a wait before the horror kicks into high gear but, with car-door head-slamming, forced acid-drinking and naked stomach-slicing in the middle of a busy nightclub, it’s certainly worth it.
What’s less attractive is the last-act lull, which puts Catherine in a very reactive (as opposed to proactive) position and, in these post-Sidney Prescott days, means she doesn’t quite cut it as a top final girl. That’s not to say the movie peters out, though; in fact, it all ends quite satisfyingly – especially in comparison to director Paddy Breathnach’s previous horror effort, the hallucination-themed Shrooms, which didn’t so much peter out as flatline during an epileptic fit of meaningless, are-they-tripping-or-not jump scenes.
Breathnach is Irish, and you’ll remember I described Red Mist above as a British film, which it is despite being set in America. With a couple of exceptions, it appears the cast is a mixture of English, Irish and Scottish actors, all valiantly attempting American accents with differing degrees of success. The movie, too, is a tag-team of styles and subgenres, mixing the morbid medical school hijinks of Pathology and Unrest with torture scenes, guilty drama, and supernatural slashing. It’s as the latter it delivers most wholeheartedly, however. That, and as a gory Aenigma variation.

Rating: 2/5

Thursday 11 May 2017


This review was originally published on the now sadly defunct Retro Slashers website on 21 October 2009. I'm archiving it here at AiP for the sake of all humanity...

You have to hand it to Amsterdamned – it’s got one hell of a gimmick. By 1988, the slasher genre had given us killers who hid their faces behind hockey masks, gas masks, clown masks, William Shatner masks, owl masks, pillow cases, chunks of stitched-together human skin... It was only a matter of time before one came along in full scuba gear. But Amsterdamned’s killer isn’t just in it for the Lycra and heavy-breathing. He (or she!) actually swims around the canals of Amsterdam, popping out to drag victims to a watery grave! Yes, you read that right. There is popping, there is killing, and there is also a giant knife in case the victims aren’t in the mood for a dip.

Amsterdamned is basically a Dutch giallo, but one that’s as much informed by slashers as it is Italian sleaze. As the murders mount up via a series of violently effective, Jaws-like set pieces, Detective Eric Visser (Huub Stapel) is called in to catch the underwater killer. Visser gets results – he’s the kind of cop who jumps out of his car when stuck in traffic and thwarts a hold-up in a pastry shop (this is Europe) before getting back behind the wheel and driving off. He also looks a bit like Greg Evigan and has a smart-mouthed teenaged daughter who, in a genius subplot, is tracking the killer herself, with the help of a psychic friend. It’s all terrifically fast-paced, being mainstream enough to appeal to thriller fans but just perverse and nasty enough to satisfy slasher aficionados (check out the killer’s souvenir-stocked lair, as well as the final gruesome reveal of their identity).

Fittingly, it’s also swimming with red herrings, the most devious of which is a psychiatry motif that calls the sanity of a number of characters into question. Dozens of startling stunts, seemingly performed in real-time, lend a genuine sense of danger to the proceedings – none more so than in the first of the movie’s two climaxes, which famously finds cop and killer tearing around the tight waterways of the city in speedboats. The second, equally effective final sequence brings Amsterdamned back to its slasher roots with an unbearably tense bit of hiding-from-the-killer on the part of the film’s final girl.

For anyone wishing to pick this up – and you should be – the UK’s Nouveaux Pictures/Cine-Excess label has recently released a fine region 2 DVD, featuring an uncut widescreen transfer (the previous UK release on video lost a few seconds of a knife appearing between a girl’s legs) and a front cover that makes it look like a UFO movie. Special features include a nice making-of documentary from the 80s, but best of all is that fact that you can choose from the original Dutch language track with English subtitles or an English dub. The latter has taken some criticism for that fact that many of its actors speak with a sort of vaguely Dutch accent, but I consider it one of the best and least distracting dubs I’ve ever heard (in fact, I even forgot I was watching a dubbed version at times). Either way, with both language options available, everyone should feel catered for. The fear-soaked Amsterdamned is definitely one to splash out on.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday 17 November 2011